Traveling with a baby or toddler can be nerve-wracking, stressful, or overwhelming. Babies and toddlers can be unpredictable, which is not a word we usually like to associate with travel plans. We buy travel insurance in case something happens, we pack a variety of outfits for unexpected weather, and we pre-plan transportation at our destination; but how can we guarantee that our tiny traveler is going to be a content companion? We can’t, really, but we can do just as much to plan ahead for their journey as we do ours.
We’ve been traveling with our daughter for 2 years since she was born, so I’m here to share with you my top insider tips on taking (some of) the stress out of toddler travel!
Tip #1: Incentives
I’m not the type of parent that believes in bribery, but moms get desperate in certain situations (air travel, cough, cough). Overall we have been lucky, in that our daughter has done relatively well on airplanes. When she was a baby I nursed her upon take-off and landing to help with the ear pressure. Once she weaned and was eating solids, I replaced nursing with a sippy cup and puree pouch, so she was still swallowing and sucking. On our last trip, she didn’t seem to be bothered by it at all; she was touching her ears, and I could tell she could feel it, but not enough to make her cry.
The biggest issue on airplanes since she became a toddler is sitting still. Of course, she wants to touch everything, explore the in-flight brochures, play with the tray table, jump on my lap, make the window shade go up and down, and peek over the seat to stare at the people sitting behind us. When she starts to approach naptime, but can’t get comfortable enough on my lap to fall asleep, she’ll start raising her voice and upping the antics. This is where my “incentives” come in.
Before our trip, I stocked up on toys from the dollar bins at Target. They have a huge variety of things, from clothing accessories to coloring and activity books, to packable snacks, all $1 - $5. I wrapped each item individually in our daughter’s favorite Minnie Mouse wrapping paper leftover from Christmas and secretly brought a bag full of surprises for her in my carry-on backpack. The first time she started acting up on the plane, and I mean pushing the limit because she couldn’t help herself, I pulled out a wrapped present from my bag. She got so giddy excited (and I made a big deal about it too).
I told her that if she was a “good girl” and sat quietly, then I would let her open it. She obeyed, and I gave her the gift. I strategically bought gifts that I knew would keep her occupied for more than a few minutes (for example, a coloring pad that came with stickers and crayons). She didn’t know that I had more presents with me and getting the first one really calmed her down and refocused her energy onto something new.
I had wrapped 8 – 10 small gifts for the plane ride and only ended up needing to let her open a few, so I had plenty leftover for our flight back home at the end of the week and also used some as rewards for good behavior and patience during our vacation. Again, this is not a tactic that I support as a way of parenting on a regular basis, but it sure came in handy on our vacation when all else failed! The most important thing is to make sure that your child understands that they are being rewarded for their good behavior, rather than giving them gifts as a distraction at the height of their not so good behavior.
Tip #2: Technology
I know that kids under the age of 2 aren’t supposed to have screen time for a thousand reasons, but sometimes you’re just trying to survive! Our daughter was introduced to TV sooner than I had planned, mostly as a mechanism to keep her out of the kitchen and occupied while I was cooking on the stove. As a full-time Boss Lady Mom, I’d rather have her quietly watching Daniel Tiger than doing something potentially dangerous, while I’m trying to respond to that urgent email.
So I download movies onto my iPhone before long trips because I know they’ll keep her attention span for long periods of time. She still can’t watch a movie in its entirety, but she does get pretty swept away watching Moana, Trolls, or Frozen. We bought her Minnie Mouse (yes, her favorite) kids headphones that have a volume limitation so that her hearing isn’t compromised while listening.
Here’s the thing – if your kid is watching their favorite movie on your phone (or on the in-flight entertainment screen), then you either have to watch it with them or share a movie on someone else’s phone. Either way, get a dual headphone jack! Our daughter usually sits on my lap on the airplane, and I was forced to watch all of her movies. It was much more entertaining when I could hear what was happening too because we could each connect with our own set of headphones.
Tip #3: Poster Board
Okay, this tip may seem extreme, but if you’re a mom who has struggled with your baby’s sleep schedule, then you know you’ll do whatever it takes to make sure they are getting an adequate amount of zzz’s. Travel can really throw a child’s sleep schedule off because of time zone changes, missed naps, and new environments. Everything you can do to make sure their sleep environment is as predictable as possible will help them rest easy.
After 9 months of waking up all night long with our daughter as a baby, we hired a sleep doula, which totally changed our lives. Our daughter’s sleep environment is very specific now, and when we travel, I do my best to keep it that way. She needs a very dark room, her sound machine, sleep sack, night-light, and lovies. It’s easy for me to pack everything she needs, except for the blackout blinds. Here’s where the poster board comes in handy.
I have literally brought several sheets of black poster board and painter’s tape on many of our trips when I can’t predict how the room we’re staying in will be set up. Even in a hotel room that has heavy curtains, there are oftentimes cracks of light that you can never seem to eliminate. Depending on how sensitive your baby is, this can make the difference between them rising with daybreak or staying on their previous sleep schedule.
Black poster board is cheap and doesn’t take up much room in your suitcase. You can tape it up easily with painter’s tape to block light, blackout an entire window, or even on the outside of a mesh Pack ‘n Play, so that your baby isn’t tormented by seeing you sleep in the same room. Painter’s tape comes off effortlessly and doesn’t damage anything, so the poster board is easily reusable.
Tip #4: Snack Packs
Our daughter is a hungry hippo; I always think I’ve packed enough snacks, and she eats through them like a wildfire! It’s imperative that you pack plenty of snacks to go the distance, literally. Airport food, airplane food, and hotel food is flat out expensive. Plus, they don’t always have a lot of options for kids, and if they do, they’re usually unhealthy options or stuff your kid won’t end up liking. Try throwing a $7 PB&J in the garbage, and you’ll never forget to pack snacks again!
I stock up on our daughter’s favorite snacks before our trips. I unbox everything and repack it into Ziploc bags to save space. If it’s a large box of snacks, like crackers, then I divide it into bags of small serving sizes that are easy to grab on the go. I usually bring a lot of toddler snack bars that don’t take up much space, and I keep my huge pack of snacks inside a spot in my bag where they’re least likely to get crushed. I also keep another bag of more snacks in our checked luggage for later on during our trip. Sometimes I’ll even pack an entire jar of peanut butter, jelly, a loaf of bread, and plastic knives. Those homemade sandwiches have also saved my husband and I from being tempted by room service when we were starving.
The things we don’t often think about when traveling is to prepare for the “what-ifs.” What if your flight is delayed, and you have to spend extra time in the airport? What if your flight is delayed, but you’re already onboard the aircraft, and they can’t serve you anything? What if the onboard meal sells out before they reach your seat? What if every option on the menu has dairy, and your kid is lactose intolerant? What if it takes a lot of time for everyone to get ready in the morning before breakfast, and your little one is used to eating right when he or she wakes up? What if you’re stuck in traffic for an hour on the way to your hotel? There are so many variables, and when a kid needs to eat, there’s not much patience involved on their behalf. If you’re lucky enough to still be primarily nursing, then you come equipped with an on-demand snack, but if not, you better come prepared!
Tip #5: Sand Awareness
So this tip is only for those of you planning to spend time on a beach – because sand. Our extremely lucky daughter has been to Hawaii 3 times already!! She doesn’t have a huge vocabulary, but the girl definitely says “Hawaii” whenever she sees a picture of a beach now. She’s a beach baby and loves playing in the water. However, there is always a "sand incident."
She was less than a year old on her first trip to Hawaii, and sand was brand new. She hated it. She didn’t want to touch it or stand on it. It was squishy and in some places hot, but she didn’t trust it. She was close to being able to walk at that time, and I figured that the sand would be the perfect place for her to practice because she wouldn’t get hurt if she fell down, so I put her in cute beach sandals. Nope! She wasn’t having it. If I would have put her in regular walking shoes, or even in something that covered her toes, I think she would’ve been a little more comfortable exploring what it was like to be on sand. In her sandals, the sand brushed over her toes and made her feel unstable, so she made up her mind about it quickly.
On her second trip to Hawaii, she was almost 18 months old and loved the sand. A confident walker by then, she was eager to run towards the shore and shovel sand into her bucket. We let her sit in the sand and happily play for quite awhile. Everything was lovely until…she decided to taste the sand. Yep, a huge shovelful straight into her mouth! Immediate screaming, crying, and hysteria, my husband sprinted like an Olympian up to the hotel for a cup of water. He came back with it, and we did our best to try to rinse her mouth out and teach her to spit. It was a tough lesson learned for her and for us. We still remind her not to eat sand, that it tastes “yucky!”
The third time she went to Hawaii was last month, and she’s almost 2. She was fine with the sand, running up and down the beach and purposely falling in it, and didn’t do any taste testing this time. But, she got it in her eyes. I have to admit that I FREAKED OUT on this one. I literally had her pinned down on the beach towel while I poured bottled water over her eyes, hoping the sand would rinse out. It was so traumatizing for both of us, and it wasn’t working! She wanted to rub her eyes, and you can imagine the horror of those little sand particles scratching her tiny eyeballs. This sweet mom nearby noticed our panic and sent her husband over with baby powder. She was clearly a local and had plenty of experience with this type of beach trauma. It worked! The baby powder dried up the sticky sand that was adhered to our daughter’s eyelashes and allowed us to finally start wiping it off her face and eyes. It was Burt’s Bees Dusting Powder, so it was talc-free and non-irritating. That mom was such a blessing, and now I’ll always pack baby powder when going to the beach.
All the planning and preparation it takes to travel with a baby or toddler is well worth it. Being able to experience the world through their eyes is already such a gift, and traveling gives you the opportunity for so many more “firsts” alongside them. If you have the right mindset and expectations for your trip, then it will be something your whole family can enjoy, even if something doesn’t go well. I hope that these tips give you some useful ideas, and I’d love to answer any questions you have about traveling with your baby or toddler!
If you’re already a seasoned traveling mom, please share a couple of your best tips and tricks! Join the discussion in the comments below.