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Clark and I decided to take our 6-month old, Parks, on a family vacation to Gatlinburg, TN to visit family. It was the end of February, so temperatures were still on the chillier side. It also threatened rain for most of the weekend. That worked out great for us because crappy weather certainly thins out the crowds.
In this blog, I’ll detail how we handled an 8-hour road trip with a baby. I’ll also discuss our strategy, as well as what we did on our family vacation in Gatlinburg.
- Parks’ schedule and how it plays into our plans
- 8-hour road trip to Gatlinburg with a baby
- Road trip back to Memphis
- Our accommodations in Gatlinburg
- Family-friendly attractions in Gatlinburg
- Lessons learned
Parks’ Schedule and How It Plays Into Our Plans
This was the second family vacation to Gatlinburg we’d taken with Parks. However, he was just 2 months old the first time. A lot has changed since then! He slept for most of our first road trip and wasn’t sleeping through the night. This time, we intended to stick to his wake windows the best we could. Doing so usually makes for a better night sleep for all of us. And because he’s finally sleeping at night, we put a lot more strategy into our plans for this trip.
I’d like to quickly set the stage for you:
- Parks is currently sleeping through the night consistently, 7:30 p.m. – 7:30 a.m. We consider ourselves very lucky and do not take this phenomenon for granted. We know that changing his routine has the potential to disrupt his night-time sleep. However, we worked hard to lay a solid sleep foundation so that we can be flexible when we needed.
- We try to keep his wake windows between 2-3 hours since he’s 6 months old. That’s what Taking Cara Babies recommends. We’ve been using Cara’s program for sleep training since Parks was a few weeks old. Basically, this means that as soon as Parks wakes up from a nap, the clock starts. Somewhere between 2-3 hours he begins to get fussy and show sleepy cues. That’s when we offer him a nap. The only exception to this “rule” is his first nap. His wake window often ends up being a lot shorter than the 2-3 hour recommendation, which is allegedly normal. Using this method helps us stick to a loose schedule, meaning we’ll probably have a good night. (Unless he’s sick or teething, of course.)
Now that you know more about his schedule, you can imagine that an 8-hour road trip and family vacation to Gatlinburg, TN with a baby can make navigating his wake windows a little more difficult.
8-hour Road Trip To Gatlinburg With A Baby
Now let’s talk about the road trip. It’s about a 7-hour drive without a baby. We made one extended stop to feed Parks. We stopped for lunch, which gave him a little time out of his car seat. That turned our 7-hour road trip into an 8-hour adventure.
We packed and had almost everything ready to go the night before so we could enjoy our morning. We read that it’s best to let him have his first nap of the day in his crib. That’s where he’s most comfortable and it is supposed to ensure a happy baby on the road.
Parks woke up at 7 a.m., and ended up taking his first nap around 8:15 a.m. As soon as he woke up at 10 a.m. I nursed him and we were out the door by 10:30 a.m.
Clark drove. I rode in the front seat until Parks started to get a little fussy about an hour into the drive. I climbed into the back seat and offered him toys to distract him.
At home, we keep all his toys in a small box. It’s easy to just put the entire toy bin in the back of the SUV. We keep them within arm’s reach of whoever is sitting in the back seat.
For the whole drive there, Parks stuck to his wake window/napping schedule. He slept great that night despite being in an unfamiliar place. We considered that first day of our family vacation to Gatlinburg a success!
Road Trip Back To Memphis
Whenever our trips come to an end, we like to get on the road early and get home quickly. We don’t like to prolong the inevitable. For this reason, we decided to do a little experiment. We wondered if the guidance about Parks having a first nap in his designated sleep space really made a difference in his mood. We also wondered if throwing his wake windows/nap schedule out the window would impact his overnight sleep.
Guess what? It didn’t. Parks was the same happy baby on the drive home that he was on the drive there. He also slept through the night even though he napped quite a bit more in the car.
So, was all the extra planning and effort worth it? Yes and no. It’s nice to have a plan, but it’s also nice to know that Parks can be flexible when needed. Knowing this takes a huge weight off our shoulders for future trips and plans that alter his daily schedule.
Accommodations For Our Family Vacation To Gatlinburg
Since we were visiting Clark’s dad and stepmom, we stayed at their house, which is lovely and spacious. We had our room, which Parks shared with us.
We brought our Pack ‘n’ Play and a Slumberpod so we wouldn’t have to keep the lights out when we came to bed later. The Slumberpod is nice because there’s a place at the top for us to put our HelloBaby video monitor with a perfect view of Parks. The bluetooth hand-held monitor has great range and allows us to carry it all over the house and even outside to the deck so we know right away if Parks wakes up and needs something.
Family-Friendly Attractions In Gatlinburg, TN
Each day that we were out and about, I nursed Parks on the go using the Tushbaby Hip Carrier for support. When it’s time for him to nap, we put him in his Doona car seat/stroller, turn on the portable sound machine, and cover him up. Parks is accustomed to napping and nursing wherever we happen to be. It’s worked out well for us and even though we have a wake window/napping schedule, it doesn’t stop us from getting out and exploring when we’re on vacation.
It was raining on our first full day in Gatlinburg, but that didn’t stop us from finding something fun to do.
The Pines in Downtown Sevierville, TN
We stopped in at The Pines, which is a mix between a bar, arcade, and a bowling alley. It’s decorated very hip with mid-century mod furniture and accents. We loved the vibe! They have Duckpin bowling, giant jenga, an interesting billiards-soccer game, and more. We ended up spending our entire afternoon at The Pines, wrapping up our stay with a fun game of Trivial Pursuit.
Anakeesta in Downtown Gatlinburg, TN
The next day was threatening rain, so we thought it would be the perfect time to check out Anakeesta, which is a cute mountaintop adventure park. On a nice day, I’m sure it would be swarming with people. On our gloomy day, we weren’t navigating crowds and were always able to find a place to sit and hang out.
To get to the top of the mountain, you have three choices: chair lift, enclosed gondola, bus ride.
I rode a chair lift with Parks when he was just two months old, but for this trip, we forgot to bring our Baby Bjorn carrier. We were armed with our Tushbaby, which is my favorite way of carrying him around, but it doesn’t lock Parks into place therefore ensuring Parks’ safety the way the Baby Bjorn carrier does. We opted for the enclosed gondola, which worked out great because it was a little chilly outside anyway.
At the top of the mountain, we found a table with a view near an outdoor bar and ordered a round of drinks. My sister-in-law and I took off to ride the Rail Runner Mountain Coaster, which I highly recommend if you enjoy a thrill. We ate lunch at the Tap House, which was sub par across the board. None of us were very impressed with our meals, but they welcomed us without a reservation and service was fast. After lunch, we made our way back to the outdoor bar and had a nice time taking in the view. I nursed Parks using the Tushbaby for support right before we made our way back down the morning in the bus.
The Smoky Mountains have a lot of great family-friendly hikes that we’re excited to do with Parks next time we visit. This trip was a short one, so it was more about visiting family and catching up. We’ll make another trip this spring and afterward, I’ll detail the different hike options and our experience hiking with Parks for the first time.
Following the guidance we read on a lot of blogs that advised us to let Parks take his first nap of the day in his crib before we hit the road didn’t seem to make a difference for us.
The guidance states that ensuring the baby has a perfect, long first nap of the day will make for a happier baby in the car. It makes total sense, in theory. We followed that guidance for our drive to Gatlinburg, and did not follow the guidance on the way home. Parks was the same happy baby even after taking his first nap in his car seat on the drive home.
Create a ‘travel’ checklist to make sure you don’t forget something.
We forgot to pack our Baby Bjorn carrier, which is one of our favorite ways to wear Parks. It allows us to go hands free, which is great. But most importantly, we weren’t able to ride the chair lift because we didn’t have a safe way to secure him to us. It wasn’t a huge deal, but a good reminder that we can be more organized before we head out the door for a trip. When I do finish my travel checklist, I’ll make it available to you.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What age can I start road tripping with my baby?
I recommend road tripping with your baby as soon as you feel comfortable doing so. We started small and took Parks on his first road trip when he was about 1 month old. It was a one-hour drive to spend the weekend in Oxford, Mississippi. We were familiar with our accommodations and knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into as far as what we needed to pack. It was short enough to give us a good idea about how Parks would do on a longer trip.
He hated that first road trip. But we did the same trip again two weeks later and he did a lot better. Our first long road trip, which happened to be a family vacation in Gatlinburg, was two weeks after that and he did amazing. We planned for a lot of stops because he was eating every 1-2 hours at that point, so it took a while, but that didn’t matter because we weren’t in a hurry.
The more we road tripped with Parks, the more comfortable he became being in the car.
How do you handle diaper changes on the road?
We typically like to stop at the bigger, more popular truck stops like Loves or Buc-cees. They have the cleanest bathrooms and almost always have a changing table available.
If we need to change Parks and there isn’t a nice truck stop in sight, we’ll simply change him out of the back of the car or in the back seat. We keep a small changing mat in our diaper bag to ensure Parks always has a comfortable place to lie down.
How do you handle breastfeeding/nursing during a road trip?
We stop every time Parks needs to be fed. Sometimes that means we pull into a gas station, fill up the tank, and I just nurse him in the car. If the road trip is longer than four hours, we’ll plan a lunch break and find an eat-in restaurant where I’ll feed him and we can keep him out of the car seat for a bit to stretch his legs and play.
What do you bring with you for a road trip with a baby?
Traveling by car gives us a little more space to bring more of our favorite travel items than traveling by plane. Of course, we always make sure to bring the essentials like diapers and wipes, but here’s a list of travel-specific things we brought on this family vacation to Gatlinburg:
• Graco Pack ‘n’ Play: We like the one that has a removable “bassinet,” which is actually just a way for the floor of the pack ‘n’ play to be raised higher so your baby is easier to reach.
• Slumberpod: This fits over the pack’n’play to black out baby’s sleeping environment. It’s basically a black-out tent. It has a place for you to put a video monitor so you can still have eyes on your baby if you’d like.
• Portable sound machine: This is great in the car and when you’re on the go.
• Tushbaby Hip Carrier: We use this to carry Parks around when he’s awake. He likes being able to look around and still grab at his feet. It’s also a great support for nursing on the go.
• Baby Bjorn carrier: Of course, we forgot to pack our Baby Bjorn during this trip, but we won’t let that happen again.
• Stroller cover: Since we’re going to be so active on our trips, we always make sure to have a stroller cover to make it easier for Parks to nap in his stroller.
• Boppy pillow: We keep this in the car to ensure the most comfortable nursing experience for me and Parks.