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On the Road With a Preschooler

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Car trips and young kids don’t have to be a bad mix

There are few guarantees in life, but it’s safe to say that at some point during a road trip your preschooler will whine, “Are we there yet?” That, and announce the need to use the toilet the minute after you pull out of a rest stop.

Beyond that, here are a few tips to help you survive the drive and maybe even glean some happy memories from the effort.

Make it a non-negotiable rule – your child must sit in a securely installed car seat or booster when driving in a car. Which type of seat you use depends on your child’s height, weight and age. If he or she is at least 3 years old, weighs 40 lbs or more and has grown tall enough so their shoulders are higher than the top harness slots in a car seat, you can graduate to a booster seat.

Don’t hurry your preschooler to move up to a big kid booster before all three criteria are met – five-point harness car seats are the safer option. It’s best to travel with your own car seat rather than borrow one from a relative or through a car rental agency, just to ensure it’s a safe, quality seat.

Take frequent breaks
This rule applies to kids and adults of all ages. Remember, the goal is not to get to your destination in record time but to get there safely and with your sanity intact. Regular pit stops to stretch legs, run around a park, go to the bathroom, grab a snack, breath some fresh air and break up the journey are essential for a preschooler – and you. You can increase the duration between stops to every 2 to 3 hours, but then find a rest stop, a play ground or a safe place to pull over for at least 10 minutes. Don’t consider this an inconvenience, but rather a welcomed respite and an opportunity for everyone to recharge their cooped-up batteries for the next leg of the journey.

Snack healthy
It won’t be long into the journey when you hear the demand for food and drink. You’ll need an assortment of road snacks and beverages (water is best) for when the munchies and dry mouth strike. Stock a cooler and keep it handy in the front seat so you can pass out goodies when needed – this is one time when boredom is an acceptable reason to snack. Good preschooler choices include crackers and cheese, yogurt tubes, cereal bars, dried fruit and veggie sticks. Steer clear of really messy foods or things that have choking potential. Go easy on the drinks or nature will be calling all too frequently.

Motion sickness
Some preschoolers are prone to car sickness, especially on an extended journey or if stuck in stop-and-go traffic. In an effort to prevent this unpleasantness, don’t start the trip on an empty stomach – try to have your child eat something light before the trip. If the queasies strike, roll down the window for some fresh air or, better yet, find a safe place to pull over for a few minutes until the feeling subsides (or your child vomits, which will bring relief). Some kids are helped by a snack of dry crackers or a sip of water. If your child tends to suffer from motion sickness, skip the “close work” like coloring or reading books. Rather, play games that involve looking out the window towards the horizon (see who can spot a horse, truck, a billboard first.)

Have some wipes and a change of clothes in the car in case of illness. Ask your pediatrician about medicines for motion sickness if this is a real concern. Most have to be taken before you set forth, and many cause drowsiness – but that might be a welcomed side effect for a long journey. It could backfire, though, and make your child more agitated, so use with caution.

Pass the time
Bring a few comfort items in the car for your preschooler – a favorite blankie, a neck pillow, a cuddly toy. It’s a lot to ask of a young child to sit for hours on end, so try to make the journey come alive with songs, games, toys and diversions you enjoy together to help pass the time. Talk about the passing sights. Have your child describe what he or she sees out the window. Identify letters, look for colors, discuss street signs.

Games like I Spy, Concentration and Scavenger Hunt go a long way when you’re going a long way. Have a bag of tricks with you in the front seat you can pass back when the mood hits. A few new books or small toys can buy a hours of novelty entertainment for your child. Stock the sound system with kid-approved tunes and make the most of your together time by enjoying a family sing-along on wheels.

Portable DVD players are wonderful tools for road trips (make sure the battery is charged). Even if you usually prefer to limit your preschooler’s TV time, an occasional carefully chosen program or movie can help pass the idle time and make a long journey more tolerable. Audio books are another great option.


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