Sanity-Saving Hacks for Roadtripping Solo With Small Children

My house is a mess of unpacking, my writing is behind schedule – can you guess that my family and I have just spent the past few weeks on various road trips?

For many families, summer means travel. But the reality is that in two-parent households, parents can’t always coordinate limited vacation time with other summer priorities. For this and other reasons, you may find yourself taking one or more car trips with your offspring, but minus the help of another grown-up, in the next few months.

I took my first copilot-less car trip with my girls, to visit my mother, when Essie was just an infant. Advance prep definitely helped the drive go more smoothly than it otherwise might have. And the more times I do this, the easier it gets – partly because the girls are getting older, but partly because I keep figuring out new things to make the process less daunting.

If this summer marks the first time you’ll be roadtripping solo with your little ones, here are six sanity-saving hacks to consider ahead of time:

Neck pillows at the ready? Toys returned to a bin between carseats? Cups freshly filled and leashed? Yep, the backseat is ready to roll.
Stocked and ready to roll.

1. Stock the back seat

Especially if your car doesn’t have a backseat DVD player. Before our trip, I always clean out my car’s backseat, to retrieve all those toys that have gone missing. I also swap out some of the toys and books I find, and sometimes add a few new ones to the mix (more on this below).

In addition, I make sure that the girls’ travel neck pillows are within reach, and their water cups are freshly filled and leashed. While they’re beyond sippy cups in day-to-day living, I keep a leakproof sippy cup in the car for each of them, because I prefer this route to a moldering back seat that’s spent too many damp days in the hot summer sun (been there, done that) thanks to a stray cup left on its side.

Just as important, I keep said cups securely attached to their car seats with BooginHead straps. It’s bad enough when you’re tripping around town doing errands to hear whining from the back seat about dropped cups; but believe me, back-seat complaining is the last thing you want to deal  with when you’re negotiating a long stretch of busy highway. Beverage leashes are one way to cut down on potential sources of griping.

While we’re on the topic of the back seat,

2. Consider your (and their) roadtrip entertainment options

If you plan on using a built-in DVD player, make sure your movie picks are both ready to go, and something you can handle listening to for the whole drive. If your kids love playing on your iPhone or tablet (or their own, for that matter), make sure that you can manage both electronic game noises for hours on end, and mediating any fights that break out over taking turns with each other’s gadgets. (And keep in mind that since your primary job is getting everyone to their destination safely, your ability to mediate backseat fights will be limited at best.)

Given the potential drawbacks of these 21st-century options, you might want to try something different. There are plenty of children’s albums out there that make for tolerable listening for kids and adults alike; if you save these for long car trips, that will help to make them even more special. (Alternately, you can put an album on in the backseat while listening to your own podcast or playlist from your smartphone or MP3 player in the front.) Or consider an audio story; check your local library for options.

Even better, you can go more old-school than that: as you’re ready to depart, give your offspring a new picture or story book, a new coloring book and colored pencils, or some Wikki Stix as a special treat to speed your journey. If your kids are older, you can even play “I spy” or old-fashioned roadtrip games (e.g., locating the letters of the alphabet in order on road signs) to help pass the time.

3) Think about your kids’ best travel hours, and plan your stops

early-morning traffic
Notice the near-empty roads. Alas, getting my kids out the door before sunup is just not doable, especially when I’m the only grownup involved.

It takes me six hours of drive time (not counting stops or traffic delays) to get from home to my mother’s house. Personally, I prefer driving first thing in the morning. But when I’m alone with my little ones, getting out of the house at the crack of dawn is often not realistic, and leaving at a more doable hour of the morning subjects us to both morning and afternoon rush hour at key metro areas along our route.

So instead, I now try to time my trips so that we arrive later in the evening. We stop every two hours, avoiding rush hour traffic in the process. Then, after they eat their evening meal, we do as much of the bedtime routine on the road as possible. I pack up a special “bedtime bag” for our final rest stop, containing everything from pajamas and toothbrushes to “friends” and blankets. (The oversized muslin swaddling blankets from Swaddle Designs are lightweight, pack up small, and come in patterns cool enough that I’ve been known to use them on vacation as a scarf or wrap.) Before we get back into the car, each girl puts on her PJs, brushes her teeth, and makes one final trip to the potty.

Once we’re back at the car, I “tuck them in” to their car seats, complete with stuffed animal, blankets, and car neck pillow. After that, I sing them lullabies as we resume the drive, and they take this as their cue to go to sleep. By that point in the trip, chances are good that I’m ready for some peace and quiet anyway, so having the final few hours with my thoughts to myself is bliss.

When you're the only grownup, having snacks on the passenger front seat at the ready saves drive time lost by pulling over and fumbling around until you can find things to munch on.
When you’re the only adult, keeping snacks handy on the passenger front seat means less drive time lost by pulling over and fumbling around until you can find them.

4) Make a food plan

It’s also a good idea to think ahead of time about what each of you will eat for the entire duration of the trip. If you’re OK with your kids snacking in the backseat, then have not-too-messy snacks ready to go for them, and easily accessible. (My favorite is plain rice cakes, which tend not to crumble into microscopic crumbs like Cheerios or crackers do. Depending on your kids’ ages, though, think carefully about things that could be potential choking or stuffing-up-one’s-nose hazards.)

I usually pack our cooler bag at Essie's feet, next to our eating-out bag, so it's easy for me to grab when we stop, but hard for the girls to reach when they're strapped in.
I usually place our cooler bag at Essie’s feet, next to our eating-out bag – so it’s easy for me to grab when we stop, but hard for the girls to reach when they’re strapped in.

In fact, if your little ones are under school age or otherwise need constant tending, consider bringing all your food with you, instead of planning to buy stuff on the road. Remember, there won’t be anyone else to stay at the table with them while you’re over on the other side of the food court, waiting in line at the fast-food counter behind a busload of people. Moreover, juggling multiple little ones plus diaper bags is already hard enough, without adding a tray or two into the mix.

Likewise, bringing your food with you (and an age-appropriate version of an eating-out bag) means you can eat whenever opportunity strikes. Your kids are ready for lunch in the middle of nowhere? Great! – pull over and have a picnic. (If the weather is at all conducive, I recommend eating outside anyway; it will be a treat for your kids, and they can run around and burn off energy afterward.) On the other hand, if you’re ready for some food and your kids have just dozed off, you can munch away (provided you do so carefully!) without stopping the car and waking them up, if you’ve planned ahead for this possibility.

Unlike me, my husband is NOT keen on people eating in his car. So when he took his first solo road trip with them a few weeks ago, all they got (besides their water) was the occasional mint to suck on. He’d warned them ahead of time that this would be the deal, and he reported that they ate their lunch in record time at the rest stop because they were actually hungry for it.

family rest stop5) Also think about the logistics of your stops

If you’re the only parent with an infant, a two-year-old, a diaper bag, sippy cups, etc., are you seriously going to want to lug that carseat around with you as you navigate a rest stop? Perhaps it’s worth throwing a stroller or baby sling in the car after all, even if you’d planned on leaving them at home – if only because you won’t have enough hands otherwise. (See also my point above about trying to manage trays of fast food along with your offspring.) Likewise, make sure the option you pack is easily accessible when you get to your stop.

If weather permits, might you plan a stop that involves a stretch of grass where your kiddos can run (or crawl) around and burn off some energy? Spending an extra fifteen minutes on your rest stop can make the next stretch of your drive much more pleasant. More than once, I’ve instructed my kiddos to run laps back and forth between two trees, so that when the time comes to sit for another few hours straight, they’ll be rest stop sign

And if you’re a daddy traveling solo with his daughter(s), as my husband was a few weeks ago, it’s especially important to try to investigate the bathroom options ahead of time. Fortunately for him, as he knew from our many previous trips to his parents’ house, the highway rest stop halfway between our home and his parents’ has a number of “family restrooms.” If you’re not comfortable changing, say, the diaper of a two-and-a-half-year-old girl in the men’s room, or sending a four-year-old into the women’s room by herself, then these are things worth contemplating – and planning around – in advance.

6) Above all, consider establishing ground rules

rush-hour trafficThis is something I learned the hard way from experience. When you’re the only grown-up in the car and traffic is heavy, there’s nothing worse than whining and complaining from the back seat.

Most of the ideas I’ve suggested so far are designed to minimize the amount of flak your backseat cargo try to give you on the ride. Let’s face it, long car rides can be incredibly boring; who can blame kiddos when they get sick of being cooped up? But their boredom does not change the fact that the driver cannot drive safely while running backseat interference.

This is why I’ve found ground rules to be a priceless addition to solo car trips with the girls. Before we get into the car, they each get one last snack and one last potty trip (even if they vehemently protest against the latter). After they’re all buckled in, I make sure they’re settled into some amusement, whether it’s their new book or a rediscovered toy. I have each one confirm for me that she can reach her water, pillow, and anything else her little heart might desire in the foreseeable future.

Since Kimmie is older and has longer arms, her road-trip amusements live inside a tote bag, which hangs off the headrest of the seat in front of her.
Since Kimmie is older and has longer arms, her road-trip amusements live inside a tote bag, which hangs off the headrest of the seat in front of her.

Next we do a status check out loud: They are fed. They are toileted. They have water, toys, and pillows. I ask them several times if there is ANYTHING else they need before we start driving. (This is usually when one of them picks out the soundtrack for the first part of our trip.)

I then remind them of My Job and The Rules.

My Job: I am the Driver. I am NOT the Backseat Concierge, especially when the car is in motion. I cannot retrieve lost toys for them, get them more water, or do anything else for them while the car is in motion. Their Job, therefore, is to take care of themselves. Anything that interrupts me from driving – whether arguments from the back seat, requests for lost toys, or children unbuckling themselves while the car is moving – is dangerous, and will cause me to pull over the car until the problem is resolved. This just makes the trip longer for everyone, and makes everyone unhappy.

So if they don’t want me to pull over, The Rules are simple: they need to handle their own problems and let me drive. Otherwise, I pull over (and related, get unhappy) – and when Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

Since I started doing this “final check” and “jobs reminder” before each stretch of a trip, my solo car trips with the girls have been oh-so-much more peaceful. They are more likely to let me focus on driving, and they’re a lot better at following the strange rules of solo car trips, when Mama is no longer their default go-to person even though she’s the only adult around.

So if you’re facing your first solo adventure by car with your offspring this summer, take heart! – with some careful planning, you’ll soon be an old pro, too. On the other hand, if you’re already a veteran of this genre of travel, do let us know in the comments what your secrets are for making roadtripping solo with little ones more pleasant for everyone involved.

Here’s wishing you safe and happy travels this summer!

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