Traveling with Toddlers- Part 1
Family vacations can be a mixed blessing. Remember how fun and easy they were before you had toddlers in tow? If you’re approaching your summer vacation with caution or even trepidation, I understand. I’ve been there. My husband and I have traveled extensively with our 3 children– east coast, west coast, the midwest and to Europe. I recall (not-so-fondly) hours of children’s screams down the highway and near wrestling matches within the airplane aisles. And what I’ve learned over the years and from hundreds of parents of toddlers I’ve met along the way is that the secret to a stress-free family vacation comes down to preparation, realistic expectations and distraction.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TODAY: Prepare for travel ahead of time
Before your family vacation even begins, you have to get from here to there. That is, from your house into the packed car or to the airport–and then, to your destination. This pre-travel phase sets the tone for your time away, so take the following into consideration:
Plan trips around nap or night sleep times. What time you travel absolutely matters. My cousin just returned from a 7-hour car trip with her 3-year old and an infant. Sounds potentially dreadful, doesn’t it? But because they left at 7PM, both of them slept much of the way. My husband and I often took early morning flights. We’d rouse the kids from bed before their normal wake-up time and then they’d often fall asleep on the plane since their sleep was cut short.
Feed your toddler well. A hungry toddler is not a happy toddler. Before you hit the road, fill up their tummies, and then take ample snacks (keep in mind that you may get delayed). Small snack containers or baggies that can be pulled out one by one are fun for your toddler to open. Varied food is good: cut up grapes, cheese pieces, crackers, and other finger foods that will happily occupy them. Snacks make great distractions, so stretch them out. You may need sandwiches for mealtimes, too.
WHAT YOU CAN DO IN THE MOMENT: Follow the 20-minute rule
Whether in a car, train or plane, long hours of sitting is hard. For toddlers, it’s nearly impossible. Manage your expectations. The chance that you can read your own book on the airplane is slim. Expect extra (and then some) stops along the highway. I follow the 20-minute rule and I set my watch by it. Every 20 minutes, create a distraction. Offer a new book, snack or activity. Yes, this creates a lot of busy work for you, but your toddler is more likely to stay quiet, content and entertained (for 20 minutes, anyway). Begin to think of travel time in 20-minute increments.
Tovah’s 20 minute distractions:
Music and Sound. Download their favorites or take CDs. Listen; Sing along.
Recorded children’s books work well, too. When ours were little, we got them each a set of headphones and even now they still listen to music when we travel. Ipad user? Decide which games or movies you want to load and be sure you and your spouse agree on the amount of screen time you want to allow during the trip.
Magazines & Books. On airplanes, make use of the catalog in the seat back. We spent many plane rides doing this. It is FILLED with many pictures. You can look for animals (many dogs & cats), for airplanes, watches & clocks, or something else your child likes. Bring along books, too. Some favorites and a couple of new ones will make for a bonus distraction.
Play ‘I spy‘. ‘I spy something green.’ It can be grass and trees outside or a jacket on the seat in front of you. Look for letters or numbers on billboards. Start with 1 and it will take time to get to 10 or higher. Look outside the window for animals, trucks, etc. Toddlers are visual, and looking and finding is something they enjoy.
Art supplies. Stickers and tape, crayons and erasable pens. Stick and draw on pads of paper, index cards or post-it notes. A doodle sketch board is a board with a ‘pen’ where your child can scribble or sketch and then erase. Older ones can write letters and names. Play-Doh is a master at entertaining toddlers. Spread it out on the plane’s tray table, and let them go to work.
Surprise boxes. Pack small containers with fun things to do- a car, plastic animal toy, stickers, shells. Toddlers like opening boxes and finding things inside. Your local 99cent store is a great place to find surprises to put inside small boxes.
Involve your child. Let your toddler pack a small carry-on or backpack with a few toys of his choosing. When they get to choose, it helps them feel included and gives them that sense of control they crave. Be sure their lovey is in it, too.
Play Airplane. If your toddler has an EXTRA hard time sitting and staying entertained, try practicing the routine of getting on a plane, buckling seat belt, listening to the voice who tells them they have to stay in their seat and so on. Do it as a game for practice and give them a chance to tell you what to do as well. Knowing the routine and letting them have control through play can make for a smoother ride.
To hear more about why toddlers tantrum, listen to my recent podcast on Toddlers at the Motherlove Blog.