If your travel plans include traveling with a toddler, prepare for the worst, and you won’t be disappointed.
It’s true that your toddler might spend hours quietly entranced by the passing scenery. But if he’s anything like other toddlers, he’s going to be variously hungry, tired, bored, thirsty, too hot or too cold, grumpy (and all the rest of seven dwarfs).
The best way to ward off toddlermeltdowns while traveling is to be prepared. Anticipate problems and arm yourself with the tools you’ll need to face the challenges of diaper changes, potty training, picky eating, or tantrums in transit.
This means, of course, that your days of traveling light are over.
What you’ll need en route
Short of packing the whole house, what should you bring? To start, take stock of your diaper bag. Even if your toddler is past the need for diapers, a diaper bag is a great carry-along bag for travel (especially the new backpack-style diaper bags). They’re usually lined (a plus in case you have to carry something wet) and have several compartments. Inside you’ll want to tuck an insulated bag for keeping cups of juice or water, fruit, and other chilled snacks cold. A travel pack of baby wipes will also come in handy for quick hand washings or for cleaning up after a bite on the road.
Other items to pack for your toddler:
*sunscreen and sunglasses
*a change of clothes
*a sweater or sweatshirt
*two sturdy board books (one familiar & one new; lift-the-flap books are great, too)
*a toy your toddler has never seen before
*a sippy cup
*juice boxes and/or water
*a mini first-aid kit with bandages, antibacterial ointment, sting relief spray, safety pins, small scissors, acetaminophen (Tylenol), and any prescription medication your toddler may need (e.g., asthma medication, antibiotics)
When you’re traveling by plane or train, your carry-on luggage should always contain enough to get you through one day at your destination in case the rest of your bags get lost. If your toddler has his own (purchased) seat (a safety measure airlines encourage with discounted kids’ fares), you can pack a carry-on bag just for him without worrying about exceeding your limit of carry-on bags. Carrying several small bags may be unwieldy, but you’ll be well-prepared for the worst.
If your toddler is still in diapers or training pants, pack enough for your anticipated travel time plus 12 hours. This way you’ll be ready if you are delayed or if travelers’ diarrhea sets in. You don’t want to try to buy diapers in the Denver airport at 2 a.m. when your flight is grounded by a blizzard.
Getting where you’re going
Don’t assume flying is your only option. Train travel is still surprisingly popular and a good choice when traveling with toddlers, if you take time to plan ahead. Traveling by train allows you to avoid the congestion on many major roads. Also, you’ll have more space and freedom than you might in a car or on a plane. Just take the following points into consideration before boarding that speeding bullet.
- Order your tickets in advance to avoid waiting in long ticket lines. When possible, make seat or compartment reservations as well. This will ensure that your entire party sits together.
- Travel off-peak and add a day or two to your vacation to avoid heavy crowds around the holidays or long weekends.
- Arrive at the station early so you can board as soon as possible. Use the services of a porter if they are available, and check as much of your luggage as you can do without during your trip.
- Put your teamwork skills to the test — send one adult ahead to board and hold seats while the other adult brings up the rear with toddler in tow.
- Whenever possible, take advantage of longer station stops to get off the train and walk around.
- Bring along lots of snacks. Even if there is a dining car, your toddler may do better eating the foods she’s used to from home. If your child is very easy to feed, you may still want snacks on hand for when the dining car is closed.
- Although trains have more room than planes, the ride is not always smooth. Keep your child seated and entertained for safety’s sake. Try to nab a window seat so he’ll be gazing at the passing scenery instead of trying to run up and down the aisle.
- Pack activities for your child, just as you would on a long car trip. Bring along crayons, paper, coloring books, and a favorite toy. A small toy that is brand-new to the child may keep her engaged for quite some time.
Safety should be your number one concern when traveling by car. Don’t even back out of your driveway unless your toddler is securely fastened in her car seat or booster seat. Ever.
Take turns driving so you can switch off on toddler-entertaining duties. Here, too, a little forethought will go a long way. If you frequently drive with your toddler on board you may assume that she’ll enjoy the trip just as she would a quick ride to the store. She won’t. Pack a box with entertaining and easy-to-hold objects that you can use to divert her. Also bring along several of her favorite tapes to play — plan a sing-along!
You’ll have to factor in stopping time when determining how much time you’ll be spending on the road. Your best bet is to stop every two hours. However, you may find yourself stopping more often, especially if you’re in the middle of potty learning (so you might want to hold off on the potty and training pants until you’ve returned from the holidays).
When you do stop, find a safe place for your toddler to cut loose for a few minutes. A good way to let him run while still keeping him under control is to blow bubbles. Let him chase the bubbles and try to pop them.
Also plan to stop for meals. While adults can eat in a moving car with little fuss, your toddler will need extra help. Also, even the most steel-stomached toddler may vomit after eating a meal on wheels.
Between overbooked flights, lost baggage, and the squeeze-’em-in-like-sardines policy of most airlines, no one expects air travel to be funanymore. But there are ways to make an airplane ride with a toddler a bit more pleasant.
- Get to the airport at least one hour early, but no more than 1 1/2 hours early (unless you need extra time to make changes to your ticket). It’s no fun hustling through the security checkpoint at top speed with six carry-ons, a toddler, a stroller, and acar seat, but neither is it easy to keep a toddler occupied at the gate for more than a half hour or so (some airport terminals have play areas for kids; if you’re lucky, there will be one right near your gate).
- Bring a lightweight umbrella stroller and check it at the gate. That way you’ll have it with you right up until you board the plain, and immediately after disembarking.
- Once you’re on board, prepare your toddler for the sights, sounds, and feeling of airplane travel, particularly take-off. Many toddlers are happily excited by the noise and unfamiliar motion if they know that it is coming.
- For take off and descent, use lollipops for toddlers, rather than gum, to help relieve ear pressure.
- Some travel experts recommend reserving the bulkhead seating (located behind the partition to first class); it usually has enough extra leg room for toddlers who want to play or nap on the floor. But the bulkhead has its disadvantages, too: The armrests don’t raise for naps, the tray table doesn’t come down, and there’s no storage in front of you, so the diaper bag has to go overhead.
- Pack the same toys you would for train and car travel. Art supplies, lift-the-flap books, and a brand-new toy are good choices. One novel way to keep your toddler entertained is to bring colorforms for her to stick on the window. Other toys recommended by traveling moms include the travel-size Magnadoodle, Duplos, and paint-with-water books.
Once you get where you’re going
Make sure you have enough clothes on hand for your time away. Mix-and match-separates allow you to change pants or tops quickly, without unpacking a whole new outfit. Bring along three extra pairs of underwear and socks and make sure you pack comfortable footwear for your tot.
When you’re traveling in wintertime, be sure to pack warm outerwear, including hats and mittens. Even if your holiday plans take you to a warm, sunny climate, always bring along a light jacket or sweater. Often air conditioning is set to chilling levels and kids get cold fast.
Don’t assume you’ll pick up whatever you need at your destination. First of all, you can quickly deplete your vacation budget on all your toddler’s necessities. And second, you have no guarantee that the brand of sippy cup your toddler loves or the wipes you prefer will be available at your destination.
Arrive prepared to childproof any hotel room or relatives’ home in which you’re staying. Pack a supply of outlet covers, cabinet fasteners, toilet latches, doorknob covers, and other protective devices to eliminate a trip to the store when you arrive.
To complete your childproofing, get down on your knees (to toddler level) and check for any attractive dangers. Glass and breakables should be high enough that your toddler can’t reach them. No cords from window blinds or curtains should be within your child’s reach. Pull chairs away from desks and tables so that they don’t form tempting climbing terrain.
Once you’ve settled in for Christmas at grandma’s, think about your toddler’s day from his point of view, keeping in mind that toddlers thrive on routine and consistency. Preserve as much of your toddler’s usual habits — meals, naptimes, favorite books, games or toys — as you reasonably can. Balance busy, activity-filled hours with extra downtime.
Falling asleep in a strange place
You may be able to sleep just about anywhere, but your toddler probably won’t be so adaptable. Toddlers, notoriously resistant to the new and unfamiliar, and passing through phases of separation anxiety, stranger anxiety, and fear of the dark, are likely to be unsettled by new sleeping arrangements. A little planning, however, can ease your child’s adjustment to a different bed.
Contact your hotel (or hosts) to find out what sleeping arrangements, like a crib or bed with side rails, are available.
The problem of unsafe hotel cribs is more widespread than you might imagine.
If your toddler still fits in his pack-and-play, you can bring that along for him to sleep in (provided it is safe model that hasn’t been recalled, of course). For toddlers aged 2 and up, inflatable portable beds, like the Sleep Away Bed by Imaginair are popular. You can put a toddler who might roll out of bed to sleep on a firm mattress placed on the floor. And if you practice the family bed, well, you don’t have to worry about this at all.
Regardless of where you decide your toddler will sleep best, bring along a favorite blanket, pillow, or stuffed animal to make this foreign bed as homelike as possible. Bringing the nightlight from her bedroom at home adds comfort and familiarity.
The best way to promote toddler sleep is to keep your child’s bedtime and nap routine the same as when you’re home (don’t adjust for time zone changes). Bring any bath toys, books, and stuffed animals that are part of your toddler’s bedtime rituals. If your toddler still takes a bottle or nurses before bed when at home, she should do the same when traveling.
Finally, before you sleep, check the room to make sure it is childproofed against a curious toddler who might go exploring in the night. Hotels and the homes of relatives without young children are not usually prepared for a questing toddler. Make any necessary changes to furniture, outlets, and breakables.
Don’t forget your sense of humor
One crucial thing to bring along when traveling with a toddler is your sense of humor. Accept limitations and unexpected delays and try to make the best out of them. Jokes, songs, stories, and cuddling can make time spent waiting pass quickly.
The most important thing is that you’re getting away with your little one, giving him the experience of travel, and bringing him to friends and family who love him (in addition to whatever other treats await at your destination). Smooth traveling is just the icing on the cake!