These days, air travel has become such a production, with all of the post-9/11 security measures (and especially with kids), that if a travel destination is less than about 6 hours away, we will nearly always drive instead. We'll even drive farther if there's a place to break up the trip in between.
With relatives a few hundred miles away, we've traveled with our children by car a lot in the past 5 years. This August, we drove nearly 1500 miles over a two week period with our 4-year-old and nursing-9-month-old daughters. The trip was a good combination of vacation driving (where the travel was part of the fun) and goal-oriented driving (concentrating on just getting from Point A to Point B). So whether you are taking a sightseeing tour or just heading to the in-laws house for the holidays, here are some of our most important tips you might find useful.
• Be Realistic -- As much as we want to continue to go on living our "normal" lives after having a baby, it's important to remember that new baby *is* a big deal! Sometimes we commit to plans before the baby is born (especially if it's your first) that sound like a good idea at the time, such as driving 300 miles for Thanksgiving with a 6-week old like we did. But being well-meaning can fail to take into account things like nursing requirements and unforeseeable baby "personality traits," like hating the car seat. So much of this is under control by the 3rd or 4th month of a baby's life, that trying to "plan" anything, especially something as ambitious as travel before that time may be inadvisable. While it can be hard to wait, you can save yourself and your family lots of pain by just being patient and honoring the fleeting nature of a brand new baby's round-the-clock needs.
• Plan for Flexibility –- Especially on a longer drive, keep your frustration levels low by planning more stopping and nursing time than you even think you'll need. Being in a hurry or having rigid timetables is a sure way to create unnecessary stress. Consider topping off your gas tank whenever you are stopped in order to allow you to keep driving whenever the baby is asleep or happily entertained. Carry snacks for other passengers for the same reason. When possible, really know your route (where to find gas, food, bathrooms or leisure entertainment), so that you can let baby's needs dictate the schedule.
• Take the Scenic Route or Use Baby's Schedule as a Guide -– When practical, it may make travel more fun to break your trip up and make stops, even overnight. Taking a longer, but more scenic or tourist-friendly route may in the long run be more pleasant than less overall time in the car but without the breaks. If you baby has a predictable schedule, you can try to plan your stops, or travel with naps or night sleep patterns in mind. We try to get in the car for a trip leg an hour or so before a regular nap so that the baby will stay awake a while, take her nap and then usually give us another half hour or so after waking before she gets fussy. Or once our daughter slept straight most of the night, we'd eat dinner, bathe her and then get on the road about a half-hour before bed and drive through.
• Don't Neglect Breastfeeding Health -– Even though it is tempting to limit bathroom stops, nursing mothers should not restrict fluids while driving. Carry lots of water and healthy, high-protein snacks to keep milk production high. If you nursing schedule is altered by travel, be aware of the potential for plugged ducts. Wear comfortable clothes and be aware of seat belt pressure on breasts for the same reason. Do your best to nurse whenever the opportunity for a stop presents itself. You may want to carry a hand pump, like the Medela Harmony to release pressure just in case the baby is doing fine, but milk is building up.
• Above All, Be Safe – I do know of mothers who are able to nurse their baby in a car seat while both are safely buckled in the car. Alas, I am not thus endowed! And while I am in no other circumstances and advocate of allowing a baby to cry untended, **never** remove a baby from a car seat in a moving car, yourself ride unbuckled (for example, leaning over a car seat), or stop in a dangerous location in order to nurse. I'm not aware of a baby that has ever died from having to wait in the car seat for a safe situation. But your baby or yourself can be severely injured or killed when safety is set aside. Consider riding in the backseat next to your baby, or having Dad or another passenger do so (if the presence of Mom without the milk is more agitating than helpful) to help soothe or entertain. Or if baby's cries for any amount of time are simply intolerable to you, consider carrying a bottle of expressed breastmilk to resist the temptation to risk a dangerous situation. If your baby is older, also be careful of using finger food as a distraction and "hold-over" without a direct view of the baby due to the possibility of choking.
Travel by car can be a great alternative to flying, and can even provide a vacation-within-a-vacation. But respecting your baby, your body and your safety must always be considered above all else. Remember, life (and travel), is a journey -- not just a destination. Happy travels!
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