The first time I drove the 300+ miles from the Bay Area to Los Angeles with my daughter, she was 3 months old. Packed inside our midsize SUV was my 6'5" husband and our Golden Retriever. I had no idea what to expect on that journey, and I'm grateful my husband was in the car with me — it made every stop that much more manageable. Since then, though, I've taken the 300+ mile drive alone eight times roundtrip, sometimes with the dog and sometimes without. I've made tons of mistakes, and during each meltdown, I vow to never do the drive again. Yet, once I pull into my parents' driveway in Los Angeles, I take a big deep exhale and cross off another victory. Here's how I survive.
Prepare a changing station in advance.
I have an SUV, so I set up a changing station in the trunk. I toss in a towel, and put plenty of diapers, wipes, and diaper cream off to the side. That way when I pull the car over because of a screaming baby, I can change her wet diaper as fast as possible. I put all of our luggage in the backseat so that the trunk is mostly empty.
Have toys within reach.
I make sure that everything in the front passenger seat has a purpose. I can tell when my daughter is starting to get bored in the back seat and wants to get out, so I'll usually reach into a bag of safe toys and toss one back her way. This will buy me more time on the road.
Organize a snack and milk bag in advance, and make sure it's easily accessible.
For the same reason as having an accessible changing station, being able to pull the car over and immediately offer my daughter milk or snacks is huge in keeping her happy. This was much trickier when she was drinking breastmilk and I had to pump the milk first in order to give it to her (I was an exclusive pumper). But it's doable if you have all of your parts available.
I bring empty bottles and tops and a canteen full of milk and worry about cleaning bottles when I get to my destination.
Pull over only where you feel safe.
The first time I took a long six-hour road trip with my daughter, she was just a few months old, and I was nervous. Any cry immediately made me fearful, and though friends told me not to worry about her crying, I did. Though nothing bad happened on the drive, on our first long stretch of highway, I pulled over in an unsafe area because my daughter was screaming and I knew I needed to change her diaper. In hindsight, I picked a terrible place to pull over with speeding trucks and no cell service. I now only pull over in well-lit business areas that are completely off of the freeway. If I don't feel safe, I'll get back onto the road. Though sometimes it can be miles before I'm able to exit the freeway with her screaming, I know that our safety is much more important.
Invest in window shades.
There's a stretch of the drive that's three hours long and deathly hot. Keeping the A/C on and the sun out of her eyes is huge.
Don't worry about your schedule.
The first few road trips I felt I had to get to our destination by a certain time in order to get my daughter back on her schedule. This meant that I rushed all of our stops. I rushed changing her diaper, I rushed prepping her snacks, and I rushed reloading the car. At one point on a recent trip, I saw my hands shaking as I was breaking down the stroller to throw it back in the car and told myself to cut it out. I placed the stroller into the trunk slowly and cautiously, took a breath, and immediately stopped shaking. There was no reason to rush the stops.
Don't plan anything else that day.
On one drive, I remember making plans with family for my arrival, and just knowing that our attendance was expected of me was too stressful. I find that I'm much calmer and the drive goes better if the drive itself is the only thing I need to do that day.
Don't forget to laugh.
I've driven with my daughter on these long stretches from 3 months of age to 15 months, and I've never had a perfect trip. I've lost hours of time dealing with a hungry and bored baby. I've been trapped in traffic jams unable to pull over while she screamed at me from the back seat. In the moment, it is very stressful, but when it's over and we've arrived, it's all worth a laugh.