Ah, road trips. A great American pastime. As a native Texan, road trips are just a fact of life as it can take a really long time to get from point A to point B while traveling by car. Growing up, we drove 11 hours from Texas to Mississippi every year to visit my aunt. If we kids didn’t like it, too bad! We had no choice.
While I definitely remember asking “are we there yet?” as a kid, it wasn’t until I had a child of my own that I realized how hard it is for little ones to be cooped up in the car for extended periods of time. No matter how comfortable a car seat may be, no one likes to be strapped in for hours at a time, especially when you’ve recently learned to walk and would rather be on the move.
With family spread out across the state, my husband and I make several road trips a year with our 18-month-old daughter. This is a practice we started when she was just three months old. Here are a few best practices to keep a toddler entertained that I’ve learned driving thousands of miles with a tiny, unpredictable tot in tow.
1. Prepare your toy rotation
One of our recent road trips was over five, grueling hours long. I brought a few of my toddler’s favorite toys to entertain her on the road, but it wasn’t enough. After observing her losing interest quickly with multiple toys, I timed it. At sixteen months old, she stayed engaged with each item for approximately four minutes. If your head is hurting at the thought of having to come up with something new every four minutes to entertain your kid, then you feel my pain.
The next time we hit the road to visit friends, to keep a toddler entertained, I had to up my game. Not only did I bring along a few of her favorites, but I also included some brand-new toys and some from the closet that she hadn’t played within a long time. I made sure to bring a variety of cuddly plush animals, musical instruments, dolls that talk, light-up cars, and anything else that would keep her on her toes. In addition to toys found in the toy aisle, I also brought along some household items that she might find interesting.
Since I sit in the backseat with her while my husband drives, I can supervise her exploring the fascinating world of chip clips, my hair scrunchies, ribbons from a recent birthday gift bag, and more. The trick is to think of the things your little one naturally gravitates to in the house, and bring those items (provided they are safe and you can supervise during use).
2. Give in to the kid music
This year I started taking my daughter to a great music class in our area. In addition to attending class each week, we took home a book and a CD of all of the songs from our session. I heard from the other moms that the CD was a lifesaver in the car, but I didn’t give it much thought at first. My daughter was great in the car!
Until she wasn’t. My angelic, quiet baby who used to doze off on our way to the grocery store became an absolute maniac in the car around fourteen months old. If I listened to my favorite radio station or podcast, she would whine until her complaints escalated into screams. If I turned everything off, the silence made it worse. During one of her epic meltdowns, I hastily inserted the CD (what is this, the 90s?!) and sat back in amazement as she instantly calmed down.
PSA: embrace the kid music, it will help keep a toddler entertained. There are 24 tracks on this particular album and I know all of them 100% by heart. I play “her songs” at the beginning of the trip to keep the peace. When I can’t take it anymore, I turn to toys or talking to her, but when she starts to show signs of boredom, I hit the play button immediately. It honestly has been our only saving grace in the car, and trust me when I say we’ve tried a lot of different tactics.
3. Let her snack
Call me strict if you wish, but I am a firm believer in creating and enforcing a consistent eating routine for my child. She eats five times per day: breakfast, lunch, dinner and two snacks. We rarely deviate from this plan.
However, after enduring her screams for almost two hours nonstop on one road trip, I was desperate. It seemed none of my tricks were working as they normally did, and I had to get more creative. Unsurprisingly to most veteran parents, my solution turned out to be snacks. Using a little snack catcher, my daughter can consume her favorite treats (goldfish, veggie straws, animal crackers, just to name a few) at a reasonable pace. She is perfectly content digging her tiny hand into the catcher and eating a few pieces at a time. If you are a schedule follower like me, you may want to loosen the reigns a bit in these types of extenuating circumstances. It works.
4. Pack the headphones and iPad
Oh, you thought I meant for the child? Nope, this is entertainment for Mama. You better believe when my toddler eventually conks out for a nap, I’m bringing out the noise-canceling headphones and a few downloaded Netflix shows to pass the time. Road trips are hard for kids, but they can be even more exhausting for the parents. Self-care, always.
Are you a road trip family? How do you keep your young children entertained for long stretches at a time? As a parent of only one child, I sincerely want to know how you survive road trips with two or more children in the backseat. If I couldn’t sit next to my daughter and entertain her along the way, I think she’d scream a whole lot more. Parents of multiple children: please enlighten me!
Katie McCall is a lifestyle portrait photographer, content strategist, and producer based in San Antonio, Texas. When she isn’t behind a camera or laptop, she's exploring the world with her husband, darling one-year-old daughter and tiny pup. If you’d like, please follow their adventures on Instagram (@hersideproject)!