Tips for roadtripping with a baby

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Most parents of older kids admit that they've perfected their road trips over time: on a five-hour drive to visit much-loved grandparents, they no longer question which park provides the best opportunity for a play, or where the most strategic toilet stops are. 

But tell these same travellers you're driving with a newborn and most will say: "Oh, that's easy. The baby will just sleep the whole way."

I beg to differ. Despite the (theoretically) winning combination of a baby famous for his ability to sleep, on top of years of working as a travel writer, our first few road trips have been ... well, let's call them "a work in progress".

Techniques that served me well as a baby-free traveller have been rendered useless. Favourite coffee stops are bypassed because I'd prefer the baby to stay asleep, while 'quick jaunts' up the highway are planned and packed for with more military precision than I thought I possible for a civilian. Here's how you too can make this season's road trips smoother than your newborn's skin.

Preparing without panic

Naturally, this is far easier with a list. Unless your memory has the ability to function on low levels of sleep, write everything down. For each trip, I start a packing list in the notes section of my smart phone, because it's the one device I usually have on hand when I remember a key item.

Start the list two to three weeks before a trip, adding to it as items spring to mind. Not only does this save brainpower the day before you leave, but it allows numerous chances to remember all the fiddly stuff you've never had to haul on the road. (Baby wipes? Small person's sleeping device? Foolproof 'happy baby' toy? You get the drift.)

Don't make the mistake of deleting this list on your return. A list for "Coast trip in November – age five months" offers a solid start for a trip to Bryon Bay in February aged nine months.

The act of packing also runs more smoothly with a plan. Unfortunately, packing the entire car the night before is tricky, as you'll probably be using much of the stuff you need to take (like the baby monitor). Therefore, I pack in two parts. The day before I leave, I use each of the baby's naps to pack items I don't need until we hit the road. Then, on the day of departure, I get up an hour before the baby and pack the rest (if I'm feeling super human), or (if I'm feeling subhuman) I pack the rest during his first nap, whipping everyone out to the car immediately after he wakes.

Timing your departure with a baby's sleep (ie: when they're just sleepy enough to doze off) can work well for older kids, but for babies I've yet to find this makes much difference. Other than avoiding grumpy end of day times, just leave when it suits you.

Staying sane on the road

Irrespective of the size of your car, it will magically shrink by about 50 per cent the first time you try to pack for a road trip with your baby.

It's easy to say, "don't pack too much" - it's harder to do if it's your first trip away. Instead, I prefer to focus on filling the car 'smart'. Ditch the hard wheelie bags – they take up too much room. Instead, use gym/duffle bags that are malleable enough to shove into a crevice.

Be wary of loose items that might fly around the vehicle in case of a sudden stop. I only keep soft items (say, a green shopping bag filled with baby blankets) on the seat next to the baby's capsule, wedging hard items (like a bag full of food) into a spot where it's less likely to cause havoc (try the space between a capsule and the seat in front of it). 

Leave one car seat free for feeding; there's nothing worse than stopping by the road to feed a crying baby and having to unpack to find somewhere to sit. Usually the driver's seat is too squashy; anyway, you'll inevitably honk the horn with your elbow and scare the pants off bub.

Don't forget to pack snacks and a thermos for the adults; all too often you'll whip through that cute country town in order to keep the baby sleeping. Murphy's Law says they'll wake 20 minutes later, so it's nice to have a cuppa when you stop in the middle of nowhere.  Either way, you'll probably want to stop every two hours to stretch (good for both adults and kids).

Arriving in good spirits

Smart travellers don't plan anything 'big' for the day of travel if there's a baby in tow. Seriously, the only thing worse than a trip taking forever is the stress of missing the all important work/family function you've driven hours to attend.

I now simply double the time the same drive would take without a baby. That's about right once I factor in breaks for feeds, stretches for both adults and babies, and the inevitable "what's all the crying for?" moments. Any faster and I'm ahead of the game.

Thinking about a family holiday? Check out the Essential Baby Family Travel forum for advice, reviews and more.