I was changing my son in a parking lot midway through a move across the U.S., when he projectile pooped. The geyser propelled a conglomeration of hard and soft feces down his leg, and along the pavement. Normally, I’d have sworn a blue streak, but I had run out of words in the same way I ran out of genius plans about 3 states ago.
My husband and I thought we’d prepared. We scaled down the distances to “only” 350 miles a day. We planned for flexibility and long stops. We scoured websites for tips and interrogated families who had made the move with toddlers.
I imagined restful nights in hotels, early wake ups, and stops at national parks and monuments to get the wiggles out and learn something in the process.
Yeah. . .that didn’t happen.
Halfway through Indiana, it was clear there was no way the toddlers were going to arrive ahead of a shipment. Short of leaving them at the side of the road, our only option was to set my husband free to do a mad dash across the country in five days while we moseyed to the finish line in twenty-one.
I set aside all expectations regarding daily milage, planned stops, and parenting. Bribing my children with food soon became the norm, none of us slept well, and we skipped important sites in favor of random playgrounds. It was a crash course in toddler travel that ended up pretty fun.
Food and Poop
One of the biggest lessons involved diet and poop. Early on, nutrition took a back seat to other things (like driving), and they alternated between diarrhea and constipation from too little and too much fiber. I began to worry that they were losing weight (a serious concern since they hover at the bottom of the weight/height charts on a good day).
That moment in the parking lot made me realize that diet was more important than everything except driving safely. So, closer monitoring of their food commenced. That’s not to say it was healthier, since french fries are easy, fattening finger food they’ll actually eat. I had packed a cooler for food and milk already, but adding dried fruit and nuts for snacking and fiber rich juice to bottles did the trick.
I Worried about the Wrong Things
I worried about time zone changes. Turns out as you travel west, those take care of themselves. I just put the boys to bed on time in the zone we were in, and they got used to it. I worried that they would be upset at not seeing their dad. They were not, though it helped to call at bath time, and they were excited to see him at the end.
I should have worried about communicating clearly with my travel partners and those we visited. I should have worried about diapers and what to do if we had an accident or had no cell phone reception. All of those things happened, but we dealt with it.
I knew cloth diapers weren’t happening on the road, but soon learned regular disposables didn’t cut it either.
Night time disposables soon became my favorite thing. They absorb more and pull the liquid away from a sitting/sleeping baby better. This makes them less likely to soak through to the seat (which then had to be air dried before using again) and allowed my guys to ride a little bit longer on those stretches where I couldn’t safely pull over and change them.
Tour Like a Toddler
I turns out toddler sight seeing and my notion of toddler sight seeing were two different things. The boys were content to play on the playground at a rest stop in North Dakota for an hour; but, uninterested in a dinosaur museum in Montana.
The trip became less about seeing sites and children’s museums, and more about touring the nations random playgrounds. Once I accepted this, we were all happier: kids, me, and my bank account.
Kids Come First
We visited family three times along the way, and at first I made the mistake of putting other people’s needs ahead of my children’s. A long trip is hard on children and adults, and it turns out it was easy to be upfront with the adults we were visiting about their needs.
Visits became pleasant because I felt comfortable saying “no thank you” to activities that would overstimulate them. Instead of doing several things grumpily with several people, our visits were limited to a single farmer’s market or apple orchard with two or three family members.
The Driver Matters Too
There is a tendency to focus entirely on children to make sure nothing is overlooked, but combine this with the temptation to ensure that you drive as far as possible each day, and it’s easy to forget yourself. I found that if I didn’t get at least seven hours of sleep each night, I wasn’t a safe driver.
There is No Single App For That
Roadtrippers.com and their phone app let me plot our route, indicate how far off my route I was willing to drive to find fun, and choose places to see in that range.
Points of interest are added by users so it’s not comprehensive, and I turned to websites, google searches and simply stopping at the nearest sign that advertised tourist information.
Our best hotels were in the $75-$95 range. Anything lower had huge pet fees, and anything higher tended not to be child friendly or to provide amenities we needed like a fridge and in-room wifi.
Pet friendly hotels weren’t hard to find. However, some only took dogs and we had cats. Others charged $25 per animal in pet fees, which is ridiculous given some of the hotels were $65-$75, so the $50 we would have had to pay for both cats would have almost doubled the cost. It often turned out that the $75-$85 hotels had $10 pet fees, making them a more economical choice than the lower priced hotels.
We tried to be above-board about our pets, but still were stuck sneaking them into a room sometimes, including a night when all the pet-friendly hotels were full because of hunting season and we couldn’t drive another mile.
Allow Time at the Other End for Recovery
We’ve been in our new state for two weeks and the toddlers are adjusting. Their sleep schedule is still off, but they’re starting to eat more and play more. It helps to have a schedule in place to make their lives more predictable.
Ultimately, the trip’s success was largely the result of admitting that travel would be slow and unpredictable. Each time I attempted to push my toddlers further than they could handle, the results were messy and miserable. But when I went with the flow, it all just sort of worked out.
Playground image by Deek, screenshots of maps are from Roadtrippers.com