Remember when you could just hop in the car and zip down the motorway (crossing your legs to avoid a time consuming wee stop)? Well, now you’re a parent, those days are over. Long car journeys with small children have the potential to be at best stressful and at worst completely soul-destroying.
Not if you plan, though. If you prepare well, a car journey with a child can be a pleasant experience (hallelujah!) – even if it does take a bit longer than it used to.
Plan your route – and make those stops
Imagine being in a car, with a fractious child, and not knowing where the hell you are. Is your hair standing on end already? The most obvious way to prepare for car journeys is to know, absolutely, how to get to your destination and how long it is going to take.
If you don’t have a sat nav, have a look at a route planner online, which will estimate your journey time. You can print out the step-by-step directions. And have a map in the front of the car, too.
With small children, you really do need to stop if you’re travelling for more than two hours. Even if they don’t need the loo, the chance to run around and stretch their legs will cheer them no end and alleviate boredom.
How many stops will you need? Add at least 45 minutes for each one to give you a realistic arrival time.
Time your travel
Stops can be minimised if you are able to set off at a time when your children are likely to sleep. Night driving might not be the most fun for you, but it will probably mean children snooze for a good while, without needing to have meal stops.
Pop them into the car in their pyjamas so they’re super comfy (and they can go straight to bed when you arrive), and let them have their duvet in the back too.
Food glorious food
Yes, you’re right. Officially we parents are not supposed to use food to bribe our children, but on long journeys, regular snacks can both alleviate boredom and keep their spirits high.
A hungry travelling child is NEVER a happy travelling child.
If you know a mealtime will need to be attended to on the way, you can pack a proper picnic (and save yourself quite a lot of money at the service station). Otherwise, pack a goodie bag of sensible and varied snacks.
Dried fruit, crackers, rice cakes and cubes of cheese are all good travel companions. Avoid anything too sticky (peaches? NO!). If you don’t want the back of your car to be completely horrifying by the time you arrive, pop a waste basket lined with a plastic bag in the back seat, and train your toddlers and children to use it!
Be fully equipped
It’s all very well being pleased with yourself for having packed all the suitcases – but you should definitely consider having some essentials accessible in the car.
Here are some items to keep at hand:
A change of clothes. For them, hopefully you won’t need one!
Medical kit. Hopefully there won’t be any cuts or grazes, but it’s a good idea to know you can lay your hands on liquid paracetamol, antihistamine or travel sickness medicine, should anyone need it.
Portable potty. Even fully potty-trained preschoolers have a habit of absolutely, completely and utterly not needing a wee when you’re at the service station... only to be busting for a wee 10 miles down the road.
A portable potty can be ever so helpful (some children just find it too odd to wee on a patch of grass). You can just pull into a lay-by - NOT the hard shoulder of the motorway! - so they can relieve themselves. Some potties come with disposable liners, which you can pop into the bin.
Let me entertain you
If you’re doing a 15-hour schlep down to the south of France, your children are going to have long periods of alertness. And they’ll only enjoy looking at the scenery for, oh I don’t know, about four minutes – so you’ll need a stack of things to keep them entertained.
For toddlers, have a big bag of toys in the front. They’ll tire of each one before too long, and it’ll send up on the floor behind your seat. So save yourself from twisting and bending, and have hundreds of alternative toys ready and waiting.
For older children, pop a stack of books next to them on the back seat. It’s sweet listening to toddlers tell themselves their own version of the story from looking at the pictures. Bear in mind that reading children might get travel sick if they spend too long with their nose in a book. You could buy a couple of audio books to move on to.
If you’re not against the idea, letting children watch a film can make a journey fly by. You can buy portable DVD players, which attach to the back of the front seat or, if you have a tablet, you can download films and maybe just squeeze it in between the two front seats. Hey presto! A mobile cinema.
Finally (and you know it HAS to happen!), have a few travel games in mind for children aged three and above. I Spy isn’t the best one to play in a car, really. There is always a child who has spied something beginning with ‘H’, which turns out to be a horse they saw 40 miles back. And a car has a limited amount of objects to really fire the imagination.
But how about...
Everyone picks a colour (please don’t let princessy girls choose pink!), and has to look out for cars of that colour. The first one who spots 10, wins. If you want the game to last more than 30 seconds, ban black and silver as options.
Name that tune
Do you have a children’s CD of nursery rhymes? You might save your own sanity with this one. Instead of letting it play on a loop for four hours, play just the first few bars of each song, at random, and see if they can name that tune.
I am thinking of...
Pick a topic, such as animals. One person thinks of an animal, and then the others take it turns to ask yes or no questions – for example, ‘Does it have fur?’. After each question is answered, the person who asked has a chance to guess what the animal is. The first person to guess correctly wins. It’s a game that works brilliantly – until a child thinks of a Gruffalo. That might take a while...