Car Travel with an Infant

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I wrote in my last post for the Huggies series about how we flew successfully with an infant, and I thought I’d follow that up by sharing some tips we learned about driving long distances with an infant, too. We primarily drove if we traveled with small babies, and we made some big mistakes before figuring out some great travel ideas.

MISTAKE #1: When Michael was a wee baby lad, we decided to drive from Connecticut to Virginia to have Thanksgiving with my family at my sister’s house. Our big mistake was thinking we could drive that entire nine hours in one go with an infant. We left around his afternoon nap time and figured he would nap in the car. Then we could stop and have dinner and change him into his jammies and he would just magically fall back asleep and we could continue the rest of the trip with a sleeping angel in the back. We ended up stopping at a hotel about two hours shy of my sister’s house because Bean simply could not go on one minute longer. We got so close but still ended up stopping. I was disappointed because I really wanted to be at Ginny’s house on Thanksgiving morning and wake up with my family like we always had, but we just couldn’t push him any longer. Nothing would make him stop crying. He was miserable. I was miserable. Chris was miserable. So, we paid the $90 for a roadside Holiday Inn and called it quits for the day around 8:00 pm, after six hours of driving. But we ended up having such a fun time in a hotel room, just the three of us! It was a great way to end a long, exhausting day. Plus, when we got up in the morning, we could take our time and relax and move at Bean’s pace instead of rushing to get somewhere.

LESSON LEARNED: Babies move slower than adults. They need time to stretch and roll around and play, even when they are traveling – ESPECIALLY when they are traveling. So, be prepared to give them that time. It’s THEIR vacation, too, and they should enjoy it.

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MISTAKE #2: Another time we drove to my sister’s house (this time when she was living in Atlanta), we took the Pack ‘n Play for Gracie to sleep in because she was so small and we thought we’d let Bean Man sleep with us in Ginny’s guest bedroom. It was actually a pretty good sleeping arrangement. Except that we had never put Gracie in a Pack ‘n Play before, so when we laid her down in it, she flipped out. I’m pretty sure she was cursing something fierce in her hysterical sobbing fit. And why wouldn’t she? It was already a strange new place for her, and now she was lying in some strange new bed. Everything was weird for her, and she refused to sleep the entire time we were there. We ended up sleeping with her in our bed. Along with Bean. And me and Chris. Needless to say, no one slept well.

LESSON LEARNED: About a week before going on vacation, it you know your baby will be sleeping in a Pack ‘n Play, let her spend some time in it at your house. Set it up in her bedroom. Let her play in there. Let her take naps in there. Give her some time to feel comfortable around it so that when you pop it up in a strange place, at least she’ll feel familiar with what she is sleeping in.

MISTAKE #3: When we went to our hometown for Christmas last year, we knew there would be so many people to take her to see. And we wanted to see them all, too. We only get home once or twice a year to see Chris’s family members, and there are a lot of them. At the holidays, there’s always particular pressure to get around to see everyone. But Gracie was still an infant, and she just could not hang for too long. We stayed in Pensacola for one week, and our best days were the ones when we stuck strictly to the kids’ normal schedules at home. The days we skipped naps or had a late lunch or stayed out late with family and friends were always really, really hard on the kids. Their little bodies just don’t adapt to a lot of change at one time. Babies thrive on predictability. They feel stable when they know the routine. When we pushed Gracie too far, it wasn’t like she cried when she wanted a nap or she got fussy when she was hungry. She was actually pretty good with all the changes. Until suddenly she wasn’t. It was like one minute she was rolling with the punches and the next she was hysterical, with no stopping her.

LESSON LEARNED: Even when a baby seems like she is able to keep up with all the change, the over-stimulation is just pooling inside and will come flooding out when you least expect it. To prevent this from happening, try to plan your vacation as close as possible around the normal routines. I know babies have to learn to be a little flexible with their schedules, but they are already in new surroundings and meeting new people when they are on vacation, so give them their little schedule to help them feel safe and secure. Sometimes that will mean having to tell your family no. We were supposed to meet Chris’s entire family for lunch on Christmas day, but that was the day that Gracie hit the wall, and rather than put her through anything else, we made the decision to hang at his mom’s house all day and let her take her regular naps and eat at her regular times and see people she was familiar with. When babies hit the wall, the only way around is to stop, let them recoup on their own time, and then try again later. Banging your head against the wall doesn’t help you or the wee one.

MISTAKE #4: When Bean was only three or four months old, we flew home to Florida for Chris’s sister’s graduation from college. It was the first time the family had met Bean and they were all so excited to see him. But the thing about Bean is that he doesn’t really like people rushing up to him, and he definitely doesn’t like people he doesn’t know rushing up and taking him away from me or Chris. Family is tricky, though, because they love the babies, even when they don’t see them often. But to a baby, a stranger is a stranger, even if it’s family. Bean was getting passed around and fawned all over, and to an infant, that can be really scary and unsettling.

LESSONS LEARNED: First, bring a sling. Using a sling or some form of baby-wearing device is a great way to give your baby the personal space he needs and it is also a very polite way to keep people from snatching your baby from your arms without your having to say, “No, you can’t hold him.” Second, I also learned that I know my baby better than anyone else, so even when family would say things like, “Oh, I’ve raised babies before…” when Bean would start to cry and I would try to take him back, I had to remind myself that they hadn’t raised MY baby before. You know your baby better than anyone else, so don’t be afraid to step up to even the most seasoned mother and take charge of the situation. You can very politely and kindly take control of a situation by saying something as simple as “I think Michael’s going to hang with me for a minute until he gets used to the crowd, but when he’s ready to branch out, I’ll make sure to bring him right over to you!”

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The bottom line in traveling with an infant is to be flexible when you need to and to stand up to people when you need to. Be flexible enough to cancel plans or change plans without being too disappointed, and be firm enough to draw the line as to what your baby can handle and when he or she needs some space. Travel is tricky for everyone involved, but remember that your first interest is now what’s in your baby’s best interest. If you keep thinking about that when traveling, you’ll make the choices based on the right priority.

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