Baby On Board: 8 Tips for Getting Back on the Road

By Carolyn Graham

In the span of 15 minutes, my 1-year-old son, Jack, managed to topple three garbage cans, rip through a new roll of toilet paper, unpack all of our suitcases, grind a bag of goldfish crackers into the carpet and very nearly pull a 100-pound mirror on top of himself. The sight of our beautiful $200-per-night hotel room on the San Francisco wharf would have made the Tasmanian Devil feel like an underachiever.

Ahhhh … vacation! When you’re traveling with babies and toddlers, the term “vacation” seems to take on an entirely different meaning. Long car trips, endless forays through airports, days of shuffling schedules and exhaustion-induced flameouts are enough to make you feel as though you need a vacation after your vacation.

When my husband and I decided to take our 1-year-old and 5-year-old on a vacation that started with an eight-hour drive, we must’ve been in denial of the trials and tribulations that come with travel with young ones in tow. Kate, our 5-year-old, was always an easy-going traveler. But those natural hormones that make you forget childbirth also kick in when someone gets the urge to take a road trip with an infant. You simply forget how hard it can be to leave home for more than a day with a baby on board.

I might not be the ultimate source of knowledge on exactly how to pack the perfect diaper bag – and I certainly don’t remember to bring every gadget – but here are eight tips that will be useful reminders to parents preparing to travel with their babies. 

1. Forget the schedule. Yes, I know your baby gets cranky if she can’t nurse at precisely 11 a.m. when the sun hits its perfect celestial alignment, but trust me, the baby will change her own schedule to make sure it’s perfectly inconvenient with what you have planned. You can spend your whole vacation trying to make sure the baby can catch her noon nap only to find that she’s simply going to refuse to do it, despite rushing back from that tour of the Hawaiian volcanoes to do so.

What made my first child such a breeze to travel with (according to my skewed memory) was that she learned to adapt to her surroundings. I threw her on a plane with me at six weeks, and now when the smell of jet fuel hits her nostrils, she knows to pull out the coloring book and fruit snacks and settle in. Babies will tell you when they need to sleep and eat, and as long as you can accommodate them in the moment, then don’t stress about sticking to a schedule.

2. Don’t bring everything, but bring everything. If you actually remember to pack everything you might possibly need, you probably won’t have room for people inside the cabin of a 747. I learned early on that I didn’t need to pack a dozen bottles: They can be washed (with hand soap, so don’t be a geek and pack dishwashing liquid). I’ve also learned that planning for the worst-case scenario doesn’t always mean you’ll be prepared. Despite bringing along an extra outfit for my daughter on day trips, she ultimately spent one long car tour in just a diaper (hint: sippy cups can leak). 

3. Bring toys and bribes. By all means, pack toys, especially their favorites. But always keep one in your back pocket that can be pulled out when all the rattles and Pooh bears have been screamed at and tossed at fellow passengers. I once soothed my screaming daughter during an 11th-hour panic on an airplane by presenting her with my wallet. Sure, my credit card ended up with a few teeth marks, but there were no emergency landings because of me.

4. Make a packing list of critical items. Chances are, you’ll remember to pack clothes, diapers and food, but there’s a whole slew of often-used items that are easy to overlook when packing. From now on, I shall never forget to pack a few safety plugs for electrical outlets. Once in a hotel room, a baby will inevitably crawl for the first outlet she sees.

A half-dozen cloth diapers can also come in extremely handy, especially when you’re dressed to the nines only to look down and see a big glob of fermented formula on your skirt. Baby shampoo is pretty important, too, since those hotel freebies can be a bit harsh on the eyes and skin. I bring an entire box of wipes when possible and store extras in a plastic bag. I’ve also learned that it’s especially important to pack infant Tylenol or some other fever reducer. It’s a shame to have to send your husband to find an open drugstore when your vacation destination of choice is a remote island getaway. 

5. Check out the latest gadgets. When I was a baby, my mom didn’t even have my dad pull over to change my diaper when we were taking family vacations. Car seats and other “modern-day” inventions have helped family travelers by leaps and bounds, so be sure to do some research to see what’s new and exciting.

I like the airplane car seat that has a handle that you pull from the top, so you can drag the baby through the airport and then drop the handle and strap him to the seat.

If you’re traveling with a newborn and don’t have easy access to a crib, a product called the Snuggle Nest ( ) is a little mini-bassinette with walls that provides a safe spot for the baby in your bed. Another favorite I ran across is the Keep-It-Kleen pacifier ( ) that snaps closed when it drops (no more trips back to the car after your baby drops her pacifier at the petting zoo).

6. Consider the stroller. When you have room (traveling by car, plan to do lots of urban touring), bring the Cadillac version. You’ll want the space to stow the diaper bag, sweaters, purchases and all the other trappings. If your child is so inclined (as mine were), a good stroller also can double as decent sleeping quarters in a pinch. For theme parks and other places packed with people, bring only a small stroller or a good umbrella one (as long as your baby is able to hold up her own head).

For off-the-beaten-path outings, invest in a good backpack child carrier. You might have some sore muscles, but that’s better than trying to navigate a stroller up a hiking trail. If you’re going to be using lots of local transportation or need to maneuver a lot, resist the urge to use the Cadillac stroller as your second vehicle and make sure you have a coordinated plan for quick boarding. I discovered in San Francisco that our chaotic attempt to get on a cable car with a packed stroller resulted in some aggravated passengers (and driver).

7. Keep food items to a minimum. If you’re nursing, you’ve got it made – no need to pack a lot of extras. If your baby is eating solid foods, chances are you can pull together a pretty good mashed-up meal at any given eatery, especially if the place happens to have a good salad bar. Grated cheese, bananas, mashed potatoes, soups and oatmeal are standards at just about any restaurant.

I suggest packing a baggie filled with baby cereal (which you can always mix up in a hotel room) and Cheerios™, as well as making room for jars of the protein-heavy baby foods, such as the chicken and vegetable meals (meat is not as easy to mash with a fork).

8. Bring your mother-in-law. Most of us can’t bring a nanny on vacation with us, but a relative who loves taking care of your offspring is often worth the price of an extra hotel room or plane ticket.

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Traveling with Children

Carolyn Graham is editor at L.A. Parent, a Dominion Parenting Media publication, and a veteran traveler who’s now quite adept at traveling with kids in tow.