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On the road: Tips for car travel with your toddler

Toddlers aren't always the best of travelers. But there are things parents can do to help make road trips fun and safe.

As an infant, Sam Mills usually slept contentedly during car trips.

But by age 2, Sam had become a difficult travel partner.

"He would cry and strain against the seat belt. The little escape artist even tried to climb out of his car seat," says Sam's mother, Rebecca. "I was at a loss as to how I could make car travel easier on us both."

Mills' problem isn't unique. It's normal for young children to grow restless when confined to a car seat. Children ages 9 months to about 24 months tend to be extra active and may struggle to get out of a car seat, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

While it's important for your child to remain seated and buckled in for the ride, there are ways to make car trips fun and keep your child occupied.

Stress safety. When buckling in, have your child pretend to be an astronaut, an airplane pilot or a race car driver. You might also buckle in a favorite toy or stuffed animal. Talk about how safe the toy is now that it's buckled up. Remind your child that it's important to stay in the car seat whenever the car is on the road.

Make travel fun. Stock up on a variety of picture books, coloring books and small toys, and keep them within reach of your child's car seat.

When toys no longer hold your child's interest:

  • Point out the passing sights. Make driving a learning experience and talk about the things your child sees out the window. When your child begins to learn colors, letters and numbers, ask him or her to identify them on signs and billboards. Be sure to keep your eyes on the road though.
  • Listen to sing-alongs, poems or stories. Encourage your child to sing along with favorite tunes. Favorite videos may also be an option.

Schedule wisely. Try to plan longer trips to coincide with your child's usual nap time.

Stop at least every two hours on longer trips. Frequent stops will give your child a chance to stretch and run around, eat a snack, and have a diaper change or use the bathroom.

Keep in mind that young children may not be able to describe the queasy feeling of car sickness. So if your child seems pale and restless, stop as soon as safely possible. Have your child walk around and get some fresh air. Offer crackers or another light snack to help ease nausea.

This too shall pass

Even the best efforts can sometimes result in a wailing, unhappy child.

It may be tempting to unbuckle your child to appease the whining and protests. But for safety's sake, you'll need to be firm and insist that your child remain seated and buckled in.

Remind yourself that this is a phase that will eventually pass. As your child grows older, car travel should become easier.

Reviewed 12/7/2021

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