Our First Road Trip with Baby

I admit it.  Our first road trip with Louise was not optimal.  But we really learned a lot that should help us travel more easily down the road (ba dum bump). We had Louise mid-2019, and decided that we were staying home the following holiday season to keep our life as simple as possible.  So, by the time 2020 rolled around, we hadn’t gone further than 45 minutes from the house as a family.  Then COVID-19 hit and the trips to visit family that we had begun planning for March and April were cancelled.  In the peak of summer, we decided that with enough precautions, we could safely drive from Virginia to Georgia to visit family over the fourth of July.  With those careful safety measures and good luck, we were able to stay safe from coronavirus while away from home.  But we didn’t do everything optimally along the way.  Here are some of our lessons learned and best practices to make our next road trip with a now one-year-old easier on the whole family.  

We DEFINITELY over-packed.  

Whether from fear of not having enough of our things and wanting to avoid having to go to the store or from wanting to ensure Louise had every creature comfort of home to help her eat, sleep, and play well, we took way too many things with us.  

Before having the baby, we used to road-trip like champions.  We could drive 600 miles in under 9 hours to visit one set of relatives, or expertly navigate the 1200 miles to visit another set.  We each had our small suitcase (not expanded), a bag for the dog, her bed and crate, a snack bag, and a cooler (plus pre-wrapped gifts if the visit was at the holidays).  When we arrived, it was two quick trips to unload the car, and we’d arrived with everything we needed to enjoy time with our family.  Not anymore.

Our road trip vehicle of choice was my husband’s truck.  The inside of the cab is bigger than the seating space in my mid-size SUV and the truck bed holds twice as much cargo as my car’s trunk.  We managed to pack the truck to the brim for this week-long trip to stay with family.  I had never traveled while nursing.  I’m sure that’s why I needed far more options for clothing than usual…  The baby might spit up every day or make a mess of her solid-food meals, so 20+ outfits sounded appropriate for her…  I did the math to determine we needed 8 diapers per day times 8 days = 64 diapers, so let’s just round up to an entire box of 130 (plus a full box of 800 wipes)!  Even though Grandma has books and toys at her house already for Louise, she needed all of her typical favorite toys plus a few lesser-played-with toys to ensure she stayed entertained on the drive each way.  Louise was expanding her solid food consumption, so it made sense to pack ALL the snacks we had, just in case!  She needed both the play yard and activity center so that we would have options of where to put her down to play independently (Grandma’s house is not baby-proofed) when someone wasn’t actively engaged with her (as if that was going to happen regularly on her first trip to their house).  We can’t live without sparkling water, so let’s take an entire case with us.  The list goes on.  

Needless to say, I didn’t wear half the clothes I packed, same for Louise (having also done laundry at the grandparents house for our favorites); we brought back half a box of diapers and three quarters of a box of wipes; she played with most of her own toys and books for less than 10 minutes each; she played independently in the activity center only very briefly before crying to be freed; and we still had a full case of sparkling water in the last two days of the trip because we never bothered to open it and refrigerate some.  It was challenging to effectively rotate toys to Louise during the car ride because her toy bin was so full in the middle seat.  The few stops we made were more difficult than expected in order to unpack and repack what was needed for the stop.

Next time we road trip, we’ll pack considerably fewer things.  We’ll acknowledge both our favorite outfits for the season and that Grandma and Grandpa’s washer and dryer work just fine.  We’ll trust that the toys Grandma already has for Louise are perfect for while we’re there and only pack her favorites for the car ride.  We can believe ourselves on the diapers and wipes math, and maybe round up by adding 1-2 days’ worth of supplies rather than 2X.  If we really must have sparkling water, I can add it to the grocery list my mom asked for in advance.  Packing half as much stuff would have vastly improved our trip’s efficiency.

We traveled at the wrong (and then right) time of day. 

The 600 mile trip usually takes us about 9 hours with 1 fifteen-minute stop for gas, restroom, and a meal.  We knew it would be different adding a baby to the group.  We were in the middle of transitioning to solids so she would take solids and breastmilk at each “meal” separated by an hour while we were at home.  We didn’t know how that would go on the road, but we knew we’d have to allow for plenty of stops.  We also assumed she would sleep just fine in her car seat.  She’s a great sleeper most of the time, so why would the car be any different (other than the motion, noise, lights, and buckled position…)? James would drive, the dog would be buckled into the front seat, and I would sit in the back with Lou.

On the way down to Georgia, our plan was to leave at 1pm, to give Louise about half an hour to settle into the car before drifting off to a peaceful nap at her usual 1:30 nap time.  Then we would stop at 3pm and 6pm to feed her and take care of our other needs, playing in the car in the middle.  And when we hit the road again around 6:30, she would blissfully go down for the night and sleep for the rest of the car ride, arriving at the grandparents’ house between 11 and 12pm.  Wow, were we naive!  

What actually happened wasn’t entirely different, but it was different enough in meaningful ways to greatly increase the stress level of the trip for me.  In hindsight, it all makes sense too.  We were a little late getting out the door.  We got in the car with a tired and unhappy Louise at 1:40, confused as to why she was getting locked into her carseat leaving her comfy bed behind and later than she liked to already be asleep.  Our original plan hadn’t expected her to immediately fall asleep, but leaving late, she then got overtired while settling into the car ride, before finally napping around 2:30.  She slept about an hour.  Not bad for the unsettling environment.  At 3:30, we made it to a rest stop, set up the play yard, and tried to feed Louise.  She was having none of it.  She was still tired, hungry, and too warm (did I mention it’s the peak heat of late afternoon in early July?).  After stretching her legs in the heat and then letting her cool off in the car’s AC, she finally ate.  We hit the road again at about 4:30, 45 minutes after stopping.  

We drove 2 hours, with toy after toy and book after book being tossed aside in a tired complaint.  Stopping again for her evening meal, we set up the play yard and struggled with the same “too hot to eat” issue before returning to the truck to blast the AC and give Louise her evening bottle (once we got back in the car, I pumped for the evening while on the road).  Around 7:30, we got back on the road, still expecting our tuckered baby to easily sleep the remaining 300 miles.  After much crying and literal hand-holding, she drifted in and out of sleep, content enough as long as I held her hand, never sleeping deeply enough to miss noticing me trying to pull away.  We managed to make it without stopping again, a little after midnight, all exhausted and hypervigilant from the journey.

Since sleeping was the primary anxiety-inducing issue of the car ride to Georgia, on the return trip, we tried something different.  We intended to leave at 9am, giving a similar 30 minute buffer to settle before hoping she would nap at 9:30 and that we would make it home before bedtime.  We again ran about 40 minutes behind schedule, but Louise was able to get a nap in closer to her usual time.  We stopped one extra time on this car ride, but managed to make it about 45 minutes from home before she became really uncomfortable.  Lou got two short naps in and ate well enough on each of the stops.  In the last 45 minutes of the trip, her primary discomfort was hunger for an early dinner, so we snacked in the car before finally, joyfully, pulling into the driveway and going directly to her usual bedtime routine. 

We learned that although getting two naps in the car was tricky, driving earlier in the day was easier than hoping she’d settle in for the night by not leaving until the afternoon.  Next time, perhaps we’ll try hitting the road even a little earlier.  Although, by the time of our next trip, she’ll be on a whole new toddler schedule.

Despite the challenges, the trip went well!

We will do some things differently the next time we take Lou on a road trip, but overall, the trip was a success.  Yes, we overpacked, but at the same time, we had plenty of diapers, wipes, toys, books, and clothes to not have to worry about running out of something at a very unfortunate time.  We had snacks and sandwiches in the cooler in the car to make our stops that much more efficient by not having to purchase food along the way.  The activity center was probably overkill, but we’re so glad we had the foam mat for Lou’s clumsy stage of pulling up on everything and subsequently falling down and the play yard to create a safe space in an entirely un-babyproofed house.  The white noise machine in the car helped drown out some of the road noise to make naps a little more tolerable for Lou, even if going down for the night was less realistic.  Driving long distance with a baby is never simple, but with good planning, we look forward to our next trip being even more manageable.

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