Travelling (long distance) with a toddler

So after all  my posts from our Canada trip, I'll take a moment to reflect on travelling with a toddler. We had been in doubt for months whether such a trip with a 20m old child would be feasible and whether we should do it.  I've googled a lot to read about other people's experiences and so here's ours.

The long day of transport in order to arrive on the other side of the world, was the main concern: how do you keep a little active toddler occupied and happy for such a long time in "confined" spaces such as a plane.

We had flown with him to California a year before when he was 7-8 months old, not crawling or walking yet and still sleeping and waking more or less around the clock in blocks of about 3 hours. His autonomy had never been bigger than a play mat of his play pen, so getting a little baby cot in the plane was a very acceptable throne to him at that time where he also eagerly took his naps.

But now he was 20 months, full of energy, never sitting still and sleeping less (hey, if there's something interesting new to watch, why would you assume that I'd like to sleep now?).

We didn't doubt for a second to buy him his own plane seat. He's still allowed to sit on our lap under the age of 2 , but for a flight longer than 2 hours that would seem a recipe for many hours of frustration.

Then we searched possible flight itineraries: as there is no direct flights from Brussels to Vancouver, it seemed better to combine a short European flight combined with a long transatlantic flight contrary to a flight Brussels - Eastern Canada and then a Canadian flight (less total flight hours as the transatlantic flight can make the efficient route over the poles, no stop-over on a moment we'd be already cranky and out of our rhythm). The final choice was made based on price for economy plus + seat configuration of the plane.  Condor had 3 middle seats: we wouldn't have any neighbours to take into account if our little one would decide that jumping on our lap is the best way to kill time. Additionally we'd have 2 ways out into the isle which is handy if one of us would manage to sleep and Kabouter would need to go for a stroll or a change or so.

I had read about rewarding your child with a new present or activity each hour, but Kabouter was too small to understand the concept of "an hour time" and the anticipation of waiting for a reward.  Nevertheless I had tried to get new toys for him only to make available one by one at a slow rate where I hoped the novelty would keep him occupied.   He got a baby headphone so he could also listen to the entertainment system, if he'd only want to keep the headphone on his head for more than 30 sec.   I had a new little puzzle, coloring books and sticker books , new apps on my ipad, ... together with some of his favourite reading books and a stuffed animal and a little car.

So how did it go?

It went very very smoothly.  Kabouter had by now already the habit of making shorter flights and understands the drill of sitting with his seat belt on my lap at the start...waving to the other planes outside and to the other passengers and commenting, ...  On the transatlantic flight he had right away found the entertainment system with touch screen. So we were off for half an hour random pushing on the screen opening and closing the different menu options.  Then he watched a cartoon for a while.
During the rest of the flight, he played with his car a lot and I had underestimated how much room a little one still has:  since we allowed him to crawl in and out his seat , he was riding his car on the floor, under our legs, on our legs, on his chair, on our armrests, .... But he had room to move around and didn't feel locked up.  Similarly we then alternated with coloring a bit, reading books or making a puzzle.   The meal times were a welcome interruption as well.

when it was already way beyond nap time (our day had started early) you could see he was tired and more clingy and finally after a long time on our lap with some encouragements, he did drift off for a good long nap.   And then it all started over again.

on the return flight (at night) we had tried our best to only give him a short nap during the day, hoping he'd be quite tired by the time we left. I was getting quite impatient and frustrated that meal time took so long (in my mind) and that afterwards there was still a long time for them to come by with tax-free products and this and that before the lights in the cabin would get dimmed.  Until then Kabouter was clearly tired but not showing any attempt yet to lay down for a sleep. Fortunately he was still his happy self. Finally after more than 4 hours into the flight and a long time being rocked on my lap, sleep won and sleep conquered him for over 4 hours. Pheeewww, mission accomplished.
Right at that moment, another baby 2 rows behind us started crying and has kept crying until we arrived back in Europe.   Lesson learned: each child is different and it can go quite wrong on a flight as well. I pitied those poor parents so much. It must be infernal.

But Kabouter now has over 20 flight lapses on his frequent flyer list (pooh, the programs don't take toddlers his age yet) and he is a super trooper globetrotter.  All the stress and doubts we've had beforehand turned out to be unnecessary.
Question is however how he'll behave in 1 - 2 years when the sleeping is once more less and the whining will be much more vocal when he's bored.

Car trips:
Canada is a huge country so it always triggers long car drives if you want to get to places. We had put our desire to cover huge new territories on this trip into the freezer and had designed an itinerary with max 4h driving per day.  Combined with some stops, that seemed quite reasonable so i wasn't worried very much to complete our roadtrip with a toddler.

And indeed, it wasn't a real issue.  There was always part of the road where Kabouter fell asleep for a nap  (usually just before an intended lunch stop or so which made us drive on with hungry stomac).  Yet I underestimated that keeping a little one entertained even only for 2 hours while strapped up in a car seat can be harder to do at some days , especially when the novelty of the trip has worn off.  With hindsight it's easier to play & entertain a little one if he can crawl out and in a plane seat than to play and entertain a strapped up one in the back seat while sitting yourself in the front seat and not always having the opportunity to pull over for a stop wherever whenever. But besides some whining now and then and bending backwards to try to fish the fallen toy from the car floor for the 34725th time, we had no issues at all either.

Always having a bag of cookies at hand does help.

We rented the child seat from the car rental company.

Other transport: 
Kabouter is turning out such a stereotypical boy that is in love with trains, busses, boats, ... so taking a great variety of public transport is the highlight of the day.

Toddlers are in general intrigued by the world and very curious. As long as you offer them variations, some playtime (playgrounds in park or simply running & chasing games on a grass field, ...), the reassurance of your calm and happy presence and attention in these ever new environments, I find it no issue whatever to take a toddler on excursions and visit cities or nature parks, ... Just use some common sense: if you expect a little one to sit still concentrated during a posh opera that takes 3 hours, I can guarentee you will be in trouble.  So of course we try to do our visits that are more or less baby friendly, yet that doesn't mean we only do baby excursions/attractions.

Jetlag/time zones: 
I don't think you can generalize how one child responds from another. We even experienced that he took this trip (9h timezone difference) quite differently from previous one (also 9h timezone difference).

In California we all arrived exhausted, slept like a rocket the first night and then just picked up the new rhythm like a breeze as of the 2nd day.  However after our return back home, we had a hell of a week where Kabouter has cried each night confused and awake for a long time (but each night a bit earlier until it had worn off after 7 days). So I had prepared myself for another hellish week of fatigue.

yet this time we all felt more tired in the first week of our vacation and Kabouter napped more during day time and always woke up briefly during the night (which isn't the case anymore at home).  In the 2nd week that settled.  When arriving back home, he cried for one night  ("oh christ, there it is...brace ourselves....") but only woke up briefly twice the 2nd night and slept through the night at seemed totally adjusted as of the 3rd night already. wow, that was way better as I still struggled with jetleg and waking up at night for the entire week.

Ha, so jetleg seems unpredictable, but it can be a hell and it must be very confusing for a little one who doesn't understand.

(other mom's reflection on travel with kids can be read here by Erika Van Thielen and here on Mijn Kwintenssens, both in Dutch)


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