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11 Tips To Help You Survive A Road Trip With A Toddler

Tips and strategies for surviving extended car travel with an active toddle. Tips for a road trip with a toddler.

Survive A Road Trip With A Toddler

It was 7AM on the morning of ‘the road trip.’ Our SUV was packed to the gills and the only thing that stood between us and the 8-hour drive to Grandma and Grandpa’s house was the final positioning of ‘le dog’ and ‘le bebe’ in their respective travel pods.

I thought I was hyper-organized because we had even found the time and energy the night before to pick up all of our 1 year old’s toys. In those last minutes of calm, as my daughter decided to play with every. single. toy. she. owned, I realized that I had been foolish.

Moms of toddlers can never truly be organized because you never know which contingency you have to prepare for. All you can do is prep for as many as you can think of and hope that your precious passenger will not dream up new ways to test your limits.

To complicate things on this particular trip, our lovable, but blind, black lab had apparently developed a fear of trucks since the last road trip he had taken with us. As my husband gently shoved him into the middle of the truck next to our daughter, he decided to back into a corner.. the corner being her car seat.

Well, that was helpful.

So, we embarked on our overland journey with our geriatric dog’s butt in our toddler’s face. Not a great start.

An 8-hour road trip with an active toddler is no joke. Fortunately we have discovered a number or road trip tips and hacks that could make your adventure more… pleasant. 

road trip with a toddler

Where to put the car seat

If at all possible, you should try to put your toddler, or the child with the most ‘needs,’ in the seat diagonal from the front seat passenger.

I know this sounds like a no-brainer but if you don’t do it, you will regret it a thousand times over. It is really important for the front seat passenger to have easy access so that when your toddler throws Elmo on the floor for the 10th time in 5 minutes, they can gracefully pick him up and hand him back with the stern, but meaningless, warning that if he is dropped one more time, he would stay on the floor.

If your bundle of energy is directly behind the front seat passenger, Elmo has to stay on the floor unless,

  1. The driver reaches back to fetch Elmo… sending your entire family careening into a ditch, or
  2. The front seat passenger has elbows that bend backwards (or doesn’t mind constantly unbuckling in high speed highway traffic) and can fetch him. 

Pack a Mini-Cooler With Snacks and Drinks

Unless you want to pay $2 for a stick of string cheese at the rest area convenience store, you will want to pack a mini-cooler with snacks and drinks.

There are some areas in the country where driving is pleasant and Mom and Pops restaurants dot the route. If this is your trip, take your time, stop at one of them, and let your kiddo burn off some energy while you enjoy some good eats.

But not every route is that lovely. A lot of times your route will be a string of questionably clean service areas with only fast food options for lunch.

The other advantage of packing a cooler is that if things are going well (aka- your toddler just fell asleep!) and you are hungry but don’t want to stop, you have much more appealing options.


Never underestimate the power of giggling.

Seriously, even one great puppet (we have several… a lion, a pig, and a dragon are the favorites) can cure even a cranky toddler of their road trip blues. Play peek-a-boo, tickle tag, or have the puppet sing a long with your toddler’s favorite songs. Our daughter falls for the puppet play every time. 

Every. Single. Time.

Ziploc Baggies

These little bags have so many uses for a road trip. If your car seat does not come equipped with a cool cup holder (and if it doesn’t you should really invest in one), you can put snack-sized servings of anything in the Ziploc bag and your toddler will be able to hold it in their lap.

Plus, it is more difficult (although far from impossible… vigilance is still a priority) to empty all the contents on the floor in one fell swoop, and there is a certain degree of fun built into opening and closing the bag.

Take off your little traveler’s shoes and socks

Maybe keep the socks on in the Winter. However, the shoes should come off almost immediately.

No shoes=more relaxed toddler.

More relaxed toddler increases the chances of a drowsy toddler, who will fall asleep– giving Mom and Dad at least say, 15 to 20 minutes of calm in the middle of the storm.

Great music CDs/playlist packed with your kid’s faves!

Toddler-favorite music is essential pretty much any time you enter a motorized vehicle with your wee one. Just be prepared to play their favorite songs over and over and over again on a road trip. Towards the end of our trip we had ‘Old MacDonald,’ ‘Farmer in the Dell,’ and the ‘Alphabet Song’ playing on a loop.

And yes, we all sang along… loudly. With much enthusiasm.

It was better than the blood curdling scream.

Portable DVD Player

I am saving the two best suggestions for last. The portable DVD player is one of the two things that consistently saves road trips for us. At just the right time, Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato start singing and dancing. Our daughter was mesmerized. Thank you Lord for the Veggie Tales. Phew!

Toddler Friendly Apps on your smartphone or tablet

What did parents do before the invention of smart phones and tablets? Seriously? As with the DVD player, a tablet always saves the day. It is cool enough that your kid will have second thoughts about dropping it and the games, videos, or even the pictures on the tablet will keep your kid suitably happy for at least an hour. That is an eternity in road trip time.

Some apps we love for toddlers include:

  • Endless Alphabet
  • Pet Doctor
  • Pepi Bath
  • Pepi Doctor
  • Animal Sounds
  • Daniel Tiger
  • PBS Kids
  • Magic Doodle
  • Sing Along Apps like Old MacDonald

What about the items that did not work?

Well, I have a small list of those items too. In most cases, I think they didn’t work for our daughter because either she is too young or because she is a very active toddler. So, don’t write them off. If they work for your little one, congratulations!— I am insanely jealous!

Any kind of coloring- I had the magic markers, the travel coloring desk, etc… Sweet Pea threw it on the ground after 30 seconds and pitched a fit when I tried to give it back to her. Maybe it is because she is still not coloring well. I bet this will be a great road trip activity next year.

The car seat travel tray- I had grand plans to strap the tray to our daughter’s car seat and then give her gifts every 20 to 30 minutes. A baggie of little cars, a Minnie Mouse paper doll kit, etc… She took the top off the travel tray, played with it for 2 minutes and then threw a tantrum until I unbuckled the rest of the contraption. It sat on the floor of the truck the rest of the trip.

Any kind of book- Our toddler loves books. She loves reading them to her stuffed animals and babies. She loves it when we read to her. However, when faced with the prospect of extended car seat time, the books just didn’t cut it. I even had a few of the really cool ‘lift-the-flap’ books. Yeah, they were tossed within minutes.

What tried and true tips do you have for traveling with a toddler? Let me know!

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