Traveling with Babies, Toddlers, Preschoolers (8 Tips)

In this episode: Janet shares ideas for traveling with small children that help us tune in to their perspectives, deepen our parent-child connection, and create a more joyful experience for all.

Transcript of “Traveling with Babies, Toddlers, Preschoolers (8 Tips)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to do something a little bit different. I’m going to try to respond to some of the many questions that I receive around travel with children, whether that be car rides, or plane travel, taking trips to see relatives, or just for fun.

I realize there are a lot of articles out there on the web already, but what I have to share that might be a little different is an awareness of our child’s perspective, so that we can have reasonable expectations and, therefore, have a trip with less crying from us or from our children, and hopefully more joy.

I couldn’t decide whether to make this a written post or a podcast. Obviously I ended up deciding on a podcast, but the written post, which will be the transcript of this podcast on my website, janetlansbury.com, will include links to some of the suggestions that I’m going to give you and also a video of an adorable little girl who is using one of my recommendations. So you may want to check out the transcript as well.

My husband and I decided to take our first daughter to Europe at seven months old. There were many times during the trip that we wondered what we’d been thinking to decide this. But as I recall, the reasoning was that my husband and I hadn’t had a chance to take a real honeymoon because of his work schedule. This is a couple of years later, now we have a baby, and we thought we could do this and off we went.

I had been studying Magda’s approach already at that time, so I had that perspective. I knew that my child needed time to move freely and not have her body cooped up. I understood the value of familiarity, so we did our best. And we have some great memories of that trip. But overall, what I learned then was the expression: “needing a vacation from the vacation.” And I think any of us who take our children anywhere, we understand that expression.

It’s easier, we get more breaks, we get more rest when we don’t take children on trips. But still we’re going to choose to because we get to see family, we get to have adventures. We’re going to weigh the pros and cons and travel’s going to win out sometimes and that’s great. Again, we’ll have wonderful memories and we’ll expose our child to a lot of new things.

So the first point that I want to make is to (1) have reasonable expectations for ourselves and for our child. That means, again, realizing that this isn’t going to be a restful trip. It’s going to be in a lot of ways harder than being at home with our predictable routines. Our child will feel off balance, overstimulated perhaps, all their routines will be disrupted and so they’re going to be expressing that.

Our child has no reason in the world to want to be strapped into a car seat or a seat on an airplane. Babies and young children are built to want to move their bodies. A lot of the development that’s happening is with their motor skills. It would be odd to have a child say, “Yes, strap me in. I can’t wait to be stuck and not be able to move for a while.” Understanding and welcoming these feelings our child has, will help us to feel calmer in these situations. And our calmness is always the key to our child having a better chance of feeling okay.

So a lot of this is understanding what we have control over and what we don’t. We can’t make our child enjoy these unnatural experiences, but we can have a clear perspective of them so that we don’t get annoyed and angry and upset, ourselves.

When we went on this European trip, one of my wonderful tools that I had throughout the trip was a large rain poncho that was this very, very light nylon material. Wherever we were, if we were at the airport or some other waiting area… at that point, she had already started rolling onto her belly and she was scooting a little bit. Of course we had to keep her on the tarp. We tried to do it calmly. She kind of knew, especially if we were in a more crowded place, she knew she didn’t want to go scooting off to where other people were, but some children might be more adventurous that way. So we have to kind of contain them, but at least they can kick around, they can stretch, they can move their bodies a little bit. And then we had a couple of familiar toys, a ball, a teething ring, and a few toys like that that we brought so that she had some objects. But mostly she was just taking in her surroundings as young children do.

So that was a wonderful piece of equipment to have because, as we all know, children who are able to move their bodies freely, they’re in a better mood, they sleep much better, they eat better, just like us.

And if we’re at a relative’s house, there are now these wonderful… I don’t think they even had them when my kids were little… they did have these little porta-cribs, which we didn’t bring with us on that trip, but on other car trips we did for sure, as a bed or as a little safe play area for an infant.  Now they have wonderful little mini play yards that you can put outdoors that have ability to be shaded and you can take them to your relatives house or wherever you’re going. And have your child be in a safe place outside contained so that you don’t have to be worried that they’re going to scoot away or crawl away and they get that freedom to move. That’s so important.

The second point I want to make is (2) the importance of familiarity, keeping to routines as much as possible, bringing those familiar blankets. Ideally, maybe a duplicate of something familiar if it’s a precious lovey that our child has or a stuffed animal or something.

And schedules and routines are not about being on the clock, they’re about a sequence of events for children. That’s what helps them to feel a little on top of things. They know that after they have their lunch, they’re going up to rest. And it makes it easier for us and easier for them. So considering what you can do to keep that sequence as much as possible, along with bringing some familiar items that you have.

The third point I want to make is to (3) prepare your child honestly, and this is more for toddlers… Sometimes there are books that you can read about going on a train or going on an airplane. I would definitely get one of those. And when we talk honestly, that means we’re not whitewashing the experience. We’re giving the whole picture to our child, which I know seems a little more risky as a parent, but it’s really important to give ourselves that freedom to say the truth:

“We’re going to be in this airplane. There’s a window that you can look out of, but we’re kind of going to be stuck in a seat for awhile. And when we can, I’ll help you to get a chance to walk down the aisle. There are going to be a lot of people and we’re all going to be very close together and the air feels a little funny, it’s going to feel different. It might make you a little tired or cranky.”

I would give your child all the information. It’s not going to lead them into a negative place. It’s going to help them to feel that they know what to expect, that it’s okay if it doesn’t feel perfect to them, that there’s nothing wrong with them for not thinking it’s the best fun thing in the world. It’s so important to connect with our child that way.

And then children literally get the gift of a story that comes true, and it’s the good, the bad and the ugly, but they knew that was going to happen. They knew that was going to be like that. It’s confidence building. It helps children come into these experiences feeling more autonomous, feeling more settled. It’s very powerful for any experience our child has that’s new, or even something they’ve only done a couple of times, to prepare and remind them about what’s going to happen. It’s wonderful bonding experience for us, as well, to share those stories that come true with our child.

The fourth point I want to make is to (4) choose entertainment or activities that allow for the most active participation. So bringing little simple objects or toys that our child can manipulate in different ways that aren’t just entertainment devices where a child is passive. And I’m not saying that, especially with an older child or a three or four year old, if you had a long trip, especially on a plane that you wouldn’t resort to showing them something on video or whatever. But again, our children will feel better when they are using their fine motor skills, when they are active explorers in something. Yes, there’s always a place for passive entertainment, especially on trips as an ace in the hole for sure. But if we jump right to that, we miss things where our child could actually be learning and feel better afterwards in their bodies and their minds than being in that passive state.

So considering a book on CD rather than a movie. When we had a long car ride, that was one of my go-tos and I swear my oldest daughter taught herself to read partially through this. We had a music CD that had a song book that went with it. So she was able to turn the page and look at the lyrics of the songs. So finding music or books on CD that your child can follow along with or “read along with”.

And then the best activity, and I’ve used it to great success on an airplane with all my children, is to bring a little bag with some wrapped items in it, new stuff, or they can even be things that your child already owns. Just some simple toys, a sticker book or something, but something that doesn’t make too much of a mess that they can enjoy, wrapping them so that your child enjoys the part that they tend to enjoy most: figuring out how to open the package, I recommend it. I shared this with some parents and they couldn’t believe how well it worked and how much their child enjoyed the experience. And that’s the video that I have on my website to show you:

The fifth point I want to make is to (5) stay on top of basic needs as best you can. Offer your child food way before you think they’re hungry. Because when they’re in a different time zone or just in a different place and they’re away from home and away from their routine, they aren’t as tuned into their hunger or their tiredness and we aren’t either.

You notice about children that they are hungry and then five minutes later they’re way too hungry, but they couldn’t tell you 20 minutes before when you asked them that they were hungry. So it’s tough. We went to visit family in New York and our son, he never felt hungry. He didn’t want any of the food that was around. We finally found there was one thing he would eat and that was mac and cheese, and it wasn’t even something that he really ate at home. And then other times he would get so over hungry that he would completely lose his appetite. So staying on top of that, having those snacks handy, offering them every 10 minutes if you have to. Doing our best to keep our child from being too hungry or too tired will save us a lot of tears and aggravation.

The next point I want to make is to (6) schedule less, to enjoy more. Of course that was one of Magda’s mantras: “Do less, enjoy more!” Giving children the time to take in and explore their surroundings, rather than directing them or loading up on the activities. I would consider doing even less in terms of activities than you might at home because they’re already experiencing so much novelty, so much stimulation. With my baby in Paris, where we were, she went to the Jardin du Luxembourg, and it was beautiful for all three of us just to be there. But would we ever have just sat in the park on a blanket if we hadn’t brought a baby with us to Paris? No, absolutely not. But that’s the beauty, too. Children can show us these other experiences. We can see through their eyes. That, in a nutshell, is the joy of bringing children on a trip: seeing places we may have been to or haven’t been to in a different way. We can stop and breathe and be along with our child. So, do less, enjoy more.

And the next point I want to make is to (7) lean in to the feelings when they come rather than, “shh, stop.” We’ve all been on planes with children that were crying and maybe they were our own. Of course, there’s a strong impulse to shut them down, but what actually works better in the moment and especially in the longterm for our child to be more self regulated in these situations is to acknowledge, “Ah, yeah, I hear you. It’s tough in here, huh? You don’t like to be stuck here sitting.”

So our child doesn’t feel that there’s something wrong with them for not being comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. It may not make the feelings instantly go away, but it’s a much better tool than trying to shut our child up. Which of course I understand when we’re worried that they’re disturbing other people.  But this really does work better, especially it it’s your pattern with your child that they know you’re somebody they can share with and that you get it. Or you want to get it. You want to understand their point of view.

So we’re not gaslighting them: Don’t feel what you’re feeling, everything’s fine. Agree with your child’s right to feel uncomfortable.

Yes, of course, if it’s something we can help with, like if the pressure is hurting their ears on the airplane, we can give them something to suck or chew. But often it’s going to be just connecting with them, welcoming their feelings. And when children feel heard, then they can move on, a lot of the time, even an infant. When we’re calm and we hear them, they can feel settled.

And the last point I want to make is, to (8) be prepared for challenging readjustments and emotional processing when we return. Often what will happen is that our child will rise to the occasion when we’re away, but then when they come back into their familiar home with their routines, it’s rough. If they’re older children, they might be having more challenging behaviors.

One thing that we definitely noticed with our baby was that she’d been waking up maybe once in the night to nurse, but when we were on our trip, of course she was off and she’d be up every couple of hours. Of course I was going to comfort her. She was in a strange place. She was waking up. I did what I needed to do. I was nursing her for comfort throughout the night. So when we got back home, we had to help her transition back into her healthy sleep, getting those longer stretches that are not just good for us, but good for her.

We noticed other times with our other children, too, that you have this wonderful balance going at home where children are sleeping well and then you go away for one night sometimes, you do something different, and it feels like everything’s falling apart. And then you wonder: Was that really worth it? Because now we have to transition back.

And transitioning with children usually means they’re going to express feelings. And, again, if they’re toddlers, they’re going to express them through behavior.

So understanding that going in can help us feel unruffled about it, to remind ourselves, Oh yeah, of course, that’s why my child is doing this. That’s why my child is suddenly acting this way. We were just with a bunch of family, we were just on a trip. They’re tired, they’re re-centering, and they’re offloading those feelings.

So it’s all good if we can see it that way. Our knowledge of our child’s experience and the way they process things is powerful in that it can help us to stay centered. Going into this with our eyes open can help us all have a better experience.

So, do less, enjoy the madness and savor the memories! I hope some of that helps.

As promised, here are links to some of the tools and ideas I mention in this podcast:

Hooded rain poncho (that doubles as a tarp)

Portable play yard 

Portable blackout curtains

Book ideas (for helping to prepare toddlers):

Maisy Goes on a Plane

Time for a Trip

Music we loved:

Kidssongs and Kidssongs Jubilee by Nancy Cassidy

Travel toy ideas:

Trix Rattle

Toy Skwish

Apple lacing toy

Spring toy

Magnetic doodle board

I share more about parenting with an understanding our children’s perspectives in my books Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. Both of these books are available from Amazon. And you can find them in ebook at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes and Noble, and Google Play. They’re also available in audio from Audible. You can even get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

(A HUGE thank you to the dear family that allowed me to share their video!)

3 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. How far in advance would you explain to a 19-month-old your plans? A week, a talk about it every day? Just the day before? Or even just the morning of leaving? TIA, my sister, brother-in-law, and I love your blog/podcasts!

    1. Thanks, Beth! I think I’d do it at least a few days before, but you could also do it that morning.

  2. Hi Janet! We’ve been working on following your advice with our 3 year old (especially because we also have a 12 week old baby). We just returned from a plane trip and the hardest part was actually in the airport, and I’m interested in your perspective to improve it for the next time or in similar situations. Two examples:
    First: When we were all loaded down with luggage trying to get to bag check, she suddenly stopped walking and started crying. I understood from her that she wanted Daddy to wait for her and she felt like she was getting left behind. Easy to understand the behaviors and easy to listen to her feelings, but the hard part was all of the adult travelers who needed to get around a preschooler who stopped in the walkway and refused to move. At first I thought, they can deal, and then I remember what you said about being annoyed and setting personal boundaries. I ended up trying to empathize with and move her at the same time.
    Second example: The airplane bathroom terrifies her so we knew she needed to go before we got on the plane. Now picture me in a crowded holding area, and I told her that it’s time to go potty and why we needed to go, and then she refused to go. I said, are you going to walk with your own feet, or would you like me to help you? And she just said no in response. So I said, ok I can help you and moved to pick her up. I was trying to be prepared and comfortable with any emotional behavior on her part, but when she started yelling “Nooo!!!” It was really hard to keep going, but I was going to. Dad was there too though and she started saying that she wanted to go with him so she went with him. I sat down with the baby though and felt like a jerk and that everyone was judging me.
    I’d appreciate your advice on how to handle these kind of situations! Thanks Janet!

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