Dr. Greene's Answer
Summer is upon us once again (at least in the northern hemisphere), and it’s family vacation time! Ah, yes, family vacations — those times filled with memories of long days being together and having fun, or memories of long days being together with crying, unhappy kids.
With all travel, the number one thing you can do to build happy memories and avoid days filled with tears, is to anticipate your child’s needs. At home, most children have a set routine with fixed meal times and nap times. On the road, this can be easily upset, and little ones may not respond well to the changes. First off, try to stay as close as possible to your normal routine in terms of meal times and sleeping times.
Time in the car can be a particular problem, but again, the secret is to anticipate your child’s needs. When making a six-hour car trip, it may be more comfortable for you to leave first thing in the morning and drive while you are fresh. This is the worst time to leave for a two-year-old. Instead, spend the morning in active play and preparation for the journey. At this age, most kids take one long afternoon nap. If this is true of your child, plan on leaving just after lunch (so that no one is hungry), which will probably be about an hour before normal nap time. Most two-year-olds can be happy in a car seat for about a half an hour — only five and a half more hours to Atlanta! When your two-year-old starts to get fussy, it’s time to start the normal nap time routine, even if it is a little early. This may include a sippy cup of juice, cuddling a blanket, or holding a favorite toy. Take advantage of what your child normally uses to fall asleep. The motion of a moving car will put most kids to sleep and you should have a few hours of peace.
In order to take advantage of this sleepy time, be sure everyone has used the restroom before getting into the car (I know this sounds obvious, but stopping a moving car is asking a child to wake up). Also, provide a shaded spot for your child’s car seat. In advance, purchase excellent child sunshades to cover the windows that might let the sun shine on your child during the ride. If the sun is shining directly on a child, or if a child is too hot or cold, he or she will not sleep nearly as long.
About three hours into your trip, your two-year-old will probably wake up refreshed and ready to play. This is an excellent time to take a park-and-potty break for the entire family. In fact, you may want to plan your travel itinerary so that you have as much freeway driving as possible during the first three hours of the trip and have an excellent play area available at about the halfway point. If possible, plan to have time to let your toddler run! Bring along a ball and play catch. Have a picnic. Whatever you do, don’t stick your child in a high chair at this point! Again, advanced planning will allow everyone to have what they need.
After a good long break comes the final push to your destination. Here is the key — distraction, distraction, distraction! Bring along lots of toys and plan on giving your toddler one each time the previous one gets boring. When toys no longer seem to be helping, it’s time for a musicCD. We regularly travel with Raffi, Sesame Street, and a variety of other kid-friendly CDs. When one CD isn’t doing it any more, change CDs. Then go back to toys. As much as possible, get involved with your child and get your child involved with the activities — sing with the CDs, play with the toys, make funny faces (this also helps keep the driver awake!). And don’t forget fun food. Crackers, fruit, and cheese all make nice car snacks.
During this phase of the journey, you may need to stop every hour or so and let your toddler get some pent up energy out. Your normal six hour trip will probably take eight to nine hours, but if you are prepared in advance, everyone can be happy!
I remember, oh so well, the many car trips my family took from our family home in Maryland to my paternal grandparents’ home in Kentucky and my maternal grandparents’ home in Atlanta. I know there were many times when my parents would have loved to have just been there — “Are we there yet?” For me, looking back on those times holds some of the richest memories of my childhood. Those trips were well worth all the hours of advanced planning my parents invested in making each trip special– and all the “fussing” from my sisters and me they endured to get us there!