Beginner’s guide to your first road trip with a baby

man and woman standing in front of a campervan with their baby

This post was originally written before the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. It was updated when we traveled locally in our state, taking every precaution we could. Please travel and recreate responsibly based on your local area’s restrictions as well as guidelines for your destination. This website is a great resource.

By the time Baby OB was two months old, I was getting stir crazy. But jumping in the car when a newborn seemed intimidating. Fortunately, my husband was game to jump in and just try it. Since that first trip, we’ve driven across the country (thanks COVID) and gone on a camper van trip around Colorado. Here are my tips and tricks for getting on the road with baby in tow.

Route planning

First, decide how far you want to go. This depends a LOT on your baby’s sleep and feeding schedule, plus your tolerance for turning around and going home if thing turns into a sh*tshow (literal or figurative). Always give yourself some buffer time for how long you will actually be in the car.

At two months old, Baby OB could care less where or when they slept, so it made the road trip pretty smooth even though we ended up driving almost double our planned amount on the first night.

But by seven months old (our second road trip), Baby OB was adamant about not being in the car close to bed time. We left Denver hours after our goal departure time thanks to some rental van snafus, so we were still cruising down the highway an hour from the campground when the screaming started. Fortunately, my husband getting in the backseat worked out. Make sure this is an option for you too! In our regular car, we do have to shuffle things around a bit to fit in the backseat, but in a campervan we could just pop into the backseat without even stopping!

First of all, be okay with breaking your routine/schedule because it will likely all go down the toilet. The first trip, we left home right around bedtime and tried to get back home by bedtime. It went pretty smoothly, but that could’ve been luck and certainly was helped by the fact Baby OB loved sleeping in the car at the time.

What time to leave

For our first trip, we left in the evening, but before Baby OB’s bedtime (8:30 pm at the time). They were car-sleeping champs, plus we couldn’t leave any earlier because my husband had worked that day. Baby OB slept in the car for hours and it was actually really nice time for my husband and I to catch up!

For the second trip, this was not going to fly. Baby OB had recently decided that being in the car past 5 pm was reason for a major meltdown. We aimed to leave between their two naps, around mid-day. We ended up leaving WAY late and were still in the car at 5 pm. This meant my husband was climbing into the back of the van to entertain Baby OB until we got to the campground. He was pretty wiped out at the end, because it was basically nonstop singing/clapping/toy swapping.

If you have an older baby, I would recommend trying to leave between the two naps. Unless your baby can sleep in the car well, it’s not worth trying to nap or do bedtime on the road!

Where and how does baby sleep?

Naptime

I’m going to say it again. This is not the time for schedules/keeping to your normal routine. You can certainly endeavor to stick to them as closely as possible, but at least for us, it was less stressful to just go with the flow and feed/put down for naps based on Baby OB’s cues.

At two months old, naptime looked like Baby OB sleeping in the carrier and car all day, and that was okay with us. They had almost no routine or schedule anyways.

At six months old, this looked like a morning (short) nap in the backpack while we hiked and then a normal length nap at some point in the afternoon when they started yawning.

Bedtime

Our second trip, Baby OB was up two hours past their normal bedtime and still rocking on the day we left. Naturally they did not sleep in two hours the next morning, but a couple days in and they were back on schedule (for bed time at least).

I will also acknowledge that this isn’t easy. The first trip, I had a really hard time breaking from the routine we had started to build because I was worried about being a bad parent/not giving Baby OB what they needed. From what I hear, that never really goes away, but this was really good practice in following Baby OB’s cues instead of worrying about all the “what ifs” without even trying. It was hard, but good.

Ok, so where do you put them at bedtime?

We don’t co-sleep, and haven’t attempted co-sleeping while camping or road tripping. No judgment if you do, but just a head’s up that these suggestions don’t include co-sleeping!

If you’re staying in a hotel

Our first trip was only one night in a hotel, so we just brought all of our normal stuff with us since we had room in the car. During the day, all the naps were happening either in the car seat or the carrier because this was possible for us at two months old.

We don’t use a travel crib/bassinet, we just have an all-in-one that I love. The Guava Lotus Crib + Bassinet packs down into a backpack, is super light, and takes about five minutes to break down or set up.

I am well aware that the $300 price tag looks steep, but we sprang for it because that’s the only bed we’re using. We don’t have a separate bassinet, crib, or pack n play. The Guava does all of those things!

We set up the Guava in the far corner of the hotel room, plugged in the white noise machine we use, and that was it…except that Baby OB is a SUPER noisy sleeper. My husband and I had already kicked them out of our room at home, so having to go back to sharing a room resulted in very little sleep for both of us.

In retrospect, I might’ve put the white noise machine right next to us instead of right next to the bassinet so that we could’ve drowned out his snoring a little better. I also would’ve packed ear plugs!

If you’re camping

We’ve yet to pilot sleeping in a tent, but I can give you some advice for a campervan that could translate to a tent if yours is big enough (our tent is not, which is why we haven’t tried it!).

Baby OB spent five days sleeping in a Kidco Peapod, however on the last day of our trip I found the tag that said this product is not supposed to be used for children under one year. So use at your own risk!

A week before we left, we started putting Baby OB in the Peapod for naps, bedtime, and then ultimately every time they slept. In my mind, this made sure it wouldn’t be a big shock when we pulled out the Peapod away from home.

The Peapod lived on the floor of the van in front of our bed, so once again we were all sleeping in the same room. Fortunately, Baby OB was quieter overnight by this age (eight months). Unfortunately, we didn’t realize how early they actually woke up. At home, we don’t hear them until 7 am. Apparently they actually wake up at 6 and just babble until then! We had a lot of early mornings camping.

We put up blinds all around the van to help keep it dark (they went to bed more than an hour before sunset). By the time we were going to bed, Baby OB was so zonked they didn’t even hear us come in the back of the van (or noisily shut the door).

I was very worried about Baby OB just *not* going to sleep. I was prepared to pull out all the stops that we don’t at home – rocking to sleep, nursing to sleep, holding him, singing forever, whatever it took! Fortunately it didn’t come to that, and there was only one night that he took a little longer to settle down.

Both trips it only took 1-2 days at home for them to catch up on sleep and be back in their normal routine.

How to navigate eating

There isn’t a convenient way to feed an infant because they are ALWAYS eating (or at least it feels that way). Feeding on the road was all over the place and on-demand, which was outside our normal routine too.

For both trips, breastfeeding was still working for me, so we decided to not bring any bottles or my pump to cut down on how much stuff we had.

I mostly nursed Baby OB in the car or van. I personally find it easier to wedge an elbow on the door handle or car seat to help support them instead of having them just in my lap in a restaurant. If you’re feeding in a restaurant, though, make sure to ask for or snag a booth for more privacy (if you want it). I wasn’t a fan of whipping out my boob in the middle of this one very small, open coffee shop, but then managed to sneak into a booth. No one even noticed!

Note: our first road trip happened before the coronavirus became a pandemic in the United States. If you are reading this during the coronavirus outbreak, I do not recommend eating in restaurants even if they are open and particularly if you have traveled there from a different community.

For the first road trip, I packed the Boppy. I only used it once or twice, and it ended up being more of a pain in the car then I thought it would be. I would skip it!

Even with the Boppy, there were times that Baby OB wasn’t totally comfortable. During our first road trip, they definitely didn’t eat as much as normal. But by the night we came back, they just had a big meal before bed and then were totally fine. Plus, the only way to get them comfortable eating on the go is…eating on the go. By the time we went out at eight months, eating on the go was pretty easy for them.

I’ve quit breastfeeding ahead of our next trip, and I realize that my initial concerns about formulas and bottles being in convenient was totally unfounded. It’ll be easy to pack one bottle and make that work all day, plus the formula container doesn’t take up much space. Just bring lots of potable water!

If your baby has started on solids, I personally have found that making food ahead of time has been more convenient. We brought four mason jars of homemade baby food for a five-day trip. We kept them in a cooler the entire time and it ended up being way less messy than pouch purees, plus it was more cost-effective. I was also pleasantly surprised that it didn’t take more than 30 minutes to blend up a bunch of stuff at home and pack it.

I would’ve loved to have a travel high chair once Baby OB was eating solids. This could’ve also been a useful place to park him, which we didn’t really have in the campervan since he kept rolling and bonking his head on the hard walls of the van.

The Ciao Baby chair a friend handed down to us didn’t really work unfortunately. Baby OB was always slumped over in it, and getting their chunky legs in and out of the poorly placed (in my opinion) straps resulted in so many curse words at home that I never even brought it on the road with us. I want to try this one next road trip.

How to navigate rest stops

Depending on how long your drive is, and your baby’s personality, they may want a break. After spending all day in the carrier or the car seat, Baby OB got very sick of being in the car seat during dinner (before coronavirus). I finished eating first, so I just held him in my lap while my husband finished up and that was fortunately all he needed.

All that time in the car seat did end up irritating Baby OB’s sensitive skin, though. We didn’t know they had ezcema before we left, but we certainly did by the time we got home! Our pediatrician prescribed some steroid cream that cleared it up.

We didn’t pick noisy restaurants (before coronavirus) on purpose, but it ended up helping a LOT because no one notices a crying baby in an already noisy restaurant.

In the coronavirus world, we’ve made the most of town parks and other outdoor places to stop. Bring a picnic blanket with you to make sure you’ve got somewhere to set them down! When we drove to Illinois (7 hour days in the car), just 15-30 minutes of tummy time/sitting time in a park would rejuvenate Baby OB for several hours!

But what are they supposed to do for all that time in the car?

At two months old, Baby OB wasn’t super interested in toys and pretty much just slept any time they were in the car. We decided to throw the sleep schedule out the window for the two days we were gone, and it worked out totally fine for us. I like to think it was helpful in making Baby OB a bit more flexible!

When Baby OB was less than two months old, having one of us in the back wasn’t helpful at all. It didn’t do anything to stop the crying, so we decided on that road trip to both stay up front.

Now that they’re older, though, one of us usually ends up getting in the back at some point, even if it’s just to keep them company! We bring 6-8 toys (I especially love this Bug Jug since you can fit lots of toys inside it), 2-3 books, and reserve teething biscuits for a special car treat.

It’s not going to be easy, but it is going to be worth it! Drink lots of coffee and enjoy the immeasurable happiness that comes from the good moments. Take a deep breath in the bad moments.

What to pack

Clothing

  • Double the clothes you think you will need (in case of poosplosion) and plenty of layers.
  • Our first road trip was an overnight in February in Colorado, so I brought:
    • 4 onesies (long sleeve with covered feet) – these were their base layer for every outfit
    • 2 hoodies
    • 2 pairs of pants, to layer on top of onesies with the hoodies as needed
    • 2 pairs of slippers (we use these instead of socks)
    • Beanie/warm hat
  • Our second road trip was five nights in July in Colorado, and poosplosions were no longer a problem, so I brought:
    • Four light-weight, long-sleeve, footed onesies
    • Two short-sleeve bodysuits
    • One sweatshirt
    • One pair of sweatpants
    • Warm hat, slippers, and fleece bunting for the cold mornings

Bedtime

  • Bed + fitted sheet that smells like home OR Peapod
  • White noise machine (ours is a plug-in, so we left this at home for camping)
  • Sleep sack (fleece for night and sleeveless for daytime if you’re camping)

Eating

  • 4 mason jars of homemade baby food
  • Bib and baby spoon
  • 1 box of teething biscuits for driving (if your baby is old enough)
  • 1-2 bottles (if you’re using them, I would only attempt this for formula)
    • Bring a travel size dish soap and some extra potable water to rinse out
  • Travel high chair

Supplies + Gear

  • Diapers and wipes
  • Portable changing pad
  • 2 burp cloths
  • 1 muslin blanket (use for extra layer, wiping drool, shielding from the sun, etc)
  • Baby carrier (we brought a stroller frame just in case but it would’ve been a major pain everywhere we stopped and we never used it)
  • For hiking, we brought:
    • Thule hiking backpack, but you can also just use a carrier!
    • Baby sunscreen
    • Mosquito net for the backpack/carrier

First Aid

  • Baby Tylenol
  • Snot sucker/Nose Frida
  • Lotion
  • Cortisol ointment for any random rashes
  • Thermometer

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