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Traveling with Toddlers and Navigating Sleep

Traveling with toddlers this holiday? Are you dreading the coming holiday season because you’ll be traveling or visiting family with your 1 to 5 year old? 

Perhaps you’re asking questions like…

How will I manage their nap time and bedtime? 😩

Will the time difference make sleeping harder?😩

Will they be okay around so many people? 😩

Will they struggle to sleep on the go?😩

Is this even a good idea? 😩

If you’re asking questions like these and pulling your hair out, it is completely understandable! Going on a long or short trip with a toddler can be a stressful process for parents and their toddlers.  


Because you’re leaving the comfort of your own home and established routines. To make the traveling process less scary and more smooth, I’ve put together a top secret along with some tips that will make you better equipped for a smooth holiday season. 

Traveling with Toddlers and Navigating Sleep - Toddler on an airplane seated watching a show on an ipad.

The secret to smooth travel with your toddlers is Preparation.

The more prepared you and your toddler(s) are, the easier and more enjoyable it will be. How do you prepare them? First, by preparing yourself.

“Valerie, you mean there’s more preparation to do besides packing our suitcases?” 😭

Yes there is and it may feel daunting at first but it will make a world of difference and you will thank me later. Here are some useful tips for preparing:

1. Start talking to them about what is going to happen.

Depending on your little one’s age, you can start telling them what is about to happen. A great way to do so is by using visuals. Here are questions you want answered:

  • Where are you traveling?
  •  When: In how many days? 
  • Who are they going with?
  • Are they going on an airplane or in a car? 
  • Are they going on an airplane or in a car? 
  • Are you going to somebody’s house? Are you staying in a hotel? 

Make use of activities like reading books and watching visual schedules (pictures of what’s going to happen). Cover the key parts to travel and what to expect. Also let them know what they can take with them on the trip. Things like their favorite books, lovey or toys. Including them in trip preparation, involving them in packing their own things into the suitcase can help make travel more tangible for you and provide opportunities to answer their questions at home, without rushing. For ages 2 to 4, I suggest giving them two or three choices of things to choose from. By limiting the number, they won’t get overwhelmed. Make sure to provide structure to the choices – rather than – what 3 of your belongings would you like to take? Instead, say, you can take 2 toys with you. Would you like the red truck or the blue ball?

Another way to help your toddler know what to expect is by counting down the days till you travel together. For example, leading up to your trip, you can have a daily ritual where you both tick off the days on a calendar. The goal with all of these preparation activities is to help them know what to expect. When things are predictable there will be less hiccups and you will both experience less stress and a smoother experience.

2. Speak to toddlers using language they understand.

What does this mean? It means to keep things simple and concrete. What you want to do is to present information to them in a confident, simple and positive way. Remember that the way you feel about the upcoming travel matters too. If you’re enthusiastic and excited, share that with your toddler. 

“But Valerie, I don’t always feel happy and enthusiastic about travel, what do I do?”

How you feel is very valid. In this case, I suggest speaking with your partner or friend first and working through it. This way you will be ready to present it to your toddler in a way that builds enthusiasm.

3. Consider your toddler’s personality.

As a general rule, it is good to do things in advance when dealing with toddlers. If your toddler usually needs a bit more time, then you want to plan for that extra time on the day you’re traveling. Try your best to do other tasks ahead of time too so you’re not trying to do them the day you travel. The fewer things you need to do that day, the easier the day will go and you can be more present for yourself and your toddler.

4. Plan stops and breaks.

It is unrealistic to not need breaks when dealing with toddlers. Since you know you’ll need it, why not plan it into your schedule? There’s no need to set overambitious goals that can lead to you getting frustrated and rushed. This tip is really important in the preparation process.

In between these inevitable breaks along your trip, keep your toddler busy with things to do. Reading books or listening to one, watching something fun, and playing some games. One more magical parenting tool is to add lots of snacks and food. All of these can really help time go by. One more thing to keep in mind is big emotions can be signs that you or your toddler need a break. It can also mean it’s time for a body check. Are you or your toddler feeling hungry or tired? Do you need a bathroom break? It is important to attend to each of these things and see if the emotions subside.

What about meltdowns and traveling with toddlers…I want to avoid public embarrassment!

So you’ve read these tips and you’re feeling better but you still have one more concern.

“Valerie, all of these tips are great BUT how do I deal with a potential meltdown?

If you’re concerned about potential meltdowns, first understand that your toddler will experience and express their  feelings. This is because you are getting out of a routine or doing something new which can cause lots of emotions. Know that while traveling, crying, clinginess, and meltdowns are normal. It happens for many reasons and no, you’re not doing anything wrong. It has to do with your toddler’s brain development and simply because it is their first time doing this journey. New experiences can be scary, anxiety provoking and even include positive emotions like excitement! Preparing ahead of time will help you be able to support your toddler through these feelings because you will be more calm and happy yourself.. 

REMIND YOURSELF OF THIS OFTEN: When your toddler is crying and having a hard time, they are NOT giving you a hard time, they are simply having a hard time. Their feelings do not mean you suck or that they shouldn’t travel. It is just how they feel at that moment. Their feelings are not your feelings and they need your help to regulate their emotions. If you find yourself dysregulated, or in other words upset and not calm – first take time to do what you need to calm yourself before helping to support your toddler. 
I explain this in-depth in my Toddler Sleep course, available right now. There’s also a lot of information on parenting toddlers that you will find very helpful.

Now Let’s Talk About Sleep!

Missed Naps and Sleep Schedules

How do you deal with missed naps and possible changes to the sleep schedule while you’re on holidays?

You may have already experienced what it’s like when your 1 – 5 year old misses their nap time. It’s a total disaster right? 😭

If your toddler has a hard time when they miss, skip, or have a short nap, here’s what I recommend: have extra naps or adjust bedtime. Skipping naptime all together might be a tempting option but a well-rested baby is better than a cranky one. For example, if your toddler is on one nap a day and misses it or your toddler is on two naps but misses one, add in an extra nap. 

Valerie, an extra nap isn’t possible. Can I make bedtime earlier instead?

Yes, you absolutely can. Moving bedtime around or even a short nap will help prevent an overtired toddler especially when you’re traveling.

Missed Bedtime

Since you’re on the go, you may be out late and not make it for regular bedtime. In this case, I suggest getting your 1 – 5 year old to sleep as soon as you can. It is very possible that the night might be rough or you might get through it fine. Either way, prepare yourself. A later bedtime might mean you can sleep in in the morning. The most important thing is to do what is easier for you and what will help you enjoy your travels more.

Sleep Arrangements

Are you considering using a crib when you travel even though your toddler doesn’t sleep in one at home? 👀

The truth is that it isn’t realistic. Doing so would set you up for failure. Instead, prepare for a similar sleep arrangement as you use at home. Try to recreate the same sleep environment by bringing along things that help them sleep. Things like white noise, a comfort item, or maybe their favorite pajamas. It will help them feel more comfortable to sleep in the new environment.

With these tips and tricks to help you and your 1 – 5 year old on your holiday travel, the only thing left to do now is enjoy!

Are you struggling with your toddler’s sleep and want to learn why they wake, why bedtimes are long and how to have smooth independent sleep transitions without crying it out? If yes, then check out the FREE Realistic Toddler Sleep webinar as well.

Let’s keep the conversation going

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