Your guide to packing for toddlers
Many travelers consider packing for a trip to be the most stressful part of the adventure, especially when little kids are involved and you have to decide what is truly essential and what isn't. There's no exact science to knowing what and how much to bring, especially if you're going on a longer trip. Weather can be unpredictable and, depending on your itinerary, you might need comfortable clothes and shoes one day and a more formal outfit the next. Adding a toddler or two to the mix certainly doesn't make things any easier.
Every kid and every trip is a little different, so preparation is key. It's also important to avoid overpacking as the extra weight is sure to cause more trouble than it's worth, especially if you're paying for checked bag fees. But being underprepared and going without crucial items isn't good either.
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Take the time to review (and then double check) what you plan to bring and whether it's a nice-to-have or a must-have item. Consider taking items that can be used for various purposes. For example, a fleece jacket can be used as a blanket on a flight. Or, a light receiving blanket can double as a towel in case of "emergency." Packing cubes are also a great option, especially if you and your child(ren) are using the same suitcase. Give each family member a different-colored set of cubes and you'll find that packing and unpacking becomes a lot less of a hassle.
Now, let's take a look at our best tips for packing with little kiddos in tow.
More than one outfit per day
When my kids were really little, I'd pack two comfy outfits per day, and I still follow that rule of thumb, to a certain extent with packing some extra items. I also bring items that can be mixed and matched. That way, if a shirt or pair of pants or shorts get dirty, I don't have to change the entire outfit.
You can get away with fewer clothes over the course of a multiday trip if you have access to a washing machine. But it's smart to pack extra and be realistic about how easily accessible a washing machine might actually be. Also, don’t bring anything that you are going to freak out over if it gets stained and you can’t wash it right away.
Pro tip: Bring an extra change of clothes for you, too, since the parents are the ones who are usually hit with collateral damage when toddlers implode into a ball of mess.
Again, bring extra, especially if you don't have easy access to a washing machine. Much like with the daytime outfits, you just never know when there will be a diaper malfunction or drink explosion and you need to switch into the backup jammies ASAP.
Toddler's feet grow crazy fast, so make sure the shoes you are bringing for a trip actually fit. Just because they did last week, doesn’t mean they will this week. Double-check, and then bring an extra pair just in case. (Here are some of our favorite kid shoes for travel.) If you are using a seasonal shoe (such as a snow boot) that your kiddo hasn't worn since last year, it's almost certain that you'll need a new pair, so plan ahead.
Pack way more diapers than you think you'll need if your toddler is still in that phase of life. On one of our first plane trips years ago with my now nine-year-old, I packed what I thought to be enough diapers for the trip. It wasn’t. We weren’t able to get the diapers she was used to where we were, and while it wasn't the end of the world, it just wasn't ideal.
So, my advice is to bring more than you think you need, even if you are going to buy some (or ship some) to your final destination. They pack pretty easily and are just about the last thing you want to run out of. Also, remember some plastic sacks to hold diapers in case you have to change one where there isn't an immediately accessible trash can.
If your toddler is potty-training, bring more pull-ups than normal and use them more than normal as accidents on the road (or in the sky) just aren't pretty.
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Lots of them. See above. And don't forget, wipes can be multipurpose. They can be used to clean messy hands, faces, tray tables or to get some food off of clothes in a pinch.
Be sure to not only pack a brush or comb that will work for your kiddo, but for toddlers with long hair — rubber bands or barrettes, too.
If your child has longer hair, these hair accessories will keep the hair out of his or her face. Whatever you use at home, bring extra. Rubber bands break and barrettes magically disappear, so having backups is never a bad thing.
Pack your kids' shampoo, soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, washcloth, diaper cream, comb, etc. Babies and toddlers don’t typically use adult toiletries, so hotels won’t always offer a good substitute if you forget your baby or toddler bath items. Make sure to throw them in the bag (contained in a plastic bag in case they leak).
When they were toddlers and babies, my daughters would both have upset skin if we tried to use adult soap and a rough washcloth for several days in a row. In the toddler years, we also didn’t want to be caught without the miracle of all miracles, Boudreaux’s Butt Paste. Seriously, we had to make a 3 a.m. run once while on vacation to try and find some of that magical stuff as our daughter woke up screaming in the middle of the night with a horrible diaper rash. It wasn’t funny at the time to us, but I am sure it was humorous to those working in the drugstore at 3 a.m. when my husband made a mad dash there to frantically search for the Butt Paste. Essentials you need at home, need to come with you.
Lord, help us all if my oldest daughter's “pink blankie” didn’t make a trip. If your kiddo has a favorite stuffed animal or blanket, bring it and guard it with your life. (And pro tip: Have a backup hidden at home, just in case.)
Toys and entertainment
Even though there may be tons to do at your destination, toddlers will often spend time chilling in the room around naps and such. Additionally, whether you are going by plane, train or automobile, toddlers need pretty much constant entertainment -- especially when strapped in.
If your toddler uses a tablet, then don't forget that, a charger and headphones. If they don't, here are some electronics-free entertainment suggestions.
Sippy cups, drinks and snacks
Thankfully, toddlers are often past the days of pumped milk, baby water, bottles, formula and baby food. However, assuming whatever food is around will work for a toddler's palate is a dangerous move. Empty sippy cups, crackers, packaged fruit, juice boxes or whatever your toddler snacks on at home are good to have on hand. If your kiddo is a milk drinker, plan to bring that along, too, as it isn't as readily available on planes and such as you might imagine.
Depending on where you are going, you may need certain types of gear. This could include items like a swimsuit, swim diaper, swim hat, goggles, floaties, jogging stroller, snowsuit, baby-sized parachute... whatever. If you're headed to a wintry climate, check out our packing tips for toddlers on a cold-weather trip.
This may not be something you pack so much as something you plan for since toddlers can be particular with routine. Some options to consider include:
- BYO pack-and-play or travel crib
- Request a crib from the hotel or Airbnb
- Bunk up together
All of these options have pluses and minuses, but think through where you believe your toddler will really sleep on the road and plan accordingly. (And don't just expect the hotel to have a crib without making prior arrangements.) Here are some other tips for keeping your sanity while sharing a hotel room with a little one.
Obviously, if your child is on medication, make sure to pack that and keep it handy at all times. But even if they aren’t on any regular medications, it is a good idea to bring some common baby meds and Band-Aids just in case they spike a fever, start teething or get a boo-boo. Again, you never know.
If you're traveling with kids, be deliberate when deciding what to pack. Too much "stuff" in your suitcase could drive you crazy. But if you find yourself in the middle of a long flight with a toddler who's just spilled an entire drink on themselves and you forgot to bring an extra change of clothes, you'll be sorry. In the end, bringing what you can to keep your kiddos comfortable will help everyone have a more enjoyable trip.
Are you planning a trip with little ones? Here are some more resources:
- Getting ready for your child’s first flight: A survival guide
- How to survive flights with kids of any age
- How to survive long-haul flights with kids
- Most family-friendly international air carriers
- How old should your child be before taking an international vacation?
- 4 things to know about U.S. passports for children
- How to survive flights with kids of any age