No matter the distance, getting from point A to point B with a little one in tow is always its own unique travel challenge. I’ve trekked to the very ends of the earth, through 28 of the 50 US states, and explored 14 countries with my now 4-year-old, and I always tell fellow parents that if you have what it takes to carefully plan and execute a successful family outing to a park on the other side of town, you can apply the same strategy to longer adventures with a young child in tow.
Such multi-day excursions include the classic family road trip, which can be intimidating due to the logistics of planning mealtimes, sleep times, and activities to keep your kid entertained while away from the comfort of your home, not to mention all of the unknown variables that may arise. As someone who has logged thousands of miles with my little one across the continental US, including a cross-country drive, I have learned what it takes to keep young passengers active and engaged. But anecdotal advice can only go so far, so I’ve also asked childhood development and health experts to weigh in on what may be going on inside your toddler’s mind and body during a long car ride and what you can do to ensure everyone stays happy, healthy, and safe.
Create the structure and stimulation your child craves
If you feel tired after a long day behind the wheel, consider your child’s point of view. Because young kids have difficulty grasping the concept of time, being in their seat for hours upon hours may frankly be boring and feel “extremely long,” says pediatrician Jen Trachtenberg, an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. That’s because they don’t have long attention spans and have a harder time entertaining themselves.
Your long trip will go much more smoothly if your child knows what to expect, Trachtenberg says. Be sure to talk to them about where you’re going, what’s safe to do in the car and what’s not, and how long the ride will take compared to something they’re familiar with, like reading a book or listening to a song, she adds.
Familiar routines can help, which is why it’s important to stick to your child’s regular sleeping and eating times (more on this below) and plan lots of fun activities they’ll enjoy.
Activities are key because you can trick your child’s brain into thinking the drive is shorter by taking the focus off the journey itself and keeping them occupied with things like games, looking for objects out the window, listening to music, singing songs, and sleeping, Trachtenberg says.
Our family’s faithful standbys include a stack of picture books, lots of coloring supplies, building blocks, and games, keeping our child busy with only one item at a time to maximize the novelty and thrill of each new form of entertainment.
To break the trip into achievable segments, you can create a travel reward chart and offer your little one positive reinforcements, such as a gold star, for every 15 minutes that pass, Trachtenberg suggests.
Stick to your child’s sleep routine as best as you can
Everything’s easier and more enjoyable when everyone in our family (adults included) is well-rested. That’s why we make it a general routine to hit the road no earlier than our usual wakeup time and arrive at our final destination ahead of our toddler’s regular bathtime, nightly storytime, and bedtime.
[Related: For better sleep, borrow the bedtime routine of a toddler]
We also factor naps into the equation, making sure we either can be settled into our destination for the day ahead of naptime or set the stage for a successful car-time nap if we’ll be driving during the day.
“Maintaining sleep routines is huge,” says Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, childhood educator and author of the books Raising Your Spirited Baby, Raising the Spirited Child, and Sleepless in America.
Skipped naps can cause your little one to get overtired, making it harder for them to fall asleep at night, she explains. Disrupted sleep routines can throw off their circadian rhythms, melatonin cycle, and body clock, creating jet lag in their brain, which can affect everything from their mood to their appetite, Sheedy Kurcinka explains.
To help your little one sleep in the car, Trachtenberg recommends playing soft, soothing music and using window shades in the back to block out the sun. We also make sure to stick to our pre-sleep time rituals, like reading stories and bringing our child’s favorite stuffed animal and blanket along for the journey.
Plan healthy meals and snacks
As with getting good rest, we also all have a lot more fun when we’re well-hydrated and fed. We stick to our child’s usual mealtimes, planning stops or what we pack around ensuring our toddler has lots of water and a healthy, filling breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus nutritious snacks. It’s not always easy to find anything other than junk food on the road, so we’ve learned to pack things like yogurt, avocados, nuts, apples, string cheese, pretzels, hummus, and hard-boiled eggs to make up for the dearth of options.
This is in line with what both Trachtenberg and Sheedy Kurcinka recommend: avoiding sugary foods and drinks, junk food, and caffeine. These can cause a variety of problems, including sleep disruption, stomach pain, bloating, and gas. On the other hand, snacks that offer a mix of proteins, healthy fats, fiber, and complex carbs can help regulate your little one’s mood and blood sugar levels.
But be careful to avoid having young kids (under the age of 5) eating in a moving vehicle, which is a choking hazard, Trachtenberg warns. Some items that can be particularly dangerous in the car include popcorn, chips, carrots, nuts, seeds, peanut butter, and marshmallows, to name a few, she says.
Try to make things as comfortable as possible
We found out the hard way that our child is susceptible to motion sickness, a common problem for young ones because they’re still in the process of learning how to balance the cognitive dissonance of being physically transported elsewhere and watching the world move by while sitting stationary in a car seat, Sheedy Kurcinka explains.
“The eyes and ears are saying, ‘We’re moving,’ and yet we’re sitting in this seat,” she says. “Your body has learned how to make these adjustments and understand it. Children don’t necessarily have those skills yet.”
That’s why even sitting can be hard work and cause dizziness and nausea for your toddler.
[Related: Motion sickness is proof your body is functioning as evolution intended]
Having your child wear sunglasses, using sunshades to block out the sunlight, placing the car seat so it avoids direct sun, regulating the temperature of the car, and placing your toddler’s feet on something solid, like a pillow—versus having their feet dangling in the air—are all things Sheedy Kurcinka and Trachtenberg say you can do to help your little one maintain a sense of balance and feel more comfortable in the car.
Still, you should keep your car stocked with plenty of trash bags, wipes, and a change of clothes for your little one and any adults in the event your toddler does get sick.
Be realistic about what you can accomplish and expect things to take longer
There’s no way around it: Driving with a small human will simply take longer.
That’s because you should plan on stopping more often and taking longer breaks than you might otherwise. Sheedy Kurcinka recommends getting out of the car every 1.5 to 2.5 hours for at least 10 to 15 minutes, not just so everyone can go to the bathroom (or have diaper changes) but also to fit stretching and movement into the day.
She also recommends eating meals picnic-style outside and bringing toys that promote movement, both of which will encourage your little one to get their energy out.
A change of scenery gives everyone a chance to clear their heads and offers a much-needed reset, says Trachtenberg, who also suggests trying out jumping jacks, marching, singing “Head, shoulders, knees, and toes,” and playing “Simon Says” during these rest stops.
No matter how much preparation you do, you may not feel up to going the same distances you would travel on your own or in the company of other adults or older children, and that’s OK. But if you have the time, stretching the trip out can add to the adventure and create even more family memories together.