road trip with baby

How to Road Trip with Baby: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

How to Road Trip with Baby: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

Let me guess…

You have to do a road trip with baby (or maybe you want to!) and that makes you a nervous. We get it.

When our daughter, Poppy, was 8 weeks old, we packed up our Rav4, mapped out a loose plan and drove for 7 hours in the first leg of our multi-state road trip with a newborn.

The trip ended up lasting 10 days—about half of what we expected it to. We visited three national parks including Glacier, Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, countless national forests, several towns, cities, and attractions as we clocked over 25 hours with Poppy in the car seat (for most of the time).

road trip with a baby

Think we’re crazy? We did it for a few reasons:

  1. To satisfy our wanderlust
  2. Because we both had time off and wanted to build memories together in a sort of post-delivery Babymoon.
  3. To prove to ourselves (and the world) that you don't have to settle for holing up at home just because you have a (new) baby.

Despite texts from friends that “only you guys would take your new baby to the jungle”, we were surprised at how few people do anything meaningful with their babies…

Yet how huge the anxiety is from new parents-to-be that their life will end when they have a kid [hint: it will, if you let it].

So this article is both a call to arms to ditch the hermit-culture that’s perpetuated when you have a newborn, a reassuring pep-talk of encouragement, and a useful how-to guide.

Not planning an “adventure?”

This guide will still be useful if you are just going on a few hour road trip to visit some family in a different state.

This is every single thing we learned about the gear we needed, how much to pack, driving and feeding/diaper/sleeping logistics, and where to stay if you have some overnights.

Is it a Good Idea to Road Trip with a Baby? What About Germs?

It’s scary taking your baby out anywhere before they’re vaccinated, let alone on a long road trip that may or may not involve being out in the cold and nasty asshole mosquitos the size of your fist.

I’m barely even exaggerating.

I especially get it because Poppy was premature. When she was 8 weeks old (which is when we took her on the road trip), her adjusted age was less than two weeks old. She was 6.5 weeks early which meant that her immune system was, to put it bluntly, “piss poor”.

So obviously we cleared it with her paediatrician, who said it was okay even before vaccinations, but who still gave us some basic instruction:

  1. Don’t bring her around kids
  2. Seriously, no kids
  3. Kids are sick and sticky, usually.

Since our idea of a relaxing road trip didn’t include throwing our newborn into the ball pit at a roadside McDonald’s of Chuck E. Cheese, we weren’t too concerned.

Check in with your own doc before you go, but don’t automatically say “no” just because your babe isn’t vaccinated yet.

Transporting Your Baby: Should My Baby Really Be in a Car Seat for That Long?

Probably one of the biggest road trip killers is what I call…

Carseatophobia: A fear of leaving a baby in a car seat for “too long”, usually experienced by new parents.

The good news is, most new babies go comatose when they’re put in the car seat—it’s like the best Ambien available.

But since a news story of a baby suffocating from sleeping in a car seat aired a couple of years ago, there’s been a lot of commotion around how long it’s safe to keep your baby in a car seat. And road trips—well, they do require a lot of driving, right?

Here’s my counter argument:

  1. You have nowhere to be: Poppy spent a good chunk of time in her car seat. We didn't enjoy putting her in it, but it was never for too long. When you're on a road trip, remember that you're on your own time. We’d drive a few hours a day and stop to take her out, set up camp, hike, or just soak it all in.
  2. You’ll stop a lot anyway: We stopped every 2 – 3 hours (sometimes more often) on our road trip, and probably most notably only drove for a maximum of 3.5 hours/day. We were able take it slow, which is exactly the type of road trip we wanted to take.
  3. You’ll be wise to baby car seat safety practices: The carseat death I just mentioned was caused by obstruction of airway. In this case, the baby fell asleep and his head slumped forward, resulting in suffocation. Sleep related causes (specifically suffocation) are the #1 leading cause of death among babies and newborns in the US and Canada, so you need to be aware of safe sleep practices, too. But this shouldn’t stop you from road tripping with your baby.

Keeping your baby safe on a roadtrip should be in-line with keeping your baby safe in the car during commutes, day trips, and, well anytime you get into your vehicle.

But, we’re first time parents too, so we were a little nervous at first. So of course we made sure we had some safeguards in place.

We got a car seat mirror just before we left, so we could check on Poppy while we were driving. We bought this one, but any mirror will do (as long as it’s crash tested!). Bonus: Poppy figured that there was some nice baby smiling at her and interacting with her, so the mirror ended up being a great source of entertainment, too.

One of us would also sit in the back seat to interact with her while we were driving. This assuaged our guilt and broke up the drive for us, too.

Finally, though this doesn’t have much to do with baby safety as much as parental mental health, we threw up some car window shades so we didn’t have to stress that somehow the UV is filtering through the tinted windows on the car and giving Poppy a sunburn. These are the ones we got (nice because they’re XL so blocked most of the sun), but anything would do.

How Long Should One Leg of Driving Be?

Some sources say that babies shouldn’t be in a car seat for longer than 30 minutes. Most traditional couples we know have much longer than 30 minute commutes, so their babies are in carseats daily out of necessity to and from daycare for much longer than 30 minutes.

Sure, you could cap each leg of driving time during your trip to 30 minutes, but we definitely didn’t because… well, we saw it as overkill.

We went no more than 3 hours at a time, though we’d often break it up into two 1.5 hour chunks. Or better yet, we’d plan to drive during naps so that we could drive for as long as she slept AND we didn’t have to feel guilty about it.

Plus, Sarah has to chug water like she’s roasting in the sahara because she’s breastfeeding, so even if we wanted to go longer, we wouldn’t have been able to drive for more than a couple of hours before she had to pee.

Feeding Your Baby on a Road Trip

Before we left I had a lot of anxiety about feeding Poppy.

  • How could I breastfeed her if we were driving? (Hint: you can, but shouldn’t. We only did this a few times).
  • If I pumped and fed her a bottle while driving, how would we heat the bottle up?
  • How would I pump if we’re on the road?

Poppy was fed exclusively breast milk.

But, because we value gender equality in child rearing and an even division of labor in our relationship, I breastfeed 50% of the time and pumped the other 50% of the time so Ryan can bottle feed (and I can sleep, take a shower, or otherwise be human).

Believe it or not, this setup makes road tripping ideal.

On hikes and times when cleaning and dealing with bottles wasn't possible or convenient, I breastfed.

But if Poppy woke up hungry as we were driving, one of us would pop back to the backseat to feed her while we were moving (again, for the most part she stayed in her car seat to eat).

For babies that spit up a lot (a la Poppy), the upright position that the car seat promotes is ideal for feeding.

We discovered Poppy is actually not particular at all about the temperature of her milk, but before we ditched the idea of warming each bottle of expressed breastmilk in a container of hot water, we would heat the bottle on the dash of the car. Worked perfectly (just open a window or two while you’re doing it if it’s hot out).

How to Pump While Travelling

Pumping turned out to be far more convenient on the road than it was at home. Even when we're not on a road trip, I pump in the car when Ryan’s driving.

At home, it feels like when I pump I’m wasting valuable time that I could be doing something else (like, I don’t know, blogging). But when I’m just sitting in the car, it’s nothing to throw on a hands-free pumping bra and pump away.

Speaking of which, you really do need two things when you’re on road trips with babies if you plan on pumping:

  1. A hands free pumping bra. You could buy one (this is the one I have) or you could use your nursing bra to hold up the pieces. But beware spillage or leakage if you take the latter route.
  2. A portable electric pump. Because of our lifestyle, it’s important for us to have an uber portable and powerful pump. While definitely on the pricier side, the Medela Freestyle was an obvious choice for us. It's small, powerful and portable so will do is well on future trips, too.

A few more things that aren’t absolutely necessary but made our trip more enjoyable and relaxing when it came to feeding were…

A cooler. Because we were camping for a portion of our trip, we needed a cooler anyway, so we kept any breastmilk that I pumped in the cooler while we were driving. This isn’t necessary for two reasons. First of all, breast milk is stable and good at room temperature for ~6 hours (and that’s a super conservative NICU estimate). Second of all, the Medela Freestyle pump came with a little mini cooler to store and cool breastmilk.

An inverter. During our pre-road trip gadget shop, we bought an inverter (this one) for our laptops so we could work on the road. The inverter was handy when my pump was low on battery because I’m silly and forgot to plug it in.

A bottle brush. We don’t use a bottle brush every time we clean the bottles, but we forgot it on our first road trip and it would have been nice to have. You can also use a toothbrush in a pinch 🙂 This one is the real mvp.

We brought about 6 Snappies, 6 bottles and 3 nipples for feeding.

Diapering on a Road Trip

Many people thought that us road tripping with a newborn was impressive enough, but the most impressive thing had to be the fact that we did it using exclusively cloth diapers.

You read that right. We still cloth diaper, for all of these reasons: Cloth Diapers Vs Disposables: The Age-old Debate Solved. 

Traveling with cloth diapers is another article, so I'll just go over…

Where Do You Change Baby?

A surprising number of parents stop in McDonald’s or a gas station to change diapers.

This is cray.

We neither wanted to let Poppy stew in her dirty diaper for long enough for us to find a McDonald’s, nor actually step foot in that nasty place, so we’d just change her in the car.

Yeah, in the car. Obviously not while it was moving.

We created a handy little change station that we could quickly whip out in the backseat, and changed many a diaper there.

Here’s what you need:

  1. The diaper, obviously.
  2. Wipes. We have cloth wipes that we’d wet ahead of time and keep in a plastic.
  3. ZipLock in the diaper bag.
  4. A portable changing station. Waterproof is a must, no fabric.

We bought this one just before we left. If we were to do it again we’d get a portable changing station with wipes storage, because trying to find the wipes in the diaper bag when baby’s on the front seat on the change pad crying is not ideal.

Where to Stay When You’re Road Tripping With a Baby

It was Day 9, and we left out Airbnb in Victor, Idaho to head to Yellowstone where we planned to camp after a day hike at Grand Teton.

Except for one forgotten fact: it was a Saturday.

A beautiful Saturday in late June in one of the most popular national parks in the US.

There were no campsites available in the whole park.  If we didn't have a baby we would have either slept in the car or set up camp in the middle of the woods. But that wasn't an option anymore.

Plus, we were dumb. We didn't do the research you're doing. If you can plan ahead, you should.

Camping with a Newborn

This isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever done but it’s not the best either.

It’s not the baby that was the problem. It was me. I was so stressed out about keeping her warm (even though she was super toasty) that I hardly enjoyed myself.

Not that I particularly love sleeping in a tent, anyway.

Camping with a newborn deserves it’s own guide, but here are some quick tips so you don’t end up in the same situation that we did.

  • Book your campsite early. “Checkout” for most campsites at National Parks is around 12pm. If it’s full in the morning, show up at 12:05. But if you can, stake your claim as early as possible, especially on weekends.
  • Stay at a campsite that has water. Water is a must, especially if your baby is breastfed.
  • Get a baby bunting bag to keep baby warm. Not overkill for the summer. It gets cold at night. If you want to save money, you can get away with blankets. But we already had a stroller bunting bag so that's what we used.

Not into camping?

Finding Cheap Accommodations

When you fail to plan you plan to fail.

Somebody famous once said that and it rang true for us when it came to our budget.

We rolled into West Yellowstone on a Wednesday evening in June and ended up spending $250 for one night in a Travelodge because we were stupid enough to not:

  1. Look at the prices ahead of time
  2. Book ahead of time.

We just assumed that we’d be able to book a last minute accommodation for cheap, but nope. If we’d known, we would have stayed in a different town and made the trip to Yellowstone early the next day.

AirBNB

In 2016, I travelled to 29 cities across 11 countries,  and spent over 250 days travelling.

That meant that I needed to find accommodations for nearly 70% of the year… and it wasn’t as simple as finding a place to rent and moving all my stuff in. So during the year, I stayed almost exclusively in AirBNBs.

AirBNB is the best invention since in the internet for the well-travelled (and for anybody who doesn’t like to sleep in a tent).

Across Europe I spent no more than $50/night on my AirBNB accommodation. I was living as a digital nomad, so I set that budget because if I were at home in Vancouver my rent would be at least $1400/month.

Fact: If you stay in an AirBNB  you’re not bunking with other people. Every single guesthouse I stayed in within my $50/night budget was for the entire flat, house or cottage. I had it all to myself.

Use my link to sign up for AirBNB and get $50 off your first trip =)

On our road trip, we stayed in a couple of AirBNBs for much cheaper than if we had stayed in hotels. In Kalispell, we decided to stop last minute and didn’t book an AirBNB so we ended up in a pretty seedy motel for far more expensive than we would have if we’d just planned ahead.

What To Do

We did everything we wanted to on our road trip with our newborn.

Well, we skipped the late nights out. But babies are so portable! We took Poppy into caves, on tours, through ranges, on long hikes…

You name it, we did it.

As long as you have a solid baby carrier (doesn't even need to be fancy – just an Ergo will do!) and good timing, you should be able to do whatever you want.

What Else?

We want to help you live your best life, even with a kiddo.

So comment below and let me know what you want me to add to this article to make it the best guide possible for you. What do you want to know? How can I help give you the confidence to take that trip?

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