Going on a road trip with your baby can be a fantastic way to spend time as a family and enjoy the views. If you're going for the first time, it might be a little scary so I thought I'd put together a quick guide to make your driving with a baby that much easier.
I've been going on road trips with my son since he was 6 weeks old and I learned a thing or two about making the journey comfortable for everyone. The key to a great road trip with a baby is to make a detailed journey plan, get your car ready for feeds and changes and pack smart so that everything you need is readily available. Keep your baby entertained when not sleeping and make sure you allow a lot of time for stops.
Plan your route carefully and make frequent stops
If there's one thing I would recommend more than anything else, it's getting your planning up to scratch. Before my son was born, my road trip day planning was loose. I'd roughly map out which road takes me from A to B and that was about it.
Without a baby in the back of your car, you can be pretty flexible as you drive along, hand resting on your rolled down window. You can stop for lunch any time you want and you can always stop at the next service station for a comfort break.
When you get on the road with your baby, you will quickly find out that the game has changed! If your baby decides that he's hungry, you will be notified of this very quickly. If your infant is anything like mine, it takes about a nanosecond between him deciding he is hungry and an ear-piercing alarm coming from the baby seat.
You suddenly don't have the luxury of time to leisurely drive the 45 miles left to the next service station. So make sure you plan your route carefully and take into account key baby-friendly road indicators:
1. Choose the right type of road when planning your route
If you have a choice, stay away from the motorways or major highways. We're talking about those roads that have exits spread out in 20+ mile increments where you might have to wait a good half an hour before there is any opportunity to stop.
Frequent roads coming off the one you're driving along is good. Service stations every couple of miles is perfect. Frequent laybys and parking areas next to the road are the jackpot for your baby needs.
2. Know where the service stations are along the way
Sounds simple enough, but when planning your route, check out where the service stations are along the way. Frequent options make for a much happier journey and allow you to have a few creature comforts when you have to make stops.
Trust me you'll be glad when your baby informs you that he is still hungry or needs changing about 30 seconds after you left a petrol station and have no way of turning around. You better hope the next one is not an hour away!
Keep your baby asleep or entertained
With a baby strapped into the child seat, there are only two successful outcomes that a doting parent might wish for as you're driving along. The baby should either be asleep or entertained.
Being asleep is a particularly attractive option - most babies tend to drift off the moment you set off on your journey even if they are not particularly keen at the start. I find that not only in my case, but when driving with other infants, there seems to be a magic minimum speed at which sleep becomes a whole lot more appealing.
I'm not sure if it's the speed at which stuff moves along in the window or the hum of the road once you are going a bit faster, but your baby is much more likely to fall asleep once you are powering along in the fast lane.
How to entertain your baby on the road
Keeping your baby asleep is the easy bit. The hard part comes when your baby decides to wake up in the middle of you driving. If there isn't an immediate need to eat or be changed, you are in the luck.
You probably have about 2 minutes of time before the baby does one of two things. If you are very lucky, he'll realise that the car is still on the move and decide he wants to fall back to sleep. Phew. Buy yourself a lottery ticket – it's your day!
The more likely outcome is that after staring at trees and clouds rushing past the window for a couple of minutes, your baby will get upset. Not about anything in particular, but just upset about the fact that he is awake and there is nobody paying immediate attention to him.
Solving this problem is much easier if there are two of you in the car with the baby. Get the co-pilot who isn't driving to sit in the back and play. You will know best what keeps your baby entertained. A long term favourite in our household is singing songs.
Cliché as it might sound, singing can change a purple coloured screaming baby into a smiling cherub in about 3 seconds. It will often not really matter what it is that you're singing. Just keep eye contact and get them to relax!
Once your baby grows up a little, you might find more engaging ways to keep them entertained with games or even videos. At some point your baby will become a kid and doing road trips with children is a whole other story!
Get your car set up for feeding and changing the baby
This is something that we figured out the hard way but in hindsight is something really works well if you plan and think about it before setting off. Here is how you can get your car road trip-ready for that long drive with your baby.
First, I would really recommend you taking a look at your car to see how suitable it is for changes. If you're hiring a car, our advice would be to pick the biggest thing they've got or that you want to pay for. Giant SUVs mean that you can pack a lot of stuff in the back and keep the rear seats free of clutter.
It is true that it is probably a lot easier to change your baby in the comfort of a baby changing room at a service station. The problem here is that you need to have a service station when you need to change your baby. And the service station needs to have baby changing facilities. In case you've not done this before, we're talking a needle in a haystack type of scenario.
You will have to change your baby in the car.
There I said it. You will be doing it at the side of the road whether you like it or not so you might as well get ready to make it easy for yourself. Here are a couple top tips.
If your car has folding rear seats for access from the back, you're in luck. You might not have thought about it, but a folded rear seat can easily become a magic changing table.
In most cars, seats fold in a two thirds – one third configuration. That means that there is a wide bit that folds together including the middle section and a narrow bit next to it that folds separately.
Set up your baby seat on the two thirds side of the car. Here's something they don't teach you in pre-natal classes! It doesn't matter which side of the car your steering wheel is on or which side that puts your baby – trust me you'll thank me later.
What you can now do is sit in the middle of the back seat and change your baby by folding over the narrow one third section to make it into a quick fire changing table.
Put a changing mat on top, get whatever bits you need into the net on the back of the front seat and you might find that this is easier and more comfortable than doing it at home! Everything is within reach and you can stay in the warmth of the car even if it's bitterly cold outside.
Granted you might have packed the car full and there is no space for you to sit and change the baby on the rear seat. You will need to learn the art of the quick front seat changing game. This can be mighty quick if there's two of you as one can act as the prime changer and the other can support by providing the requisite changing bits on demand.
We perfected this routine on one trip where our hire car was not as big as we would have liked and got it down to a sub 1 minute operation. Much to the amusement of our 2 month old baby!
Feeding your baby in the car
Feeding the baby is a little easier - front passenger seat is the perfect spot. If you're breastfeeding, I'd strongly recommend the mother travelling in the passenger seat most of the time – makes this a whole lot easier than having to constantly swap.
Even if you're bottle feeding your baby, it's still a great idea to get the baby our of the car seat and hold them while you're feeding them. Not only is this a lot easier, it also gives your baby more comfort and a much needed break from sitting upright.
Most manufacturers and national health bodies recommend that you don't keep your baby in the car seat for longer than 2 hours in any one stint. Feeding is a great opportunity to break up their journey and get them to move about. Having said that, it is pretty rare to get your baby sat still for longer than 2 hours so I don't think you'll have too many issues here.
Some cars come with useful elbow rests – this is definitely true in some of the more premium larger cars so if you have a choice, that might be a winner. Holding your baby for a long feed can be tiring and these really do help!
Allow more time for your road trip than you might think
We can't state this one enough, but allow for a lot more time for your road trip than you would if you were travelling without a baby. We found this one out the hard way. What used to be a 5 minute pit stop becomes a 45 minute marathon session of continuous changes and feeds in some crazy unpredictable order.
You might have just left a service station, when your baby screaming on the back seat tells you that you have to stop a mile down the road.
A few delays mean you might stop for lunch where you weren't planning to do so and before you know it, the 3 hour journey you were planning becomes a whole day affair.
From our experience of doing a lot of long drives with a baby in the car, you should allow for your trip to take at least 50% longer than before your family grew by 1. For shorter routes, you might find yourself lucky and not need to make any stops or have a quick change in the middle. But if you're doing a long drive of 200 miles or more, you can easily spend twice as long on the road with the baby in the back of the car.
Better still, try to break up some of the longer legs and plan for a stop somewhere in the middle. Before having kids, we could easily do hundreds of miles in one day. You might still be tempted to get it done - there might be a load of desert to drive through or your plan just means you have one particularly long leg.
Change your plan. Reroute your drive. You will enjoy it a whole lot more if you know you are not racing against the clock and arrive in time to have proper dinner and put your baby to sleep.