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Toddler Tips

Traveling with Toddlers

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 22 No. 4, July-August 2005, pp. 164-167

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

We plan on traveling this summer and I need some ideas to keep my two-year-old occupied during long car rides. I'm also concerned about keeping my daughter safe in unfamiliar and un-childproofed settings, such as relatives' homes and hotel rooms. Finally, how do we promote good behavior in restaurants during our trip?

Mother's Response

We drove 1,500 miles the summer my son was two. Board books, finger foods, and "new" toys borrowed from a friend were a big help. I was able to be in the front seat with my husband for parts of the trip, but we found that my son was happiest when I sat with him in the back seat. He didn't care what I was doing—singing, playing with sock or paper bag puppets, making faces, or even reading my own book—just as long as I was there. Sometimes I was able to take a nap; the important thing was that I was there.

If you haven't already, you may want to learn the skill of car seat nursing. It is so important for you both to be safe, you in a seatbelt and your daughter in her carseat. But you might be surprised how, with a little creativity and flexibility, you may be able to nurse her as your husband drives. You may not be very comfortable, but it could be worth 10 minutes of contortions for a nap or some peace and quiet until you can get to the next exit.

Just as your day-to-day schedule at home allows for flexibility, your travel schedule should have some "wiggle room" penciled in, too. We have the most fun when we stop as needed instead of just for meal times. We tell anyone who needs to know that, "We'll get there when we get there!"

When we stay in hotels, I take electrical outlet safety covers, a night-light, and a bedrail with me. Don't hesitate to move furniture or request to have things moved if you don't feel safe. I laughed out loud when I read your final question. How do we promote good behavior in restaurants? That is a big question in my parenting life right now, too! My two boys are six and three. My husband and I have decided that, for the time being, we won't take them to restaurants. The effort in keeping them quiet and still at a socially expected level is higher than the reward of not having to cook! I trust that this is a phase for our family, and that we will be able to eat out together again someday.

When we are on the road and we can't avoid eating out, we eat at a restaurant with a play area so that our children can play while we eat. We take their food with us for them to eat in the car. That way they get to burn off some of their wonderful energy, and have something to do for a while in the car afterwards.

If we do go to a "real" restaurant, we each sit next to one of our boys and entertain them with individual attention—drawing pictures on napkins, folding airplanes with the paper placemats, and, if all else fails, taking them for a walk outside. We always order an appetizer or salad for the boys and ask that it be brought right away to minimize the wait.

It may all sound very complicated, but I'm sure you will find that traveling with children is always easier than you expect. As long as you project the right attitude, your child will stay centered. Happy trails!

Cheryl Peachey Stoner
Hesston KS USA

Mother's Response

My husband and I have taken several car trips with our now two-year-old daughter, including a two-month-long vacation from the Pacific Northwest to Arizona and back. We have always loved to travel and are thrilled to see her love of travel grow the older she gets and the more trips we take her on.

Here are some of the things that have helped us enjoy our time together on the road:

  • Rotate between driving and sitting in the back seat so that you two can play games and share snacks.
  • Take plenty of plastic containers along so you can easily prepare a day's worth of snacks ahead of time.
  • Keep a small cooler of food and drinks in the front passenger seat, which is easier than having a large cooler that is not so accessible.
  • Make sure to take along several water bottles and stock your cooler every day. Try to freeze one of them overnight, if possible, to help keep the rest of the items cool. Staying hydrated is important when traveling.
  • Take several different tote bags with toys, books, and other items that will keep your daughter occupied. We found that wrapping the tote bag handles around the front seat headrests helps keep the toy bags readily accessible so they don't disappear to the bottom of the car as the vacation wears on.
  • Two-year-olds are very observant, so it's not too early to start observation games including "I Spy" or simply asking her, "What's that?" as you point out the window. Our daughter really notices horses and cows, for example, when driving through rural areas, or different road signs when driving through a city.
  • Look for playgrounds when you stop for breaks along the way. That will help get rid of any excess energy.

Chena Mesling
Portland OR USA

Mother's Response

LLL of Hilliard am and LLL of Hilliard pm have a joint enrichment meeting once each month. Our topics tend to be geared toward older babies and toddlers. A recent topic was summer traveling. While discussing the topic we wrote down some ideas to share with you.

  • Dress the family alike so they are easy to spot in a crowd, or dress your child in bright colors and patterns so he will stand out.
  • In case your child wanders off or becomes lost, go to security immediately. It also might help to have a designated meeting area should members of the family get separated. Take a photo of your child with a digital camera every day. In the event that she gets lost, you'll know what she is wearing.
  • In hotels, don't hesitate to ask for a new room if you feel unsafe. On a recent hotel stay, one of our Group members found that the room's sliding glass door did not latch properly and opened onto a balcony from which the toddler could easily fall. They called the hotel desk, mentioned the safety hazard, and got a new room.
  • Bringing things from home can make your stay in a hotel more comfortable. Pack some safety covers for electric outlets, twist-ties that can be used to hold electric cords, and rubber bands to hold cabinet doors closed. A night-light can help make the room safer when getting up in the middle of the night. A bed rail can make a hotel bed safer. Bringing a white noise machine or small fan can drown out the noises of a busy hotel.
  • Once you get to the hotel, one parent may want to childproof the room while the other parent stays outside with the child. This prevents the child from seeing the parent touching all those off-limit objects. Crawl around the room and look at it through the eyes of a two-year-old. Put trash cans out of reach and install all the safety features you brought.
  • When stopping for food, pick family-friendly restaurants. Try to find a restaurant near a grassy area. Play and run around to burn off some of the pent-up energy. Most two-year-olds cannot sit for a long period in the car and then be expected to sit still at a restaurant. One parent can go inside, get a table, and order while the other stays outside with your daughter. Bring snacks to eat while waiting for your food or ask for her food to be delivered first. Another option that many mothers have used is to pack food from home and eat at rest areas. Sandwiches and fruit are easy and quick to prepare. Bring toys to play with while you are out of the car. Run races, march, gallop, hop, and skip to get your bodies moving.

The last thing to remember is what behavior is age-appropriate for a two-year-old. Be flexible and keep a good attitude. Your vacation may not be perfect, but it will be fun!

Mothers of LLL of Hilliard AM and LLL of Hilliard PM
Hilliard Ohio USA

Mother's Response

We, too, were apprehensive when we planned our first vacation with our son. We thought we'd do some camping and stay at a hotel a few nights. The car rides were never really an issue for us. He took a long morning nap so we planned on doing most of our driving early in the day. For lunch we always ate sandwiches, fruit, and snacks from the cooler at a park or rest stop. At that time, we ran around and got out the "wiggles" so we would be ready for more time in the car. We sang songs, read books, and told stories.

We thought that staying at a hotel once or twice would be easier than camping all week. We were wrong. Our son got bored in the hotel room. The pool was fun for a little while, but he quickly became too noisy. When we camp, my husband or I investigate the site with our son while the other sets up the tent. Sitting around a campfire reading books is the best way to relax before bed. My husband and I can still relax by the fire and talk while our son is in the tent sleeping. In the hotel room, we kept waking him up if we had a light on.

There was one positive aspect of staying at a hotel: restaurant delivery. When we ordered meals, they delivered plastic ware and napkins with our meal. We didn't have to expect our son to be on his best behavior and sit still during his meal after sitting in the car for hours. Over the years, we've also learned to seek small, locally owned restaurants or coffee shops if we had to dine out. The locally owned places usually have healthier food options and fast service.

Juli Ziemer Hacker
Lisbon WI USA

Mother's Response

We have traveled a lot with our children at various stages and have found that stopping regularly is helpful. We drive when the children are sleeping or entertained with music tapes, books, toys, or interesting snacks. When needed, we stop at a rest area to run around and play.

Our children love to stay in hotels. When my daughter was two and three, she was thrilled with the concept of a "hotel bath." For some reason, bath time was just more exciting in a new place and with the hotel soap. My children don't watch much television at home, so it's a treat for them to watch children's programs when we're staying in a hotel. When we eat in restaurants, we choose a place with a salad bar because you can get lots of interesting choices for a toddler and you don't have to wait for your meal. It's nice to have something fun, such as crayons and paper, to occupy your toddler.

Ruth Hersey
Port-au-Prince Haiti

Mother's Response

Traveling with toddlers can be very challenging, but with a little forethought it can be fun, too. Our family has been on many long car and plane rides. We've stayed at hotels and dined at restaurants. I've learned a few things the hard way. In general, the less you let situations sneak up on you, the better. Think ahead and tell your children—regardless of age—your plans.

For us, long car rides go smoothly at night. We get the children dressed in their pajamas and tell them we're going on a "midnight cruise" and that we'll wake up at Grandma's! My husband and I have a great time chatting the whole way—it reminds us of our college days. We take turns napping when we reach our destination.

A child in a carseat or booster is most comfortable with armrests and a bolster to keep his head from flopping over. A piece of luggage with a pillow on top can be propped up in front of the seat to keep little legs stretched out—it's hard to have them dangle for hours on end. Make sure to have water and healthy snacks ready, too. For daytime driving, prepare a CD of favorite songs and bring along a basket of toys. Don't forget to have a fun trip!

Jamie Baugh
Chicago IL USA

Mother's Response

We took a long car trip last summer with our one-year-old and three-and-a-half-year-old. Here are some things we found helpful.

First, we got out of the car to move around at least once every two hours. I was surprised at how many rest stops and little playgrounds there were once we got off the interstates. Some of our favorite memories of the trip were made on those stops! Second, we took advantage of nap and sleep times when we needed to drive for a while without a break. Sometimes we got the children into their pajamas after dinner and drove for several more hours. Not desirable every day, but helpful to make up time if you're behind schedule.

I found restaurants to be manageable if I planned ahead. We carried healthy snacks, such as yogurt, string cheese, fruits, vegetables, and crackers, in our cooler. I figured that if my boys ate enough healthy snacks throughout the day, there was no need to worry if they didn't eat very much at the restaurant. Many restaurants will prepare a child's meal first and bring it out while the adults are still deciding what to order. Full tummies can help promote good behavior! We also made it a habit to dine at off-hours so we would never have to wait for a table.

I do think that realistic expectations are important. Travel is disruptive for the whole family, and a child who is even-tempered at home may feel otherwise after a few days of a different schedule and unfamiliar surroundings. While traveling or dining out, a toddler may simply need to be taken outside (repeatedly) to run around or calm down. This is normal!

Carolyn Hunt
Muncie IN USA

Last updated Thursday, October 19, 2006 by njb.
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