Car journeys drive us crazy!

How to cope with small children and a long drive.

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Sarah Morley, 31, lives in Lutterworth, Leicestershire, with her husband Fin, and sons Max, nearly 2, and Daniel, 4. Twice a month, they travel 100 miles to visit both sets of grandparents and Sarah dreads the journey.

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My mum and dad live in Berkshire while Fin’s parents are in Surrey, and we try to visit both sets every month. Daniel and Max love seeing their grandparents, but they really hate the long car journeys and the trips have become a nightmare for us all.

Everything is usually left until the last minute and then we have a huge panic, packing up the car and getting the boys ready. I end up bribing them with biscuits to get them in their car seats. At the outset, Daniel is fine as he’s excited, but Max is too young to understand what’s happening and gets a bit crotchety. I always take snacks and drinks to stop them whingeing during the journey – well, some of it anyway!

We try to time the trip to coincide with Max’s nap, but as soon as he starts to doze off, Daniel prods him to wake him up. It’s so stressful. I have to constantly turn round and shout at them. When Max does eventually fall asleep, Daniel says, “I love you Max,” trying to wake him up again!

At home Max naps for two hours, but in the car he’ll rarely sleep for longer than half an hour, which makes him really grumpy and he tries to get out of his car seat. Meanwhile, Daniel whines about being uncomfortable.

We’ve tried playing music to distract them, but Daniel says he doesn’t like it and that it’s too loud. The drive should only take around two hours, but because we have to keep stopping to let the boys run around, it now takes up to five hours. By the time we get there, Fin and I are absolutely exhausted with frayed tempers.

Our expert says…

SARAH TUCKER, 42, is an author, travel writer and broadcaster. She has travelled the world with her son Tom, 7, since he was a baby.

‘Sarah’s challenge with two young children is a common one. Neither children nor adults like being cooped up in a car for a long journey. No wonder children get grizzly and parents lose their tempers.

‘When I researched my books about travelling with children, I talked to over 1000 children about their favourite ways to travel and asked their parents for advice, too. This, combined with my own experience, helped me narrow down the best ways to make car journeys easier. Here’s some simple suggestions…

1 Time it right

It can help to make long car journeys at night when your little passengers are drowsy. Make sure they’re comfy and in their pyjamas, snuggled up in a blanket and hopefully they’ll sleep through most of the journey. Toddlers and babies tend to get frustrated travelling during the day, when they could be doing other things. According to one toddler I ‘interviewed’, car journeys are boring because things outside pass too quickly to notice and there’s nothing interesting to see anyway. They are tied down by a strap, can’t move, can’t see mum or dad’s face and mum and dad are usually cross because they are stuck in traffic! So try to arrange the drives at night when they are more likely to fall asleep.

2 Take regular breaks

If you do have to travel during the day, remember that even a short time in a car is an eternity to a toddler. Although Sarah and Fin want to get to their destination as quickly as possible, taking regular breaks is a good idea. Check out where the best children’s play areas are on your route – running around in the fresh air will help tire them out. Tell Daniel there will be two stops: a runaround, then a picnic. He’ll think he’s on a day out instead of just a boring journey from A to B.

3 Pack healthy snacks

Make sure the food you take is sugar-free and leave the fizzy drinks at home, so you won’t risk making them hyperactive. Bananas, chopped-up fruit or little boxes of raisins are ideal. Encourage them to sip water throughout the trip so they don’t get dehydrated, but not too much or you’ll be stopping for lots of loo breaks!

4 Chill out

If you’re feeling uptight, your children will feed off that. Daniel has probably already picked up on Sarah and Fin’s dread of long drives, triggering tension before the journey even starts. Try to keep calm.

5 Be the boss

Set boundaries at home and they’re less likely to be broken during the drive. Make sure Daniel understands that he’s not allowed to wake Max from his sleep – not just in the car, but anywhere.

6 Keep them entertained

Choose some in-car music that everyone will enjoy. Visit a good bookshop with a comprehensive children’s section and ask for tapes or CDs of books or funny nursery rhymes – something, like Toy Story, that appeals to both children and adults. Take toys, but leave the really noisy, messy or fiddly ones at home. Pocket scribblers or bigger sketchers (see below right) are great for travelling – they’re quiet and keep a toddler occupied for ages.

7 Play on their imagination

Inspire them and get them thinking by saying you’re stopping to go on a bear hunt in the woods halfway through the journey. Make it an adventure for them and appeal to their inquisitive minds.

8 See the funny side (there is one, honest!)

A bit of humour goes a long way when you’re cooped up in the car with your little treasures. Turn complaints into a joke and make up silly songs. Having a giggle together is a great stressbuster. And finally, if you really can’t face a car journey every time, consider taking the train – you might have to deal with stony glares from other passengers, but it’s worth a try. Or, if it’s practical, ask the grandparents to come and stay with you.

The result

Mum Sarah feels positive about family trips

‘We’ve just arrived home from visiting my parents and, thanks to Sarah’s advice, the journey there and back was so much better. Before we set off, I explained to Daniel exactly when and where we’d stop. It made him much less restless knowing that a break was coming up.

‘I also took Sarah’s advice and bought a couple of pocket scribblers, which the boys loved. Daniel was engrossed with drawing on his for nearly an hour, which allowed Max to have a decent sleep without his big brother constantly trying to wake him.

‘We also took some tapes to play in the car and these went down really well – Daniel didn’t complain once. In fact, he really enjoyed them and, at one point, we were all singing along together, which was really lovely.

‘On the way back, I took Sarah’s advice about travelling later at night and both of the boys slept all the way. Heaven!

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‘Thanks to Sarah, I no longer dread our trips. Both the boys seem far less restless and irritable which, in turn, has made me and my husband a lot calmer. It’s so nice not to have to spend the entire journey turning round, shouting at the boys and getting more and more stressed. I used to arrive at our destination all hot and bothered, but now I feel much more relaxed.’

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