Away We Go: Tips for Traveling with Toddlers

Child sitting in suitcase

Your bags are packed and you're ready to set off on that big family trip. Of course, now that your little one has entered toddlerhood, there's a new batch of travel challenges: She's walking, talking, and has an opinion about pretty much everything — but that doesn't mean your getaway has to be memorable for all the wrong reasons. Our experts' tips will help you prepare for common obstacles so that traveling with your toddler will be more than manageable. Follow this advice and it may even feel like an actual vacation!

Tough Situation: Flying High

By the time you get through airport security and board the plane, you've already done a ton of waiting. Add in strangers and loud noises and you're practically begging for a tantrum. "Younger toddlers can be overwhelmed by all the sensory stimulation," notes Jayne Singer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Children's Hospital Boston. "And those closer to age 3 probably understand that they're going up in the air, which can be scary for them."

How to Help Leading up to the day of departure, build positive anticipation for the journey by pointing out planes flying by in the sky or giving your child a toy airplane to play with. When you pack for the flight, be sure to include both old and new toys for the trip. "Novelty goes a long way," says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years. "Go to the airport prepared with plenty of toys and activities that you know your kid likes — but also save something special to engage him on the plane, like a new set of crayons or a book that he's never seen before, which will be extra cool."

At the airport, let your kid burn energy before you board. Have him help push a small suitcase around the waiting area and ride the escalators. Once you're up in the air, narrate everything. "Flying may be unfamiliar, but if you give young toddlers the words to understand the experience it can help reduce their anxiety," says Dr. Berman.

Tough Situation: Driving the Distance

You strap your kid into the car seat, then turn up the tunes for the long trip to Nana's house. But by the time you reach the first tollbooth on the turnpike, your toddler is squirming. Unfortunately, expecting her to sit quietly for long in the backseat is unreasonable. If she doesn't feel engaged, she may not be able to keep herself calm and might express her understandable need for interaction in a typical manner — with a tantrum, Dr. Singer explains.

How to Help Toddlers are easily distracted and require frequent gear-shifts, says Shelly Rivoli, author of Travels With Baby: The Ultimate Guide for Planning Trips With Babies, Toddlers, and Preschool-Age Children. Think up plenty of interactive play ideas in advance, like a simple game of "I spy" or telling stories — and bring books and playthings that your little one can use on her own, like Magna Doodle and lacing and buckle toys that don't have a whole lot of pieces.

Once you pull out of your driveway, engage your toddler immediately. This way, she won't mind taking a break and quietly looking at some books on her own after a while. It's wise to try to plan the trip so part of it takes place during naptime. When your child is awake, be prepared to make rest stops every hour or two so she can stretch; if you wait until she's wiggling around, she'll think she has to make a fuss to get what she needs, and a pattern will be established, Dr. Singer explains. "Taking a rest stop sooner is worth it in the long run." It can also help to map out fun places to stop along the way to break up the trip; Rivoli suggests detouring at a pet store, a library, or a park. Bringing bubbles or a playground ball can make rest stops more exciting too.

If your child does have a breakdown — and you're traveling with your spouse or another adult — consider pulling over so one of you can move to the back to tend to her needs. It can get lonely back there, and a little company can go a long way. Keep in mind that if you have a very active or needy toddler, one of you may want to sit with her from the start.

Tough Situation: Staying Overnight

Visiting a hotel or a relative's house can be an exciting experience for your child, but after traveling he's likely to be overtired and craving the comforts of home. Factor in unfamiliar faces and a strange bed, and you'll be left with a clingy, tantrum-prone kid.

How to Help Pre-trip, flip through photos of the hotel (pull them up online) and your relatives with your child. Show him the type of room he's going to sleep in and any new people he'll meet. It'll help him get a sense of what will happen while you're away so there are fewer surprises, Dr. Singer says.

Once you arrive, let him adjust before encouraging him to socialize. "There might be a while when your little one needs to stay close," says Dr. Singer. "Don't push him until he seems comfortable." If your kid is attached to your hip, simply explain to Grandma that he'll warm up soon.

When it comes to bedtime, keep your kid's routine as normal as possible. Pack familiar items, like his lovey and a night-light, and make him feel extra safe by setting up a baby monitor and showing him where you'll be sleeping if it's not in the same room. All this will help your toddler make a better transition and open him up to some new experiences while you're on vacation.

Parents Magazine

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