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Tips for Keeping Kids Calm in the Car

Tips for keeping kids calm in th car header

By Ali Wilkinson on October 14, 2020 in Life Hacks

“Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” If you have kids and have ridden with them in a car for more than 15 seconds, you’ve probably heard this question.

Unfortunately, even the adorable antics of little backseat drivers may be dangerous if they distract the actual driver. According to a 20-year review of fatal crash data, children in vehicles can distract drivers and increase the risk of accidents. Another study suggests driving with a child is 12 times more distracting than talking on a mobile phone while driving. Yikes!

We’re here to help! Keep reading to learn how to keep your kids calm and happy in the car to reduce distractions while you drive.

Ways to Keep Your Kids Calm on the Road

These tips can help you have happier kids and a happier driver.

  • Help the kids get comfortable

Long car rides can be uncomfortable for everyone, especially energetic kids. But you can help make the car ride smoother by making sure your kids are as comfortable as they can be. Let your kids choose their most comfortable clothing for long car rides. (Pajamas? Why not!) Make shoes optional. Pack layers, or have them bring a blanket for fluctuating temperatures. Attach sunshades to side windows to help keep kids cool when the sun blares in.

For kids in car seats, make sure to properly adjust and tighten the straps, and check for any uncomfortable clothes bunched underneath. Don’t put kids in a car seat with bulky clothing on, such as a winter coat. Instead, ditch the coat and adjust the heat to a comfortable temperature.

  • Time the trip right

If your kids still nap, consider their nap schedules when planning your trip. Whether that means planning to drive during nap time or not depends on how your kiddo does in the car. Does your kid pass out as soon as the car starts moving and wake up refreshed from a car nap? Or does your child doze for five minutes after an hour of coaxing only to be wide awake until 10 pm?

If your child sleeps well in the car, consider timing a lengthy car ride with a nap. For instance, if your child takes an afternoon nap, plan to leave after lunch. But if napping in the car means you have a cranky, tired toddler with a destroyed sleep schedule, leave right after they wake in the morning so you can hopefully get to your destination by naptime.b

You don’t need a screen to keep your kids occupied in the car. You can find toys for kids of all ages to help keep them distracted and engaged. First of all, if you have an infant who uses a pacifier, bring several. And use a secure-a-toy strap to ensure they don’t end up all over the floor of the car.

If you have older kids, invest in some of these games and toys:

  • Reusable sticker pads (Hint: these stickers easily peel on and off car windows.)
  • Washable window crayons
  • Etch A Sketch
  • Wikki Stix (soft, pliable, wax-covered yarn sticks)
  • A hidden-objects game
  • Mad Libs
  • A magnetic drawing board
  • Car-versions of classic car games, such as backseat bingo, magnetic hangman, or a travel memory game

Bring as many game options as possible, and remember that little parts will probably end up on the ground and require car gymnastics to retrieve. You can keep toys organized with a backseat organizer that hangs from the front seats and offers pockets for stowing toys and games. Bonus: You won’t need to hand toys to your kids.

  • Pack age-appropriate books

Plan to hit the library shortly before your trip to stock up on new-to-you books. Also, bring along a few of your kids’ favorites.

Great options for car trips include books where your kids find various characters and objects on each page. These series include:

  • Where’s Waldo
  • Where’s the Penguin
  • I Spy
  • Seek and Find

Along the same vein, try the Mamoko book series, where your kid can track more than a dozen characters through the books’ pages as they go on various zany adventures.

If you have kids who are prone to car sickness, stick with graphic novels, picture-heavy magazines, or comic books rather than books with a lot of text.

  • Load up on snacks

No amount of snacks is too much. Seriously.

Choose healthy snacks — you don’t want your kids to experience a sugar rush in the car. And grab items that don’t tend to cause a mess. For instance, skip rice cakes.

Also, invest in a few no-spill snack cups. The lid allows little hands to reach in, but snacks won’t fall out. You can fill these with goldfish, pretzels, and other small snacks. Don’t forget to fill water bottles before you leave as well.

  • Listen to audiobooks or podcasts

Listening to audiobooks helps everyone pass the time during a long trip. Some great options for kids across a wide range of ages include:

  • The Ramona Quimby series by Beverly Cleary
  • The first three Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling (Later books may be too scary for younger kids.)
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney
  • Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osborne
  • 13 Story Treehouse series by Andy Griffiths
  • The Fudge book series or The Pain and the Great One series by Judy Blume

You can get all these titles on, or check with your local library to see if you can check out digital audiobooks for free on an online platform such as Libby.

Hundreds of free podcasts can also keep your kids entertained. Try some of these options.

  • What If World
  • Tumble Podcast
  • Cool Facts About Animals
  • Circle Round
  • The Past and the Curious
  • Noodleloaf
  • Six Minutes
  • Timestorm

Check out the kids’ podcasting app Kids Listen for all these titles, and search for others that fit your children’s interests.

  • Sing

When the going gets tough, the tough get singing! Turn up the radio and sing along with your favorite 90s tunes. Visit KidzBop for kid-friendly versions of the latest hits. Or play song-related car games such as these.

  • Think of a song that starts with each letter of the alphabet.
  • Sing a repeat-after-me song, such as Boom-Chicka-Boom.
  • Think of as many songs as possible with a certain word in them (such as “love” or “tree”).
  • Play an old-fashioned car game

Old-fashioned car games never go out of style! Introduce your kids to the games you played as a kid, and learn a few new ones before your next trip.

  • Stretch

While it can be tempting to soldier through to your destination, take stretch breaks every few hours to give your kids (and you) a much-needed movement opportunity.

Do some research before you leave to find attractions along your route, or take your chances that your navigation system can help you find a good spot when your kids have hit their limit.

Good pitstops include:

  • Playgrounds
  • State parks
  • Historical sites
  • Walkable downtowns
  • Scenic overlooks
  • Picnic spots

Make sure stops have plenty of space for kids to run around for 20 minutes or so before getting back in the car.

  • Take a break

If you hear screaming, crying, or fighting, it’s time to take a break. Find a safe place (not on the side of the highway) to stop. Get out to stretch and calm down. Remember, distracted driving is dangerous for the whole family, and you can’t concentrate when a toddler is kicking the back of your seat while throwing a tantrum.

Drive Safe!

While these tips won’t make a car trip shorter, they can help make it feel that way. They may even keep you from hearing, “Are we there yet?” 20 times a minute, which may help you relax and enjoy the journey.

Ali Wilkinson is a consultant for Say Insurance. She's a lawyer and writer based in Portland, Oregon. She has been practicing law for over 15 years, working with clients across a wide range of specialties from accounting malpractice to victims' rights.