top of page

Top 10 Tips: The Ultimate Guide on How to Survive a Driving Trip with a Baby or Toddler

Child's carseat for driving trip
The quiet before the drive!

Whether you are going to visit family or off on a fun family adventure, traveling by car with a little one can make the trip a little more... overwhelming. It can make you crave another vacation before you’ve even left! There are lots of great posts out there with advice on what to pack for the trip or how to handle everything once you arrive at your destination. The tips below are focused on helping you survive the actual driving trip experience and the first night or two in the new sleep space with a baby or toddler in tow so you can be ready to hit the gas!

Okay, so first - I've been where you are. In April 2022, I moved from Maryland to Georgia with my husband, daughter (21 months at the time), cat, and dog in tow, all in my Toyota Highlander! The movers packed up our house, we packed up the car with items we needed for the next two weeks, ate dinner on the floor of the empty house, did the best we could with the bedtime routine, and made the 10-hour drive. We chose to drive overnight and left at 6:00pm, a little before my daughter's bedtime in hopes that she'd relax and enjoy a bit of the ride and then sleep most of the 10-hour drive. Big props to my husband - he is a real trooper! He wound up driving the whole time. (More on overnight driving below.) We arrived at our new home at 4:00am.

Top 10 Tips for a successful driving trip with a baby or toddler:

  1. Pack Familiar Items

  2. Spend Time in the New Sleep Space

  3. Stick to Your Routine

  4. Have Your Little One in Pajamas Before Leaving

  5. Plan to Leave Around Nap or Bedtime

  6. Plan Your (Frequent!) Stops Ahead of Time

  7. Prep the Car

  8. Consider Making it a Multi-Day Adventure

  9. Pack an Easily Accessible Overnight Bag

  10. Make a Plan. Then Be Prepared to Toss it Out the Window. Be Flexible!

Family driving trip with baby, cat, dog mom and dad hitting the road
Everyone is buckled up, pets included! We're ready to go! Spot the sound machine?

Tip # 1 Pack Familiar Items

Kids thrive on routine, familiarity, and predictability. They get accustomed to sights and smells. Their sleep space is their safe space and it is difficult for little ones to adjust to new, unfamiliar environments. When it comes to sleeping in an unfamiliar sleep environment, it helps to bring familiar items along with you to help your little one get accustomed to the new place. This is important for the car ride and adjusting to the new sleep space upon arrival.

When it comes to packing: Don't wait until the last minute to pack your child's items. Sound machine? Check. Toothbrush? Check. Diapers? Check. Pajamas? Check. Baby's favorite Lovey? MIA! Still in the crib at home? Not a good situation!

To help ensure you don't forget things like that Lovey, I recommend making a list. Okay, so it is no secret that I love lists. In the days prior to packing, I had 2 lists going that I shared with my husband: 1) One with a column for each family member (pets included) for items that were to go in my car. 2) Another list with everything we'd ship in my husband's car. (It was to arrive a few days after us, but before the moving truck.) I'd be reminded of something randomly while doing laundry or walking the dog. Even if you're not usually a list person, starting it a few days in advance helps ensure little things aren't forgotten!

Some Familiar Items to Include:

For the car ride: Pajamas, easy on-the-go snacks, and drinks, blanket, pacifier & clip, portable sound machine, accessible stroller, books, toys and entertainment, lots of diapers, wipes, a change of clothes. For the wee little babies - best to plan for 1 diaper per hour.

For the new sleep space: Favorite books and stuffed animals, a few toys, pajamas, clothes, pacifier, portable sleep space like Pack N Play and sheets, sound machine, sleep sack or swaddle, and baby camera monitor.

What to Expect has a great list of essential items to remember to pack in general.

Have a favorite stuffed animal? Book? Toy? Blanket? Bring that with you and be sure you have easy access to it immediately upon arrival. We have an ABC Quilt we use daily as part of our "Night-Night" bedtime routine so we brought that knowing she'd recognize it and feel more comfortable as if she was in her old room.

Personalized ABC Quilt used during bedtime routine for toddler
Personalized ABC Quilt used during bedtime routine

Tip #2 Spend Time in the New Sleep Space

This new sleep space is, well, new. Change is scary and difficult for kids. To help ease the transition and their apprehension, it is best to spend time in the new sleep space during the day (not during sleep times) to help your child adjust to the new environment. Play, read, hang out, listen to music. Make it a safe, recognizable, and enjoyable space so that when it comes time to sleep, your little one is familiar, comfortable, and can settle in easily.

Having arrived at 4:00am, we didn't have time to adjust to the new environment before we wanted to go to sleep. When we set up my daughter's Pack N Play in her new room, she was tired and confused, and yes, she cried. When I'm coaching families, I work with parents to stop sleeping on the floor in their child's room. On this night, I fully admit I broke my own rule. I did this for two reasons:

  1. We had no furniture yet. I was either sleeping on the floor with my husband (who desperately needed a good night's sleep and wouldn't get that with a crying toddler on the monitor) OR I'd sleep on the floor in my daughter's room.

  2. This was a new environment and to an almost 2-year-old, being left alone at 4:00am in this dark, scary, unfamiliar space was terrifying.

So, we had a little slumber party and I spent a good 2 hours talking with her about where we were, that this was our new home, this was her new room, and that she was safe. I reminded her that we were all there together (pets too!) and I was staying right there on the floor, all.night.long. She'd lay down, get startled and upset, and I was there to comfort her. I used our usual bedtime phrase and she'd relax knowing that I was there. I remained on the floor and never picked her up or took her out of the Pack N Play. I could tell she was listening and we eventually went to sleep. When she woke up in the morning, she was super cheery and happy, saying "new home!!" on repeat as she explored the rooms. That next day, we spent lots of time in her new sleep space. We played and read books and hung out in her room so she got accustomed to the sights and smells and feel of it.

In the morning we also hung her ABC Quilt just as it was in her old room, and set up her favorite books and stuffed animals so she recognized her things. That night, our first real night in the new house, I slept (again on the floor) in my own bedroom and she in hers, and she went to sleep just as she usually does without any issue! Transition success!

Tip #3 - Stick to Your Routine and Schedule

No matter what time of day you leave, it is best to follow feeding and sleep schedules, and naptime and bedtime routines as best as you can.

For the car ride: If you can and have access to the bedtime items, do the routine as thoroughly as you can. The routine is your child's cue that it is time for bed and doing the bedtime routine will signal it is time to sleep, regardless of where that sleep is taking place.

At your destination: Don't ditch your bedtime routine. Stick to the wake/naptime/bedtime schedule as best as you can. I encourage you to try to get those naps in at appropriate/regular times as much as possible too. If not, bedtime will be more challenging than normal. For the naps, it is okay for them to be on the go as it is very difficult to always be home for naps when you're traveling. If your child is on three naps, it would be a great goal to have at least one lying horizontal and flat in a safe sleep space.

We had to do an abbreviated bedtime routine because everything was on the moving truck or packed in the car. We skipped the bath and had dinner on the floor and then changed into pajamas and read a book. I'll be completely honest, with all the adrenaline and emotions of saying goodbye to our 1st home, it wasn't until we were on the road that we realized we forgot to finish the rest of our bedtime routine. We didn't say our "Night-Nights" so we did that while driving. We gave her a pacifier, connected the travel sound machine to the passenger headrest, and gave her a soft blanket for her lap (she doesn't sleep with one, but it made her cozier). When she would want to shift or roll over in her sleep, she'd wake up. She'd chat for a bit and doze back off.

Pajamas on and reading a PJ Library book on the floor of the empty house as part of bedtime routine
Pajamas are on! Reading a book on the floor of the empty house as part of bedtime routine

Tip#4 Have Your Little One in Pajamas Before Leaving

Travel with your little one in their pajamas! Not only will they be comfortable, but being in their pajamas is part of their sleep association and will serve as a sleepy cue for them to relax and know it is time to fall asleep. It will also be easier to transfer them to a sleep space, upon arrival, if needed.

Tip #5 Plan to Leave Around Nap or Bedtime

My family chose to drive overnight because, for us, a long trip is easier when two pets and a toddler sleep most of the way. We knew 10 hours would be 15-20 with everyone in tow, plus traffic. The best time to leave will vary per family and per trip. Factor in things like potential traffic, meal times, child's sleep schedule, distance, arrival time, your work schedule, etc. - then you can weigh your options and consider what works best for your family. Some families may find that leaving first thing in the morning is best or timing it before naps. Other families, like myself, may find overnight is the best option. Whether you make your drive during the day or overnight, there are factors to consider.

  1. How far are you going? When will nap/meals and snacks/bedtime be?

  2. Daytime driving requires more distractions and entertainment. Be prepared to stop more frequently for snack breaks, bathroom breaks, boredom breaks and to stretch.

  3. What time do you expect to arrive? If driving overnight, do you want to arrive at 4:00am and risk your child not going back to sleep? Will you be arriving in the middle of their nap time? Best to time it so your little one can get a complete nap, if possible.

  4. Driving overnight is risky and dangerous. Period. There are fewer road lights and our bodies aren't accustomed to staying awake that long. Even with caffeine or 5 Hour Energy, your reflexes aren't as sharp. If that works for you, great! You know your body and your limitations. Also, consider the other night drivers on the road. You may be good to go, but they are probably tired too and could be a risk to you. Safety first!

  5. Speaking of - a little side note about safety: be sure everyone is properly buckled up. Seat belts save lives. Even our dog wears a seat belt in the car. The car seat chest clip should always be at least nipple height.

  6. Having a baby sleep through or at least most of the trip - priceless!

Baby in carseat and dog in seat belt ready for the driving trip
Bedtime routine complete, we're all smiles as we hit the road!

Tip # 6 Plan Your (Frequent!) Stops Ahead of Time

Now, this is easier said than done. I know. If you're driving overnight, this is not as important. If you're day driving, you'll want to map out possible playgrounds or amusement places like Zoos or children's museums. At the very least, you'll want spots to eat and stretch those legs. Consider your child's age and mobility. Experts say you shouldn’t keep your baby in a car seat for more than 2 hours at a time. Especially for kids who cannot yet hold their head up yet. This skill typically happens around 6 months of age. Being in a crunched sitting position can mean a lack of oxygen for the baby and is bad for spine development.

Tip #7 Prep the Car

It is a good idea to make sure your car's maintenance is checked and safe for the ride.

Car: Before leaving, be sure to check the car. Check the oil and coolant, get the tires rotated, fill up on gas, etc. to make sure the car is ready and safe. Check the weather, too! The last thing you want is to get stranded with a broken-down car and a screaming toddler!

Food: Stock the car with food and snacks before leaving on the road trip. Plan feeding times: Know how often you need to feed your child and stick to it. A hungry baby does not make for a pleasant road trip. Portable snacks are helpful for those already eating solids. It's best for your little one to not eat in the car while you're driving, but if you need to, be sure someone is sitting back there with them in case of emergency, especially if your child is still rear-facing.

Snacks: Have plenty of easy-to-grab snacks and water at the ready for your little one and for everyone in the car. You'll want extra water in case of an emergency and in case someone has an accident or gets sick.

If you're breastfeeding, a portable pump and storage are both helpful. I liked the SpectraS1 because it was super lightweight, quiet, portable, and the battery lasted all day!

Tip #8 Consider Making it a Multi-Day Adventure

You can drive straight through but breaks every 2 hours really prolong a trip. Consider splitting it up. You could drive 5 hours and spend a night or two (adventure!) and then continue on. If you're passing by a city with fun things to do, plan accordingly and add it to the agenda. It adds time but is fun and creates memories too!

Tip # 9 Pack an Easily Accessible Overnight Bag

When you arrive, especially if it is off-hours, you may not feel like unpacking the whole car or want to go searching through your bags to find something that was packed at the bottom of the pile. Having an accessible overnight bag with your stuff and your little one's familiar items, as well as a change of clothes and a toothbrush, for example, will go a long way!

Tip # 10 Make a Plan. Then Toss it Out the Window. Be Flexible!

Plans are great and help us feel prepared. But life with a little one is anything but predictable. Kids are human and wrenches will be thrown into your plans. Remember, be flexible and lower your expectations.

BONUS TIP! Time Zone

If your destination has a different time zone, I typically recommend staying in your home time zone if you’re there for a short period. If the trip is longer than 4-5 days, it makes sense to try to adjust to the local time zone.

Be prepared to jump right back into your sleep routine and use good sleep habits when you return home.

It may take a little bit of patience and a refresher, but if your child is already able to fall asleep independently, it should be a bit easier to pick up where you left off when you get home. If your little one is struggling to get back on track since you've been home or never really was a good sleeper, to begin with, I can help! Click here to schedule a FREE 15-minute consult OR you can purchase an Ask Me Anything call.

Preparing in advance and following these tips can go a long way in helping you have a successful (or at least less overwhelming) driving trip experience with your baby or toddler.

Leave a comment below if you have an upcoming trip or just got back! Tell me how it went!

bottom of page