Road Trips with Young Children

Family road trips can be a happy and memorable experience for children. They offer opportunities for families to spend quality time together, make memories, take in new and different sights, and have fun with each other. In addition, road trips may be preferred over traveling on planes, buses, and trains for a young child as using the family car reduces exposure to individuals outside of the family unit and their germs. Traveling, however, with children, via any means, may also present challenges. Although there may be crumbs, spills, cries, and complaints, your family can, with the use of some of the ideas below, reach your destination safely and with little stress.

Rules of the Road

Establish rules for your child when traveling, and teach your child to adhere to the Rules of the Road in every car; for every trip, no matter how short the drive; and no matter who is driving.

  • Secure your child in a car seat, booster, or approved restraint that meets guidelines for the child’s age/weight.
  • Never leave your child alone in the car.
  • Ensure your child—and any child 13 and younger—rides in the back seat.
  • Do not allow multiple children to share a seatbelt.
  • Teach your child appropriate car behavior, such as using an inside voice, being gentle with toys (e.g., no throwing toys), and being kind to other riders (e.g., no arguing, no hitting).
  • Remind your child that the car is not a play zone, and they must follow the rules to help ensure everyone’s safety.

Road-trip travel considerations

Take breaks.

Plan to stop driving about every 2 to 3 hours for day trips and every 4 to 6 hours for night trips. Regular breaks give you and your child opportunities to refresh. The stops allow you to attend to your child’s diapering, toileting, and feeding needs and can give you and your child a chance to engage in some physical activity. (Note: never attempt to breastfeed a child while the car is in motion).

Safety Alert: If you and your child get out of the car during breaks, ensure your child does not wander far from your line of sight or reach. Do not let your child play in your car or near moving cars.

Travel according to child’s schedule.

Consider taking your trip during times when your child may be sleeping for longer stretches. This could mean getting on the road early in the morning when your child is still sleeping, traveling during your child’s scheduled nap times, or driving at night when your child will be asleep for the night.

Sit in the backseat with your child.

Have an adult or an older child sit in the backseat with a younger child so they can recognize cues for feeding, diapering, or car sickness. When you sit in the backseat, you remind your child that you (or a familiar person) are close by. Sitting in the back seat can also allow you to play with your child, read to them, sing to them, and soothe them.

Research your route.

Identify gas stations, charging stations, and rest stops for breaks. In the event that you need to stop at a hotel along the route, you may want to locate potential hotels that offer sleeping and feeding accommodations and welcoming staff for you and your child before you leave home.

Stay flexible.

Events do not always go according to plan when traveling with children. Try not to let the bumps and wobbles cause you stress, and, if you can, put a positive spin on any situations that may arise. Remember that driving allows your family to develop your own schedule and make as many stops as needed.

Essentials to pack for long road trips with your child

  • Healthy snacks
  • Milk, formula, water (Reminder: Keep breastmilk and prepared formula on ice)
  • Hand sanitizing gel, spray, or wipes
  • Baby-safe wipes (e.g., to clean surfaces, to clean the child)
  • Medication
  • First Aid Kit
  • Thermometer
  • Extra change of clothes
  • Diapering and toileting needs (e.g., diapers, underwear, diaper cream, travel potty, changing pad, disposable bags for soiled diapers)
  • Sunscreen (for children 6 months and older)
  • Petroleum jelly (i.e., Vaseline, Aquaphor)
  • Pacifier, lovey, soothing toy, transitional item
  • Portable play yard
  • A box of fun, interactive toys (e.g., stickers, pipe cleaners, counting objects, coloring books, crayons, dough)

Fun ideas for the road

Your child will probably experience occasional bouts of boredom and silence, particularly during road trips, and this is fine. However, when you are ready to interrupt the dullness of the drive, here are some screen-free ideas that you can use to spark your child’s imagination and to help them explore, wonder, and have fun while on the road.

  • Read a book
  • Listen to an audiobook
  • Sing together
  • Listen to music
  • Follow or draw on an old-fashioned paper map
  • Play “I spy”
  • Play an alphabet game
  • Play with puppets
  • Count vehicles, signs, and/or animals
  • See how many states you can spot on other cars’ license plates
  • Allow your child to draw something with crayons on blank paper
  • Have a spelling bee
  • Play “20 Questions”
  • Look for images in the clouds
  • Teach your child their letters
  • Review one-letter and two-letter sounds
  • Sketch letters and/or shapes
  • Play “Would You Rather”
  • Create a poem together
  • Make up a story together
  • Draw a picture or color together
  • Count or organize toys or objects
  • Play a family trivia game
  • Play a game of favorites (e.g., songs, books, ice cream, athletes)
  • Recite tongue twisters
  • Play connect the dots
  • Play tic-tac-toe
  • Play with play dough, clay, or putty
  • Play the quiet game
  • Take a snooze

References

Anzilotti, A. W. (2023, July). Road rules for kids. Nemours KidsHealth. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/passenger-safety.html

DiMaggio, D. (2023, November 22). Is it safe for my baby to travel in a car seat for hours at a time? Healthychildren.org. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/tips-tools/ask-the-pediatrician/Pages/Is-it-safe-for-my-baby-to-travel-in-a-car-seat-a-few-hours-at-a-time.aspx

Gans, A. S., Kardos, J., Lai, N., Lockwood, K. K., & McFadden-Parsi, L. (2023, June 21). A pediatrician’s family vacation packing checklist: What you need when traveling with kids. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. https://www.chop.edu/news/health-tip/pediatrician-s-family-vacation-packing-checklist-what-you-need-when-traveling-kids

Healthychildren.org. (2022, December 16). Road trip play ideas for backseat fun. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/power-of-play/Pages/road-trip-play-ideas-for-backseat-fun.aspx

Healthychildren.org. (2023, November 20). Tips for safe and stress-free family travel. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/on-the-go/Pages/Travel-Safety-Tips.aspx

KidsHealth Medical Experts. (n.d.). Road trip fun. Nemours KidsHealth. https://kidshealth.org/en/kids/road-trip.html

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