1) You guys are crazy, and
2) The time to take a road trip with a baby is now--she'll just sleep the whole time!
Well, having now survived said road trip, I can say that neither comment was particularly true or helpful (although there were moments when I did, indeed, think that we were maybe a little crazy).
Having never had a baby before to take on a road trip, there are a few things I wish I would have known beforehand. Here are some of my tips with traveling with a young baby in tow:
1. Realize that the trip will take quite a bit longer than planned.
I would say for each three hours you plan to drive, plan on an extra hour. Thus, in our situation, we planned on the 16-hour drive taking about 21 or 22 hours. In the past (when we'd taken this same road trip), we were able to do it in one day. Knowing we'd have to make more stops, we decided to break the trip into two days, which was SO SMART.
(And a bonus for doing it in two days--we had more time to take in some sights along the way, like Rocky Mountain National Park.)
Knowing and planning for the trip to take longer will mean less stress and frustration when your estimated arrival time keeps getting later and later on your GPS. It will also make the actual driving part seem a little bit more like part of the vacation itself instead of just a means to an end.
2. Take advantage of the baby's natural sleep cycles
Raven had just started getting into a bit of a sleep schedule a couple weeks before the trip, which aided us quite a bit in planning when to depart and when to take breaks. One of the smartest things we did was leave really early one morning so that we could get in a good 4- or 5-hour stretch before she woke up wanting to eat. (I've also heard of parents heading out just as all their kids have gone down for the night and just driving through until the morning).
Taking breaks when your baby is used to playing and driving the long stretches during her normal sleep times will make for a lot less crying and a much more content kid (and parents!).
(Bonus Tip: if you're staying in hotels, check ahead to see if the hotel has cribs available. Because of liability reasons, many hotels no longer offer crib options. Our first night, Raven just slept on the floor wrapped up in a blanket because they didn't have anything for us to put her in (and I'm too scared to have her sleep in bed with us because I'd be paranoid all night that I'd roll over onto her). The second hotel we stayed at--a Marriott--had a nice Pack 'n Play crib that they let us use for no extra charge. Definitely worth it to check out the hotel's options beforehand!)
3. Realize that the backseat gets lonely (esp. if the baby can't see anyone else)
This was the most important lesson for me to learn. The first day we headed out, I stayed up in front with Matt the whole time. While the baby did pretty well, she did start to get really fussy near the end of that first 8-hour day. When we headed out the next morning, it seemed like she was just screaming all the time, and I finally decided I was just going to try sitting in the back next to her to see if I could distract her so we could still make some headway. It was seriously like she was a totally different baby--all smiles, cooing, and totally mellow for most of the rest of the drive.
When I stopped to consider it from her point of view, it seemed like a "duh" point that I should have sat back with her earlier on---I mean, in a rear-facing carseat, she could hear us but not see us, and considering she's used to seeing me or Matt for most of her waking time every day, I'm sure she was getting anxious going a couple hours without seeing our faces. Plus I'm sure she was getting bored back there all by herself.
Sitting in the back with her had the added benefit of letting me feed her on the go. Because we'd brought a breast pump with us, I was able to pump in the battery-operated mode and then feed her right after. This saved us at least three or four stops along the way.
4. Don't be afraid to ask for (or accept) help
Driving all day can be tiring enough as it is, but taking care of a small human while you're at it can make it pretty exhausting all in all. Try switching places with your spouse (have him sit in the back while you drive), and take turns playing with the baby at rest stops so you both can take a bathroom/eating break and a short little walk alone.
I also found on this trip that often, perfect strangers would offer to help. While you should obviously exercise some caution with accepting just anyone's help, I was often relieved at other people's thoughtfulness in helping us out (like the mother of two young children who offered to hold Raven in the bathroom so I could wash my hands after changing her). Follow your intuition on who to trust, but don't try to do everything alone.
(Bonus Tip: most bathroom's baby stations were kind of sketchy-looking and lacked the sanitary liners to put down over them, so I ended up just changing her in the front seat of the car using a travel changing mat after that first bathroom foray.)
5. Be willing to take "real" breaks every few hours
When we'd made this trip in the past with just the two of us, our "breaks" consisted of five-minute stops for gas and fast food and short trips to the bathroom. Because we wanted the driving part to not be totally miserable for Raven, we made sure to take some pretty good-sized breaks most times we stopped so that she could stretch her legs outside of the carseat, get her diaper changed, nurse, and explore the new surroundings a bit.
We didn't end up taking a stroller on our trip (too bulky to fit in the car), but I'm super glad we took our Baby Bjorn carrier with us. The carseat is so awkward to heft around, so it was nice just to be able to pull her out and strap her into the carrier when we wanted to walk around a bit. I could tell that the longer breaks were really rejuvenating for her, and she was usually all smiles by the end of them.
All in all, Raven handled the long drives like a champ (once I started sitting in the back with her), and I'm glad we just took the plunge and made the trip out to see my dad.
Any more tips you can think of to make traveling with a baby easier?