The Hardest Age to Travel With a Child

May 31, 2016

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Our oldest is officially a kindergarten graduate as of this week, and this means the beginning of three-ish months of freedom from homework, packing lunches, and a school schedule! Normally we have packed up and headed out of town literally hours after hanging up the backpack for the summer to get a jump on vacationing before the rest of the country catches up to our relatively early school year end date. However, this summer is a little different.

Last summer we stuck close to home thanks to our second daughter’s July due date, and she is actually the reason we are mostly at home again this summer. Experienced traveling families already know this, but in most cases the hardest time to travel with a child is from when they become squirmy and mobile by about 9 months old until they hit the age of reason bargaining/cartooning/snacking at about 18 months. Don’t get me wrong, travel doesn’t really get “easy” again until they are between 3-4 years old, but somewhere between 18-24 months it does really start to get easier.

The Hardest Age to Travel

Our sweet littlest is currently a very mobile 10.5 month old and will spend the summer smack in the middle of the “hardest age to travel”. I’m not afraid of a family travel challenge as I think there is fun to be had away from home at every age, but I’m also not (totally) crazy. Even before the recent hot mess that was our Vegas work trip, I knew enough to go light on the travel planning for this phase as our baby transitions to a toddler.

Zoinks this is a tough travel age!
Zoinks this is a tough travel age!

Just like I discourage new parents from booking non-refundable trips before their baby is born, and especially not for at least the first three months if you can help it, I also advise against booking trips during this “hardest age to travel” unless you are up for a challenge. It can be done, of course, but it may not be pretty and almost certainly won’t be relaxing.

No Smooth Sailing in the Sky

For starters, plane trips of anything longer than an hour or two will be a challenge. If you have held your snuggley baby as a lap infant up until this point it may have worked pretty well. However, as the little ones becomes curious, squirmy, and larger explorers, it will get harder. They probably won’t want to just lay in your lap snuggled or nursing for hours on end, and may push against you and fight to get down and explore…which of course is a total bust on an airplane. If they have their own seat it may be okay if they like falling asleep and chilling in their car seat, but there is no guarantee how that will translate from car to crowded airplane. My little one falls in-between these two descriptions still hating her car seat, but also probably not super thrilled to sit in my lap for an extended period of time.

While an older toddler can usually be entertained for a while on a flight with iPads, cartoons, small toys, snacks, and rewards for good behavior, a little one in the 9-18 month age range doesn’t yet really have that ability. All of those activities may work for a bit, but we are talking about probably for a few minutes at a time unless you get lucky. So, be ready with lots of activities to rotate through in order to keep a baby in this age range occupied on the plane. Fortunately nursing and/or bottles will still also buy you some time … hopefully.

No Sleeping Like a Baby

Another challenge about travel in this age range comes at the end of the day and to some extent nap times. Unless you are so lucky that I kind of hate you, long gone are the days that the baby can sleep anywhere. In this age range the baby isn’t really a baby anymore, and he or she is very aware of what is going on, where the parents are, and that the environment is quite different from home. Depending on what your sleeping situation is at home, your little one may not be used to co-sleeping and switching to that suddenly may result in very little sleep for anyone because of squirming and fear they will crawl off the bed.

However, if you try to put this very alert little one in a new crib or pack and play to sleep they may protest quite a bit since it is not what they are used to. At home crying it out for a while at night may be an okay outcome before everyone passes out, but on the road in a hotel or while sharing a house or condo with others that may not be the world’s best idea. By around 18 months I was just pulling my oldest into my bed at hotels when necessary, but prior to that age I just didn’t feel comfortable with that sleeping arrangement. If I had to travel my youngest today I have absolutely no idea how we would end up sleeping at night (or if we would?!). We have made some progress at home with sleep training (hallelujah), but I have zero faith it would translate to trips away from home at this point.

Countless Baby Death Traps

Even if you make it to your destination okay and your sleeping arrangements are workable, you still have another big issue to contend with during this hardest age to travel. To put it mildly, from about 9-18 months virtually everything is a death trap for little ones. They are mobile so can get to anything quickly, but have absolutely no idea how to keep themselves safe. Stairs? Let’s go down head first. Electrical socket? Let’s stick our fingers inside. Tall object? Let’s pull up on it and knock it over. Random small object found under the table? Let’s put it in our mouths and see if we can choke. The list of dangers in infinite, but you get the idea.

At home you probably have either baby-proofed to some extent, or at least have a “safer” zone and know what areas of the home are more dangerous and you need to pay more attention. On the road there probably is no baby safe zone and you will need to be on high alert most of the time with a little one in this age range. It gets a exhausting to chase your baby around for days on end away from home with no safer spot to put them in and relax. This is an area where having grandparents and others can help out as you can take turns on baby duty, but if it is just the parents and the kiddos on the trip then be prepared for the “vacation” to be way more “work” than it is relaxing.

Be Picky With Destinations

Of course this is where destination selection becomes crucial as some types of trips will work better in this age range than others. I think something like the the all-inclusive Hyatt Ziva Cancun beach resort we visited a couple months ago was perfect as we didn’t have to leave the resort once we got there and while the property was big enough to keep us entertained for several days it wasn’t so huge that just getting anywhere was exhausting. The beach and pools are fun with kids in this age range as even though they obviously can’t swim on their own, it can still be a fun family activity — bonus points that it should tire them out, too!

Choose your destinations wisely
Choose your destinations wisely

Our first big trip with oldest was actually to Disney World with cousins, grandparents, etc. when she was about 16 months old. She wasn’t quite fully out of this tough age range, but she was close enough that it worked out fine, and actually was a big part of what led to the creation of Mommy Points. We also had both sets of grandparents with us, so that was more than enough adults to easily divide “baby duty”.

We currently have two trips booked during this tough to travel age range. First, we have an extended family trip in July to my standby favorite of Hyatt Lost Pines. This is a situation where no flight is required, there are plenty of toddler friendly spaces and activities (like swimming!), and we should have enough adult hands on deck to make it doable. I’m still a little nervous about the nighttime sleeping situation, but it is a short enough trip with enough people that it should be okay even if S still isn’t a great sleeper. This is exactly the kind of trip that I think works best with a young toddler/older baby.

The second trip we currently have on the calendar is tougher and much more questionable. We are scheduled to take our much delayed return trip to Europe in late summer. I’ve secured suites to give us enough space, but that won’t fix a tough sleeper, and our daytime activities won’t be a simple as lounging by the pool. I had sort of hoped to leave S behind for this trip when it was booked long ago, but that probably is not going to be realistic, so we’ll either luck out and she will be just old enough to make it okay…or it will be a big Vegas Part 2 bust. In other words, this is not the kind of trip I recommend planning for a kiddo in this age range…but we’ll hopefully do our best as I really don’t want to scrap yet another trip, though that is always an option.

After that potential European (mis)Adventure, our travel calendar is pretty open until she is much closer to the 18 month mark when things should start to get easier one day at a time … fingers crossed.

Even though we will be at home much of the time, this summer will be tough to accomplish beyond enjoying the day to day much with two little ones at home. They are adorable, but an adorable handful. Or two handfuls. Or however many hands are within reach. Here’s to enjoying one of the cutest ages a child may pass through, even though it just so happens to be one of the toughest ages to travel.

Featured image by Marc Romanelli / Getty Images

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