Traveling with babies and toddlers: tips for a stress free journey
(Well, maybe not entirely stress free…)
Traveling solo with two kids!
Ten years of traveling with babies and toddlers
Next week I’m heading off on holiday with my family. This is the first foreign holiday for us since Covid. To say that I’m looking forward to 10 days beside a pool is an understatement! I’m also relishing the prospect of the first sun holiday in a decade where I might not have to look after kids 24/7. My kids are now 10 and 5, so this is the first time in 10 years that I won’t be traveling with a baby or a toddler! While obviously I’ll be supervising them in the pool, they need a lot less entertaining. I’m hoping for a few hours to read (or nap) every day!
My travel credentials
I have travelled extensively with babies and toddlers! The first time my eldest took an international flight was to India when she was four months old. It was no mean feat as I was exclusively pumping for her and had to work out how to transport breastmilk on three flights, plus find the privacy to pump along the way. We traveled to Italy when she was 9 months, Spain and the USA when she was a toddler. When my second child was born, we travelled to Portugal and the Middle East with both of them. One of the hardest journeys I made was a flight on my own with my 5 year old, and my 5 month old baby. The baby was breastfeeding and slept a grand total of 2 hours (!!) out of the 17 hour journey.
Traveling with babies can be a wonderful experience, filled with new adventures and cherished memories. However, it can also be a daunting task, especially when it comes to flying with little ones. In this blog post, I’m going to share some practical tips that I’ve picked up along the way, that should make your journey with a baby or toddler more enjoyable and stress-free. Well, maybe less stressful…
It is absolutely essential that you prepare when you are traveling with babies and toddlers.
I’m a firm believer in writing things down so that you won’t forget the essential items. It takes a lot of planning and preparation when traveling with babies, so writing lists reduces some of that mental load. Once it’s written down, you can forget about trying to keep it in your brain! I usually keep a list of all the things I need to do before we travel, and last minute purchases that are needed. I’d also recommend you write down three separate lists for what to take with you: what you need for your hand luggage, your baby bag, as well as your hold luggage.
Work out what you can purchase/ borrow/ hire once you get there
Traveling with babies and toddlers does seem to require a lot of stuff! Figure out what you need to take with you and what is better to buy once you arrive. You need some room in your suitcase for your clothes too!
Specific baby items that get used up
Nappies and wipes can usually be purchased once you’re at your destination, unless your baby has extra-sensitive skin and needs a specific brand. Can you buy suncream and bath products when you get to your destination, or does your child need a specific brand? If you know you can get them at your final destination, you might want to pack just what you need for the flight and the first couple of days. If you’re really clever you might even manage to buy just enough so you don’t have to bring loads back with you.
Do you need to take a car seat with you?
If you are hiring a car, you can hire car seats too, but they often work out quite expensive. Most countries require appropriate car seats for babies/toddlers, so you either need to ensure that any taxis/transfers provide them, or take your own. You also need to check if your car seat is compatible with the cars/seat belts at your destination. Guess who carried a car seat across 3 continents only to discover it couldn’t be secured in a car in India? If you are putting your car seat in the hold, you might want to use a car seat bag with lots of bubble wrap (that’s what we did).
Formula and baby food
You may want to pack enough formula for your trip for your baby. However, most countries abide by the Codex Alimentarius which ensures that every formula has the same basic composition. It’s usually ok to try a different formula. You may even be able to get the same milk you normally use, as many of the formula companies are multi-national, although the branding may be different. Double check if you can buy your usual baby food at your destination.
What does your accommodation provide?
Check with your hotel/self-catering destination. What do they provide? Sterilizer? Travel cot? Most holiday destinations that label themselves as “family friendly” will be able to provide a wide range of baby related items.
Using a ring sling on holiday in Italy, and an Integra Solar in the Middle East.
Essentials for travel
Use a sling/carrier
Personally, I think using a carrier is essential when moving through the airport, even if you are also taking a push chair. A carrier leaves you hands free to carry bags or hold hands with your toddler. You can even breastfeed in a sling. I once breastfed a baby the whole way through check in and security and no one even realized! Most babies will also nap quite happily in a sling or carrier, which is really practical if you are walking somewhere with lots of steps and a push chair won’t work.
Carriers for hot weather
If you are going somewhere hot, you may want to look at a carrier that is particularly well suited to hot weather. I used an Integra Solar carrier for a few holidays and loved it! It is a buckle carrier but isn’t very bulky, so it packs down into a small space. The lack of padding also means that it is a bit cooler than other buckle carriers. It’s also made of thin, parachute type fabric. This very thin, breathable fabric keeps you and your baby much cooler.
Alternatively, use a thin wrap or ring sling made with bamboo (for smaller babies) or a linen blend (stronger for older babies). These fibres help keep you cool. Some buckle carriers have mesh panels as well, to allow for better air flow. Eg. Tula Coast.
Can you take your car seat on as hand luggage?
We did take a car seat with us as hand luggage, once, but didn’t actually use it on the flight. It got stowed at the front of the cabin. Some airlines will let you take your car seat on board for use throughout the flight. However, you usually need to book a separate seat for your child to use it, and it also needs to be a car seat that is approved by the airline. Arguably, having your baby in a car seat is safer than being on your lap, especially if there is turbulence. Your child may also feel more secure and settled if they are restrained in their familiar car seat, rather than on a airplane seat.
Usually, you are expected to keep your child on your lap if they are under the age of two, and they must face forward for take off and landing. This can make breastfeeding them a bit tricky! They often protest, especially if they have sore ears or are unhappy about being restrained.
Your hand luggage
Obviously you need the basics like money, passports, boarding passes, and your phone! I’d pack an extra t-shirt for yourself, and if space allows, a change of underwear, and leggings/trousers. Look, I know you think that’s extreme but all I’ll say is that you don’t want to have to deal with projectile vomiting or a poonami and then have to wear soiled clothes for the rest of the flight. Let’s just say I was glad to have spare clothes in my hand luggage once upon a time.
A fillable water bottle, pens, phone charger, and if you’re on a long-haul flight, an inflatable neck cushion may be useful on the off chance your child falls asleep. And, err… deodorant wipes. It can be hot, sweaty work traveling with babies and toddlers. Hand sanitizer or antibacterial wipes can also be handy.
Always pack a couple of extra outfits for your baby/toddler. Accidents happen, and having spare outfits can save you from potential stress. You will need nappies, wipes, and muslin cloths as well. If your baby is breastfeeding, you don’t need to bring any extra bottles or milk. If you are formula feeding, bring sterile bottles and extra formula powder, just in case your flights are delayed. Flight attendants can give you hot water. Same parents opt to buy ready made formula or buy powdered milk once they are through security – some airport chemists provide a pre-order service. However, breast milk and formula is exempt from the 100 ml restriction in almost all airports. If you are transporting breastmilk, either bring it frozen in a cooler bag, or with ice packs.
Entertaining your baby/toddler
To keep your baby entertained during the flight, bring a variety of toys, such as soft rattles, teething rings, or board books. Familiar toys can provide comfort in an unfamiliar environment. Additionally, consider bringing some new toys to capture their attention and curiosity. You can then pull these out mid-flight when your child gets fussy! Wrap them for added appeal.
Items that keep them entertained but aren’t noisy are a good idea (it’s good to think of those around you too). Avoid buying any expensive toys or toys with lots of parts that might get lost. One idea someone in my Facebook group suggested was a fidget spinner that sticks to an airplane window. Basically, when you are traveling with babies and toddlers, you have to think about how you’re going to keep them entertained for the whole flight unless they sleep.
Some of my toddlers’ favourites over the years include:
- Sticker books – low tack stickers are the best, so that you don’t leave a whole lot of adhesive on the backs of seats!
- A take away container with holes punched in the lid, filled with pompoms. Take the pompoms out, let toddler push the pompoms through the holes. Empty the container. Repeat 1730 times on the flight.
- Finger puppets – you can get a little bag with 10 or so on Amazon.
- Matchbox cars.
- A tablet/ipad/inflight entertainment. Look: sometimes it’s about surviving the flight and that’s ok!
Snacks, Snacks, and More Snacks
No one wants to deal with a hangry baby or toddler on a flight. Pack a variety of healthy snacks that are easy to handle and won’t create a mess. Some suitable options include: thirst quenching fruit like sliced grapes or watermelon (pack some baby forks!), cereal bars, dry snacks like crackers or rice cakes. Be sure to adhere to airport security guidelines and restrictions regarding carrying liquids or food items.
I used a Trunkie when my daughter was a toddler – packed with cuddly toy, activites, snacks and a change of clothes!
Looking after your little one abroad
Sun safety/keeping cool
Ideally, young babies should have no direct exposure to sun, even with suncream on. It’s a good idea to cover their extremities, so sun hat and long sleeves/trousers are important, as well as using long sleeved swimwear. Wear loose clothes made with natural fabrics such as cotton or linen, as these are more breathable and will keep everyone cooler. Don’t forget to apply high factor suncream and avoid mid-day sun! A tip from a mum in my Facebook group is to use a fluffy make up brush to apply suncream. My kids like the roll-on suncream.
Carriers and hot weather
If you are using a carrier/sling, make sure that you also have a layer of fabric between you and the baby so you don’t sweaty and sticky! It may still be necessary to take them out of the sling from time to time so you can both cool down.
Push chairs in the sun
If you are using a push chair, don’t cover it completely as this can increase the temperature to dangerous levels. Air needs to circulate, so don’t be tempted to cover it with a blanket or sheet. If you are concerned about sun exposure when they are in the push chair, use a sun parasol, or approved sun shade instead so that air can circulate around your child. Battery operated fans work great too!
Breastfed babies under the age of six months don’t need additional water, and even under the age of a year, they may just breastfeed more often for hydration. Formula fed babies can get a couple of extra ounces of water if necessary. Make sure toddlers have access to plenty of safe water to drink.
What water to use?
If you are making up bottles abroad, you need to consider the type of water you use. In countries where the tap water is drinkable, you can boil tap water and use that (just like you would at home). If the advice is to use bottled water for drinking, then it’s important that you consider the sodium and sulphate concentration of the bottled water, as many brands are not suitable for making up bottles. Some countries do sell special bottles of water which have a low sodium/sulphate levels specifically for formula. You do still need to boil it before making up bottles as it isn’t sterile.
For children on solids, you can mash their meals or use finger foods when eating out. Some parents take food pouches on holiday, which is understandable, but they are not ideal for regular consumption. If your baby is around six months old, you may find it easier to delay starting solids until after the holidays.
Babies and toddlers can get dehydrated very easily, so being extra careful with food hygiene is important when you go on holiday. Make sure you know how to contact medical care in an emergency.
Routines and sleep
Why not go with the flow?
Honestly, I do think that holidays should be the one time that you are more spontaneous and flexible about timings and routines. Lots of fresh air, sunshine and exciting new experiences will help to tire small children out. If you are heading to Europe, you’ll probably see lots of young babies and toddlers out late at night, as there doesn’t seem to be the same obsession with 7 pm bedtimes. Why not embrace it for a few weeks? You can always get back on track again when you get home. Focus on making memories and having fun.
Provide familiar sleep cues
What about time changes?
If you are traveling with a baby or toddler to a different time zone you have a couple of options:
- Don’t try to change your baby’s body clock. Stick to your time zone and just change the times at your destination. So for example, if your baby is usually awake at 6 am, but with the time change at your destination that would be 8 am, you may just want to get up at 8 am on holiday. If they normally nap at 10 am at home, then you put them down at 12 pm on holiday. This works especially well if you’re only going on holiday for a week or 10 days, or the time change isn’t too big.
- Switch to the new timings and tough it out. If the time change is bigger than 3-4 hours or you’re going to be there for longer than 2 weeks, it makes sense to adjust to the time change. If you do this, try to get lots of exposure to daylight early in the morning and as the sun is setting, as these help to trigger that change in your circadian rhythm. Also make sure that meal times and naps happen at these new times. It may take several days for your child to adjust to the new changes, so you may experience some delayed bedtimes, early wake ups or middle of the night parties!
Dealing with crying and meltdowns
With the best will in the world, your baby/toddler may have a meltdown, either while traveling, or when you reach your final destination. It can be very overwhelming for them, and if you are feeling anxious or stressed, they may pick up on that too. The change in routine, the different sights, sounds and smells can be massively overwhelming, especially for very sensitive children. Sleep deprivation or missed naps also can contribute to dysregulation in your child.
I have been that parent with a non-stop crying baby on a flight. A LONG flight. And it feels horrible. Ultimately your job is to be there for your child and soothe them as best you can. You are not responsible for how the other people on the flight react. You can’t make your child behave better or control them, all you can do is be there for them.
Take a deep breath. Calm yourself first. Notice any panicky thoughts your brain might be having and how you feel in the moment eg.
“Everyone on the flight hates me because he won’t stop crying!”
“That woman thinks I should be able to control my child!”
Becoming aware of these thoughts means that we are less likely to react negatively in the moment. We can just notice that the thoughts are there, but we don’t need to react. Speak to your child with kindness and empathy. Let them know you understand that it’s hard. Offer comfort and support in any way you can. It’s not an emergency and you will both survive.
One thing I learned over the years is to not plan too many exciting, new activities. My kids value their down time and having some boring, familiar activities to do! When you travel with babies and toddlers, it’s not always about filling every moment of the day with action. This is especially true if they will feel stressed out and you will get annoyed that they are grumpy and unappreciative. Perhaps your general state of mind and spending time together is more important even if you just do “ordinary” stuff.
Traveling with babies and toddlers can be fun!
Unfortunately, going on holiday with small children does involve work and a lot of planning. Hopefully, once you get to your destination you’ll have a little less housework to do. But you will still be busy. If you can, travel with family. We took my parents with us a couple of times, and honestly, it did make a big difference! I know that isn’t always an option though. Try as much as possible to get some rest as well. Tag team with your partner so you each get an hour a two a day just to yourselves.
I’d never discourage anyone from traveling with babies and toddlers. With a little planning and preparation, you can make some wonderful memories, as the photos that I’ve shared, show. Have fun as you travel and stay safe!