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7 ways to keep kids (and yourself!) chill during holiday travel

Stephanie B.
Nov. 8, 2018

If holiday travel incites feelings other than joy, you’re not alone. Traveling with kids any time of year can be nerve-wracking, but traveling during the holiday season just adds an extra-special helping of crowds and chaos.

“Not to mention that delays, transitions, lost luggage and other unknowns are stressful,” points out Nadia Sabri, MD, an Austin-Texas board-certified pediatrician and founder of The Mindful MD Mom.

Unless you’re willing to put your foot down and stay home for the holidays (we salute you if you do!), you’ll need to gear up to grit and bear it. There are, however, ways to make it more manageable. Here are some tips from experts and parents that can help get your family to — and from — your holiday destination as smoothly as possible.

1. Don’t fear meltdowns

“One of the things that makes travelling stressful is our children's big emotions,” says Kate Orson, parenting instructor and author of “Tears Heal: How to Listen to Our Children.” “We all dread our children having a meltdown on the plane or squabbling siblings distracting us from driving.” 

Before your trip, give each of your children some unhurried, one-on-one time.

“That way they start off on a good note, and feel well-connected and listened to,” says Orson.

If your child still gets upset along the way, respond with empathy and hugs — and don’t think of it as a bad thing.

“Crying’s a natural healing process, and tears contain cortisol, the stress hormone,” Orson explains.

After a big meltdown, your child will probably find it easier to regulate their behavior.

2. Pack like a pro

Don’t just pack what you need — pack what you hope you don’t. That means extra diapers, allergy and motion sickness medicine, changes of clothes for both the kids and you, and even your pediatrician’s phone number and email. That way, if you have to deal with a sick kid or blowout diaper, “you’ll be prepared for anything,” says Jamie Engelman, a certified pediatric sleep consultant and owner of Oh Baby Consulting.

3. Factor in kids’ sleep schedules

Have a road trip ahead of you? Getting behind the wheel gives you more flexibility to stick to your kids’ routine.

“Plan to hit the road at their usual bedtime or normal naptime and let the car soothe them to sleep,” suggests Engelman.

If you’re flying, book early morning flights when you can.

“Your kids will still be drowsy and there’s less of a chance you’ll be delayed,” notes Lisa Sugarman, author of “Untying Parent Anxiety: 18 Myths That Have You in Knots — And How to Get Free.”  

That strategy works out well for Dale Janée, who often travels alone with her two kids, ages 1 and 3.

“I let [the kids] stay up a little later the night before and then wake them up at 5 am,” Janée shares. “By the time we board and take off, they both typically sleep the entire flight.”

4. Bring (lots of) snacks

Your kiddos’ blood sugar will nosedive if too much time passes between meals and snacks, says Sabri. To stave off “hangry” kids, pack healthy snacks. Think: fresh fruit, raisins or dried cranberries, goldfish crackers, yogurt and sandwiches cut into different shapes. (Use travel-size containers to keep them in intact.)

“Keep kids’ ages in mind and don’t give anything that’s a choking hazard,” reminds Sabri.

And while candy can distract kids in a pinch, don’t overdo it. The high sugar content will make their energy level (and mood) crash quickly.

5. Keep kids moving

Sitting still doesn’t come easy to young kids. Have time to kill at the airport? Encourage your little ones to jump or hop in place, have a dance-off, or do some yoga moves to get their squirms out. If you’re on the road, plan plenty of pit stops to break up the monotony and let them stretch their legs.

Amanda Ponzar, mom to two boys, ages 7 and 10, looks for not only rest stops but swimming pools, playgrounds and friends’ houses in other states.

“We’ve even stopped at Target before to walk around,” says the mom of two boys, ages 7 and 10. “It helps calm their wiggles.”

Tired kiddos ready to sit quietly for a while will make the next leg of your trip that much more tolerable.

6. Have an emergency bag of tricks

Yes, screens can save the day, but always pack some low-tech boredom-fighters, too. When Amber Nash was recently stuck in an airport for 12 looong hours with her two kids, ages 1 and 4, what helped pass the time were the Ziploc bags she’d stuffed with puzzles, felt toys in the shape of food, pencils and pads of paper, sticker books and little Easter egg containers they could open over and over again.

“Both our kids go nuts over cheap little plastic toys and this kept them busy for a large chunk of time — plus the plane ride afterwards,” says Nash.

7. Manage your own stress

When — not if — your stress levels start to rise, “take a deep breath in and exhale the tension out,” Sabri says. “Add in neck rolls, stretch your arms overhead, and with each exhalation, let go of the stress.”

Kids can join in, too.

“Using silly names like ‘warrior breath’ or ‘dragon breathing’ gives fun imagery to kids and is a great way to get them involved,” Sabri notes.

You can also choose a mantra to silently repeat to yourself along the journey — maybe ‘If I’m calm, my kids will be calm’ or ‘It’s all part of the adventure.’

“Kids are sponges and absorb the energy around them,” Sabri says. “As long as you remember to stay calm and collected, your kids will react the same.”

Read next: Easy holiday crafts for kids

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