Early childhood development is classified into two categories: infants (0-12 months) and toddlers (1-3 years), each with unique characteristics and needs. Your little one has grown so much in the first year of life, and you’re on to the next milestone in their lives- toddlerhood.
Toddlerhood gets a bad rap for being a challenging age group to deal with. Parents are often warned of the “terrible twos” or “three-nagers” when that is not always the case. Yes, it’s true toddlers are known to throw tantrums and be demanding, picky and messy. Still, they are also quick learners, intelligent, caring, and kind. Day-to-day life with a toddler can look a little messy, and parents learn quickly that they need to be on their toes and watch to ensure their little one is not up to any mischief.
The thought of traveling with toddlers can be daunting, but sometimes having to travel with young children is unavoidable. Taking a little tornado on a plane, train, or long car ride can be difficult. Still, it is manageable if you are prepared well in advance! As a nanny of over 10 years, working primarily with toddlers, they are more capable than they’re given credit for. With the right amount of preparation, you can travel with ease! Here are some of the best parent-approved tips and tricks for traveling with toddlers.
Traveling with toddlers
Manage your expectations
The first key to traveling with toddlers is managing your own expectations of how traveling with a toddler will be. Although we would all like to have a seamless flight, that often isn’t the case with toddlers. It’s essential to mentally prepare yourself for the worst-case scenario: a sleepless, meal-less flight where you have to be the entertainer of the year.
In reality, the chances of it being an absolute disaster are minimal, but if you are prepared for the worst to happen, you are less likely to stress out about it.
Prepare your toddler
Preparing your toddler is often one of the overlooked steps when it comes to traveling with toddlers. Most parents are overwhelmed with packing the essentials that they forget to tell their child what is happening until it’s too late (which can result in tantrums).
Preparation is a crucial step in mitigating or preventing tantrums. Talk to your child a month in advance about where you are going and why. This is an excellent time to start including books, toys, pictures, and videos of how people travel. Explaining how planes, trains, and cars work can help grow your child’s understanding of traveling and eliminate anything stressful or scary. Explain about the destination as well. For example if you’re going for a family vacation in Mexico, tell your child the fun activities they can expect there.
As you get closer to the day, you can start to outline what that day will look like for the family. Will you take a car to the airport, get your ticket and carry your bag through security? What does going through security look and feel like? What are the behavioral expectations in an airport? Is the airport a place for yelling, or is it a quiet place?
Talking to your toddler about these questions and answering them gives them a good foundation for what’s expected of them and removes some pressure from traveling to a new place. Even if it doesn’t seem like they are listening or unable to respond, talking to them is still an important step!
The formula is simple if you want to know what the breeding ground for tantrums looks like. Take one toddler wanting to assert their independence and add one tight or rigid schedule and a dash of rushing around.
One of the worst things you can do before a big event (like traveling in a plane, train, or car) is to have a tight schedule with no wiggle room. Toddlers need ample time to process decisions, have some freedom, or adjust to a new scene, so plan well in advance to have extra time in your schedule.
Tantrums usually occur when a child doesnt have the language to communicate something to you or there is a sudden change of scenery/ the next step in the routine needs to be completed (like getting into a car seat or putting on shoes). Planning and budgeting your time for possible tantrums means having a less stressful trip and a happy toddler.
Giving your toddler a time cue may also help when it’s time to transition to the next activity in their routine. Letting them know there are 5 more minutes before we go through security or 5 more minutes before the plane lifts off can help them learn to expect the coming change. Using a timer on your phone can also be a fun way to help them keep track of the time.
Toddlers love to be involved in decision-making, so help your little one feel like a big kid by offering them two choices (of your choosing). For example: Do you want me to wheel your bag to the gate, or do you want to do it yourself? Or do you want to give the flight attendant your passport, or should I do it? Make sure to allow the toddler extra time to do their part. Rushing and taking their autonomy away by finishing the task for them may save time, but it also may irrupt into a tantrum.
Prepare your toddler for diaper changes
Diaper changes on the go can be an absolute nightmare, especially if you have an older toddler still in diapers. Bathrooms on planes and trains tend to be small and crowded and have a very tiny change table at best, and on a road trip, there’s a chance you won’t encounter a bathroom for miles!
The best way to prepare your toddler for these tight spaces would be to learn how to change a diaper standing up and practice that with your toddler. Wiping is as simple as having them bend over and put their hands on your shoes. This is a great way to change a diaper on the go or in tight spaces.
It is always best to practice doing this for the first time at home. Start a month or two before your trip, and your toddler will be a pro by the time your trip rolls around!
Prepare for tantrums
Preparing for tantrums is also a part of managing expectations when it comes to traveling with young kids. Toddlers will throw tantrums on vacation. They might throw themselves all over the dirty airport floor, throw their yogurt cup onto the seat in front of you or scream until they’re blue in the face. Mentally preparing for these scenarios to happen is step one.
You can also help prepare for tantrums by providing distractions. Having a few toys or emergency snacks handy can help to distract your little one just long enough to get to the gate, and sometimes the change of scenery will help.
If your toddler is having a meltdown, the safest thing to do is to calmly remove them and put them in a place where they can’t hurt themselves or others (strapped into a stroller or in a soft area). Let them have their big feelings and not engage until they seem to have calmed down. When they are calm, you can comfort them, talk about their big feelings, and figure out what they are trying to communicate. Depending on the toddler’s age, you can help them to solve their problem or offer a solution.
The best way to prepare for tantrums is to prevent them together. Make sure you have time in your schedule to look at the planes taking off, help you put the bag on the belt for security, or put on their own shoes. Allowing them this freedom helps them assert their independence and helps them feel like the capable little humans they are.
Pack an emergency bag
An emergency bag is essential for traveling with young ones as you never know what they will need at any moment. An emergency bag should include the following:
- Diapers and wipes, if needed
- Hand sanitize or Lysol wipes
- Carry on an approved first-aid kit
- One set of spare clothes and shoes
- Flight Activities
- Small blanket or comfort toy
These items can be packed in a small carry-on, and, depending on your toddler’s age and development, they can help to be responsible for their own bag.
Pack new toys
It can be tempting to pack your little one’s favorite noisy toy or the cute little lego set grandma got for Christmas but trust me, you’ll want to leave the familiar toys at home. Packing new toys and activities for the trip helps to hold their attention for longer and keeps them busy! You don’t have to go and buy a new set of toys, either. Some great travel toys and activities could be a pack of stickers and blank paper, crayons and coloring books, small dollar store toys, or a Montessori busy board.
Be sure to space out how often you present these new toys to your toddler. Giving them all at once or one right after the other can wear out their “effect.” Try and engage with your toddler and the activity to help keep them engaged. Supervise younger toddlers with toys and activities like stickers and crayons to avoid choking hazards.
Sometimes the best toys aren’t toys. Kids love to play with unconventional things, and packing some of these toys can also ensure hours of entertainment. Something like an object with small holes and pipe cleaners, an old wipes box and bottle caps, or a ring of old keys can hold a toddler’s attention for longer than you think.
Your toddler will be hungry, and chances are they won’t like the meal offered on the plane (who likes airplane food anyways). Packing snacks and your own meals are the best way to fend off a hangry toddler.
Little finger foods like cut fruit, bread, cheese, and meat are great and easy to carry on the go. Other toddler foods like fruit puree pouches or yogurt tubes are also fantastic for travel. Pack foods you know your child will like, even if it’s cold chicken nuggets and leftover apple slices. If they want something else, at least you have options you know they’ll like.
Just be aware that when taking an international flight, you might be able to bring some toddler “weening foods,” aka the fruit pouches. Still, you might not be able to bring anything else through security. In this case, buying more fun “junk” snacks after security might be the only option. Most airports have a good selection of cafes, restaurants, and stores you can buy food from after security, but smaller airports might have limited options. It’s best to do your research about the airport you’re flying out of.
Don’t expect to follow a proper meal schedule while traveling. You don’t want to feel stressed about toddlers not eating because toddlers are notorious grazers. Do whatever is necessary to make it through the traveling part, even if that means they are only eating blueberries and cheese. There will be plenty of time to get them back on schedule at your destination or when you arrive back home.
Try not to overpack
Don’t you hate searching endlessly through bags, not being able to find what you need? Throw a crying toddler in the mix, and you have a recipe for disaster. Overpacking not only adds weight that you have to lug around, but it also can cause unnecessary stress for you while traveling.
A good packing rule would be to pack one toddler bag with toys, activities, and comfort items that your little one can help wheel around. A great idea would be to also have a little bag lock on it to prevent them from getting into it and creating a mess. Each adult should have one carry-on with personal items, an emergency bag, and snacks. Everything that is not needed for the flight should be put in checked bags to avoid the unnecessary weight.
If you are traveling with a young toddler, most airlines will also allow one diaper bag as well as your carry-on, but it is always best to double-check with your airline before leaving.
Be sure to pack only a few toys for your toddler, as this can cause some chaos down the road. A good idea would be to pack 3-4 new small toys, 1 of their favorite small toys, one comfort item (stuffed animal or blanket), and 3-4 new activities or unconventional toys.
Get up and stretch
Toddlers love to get up and explore their surroundings. At this developmental stage, toddlers need to move their bodies in space to develop muscle control, coordination, strength, and spatial awareness. If your toddler is getting antsy, it might be a good time to get up and move around.
Get involved with your toddler’s movement. This can look like taking them for a walk up and down the plane or train aisles (when it’s safe to do so), bouncing them on your knees, or helping them jump while waiting at the gate.
Your toddler should be aware of the expectations and limits of moving around in public spaces. For example: before getting up to walk down the aisle of a plane, you could say, “we need to go back to our seats when the seatbelt sign is on, and we can’t grab other people’s belongings.”
When you calmly explain the rules and expectations to your toddler (before allowing them to get up and move freely), this helps them to understand the expectations. When they inevitably test your boundaries on this, they won’t be blind-sighted when you have to limit or restrict the movement altogether. This will help avoid tantrums.
Screen time is ok
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for ages 0-18 months, limited screen time for 18 months- 2, and one hour or less for 2-3 year-olds. Of course, every parent is different, and not everyone chooses to follow these guidelines. If you are wary of allowing your child screen time, but the toys, snacks, and other distractions aren’t working, it is perfectly ok to let them have a little screen time. You might find they don’t have the attention span for it and choose another activity.
If you have been avoiding screen time for your child, you don’t have to worry that the occasional use of screens while traveling will harm your child or help them develop bad habits. To return to your regular routine after traveling, ween them off screen time by setting a limit (with a timer and plenty of notice beforehand), distract them with their favorite toy or activity, or go cold turkey by hiding the device for a while.
Bring headphones for toddlers
Toddlers have sensitive ears and hearing in this stage of development, which is why your toddler might hate the sound of the vacuum or hide from the blender. Having the appropriate headphones for your child is a must. Child-safe headphones should:
- Cover their ears (not earbud-type headphones)
- Have no choking hazards or long cords
- Have good battery life (for cordless headphones)
- Have volume control
- Be durable
- Be comfortable and suit the child’s ear and head size
Making sure your child has the appropriate headphones and is used to wearing them can save you a lot of headaches when it comes to travel time.
Pack comfortable items
Nothing says home like a comfortable blanket, cozy socks, or a good book! The same goes for your toddler. When traveling with a toddler, it’s important to pack some comfortable items from home, like a blanket, stuffed animal, or pillow. These items can help give your child extra security when they feel uncertain or scared (when a plane takes off, turbulence, sudden stops, etc.).
If you are nervous about bringing your child’s favorite stuffed animal or blanket out of the house for fear of losing it, purchase an extra one (or a couple).
Traveling in Cars
Talk to your toddler about car travel
Talking to your toddler is the key to having any situation go smoothly. They want to feel included and responsible for themselves. Adults can help them do this by talking about what’s expected and allowing them to explore.
Talking to your child before a big car trip about rest stops, needing to use the bathroom, and acceptable noise levels can help prepare them for the journey. Planned breaks can help them know what to expect before, during, and after the trip and can help mitigate tantrums.
Having the best travel car seat can make or break a trip. If your child is starting to outgrow their car seat or are ready to move from a rear-facing to a front-facing seat, it’s best to research which car seat fits your family’s needs and make the transition well before it’s time to hit the road.
Making sure your car is outfitted with the best accessories can also help make the trip go smoothly. Have a box of toys within reach of the car seat, and the passenger seat in case toys get dropped or thrown. Linking some of these toys to the seats or handles with plastic links can make it easier for your toddler to retrieve the toy if dropped. You can put a mirror on the seat’s headrest to make checking on your rear-facing toddler easier or strap a tablet there for entertainment. Have a white noise machine in the front with the passenger in case your toddler falls asleep.
It’s always best to supervise toddlers eating to ensure no choking hazards. It’s best to save snacks for your planned rest stops. Making sure your child has eaten something before they get in the car can help them stay happy and need fewer snack-related pit stops.
Plan your rest stops
Rest stops are a must for stretching your legs, toilet breaks, and snacks; kids (especially toddlers) need them more frequently. Plan rest stops along your route that ideally has washroom facilities and somewhere to purchase food or snacks if required. Depending on your toddler, they may need a rest stop every 1-2 hours.
Each rest stop should include an opportunity for running and playing, toilet breaks or diaper changes, and eating. Setting a time that works for your family for each stop can help everyone stay on track. Remember to give your toddler lots of time cues before leaving by telling them how many minutes are left or having them help you set the timer.
Play a game
Who doesnt love a game of I spy? You can easily distract a squirmy toddler by engaging in a game with them. Have them look out the window and find things of a certain color or shape. They can point out animals or clouds that they find interesting. Engaging with your toddler is an excellent way to help increase learning and a surefire way to prevent inevitable tantrums.
Have children’s entertainment ready
Having a curated playlist of all your child’s favorite songs or a tablet with some children’s tv ready to go can be a lifesaver after your toddler gets bored of their toys. It is important to leave your toddler with only a few options or sensory experiences, so letting your child enjoy their toys until they’re ready for music or tv is the best way to go. Keep the volume at a reasonable level.
Talk to your toddler about train travel
Traveling on a train can be an enjoyable and exciting experience for your toddler. Whether they aren’t interested in trains or are train lovers, this is a great learning opportunity that is more exciting than car travel or overwhelming as plane travel.
Talk to your toddler each step of the way, explaining expectations and pointing out interesting things. Your toddler might really enjoy the train loudly pulling into the station, saying hi to the ticket salesperson, or looking out the window at the scenery. Talking and engaging with them can help eliminate any fears and make it a fun learning experience.
Travel at off-peak times
Trains can sometimes be busy and packed, making it challenging to navigate with a toddler who wants to run. Traveling at off-peak times may mean the train is emptier, and there will be more space to stretch out. Depending on the time of day, this may mean that your toddler needs to be sleeping, so be sure to bring pillows and blankets for a fun train sleepover!
Traveling in a plane
Talk to your toddler about plane travel
Traveling by plane can be really intimidating for a first-time flier. Now imagine that first-time flier is just turned 2! Everything is new, big, and scary for a toddler, so getting them interested in planes and talking about plane travel well before your first flight is very important.
To help your toddler become interested in planes, you can show them Youtube videos of planes, get plane toys or puzzles or read plane-themed books. If you have the means to take your toddler to the airport before your flight, id highly recommend it. Think of it as a practice run for the big day! As your toddler walks with you, explain what will happen on the day of your trip. First, you go and get your ticket, then we give the flight attendant our luggage and head to security.
They can wheel their bag into the airport and explore the gates and watch planes take off without any time expectations. It is a perfect way to familiarize them with a new (and loud) space.
Have them help
Toddlers are natural little helpers and often help adults with “adult” tasks when asked. Have your toddler be a “big helper” on the day of the trip by giving them small, developmentally appropriate tasks. By the age of 2, your toddler can easily:
- Help you hand over your passports to the flight attendant
- Help you push buttons on the automated check-in kiosk
- Wheel or carry their own bag to the security desk.
- Help you push the stroller if they don’t want to sit (with your help)
Involving your toddler in these little tasks and budgeting the time to do them can give them a sense of control and help them feel a sense of accomplishment. Please make sure you thank your little helper for all their hard work.
Prepare them to go through security
Security can be scary for children to go through, and there’s no guarantee your TSA worker will be friendly or accommodating for you. Talk to your toddler about expected behavior when going through security. Make sure to remove any toys/ snacks well before reaching the front of the security line. Children need to be removed from strollers to pass through security. It would be best to have your toddler in your arms to make this process as seamless as possible.
Prepare your car seat
For safety reason, it’s recommended for your toddler to be strapped on their car seat during a flight. Make sure to bring an FAA approved car seat (can be checked by looking for an FAA approved sticker on the car seat’s body) and check the airline’s regulation beforehand. Here’s an example of car seat policy in Delta.
Read stroller policies
It’s a good idea to check bigger “luxury” strollers as luggage if needed and only use a small umbrella stroller in the airport. Each airline has different stroller policies, but most of them follow the same general guidelines. Check out this article on American Airlines’ stroller policy and some other helpful tips about traveling in an airport with strollers.
Know how to gate-check your stroller
Traveling in an airport can be an incredibly stressful time, so the more you know beforehand, the better! If you’re up for a long waiting time gate checking your stroller is a good idea. This way you can still use your stroller while waiting for your flight.
Sleeping on a plane
Sleeping on a plane is one of the most challenging things to do, and there’s no guarantee that your toddler, or you, will get any sleep. The best you can do is to set up the ideal environment for rest. By providing your toddler with blankets, pillows, noise-canceling headphones, or white noise, you can create a comfortable environment for them to relax and potentially sleep.
If you are traveling between time zones, you can try to adjust your toddler to their new time zone by adjusting naps or sleep times, but don’t stress too much about sleeping on a plane. There is plenty of time to get adjusted once you’ve arrived.
Traveling with a toddler doesnt have to be as intimidating or stressful as you see in movies or have heard from friends. Being present and helping your toddler adjust can go a long way when it comes to traveling. After reading these helpful tips on traveling with toddlers, you will be ready for your next family adventure!