Oliver’s Travels has teamed up with mother of four and bestselling parenting author Sarah Ockwell Smith to create this essential guide for all parents taking their first holiday with a toddler – and also for those parents who might have experienced a holiday recently and perhaps did not have the best holiday ever.
Sarah’s books include ‘ToddlerCalm’, ‘The Gentle Discipline Book’ and ‘The Gentle Sleep Book’. A handy PDF version can be downloaded HERE and sent to your friends and family, preferably before they travel with toddlers!
Life with a toddler, while wonderful, can be utterly draining, so holidays provide a much-needed and welcome break for frazzled parents. It’s a chance to put your feet up, soak up the sun, relax around the pool and finally pick up a book that isn’t a parenting manual or beginning with the words “That’s Not My……”.
Visions of your toddler paddling happily in the sea, delighting at the passing fish and chowing down on the local delicacies fill your mind, fuelled doubtlessly by the perfect, smiling, relaxed families that adorn all the holiday brochures and fill your TV screen each time a holiday advert comes on.
Sometimes this picture-perfect vision becomes anything but in reality. It is not uncommon for the perfect holiday to quickly descend into tears, tantrums and sulks – and that’s just from the parents!
This ten-step survival guide explains why holidays with a toddler can be stressful – and more importantly, what you can do to plan and enjoy the happiest, calmest holiday possible with your little ones.
Readjust your expectations
While you, as an adult, love to explore the world and all that it should offer, you should understand that your toddler needs routine and ritual to feel safe. Taking them away from their everyday rhythm, the comforts of home and the reassurance that this brings can leave toddlers feeling anxious and stressed. Toddlers are incapable of sharing these worries with us verbally and instead show us the only way they know how – with their behaviour. Their tantrums, sulks and meltdowns on holiday are often their way of saying “Help, I’m freaked out by all this change!”. Expecting this is key. Your toddler is going to tantrum just as much on holiday as they do at home and quite possibly more. Those perfect families in the adverts don’t exist, don’t aim to be one of them. You will only make yourself stressed and when you’re stressed, your toddler will pick up on your emotions and join in on your emotional chaos! Lower the bar a bit when it comes to your expectations of your toddler – and ultimately yourself too.
Choose your holiday with your toddler in mind
While two weeks lazing on the beach may appeal to you, the chances are your toddler is going to get bored after ten minutes and a bored toddler is not a happy, or quiet, toddler. Before you had children, you may have sought out countries with the hottest, most tropical climates in far-flung destinations in five star hotels but taking a toddler on those same long-haul plane flights and to the same destinations is not the wisest choice you could make. What should you look for? The shorter the flight the better, flight times that correspond with naps and not bedtimes, family-friendly areas (and family friendly dining in particular), air-conditioned bedrooms, plenty of shade, lots of entertainment and countries with as small a time-zone difference as possible are key. And last but certainly not least, consider the right accommodation for your toddler. It might be worth booking a villa instead of opting for a hotel room – the extra space and privacy mean your kids can run wild without the stress of winding up other guests.
Packing the practicalities
So, you’ve altered your expectations and you’ve found the perfect place to stay. Now what? The more you can plan and pack at home the better. Midnight jaunts to find a special type of food or infant paracetamol – with products in a different language – are not fun. Increase your luggage allowance if you can and dedicate one large suitcase solely to your toddler. Along with their clothing (sun safe suits and rash vests are a must, along with a hat they will actually leave on their head and non-slip water shoes), take as much from home as you can to cover all eventualities. If your toddler only eats one brand of baby rusks for their snack every day, woe betide you if you don’t pack a stash of them! Take any medication you use at home, don’t rely on getting it locally and more baby-friendly sun cream (and after sun and calamine lotion) than you could ever imagine using. Take favourite soft toys and comfort objects, blankets, even a pillow to help settle for naps, a few favourite books and toys and any music or light shows you use at bedtime.
At the airport and on the flight
Try to watch some video clips of airports and security procedures before you go, to prepare your toddler for what’s coming. Paying for a ‘skip the queue’ upgrade at security is an absolute must and if funds stretch, a family-friendly lounge pass can pay dividends in starting your holiday calmly. Hold onto your buggy until the very last moment, don’t check it into the hold at check-in! Pack a hand luggage bag for your toddler with new toys and books that are more likely to keep them occupied because of the novelty value. If all else fails though, don’t be afraid to use screens. While too much screen time is not great for toddlers, sometimes an iPad pre-loaded with favourite videos is worth its weight in gold. Finally, when you’re through security head for the obligatory Boots or WHSmith and stock up on snacks for your toddler to munch on during the flight; don’t rely on them wanting to eat the plane food!
Jet-lag and other sleep problems
Toddlers dislike sleeping at the best of times but on holiday – in a new environment and with jet-lag to boot – it’s usually the first thing to nose dive. Sometimes relaxing a little over bedtime and naptime is the answer. Often, allowing them to snooze in their buggy or a carrier at night while you enjoy the evening entertainment is far less fraught with stress than trying to use hotel babysitting services. Don’t worry too much about disrupting what happens at home, instead focus on enjoying your holiday and going with the flow as much as possible. When it comes to jet-lag, the best solution is to observe the local time-zone as much and as quickly as possible. Try to eat according to the local time, not UK time, and get as much natural light as possible as soon as you can in the morning. If you had a rough night and your toddler is finally having a lay in it may be far worse to leave them to sleep, instead – open the curtains, wake them up and welcome in the beautiful new day, however much you feel like going back to bed.
Toddlers and adventurous eating are not words that usually go together. All toddlers are naturally neophobic. That means they are genetically wired to refuse all new foods. In a clever quirk of nature, this reluctance to try anything novel protects the toddler by preventing them from accidentally consuming something that may be poisonous. While the delicious local paella or goulash is obviously not poisonous, your toddler’s genetics don’t know that. Don’t stress about their eating on holiday. It’s OK that they only eat white, beige or yellow food (namely breadsticks, cheese, rice, chips, yoghurt and ice cream) for two weeks, it really won’t do them any lasting damage. When they’re older and the neophobia naturally wanes, there will be plenty of years for them to mature their palate with local delicacies.
Boundaries and consistency
Holidays are usually a time to relax and let things go a little. Should the same apply to discipline? Should you say “yes” to things you normally say no to? Should you buy everything your toddler asks for? In one word – no. Yes, holidays are a great time to let your toddler explore, to have more autonomy and to bond with them. They are not, however, a time to become permissive. That doesn’t mean getting super-strict, that will totally back-fire too. Toddlers need boundaries and most of all they need consistency from you. The whole holiday has already produced so much inconsistency that they need you to be just who you are at home when it comes to your expectations of them. Simply, while you need boundaries to keep them safe, they need your boundaries to help them to feel safe. Just make sure that you discipline as gently and compassionately as possible.
The elusive ‘me time’ and relaxation
Let’s be frank here. Me-time and toddlers just don’t mix well. It’s much better to aim for family time with a few snippets of time alone to top up your emotional wellbeing tank whenever you can snatch them. Couple time however is not a particularly realistic aim. While there are some wonderful creches and kids’ clubs around the world and certainly many toddlers who thrive in attending them, child psychology tells us that toddlers need their parents and will do anything they can to avoid separation from them. While you may dearly wish that your toddler wouldn’t scream, sob and reach out for you like you were abandoning them every time you try to drop them off at the hotel creche, your toddler is being totally normal. From a child-development perspective, it’s actually far more worrying if they don’t act like they’ll never see you again. Toddlers need time to build bonds with new caregivers and the standard one or two-week holiday really doesn’t afford that time. Instead, it’s more realistic to plan time alone for just one parent, while the other cares for the toddler and take shifts. One day one parent can go for a massage, while the other can enjoy a game of tennis the next day. The toddler happy that they are with at least one parent at any given time.
What to do when they have a tantrum
Hopefully by now you’ve accepted that your toddler will tantrum on holiday, it’s not a case of “if”, but “when”. So, what should you do when the inevitable happens? First off – stay calm, you’re not the first parent whose toddler has tantrumed at the resort and you won’t be the last. Make sure your toddler is safe and not in any imminent danger and try to find a quiet spot to move to while you sit with them until they are calm enough to have a hug and talk through what happened. When the tantrum’s over move on. Don’t dwell on it – it won’t help anyone. Get back to enjoying your holiday together.
What to do when you have a tantrum
It’s not only toddlers that have tantrums – parents do too. Holidays, especially ones that don’t go as planned, are a common environment for fraught relationships and fights. Parents can quickly lose their temper, not only with their toddlers but each other too. Ultimately you can’t control how your toddler behaves on holiday, but you can control how you behave. If you want your toddler to be calm and polite, then you must model that behaviour yourself. Sometimes, the most powerful thing you can do is to change the way you behave. Holidays are a great time to get into new habits, downloading a mindfulness app, or a “how to handle stress” book to take with you can pay dividends, because ultimately, you’re the one with all the power to change and enjoy the holiday as much as possible!