Traveling with a Toddler: 5 Screen-Free Must-Haves for in the Car


We live 1+ hour one way from both sets of parents, so just going to visit them is considered a “road trip” for our daughter, now 16 months old, but she’s luckily always been pretty good in the car, as long as she isn’t bored. 

We recently went on an actual road trip in May, and it was a 6+ hour trip from home to the beach. Here, I’ve listed five things that we made sure to have in the vehicle with us — no screens involved! — so that the car ride was bearable for all three of us. I know not every little kid is fond of riding in the car, and unfortunately nothing really helps, but if you’re looking for something you haven’t tried yet, maybe these five things will help. For our daughter they made the trip great (we had zero meltdowns!), but what also helped was driving first while she was in her happy morning mood, and second when she was fed and ready to nap. 

And while we have chosen thus far not to give her a screen to watch or play on during car rides, that doesn’t mean I don’t think kids should have them, or that I will never let her use one. But, for the time being, she does really well on trips and I like to keep her occupied with doing something else, even if that’s just looking out the window, before I resort to a screen to keep her content. 

So, are you ready for the list? (Spoiler alert: it’s really not that mind-blowing of a list and you most likely already thought of these things yourself, but I just wrote down these five specifics that help us to have nice and peaceful trips.)

1) Snacks & Drinks

I love the idea of “no food allowed” in a vehicle, but lets face it: on a long road trip, even adults get hungry and cranky, so the only fix for that, if you still want to make good time, is to take snacks with you. 

We packed a cooler of easy-to-grab, least-possible-messy things to sip and munch on. In my then-15-month-old’s case, that consisted of applesauce pouches, soft crackers, and some cereal (like Cheerios).

Simply put, toddler snacks need to be:

  1. Not chokable. 
  2. Easy for them to hold and eat. 
  3. Not too extremely messy, if you’re wanting to keep your car/car seat somewhat decent. (A good vacuuming may be in order when you get home, but that’s okay.)

I also made sure she had plenty of fluids to keep her hydrated, so because I hate to pump, she got almond milk instead of breast milk for the car ride, and some water and juice. 

2) Board Books

These are chunky but don’t have to take up much room, interesting for toddlers but don’t make noise(!), and just all-around good for your smart, ever learning and growing child, so why not bring some along for the ride? My daughter loves books, so having several in the car with us when we take trips helps tremendously to keep her from getting board too quickly. My favorite set of board books (and hers too!) is a colors, shapes, foods, etc. set of very small (like, 3″x3″) books I got lucky and found at a consignment sale last year. 

3) Blanket, Pacifier, or Favorite Toy

If your toddler has a favorite object that comforts them ( in my child’s case, this is her “paci”), then this should definitely take top priority on your list of things to pack. Their having whatever it is that soothes or helps them sleep will be a big step toward a more peaceful car ride. Also, a blanket, whether it’s their cherished “blankie” or not, is a good thing to have if the car gets chilly or they get sleepy. 

4) Music and/or Audio Books

Classical or soft music for soothing, or peppy kids’ songs or stories for keeping them entertained is a big help on road trips. We also love to listen to a capella hymns and sing along, or listen to one of my husband’s favorite audio books (I’m more of a reader, but he’s huge into listening to books and they’re lots of fun), or just flip through radio stations when things get mundane. My favorite kids’ Bible songs CD we listen to us Each Little Dew Drop, and we love the hymns CDs by Florida College. 

5) Comfy Travel Clothes

Traveling in uncomfortable clothes on a road trip is so not fun. I personally prefer a T-shirt, sweatpants, and no shoes (but flip-flops for rest stops) when traveling, so I can only imagine that a toddler would prefer something comfy as well. So when we travel with our daughter and I can help it, I like to have her in something soft and thin and that won’t bother her or make her hot. 

Also, and this is totally not a “must-have,” just merely my preference, but because our daughter is still under 22 pounds and required to sit rear-facing in her car seat, we have a mirror on the seat in front of her so we can see her from up front, but she actually really loves it too. I catch her looking in it and making faces (or pulling out her hair bows!) and talking to herself all the time! I think it has really helps her during car rides, so you may want to try it too, if you don’t have one already. 

I hope these suggestions were helpful! What are your absolute must-haves for long trips?

Have a great day!

~Courtney

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