They poke, they complain, they have a strange need to use the restroom every 20 minutes, and they have almost no sense of time and distance -- in short, young kids are not always ideal companions on a long car trip. Then again, what fun is a family vacation if you don't take the family? In minivans and station wagons across the country, parents doing what they can to keep everyone safe and sane on the road.
Before you do anything else, make sure your child has the right car seat. All babies should ride in a rear-facing seat until they are at least 2 years old. After that, they can move to a forward-facing car seat until they outgrow it, usually after they reach 80 pounds. After that, children should use a tall-back booster seat until they are at least 4 feet 9, tall enough to comfortably and safely wear seat belts. Double-check the installation instruction for all seats.
Pack a first-aid kit with, among other things, bandages, infant or children's Tylenol, and an antibiotic ointment. If your children are prone to motion sickness, ask your pediatrician about the proper dosing for Dramamine. This over-the-counter medication usually make kids drowsy, although some get hyperactive instead. You might want to give it a trial run at home before trying it on the road.
During the trip
If possible, try to stay flexible about your plans and your schedule. If the kids are well-behaved or sleeping, you might put in some extra miles. If they're getting a little restless and cranky, you can spend a little extra time at a rest stop or city park along the way. You can head off some of that restlessness by taking frequent stops. If you bring along some toys like balls, Frisbees, or jump ropes, the kids can discharge a little extra energy.
Food and drinks can be a great distraction in the car, and they have a proven ability to help turn around foul moods. Pack some healthy snacks like crackers, cereal in sandwich bags, pretzels, fruit, and juice boxes. You'll probably have to give the car a good vacuuming when the trip is over but it will be worth it.
Be sure to bring along plenty of other diversions. Favorite CDs can really help the miles fly by. Coloring books and small toys can be a big help, too. If your kids are old enough, try a game of 20 questions or I Spy. Your parents undoubtedly used this strategy on you during a long ago road trip. Now it's your turn to keep the tradition alive.
Mayo Clinic. Car Seat Safety: Avoid 10 Common Mistakes. Sept 12, 2009.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Child safety. 2010. http://www.nhtsa.gov/Safety/CPS
American Academy of Pediatrics. Car safety seats and transportation safety. 2010. http://www.aap.org/healthtopics/carseatsafety.cfm