You don't have to stop traveling when you have a baby - we visited 6 different countries before our son Leo turned one. In a series of posts, I want to share what we learned about traveling with a baby from our trips. In my last post I wrote about flying with a baby, so now let's talk about driving with a baby and road trips.
Since Leo was born about 1.5 years ago, we have been traveling a lot by car. We made many day trips to the lakes south of Munich, drove the winding roads of the Alps and the green Bulgarian mountains, cruised around the Mediterranean coast of Spain and took on a 3-week trip through California with an RV. In this post, I will focus on general tips for driving with a baby. I will write about our RV trip in the US in the next article (please subscribe to my newsletter so you don't miss it).
Keep in mind that every child is different. While some things may have worked good for us, it may not be the case for you or the other way around. Be aware what your little one likes and be prepared to adapt your trip to accommodate his needs as well.
Preparing for a road trip
As with most things when traveling with a baby, good preparation is essential for a pleasant journey.
Timing. You should try to plan your trip around your baby's routine. Starting your trip just after your baby woke up full of energy after a 2-hour nap is not the best idea... Ideally, he should be sleepy, with a full belly and a clean diaper at the start of the trip. A good time for this is after lunch so your baby can make his afternoon nap in the car.
Another strategy is to leave very early in the morning. Take the baby seat out of the car and bring it inside. Then just move the baby from his bed directly in the seat, while he is still sleeping. Me and my wife have no problem getting up very early, so we successfully used this strategy a couple of times. Another benefit of leaving early is that little kids are usually calmer and in a better mood in the morning.
You can also leave in the evening after the baby's bedtime. We have tried this 2 times with Leo, but not very successful. This may be because Leo used to have problems falling asleep in the car (more below). For some people, though, this tactic works very well. Friends of ours drove for 1400 km from Sofia to Munich in one night with two small kids in the car!
Trip length. You should avoid going on long trips in the beginning, when you don't know how much your kid likes riding in a car. Start with some smaller trips and see how it goes, before attempting longer journeys. Make sure that you also plan more time than usually needed. You will likely need to stop more often for feeding, diaper change or just to let your little one play a bit outside his baby seat.
If you need to go on a longer journey, I would recommend having a backup plan if things don't go as planned. Don't push things too hard and you will avoid a lot of stressful situations. On our trip through California, we were about to drive 500 km from Palm Springs to a campground in Lemon Cove. We started already late from Palm Springs, because we found an amazing place for breakfast. We planned a stop over for dinner in Bakersfield, 370 km from Palm Springs. In the end, it got late and Leo just didn't want to get in his seat anymore. We just booked a hotel and stayed in Bakersfield overnight. The next day we needed 1 hour more to get to our next destination, but had a very relaxed drive.
Luggage. On longer trips we usually take 2 large suitcases (about 20 kg), one backpack, one baby bag and the baby stroller. We were always able to comfortably fit everything even in a small rental car, like a Toyota Yaris, Renault Clio or a Hyundai i20. You may need to play a little game of Tetris, but it will fit! Pro tip - while the stroller takes a lot of space in the trunk, it usually fits nicely inside the car on the passenger seat. When we bought the stroller for Leo, we chose one that gets very compact when folded - the Cybex Priam (check out how it folds in this video).
Of course, it is nice having a bigger car, because loading is a bit easier. However, you don't need nearly so much space as some people may tell you. We always managed to fit in small rental cars. The size of our BMW 1 series was also perfectly fine (we upgraded to a BMW 3 series for a different reason ).
Essentials in the car. When packing your luggage, make sure you have some essential items that you may need during the trip inside the car. We usually get paper towels, a blanket, sun protectors (see more about that below) and everything you need to change a diaper. You will also need water and some snacks and toys.
Rental cars. When you are flying to your destination, you will usually be looking to rent a car to get around. The question is then where to get a baby seat from? One way is to rent one from the rental car company. A lot of people don't like this because they have concerns about the quality and the hygiene of the seat. In our experience, if you book with a reputable company, you should not have a problem with that. The problem is rather the price. Rental car companies know that you don't have much choice and will try to rip you off. There are huge differences in prices and policies at the different locations so make sure to research it well. The good thing is, though, that car seats are usually paid on site. Therefore, if you are friendly with the staff at the counter and make a small conversation, you may get it for free. Thank you guy at the Budget desk in Alicante!
The alternative is to take your own baby seat with you on the airplane. We don't like this approach, because the checked luggage is usually not handled with care. If the seat is hit hard, it may not be safe in the case of an accident anymore, so we prefer not to take the risk.
While on the road
Now, that you are well-prepared, you can start your journey! If you have timed everything well, the next chapter will be relevant for you...
Sleeping in the car. Let's be honest - riding in a car is boring for babies, especially when they are small, because they are facing backwards. Even 1-2 year old kids, usually don't get a good view out of the window. Therefore, it is a good idea for your little one to take a nap, while you enjoy the trip.
The good thing is that most babies and little kids fall asleep easily in the car, so this is usually not a problem. Not our son, though... Before Leo turned 1, he just couldn't fall asleep in the baby seat. He was tired and sleepy, but just couldn't let go. Letting him cry for a while was not a solution, because the situation always escalated quickly. So, we had to be creative and use some tricks. When he was tired, we stopped at a suitable spot, got out of the car and put him to sleep, while holding him. After that, we could put him carefully back in the baby seat and drive off.
Things got much better, as soon as we moved him in a forward-facing seat. He suddenly started falling asleep very easy. We even started to have problems keeping him awake on a 15 minutes trip in the city. Read more below on the topic of baby seats.
Eating in the car. We avoid giving Leo anything to eat while driving, especially when he was younger. After he was about 1 year old, we started giving him baby crackers, corn puff snacks or some soft fruit cut in small pieces, like for example a banana. This can keep your little one happy and calm for quite a long time!
When your child is starving, you should better stop. If the mother is breastfeeding it is easy, because the food is always prepared. A good alternative is a bottle with premixed baby formula that doesn't need to be kept cold. If you need to warm up a jar of baby food, just put it under direct sun light 20 minutes in advance. The dashboard usually does the job on a sunny day. Otherwise, the staff at any gas station will also usually be happy to help you with warming up the baby food.
Entertainment. Toys are important during long trips. We usually take some books with moving parts, a couple of stuffed or wooden animals and some of Leo's other favorite toys. When he eventually gets bored you can get creative with everything you find in the car or in your bag: your house keys, the remote for the garage door or mommy's wallet.
A somewhat controversial topic is if you should let your kid watch clips on the phone or the tablet. We were very strict about screen time in the beginning. This changed on one trip around Bulgaria, when Leo was 11 months old. We had to leave the highway because of an accident and the trip took longer than expected. Leo couldn't fall asleep as usual and there was no suitable place to stop. We played some videos of children songs on the phone and it worked like magic. He looked at the clip in silence for 20 minutes, then fell asleep and slept until the end of the trip. From then on, we started letting him watch some videos when we are out of other entertainment options.
If nothing else helps, just stop on the side of the road and let your little one play around in the car. There are so many buttons to be pressed and so many levers to be pulled so your little one will have a blast. What happens now sometimes, is that we cannot even get Leo out of the car, when we arrive at our destination. He loves playing in it so much.
Temperature. Driving in the summer may be more challenging because of the higher temperatures. Modern baby seats are very safe, because they surround the baby well. However, this also means that it can get much hotter in the baby seat than in the rest of the car. A sweaty and uncomfortable baby is an unhappy baby. Taking off a layer of clothes helps, but is usually not enough. We also put a baby seat liner in the seat, which helps as well. There are also some more peculiar solutions on the Internet, like for example the noggle. We didn't like the idea of cool air blowing directly on the baby, though.
Also make sure that you have something to block direct sun light, if it falls on the baby seat. We usually put some mesh sunshades on the back windows. Additionally, we also take the sun blocking cover that we have for the stroller, but even a thin blanket will do the job.
The most important thing is to not push things too far. Know your limits and the limits of your baby and be ready to adjust your plan if needed. If your little one gets upset, stop for some rest even if it means that you may get to your destination a bit later. A crying baby in the car is very distracting for the driver.
Car seat. Make sure you research well which seats in your market have a good safety rating. For Germany, you can check Stiftung Warentest and ADAC. In the US, you can find good information on the website of the NHTSA. There are usually good seats, that are not very expensive. However, bare in mind that the safety of your child is not something you should try to save a couple of dollars from. The very expensive seats are usually not safer, but rather offer some other features, that you may not even need. We went for the Cybex Aton 5, because it was also compatible with our stroller. For the forward-facing seat we chose the Recaro Optiafix. It is both very safe and allows Leo to have a good view out of the window.
Make sure you mount the seat as recommended from the manufacturer. I've seen some people mount a baby seat that should be looking backwards the other way around, which is just crazy. While the baby's body is held by the straps, his neck is not strong enough for the forces that develop in case of an accident. You can switch to a forward-facing seat, when your baby is around 14 months old (there are different opinions on the exact age). Also make sure that the seat is suitable for your kid's age, because otherwise it will not provide the needed protection.
Letting the baby alone. When we are driving, there is always either me or my wife sitting in the back next to Leo. It happened several times that he swallowed up and my wife had to quickly take him out of his seat. It is also better for the baby to have his personal entertainer right next to him.
Driving style. I can write a lot about safe driving , but the most important thing for me is a calm and anticipatory driving style. While your kid is in the car, it is not the time to get angry about somebody cutting you off. You should also observe what the other cars are doing and anticipate what others may do wrong so you can react accordingly.
Road trip with a RV
Much of the advice applies to driving with an RV as well. There are, however, some interesting things to consider. I will write about RVing with a baby in my next article. Subscribe to my newsletter below and you won't miss it.
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