How to avoid a meltdown when travelling with kids over the holidays

Be prepared a head of time and bring distractions for your little one, parenting experts say.
Be prepared a head of time and bring distractions for your little one, parenting experts say. Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images

Travelling over the holidays is stressful enough if you’re one person. Add kids to the mix and now it’s a whole different ball game.

Whether it’s by plane, train or car, keeping your little ones safe and occupied during the busiest travel season of the year is a challenge. Any help is welcomed help as stress levels soar.

READ MORE: When Mother Nature ruins your holiday travel plans, here’s what to do

“You’re already stressed and a bit exhausted,” parenting expert Ann Douglas says. “But on top of that, there are more crowds. Think about the airport on Christmas Eve — there’s just a tsunami of humanity around you and everybody else has that high-stressed and high energy level, so you’re picking up on that and so are your kids and we know stress can be contagious.”

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And not just that, Douglas says, but parents can face other challenges as well, like dealing with a child who’s adjusting to a change in schedule. This can impact the amount of sleep the child gets and switch up their meal times, which can make the child difficult to deal with.

So what’s a parent to do?

Douglas offers up some tips to parents who are travelling over the holidays.

Get in the right mindset

“Know this is going to require extra stamina and patients from you,” Douglas says. “Go into the holiday season as well rested as possible – if that is possible when you’re a parent.”

Also, make sure to pace yourself and resist the temptation to turn the holidays into a hurricane of busyness from start to finish, she adds.

“And recognize travelling can be both exciting and exhausting,” she says. “Don’t overdo it.”

Turn the tables

You can’t blame someone for doing all they can to please their family and friends. But if it’s going to be too much of a hassle, consider asking everyone to come to you.

“Encourage other people to come to you rather than lugging your baby, toddler and all the assorted gear five hours to visit the grandparents,” Douglas suggests. “See if maybe this year the grandparents can come to you.”

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Stay on schedule

It might be tough to pay attention to these normal daily cues and routines, but amidst the chaos try to remember when your child should be eating and sleeping.

“Keep your kids on track with eating and sleeping as much as possible,” Douglas says. “A child who is sleep deprived and feeling hungry because you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic an hour after he should have eaten his lunch isn’t going to be a particularly happy travel companion.”

Travelling by car

First, be realistic about how much distance you can travel in a day, Douglas advises.

You may have been able to do a 24-hour non-stop road trip to Florida, for example, before having kids, but that is no longer the case now, Douglas says.

Now you need to plan for frequent washroom and food breaks. Research rest stops beforehand and make sure you have a solid game plan on when and where you’ll stop, she adds.

READ MORE: 13 affordable beach destinations that will bring you back to life after the holidays

Douglas says parents also need to plan to travel at the time of day that works best for them and their kids.

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For some kids it may mean you do most of your travelling late at night after they’ve fallen asleep, but for other kids it may be a disaster, Douglas says. So know what works best for you.

Lastly, bring some toys or books that will keep the children company while in the car, as well as some food.

Don’t count on the rest stops having everything your family wants or needs, especially if you have a child who is a picky eater, Douglas says.

Travelling by plane

As much as you’d like to get settled into your seat on the plane early, this may not be the best move if you’re travelling with kids, Douglas points out.

“Don’t rush to board really early unless you think you’re going to need a lot of time getting settled in your seat, which may be the case if you’re travelling with a newborn,” Douglas says. “But if you have older kids, the best thing to do is to let them move around as long as possible.”

Otherwise, this can cause them to be restless and bored before the plane has even taken off, she adds.

Don’t forget to pack plenty of diversions as well, Douglas says, like toys, games and snacks.

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Forget about reading a novel yourself, parents, or zoning out – your number one job as a parent travelling with young kids, Douglas says, is to keep the kids happy and entertained.

“Not many toddlers want to be stuck in a seat for a long period of time so the way to work with that is to give them your attention,” she says.

And if you’re travelling with a baby, don’t get overly stressed if they start to cry. Douglas assures that while some passengers may not like it, most will actually understand your situation.

“You’ll find it easier to stay calm and to focus on meeting their child’s needs if you’re a little less focused on worrying about what everybody else on the plane is thinking about you,” Douglas explains. “The fact is most people will be sympathetic and they’ll recognize you’re doing the best you can in a really difficult situation. Let any judging stares fade into the background.”