Prev Next
Long Car Trips with Babies

Holiday Car Travel With Babies

By Amalah

I saw in a recent advice column that you drove from DC to Pennsylvania with Noah when he was small. Since you’re still writing, I’m assuming you survived. My question: how? 

I will be driving with what will be a 4 month old baby from Chicago to Toronto in late November. I am filled with dread. How do we survive the trip? Is there stuff that you (or your commenters, love you guys) can recommend that will help out? And when we get there, are we going to have a baby who’s completely hysterical, conveniently just in time to drive our family nuts?

Thanks for any advice you can provide. Holidays are hard enough without getting grey hair just from the travel.


Two bits of good news for you: I not only survived that one initial trip from DC to Pennsylvania with Noah, I have since survived countless additional trips (of the same length and much longer) with my three young sons–  Noah, Ezra and Ike–  all at a variety of different ages.

And the second bit of good news is that the amount of agony experienced during the actual car ride is directly, inversely proportional to the amount of stressing I did about the car ride ahead of time. So the fact that you’re already bracing for a potential nightmare scenario is probably going to guarantee that your baby will sleep the whole damn time.

The absolute worst trip we EVER took with any of our babies was just this past summer, when we drove to the beach. My son Ike was just shy of six weeks old. And while I was thoroughly stressed out about the actual baby-at-the-BEACH part, I didn’t give the car ride much thought. Eh, we’ve done it a million times! He’ll just sleep! If he wakes up he’ll have his older brother sitting right behind him for entertainment, or we’ll just pull over and I’ll nurse him real quick.

He didn’t sleep. AT ALL. He howled instead. For hours. The first leg of the trip involved me driving the kids solo to pick my husband up at his office on the other side of the city…in absolute gridlock. There was no pulling over, there was just sitting and crawling a few feet forward every 10 minutes or so while my infant SCUH-REEEEAMED in protest from the back seat. He wasn’t hungry or wet…he just wanted to be held and/or wanted the car to GO FASTER so he could fall asleep. Both requests that I simply couldn’t fulfill right then. The second leg, which I assumed would be better because my husband was driving and I could sit in the back in my newborn Ike’s line of vision at least, wasn’t much better. He would fall asleep briefly and then wake up at every stoplight to work himself back into a state when he realized he was still in that dang carseat.

That trip nearly broke my spirit, especially combined with the “are we there yets?” from my five-year-old son and the “I gotta go pee-pees!” from my newly potty-trained two-year-old son (which he inevitably hollered five minutes after we left a rest stop where he had adamantly refused to go). I spent most of the trip DREADING the return home and trying to figure out what we had done so wrong — the timing? Was he overtired? Should we leave at night? Try to get him in the car seat after he falls asleep? Move him to the back row of the minivan so I could sit next to him? And so on and so forth.

He slept almost the entire way home. Woke up once to nurse, then back to sleep. WHATEVER.

Point is, we survived it. It SUCKED, but all car trips do come to an end, even the really bad seemingly-infinite ones in bad holiday traffic. You’ll likely always remember it, but your baby won’t. THANK GOD.

At four months old, you are definitely, solidly in that crapshoot age where your baby might sleep the whole damn time…or not. There’s really only so much planning you can do. If he/she is on ANY kind of set schedule, aim for departing in time for the longest nap of the day, or driving at night. Stop-and-go traffic is your enemy, since babies seem to sense the lack of movement and wake up and fuss more, so get yourself a good traffic app or GPS that can help you avoid it, if possible. (It’s not always possible, obviously. So if that happens, deep breath, turn up the stereo and remind yourself that the trip WILL END and your baby will NOT REMEMBER THIS HORROR LIKE YOU WILL.)

Keep a spot clear next to the carseat in the back, in case one of you needs to sit there to provide entertainment/comfort. Luckily four-month-olds are old enough to notice and grab at toys — bring a couple teethers, pacifiers, and any favorite objects. (All of my kids have really loved Taggies blankets and Lamaze’s Freddie the Firefly at that age, and brightly-colored singsongy books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear.) Some four-month-olds also start really noticing music — our go-to car playlists for all our babies were heavy on anything by Johnny Cash and Nicolette Larson’s lullaby CD. (I have no idea why, but there’s something beyond entrancing/soothing about both of their voices.)

Even if you’re breastfeeding, having an emergency bottle or two of pumped milk or formula on hand isn’t a bad idea, if your baby suddenly decides he/she is ravenous at the exact moment when you’re trapped in traffic between exits and there’s no shoulder because of construction and GAAAAHHHHHHELP.

In case of a I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHY I’M SCREAMING screaming fit, try turning the radio on to a static, or putting a window down for quick blast of air sound. This is enough for some babies to temporarily snap them out of it. They might immediately amp back up, but these tricks can buy you entire precious MINUTES of silence, at least.

Oh, I just realized I lied about only having two good bits of news. I actually have three: Even after the handful of truly awful, terrible car trips I have experienced with a crying, non-stop-fussing baby or toddler, the misery has never once carried over to the actual visit. Once we’ve gotten out of the car, my children’s memories of just how thoroughly upset and/or pissed of they were during the last hour and a half on I-95 were magically erased. You might need to immediately ask your host for a few minutes to decompress in your room to nurse or change the baby, but even this will probably mostly be for YOU. Your sweet baby will return to his/her non-stressed-out form much faster than you will, most likely.


Photo credit: Thinkstock


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

icon icon
chat bubble icon


  • Amy

    October 17, 2011 at 10:55 am

    One thing that helped us for a drive from DC to Long Island, which can take anywhere between 4-8 hours (kill me), is to drive at night when our daughter typically sleeps. We gave her the usual 7/7:30 pm bottle, after which she always conks out. From there, we just popped her into the car seat and drove. Thankfully, the evening rush was done, we made it in 4.5 hours and she slept the whole time. The return drive was a little dicier, with severe traffic out of NYC into Jersey. She slept through that but woke up just as we hit massive traffic on the beltway. She quieted with each acceleration but cried with each slowdown. Good times.

  • Cassie

    October 17, 2011 at 11:18 am

    If you choose to drive at night, something you may want to think about that neither you or Amalah really mentioned: what happens when you get there? My and my husband’s families live in NJ – we live in NH. So we’ve done a fairly long drive about every 3-ish months, since the kiddo was 2 months old up until last month when he was 22 months. Driving at night while he sleeps has been a godsend. But since we usually stay at my parents’ house, arriving at midnight has been a little harrowing. If given the chance, kiddo would wake a bit when I get him out of the carseat, but then settle nicely against me until I lay him down in bed and go right back to sleep. HOWEVER. My parents are so darned excited to see the grandchild that they get all up in his face, waving and talking excitedly. At midnight. To a sleepy child. Guess what happens? He wakes right on up and stays up! So if you are driving at night, and you are staying with someone, please be sure to ask your hosts two things in advance – 1) please have a sleeping area ready and 2) please leave your baby be until you’ve gotten him settled down and asleep again. They’ll have plenty of time with him come morning. 🙂

  • Laura

    October 17, 2011 at 11:49 am

    Our family is a 10 hour drive away. My son is 6 months old and we’ve done it twice, both times splitting the drive over 2 days. Last time we tried giving bottles in the car and it worked wonderfully. We still stopped every 2-3 hours for diaper changes and food/bathroom breaks for us, but not having to spend an extra 20 minutes nursing each time made the trip so much quicker.

  • Nancy

    October 17, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    My in laws live in MI which is about 12-14 hours from NC. We’ve done the drive several times. Always at night which works well. But a few other things to think about- rest areas can be spooky at 3am even if you are just pulling over to nurse. And not everywhere has 24 hour gas stations and restrooms! Plan ahead. And I agree the comment to talk to the Grandparents and family to give the baby time to sleep and settle in before they are all in her face!

  • Stefanie

    October 17, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    We drove from DC to Maine when my daughter was 6 months. We did her bedtime routine just as we always do and put her in her car seat and then headed out. She slept pretty much all the way, waking once because of a dirty diaper. We drove straight through, 12 hours all told. When we arrived, it was morning and we passed her off to Grammie and Grampa and went to bed. I’m doing that drive again with her, sans husband, and she’s almost two, and I plan on doing it the exact same way. Worse case scenario? She screams the whole way. I really don’t see that happening, but if she does, I’m fairly certain it won’t kill me.

  • Karen

    October 17, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    We took a really long driving trip (10 hours each way) when my daughter was 5 months old. Compared to doing the same thing now with a two year old, I’d rather repeat that trip a zillion times. One thing that made a huge difference was having the car adaptor for my breast pump. Using a manual pump would work too. As we drove along, I just pumped a bottle if necessary which was way better than adding more stops to an already stop-prone drive. I’m sure the truckers got a huge kick out of that sight.

  • tasterspoon

    October 17, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    THIS is why I love this column. Pumping while driving! Never once occurred to me. What a great idea.

    I’ve noted a lot of my go-to travel amusements in comments to previous Q’s about air travel, etc., but we had a long weekend with our 10 month old in Yosemite and Mammoth Lakes, which involved a LOT of car time (5-8 hrs each way) from and to the Bay Area. We made it with me in the backseat to provide entertainment, 10 touchy-feely, lift-the-flap and other interactive books, 2 music boxes, 1 homemade plastic snow globe (plastic peanut butter jar, water, glitter), 2 puppets, 1 bike water bottle, 4 pacifiers, 1 blinking Halloween safety light, 2 loveys, 1 hanging whirligig, and lots of snacks, both familiar and unusual, parceled out verrrry gradually. We also made do with a lot of found toys, like fast food straws, pine cones, etc. and took two breaks each way so she could roll around and stretch (pack a blanket). It broke my heart when she’d doze off then wake up to find she was STILL in that seat, and wondered if she thought she was in there for DAYS. I won’t lie, I was exhausted.
    We’re driving down to LA in a couple of weeks and my husband wants to plan it for after bedtime; the downside of driving at night is there’s not much light for books etc. if she DOESN’T sleep. So I’m not sure….

  • Susan

    October 17, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    We have only visited my family (a 12 hour drive away) once when Snackbox had just turned a year old. He actually did surprisingly well in the car (heaps better than on the 7 hour flight to Honolulu two months earlier where I cheaped out and didn’t buy him his own seat). He napped on schedule (bring a blanket or something to provide extra shade if you’re driving an east-west route) and was pretty easy to entertain en route.

    The biggest lifesaver was a portable DVD player and Brainy Baby Shapes & Colors DVD. I do not normally let him watch TV or movies, but these DVDs are perfect for little ones – and you don’t even have to turn the volume on at all – the colors and shapes will entertain them plenty.

    We have been guilt-tripped into returning for Christmas this year (now with a 3 year old and a 1 year old) and I think we’ll do it at night, arriving right around breakfast time…

  • Susan

    October 17, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    We have only visited my family (a 12 hour drive away) once when Snackbox had just turned a year old. He actually did surprisingly well in the car (heaps better than on the 7 hour flight to Honolulu two months earlier where I cheaped out and didn’t buy him his own seat). He napped on schedule (bring a blanket or something to provide extra shade if you’re driving an east-west route) and was pretty easy to entertain en route.

    The biggest lifesaver was a portable DVD player and Brainy Baby Shapes & Colors DVD. I do not normally let him watch TV or movies, but these DVDs are perfect for little ones – and you don’t even have to turn the volume on at all – the colors and shapes will entertain them plenty.

    We have been guilt-tripped into returning for Christmas this year (now with a 3 year old and a 1 year old) and I think we’ll do it at night, arriving right around breakfast time…

  • Sara

    October 17, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Am I the only one who has found great success actually nursing the baby while baby is still buckled in the carseat?  Just kneel next to the car seat and lean in.  I’m not huge, about a C or D while nursing, so I have to get right up in baby’s face.  Baby is delighted to be nursing and immediately calms down, usually falling asleep (depending on age).  I have nursed while my husband drove through many a spell of holiday traffic this way.  Not so comfy for mom’s back after awhile, but beats listening to the screaming (or dealing with hassle of bottles/pumping while traveling and on vacations).

    We’ve driven from CT to NC and back, from CT to DC, from CT to FL and back, and across TX about 6 times in my son’s first 2 years.  Nursing in the carseat to get him to sleep and them driving through the night has been our winning plan time and time again.  And if you can nurse in the carseat, you can drive straight through, no skanky rest stops.

    Last I checked it was legal in some states for an adult to be unbuckled when in the back seat, but legality might vary from state to state… The downside to my plan is that mom can’t be buckled in while nursing this way (unless your boobs are very long?).

  • Jess

    October 17, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Oh god. Even if you try the drive-at-night thing, there’s no guarantee. We planned an overnight drive from OH to MO – 9 hours, and we left at 7 pm, right when our very consistent 18 month old always went to bed. Plus, he always fell asleep in the car easily. What could go wrong? Well, the good news is that he didn’t cry or scream the whole way. The bad news is that he also didn’t sleep. The experience of going to bed in the car was so novel that he took exactly ONE 1-hour nap in that time. He babbled to us and himself the rest of the time.
    So yeah, it could have been worse. But we thought we were so smart by doing it overnight. And then, of course, when we got there at 4 am he conked out but was cranky the next day because he hadn’t slept enough. He got back on track by day 2, though. Just saying – plan plan plan, and then plan for everything you thought would happen to go out the window.

  • Amy M

    October 17, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    At 5 months we did a DC to OH drive (7 hours) with our son swaddled in a Miracle Blanket. He slept for 6 of the 7 hours– during the day. We swaddled him in the blanket as we usually do, and then took his legs out of the pouch to allow the car seat to properly latch.

  • Olivia

    October 17, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    We took a 14 hr one way trip when my daughter was 4 months old. On the trip out she was a dream, sleeping most of the time and smiling the rest. We had someone sit back with her the whole way. We made sure to take frequent stops and to let her roll around in the rest stop picnic area so she could stretch out. Coming back started out okay, but with about 40 miles to go she had had ENOUGH of the car seat. We stopped a couple of times to nurse/console, but as soon as she was put back in the car seat she started screaming. With about 15 miles left to go we did the horrible, not recommended thing, and took her out while still driving. My husband held her in the back seat until she conked out and then gently put her back. If I ever do that again, I’m taking the suggestion to pump a couple of bottles for the car.

  • Pamela

    October 17, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    OP here. Thanks, Amy for the reassurance. Special thanks to the commenters also! I would not have thought of bringing my pump. I wonder what I thought the car adaptor was for? Duh. I also love the suggestion of the swaddle. 

    All in all, it seems as though the car ride might be the least traumatic part of the trip, rather than the most. Fingers crossed!

  • Erin

    October 17, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    If you’ve got an iPhone (and I’m sure they have it for other phones too) there’s a free app called White Noise Lite that has a ton of different white noise sounds. The rain sound would conk my daughter out in 30 seconds flat at that age, no matter where we were or how upset she was. She wouldn’t necessarily fall asleep, but she’d just zen out and stare off into space. We haven’t done more than DC to Richmond with her, but traffic coming home from that can turn it into a 4+ hour trip and I do not know what we’d have done without that app.

  • Soumya

    October 18, 2011 at 10:04 am

    Finally something i can comment on!! I have a 4 month old and we travelled all the way frm Fort Wayne IN to Milwakee, WI when she was a 2 months old…and a trip to Indianapolis when she was a month old ( this one was a BADDDD trip) … but thankgod the trip to milwake was good.. I always pump in the car using the battery set this way you can also save time at home. Also my kid WILL howl till the car reaches the a good speed of we just bear with her screams till then..after that she will go off to sleep.. till she is hungry again.. 🙂 So do not worry .What worked for me was to be prepared for her screams..tht way you will stress out less.. the kid was fine once we reached the if nothing happened.. Also if the kid like the bottle a bit warm.. a car operated bottle Warmer would be a good idea to take kid wil take the bottle only if its warm…so its a life saver..

  • Soumya

    October 18, 2011 at 10:07 am

    I would like to add that if the kid likes the milk warm.. Car operated bottle Warmer would be a good thing ot buy.. WE have this.. and its quite a life saver..

  • Hillary

    October 18, 2011 at 10:49 am

    Sun chips came out with a compostable bag – it was SO LOUD. And SO AWESOME for car rides. We saved about 5 of them (once emptied!) and stuffed them into the car seat pockets for travel emergencies. Either we, or my daughter when she was older, would smush the bag and it made a fantastic crunchy sound. I hope they’re still on the shelves – perfect for car rides!

  • Sharon

    October 18, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    Ah, the car ride. All that energy packed into one tiny vehicle… Just another tip: for my now 9-month old, for whom a bottle of pumped breastmilk is deemed Unacceptable when proffered in a car, I have several times un-wedged myself from the seat next to her (where I was installed to keep her from screaming – ha!) and just leaned over her carset and hung a boob down so she could nurse. Not comfortable, not safe, but extremely effective as a last resort. It seems to reset the scream-o-meter and allows us to keep going when stopping is impossible. The things we mamas will do…

  • Kim

    October 18, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    I recently did a 9 hour drive with my 4 month old. We bought an inexpensive toy piano that played music and lit up and this saved us several times. She would stop screaming, stare at it and fall back asleep. Make sure you build in times for some longer rest stops so your little one has time to stretch out and play.

  • Alix

    October 19, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    Ha, I love that other people do the nursing in the car seat trick- I even did it buckled in once during a total meltdown on the highway. We just came back from a trip at just shy of 4 months- we flew initially but did a lot of driving at our destination. We had mixed results, mostly depending on the time of day. He is just starting to get into toys but I got a lot of mileage out of a swaddle blanket (peekaboo) and a Lamaze toy similar to Freddie the Firefly. I actually think we would have been better off with me out of the back seat, but unfortunately there were three of us traveling… having someone RIGHT! THERE! who refused to release him from his car seat prison seemed to just enrage him further.

  • DC3

    October 20, 2011 at 10:17 am

    Chicago to Toronto sounds a bit scary, but you can make it!  We’ve done Salt Lake to Los Angeles (11-12 hours), and were just fine (much better than we expected).  Here’s what has helped us in our son’s first year:

    – My wife probably had to sit in back about half the time.  Be sure to temporarily take out the headrest of the front seat so the back-seat adult gets a view of the road!
    – We bought a Tiny Love Take Along Mobile ( ) that attaches to the infant carseat.  That was good to keep him occupied for some of the time.
    – Expect your stops to be about every 2 hours for a diaper change.  The baby will feel better just being out of the car seat for a couple minutes anyway.
    – Get a car-to-house plug for the vehicle for the pump.  That worked great for my wife, rather than pulling over to nurse every time our boy was hungry.

    Good luck!

  • Becky

    October 28, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    Ditto to the nursing while the carseat. Only thing that works on our now 11 month old when she really gets going on long car rides-just another reason breasfeeding is awesome!

  • […] Long Car Trips with Babies […]

  • Susan Watson

    January 18, 2016 at 3:02 am

    What keeps my daughter quiet a little longer than most things is a magazine FULL of pictures and illustrations, etc.. course she’s going on 5 so she’s a little on the older side for “toddler”..