Toddler Travels – Part I – Long Haul Travel; Getting to Your Destination
Last fall, before the world collapsed to its knees with a fever, my husband and I took our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter on a European adventure. I am a planner and a worrier, so as soon as the trip was booked, I started keeping notes, researching, and worrying. I would lay in bed at night agonizing over the long-haul flight months before we left. I read blog after blog about what works, what doesn’t, should you drug your kid to sleep, should you not. I learned a lot but I also allowed myself to be worked into a frenzy thinking about all of the things I would, in the end, have no control over. Being a first-time mom, that sentiment is the anthem of my life. However, nine times out of ten, my daughter completely surprises me, acts as a stellar human being, and the worrying happens for no good reason. You think I would have learned by now.
In the following series of posts, I am sharing what worked, and what did not work, on a 17-day trip with a toddler through Europe. For the most part, she was a great travel partner but there were moments that we did not expect and some hurdles we had to overcome. We did, however, make incredible memories as a family and are able to say that we took a toddler to Europe and survived!
The start of our trip was the long-haul flight across the Atlantic, which to me was the most worrisome part. My recommendation is to break up your flights. This has been my preference, even before having a child, because I don’t enjoy sitting for many hours at a time. Really it makes me want to crawl out of my skin, so I can’t image how a toddler feels. We live in Colorado so ideally, I would try to do three flights to get to Europe: Colorado to the East Coast, East Coast to Iceland or London and then on to the final destination in Europe. I have actually found better flight deals doing one-way tickets to each stop than I do with round trips all the way to the final destination. You can also control flight times which is crucial with a young child. No one wants a 3-hour layover during a critical sleeping window. If the flight times end up during normal sleep times, you eliminate inevitable meltdowns and you also get a nice break from “entertaining”. Of course this is IF your child will sleep on a plane. In our case, we had a direct overnight flight to London, stayed one night in London and then continued on to Rome the following day. I highly recommend night flights for the longest leg. It forces everyone to get a little shut eye and really helps you to accept the local time when you get there. When I say you, I mean adults, our daughter was jet lagged beyond belief and it was horrible (hurdle number one). More on that fun story in Part II of the blog.
Flying was the most terrifying part of the trip for me. I didn’t know how she would do sitting in a seat that long so I packed A LOT of things. We packed the absolute maximum sized carry-ons we could and even had a small backpack for overflow toys that our daughter carried. We looked like Sherpa's moving through the airport. The goal was to keep her busy, with new things she had never seen before. The timeline ended up being something like this: Get on the plane, settle in for an hour, play with some new toys for an hour, eat a meal, watch a movie, go to bed. Here are some key pieces to our success:
Fidget toy set – This is a wasteful concept but kids love to open things that are wrapped. I wrapped these individually in tissue and then apologized profusely to our flight attendant when she picked up our trash. I keep a small bag of toys like this for restaurants too. We are parents who don't give our phones to our child, especially at meals, so having a bag of small toys usually does the trick in most situations.
Triangular Crayons – These can’t roll off the tray table. Genius. A traveling mom absolutely invented these after picking up the hundredth crayon between the airplane seats. Also great for restaurants.
Snacks – I used these plastic compartment organizing boxes for nuts, small pieces of fruit, Lara Bars, etc. She snacked for a while and loved the new method of delivery. The key to long haul flights is to make each moment exciting. Once they are bored, you may be in trouble. Any parent with a young child also knows a hungry and tired child is a dangerous child. People remark often how well behaved our daughter is. It is because we are usually prepared and we try to not push her to her limits of hunger or exhaustion.
For movies and screen time, I recommend downloading movies onto an iPad. The screen on the headrest has a lot of glare and is up too high for a little person. You want them engaged or they will lose interest quickly. Also, if your child eventually rejects headphones like mine did, you can turn the volume on really low and still let them watch. Most people can’t hear it because they have headphones on as well, and surrounding airplane noise drowns it out. Airplane white noise is also great to get a toddler to sleep and stay asleep, which I will get to in a minute.
Out of the 100 items we had in our bags, the above-mentioned items were the staples. I had activity books, My Quiet Book, magnet sets, window vinyl… each one lasted about 5 seconds. Perhaps you will have better luck. Just search, "Toddler Toys for Airplane Travel" and you will find a thriving industry of travel toy makers. It’s up to you how much you want to carry. My takeaway, it’s not worth it. We could have left an entire bag behind, which we actually did in Rome. Unfortunately that bag was also filled with diapers (hurdle number 2).
After dinner and a movie, it was time to try to sleep. This next item is hands down THE BEST investment we made for the trip. It’s an inflatable cushion that allows your child to lay down on the seat and almost fully extend their body. They do not need to take half of Mom or Dad’s seat to get comfortable. I’m not sure how people sleep upright (I cannot) so I assumed it would be hard for my toddler as well, who has been a slave to her cozy bed from just about day one. This was the scenario I worried about the most: A cranky, tired, confused toddler crying the entire night flight with people staring at me while I’m sweating trying to calm my child. Thankfully, that did not happen a I owe it to this genius invention. I also packed her nighttime staples: sheet, blanket, small pillow, sleep sack, favorite stuffie, etc. I tried to simulate bedtime as best I could with tooth brushing, books and a cozy little nest to curl up in. I was wishing I had the same setup. It’s called first class and likely not something I will ever experience!
Now, for the hot debate, do you give your child a sleep aid? I did a lot of research on this and felt that Benadryl and melatonin were not safe or a good idea for us. That was my personal takeaway. For some children, Benadryl can have the opposite effect and give them insomnia and hyperactivity. Not the result we wanted and I am not a gambler so I declined that option. Melatonin also is not approved for children under 3 and I just didn't feel comfortable tampering with her natural sleep rhythms. However, she does get motion sickness in the car and the last thing I wanted was a lap full of puke on the airplane, so I gave her a quarter of a child-safe Dramamine which I do think made her a bit drowsy. Whether the Dramamine was responsible for her great sleeping, I don’t know, but I do know that we didn’t have any vomit and she ended up sleeping the rest of the flight almost until the minute we landed. Phew!
In Part II I will share our story of toddler jet lag (it's not pretty, we'll just say that) and navigating a foreign country with a toddler.
Thanks for reading!