Monday, 6 January 2014

Roadtrip with a toddler

I hope you survived enjoyed your holiday season. We got to spend time with a lot of lovely people further north in California, but that meant that we first had to get there. The 2-year old and I drove up to the Bay Area a few days ahead of the husband, which terrified me.

Sometimes, simply driving the child to daycare is about as pleasant as taking a final exam for a class you forgot to attend, or running to the train station with your luggage in the hot sun because the taxi you ordered failed to arrive: equal parts frightening and exhausting. I am not known for exceptional skill when it comes to driving (exemplified by my various slow-moving smash-ups as a teen), and a child screaming in the backseat is not particularly helpful to automotive focus.

Yet, we are still alive and the car is intact. How did we survive the trip? With a little planning and a lot of luck:

1. We broke up the trip. It’s unlikely we would have made it in one shot to NorCal, just the two of us, without someone going insane. Happily, there were friends to visit and impose upon along the way, making the longest day of driving “just” 6 hair-pulling hours.

2. Ryder naps in the car. This gave me about one and a half hours of blissful quiet on the drive, which I filled by listening to NPR and feeling a little bit like an adult for a while.

3. I distracted him with special treats. He’s currently obsessed with lollipops, which is perhaps the best sweet obsession possible: they are cheap, they take forever to eat, and they don’t melt all over the place. The only downside is that they are rather sticky, and once the child figures out that he can lick the lollipop and then smear a layer of sugar all over himself and the carseat, it gets messy. Another hit was an individual serving of Lucky Charms. Mining out the good bits kept him busy for a 30-minute stretch near the end of day two.
Watching the Rincon parking lot bathrooms get powerwashed: a favorite stop of the trip, according to Ryder
4. His grandmother sent him special battery-operated vehicles with buttons that make irritating siren/engine noises, just in time for the trip. I didn’t give an inkling they existed until we got in the car: one was revealed the first day and one the second. The helicopter was a hit, and he was basically entertained by it from Encinitas to Orange County—a small miracle. Sadly, the Lifeguard truck was not as interesting, and he threw it out of the seat and started wailing for me to “push the button” and eject him from the carseat about 5 minutes into the ride on day two. 

5. He likes to make art. Other excellent grandmother finds include a small, two-sided whiteboard, with special (washable!) whiteboard crayons, and a set of vehicle-themed stamps with (washable!) ink and a pad of paper. These lasted a good 30-ish minutes.

6. He likes to demand that I make up and sing to him various songs. These are often very specific: “please orange airplane car song,” and I am really not that good at this task, so I find it slightly tiresome, though endearing. Also I usually forget the song I made up last time, but he wants me to repeat it the same way. Happily, he seems semi-interested in starting to sing himself, so I spent a lot of time redirecting his demands and encouraging that.
Integrated cupholders: perfect for separating out the boring "oat" bits from the actual edible part of Lucky Charms

7. Weird car-driving-dancing to random disco music in the Central Valley: tiring while trying not to swerve off the road, but effective for a little while.

8. I tried, and failed miserably, at making him a special game (idea courtesy of my friend Makela) in which he could “fish” for toys and snacks and things on the floor of the car using a magnet on a string. Probably should have tested this out ahead of time, because the orientation of the seat meant that anytime he actually got something hooked on, it would hit the carseat and fall off before he could get it into his paws. Adding frustration to the mix of being bored and hot and stuck in a rigid seat for hours on end was not my most brilliant move.

9. Counting electrical poles lasted about five minutes.

10. We stopped a lot, for lunch and stretching-breaks and coffee and dipping our toes in the cold Pacific. It helps not to have a rigid schedule, and it also helps to have some idea where the hell you are and where you might stop. At one point I became lost in discount-furniture land and had to use the bathroom in a creepily quiet shop obviously not set up to cater to the customer’s bodily needs.

11. I did in fact bring a tablet with kid’s movies loaded onto it, and was ready to deploy it if all else failed…but I didn’t think to check the batteries. Not good to hit “begin emergency entertainment sequence” stage and realize it is non-operational.  

So, what are your tricks for making driving with a toddler survivable?


  1. My approach, at least on the first day: start the drive after dinner so they are only awake ~2 hours before falling asleep. If we eat early and I drive until 1am, that gets me a good 6+ hours of driving. (The only problem is that it can be 30 minutes of terror if one or more kids wakes up upon arrival at the hotel.) If you can manage to stop somewhere with interesting things to do and have a day to kill, you can spend the day at this location and do the same trick on day 2!