If you’re reading this, you probably belong to one of two new-parent groups:
- Travel used to be your lifestyle, and you’re afraid it might be over.
- You’re wondering if it’s safe to take that road trip or visit the family.
Whatever your group, I’ve got you covered in this guide – it packs everything and anything you need to know about car trips with a newborn baby.
Below is a rundown of what I’ll cover:
- Two main factors to account for when planning a newborn’s car-travel timeline
- Basics of the baby’s immune system (and why it matters for car travel)
- Traveling with a newborn by car – how soon after birth can you do it?
- How soon can a newborn travel long distances by car?
- What role do car seats play?
Two main factors of baby car travel and long-distance rides
The strain on the spine and the infant’s immune system are the two main factors in deciding whether a car trip with your baby is OK or not.
The former is pretty straightforward, and it comes down to a simple guideline known as the 2-hour rule (we’ll get to it in a sec).
The latter is more nuanced, and it will be the deciding factor 90% of the time in the first few months.
The 2-hour rule for long-distance car rides
A baby should not be in a car seat for more than two hours a day (or a 24-hour stretch).
Anything longer than that puts too much strain on their spine and the still-developing muscles. As a result, they might slouch and limit the airflow to the lungs.
My annex to the two-hour rule:
Have a dedicated “gatekeeper” the first time you put the baby in a car seat and the first time you take them on a long car ride.
Have them closely monitor the baby’s movement and note how soon they start squirming or slouching.
Because the two-hour rule might turn out to be the one-and-a-half-hour rule for your baby.
Read more on that here: how long can a newborn be in a car seat
Baby’s immune system (and why it matters for car travel)
The newborn’s immune system is still developing in the first few months after birth.
That means they’re not as resistant to disease as you are. They’re slowly developing immunity to the bacteria and viruses around your house. It’s the same bacteria that you carry around, and that’s most likely in your car, too.
What does this mean for short car trips?
It means that short trips (up to 30 minutes at a time, like to and fro the pediatrician’s office) might be safe from birth for a healthy, fully developed baby. That goes as long as you clean the car after a day about town.
I say “might” because, like always, your pediatrician gets the final say.
What about a long car ride?
You should wait for 2-3 months before traveling long distances with your baby in the car.
That’s when the infant’s immunity gets strong enough to fight off the most common bacteria or viruses in your car.
But aren’t those the same bacteria as on the short trips?
They are, but with a developing immunity, the exposure time that matters, too.
Resume – when can a newborn baby travel by car?
A healthy, fully-developed newborn can take short car trips (up to 30 minutes) from birth.
For longer distances, you should wait for the baby’s immune systems to fully develop (2-3 months).
That answers the all-important question, “When is it safe for newborns to travel by car?”
Car travel and specific “ages”
It might sound weird, but there’s a pattern in the questions I get about baby car travel.
Some of them are oddly specific, and they keep repeating, so I’ll take a moment to address them here.
Traveling with a 2-week old baby by car
A 2-week old baby is still underdeveloped for longer car trips, and their immune system still can’t fight off viruses and bacteria.
If needs must, limit the car time fo very short trips, like to and from the doctor’s office.
Car travel with a 1-month-old baby
A 1-month old, the baby’s immune system got some boost (compared to the 2-week old), but they still shouldn’t spend prolonged periods in a car. Limit the journeys to 30 minutes at a time.
Traveling with a 2-month-old baby by car
The two-month mark is a milestone for the baby’s immune system. If your doctor determines that the immune system is fully developed, the main limiting factor for car travel becomes the strain to the spine.
This might be the time to switch to the two-hour rule (as the car seat manufacturers recommend).
Traveling with a 3-month-old by car
By 3-months of age, most babies will have formed an effective immune system, and you can start taking longer journeys.
When you decide to drive long-distance with the baby in the car, limit their car time to two hours within any 24-hour stretch and split that up into shorter bouts.
Baby car seats and travel
We already mentioned that one of the two limiting factors is the baby’s still developing spine.
A good car seat will not only keep your baby safe but position them in a way that will not strain the spine.
What does that mean exactly?
It means that staying in a semi-upright position is less than ideal for young babies, and they might start to slump, which is a suffocation hazard.
The grim part here is that most seat-related baby deaths happen because the seat was not installed correctly.
Bottom line – don’t skimp on the car seat and make sure you’ve installed the seat properly.
Bottom line – your best travel days are yet to come
If you’re a new parent and it seems that your traveling days are behind you, one of two things is happening:
- You’re getting your information from the wrong sources (read: other parents who’d like to travel but don’t have the grit)
- You’re looking for an excuse to stop traveling because staying put feels safer. Your instinct is to keep this new fragile being away from any hint of danger…and I get it.
If you take one thing away from this guide, let it be this – you shouldn’t be doing either of the two.
If you know your parenting stuff, travel is not only safe but good for them.
In fact, your life on the road can get a whole new dimension with the new dynamo in the car.