Dr. Dana Johnson: Road Trips

Published in the Wisconsin State Journal on July 25, 2013

Dear Dr. Johnson: My family is planning a road trip for later this summer. What can I do to make it more enjoyable for my 3-year-old and myself?

Dear Reader: Many families choose to travel during the summer, whether to explore new places, visit family or return to the annual vacation spot. With my son’s closest grandparents being a 10-hour drive away, we have gone on long road trips since he was an infant. I have learned a few tips and tricks over the years.

Safety should always be first. Children need to be in age-appropriate car seats and buckled in at all times. If they need to come out of the car seat for any reason, it’s time for a stop at a rest area, gas station or restaurant.

All older children, adolescents and adults should use seat belts. The driver should be well-rested and distractions should be limited.

Have realistic expectations for children. If your toddler has never been in a car for more than 20 minutes, a 12-hour car ride may not be the best first road trip. A shorter trip might be more ideal.

It is best to have two or more adults when traveling with young children — one adult to drive and the other to entertain and meet the child’s needs.

Expect to take breaks. Whether a year old or 10 years old, children need breaks from the car and opportunities to stretch their legs. The younger my son was, the longer the trip took due to the number and length of pit stops.

A good rule of thumb is one stop every two hours. We have become very familiar with most of the rest areas between Madison and my parents’ home. Tree tag is a favorite way for all of us to exercise our travel-weary bodies (the trees are “safe”). We took a football on our most recent trip and played a modified version of two-hand-touch football.

If possible, bring some healthy snacks. A day of eating nothing but fast food can make the body feel even worse.

Bring entertainment — coloring books, books to read, toys, activities and movies. Whether it’s on a portable DVD player or a tablet loaded with movies, a film can keep some children entertained for a couple of hours.

Remember the road games you played as a kid or look for a few ideas online. Point out interesting sights along the way. A young child may find cows along the road entertaining. We’ve counted semi trucks, played the alphabet game (find each letter of the alphabet on signs), looked for license plates from various states and numerous other games.

Expect to have some complaining or crying from smaller children and to hear “are we there yet?” from older children. If crossing multiple states, you can talk with older children about the order of states you will go through so they can gauge how close you are getting to your destination. You could also do this with large cities. If your child is particularly interested, giving them a map so they can follow the route may be entertaining.

Traveling with children can be challenging but also fun. I hope you have a safe and enjoyable trip!

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