Tips For Long Drives with Infants

Taking a long trip in the car with an infant can either be awesome or awful, and sometimes both. As a veteran of multiple long car rides with children of all ages, I think that traveling with an infant can be one of the most frustrating. But with a little planning, and giving a little thought or how you handle the trip, you can make the best of it.

Plan Around the Infant Rather Than the Adults

As you are planning your drive, you need to establish  whose needs you are arranging the trip around. When I was early in my parenting journey, we took long car trips to other states to visit family. Inevitably, we ended up arranging our return trip around the fact that one of the adults needed to be back to work.

While it may have made sense to handle the trip differently (meaning leaving at a different time of day so that baby would sleep on the drive), there was pressure from my spouse to get us home early in the afternoon so that there was enough time to decompress and to get ready for work starting on Monday.

Unfortunately, when we decided to push ahead through the drive with this goal in mind, things went sideways. We left in the morning after our infant had just gotten up in the morning, and had his morning nurse. What resulted was close to five straight hours of driving with an infant crying in the backseat, completely inconsolable.

There wasn’t anything that we could do to help him. Whenever we stopped to rest, he would get out of the car seat and would start crying, but the second we put him back, the crying would begin again. He refused to nap, refuse to eat, and I was in tears for the majority of the trip home. I vowed and the future to stick to my guns about arranging the trip to avoid the scenario again.

To Avoid Major Infant Drama, Plan Your Trip Around Known Fussy Times

Plan your trip around the baby’s sleep schedule. Are there established times during the day that your infant naps? Does he nurse at specific times, or is he cranky during specific times? If your infant has a colicky time consistently, or he is a sundowner, (meaning that in the evening around 6 or 7 p.m. he cries or inexplicable reasons), this is a poor time to drive.

There is always temptation to drive on Friday evenings after work gets out at 5:00pm, but this is ultimately a very terrible time to travel with children. The kids are tired, mom and dad are tired, and then the trip takes way longer than it should because of rush hour or weekend traffic. I can’t even communicate to you how horrible it is to sit in bumper to bumper traffic without an exit in sight with a screaming infant behind you.

If you have to drive somewhere on Friday night, it is best to wait until the infant finishes with the normal evening meltdown before heading out. Otherwise, your baby may end up screaming as long as he normally does, and well beyond that, because you are unable to hold him or rock him or do the other normal things that you might do to soothe him, such as nursing him.

Plan Your Route So That You Always Have a Good Stopping Option Ahead

If you know the route well, you may have a good idea of some safe places to stop to nurse, or to take a break. In the event that you don’t, get out a map or get on Google Maps and start scouting a route.

If you plan to leave at a specific time, you know that an infant, especially in the first few months after birth, has to eat frequently. So you know that you won’t get much further than two hours at a time before baby wakes up and wants to eat. I think the bus stops are in towns where you have friends or family, where you can get your child out of the car seat for more than 20 minutes at a time. If you can get a long nap of close to two hours, and then get her out for enough time for a change of diaper, a really solid nurse, and then some active playtime, she will object much less about going back into the car seat.

Use the Long Stretch of Sleep To Get Some Real Miles In

Another great tip is to plan your drive around your child’s longest stretch of sleep. For me, my children all tended to melt down around 6 p.m. for about an hour, then they would sleep the longest stretch of the entire day between the hours of 8 p.m. and midnight. Generally, I would go to bed with the baby at 7:30 or 8 p.m. to also sleep for as much as possible uninterrupted.

But if you are planning on doing a long drive, this can represent a really great opportunity to knock out a lot of the drive without having to stop to nurse, change diapers, or to soothe a fussy baby. This might mean however that you sleep less then normally, but again, look back at what your priorities are and getting through the drive-thru. If it doesn’t bother you to drive long distances with a screaming baby, I would worry much less about this. But for me, it was very very difficult to drive for long periods of time with my infant screaming in the backseat. It was almost like experiencing Nails on chalkboard, and the feeling of needing to take action got worse the longer that it went on. So I almost always drive at night now with the kids if we have to go a long way.

Try to Have Some Food Available

If your child is used to taking a bottle or drinking breast milk from a bottle, you can either pump on the road as you are driving, or have a bottle or two pumped ahead of time to offer to him in the event that he wakes up and is hungry, but there isn’t a good place to pull over. Throwing food into the backseat gets much easier as children get older, which is also the reason why my back seat is covered with goldfish.

Travel In Teams If Possible

If your infant is brand-new, or just a few weeks old, I recommend that you not travel in the car long distances alone. While it is uncommon, it does happen that an infant who is sitting in a car seat for a long time can actually stop breathing. Some people call it SIDS, and other people think that it may be caused by an obstructed airway due to the position of the baby’s chin on their chest.   

This danger is dramatically reduced as the child gets older and is able to move his head better, as the neck muscles get stronger. But an infant is particularly vulnerable in a car seat were they are strapped in in an unnatural position. Having a parent on watch in the backseat can make the baby feel more comfortable, and you can observe his breathing carefully. If you are driving alone, make sure you have a mirror up so you can observe him from the driver’s seat.

To build on that, when you are traveling long distances with the infant in a car seat, don’t swaddle them or confine them too closely with clothing in the car seat. While the swaddling can help them from crying, it can also cause them to suffocate,  Or overheat. If a child is crying or struggling in the car seat, they tend to be expending a tremendous amount of energy, and they sweat. Discomfort a pain discomfort adds up, and it makes it that much more difficult to help soothe them.

Sitting in the back, you can also replace the dropped pacifier, jingle some keys, or read her a book aloud to pass the time.

Infants Need to Be Well Rested to Sleep Well in Cars

In preparing for traveling with an infant for long distances, it is best to make sure that they are well rested and not over-stimulated. With older children, especially those who have had a big day running and playing, you can expect them to fall asleep quickly in the car and sleep for a good portion of the trip regardless of the time of day.

Infants and young children are exactly the opposite. The more tired they are, the harder it is for them to go to sleep and to stay asleep. If your infant is having a great time all day but naps really poorly, and is showing you signs that she are over-stimulated,  this is a poor time to get in the car to drive for long distances.

Instead of popping an infant who is overstimulated into the car for a long car drive, I would instead try to find a quiet place to nurse them, and to let them get a little rest. If you can get them a little nap, and some food, and then get them up for a bit before getting in the car, you are more likely to get an infant who will sleep for a big block of time.

Bathroom Breaks Are Now Much More Complicated (We Don’t Stop For Anything While the Baby is Sleeping)

If you are traveling for a long-distance in the car alone one thing you should think about carefully is your bathroom breaks. If you are chugging coffee to stay awake, and drinking a ton of water to stay alert, you will eventually have to use the bathroom.

When you are an adult traveling along, this may not be much of a problem. But when you are traveling with an infant who has just fallen asleep, you may prefer to wear a diaper and pee yourself then stop the car and wake the baby.

Getting out of the car at a rest stop and leaving the child alone in the car, especially if it is running, is not an option. This is a one-way ticket to getting arrested for child neglect, if someone with a cell phone sees your baby sleeping in the car without you present. This is yet another reason why I think it’s a great idea to plan your rest stops in advance, and also to travel with a second individual if possible.

Plan Out Your Gas Stops Too! Once Your Infant Is Sleeping You Will Run On Fumes and Beyond to Get As Far As You Can During Sleep Time

If you have no choice but to be traveling alone, and you need some kind of caffeine to stay awake, consider consuming caffeine in a form that doesn’t involve copious amounts of liquids, such as chocolate covered espresso beans or an 8 Hour Energy.  

And if all else fails, be prepared to do things as a mother that you never thought you would do, such as squatting over a water bottle in the backseat of your car. Been there, done that, but I didn’t have to turn the car off, the kids didn’t wake up, and we were back on the road in about 3 minutes. Of course, we didn’t use that water bottle again for the rest of the trip…..!

Yes, yes, all the other things…

As always, all of the other traveling with kids suggestions apply. Bring extra clothes, bring enough diapers and wipes, make sure to have all of your child’s favorite toys or blankets or other things that she needs to sleep. If a sound machine is something that she relies upon to use to sleep in her room in her crib, bring one along. Use batteries to run it in the car, or download one of those free white noise apps for your phone and use that.

How Long Of A Trip Before Things Go Sideways?

Having done with multiple long car trips with children, I have found that two hours worth of driving is almost always fairly easy. It is when we go past two hours that things start to go sideways, or require more extensive planning.

The exception to this however, is if we drive at night time. This isn’t comfortable for an adult, but putting the kids to bed in the car and then driving the entire trip during their normal sleep time can be a really good option if everything else fails.

Before you go, check out another one of our great posts from our Mom Advice Line contributors:

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