The thought of traveling with a newborn can sound intimidating, especially when it involves spending long hours inside a small enclosed vehicle. How do I calm my baby during a road trip? What should I pack? From travel tips to packing essentials, this guide covers everything you need to know on how to road trip with a baby from newborn to 24 months.
My family grew up taking 12-hour road trips from Washington DC to Chicago every Christmas. That time spent in the car as a family created some of the best childhood memories for me. I enjoyed singing in the car with my sister, raiding the cooler for snacks, stopping at different travel stations, and sleeping in “quirky” hotels.
Road trips were an enjoyable experience for me, and I don’t doubt that there was a lot of planning that happened before we ever hit the road.
Now as a parent, I want to continue the same tradition of spending quality time together as a family, traveling, exploring, and seeking out adventure. By the time our son was 10 months old, we had already driven well over 6,000 miles.
We have learned quite a bit when it comes to taking a road trip with a baby. We are here now to answer your questions in the hopes that you will be prepared to plan a successful road trip journey of your own.
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- Your questions answered:
- Road Tripping with a Baby: Packing List
Your questions answered:
How much time should I allocate for a road trip with my baby?
This really depends on a few factors including your child’s age, temperament, and ultimately how many times you need to stop. Babies move through stages quickly and with each stage comes a shift in their sleep/wake cycles, their attention spans, and their needs.
When our son was between 3-5 months old, his threshold was about 3 hours before he would need a break from the car seat. During that 3 hour-period he would nap and play with the soft toys dangling from his car seat. After that, he was bored, hungry, and ready for a diaper change. This cycle dictated our need to stop every 3 hours.
By 12 months, our son was only taking 2 naps a day so we needed to find a way to entertain him in his car seat for longer. In our case, the 3-hour threshold before boredom set in stayed about the same. (We were lucky.) Some 12-month babies might not be able to sit in a car for 3 hours straight, necessitating more frequent stops.
On average I would advise at least doubling the time it normally takes to arrive at your destination. If your baby is sleeping through the night and you are able to drive while they sleep then this would shorten that time frame. If you are driving through the day and are expecting more frequent stops, it might mean tripling your drive time. The key to remember is to let go of expectations, practice patience, and enjoy the ride. You’ll arrive at your destination eventually.
How do I change my baby’s diaper on a road trip?
Our son’s first out-of-home diaper change (excluding the hospital of course) was on a flat slab of rock. We took him hiking at one month old and changed his diaper on the mountain summit. That was the first of many mountain tops that would be graced with his bare little hiney. I tell that story to say that you can change your baby’s diaper pretty much anywhere as long as they have a clean surface to lay on.
Before ever leaving our home, we typically pack the trunk of our vehicle keeping in mind that we may need to perform a diaper change at some point along the journey. If it is not possible to leave one side of the trunk clear, we pack in a way that the items are easily moveable to quickly accommodate a changing mat or blanket. This flat space is usually the best location in a vehicle for changing a baby’s diaper while on a road trip.
Alternatively, a backseat or passenger seat also works. If you happen to be stopping at a restaurant or rest stop, most locations do have changing tables in their restrooms. The quality and cleanliness of public restrooms are not always reliable so I would strongly advise always using a portable changing mat if possible.
How do I prevent my baby from crying in the car?
It’s every new parent’s dream to discover the secret to preventing a baby from crying in the car, on an airplane, or any other enclosed space. If you can prevent your child from crying in the first place, an unlikely yet ideal situation, it will be a much easier car ride for everyone. Believe it or not, there are a few things you can do to help prevent or at least stave off the inevitable cry session for a bit longer.
Drive while the baby is sleeping.
The easiest way to plan a road trip with a baby is to drive at night while your baby is fast asleep. If that is not possible, try to drive during nap times. You can take advantage of wake hours for meals, exploration, and even spontaneous roadside attractions. While this may increase the duration of the car ride, you will be enriching your road trip with various activities and irreplaceable moments of family bonding. Furthermore, working with instead of against your baby’s regular sleep schedule, will result in an easier transition when you arrive at your final destination.
Take timely breaks.
Your baby is staring at the backseat of a car for hours so of course, they will get a little antsy. Take breaks every 2 to 3 hours for your child to eat and stretch those little limbs. Find a playground along your route or simply set a blanket down in a patch of grass.
Sit in the backseat.
Toys are entertaining for a time, but nothing can replace the joy and contentment of seeing a familiar face. Babies are fascinated by faces at this age and derive great excitement from simple activities such as imitating facial expressions and playing peek-a-boo. Even if they are too young to interact in that way, your simple presence can often be enough to make a baby feel safe and secure.
My baby won’t stop crying. What do I do?
If prevention is no longer an option and your baby is already crying in their car seat, what do I do next?
There are a number of reasons why babies cry, but they typically fall under one of three reasons. They are uncomfortable, they want your attention, or they simply do not like the physical restraint of being confined to a car seat.
With this in mind, if your newborn is crying in their car seat the first thing that you should do is check to see if there is an obvious cause. Do they have a wet diaper? Has it been a while since their last meal or break from the car? Is it too hot or cold in their car seat? Is the sun in their eyes? Are the seatbelt straps too tight? Are they sitting on a toy or sock? If none of these questions seem to resolve the problem, then you can try to pacify a crying infant with one of the following methods.
Give the baby a pacifier.
Pacifiers are called that for a reason. They provide temporary relief to babies who enjoy the sucking motion as it reminds them of being in the womb. Some studies show that the act of sucking a pacifier can help to lower the heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels. We highly recommend using a pacifier clip as they are prone to popping out, dropping behind car seats, and otherwise getting lost.
Use the “baby shusher”.
We swear by this miracle sound machine. The Baby Shusher uses a rhythmic “shhh” to imitate the same cadence and sound of a parent soothing their child. If you have ever read the Happiest Baby on the Block, the “shhh” sound we make actually mimics the environment inside of the womb where babies hear all kinds of wooshing and swooshing sounds. This Baby Shusher worked best for our infant over other white noise sound machines. It is always one of our top travel tips for road-tripping with a baby.
Sit in the backseat.
If this didn’t work to prevent your child from crying, it might not help so much to soothe them once they are already crying. However, if you are still in the front seat, then I would certainly recommend moving to the backseat where your baby can see your beautiful comforting face. Try playing some peek-a-boo, playing with their toes, or engaging them in a crinkly toy, book, or song. Sometimes just letting them hold on to your finger is enough to calm them.
Give them snacks.
If your baby is old enough and used to eating solids, then you may consider giving them some soft snacks or a bottle during the drive. Always follow a few precautions when feeding a baby in the car: an adult should be sitting next to the baby to supervise, and avoid hard solids that might lead to choking. Some car seat-safe foods for babies include snack pouches and dissolvable rice-husk teethers. We provide some recommendations in the road trip packing list below.
What Should I pack for a road trip with my baby?
Babies grow fast. Their needs and preferences seem to change just as fast. Here are some baby road trip essentials to keep your little one up to 18 months happy, comfortable, and entertained. Toddlers will require a different list of road trip essentials that are geared more toward their level of maturity and development. This list of travel toys for toddlers highlights all of the best toys to keep a toddler entertained during travel.
Road Tripping with a Baby: Packing List
- Dangling car seat toys – For newborns and infants, dangling car seats are essential entertainment. They might not have developed their grip strength or coordination yet to be able to grab other toys and rattles. Similar to a crib mobile, safely attached dangling car seat toys can capture a baby’s attention, while also helping them to develop spacial awareness. We recommend Baby Links and the interactive Hug & Tug Caterpillar which is appropriate for both infants and older babies.
- Teething toys and rattles. Teethers help to soothe babies’ gums when their teeth begin to come in. Like rattles, teethers provide a safe form of entertainment in the car while helping baby to improve their fine motor skills, group strength, and spatial awareness.
- Books – Babies like to chew, rip, and crumple books. With this in mind, it is best to pick up a selection of books that will stand the test against curious babies. Soft crinkly books like Peek-a-Boo Forest by Lamaze and Taggies are durable, washable, and engaging with flaps and tabs. Cardboard books are not indestructible, but they will serve their purpose and last you through many road trips with a baby. Our son was always the most engaged in learning books like First Numbers and First Words by Priddy.
- Favorite stuffed animal – Stuffed animals are great travel toys for children at any age. Children can begin forming a bond with their toys at a young age so it is important to bring their “best friend” along for the car ride and journey.
- Random items around the car – If all else fails there are many things that you likely have in the car that would keep a baby entertained for example an empty water bottle or a box of tissues. Just make sure that anything you give to your baby is safe: no small detachable parts that can pose a choking or suffocation risk.
Food and Drink
- Milk and Bottle. If you are nursing exclusively, that eliminates a large portion of your packing needs! If you are not nursing, make sure to pack formula or milk (babies 12 months and older), along with a bottle or two. If you prefer to pack one bottle only, XYZ make kits for cleaning baby bottles on the go.
- Snacks and pouches. A baby’s capacity to chew and digest certain foods evolves over time, so always reference the age recommendations on a food label. Up until 6 months, babies will pretty much be fine with just milk/formula. After you begin to introduce solids, prepacked baby food and snacks become an essential road trip item. Rice husks and yogurt melts are excellent road trip snacks. They dissolve quickly, don’t leave many crumbs, and our son loves them! For a more substantial meal, we find that pouches are more convenient than the more traditional glass jars. If baby is a bit older or if you are pulling over for a roadside picnic, other road trip foods for babies include yogurt, sliced soft fruit, and graham crackers. Our son is partial to breakfast bars, peanut butter Bamba puffs and Pirate’s Booty.
- Snack cups. The more proactive you are in keeping the car seat free of crumbs, the easier it will be to clean and when it comes to babies every last bit helps. Using snack cups like the Munchkin Snack Catcher helps your little one to slow down the process of palming all their goldfish in one gulp. It also reduces the number of crumbs spilled into the car seat and the floorboard below.
- Bib. If your baby is eating milk and purees exclusively, a cloth bib works just fine. If your baby has moved on to eating more crumbly solids like crackers and fruit slices, I would highly recommend using a silicone bib with a catcher. The Mushie silicone bib is easily washable which is ideal for travel, and the pocket catches most crumbs making clean up a much easier process.
- Diapers. Diapers are an obvious item for your baby road trip checklist. Consider overnight diapers if you plan to drive through the night while your baby sleeps. The added material and increased absorbency will help to reduce leaks and keep baby dry.
- Wipes. Wipes are essential for diaper changes, but they can also be used to clean faces, little fingers, and sticky surfaces. Pro tip: Wipe dispenser is almost empty? Keep the dispenser and fill it with toilet paper or ribbon. Babies love pulling things out of boxes and containers. This do-it-yourself baby toy will entertain your child for hours.
- Diaper rash cream. Did you know that diaper rash cream is used not only to treat, but also to prevent diaper rash? If your baby will be spending long stretches of time in a car seat, it is wise to apply diaper rash cream as a preventative measure against rash and discomfort.
- Portable changing pad – Using a portable changing station provides a more comfortable changing for the baby. It also provides an extra layer of safety when doing a diaper change in a public restroom.
- Extra changes of clothing. You don’t want to be left unprepared when the inevitable blowout or spit-up happens. We recommend packing at least 2 extra changes of clothing.
- Swaddle/ burp cloth. Swaddles are a bit universal and reduce the need for packing additional items. Although you wouldn’t swaddle a baby before placing him in a car seat, they do serve as great burp cloths and blankets. After arriving at your destination, you can then of course use the swaddle as intended…to wrap your baby like an adorable burrito bundle.
- Baby Tylenol. There are many baby medications on the market, but really the only medication we have ever needed was baby Tylenol. Teething can bring about bouts of pain and fever. Baby Tylenol is a fever reducer that can help assuage your child’s discomfort. Always contact your pediatrician before administering to your child.
Supplies for momma
- Breast pump. Depending on a number of factors (your milk production level, how much baby is drinking, etc) you may need to pump while on the road. While the manual breast pump is tried and true, the Elvie is a newer brand that many swear by. They make a wearable rechargeable breast pump that can be inserted into a nursing bra. It is discreet and portable making it possible to pump almost anywhere including at restaurants, in the office, and during a long car ride. Speaking from experience, make sure you have access to a pump! You do not want to get stuck in a situation where your body is telling you to empty the milk, but your baby isn’t hungry and you do not have a pump around. Women who have to delay pumping or nursing risk painful breast engorgement which can lead to medical problems and a reduction in milk supply.
- Nursing Cover. It is likely that you may end up nursing your child in a busy parking lot. While I have nursed my son in a parking lot without a cover, I did receive some unwanted prolonged glances from individuals passing by my window. If this is something that makes you feel uncomfortable, it may be wise to pack a nursing cover just in case. I recommend the Bebe au Lait nursing cover with it’s peek-a-boo hole. It allows me to keep an eye on my son, but also provides him with some nice airflow.
- Water. It is important for mothers to stay hydrated when nursing.
Additional items that make for a more comfortable trip
- Portable blanket. A soft clean surface is a great item to bring along when traveling with an infant. If you are stopping by a travel plaza, gas station, or rest area there is usually a nice grassy area somewhere nearby. This is a great opportunity to unbuckle your little one, and let them have some fresh air. Lay a soft blanket in the grass and allow your baby some time to roll around, stretch their legs, and enjoy the change of scenery. We recommend the Rumpl blanket that compresses into a convenient bag perfect for traveling and road trips.
- Car seat fan. When a baby is in their rear-facing carseat they don’t always have the same pleasure of cool air circulating around their bodies. This combined with warm sunrays peeking through the window can make a car seat pretty toast. It is a good idea to bring along a portable fan that clips onto the car seat to ensure that your child is cool and comfortable.
- Car seat liner. If you have a 10-hour drive ahead of you, you do not want to deal with a wet soiled car seat. A waterproof liner provides protection from wet bathing suits, diaper leaks, and other accidents.
- Backseat organizer to keep essentials close at hand. As you can see, there are many things to bring on a road trip if you want to ensure a smooth journey. You can be saved from headaches and stress in the long run if you are able to keep toys and baby essentials organized. A backseat organizer is helpful for keeping anything you or your baby might need close at hand.
Now that you have your questions answered and your car packed, the last step is to check out our top list of road trip with baby tips.
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