Cross Country Road Trip With A Baby and a toddler

How To Thrive on a Long Road Trip With a Baby and a Toddler (Without Screens)

Tips from a mama who just did a 22 day, 5000 mile road trip with a baby and a toddler (ages 8 months and almost 3 years).

road trip with a baby and a toddler: illinois to california map

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I titled this article “how to thrive” because not only did we survive this long cross country road trip, we actually had a phenomenal time! I was so worried about the kids but they ended up doing amazing. I believe this is because of our extensive research and planning and I’m here today to share all the details and all our top tips and tricks.

A quick note about our family & screens:

Let me start by sharing we are a tablet free household and do very limited screen time (~1.5 hours per week of select slow pace shows).

I introduced screen time to my toddler after her second birthday and saw a negative shift in her behavior. Since switching to these less overstimulating shows, she plays much better independently and handles her emotions better too. No judgement from me if you choose to use screens, but you will not receive any screen recommendations here. If you are interested in doing a screen detox & learning more I highly recommend following Jerrica Sannes.

We did our entire 22 day trip without screens in the car. In total transparency, we did do 30 minutes of screen time 4 times on the trip when we needed our toddler to stay out of what we were packing.

I’m proud of my toddler, she handled the long drives so well. She had her first and only meltdown about driving on day 20, and that was after 3 days of long drives and not enough stops to play (it was freezing!). She had a fit because we left a playground after only 15 minutes because we were so underdressed. We resolved this by taking a day off and playing at an indoor children’s museum and that made all the difference.

This leads me right into one of our top tips for a successful cross country road trip with a baby and a toddler: FLEX DAYS.

Having flex day(s) makes traveling even smoother because you can lengthen or shorten the driving days as needed. We had 3 flex days available on our 22 day trip but we only used 1 (meaning the trip could have been 24 days).

Next up, let’s talk about how to actually keep your toddler entertained in the car without screens!

How do I keep my 2 year old entertained on a road trip?

You might be asking yourself, how in the world do you keep your toddler busy on a long road trip…

These are the tools/activities we used that kept us sane:

How do I organize my car for road trip with a toddler (& a baby)?

toy car with suitcases stacked on top

We used back of the seat organizers like this one from Amazon to hold some favorite books and toys. Then, in the backseat between the kids were their 2 backpacks filled with books and toys. On the floor between the seats we kept a cooler accessible (by me) with snacks and drinks.

I also kept a bunch of small new toys (the gel clings, flash cards, books, crayons, etc) in my backpack to pull out when my toddler was bored and we were trying to get an extra hour or so of driving in. This was clutch! Stock up at the dollar store or Target dollar spot before you go on your trip. I kept the backpack at my feet in the passenger seat.

Meals on the road

One of our main goals was to not have to eat out 3 meals a day. We accomplished this by packing a box of nonperishable food items in our trunk and replenishing fruits and vegetables for the cooler every few days.

Breakfast items we packed included cereal, quick oats, chia seeds & canned coconut milk for chia pudding, and granola.

Lunch items we packed included bread, peanut butter, bananas, cheese, crackers, salami’s, etc.

For snacks we had fruit, veggies & hummus, trail mix (for the adults), animal cookies, goldfish, natural fruit snacks, veggie stix, yogurt covered pretzels, etc.

By packing all of this food we were able to save money and have lots of picnic lunches! We did eat out dinner most nights as we didn’t have the ability to cook in most of the hotels we stayed in, and it was a vacation and nice break from cooking for me.

Our toddler road trip essentials

  • SNACKS (can’t be said enough… if you know, you know!)
  • toys
  • books
  • games
  • comfy clothes
  • portable potty
  • water bottle
  • wipes
  • lap tray

Our baby road trip essentials

  • toys (stacking cups, crinkly books, bandana pals)
  • sippy for water
  • bottles
  • pouches/food
  • diapers
  • wipes

Road trip packing list for toddler

These are the packing lists I developed for our road trip. Obviously I personalized them with our specific lovey’s and the seasonal clothing required. We did encounter a huge variety of temperatures on this trip and found the most success by packing individual suitcases with clothes for each season or temperature range. That way at each hotel or house we stayed at we could just pull out one suitcase and one toiletries bag, instead of one bag per person.

Printable Packing List: Toddler Edition

Road trip packing list for baby

Printable Packing List: Baby Edition

Check out the blank version of this packing list here.

Our favorite road trip with toddler hacks

toddler road trip
Finding awesome parks along the way was so much fun!
  • Have a stash of cheap new toys/activities to pull out as needed
  • Reusable plastic trays like these ones to serve lunch in (so they can hold it in their lap)
  • Make your stops at playgrounds so they can burn a lot of energy & have a nice break from their car seat

The best time to leave for a road trip with a toddler and a baby

In our experience the best time to leave for a road trip with a toddler and a baby is first thing in the morning! We didn’t wake our kids early because we wanted them to get as much night sleep as possible in their beds as it’s their best quality rest. We would pack up our bags, get them ready and try to do the majority of our driving early in the day. The kids are naturally in their best moods at that time, and the baby has less wake time between his naps in the morning.

For the long days we would aim to drive 2-3 hours for the first stretch and then 1-2 hour segments afterwards. We found 4-5 hours to be very manageable. The days longer than that were significantly more work (more stops, more snacks, more entertainment), but with the tips and tricks above we made it work!

Summary of our top road trip with a baby and a toddler tips:

Plan your route knowing your kids (you know best what they can handle!)

Have flex day(s) so you can adjust if the kids are having an off day

Keep a stash of toys and novel activities for your toddler

Take lots of breaks (preferable at parks)

Drive at nap time as much as possible (baby & toddler)

Have lots of exciting snacks available & within reach

Use a white noise machine for car naps

Manage your expectations (it won’t all be sunshine and rainbows) & have fun!

For more tips & another perspective check out these 5 things to help you survive a family car ride.

Enjoy your road trip with a baby and a toddler using these tips & tricks 🙂

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