20 Hours (each way) in a Car With a Toddler

[DISCLAIMER: This post is not intended to be instructive for how to have a successful long-haul road trip with a toddler. It is meant to be entertaining, and I am using it for my own historian purposes. If you are planning your own long road trip with a toddler, proceed with caution.]

You know the feeling: we’re all stir-crazy. It has been a loooooooong year. We want to get out of the bubble we have been surviving in, but we want to do it safely. After all, we’re not out of the woods yet when it comes to Covid. So we did what any rational family would do: we planned to take a 20-hour road trip to stay at my parents’ vacation home in Arizona. The drive eliminated the risk of flight travel, and staying at my parents’ house mitigated the risk of staying somewhere with other people.

Knowing my 3-year old would be with us on this 20-hour car ride, I did my best to prepare. I read lots of blogs, asked friends and clients for advice, bought a travel tray and lots of new Dollar Tree toys, checked out loads of new books from the library, packed snacks in separate bags to have for each day of travel, plotted out places my son would be interested in stopping so we could stretch and get some wiggles out. We even decided to leave at 1:30 IN THE MORNING because one blog I read said on road trips, her kids would go back to sleep for 6-7 hours if they left in the middle of the night. That way mom and dad got a little sleep before starting the drive, and then a chunk of the drive was over with before the kids were even awake.

Here’s how that worked out for us.

1:30 am: I wake my son up from a deep sleep. Everything is packed in the car and we are all ready to go. The car is warmed up. I put my son in his car seat, and we hit the road. I’m thinking he will fall asleep before we’re on the highway. He doesn’t. That’s okay. The highway will lull him to sleep. It doesn’t. He’s not upset. He’s not talking. But he’s not sleeping AT ALL. About 45 minutes into the drive, when it is still PITCH DARK, may I remind you, he yells out, “DARK!!!” which I’m sure was not at all startling for my dad, who was the one driving in said dark. I say, “Yes, it’s dark. That means it’s time to sleep.” He pretends to close his eyes, then opens one to peek at me and see if I’m watching him. I am. He goes back to being quiet, but still not sleeping.

About an hour and a half into the drive, he whispers, “Mama.” I lean closer to him. He starts whispering the plot of a movie we watched three weeks ago. I say, “Yes, that was a good movie, but let’s talk about it another time. It’s dark out, which means it’s time to sleep right now.” He’s quiet again, but still not sleeping.

At some point during the over five hours that it was pitch black, he slept for approximately 20 minutes before waking back up. Not exactly what the blog had described. And while he was never fussy or upset during those five hours, I knew he was just getting more and more tired. But what was even more frustrating for me was that I had planned all of these activities, but they all required LIGHT. For five hours, we couldn’t look at his new books, play vehicle bingo, even talk about what we saw on the road. We just sat and rode in the car.

Once it was light, things got a lot better. He loved getting new toys every couple hours. We would stop and get out to stretch when we needed to. He got fun snacks. He got to see a lot of construction vehicles, which are some of his favorite things. We had sought out a few places where there were dinosaurs (his other favorite thing) for him to go see, so him having that to look forward to was definitely a lifesaver. There were times that he was definitely over being in the car, but there were also times the adults were over being in the car. Overall, he handled it like a champ, and while I don’t know that we’ll use the ‘leave in the middle of the night because of course he’ll go back to sleep’ method on the drive home, it was well worth the drive to spend this week with my family at our home away from home.

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