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Don't hit the road without making sure your smallest passengers are set up for comfort and safety. Here's what you should have on hand to contain boredom, tantrums, and snacktime messes when travel's on your to-do list.
Road trips can be fun, relaxing, and a great opportunity to make lasting memories, but bringing young children along can also make for a bumpy ride. When you’re getting ready to hit the road, there are a number of important preparations to make - getting directions, checking weather and traffic, tire pressure, and more - but what about your smallest occupants?
Here’s a comprehensive “backseat checklist” that will make the miles fly by, even when you’re bringing a notoriously fussy toddler along for the ride. Use these tips to minimize the potential of discomfort, resistance to naps, and those occasional distracting tantrums that can crop up between exits.
Children are, understandably, less tolerant of being uncomfortable than their parents or older siblings. When traveling, it’s important to make sure that your child’s car seat, booster seat, or other restraints are clean, function appropriately, and fit your child’s body. Head support is particularly important, as this will protect them in the event of a collision. Remember: at the rate children go through shoes and clothes at the toddler phase, they often unexpectedly outgrow car seats, too, so don't assume their age or weight alone will determine what works.
The NHSTA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) encourages parents to select an appropriately-sized child car seat or booster seat for each young child, and to frequently check their car seat brand(s) against car seat recall lists. Ensure children can’t undo straps and buckles by themselves, and use appropriate safety clasps or covers if they’re able to reach these important restraint points.
Beyond basic safety, consider making naptime more comfortable, even when restrained in a car seat. Bring along light blankets to prevent overheating, as layers and a sunny window can quickly leave your little one feeling sweaty and unhappy. Consider using posture-correcting devices, such as head supports for car seats, to minimize unconscious “head bobble” on the drive. These types of devices help prevent neck soreness, accidental ‘bonks’ against the side windows, and untimely wake-ups before you’ve reached your next destination.
While travel can be fun and exciting, it can also cause stress and anxiety for little ones that aren’t used to it. Help make your trip feel more like an adventure by bringing along comfort objects such as stuffed animals or favorite blankets for them to cuddle on the drive.
Avoid lost-belonging disasters at rest stops by enforcing a rule that lovies and stuffies have a job to “protect” the car. This will mean your child’s favorite toys “need” to stay behind while everyone’s stretching their legs, getting food, or using the restroom.
Attach a luggage tag or similar ID with your cell phone number to any item that could be left behind - better to be safe than sorry, after all!
If your child demands to bring along their favorite items, take lots of pictures and insist that their favorite item appear in each of them. It’ll serve as a reminder to the whole family to make sure it doesn’t get left behind. Nothing gets lost, and you’ll have lots of wonderful pictures to remember the trip!
Snacks and drinks are important at any age, but a thirsty or hungry toddler is a particularly important problem to solve. Keep a small cooler within easy parental reach while also out of their reach to prevent messy “snaccidents” along the way. Consider the mess factor of snacks and pack accordingly - yogurt tubes can be frozen ahead of time and enjoyed like popsicles. String cheese is easy for little hands to peel, and pre-cut grapes can be enjoyed safely by older toddlers.
Straws and sippy cups are your best friends for keeping the backseat clean, as are cupholders your child can use and reach. If your vehicle doesn’t have cupholders built in where they’re needed, consider using an after-market cupholder attachment that slides into a window track.
Items like juice boxes can be partially frozen to a slush-like consistency that will slow down spills and encourage slower consumption.
Avoid anything too spicy or foods with a strong odor; your child might have a delicate tummy or struggle with car sickness on longer trips.
Always bring along a trash bag for used containers, wrappers, and other sticky, oily, or messy parts of pre-packaged snacks.
The worst roadblock to a smooth ride is the same one that troubles children back at home: boredom. Tablets, game systems, and smartphones are great distractions, but they can also lead to car sickness and eye fatigue. Bring along a kitchen timer and tuck it in the seatback pocket - this will give both you and your child a clear indication that it’s time for a break from “screen time” for awhile to rest their eyes.
If you’d like to switch out with audio entertainment between movies or games, try podcasts that talk about kid-friendly subjects, or a favorite animated movie soundtrack. Talking with your child about what they’re seeing out the window is also a great way to connect and keep them engaged on the ride itself.
Quiet, screen-free activities like coloring, or pretend-play with dolls or figures, can also help break up boredom. Avoid bringing toys with small parts that can fall and roll under the seats, as this will lead to a constant game of pick-up rather than playing pretend.
If possible, secure smaller accessories to dolls and playsets with string or yarn to prevent losing a shoe or a sword to the floor mats.
Look for coloring products that only work on special paper, or etch-a-sketch-like toys that let your child draw and erase without skin and cloth-staining markers.
Bring along a brand new toy or activity set your child has never played with before; the novelty will help keep them distracted from the journey and focused on entertaining themselves.
Make sure you have back-up batteries, long charging cords, and a plan for keeping digital devices topped up on power; you don’t want to end up without GPS somewhere unfamiliar because your child was using your smartphone for a game.
If there’s one thing children of all ages excel at, it’s cheerfully making a mess; a talent that’s particularly problematic while inside an enclosed car. No matter how tidy you keep everything you pack, trust that the best-laid plans for preventing mess will go awry. Instead, pack cleaning items that are easy to access and can help quickly address immediate spills.
Mopping pads are incredibly absorbent and work even faster than paper towels, in many cases. Consider tucking one or two in the seatback pocket to quickly toss on juice or soda spills for faster cleanup.
Assuming at least one outfit or article of clothing will end up with a spill or three, and pack a change of clothes for your child, including socks and shoes, somewhere that’s easy to access. Remember: it might not always be convenient to access your suitcases.
Drape the backseat under their carseat with a towel, cloth, or even a shower curtain liner for extra waterproof protection. This will make cleaning up after the road trip (or when you arrive at your destination) considerably easier.