A Toddler Travel Survival Guide — For Them, And For You!

I have to admit, I was extremely nervous about traveling with a very small, very active, very curious small child. We were set for a nearly 4-hour flight to Mexico this month for my sister’s destination wedding, and my biggest anxiety was a Budge nervous breakdown somewhere along the way, full of relentless tears and inconsolable restlessness. I was worried: for Budge, and for all the accusatory set of eyes aimed my way, each judging me as a horrible mama who couldn’t control my child.

(Nevermind that I think the idea of ‘controlling’ children is ultimately unproductive in the long run, but it’s hard for me to be Zen-confident in high-pressure situations. Which of course means I’m not really truly Zen-confident…but that’s a whole other story!)

But I need not have worried. Budge ended up being a little dream traveler. He was engaged and relaxed in the airport, on the flight, and at our destination. He loved seeing all his extended family often, he loved splashing in the pool and hanging out in the ocean for the first time. He was game for trying different foods, though often half of them ended up on the floor. In a way, I was so lucky — one of my visions for family life are shared adventures, and I’m so happy that our first travel trip as a family turned out so well.

(Don’t ask me about Budge’s epic tantrum the morning after we arrived back home, or the virus he must’ve gotten on the plane that erupted full force days later!)

I take very little credit for Budge’s excellent travel behavior while we were on the move, though. We were lucky: we traveled with our large extended family, who were usually happy to occupy him, and he was often insulated in what I call a ‘love bubble’ that helped him feel secure and ‘at home,’ even though he was in a new, foreign environment. He’s temperamentally generally even-tempered, too. In terms of traveling with littles, I do believe there’s a lot that’s out of anyone’s control, whether it’s circumstances or other people — so you ended up praying to the travel gods for compassionate company and no delays. The travel gods were with us this time.

But there are some things we did that helped out, and I wanted to share them below. The whole trip did inspire me to daydream about future travels, especially since Budge proved to be more adaptable than I thought. Of course, it’s no guarantee that he’ll remain so in the future. (Shout out to the travel gods one more time, please!) But one can dream, and prepare themselves as much as you can.

+ Try to be consistent about bedtimes.

As an insomniac, I’m SUPER aware of how sleep impacts our ability to adapt, process and react in life, so I tried to be somewhat vigilant about my toddler’s bedtimes. We tried to keep him somewhat on a loose schedule — made easier by the fact that we were staying in the same resort the entire time. We made sure he napped during the day, and he went to bed not too late at night — though he got up even earlier than he did at home! I guess he was just too excited by everything. It was a little hard on us parents — because, wah, aren’t vacations for sleeping in? But I tried to think of him as my own living alarm clock that didn’t let us miss out on anything.

+ Bring some books, loveys and other beloved objects.

We requested a crib in our room, which ended up being a portable playpen. Luckily, we brought his blanket (“bleh-bleh,” as he calls it) and his favorite Elmo doll. We also brought his favorite bedtime books as well. I think it created enough familiarity to cue him for his nighttime routine, and it helped a lot.

+ Try to keep the same version of your bedtime routine at home.

Toddlers famously need structure and consistency, and that’s no different no matter where you travel. So at night we did the same milk/brusha-brusha/books/lullaby routine that we did at home, and I think it was a huge help signaling ‘night-night’ to Budge. He actually would rest his little head on my shoulder when I began singing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’ and would whisper ‘Night night!’ when I put him down in his travel crib.

+ The toddler travel food philosophy: let go, and bring snacks.

Everyone knows toddlers are picky erratic messy eaters — UGH THE CONSTANT FLOOR-SWEEPING — and that was doubly true on the road. It helped me to remember that toddlers eat as much for the ‘experience’ as they do for hunger and satiety, so we used the opportunity to let him try all kinds of foods on the trip: ceviche, pico de gallo, fresh mozzarella, seafoods, salads, random airplane cookies, Cheese Nips, tropical fruits and juices, whatever. He ate some things, threw others on the floor: que sera sera! (We also learned to apologize a lot to restaurant waitstaff who were cleaning up after him.) We trusted that he’d eat enough if he was hungry, eventually, and he did.

Of course, I did fret about nutrition, so I ended up bringing a box of his favorite cereal to mix with milk and a lot of those Plum Organics ‘Mighty 4’ puree pouches. We often fed him cereal and purees either in the morning or evening, just to make sure his nutritional bases were covered. The purees were great, and easy to feed him from during travel, especially on planes, cars and buses. The one thing I wish I had brought was a small jar of almond butter. Oh, well, next time!

+ Try not to fret equipment.

One of the pains of family travel is dealing with traveling with car seats, strollers and the small armada of equipment that seems to orbit tiny humans. We ended up traveling with a small light umbrella stroller, which proved brilliant — light enough to drag around on the resort and on the beach, but durable enough for the journey. We didn’t do a car seat, though — we were lucky in that our transportation option from the airport to the resort had one to use. We discovered Mexico doesn’t have car seat laws, really, and that most families just hold their kids in their laps. (Car seats are super-expensive, and a lot of people just don’t make that kind of money.) I suppose we would’ve brought one if we were going somewhere where we’d be driving a lot — but honestly, those aren’t my favorite kind of vacations anyway, and it was nice not to have to be all suburban for a week.

+ Accept help when it’s offered.

I had a surprisingly hard time with this. Budge would end up being held or hanging out with many of the adults traveling in our group, by his own initiative — he’d go up to anyone and say “Up, up!” and they’d pick him up and play with him. I often felt guilty about it — which I know is my own weird hang-up. I worried the person was secretly hating it and just wanted to hand Budge off. I worried that people would think I was a lazy parent. I felt a little weird that Budge preferred everyone else’s company but my own sometimes! Sigh. A guilty mom just never wins.

Eventually, I just had to tell myself that everyone’s a grown-up and if they got sick of Budge, they would hand him back to me — and that I was not responsible for their emotional experiences. (This is one of the things I’m working on for EVERYTHING, of course.) It helped to remember that Budge learns so much from other people, not just me — and while I’m his mama, I’m not the Alpha and the Omega of his experience, either, as much as certain psychological theories want to blame moms for everything! This was one of those few trips where I’d be lucky enough to travel with a million aunties and uncles and cousins who love Budge and love spending time with him — and I should take advantage of it! By the end of the trip, I was a bit more at ease (with the help of a cocktail or two!) with letting Budge free-range with the family, who were more than happy to introduce him to pool tables, indulge his new fascination with walking up and down wheelchair ramps and lift him up so he could flip light switches on and off.

+ Accept, acknowledge and let go of your own weird vaca-FOMO.

On a personal note, one emotion I found myself dealing with was a kind of melancholy that traveling brought upon me, unexpectedly. Now, I was so happy to introduce Budge to the larger world — to witness his first glimpse of the ocean, to see his spirit become braver and more adventurous in a new environment.

But I also felt a small sadness, too. Before now, I was a different kind of traveler. Not necessarily Miss Global Nomad 2001, but I was used to following my whims and indulging my freedoms and yearnings on a trip. Feel like standing on a volcano in Iceland? Sure! Want to take a random side trip into some weird museum about taxidermy in London? Okay! Feel like spending all afternoon roaming from one museum to another, and then hours in the museum cafe afterwards, writing in my journal? Yes, sounds like a perfect day to me!

But I just couldn’t do that on this trip. I have a responsibility to another human, and it’s not as easy to be spontaneous anymore. In order to respect his well-being and make sure he thrived, I had to call upon my ability to structure, to improvise and to order amid chaos — but that meant some sacrifices on my part. Occasionally I would feel so wistful as I headed back to the hotel room with Budge, just as the night was beginning for others — with music in the air and that kind of crowd murmur that grows more animated (and inebriated) the later the hour gets. It just made me a little sad. (And of course my PPD brain wanted to turn it into a bigger story, like, ‘Gah, your life is RUINED!’ Which is another complication in and of itself.) And then I’d feel bad for feeling sadness, which is just stupid, I know. And of course there’s always someone who’s happy to chime, “That’s what being a parent is about!” if you mention it.

I don’t know how to get over those feelings, other than to let them happen, wash over you, and then drift away. (And to ignore people who love to remind you what parenting is about!) It’s okay to feel wistful and sad, I think, even as you take joy in opening the world for your wonderful little person, for whom this is all new and exciting. It’s perfectly natural to feel a little restless and hemmed in, especially if you’ve spent all your adult life until now living as big and wide as you can. Contradictory feelings exist in the same heart without invalidating the other — that’s what being an adult is about sometimes. It’s called emotional complexity! Embrace it! (And ignore people who dismiss your feelings as silly and insignificant!)

Joking aside, that ache of melancholy got better when I focused on the present, and not on the past glory or the unlived parallel unfettered life that sometimes runs underneath my daily consciousness like a weird background computer program. And honestly, it goes down to the heart of why we travel — to root ourselves in the senses and the here and now, to lift ourselves out of the monotony of daily routine, to make our inner lives just a bit more expansive by living in a bigger world. One thing I’d like to teach my son is to live the bigger life, and sometimes that means letting go of what was past, and remembering that a beautiful present plants seeds for a happy future.

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