Column By Chelsea Murray Kaneb

A mini-road trip with a toddler requires more gear than an African safari.

Last week we jammed half our household into our Toyota Prius for a five-day road trip to Maryland and Washington D.C. to bury my grandfather, celebrate family, and explore Washington D.C. with my two-year-old daughter.

COVID conscious, we rented an Airbnb for privacy and safety. In the weeks leading up to the trip we prepared our daughter about the sights we’d encounter in the nation’s capitol; the Lincoln Memorial, the giant granite monument to MLK Jr, the giant pandas at the National Zoo, and of course, the White House.

We told my daughter that Joe Biden lived in the White House and we were going to see it. Unexpected, as we pulled into the driveway of our Airbnb, our toddler was electrified.

“Yay,” she hollered. “Joe Biden’s house.”

And for the next five days our Airbnb was referred to as Joe Biden’s house.

Getting a head start on her 2056 run for the White House.

We had a fantastic few days peppered with dozens of entertaining toddler observations, including her thoughts on the “cute and fancy” pandas at the zoo, because they looked like they were in a suit. Toddlers have big emotions, and we surfed along with ours and made memories we’ll cherish for a lifetime.

As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, we have been very cautious as a family during the pandemic, so we take all of that into account when we travel, especially with our toddler.

We spent most of our time outside (luckily, DC and Annapolis had a treasure trove of outdoor options), travel by car, and attempt to stay in stand-alone accommodations (although hotels are relatively COVID safe if you don’t spend much time in the common areas).

Trying to introduce Linus to Abe was a perfectly reasonable toddler thing to do.

While on our road trip I received messages asking about tips for traveling with a toddler, especially during the ongoing pandemic. Here’s a list, but the most critical takeaway is staying mentally (and slightly physically) flexible since toddlers are notoriously unpredictable.

Remember that most babies and toddlers have little patience for long hauls in the car. If your road trip is predicted to last over 4-6 hours, or many days, it’s best to take it slow and break it up into more digestible segments sprinkled with plenty of stops for stretching legs, resting, and snacking.

We don’t take our daughter into crowded indoor spaces, so we had to be a little creative and plan accordingly for our road trip (especially during a heatwave).

The key to a successful road trip with little people is mainly centered around snacks and food. They are little snack monsters at this age, and spending hours on end strapped into the car can feel like the end of the world to them, so plying them with plenty of yummy and nutritious snacks, and ensuring they are hydrated, can make a world of difference. Introducing new snacks and giving them some of the sweets and treats you limit at home can be exciting too. We had bags full of snacks, including a container full of tasty and healthy mini blender muffins that my daughter (and my other travel companions) couldn’t get enough of.

During a 30 minute visit to the King Memorial in Washington D.C. there was dancing, running, laughing and and even a moment of toddler awe.

Schedule your drive times to go well with your family’s natural movements. That meant getting a massive chunk out of the way while our daughter took her afternoon snooze in her car seat. Some children have a more challenging time sleeping in the car, so plan what works best for them, which often means driving at night.

It’s a huge help if there’s an adult or older child in the backseat for the journey to assist with entertaining and bonding with the toddler. Pack a little bag or basket full of favorite books and toys, but break out some new surprises to hold their attention.

We stopped in a cute little town in Morristown, New Jersey, and my Dad surprised our daughter with a several new books from an independent bookstore that excited her and spiced up everyone’s reading routine. Older toddlers may enjoy coloring or learning worksheets and screen time with an iPad.

Kid-friendly audiobooks, podcasts, and music playlists are a big hit. Our current go-to is the Winnie the Pooh stories narrated by the soothing voice of the late Christopher Plummer who played Captain Von Trapp in the Sound of Music), the In the Heights soundtrack, a few Raffi songs, and any music where our daughter can “shake her booty.” You can find a ton of narrated storybooks on Spotify, including all the old Disney ones that I used to listen to as a kid.

Bringing a foldable camp chair was one of the many items we packed to make our lives more flexible for picnics and morning breakfasts on our Airbnb deck.

Keep a bag of all the essential items close by (diapers, wipes, a little emergency kit, an extra change of clothes, snacks, etc.).

To avoid meltdowns and tantrums, prepare your toddler with information and explanations about what they can expect next or look forward to on the road trip. If they have a heads-up about things, they can feel better prepared to handle the newness of things and the transitions.

Be flexible, be flexible, and be flexible about EVERYTHING. Give yourself extra time, and extra snacks, and don’t stay married to your regular home schedule since nap adjustments and late nights are bound to happen. Give yourself grace and breathe.

Family road trips are a time to bond, experience new things, and make memories together, and I hope this little list can help traveling with a toddler go as smoothly as their little selves will allow.

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