Travelling with children…UK edition
Find out if you should throw out your child’s routine (along with your sanity!) when you go on holiday.
Whilst some of us may be jetting off to far away lands this summer, the vast majority will yet again be holidaying within our borders, the perfect COVID-19 staycation. This brings with it some positives, the main advantage being that you don’t have to contend with jet lag, as well as walking end to end of a plane for several hours in a bid to occupy a squirmy, excited, overtired toddler. It does of course pose some alternative challenges…no, we parents never get away with it that easily.
Whether you’re travelling from one end of the UK to the other, or making a quick dash to the nearest seaside town, the chances are you will be making it in a car (along with plenty of others). Every new parent experiences the joys of packing up a car (without forgetting anything) just to visit the shops, but packing for a holiday, even if it’s one overnight stay, takes it to a whole new level. The difficulty level will vary depending on what stage your child or children are currently at, as well as the number of children…double the children almost definitely doubles your chances of forgetting something important. A holiday can be ruined in a swift moment if you forget [insert can’t-live-without-item], so it’s vital to get off to a good start by packing smart.
Depending on the length of the car journey, you’ll likely need a array of snacks, toys and general distractions to keep the peace for as long as possible. We drove with Davey as a toddler to the south of France and back, and I would do it again – so there’s testament that it can work! But it took lots of planning, making sure we had everything we needed, and took direct routes to each stop off.
Snacks are great for breaking up longer journeys, especially as boredom turns into faux hunger. The key is to only reveal one snack at a time, rather than in one packed lunch box all in one go. Space them out evenly throughout the journey…the longer the journey, the more snacks you need! Ideal car snacks include breadsticks/crackers, veggie sticks, dry cereal, fresh/dried fruit, mini sandwiches/bagels/wraps, cheese, granola bars, and savoury muffins. If you’ve got more than one child, make sure you’ve divided snacks into bags/pots for each as that’s only ever an argument waiting to happen if they have to share.
One thing I learnt from our long road trip in France was to be armed with multiple small toys, books and games. We used a great tray like this one to keep colouring pencils in one place that he could easily reach, and the tray was not only great for colouring but also for holding books, playing with figures and as a race track for zooming cars! We packed a mini suitcase FULL of toys that he had access to next to his car seat, so he could reach for whatever toy he wanted next – toddlers love this sort of independence and it can make them feel less like they’ve been strapped in to be tortured driven for hours. And when all else is failing, make sure you’ve got a tablet or device loaded full of downloaded (never underestimate the issue of lost 4g) programs and films. Ultimately, most children have a very short attention span, but can be entertained with a cycle of music, games (such as eye spy, the shopping game, name-that alphabet categories etc.), toys, snacks and screens.
Car sickness can sadly ruin the best of intentions when it comes to a car journey. Screens and books are often a no-go for sickness or nausea prone children, so you may have to concentrate more on games and music, and swapping books for audio books. Children that get travel sickness are often better when they can see out ahead so the middle seat is ideal, and snacks are probably best in dry foods only. Anti-sickness bands and ginger biscuits can really help ease the symptoms too, and don’t forget the sick bag and a change of clothes!
I can’t stress enough how important planning your journey is. Whilst it may feel tempting to wing it a la pre-parent, especially when getting into the holiday vibe, there is so much more fun to be had when you’ve ruled out as many child dramas and toddler tantrums as possible. Map out your route so you know how long it is and plan around meals and stop off accordingly. Always use the most direct route, even if there are tolls (it’s always worth the cost!). Prep your car to make sure it’s ready for a long journey with all levels topped up, tyres etc. and even down to filling up with fuel the night before. Although a long car journey can be completed successfully with any age kids, the aim should definitely be to spend as little time as possible in the car.
should i stick to my child’s routine whilst away?
One of the biggest fears of parents with young children when contemplating a holiday is how it is going to affect their child’s sleep. If you already have a good sleeper, you may worry that all your hard work (or luck!) is going to be unravelled in just one trip. Likewise, if your child is already experiencing sleep difficulties, you may not even think it could be possible to stay away from home without the sleep you do get reducing even further.
Most children have got a routine of sorts, and it’s this that they rely on to keep them feeling safe, secure and happy. If you know you are going away, it’s ideal if you can stick to their usual routine before you go, especially in the last few days/week before. If they are as well rested as possible before heading off, you’ll likely have less difficulties when you want to stray from their routine when away. Many parents I speak to worry that by going off track for a few days it will undo any efforts they’ve already put into a routine. The best part about routines is that they are context dependent. This means that whilst you are away you can get away with a lot more ‘bad habits’ without worrying too much about the impact it will have once you’re home. So if you end up having to co-sleep because your baby hates the travel cot, or if you have to sit with your toddler whilst they fall asleep because they are scared of their new environment…don’t panic! No matter what you do, something will change whilst you are away, so it’s better to go with the flow and enjoy your holiday. Bedtimes can be a bit later, and if your child will nap out and about, you even have the option of getting them ready for bed and letting them fall asleep on route to your evening destination. Many families also opt for multi-room dwellings to make life easier such as apartments and airbnbs so that they can put their child to bed and still enjoy the evening. Having spent 20 minutes sat in a New York closet (good job they are huge!) whispering to my OH whilst Davey settled to sleep, I can vouch for the convenience of a separate bedroom! It’s worth noting that from a sleep science perspective, most children enter into their deepest sleep around 15 to 20 minutes after they fall asleep, so after some initial quiet time, you can then be safe in the knowledge that you’ve got a good 2-3 hours of worry-free normal-noise-level time.
As well as their routine, children often rely heavily on other sleep cues and comforts when falling asleep. These are must haves when packing for a holiday, and can also be more easily packed into a car rather than worrying about a weight limit (another win for UK travel!). These can include their sleeping bag, soft toy/blanket/comforter, night light, favourite pillow, and familiar books.
If your child uses white noise/lullabies for sleeping, continue to use this whilst away as this is usually easy to take along or recreate on a device. Even if your child doesn’t use white noise at home, it may be useful to use it if you are staying in a hotel room or within close proximity to strange noises. Travel black out blinds are also key for many children as they can really make the difference between a good nights sleep or not, especially during the summer months. If you don’t have a travel blind, or have forgotten to pack one, tin foil stuck to a damp window makes a fantastic temporary solution.
As well as sleep-related home comforts, don’t forget to take any favourite foods. Take into consideration their current diet and eating habits, and make sure they continue to eat as close to their normal diet as possible. It can be tempting to relax the rules when it comes to treats on holiday, but sugar is so closely linked with poor sleep, which is the last thing your child needs on top of late nights and exhaustion from longs days of fun. Let them enjoy treats, but make sure they also get a healthy diet alongside to keep the balance. Check out last months blog for more ideas on foods for good sleep.
The benefit of having a routine in the first place, means that you can skip straight back to it once you arrive home, no matter how far you’ve deviated from it whilst away. As mentioned above, habits and routines are very much dependent on the context in which they happen. So the key is to get straight back to normal once you are home, rather than giving them an extra few days in ‘holiday mode’. It can be tempting (and logical) to let them adjust back to their environment before trying to tackle any issues that have crept in during your holiday, but children adapt quickly and will benefit from an immediate transition back to what is normal for home. Even the biggest of changes only take a few days to undo if you had a solid routine, boundaries and expectations beforehand.
my travel takeaways
Ultimately, only you know your child and just how far you can push them out of their comfort zone when holidaying, both near or far. All children cope differently with diet changes, excitement and over-tiredness.
As with anything, balance is key. Enjoy making amazing memories without being too constrained to nap times and and bedtimes, but don’t let them get so off-course that they ( and you) are too exhausted too enjoy it.
If you’re struggling with sleep following a holiday, or are one of the lucky ones jetting off and you need some help with jet lag, get in touch for a free 15 minute assessment call to find out how I can help. You can also sign up to the HushaBoo email updates to be the first to find out about future blogs. Or follow HushaBoo on social media…
Blogged by Emma Osborne, Paediatric Sleep Specialist, founder of HushaBoo & Mum to one little boy who enjoys travelling, as long as his Mum is prepared!