An exhaustive guide to simpler traveling with small children
I spent the first half of 2019 traveling with my husband and our one-year-old throughout South America, where we managed to visit some remote places, such as the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, the floating islands of the Uros people in Peru, and Ushuaia, in Argentina, also known as the end of the world.
When we talk about this, many fellow parents ask how we did it. Most of them say it’s a challenge to take their kid to the mall or the restaurant down the street, let alone travel with them to the other side of the world. The funny thing is that it’s always hard—putting your child’s needs first and keeping them healthy, happy, and entertained will always be difficult no matter how far from home you are.
Having visited 14 countries and 16 U.S. states on a total of 77 trips (and counting) with our child, I’ve learned a thing or two about traveling with babies and toddlers. It’s hard, but it’s possible.
It may seem obvious, but no matter how young your child is, they’ll need a passport to leave the country—but it involves more than simply filling out a form. Getting a minor a passport requires demonstrating proof of citizenship, and the primary method is to submit a copy of their birth certificate. This document usually becomes available one month after a child’s birth, but may take longer. In our case, this proved challenging because our child was less than a month old when we first sought out a passport. We tried our local court, but finally obtained the document from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health for $28.
Thinking something might happen to you or your partner while away from home can be scary, but those fears amplify tenfold when you’re traveling with a young child. "Truth be told, most places are pretty safe for kids,” says Dr. Katherine Williamson, vice president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “Travel is accommodating for families of all ages.”
But of course, being prepared makes things a lot easier for both the parents and the baby. Just add these items to your checklist before you hit the road:
Consult with your pediatrician
Ahead of your travels, it’s always a good idea to make an appointment with or talk to your pediatrician about any further advice regarding your child.
If your child is undergoing any kind of medical treatment, make sure you pack enough to last for the entirety of your trip. To be on the safe side, Williamson recommends packing a couple of extra doses and a prescription in case you need to purchase the medication while abroad.
Make sure your child is up to date on their routine vaccines. Start by protecting them against influenza with the flu shot for kids aged six months and older, and check the Center for Disease Control guidelines about what other vaccines they’ll need for particular countries or specific outbreaks that might be occurring. One of the biggest concerns involving travel outside the U.S. is measles. Routine vaccines starting at age one will protect against this highly contagious disease, but your child can get the measles vaccine as early as six months if you’re traveling, Williamson says.
Plan ahead to ensure proper sleep
The first two to three days are key, and you should try to get ahead of jet lag as much as possible by gradually adjusting your kid’s bedtime. For time changes greater than two or three hours, Williamson recommends you give toddlers between 0.5 to 1 milligram of melatonin while you’re on the plane at what will be bedtime at the destination you’re visiting. This will help them start sleeping at the right time. Conversely, once you get to your destination, help your child adjust to time zone changes by having them be active during waking hours, exposing them to sunlight during the day, and not letting them nap longer than normal.
Talk to people who’ve been there
There’s only so much online research you can do before being overloaded with information. The best way to get a sense of a place is to talk to somebody who’s actually been there and ask whatever questions Google couldn’t answer for you.
As of this writing, our family of three has been living out of two suitcases, a backpack, and a diaper bag for exactly 10 months. That sounds challenging for two adults alone, but packing requires a whole new level of expertise when an infant or toddler is involved. Fear not—we’ve been learning from our mistakes so you don’t have to. Next time you embark on an adventure with your little one, make sure you always have these items handy:
When our child was an infant, my packing rule of thumb was to bring about three daytime outfits and two pajamas per day to account for spills, getting sick, and diaper leaks. It’s a lot, but with the transition to toddlerhood, I kept following this rule with great success, only breaking it when I know I’m going somewhere we’ll be able to wash our clothes.
Diapers, wipes, and diaper rash cream
These are a must, whether you’re flying across the world with your toddler or visiting a friend on the other side of town. The key here is to ensure you’ll never have to depend on finding a store, so even though it may sound over-the-top, I pack double the amount of diapers and wipes I think I’ll need. In my experience, no matter how big an airport or transit station is, it’s not likely even the most essential baby products will be readily available.
Plenty of entertainment
This will take up space, so be prepared to carry this stuff in its own bag if necessary. To start with, we pack a lot of board books—10 for trips of any size, since we may read through all of them before our child is ready for nap time. Hopefully, it’ll take fewer with yours, but be prepared to have options, or you’ll be stuck reading the same two or three stories on a loop. Also, include several toys and stuffed animals. Make sure you bring extra, since it’s almost certain you’ll lose some along the way.
A baby carrier
A great alternative to the traditional stroller. We used this for our seven months of international travel, since most places we visited had uneven terrain and were not stroller-friendly.
This is important whether you’re driving your own car or not, since there’s no guarantee one will be available or in good condition through your rental car company. Plus, the rental price of a seat can be more than the cost of a new car seat, depending on the length of your trip.
A travel bed and baby blanket
Some parents will try to save themselves some trouble and co-sleep with their babies. But the APP doesn’t recommend this for children younger than a year old, so bringing a travel bed for your baby is absolutely necessary. More on this later.
Nail clippers, baby thermometer (digital or traditional—it’s up to you), travel first aid kit (it’s easiest to buy one and complement it with additional necessities for you and your child), two bottles, and two sippy cups (it’s best to have two of each to replace a lost one or stand in for a dirty one).
The medical packing list
You know when you travel and you feel tired and grumpy, and sometimes that even leads to physical pain or discomfort? Well, young children go through the same, and they usually don’t know how to cope with it. Williamson recommends packing these essentials to avoid or quickly placate any illness:
Acetaminophen (safe for infants and toddlers) or ibuprofen (safe for children at least six months old).
- Use for general pain and discomfort.
- These help with almost anything, from flight-related pressure to a fever. If your child is having a hard time, Williamson recommends to giving it to them mixed with a drink or soft food, like pudding or yogurt.
Cetirizine and loratadine (safe for kids aged two and up) or diphenhydramine (safe for six months and up).
- Use to prevent travel or motion sickness, and to treat minor allergic reactions that only entail skin rashes. If, while traveling, your child develops any allergies that include swelling of the lips, eyelids, or extremities, or starts vomiting or has difficulty breathing, see a doctor immediately.
Hydrocortisone cream and calamine lotion.
- Use for mosquito bites.
- For all bug bites, Williamson suggests applying hydrocortisone cream and then a layer of calamine lotion on top.
Ondansetron (consult with your pediatrician), a powdered electrolyte replacement , and potentially antibiotics for if you contract traveler’s diarrhea from consuming contaminated food or water (consult with your pediatrician)
- Use for motion sickness, nausea, upset stomach, and diarrhea.
- For some kids, it’s common to get sick in the car or on the plane. If that’s the case with your child, Williamson recommends talking to a pediatrician about getting a prescription for ondansetron, which can also help with gastrointestinal issues, such as an upset stomach. If your toddler is experiencing nausea or diarrhea, rehydration solutions such as an electrolyte replacement can help ensure your child stays hydrated. And if you’re traveling somewhere where traveler’s diarrhea is a concern, you should ask your pediatrician if getting a prescription antibiotic for the condition would be appropriate for your child.
Other medical devices and medications as needed. If your child has known conditions, pack all the things you’ll need to treat them. This includes an inhaler or nebulizer (for children with respiratory issues), an epinephrine injector (for children with severe allergic reactions), and antibiotics (for children prone to ear infections).
Preparing a “shortcut” bag
When you’re packing for a toddler, consider two levels of packing: everything you’ll need for your trip, and the bag of whatever you want to have handy when you’re on the go—no matter how you’re traveling. Our diaper bag is always so stuffed with all the above necessities that I usually throw it in the overhead bin or keep it at our accommodations when we head out to sightsee. What I do instead is pack another bag, such as a lightweight foldable backpack, that serves as an accessible baby emergency kit. Here’s what to pack:
- A sippy cup and bottle
- Snacks, such as cereal, crackers, fruit, and nuts (once your child is eating solids)
- Formula (up to 12 months) or whole milk (1 year and up)
- Wipes, and one or two diapers
- One change of clothing for your toddler
- A couple of favorite toys and books
- A plastic bag (in case your baby gets motion sickness, or to store a diaper until it can be disposed of)
- (Optional) A change of clothing for the parents—especially if your kid is prone to motion sickness. We learned this the hard way after our baby got sick on our laps, and all of our clothes were packed away in checked bags under a plane.
Surviving the journey
I remember how terrified I was ahead of our first cross-country flight—I didn't want to be that family everybody hates because their baby won’t stop crying. Most people with small children will get to know this fear, but they won’t travel enough to figure out just how to deal with a small kid on a plane. With our now-two-year-old having logged 63 flights and counting, I can confirm what you may have already suspected: there's no science to the perfect trip with a small child. That said, there are some strategies that will help.
Always pick the aisle seat
From diaper changes to crying sessions, you’ll want the easiest possible access to the bathroom and aisle.
Assume every carry-on item will require extra screening by airport security
Even though liquids, such as breast milk and juice, are allowed on planes when you’re traveling with an infant or toddler, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration says it “may need to test liquids for explosives or concealed prohibited items.” We have missed flights due to extra screening, so be sure to factor this in when you calculate the amount of time you’ll need to arrive at the gate in time.
Take advantage of early boarding
Families with small children usually get the privilege of boarding planes first. Use the extra time to arrange your seat so you’ll have easy access to all those go-to travel items listed above, one last diaper change, and bathroom trips for the adults.
Plan for the worst
This means arranging everything as if your baby won’t sleep for a minute of the journey and there will be travel delays. At first, people recommended we take night flights so we’d all be more likely to sleep. This worked well and our little one became the ideal traveler, sleeping for most, if not all, of any given flight. But that has changed, and our child has begun sleeping less consistently on the plane. Now we book daytime flights and plan as if everyone is going to be awake (and will need to be entertained) the entire time.
Don’t be scared
Some people will be annoyed to find themselves sitting next to you and your kid on a plane, but that seems to be the exception to the rule. In my experience, most people understand how much harder travel is with a young one, and go out of their way to help you.
Ahead of our first cross-country trip with our baby, my husband and I opted for a portable bassinet which met our search criteria by having the following features:
- Sides made of breathable mesh
- Removable, washable padding
- Could be folded to fit under the seat of a plane
- Could fit a baby for up to six months (some are only recommended for the first three to four months, making a $50-$100 purchase quickly obsolete)
The bassinet worked great for the first six months, but after that, and as our child grew, we had to get creative. Co-sleeping with our baby in our beds didn't work because our presence distracted our otherwise sound sleeper, who woke several times during the night. We also tried creating a makeshift bed out of pillows and blankets, which worked fine until our baby started crawling and began moving out of the nest. After that, we considered a portable travel crib, but because it’s the size of an oversized backpack when folded, it falls into a grey area when it comes to baggage policy, and can sometimes qualify as a suitcase (at a cost) for discount airlines.
Ultimately we landed on the $15.99 Wayfinder TravelTot baby tent, which works just as well as more expensive options, such as the portable crib. But unlike other alternatives, this tent folds down to a thin sleeve that fits in my carry-on backpack. Since it has no padding, we usually request extra bedding and stack one or two thick quilts underneath the bed and layer a baby blanket inside. The bed survived 11 countries, 61 different Airbnbs and hotels, 30 flights, dozens of ferries and buses, and helped us maintain nap and sleep schedules during a 17-hour flight delay in Bariloche, Argentina. After all that wear and tear, we’re now on our second one.
While our baby's bed has remained consistent, everything else—the sounds, lighting, temperature, and time zones—has been in constant change. The first two weeks of our international journey, we saw our normally easy sleeper taking longer and longer to fall asleep. Now we make an effort to keep the bedtime routine as consistent as possible—every night, no matter where we are in the world, we have a half-hour wind-down period for a bath and reading books. Things improved almost immediately.
Setting realistic expectations
Family trips with our baby have been some of the most rewarding experiences of my life. That said, the travel life is different when one member of the family is sleeping half the day, needs to eat more than three meals a day, and has a variable attention span.
While it is possible to travel with a baby, it is important to ground your expectations, and most likely change the way you’ve been traveling so far. For us, this has meant having a more limited list of things we want to see and do, or even staying longer than recommended in a place to complete it.
We’ve also realized we cannot do everything together as a family, and sometimes it’s a good idea to part ways. In the Ica Desert in Peru, my husband went on a dune buggy ride while baby and I went swimming in the Huacachina oasis, and in the Amazon, I went on a night crocodile tour while my husband and baby slept. It is a great way to ensure everyone gets to do what they want to do.
Needless to say, we don’t see much nightlife due to the child's bedtime, and it’s always a good idea to opt for free or lower-cost activities, museums, and live performances rather than investing money in ones we may not be able to fully enjoy.
As a lifelong traveler, I wanted to share my love of travel with my child—and it’s paid off.
Written by Mary Kearl for Popular Science and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.