Top Tips for International Travel with Young Children from a Pediatric Sleep Consultant
Let’s paint a picture. It’s late 2021, and your family has been cooped up adjusting to this “not-so-new, normal” for as long as you can remember. Maybe your pandemic baby is now entering the beginnings of toddlerhood, or perhaps it’s been a year or 2+ since you’ve embarked on a family vacation.
If you’re anything like my family or one of the many families of young children that I work with, you may be feeling the itch to finally escape what has become the day-to-day and, once again, experience the world of travel. I, for one, have always had dreams of family adventures across the globe and sharing our passion for traveling with the kids. Of course, those dreams were temporarily put on hold but are starting to become a glimpse of reality again for many families, like ours, with a recent Bahamas trip where I shared all the details.
If, like most of us, you are a little rusty on the travel front, read on for my top tips for international travel with kids. Sure, it can be daunting, but traveling with small children can be done, and, even better, can be an enjoyable experience for all. It just takes some planning ahead, slowing down, and a whole lot of flexibility.
Preparing ahead of time
If you plan to travel internationally, every person in your group will need a current passport, regardless of how young your children are — no exceptions for infants. If international travel is even a thought in the next year, go ahead and do yourself a favor and get those passports up to date now, as you never know when you may encounter delays. Currently (at the time of writing), many US passports are taking upwards of 4-6 months to receive, so even if you think you may consider a family getaway anytime from now to early spring 2022, get those passports ready!
Check country requirements
Next, as countries are cautiously opening their borders, it is crucial that you research their Covid requirements ahead of time. Many places require proof of vaccination and/or negative PCR tests to enter their country taken within very strict timeframes of arrival. These are usually checked at the airport prior to departure and then again in the country of arrival. Each country has its own protocols and may require additional testing every few days, masking, online or paper health records, and even proof of travel health insurance. Keep your documents organized, on hand, and ready to show! Now equally important to be prepared for is what your country requires to get back home. The US currently requires a negative COVID PCR test for any person of any age within three days of entry/re-entry, so don’t forget to scope out where to get that completed well before your departure.
Prepping your child
Now that you have handled the logistics and paperwork of international travel in current times, don’t forget one of the most important steps to blissful travel days with young children. Prep your kids for EXACTLY what to expect at least a week leading up to vacation —the who, when, how long, where, etc. They thrive on routine and knowing what to expect; it helps them feel safe! You can even use simple visuals like charts, pictures, stories, and checklists with stickers to help them understand the process. Expecting your child to go with the flow when their world feels confusing and chaotic will surely end up in meltdowns, sleep disturbances, and all the frustrating behaviors — not the relaxing vacation you had envisioned, I’m sure!
Flying with a child
Ticketing, strollers, and car seats
Major domestic airlines allow children under the age of 2 to fly for free on your lap, which is a great option if you are on a budget, and this is what we’ve always chosen. If your travel budget allows, you may want to consider purchasing your baby a separate ticket and installing the car seat directly into their seat for better sleep, safety, and comfort, especially for those longer flights, but this is not required. Car seats and strollers do not typically count against your carry-on requirements and are generally free to check. You can choose to check the car seats and strollers immediately at the airport with your luggage OR use them to help you get through the airport and then check them right at the gate. Keep in mind you will have to remove your baby to walk through security, and everything else will need to go through screening. Fortunately, when you travel with a small child, you get to skip the line and full-body scanner and carry them directly through the metal detector instead!
Now that we have a toddler, it has been helpful to check the car seat but keep the stroller with us through security and clear up to the gate. A wiggly, impulsive toddler is much safer to contain (and much faster to navigate) in a stroller. The travel stroller we use collapses small enough to fit in the overhead bin, so you don’t even have to gate check it! It is also lightweight enough for me to hold my two-year-old in one arm, collapse the stroller, and place it on the security belt with the other.
Liquids and snacks
A well-kept secret is that the “no liquids” rule doesn’t apply to small children. You do NOT have to throw that sippy cup of juice or milk out before passing through security, even if the volume is greater than 3.4 ounces. TSA will just need to test the liquid first. This is also true for breast milk, formula, and baby food in “reasonable quantities”; however, TSA does not specify a limit, so don’t be afraid to bring what you need! Bottles and pacifiers may be helpful for baby ears at take-off, and I always keep applesauce pouches and a sippy cup handy for the toddlers.
Boarding the plane with kids is fairly simple for all the airlines we’ve used. They pretty much all do family boarding early, so you will have plenty of time to find your seats, secure overhead bin space, and ensure the family gets to sit together. Just listen for the announcement to know when it’s time for your family to skip the line!
Once on board, if it is nearly nap or bedtime, the best bet for falling asleep is usually at take-off (which is, of course, the dream) or landing (for the dreadful 15-minute snooze). Give plane naps a try, but if your child is over ~8 months, plane sleep is much more difficult to come by, so try not to stress if it’s not happening. If this is the case and you have an overtired child on board, anything goes! I am not above using all the snacks and screen time for flights. Just don’t forget toddler headphones and to download shows ahead of time. Other quiet entertainment ideas to occupy your toddler in flight are Reusable sticker books, Mess-free coloring books, Color blast books, Water Wow coloring, Busy Board toy, and Erasable Doodle Board.
At your destination
Lodging and sleeping arrangements
As a sleep consultant, one of the most frequently asked questions I get during wrap-up calls is, “How should we handle sleep on vacations in the future?” Parents who have worked so hard on establishing healthy, independent sleep skills are justifiably fearful of ruining sleep by taking a vacation, but I have good news for you! A well-rested child is a more flexible child and can handle the occasional later bedtime or missed nap. Once you have established a solid sleep foundation, it does not just go away during a week vacation, but you will want to protect your child’s sleep with the 80/20 rule where you preserve 80% of sleep but can be flexible with the rest. Other helpful sleep tips:
- Have separate sleep spaces
- Set up an environment conducive to sleep
- If there is a time change, get on the new time as quickly as possible with sunlight first thing in the morning. Expect for it to take a few days to adjust
- Incorporate comfort items from home and stick to your familiar bedtime routine
Thankfully, Slumberpod has a solution to easily check the first two boxes, even if you are in tight quarters and a bright beach house! Use code RESTEDROOS20 to get $20 off yours. We can’t imagine ever going back to the days of setting up pack n plays in closets and bathrooms or taping towels around windows. Other than Slumberpod, we bring our Hatch toddler clock or portable travel white noise machine to help drown out the outside noise and ensure the adults can still have conversations. We also placed a baby monitor inside the Slumberpod for our peace of mind to confidently step out onto the balcony or patio and enjoy those vacation evenings.
Sleep is never perfect on vacation, but it doesn’t have to be a disaster either. I also have a more in-depth blog on vacation sleep in case you missed it. Understand that some naps will be missed, bedtime may be too late, and mornings will probably be earlier than you’d like, but protect sleep when you can. Don’t forget to leave any “bad sleep habits” on vacation where they belong. Remember that if you have a solid sleep foundation, which I can always help you establish, then sleep will be easy to get back on track as soon as you get home within a few days!
The most important part of all is not sticking to a rigid schedule but making your family memories and enjoying vacation with the people you love the most.
Rested Roos Sleep Consulting
Kaylee Woodard of Rested Roos is a licensed Pediatric Occupational Therapist who works in a level IV Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), teaching parents how to care for their medically fragile babies and reach their developmental milestones. As a certified sleep consultant, she also helps tired parents teach their babies and toddlers how to sleep really well in ways that are rooted in sleep science and childhood development. Other than being a pediatric OT and a certified sleep expert, Kaylee is also a Certified Happiest Baby Educator and Neonatal Touch & Massage Certified.
Whether you need help teaching your baby to sleep through the night, a toddler to stay in their own bed all night until morning, or just need someone to guide your family out of mere survival mode and into a well-rested, thriving place, Kaylee can help!
Note: Guest blog posts are shared for informational and educational purposes and may not reflect the official policy or position of SlumberPod (parent company, Dovetail Essentials, LLC), our employees, and/or contractors.