Holiday Car Travel With Babies
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
Published October 17, 2011.
Last updated December 13, 2017.