Car Travel with Kids

Ugh. That’s how most people react to the thought of a long car trip with children. Our family travels by car from Florida to upstate New York every summer. Planning ahead and being flexible makes it pretty manageable. Here are some tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics, plus some input from me, to make your summer car trips a little easier.

Car Seats

Safety first—see some earlier blogs of mine on correct usage of car seats (Part 1 and Part 2 ). Briefly:

  • Always use a car safety seat for infants and young children.
  • All infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing car safety seat until 2 years of age or unless the safety seat’s manufacturer says otherwise. 
  • Once a child has outgrown the rear-facing seat, she should ride in a forward-facing car safety seat. Most rental car companies can arrange for a car seat if you are unable to bring your own.
  • A child who has outgrown the car safety seat with a harness should ride in a belt-positioning booster seat until big enough to use the vehicle’s own seat belts.
  • All children under age 13 years should ride in the rear seats of vehicles.
  • Never place a rear-facing car safety seat in the front seat of a vehicle that has an airbag.
  • Set a good example by always wearing a seat belt, even in a taxi.

Staying Sane

Children often become restless or irritable when on a long road trip. Keep them occupied in the car by

  • pointing out interesting sights along the way
  • bringing soft, lightweight toys (for activities with lots of little pieces, place a shallow cookie sheet on the child’s lap to hold them)
  • playing favorite music for a sing-along
  • reading good books aloud or listening to books-on-tape
  • playing games like 20 questions, alphabet games, and number games
  • trying to spot license plates from all 50 states on passing cars. The kids can be in charge of keeping the list.

Take Regular Breaks

Plan to stop driving and give yourself and your child a break every 2 hours. OK, I confess that I tend to want to get places sooner rather than later, and so I’m pretty sure I don’t stop that frequently. But we plan a bathroom/snack break in midmorning, a lunch break around midday, and a bathroom/snack break in the afternoon, so for us it’s probably more like every 3 hours. If everyone is happy, I’ve been known to push it longer.

The point is, be prepared to take some breaks. We also have a rule that if one person has to stop to go to the bathroom, everyone has to try to go to the bathroom. (If your kids are still small, you can even carry along a clean plastic child’s potty in the trunk—for the ones who didn’t try very hard at the last stop and now are insisting they have to go--the potty will save a stop.)

Never Leave Your Child Alone in a Car, Not Even for a Minute

Temperatures inside a parked car can reach deadly levels in minutes, and a child can quickly die of heat stroke. I know it’s tempting to leave a child sleeping while you “run in” to use the restroom, but it’s dangerous on many levels. Don’t do it!

A Few Essentials to Take Along

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has more information about what to pack in a travel kit, but this list should get you started.

  • bottled water
  • snacks
  • child-safe hand wipes
  • diaper-rash ointment
  • a water- and insect-proof ground sheet for safe play outside
  • a small first-aid kit with Band-Aids, antibiotic ointment, Tylenol or Motrin, and Benadryl
  • paper towels
  • disinfecting wipes
  • plastic bags (motion sickness can take you by surprise and these are also good for gathering trash)
  • a small bag for each person that contains a change of extra clothes; these should be easy to find and access during the trip
  • sunscreen

What the CDC suggests packing in a medicine kit for traveling

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