Does taking your toddler on a road trip scare the knickers off you? I used to feel this same sense of dread. With their short attention spans and ear-splitting screams, a long car trip with a toddler is the ultimate test of parenting patience.
While there is no magic wand to make road trips go smoothly, over the years I have developed a toolkit of essential road trip with toddler hacks. I’ve had to endure a lot of tantrums, poopy nappies and spit up to get here, but now I consider myself somewhat of an expert level road-tripper.
To help make your life just a bit easier, today I’m going to share with you my top parenting hacks when traveling with your toddler (feel free to send me a thank you letter when you return from your trip)
Road Trip with Toddler Hack #1: Bring Toys and Activities That Distract
The top (and most obvious) road trip with toddler hack is finding toys and activities that distract. The easy part is knowing that you need toys, the hard part is knowing which toys to bring that your toddler won’t get bored of within the first five minutes.
There are a few easy rules when deciding which toys to bring (or buy):
No choking hazards. Anything with small pieces or items that your toddler can fit in their mouth is out of the question. The car is especially dangerous because of the fact that you can go minutes without noticing that your child has something in his or her mouth. This is the first, and most important rule of car safety with your toddler.
Give them a challenge. Give them activities that will present a challenge. Something they may have to spend 5 to 15 minutes on. A simple plush toy will not do. Presenting them with a challenge will not only help with their brain development, but help keep them occupied for longer period of time.
No Mess. Play-doh, kinectic sand, paint … all out of the question. Besides being a safety hazard, you don’t want to turn your car into disaster zone. Make sure that whatever you give your toddler does not break into pieces and also will not stain the upholstery on your beloved vehicle.
With that in mind, let me share with you my tried and true travel toddler list of toys and activities:
It’s an oldie but a goodie. Magna Doodles are a great addition to a toddler road trip because they allow your child to be creative without the mess. You’ll want to get one with an attached pen so it won’t get dropped.
Buy it on Amazon: 2 Magna Doodle Boards with Multi-Colors Drawing (One large size and one travel size)
Imagine Ink Coloring Books
Speaking of mess-free creativity, Imagine Ink coloring books are another must-have for a long car trip with a toddler. These books come with a marker that only works on the coloring pages. Your child simply scribbles on the page and the colors are magically revealed!
Buy it on Amazon: Bundle of 3 Imagine Ink Magic Pictures Activity Books
LeapFrog 2-in-1 LeapTop Touch
LeapFrog’s 2-1in-1 LeapTop Touch is an educational option for your road trip. It can be used in a keyboard or tablet style and includes five learning modes: ABCs, numbers, games, music and messages. My son loves having a computer like Daddy! I love that he’s learning while he’s playing.
Buy it at Target: LeapFrog 2-in-1 LeapTop Touch
This Montessori toddler toy is a perfect travel companion for your little one. The Busy Board offers your child the opportunity to perfect their fine motor skills by practicing zippering, buttoning, buckling, and snapping. Toddlers are wildly independent, and a Busy Board lets them explore at their own pace.
When it’s not being used, the Busy Board zips up, keeping all the activities contained inside—a perfect feature when traveling!
Buy it on Amazon: Toddler Busy Board
Liquid Motion Bubbler
I don’t know what is about these things, but they’re mesmerizing! My son can look at his contentedly for hours. A liquid motion bubbler is a sensory toy that works similarly to a lava lamp. Flip it over and watch the colored liquid bubble and sink to the bottom.
It’s an ideal toy for children with autism or ADHD as it soothes anxiety and helps them to focus longer. Whether your toddler has a diagnosis or not, it’s a nice, quiet activity for them while traveling.
Buy it at Walmart: Liquid Motion Bubbler
Seek and Find Activity Book
Who doesn’t love a good seek and find book? Did you know they make them for toddlers, too? What a perfect way to keep your little one occupied on a long car trip! The toddler version of a seek and find activity book includes pages that are much less cluttered, making it easier for your child to find the selected images. There are lots of versions available, many of which include popular children’s characters.
Buy it on Amazon: Old MacDonald’s Farm Seek and Find Activity Book
Road Trip with Toddler Hack #2: Bite the Bullet, Bring the Tablet
Now, don’t go getting all judgy.
If you’re like me, you try your darndest to limit your toddler’s screen time. But … a road trip with a toddler is not your normal circumstance. You’re trapped in a moving vehicle for hours on end.
Do yourself a favor and get a little lenient with your screen time rules. You will thank yourself later.
Check out this article from Family Vacation Critic on the 8 Best Tablets for Toddlers and Kids 2021 to see which option would work best for you.It doesn’t need to be all about Paw Patrol, Peppa Pig or other cartoons, there are plenty of learning and development apps for children ages 2 and older that your toddler will love.
The key is moderation … only break out the tablet when things are looking desperate. You are not a bad parent if you give your child a little screen time. Everyone does it.
Trust me, it will save you going gray prematurely or screaming out DON’T MAKE ME PULL THIS CAR OVER! (and sounding like a warped version of your own parents).
Bonus Tip: If you don’t want to listen to Daniel Tiger along with your toddler, buy them children’s safe headphones!
Road Trip with Toddler Hack #3: Bring a Potty
Long road trips with toddlers who are potty training just sounds like a recipe for disaster. Maybe it’s the biggest reason you steer clear of it. In order to avoid accidents, you’ll have to stop often, which can be a pain – or plain old nasty.
But what do you do if there isn’t a rest stop nearby and your toddler has to go NOW? Just bring the potty with you!
I remember my parents bringing our training potty on long car trips even as we got a bit older. It makes perfect sense. You won’t have to stop at every rest stop, and your toddler can go immediately, which limits the chance of accidents.
My husband and I did this over the Christmas holiday when we went to a drive-thru light display. For easy clean up, we lined the removable cup with a plastic grocery bag. When my son told us he had to go, we pulled over, popped open the trunk, and viola! Portable potty!
I like this potty chair from Target because you can close the lid to prevent spills.
Road Trip with Toddler Hack #4: Don’t Forget Snacks
On the same holiday car trip, we packed an on-the-go easy-clean-up dinner: peanut butter and fluff, Goldfish, apples, and cookies. These were all things I knew my son would eat without a fuss.
I suggest packing snacks that you know your toddler will eat. This is not the time to have them try something new. It will only lead to screaming.
I kept all the food with me and passed things back one at a time so my son couldn’t snack as he pleased. Everything you pack should be easy for the child to open themselves. This way, you avoid spills as you pass things to them, and you don’t have to climb in the back to help.
I put everything in individual Ziploc bags. Whatever my son didn’t eat was zipped back up and saved for later.
An alternative to a Ziploc bag is the Munchkin Snack Catcher. It’s perfect for small snacks like Cheerios or Goldfish and keeps the food contained without spilling.
Road Trip with Toddler Hack #5: Car Seat Lap Travel Tray
Now that you’ve figured out all the toys and activities you’re going to pack, your toddler will need somewhere to play with them. It’s true all of the things mentioned above can be done without a table… but having one would just make everything easier.
This car seat lap travel tray can be used two ways: as a tray that sits over your child’s lap or as a backseat organizer that hangs on the headrest in front of your child’s seat.
Used in the second way, it can hold the tablet! As a tray, it provides surface space for your toddler to keep busy with the above-mentioned activities or any other toys you choose to bring.
Buy it on Amazon: Car Seat Lap Travel Tray
Road Trip with Toddler Hack #6: Pack It All in a Backpack
Buy it at Target: Toddler Elmo Backpack
Ready for your Road Trip? Hack Away!
I hope my road trip with toddler hacks have lessened your anxiety about planning a long car ride with your little one. Traveling with toddlers in a car doesn’t have to be scary if you use the tips above.
You got this, mama! Gas up, grab the wheel and soak up the memories.
About the Author
Brigid Levi is a part-time writer and a full-time mom to two beautiful boys and a dog. Her hobbies include discussing Outlander with her mother-in-law and rolling her eyes at her husband's jokes.