Our cross-country road trip with a 7 month old became the most stress free trip we’ve ever taken. Here’s how:
“Somebody give that baby a bottle!” proclaimed the 1960’s classic television show, The Honeymooners. The comedic legacy lives on today, where many moms lament the challenges of having an exclusively breastfed baby. This holiday season, my family embarked on a cross-country road trip with my 7 month old breastfed baby and 50lb dog in our tiny Ford Fiesta. Many people told me that I must be crazy or courageous to take such a trip with an infant. However, our cross-country road trip with our 7 month old became the most stress free trip we’ve ever taken.
My Thoughts on Packing
Packing for a trip has always been a stressful, last-minute rush for me and is usually a pretty dramatic experience. I decided that I didn’t want to live on the last-minute edge anymore and created a packing list for each person. This helped me to see the things we needed and pack only the necessities. We traveled in a Ford Fiesta, which is a tiny subcompact car. With very little space to carry luggage, packing light became a necessity.
For the adults, my husband and I, we packed about five to seven days of clothing, basic toiletries, and some cold-climate gear. We knew we had access to laundry, so we didn’t worry about packing too much clothing. We only packed the basic natural toiletries that we all use, and skipped anything we don’t use every day. For the babe, we packed 8 outfits, onesies, pajamas, socks, and a coat. In the car, she wore knitted legwarmers or a sleeper rather than pants for quick diaper changes. I also brought her blankey, although it was probably not necessary. This all fit into two carry-on sized suitcases in the trunk.
For diapering, we brought 2-3 days’ worth of cloth diapers (prefolds and covers) and made a gallon sized freezer bag full of wet cloth wipes. We also brought a few disposables for backup in case we needed them. We also brought our small travel wet bag for our stops and a larger laundry wet bag to store dirty diapers in the trunk. We put all of this, including our laundry detergent, into a cloth shopping bag.
Many people believe that kids need to be entertained constantly with technology to be content on a long car trip. I remember being plugged into headphones constantly in the car as a teenager (we didn’t have the fancy digital toys that are available today, but I see this as a predecessor to today’s technology). In the past, when my daughter was really struggling in the car, I used some baby sign language videos on my phone to cease the endless screaming and fussing. However, I thought about how that sets up a precedent of expectation for a young child. If they are exposed to dvd’s and digital media in the car as a way to stay occupied, they may come to expect that level of stimulation while traveling and develop a need for this technology. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that television and other media should be avoided for children under 2 years of age, as children learn best through interaction with people rather than screen time[i]. The AAP also links the use of infant screen time to language learning delays[ii].
I want my children to be able to be focused on the present and live in a connected way, not zoned out into a screen while traveling with family. I want my daughter to experience her surroundings through movement, play, and human interaction. However, I am not a luddite. As our children grow older, it will be increasingly important for them to make smart independent decisions about their technology usage and we can set this example in our family life. I don’t think there is any harm in trying some educational media if your older child is exceptionally fussy or cranky in the car, but I don’t want to set the precedent for my children as infants. If you have a cranky kid, you do what you gotta do to get through it and drive safely.
Instead, I allowed us to bring one electronic toy. We brought the top of her play table with us because we were able to set it up on her lap to play with. It has a few lights, plays music, and makes different sounds while interacting with buttons and spinners. However, I saved this toy for times when she really had a hard time focusing on anything else and became really restless in the car. The electronic script talks about colors and animals in songs, so it also had a bit of educational value.
Other items I brought for her in the car included a selection of books (especially touch and feel books) from our local library, some wooden toys like the Skwish and blocks with patterns, cloth books, teethers, rattles, music CD’s that we can sing along to and practice our signing, and some stuffed toys. The key was to select some new things for the trip that she hadn’t explored yet, and to keep a good rotation of some toys handy. She especially liked the new touch and feel books from the library, giving her new items to explore. We didn’t have any fancy car toys or new products.
On the Road
Overall, I was really surprised that it took us about the same travel time overall with the whole family as it did with just the two of us adults in the past. We stopped on average every 2-3 hours or so. We found ourselves getting into a routine in the car. I sat in the back seat with my daughter for most of the car riding time. She would start out hanging out in her car seat with her blankey for a while and taking in the environment. Once she seemed bored, I would offer her toys, books, and music to play until she got fussy. When she was fussy and upset, that became a sign that she was tired and wanted to fall asleep. I would tuck her in with her blankey and sing to her gently until she fell asleep for a nap in her car seat. She would sleep for about an hour or 2. When she woke up from a nap, we would make a stop to rest, nurse, eat food, walk the dog, and change her diaper.
One of the most irritating challenges we encountered on this trip was the lack of changing stations in public restrooms. In the south, we encountered very few baby changing stations. I do give credit to Georgia though for having a changing station in their trailer-style welcome center. I ended up changing her in the car (ugh), on counters, across sinks, and other random places. On the way back, I learned it was much easier to leave her in a fleece footed sleeper for the car trip to make changes easier. Then we didn’t have to struggle with a coat and pants while changing a diaper.
Like most moms, I tend to get stressed out about my baby getting upset and fussy. While she was sleeping in her car seat, I used breathing and meditation techniques to make sure that I was not carrying any tension around with me while we were traveling. I also brought a book for myself to read while she slept, keeping me engaged in thoughts and ideas aside from baby keeping along the way. I think this helped me keep my energy up so that if she did become cranky or unhappy, I was able to soothe her without becoming stressed.
During our breaks from driving, it was really important to make sure that everyone got out of the car and stretched. I set my daughter down to play in the grass or on the ground as much as possible. I allowed her to play with leaves, sticks, and dirt while roaming around. I feel that this connection with the earth is really important for grounding, especially having a baby away from home for the first time. She was able to feel the earth before we were held captive in the car for a few hours. It helped the adults feel connected and refreshed also, as we stretched and walked with the dog outside.
My daughter has been exclusively breastfed since birth, and started eating some solid foods around 6 months. She still doesn’t consume very much solid food and doesn’t need it right now because breast milk supplies all the nutrition she needs. While traveling, we didn’t worry about giving her solid foods unless we were stopped somewhere at a restaurant and we happened to have something healthy for her to eat. We do baby led weaning, so she has never eaten a puree at all, making it really easy to go out and travel. No need to bring jars of baby food or spoons. Many people believe that babies need to eat solid foods at this stage, but it is a “nice to have” and not a “must have.” Traveling with a breast fed baby is really easy, since you don’t have to worry about washing or sterilizing bottles or pump parts, or mixing formula. My daughter never wanted to take a bottle anyway, as well as a pacifier. Potentially, this led is to making stops more often at times for nursing breaks. But really the best thing is that I was able to provide her with warmth, comfort, and nourishing milk during these breaks which kept her really content through the stretches of driving. The car cuddles were invaluable in between riding in her car seat for long stretches, and I saw this as nature’s way of making sure we all were rested, comfortable, and loved throughout the trip. In the past, I traveled with a manual breast pump and a bottle just in case of anything, but this time I just left it all behind.
This cross country road trip was one of the most stress free travel experiences I have ever had. Using minimalist principles helped us to feel connected and bond with each other throughout the trip as well. If we ever take this trip again, I hope that it goes just as smoothly. Also, this trip was a huge confidence booster for me also. It convinced me that I am able to easily travel with my daughter, and helped me to feel more confident as a parent. Happy travels!