How to Complete a Road Trip with a Toddler (Without Screen Time!)

Last Updated on February 27, 2022 by admin

If you’re thinking about going on a road trip with a toddler, you might be feeling nervous about the prospect of driving a long distance with a young kiddo. At the same time, you’re probably excited to get out of the house and create new family memories. You might also be a little worried about how your little one will handle all of the extra time in the car. (I know we were!) The good news is that it is definitely possible to have a smooth road trip with a toddler. We know because we spent over 50 hours in the car on our recent trip with our young daughter.

We recently completed a 3-week road trip with our toddler, and honestly we didn’t know what to expect at first. Would it be “worth it”? Would it be a nightmare? We weren’t sure what to expect. Turns out, we had the trip of a lifetime! There were certainly ups and downs, but overall, we were able to complete the mileage and still have a lot of fun. We drove 3,590 miles with our toddler from Washington State to Arizona and back, and we did it all without using screen time. In this post, we’ll share our best tips for going on a road trip with a toddler

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Disclaimer: These tips are for informational purposes. We do not provide medical advice and we cannot advise you on how to parent your child specifically. We simply share the tips that worked for us.

toddler at Zion National Park

(We’ve linked our daughter’s sunhat here if you’re interested!)

Why Avoid Screen Time in the Car?

You might already know that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended that children under 24 months avoid screen time altogether (except for video chatting). For children ages 2 to 5 years old, they recommend an hour or less of screen time per day. The research behind these guidelines is still evolving, but so far it’s pretty clear that too much screen time can be unhealthy for young children. (Especially if it takes the place of imaginative play, physical activity, social relationships, or reading.) 

We certainly understand that children like screen time, and that it can be helpful for adults too. This is not a self-righteous post about condemning screen time altogether. Our toddler loves to watch cartoons, but we just knew it wouldn’t be feasible for us to allow her to watch cartoons the whole time. We were planning to drive over 50 hours in total, and we didn’t want her to watch cartoons for that many hours. We also didn’t want to deal with a tantrum anytime we told her “no more screen time.” We definitely needed to make a plan to keep her entertained for that many hours in the car.

We totally get that some families may need to have screen time in the car to get through a journey for a variety of reasons, but ideally we didn’t want to have to deal with our toddler whining for more screen time the entire trip. So, we decided we would try to complete the trip without it. It was easier for us to make the rule “no screen time in the car”, than to sometimes allow it and sometimes not. (And we figured it would be less confusing for her too if it was just a clear rule.) 

Planning a Road Trip With a Toddler Without Screen Time

The first thing we did was outline our stops and drive times for each day. We purposely “traveled slow” so we wouldn’t have to spend too many hours in the car on any given day. Although we were gone for three weeks, many of our driving days were just 3-hour stretches (instead of 8+ hours in the car). By breaking down the drive into smaller chunks, we figured our toddler would have an easier time. We know this might not be feasible for everyone, but we were able to do it and it helped us a lot. For us it meant less days in the national parks and more days on the journey. Turns out we found some pretty incredible stops along the way!

Our first tip is to break down the drive into smaller stretches if you are able. This tip will probably make the biggest impact on your trip. It was way easier for our daughter to spend 2-3 hours in the car than it was to spend 6 hours in the car. Although every toddler is different, we found that our daughter “hit her max” at around 5 hours of drive time during a single day. 

A silver lining of taking your time to get to your destination is that you will stop at more places off the beaten path. You might be surprised that some of your favorite road trip memories are from places that you didn’t know anything about! (And with less crowds!)

Woman and baby at Mesa Arch

Read all about our recommendations for a road trip through Utah and Arizona here.

Our Best Tips for a Road Trip With a Toddler

Besides limiting the number of hours you drive each day over a longer period of time, these are our best tips for completing a road trip with a toddler without screen time. We will cover them in more detail below:

  1. Have the Adults Switch Seats Often
  2. Bring Out the New Toys
  3. Stop Often
  4. Get Lots of Physical Activity Each Day
  5. Listen to Music
  6. Plan Ahead for Nap Time
  7. Be Flexible
  8. Remain Calm
  9. Prioritize Car Safety


Father and daughter at Peekaboo Canyon

1. Have the Adults Switch Seats Often

After several days on the road, we found that switching up the seating arrangement throughout the day helped a lot. During the first hour, my husband and I would sit up front while our daughter would play in her car seat. Her stamina for driving was highest at the beginning of the day, so she did a good job of entertaining herself for the first hour each day. (This is when my husband and I would chat, listen to an audio book, or listen to music.) After that, one of us would sit in the backseat with her and play. We would play with toys, books, and make up goofy little games to play with her. Then, we would switch it up again. The person driving would switch to the backseat and play for awhile. This variation helped to pass the time pretty quickly, and I think it kept things interesting for her!

2. Bust Out the New Toys

Before the road trip, we bought a handful of new toys that she had never seen before. Most of them were from the dollar store. (They don’t have to be expensive, just anything new that hasn’t been played with before.) Each new toy would go a long way. We were just careful not to give her the new toy if she was fussing. The reason for that is we didn’t want to reinforce her fussing (e.g., fussing = new toys). We typically introduced the new toy when we felt like she was getting close to fussing, but overall still calm. Our daughter especially liked a steering wheel toy like this one, so that she could pretend to drive along with us!

3. Stop Often

One of the best things you can do is make frequent stops. Some experts recommend that infants and toddlers shouldn’t be in the car seat for more than two hours at a time. It’s hard for a young child to stay seated for a long period of time, so being able to stop often and stretch out their legs can make a big difference! We stopped frequently at rest stops, scenic viewpoints, gas stations, and restaurants. Even if we only had 3 hours of total drive time, it would often take us much longer because we stopped frequently. (For us it was helpful to set the expectation for ourselves that we would just be taking our time and not to be in a rush.)

4. Get Lots of Physical Activity

Because we were spending so much time in the car, we really needed to make sure that we were physically active when we weren’t in the car. We tried to get our toddler to run around as much as possible during our rest stops. We brought a soccer ball like this one to kick around. We chased her around and tried to keep her moving. She also loved running after bubbles, so a bubble wand was a great toy to pack as well!

At the hotel, we would often go to the pool and swim in the late afternoon. We also spent a lot of time going up and down the hotel stairs. She loved it and it helped her to burn some energy! 

5. Listen to Their Favorite Music

I’m not gonna lie, we spent a lot of time listening to Cocomelon. (If you know, you know.) Our daughter would get so calm and peaceful whenever we played her favorite music. We tried to save this for later in the day when she needed it more. (And partially because we didn’t want to spend 3 hours listening to Cocomelon each day!)

6. Plan Ahead for Nap Time

If your toddler will be taking a nap in the car, be prepared to help them fall asleep easier. Our daughter tended to take shorter naps in the car than she would if she was in a crib, so we really wanted to try our best to make sure she got enough rest. We found that by bringing a portable sound machine, she had better sleep. (She has the same one at home, so it made sense to take it in the car with us and re-create her normal sleep routine.) The white noise was a strong cue for her that it was time to fall asleep. And although she didn’t need to sleep in a sleep sack in the car seat, she really liked to hold onto her sleep sack like a blankie while she slept. I think it felt familiar to her as part of her routine and helped her to sleep.

7. Be Flexible

Traveling with toddlers is all about flexibility. Try to leave earlier in the day so you can give yourself plenty of time to take it slow if you need to stop for awhile. (Nothing is worse than having a fussy toddler and needing to push through a drive to make it somewhere on time!) You might not see everything you want to see, and that’s okay. It always gives you a reason to come back a second time. 

8. Remain Calm

One of the most powerful things we did was to remain calm to help our toddler self-regulate. If she was feeling fussy, us being angry or irritable would be unlikely to calm her down. Think about it: When you’re feeling irritable, what helps you? Does someone yelling at you help you? Probably not. Toddlers have big emotions and they don’t always know how to cope with them yet. For us, it was important to be patient and stay calm. Despite how frustrated we were, we knew it would be important to model calmness so that we could help her regulate herself. So, we would take deep breaths and keep our voices soft and even. We also found that naming their feelings can help to validate them. “You’re feeling sad. It makes sense that you’re feeling that way because you dropped your toy.” We found that this kind of emotion coaching helped to de-escalate potential tantrums. 

9. Prioritize Car Safety 

And most important of all, we prioritized car safety. We made sure our car seat is properly installed. We made sure that there were no projectiles near the car that could cause injury if we stopped suddenly. We saved the snack breaks for rest stops. We never left her along in the car. We traveled with a first aid kit just in case. We didn’t drive when we were tired, and of course we never drove under the influence of drugs or alcohol. We made sure to bring enough water in our vehicle for everyone in case we were stranded on a hot day. We made sure that we had enough gas in our tank between long stretches of driving. We also talked with our daughter’s pediatrician in advance about our travel plans to hear their recommendations.  

What To Bring On a Road Trip With a Toddler

Here’s a summary of some of the items we recommend to bring on a road trip with a toddler. These include a fun driving toy, a soccer ball for running around outside, a bubble wand, a portable sound machine, a first aid kit, and a plastic bucket in case your little one gets car sick. (We like this collapsable plastic bucket because it travels well!)

We wrote an entire post on our favorite baby and toddler travel products here, be sure to check it out!


We hope you found our road tip trips helpful! We are so grateful that we were able to build precious memories with our daughter as explored the southwest.


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If you enjoyed this post, you also might be interested in our posts on some of the key places we visited on our three-week road trip:

Disclaimer: We always strive for content accuracy. Since the time of publishing, travel-related information regarding pricing, schedules, and hours may have changed. Please see individual websites embedded in this post for the most current trip-planning information.

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