Small children frequently like the idea of a car trip better than they like the reality. They love to go somewhere. They just hate the process of getting there. It’s hard for them to sit still. They can only sit beside a sibling for so long before a squabble breaks out. Their sense of time seems to deteriorate the minute you pull out of the driveway. To add insult to injury, some children get carsick and not all children have their own iPad.
So how can you make it easier to take a road trip with small children?
First, be realistic about how many hours of driving the children can handle. You may want to make it halfway across the country in one day, but eight hours on the road is much more reasonable for small children.
Secondly, think about your own sleep. Small children can have a hard time falling asleep when they’re not in a familiar space. If you drive for hours while they sleep in their car seats, when you arrive at your destination you are going to be tired. Your children, on the other hand, will be in an unfamiliar place in an unfamiliar bed. They will likely be wide awake.
Once you know how many hours you plan to drive and when you hope to sleep, it’s time to plan for the drive itself. Will you stop the car for your meals so the children can run off steam? Or will you hit up a drive through and keep moving? If the children don’t get to run around during the trip, they’re going to need to run around after you arrive. If there’s a pool you can take advantage of at the end of the drive, great. Just don’t expect to lie on the bed and watch TV when you get there if you haven’t stopped at all along the way. Even if you do stop, they may need more exercise at the end of the day.
Very young children don’t experience time in the same way that adults do. Until the age of 7 or 8 they’re still developing their ability to estimate lengths of time. This is why they ask over and over “when will we get there?” If you answer “In eight hours”, they aren’t able to understand how long that is. In order to help children understand and manage the long hours in the car, it helps if you can give them something sooner than the end of the trip to look forward to. This helps them mark off the time as you get closer to your destination. You could measure the time in movies:
“We’ll be there in one “Frozen”, two “Shreks” and a “Mary Poppins”…….
If you don’t have an iPad or a car video system, you can purchase small gifts as “trip presents” to be doled out every couple of hours, interspersed with snacks on the off hours. It’s easier for a small child to accept and understand an hour of waiting than it is to grasp the time it takes to drive for an entire day. Gifts can also give them something to play with and entertain themselves along the way. As with any gifts for young children, stay away from anything with small parts that could be a choking hazard.
Potty breaks will be much more frequent when traveling with small children. There is no easy solution, but it helps if you make them a shared experience. If one child goes, everyone goes. Another way to minimize stops is to limit drinks to water only. Other types of drinks will only lead to more potty breaks. If the drink itself doesn’t create more trips to the bathroom (think apple juice) the taste can cause the children to drink for taste rather than thirst, thereby creating the need for more stops.
If your child struggles with car sickness, here are a few suggestions:
Have a bag ready with wet wipes, and a change of clothes to lessen the stress when the inevitable happens.
Booster seats help the child see out the window. Avoid prolonged electronic use that causes the child to look down and not out the window. If a curvy road is coming up then ask the child to look outside the window.
Avoid perfumes and smoking in the car.
If the child is old enough for over-the-counter medications, give them 30-60 minutes prior to departure. Treat again according to directions. Keep in mind that most over-the-counter medications cause drowsiness.
Cool air can help (think fan) and don’t keep the car too hot.
Ask the child to slow their breathing down and relax when they become nauseated.
Accupressure wrist bands can sometimes be helpful.
Would it be easier to fly? Probably. But flying isn’t always affordable, and in some circumstances it can be even worse than driving. All it takes is one long layover or one missed flight transfer with children and a road trip starts to look better and better.