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My wife and I live several hours away from the rest of our family and they complain that we do not visit often enough and never get to see our 20-month-old son. He does great on long (3-5 hour) car trips. We have noticed though that too many of these trips and he begins to freak out when we take him to the car. We currently try to keep at least 6 weeks in between trips.

Are there any sort of guidelines for-

  • How many hours a month a toddler should be in a car?
  • How many days with normal daily routines should be in between days with abnormal routines?

After days of reading dozens of articles I am pretty sure this problem is from disrupting his routine too much. The professionals all seem to agree that toddlers are extremely sensitive to this, and recommend some sort of travel routine to minimize this effect.

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I don't suspect there's any research on this, but I'd be interested to see the responses. I also live 3.5hrs from my family, and 1hr from my wife's family. Our daughter is 11mo old, and we make trips pretty often (every other weekend, we're traveling out of state somewhere). –  Noah May 15 at 19:43
    
I am wondering why do you use a car for your travels? Travelling in a train is much more comfortable. The child can move there, be with the parents etc. –  pabouk Jun 14 at 8:05
    
Family lives in a small town and passenger trains do not travel there. The closest train station is about 117 miles away. –  Wayne Jun 15 at 20:08

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Toddlers can be in the car for quite a long time, there's no set guideline - it depends on the child. As for routines that also depends on the child.

I think what's happening is that your child is getting bored of long car trips. 3-5 hours is a long time for a child to be sitting without toys or entertainment. I'd suggest getting him some car friendly toys, you could also get a tablet computer and a pouch that hangs off the back of the seat in front. Put a movie on for the long trips. Also, break it up, 2 hours maximum and then you get out for a bit.

It sounds like your family is asking you to make a lot of long trips, maybe it's time to tell them to put their rear ends in a car for a change!

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If we schedule the trips so he takes a nap just after the 1 hour mark we can make it with one short break. Without the nap he needs two breaks. –  Wayne May 15 at 20:05
    
+1 for "put their rear ends in a car for a change". –  Binary Worrier May 21 at 9:22

In my experience, car trips are fine below 12 months and above 24, but in the 12-24 range they are frustrating. That's because the child is mobile and wants to be moving around, but not intellectually mature enough to do the sort of creative play things you can do as an older child.

My almost-3 year old is fine on long car trips now (we're 7 hours from grandma), because he sings, he makes up stories, he "reads" his books, and he plays with the iPad. When he was younger, in that window, he was really frustrated by the trip because he didn't want to do anything except run around and jump and climb - and you can't do that on a car. I suspect my now-14 month old will have the same difficulties the next time we take a trip (July, probably).

I would limit trips until he's a bit older, and you can realistically get a better driving experience for him then. See if relatives can come visit you, or just let them know politely that it's best if you limit trips to two or three a year for a bit until he's happier on the trip. I wouldn't necessarily worry about frequency together - for example, Thanksgiving and Christmas are probably fine.

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For our 18mo son the solution we've come up with that works best is to do our driving after bedtime. Part of this is that the kid is a champion sleeper, so if yours is not then maybe this isn't so helpful.

What we do is prep the car so we're as close to walk-out-and-go as possible, then do as close to the bedtime routine as we can. Winding down the evening, maybe a bath, into the pajamas. Then instead of bed we strap him into the car seat and go. We're getting to the time of year where the sun being up so long will make this problematic, but for the last few trips it's been dark when we set out. We keep the car calm and quiet - no yelling at other drivers, no matter how stupid they might be - and he dozes off. It takes longer than in his crib, partly because he's a face sleeper, but he does.

The downside is that we're driving in the evening and getting there late. We had to be pretty strident with my wife's parents that the kid is going straight from the seat to his sleeping place in their house and they can see him tomorrow, but they don't want to be up all night any more than we do and play along.

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