Toddler Travel: Tips, Tricks, and Lessons Learned
We just returned from a trip to Vermont to visit my old high school and my grandmother’s summer cabin, which has been a part of summers in our family for some 60 years now. Our last trip as a family was a bit rough and not all that relaxing, so I was nervous about more travel, this time across the country. This trip, however, turned out to be fun for all three of us, and we all came home feeling refreshed. Why the difference? I think it was part luck, part adjusted attitude and expectations, and part experience from past trips.
I wrote a travel tips post last fall after a trip when BabyC was 11 months old, and I think I still agree with most of those. However, traveling with a 19-month-old is a bit different, and I thought I’d share some of the lessons learned along the way.
Don’t expect your toddler to nap on the plane. This used to be the holy grail of travel for me. We used to plan flights around nap time. We’d try to keep our time in the airport exciting and stimulating so that BabyC would sleep on the flight, and that actually worked pretty well most of the time. But now that BabyC is a toddler, this strategy has backfired on us a few times, and we’ve adopted a new one: Encourage sleep whenever she’s tired. It is better to board a plane with a cheerful, well-rested toddler and spend the entire flight playing games and singing songs and looking out the window than to have an over-tired, over-stimulated toddler who fights sleep with every ounce of remaining energy. When BabyC sleeps on planes, we love it, but we no longer count on it. My Two Hats published a post on Travel with Toddlers just before we left for this trip, and she included the same tip, which was a timely reminder for us.
Don’t expect an iPad to entertain a toddler for a flight. At least not my toddler. For our last trip, I loaded up our iPad with toddler apps, but BabyC was not interested in any of it. In fact, when I urged her to sit still and tried to draw her attention to all the fun the iPad had to offer, she seemed to just get a little crazier. This may not be the case with all toddlers, and if yours is entertained by technology, I say go for it. On this trip, I pulled out the iPad once, in a desperate moment towards the end of our 5.5-hour flight from Newark to Portland. BabyC was actually sort of into the Sesame Street video I played for her, but a few minutes later, the flight attendant told us to put away our electronic devices. BabyC didn’t want to turn off the video at that moment, and for a few seconds I pictured our family being escorted off the plane in disgrace following an iPad deprivation tantrum. Thankfully, BabyC recovered, and we found something else to do for the remainder of the flight.
Do bring several carefully chosen, novel toys and books. Pull these out one at a time when your toddler is searching for something new to do. Here’s what worked well for us on this trip:
- A small magnetic doodle pad like this one. This was a hit with BabyC. She did lots of drawing and erasing herself, and on the way home, she and Husband reviewed all of the farm animals that we’d met on our trip, drawing and talking about cows, chickens, and horses.
- Small sticker books. BabyC enjoyed pulling all the stickers off a page and piling them on her own shirt, then rearranging them on the airplane armrest, then Mama’s arms, etc., etc. It was a bonus that one of our sticker books is full of farm animals that BabyC now recognizes and can name (“Mooooo”).
- Buckles. BabyC has been really into buckles lately – the buckles on her booster seat, her bicycle helmet, and our backpack. So for this trip, I bought several plastic buckles from REI and threaded them on small vinyl straps. She buckled to her heart’s content and turned the straps into belts, necklaces, and bracelets. Note that this activity requires adult supervision, since the straps pose a strangulation hazard.
- This Playmobil Recycling Truck. I’m a new fan of Playmobil’s 1.2.3 line of toys, made for ages 18 months and up. This toy is small enough to fit in our backpack and be driven on an airplane tray table. It has a removable driver who can sit or stand. The back of the truck is a shape sorter with two holes that fit the two different recycling containers. Lots to do on this small toy, and BabyC loved it.
- A cup of ice and an extra plastic cup, obtained from our friendly flight attendant. For the second trip in a row, this activity probably consumed BabyC’s attention more than any toy that we brought for her. She liked moving the ice back and forth from one cup to another, and when her hands became blue from the cold, pouring them back and forth and in Mama’s lap.
- When all else fails, let your toddler pull apart your wallet.
- Or have some fun trading hats.
- And don’t forget about all the sights and sounds of airports and airplanes. We had a lot of fun pointing out trucks and airplanes on this trip, as well as talking about babies, especially crying babies and sleeping babies.
On the ground:
Place matters. On this trip, we were in a beautiful place with lots of time for unstructured outdoor play. Outside, BabyC could mostly climb to her heart’s content, and we didn’t need to say “no” or set many limits around her play. She was happy, we were happy, and at the end of the day, she was worn out enough for a good night’s sleep.
Plan as little as possible. We stayed in two places over the eight days of our trip, and we tried to limit our time in the car or doing activities. We just enjoyed spending time with each other and our friends and family and soaking up time in these special places.
Talk about your plans. When we did have big plans for the day – a long car ride, a special outing, or boarding an airplane to head home – we started talking with BabyC about it several hours in advance so that she was mentally prepared. Travel offers many opportunities for fun for toddlers, but I know that BabyC thrives on routine, and she deserves a warning when that routine changes.
Sleep. Obviously, we don’t have complete control over this one. However, looking back on this trip, I realize that one of the major reasons why it was so restful was that BabyC slept through the night, every night, and napped fairly well. This was a first for us. I’ve come to expect some night waking and early mornings when we travel. I’m sure that a big part of this is just developmental – she’s reached an age where she feels more secure sleeping in a strange place. However, one thing that we did that I think helped was work on room darkening. We knew that the sun would rise earlier than we wanted to be up, so we hung heavy blankets over the windows. If this helps your kiddo sleep better, it is a valuable tool to making transitions across time zones and catching up on sleep after a long day of travel.
The busy summer travel season is upon us. Do you have plans for traveling with your family this summer? Any tips and tricks to share? I can’t get enough of these…