How I Survived a Road Trip with a One-Year-Old

Road trip with a baby

I’ll admit it. When I got an invite for a family reunion that overlapped with Little Monster’s first birthday, I mostly had a foreboding sense of uh oh. The reunion was either a 13-hour drive away or a two-hour flight, but flights were priced pretty high. We decided to drive, but how exactly were we going to survive a road trip with a one-year-old??

Suzi wrote up a piece about how she survived the same drive as she makes it every year with her monsters. I scoured her advice. Some of it applied well – we definitely brought along a couple devices, we made sure we had water for all of us, and snacks flowed through our car like there was no tomorrow.

Use nap time wisely

If you have a baby who naps in the car (I don’t), then use that nap time to get as far as possible! I have heard tales of babies who take even longer naps than they do at home in the car because it’s so peaceful and soothing. If you have a baby or toddler who absolutely hates driving long distances but sleeps well in the car, you could even drive only during naps and after baby’s bedtime at night. Or, if you have a baby like mine who doesn’t sleep well anywhere other than her crib, then accept that nap time is adapt time while you’re traveling. In our case, her normally two-hour naps went down to a half hour and that’s all she would do in the car all day long. We moved bedtime up a bit and just drove as long as she (and we) had patience for it in the day.

Box of Toys for Road Trip
Toys that take some figuring out or some time are best. Or try making your own busy board like I did, only to find out it was not nearly as Pinteresting as I’d dreamed.

Don’t chance things with gas

For one thing, I didn’t know my car had a setting that told me how many miles of gas were left in my tank. I live in the future! I have always refilled my tank at a quarter tank on road trips, but occasionally I like to get a little wild and get close to the E. If you have kids in the car, I would not play games with the gas. Getting stranded on the freeway shoulder waiting for AAA isn’t especially fun as an adult, but I imagine it’s even less entertaining with young children or a baby. I had planned to refill at the half tank or quarter tank without fail…but my car tells me how much gas is left and that took all the adventure out of gas gymnastics for me.

Pack a box of toys and snacks

The best tip I have for surviving a road trip with a one-year-old is to bring along new toys. Granted, my baby thinks toys are the bee’s knees, the best thing since sliced bread, the end all be all of babyhood. If she spots a toy or anything that looks remotely like a toy, she is instantly reinvigorated and NEEDS to touch the toy with every fiber of her being. So I brought along toys, but more than that, I brought along new toys. It was her birthday week, after all. So I spent some time on Amazon tooling around the toy section to find not only new toys, but toys that took some figuring out to keep that baby busy, but also weren’t huge and heavy. Highlights of our new toy stash included the Fisher-Price Fidget Cube, Never Touch a Monster (a board book filled with super interesting silicone touches), That’s Not My Panda (another touchey book), a Vtech Rhyme and Discover book, and a plastic ball with a small bell inside of it that looks like I bought it at PetSmart, but I swear it’s a baby toy.

There were more. That box was full. I also filled it with snacks (Cheerios, yogurt bites, goldfish crackers, etc). About every 15-60 minutes, something new got handed into the backseat to keep Little Monster’s faith in life restored.

Road tripping with one year old
Little Monster quite literally clapped anytime we stopped the car.

Have someone sit in the backseat

I love driving. Daddy isn’t as much of a road trip fan. So we divided and conquered. He sat in the back for bonus entertainment, which is probably not possible for everyone, but it worked well for us. If you’ve got extra troops to deploy, deploy them! Had I been alone and handing entertainment into the backseat, I can assure you that Little Monster would have flung each and every new toy and snack out of her car seat and that the trip would not have been nearly as smooth. What helps more than anything with managing a baby or toddler is simply having a set of extra hands to retrieve wayward toys and save the day. If at all possible, don’t do a road trip with kids alone!

Don’t be afraid to use screens

Okay, sure, screens aren’t always recommended for kids, but even if you’re a die-hard no-screens user, just know that screens work well when your baby or toddler just can’t take it anymore. Because even if you have a calm baby who can handle the car seat for a long time, there will come a time when she just can’t do it anymore and you have to put on some Elmo before she dedicates her life to figuring out how to unbuckle herself and homestead in Boise, Idaho. We brought along a portable DVD player that we scored for free on our local Buy Nothing group in prep for the trip and then got a bunch of Sesame Street DVDs and Moana from our local library, so our on-board entertainment didn’t even cost us anything. We saved it until we needed it, but we did need it.

Stop places baby will enjoy too

Children's Museum of Eastern Oregon
I would rather have stopped at a fossil bed, but Little Monster loved this children’s museum.

Maybe you’re like me and those brown signs along freeways fill your heart with joy. A fossil bed? Oh yeah! A historical cabin? Sign me up! A place where Lewis and Clark stopped and stared at a river? Yes, please! But Little Monster had very little interest in these things and didn’t appreciate the finer points of history that I tried to explain to her AT ALL. Plus, she decided to nap while we were passing that fossil bed and her sleep was so horrible on the trip that I didn’t want to chance waking her. I’m still bitter.

Don’t discount the entertainment needs of little ones even if they’re small. It can go a long way to work in stops for them too. We spotted a sign for the Children’s Museum of Eastern Oregon in Pendleton and pulled over. We didn’t even need to venture into the museum (older toddlers or kids would love it, though), but there was a small toy store at the entrance that our daughter enjoyed. We bought her a little maraca so she and daddy could jam in the backseat. Not only was the stop a nice change of pace for her, but it also added to our cache of toys in the front seat.

Be prepared with bribes

We actually had a pretty successful road trip overall. Little Monster handled being in her car seat for a long time well, but toward the end of each driving day, she’d had it. We pulled over to stop regularly, but at the end of the day, getting her back into the car seat without tears took some finesse. Actually, it took that beautiful, new maraca.

Now…if only we could figure out how to get her to sleep in hotels, travel might be pretty awesome.