Taking a road trip this summer? If so, you're not alone. A Trip Advisor survey found that 89 percent of respondents are planning a vacation, with many driving to their destinations. And there are bound to be lots of people braving the open road with young kids in tow.
Before you start envisioning hours of minivan meltdowns and being asked "Are we there yet?" know that you can have a stress-free road trip with your little ones.
"My husband and I did one with three young kids, and I was eight months pregnant!" says Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a family physician in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "It's all about adjusting your expectations and planning for as much as you can in advance." With that in mind, check out these tips to make sure your family has a smooth ride.
- Check the car. No one wants to deal with a breakdown, but getting stranded with toddlers is a true disaster. Be sure your tires (including the spare) are in good shape, and that everything from the windshield wipers to the air-conditioning system is up to par. And if you're in the market for a new car that you'll use for family vacations, please look at Edmunds' Top Family Road Trip Vehicles.
If you don't have a roadside assistance plan, such as AAA, consider signing up before you leave. You can also download EmergenSee, a free app that transforms your smartphone into a personal security system by allowing users to stream live video, audio and GPS location and tracking to selected contacts or public safety officers during a time of distress.
- Strap them in safely. Dr. Sophie J. Balk, attending pediatrician at The Children's Hospital at Montefiore in New York, suggests getting car and booster seats checked before the trip to ensure they're installed properly. You can search for an inspection location in your area at SeatCheck.org, or simply call your local fire station. Most offer this service free of charge.
Also, remember that the American Academy of Pediatrics now suggests that children under 2 years old stay rear-facing in their car seat, and Balk cautions parents to keep their kids strapped in whenever the car is in motion.
"Moms might be tempted to sit in the backseat and take the baby out to breastfeed or if he gets fussy, but you never know when a crash can take place," Balk says. "If the kids get hungry or need a break, just pull over at the next rest stop."
- Put together a first-aid kit. Pack it with Band-Aids, antiseptic ointment, fever reducer, any medications your kids may need and even toilet paper (you never know when a public restroom might be out).
- Leave at the right time. "If your child sleeps well in the car, consider leaving at bedtime, or in the wee hours of the morning," says Jennifer Durbin, author of Baby Traveling Tips for The Clueless Chick. "Just strap them into their car seat in their PJs and hit the road."
At the very least, Gilboa says, try to time your departure with morning nap time so the kids will sleep some of the way.
- Make them comfy. Whether it's their favorite pair of pajamas or shorts and T-shirts, dress the kiddies in something they'll enjoy wearing. Balk also recommends bringing along some security items, such as a prized stuffed animal, blanket and even pillows.
- Arrange sensible seating. If you have a minivan, plan the seating wisely. "Place siblings that squabble and wind each other up in separate rows," says Cindy Richards, editor of TravelingMom.com. "It's much less stressful for the driving parent."
- Bring along snacks. The healthier, the better, says children's packing and travel expert Rachel Stephens, co-founder of TrendyKid. "You want to limit the amount of sugar, since you don't want too much energy on a car journey," she explains. Think rice cakes, Cheerios, raisins, bananas and Goldfish crackers.
Stephens also suggests packing electrolyte water made for kids: It hydrates more quickly and stays in the body longer, meaning fewer potty stops.
- Pack a potty, just in case your little one just can't make it to the next rest stop. Such models as the Kalencom 2-in1 Potette are inexpensive, easy to clean and fold up nicely. It's a good idea to test-drive a potty with kids before the trip to be sure they're comfortable using it.
- Plot out some fun. There is nothing that turns a frown upside-down more than a surprise, says Tom Gilmore, CEO and founder of VacationHomeRentals.com. "Planning stops at fun locations, like candy stores or an amusement park, will keep your kids excited for what's to come and [hopefully] stop them from asking 'Are we there yet?'"
Parenting blogger Notoya Green loves to stock up before a long trip with a bag of small toys and treats from the dollar store. "Every hour, each of the kids chooses a treat from the bag, giving them something to look forward to and an incentive to behave so they can get their prize!" You can even wrap each toy or treat to heighten its surprise — and its distraction value.
- Bring on the entertainment. Stock an iPod or smartphone with some of the kids' favorite songs and favorite recorded books. If you don't already have them in your vehicle and you're comfortable with it, pack DVD players and iPads for your little ones. You can also download some cool apps for little kids.
"In general, you do want to limit a child's screen time, but you can make exceptions for special circumstances," says pediatrician Balk.
- There are other ways to keep the kids occupied that don't involve technology. "Play games with road signs, other cars or the scenery," says Durbin. "You can do anything from asking a toddler to point out the color of the road signs to having a preschooler read them to you." To get you started, here are Edmunds' "Top 10 Road Trip Games."
- Be realistic. Gone are the days of getting hours of driving time in one day. Gilboa suggests that you plan on stopping about every two hours. "How long you can drive really depends on your kids' dispositions, but ideally you'll stop every two to three hours so everyone can get out of the car, stretch their legs and have something to eat."
- Think beyond rest stops. Designated rest stops can get boring — and crowded, especially on holiday weekends. Richards tracks down local parks with swings and slides. It gives the kids a chance to get some fresh air. Find parks, kid-friendly restaurants and activities wherever you are with Mom Maps, a $2.99 app for Apple and Android devices.
- Be sun-savvy. You need to think about its harmful rays both in and out of the car, Balk says. "Always apply sunscreen during rest stops, when you'll be spending extended time outdoors. And in the car, remember that UVA radiation can get through the car's windows."
You can apply a sunshade to the windows or simply dress kids in clothing with Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF), a special dye that is placed on the fabric during the manufacturing process. Companies like Coolibar, One Step Ahead and Solartex offer shorts, T-shirts, swimsuits and more with UPF protection.
- Stick with a routine. If you're stopping overnight, be sure to keep up the usual bedtime routines.
"It might be tempting to just put them right to bed after a long day, but try to keep up your standard routine, such as bath, books, nursing, etc. so the children are getting what they are used to getting at home," says Balk. It will make for happier kids in the morning.
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