Vacations are definitely something to look forward to this summer! Exploring new cities, discovering the national parks, relaxing at the beach or enjoying amusement parks are just some of the wonderful adventures that will create lasting memories for years to come. It’s a special time for young families.
However, traveling with children can be an adventure in itself, regardless or where you’re going. For busy parents, at times it can even feel like a ton of work to take a break from the everyday routine.
It can be especially challenging if you have a child with sensory processing challenges or one who finds it difficult to adapt to changes in routine.
One of my favorite places of all time is Disneyland! One of the best memories I have is a care-free trip to Disneyland with my husband Josh, pre-kids. It was smooth sailing all the way from Pirates of the Caribbean to jetting over to Space Mountain. The only true mishaps we had were when our jeep broke down, but wait…. that was supposed to happen when traveling with Indiana Jones. So the next trip to Disneyland was after kids. This is when we traveled with my toddler and preschool daughter. This trip opened up a “whole new world” when it came to traveling with small children.
Traveling with small children opens up a “whole new world”
Let me tell what I learned from that trip which is inspired by a memory of my toddler daughter having a major meltdown in Fantasy land (screaming, crying and lying on the castle drawbridge). She definitely looked the part of a princess in her shimmery, yet scratchy princess gown. The moments that followed the spinning tea cup ride was when her bucket for sensory stimulation spilleth over. She had had enough! Looking back, I could have done several things differently to have made our excursion a more pleasant experience for everyone!
The Best Sensory Strategies When Traveling
Here’s a list of strategies to help you and your child make the most of your travel experiences. These are my best tips, parent to parent along with some expert OT advice to help your travels go as smoothly as possible.
I’ve created a convenient packing list for the best Sensory Tools to take on your next trip. Look for the blue suitcase at the end of the post.
Sensory Strategies & Tools for Travel
- Try to schedule activities during the times when your child is at his/her best. Avoid traveling during times that your child typically struggles with.
- Keep little bodies fueled, well rested and avoid sensory triggers.
- Pack healthy snack options, protein for energy and limit overly processed foods.
- Stay well hydrated and always pack a water bottle with a straw or spout.
- Stay healthy and bring hand sanitizer and wipes to clean table surfaces, hotel room handles and your kids face and hands.
- Dress for comfort, bring a change of clothes. Pack Pajamas. Invest in quality walking shoes.
- Pack your child’s preferred toiletries.
- Consider getting an ID bracelet for your child if your child has trouble communicating or tends to wander.
- Help your child transition: Give them a verbal warning of what’s going to happen. If your child has trouble transitioning away from a preferred activity, give them a time limit, set a timer or mention a preferred activity that will be coming later. ” You have 5 more minutes, when the timer dings it will be time to …” Or “First we’re going to see _, Next we will go to _”
- For toddlers and preschoolers, say “Goodbye” to the activity. For example: “Bye Bye train, I’ll see you next time!”
- Transition from Point A to Point B. “Bye Bye train! Now it’s time to….”
- Give controlled choices. Offer your child a choice of 2 things that you would like them to do.
- Create and review a social story ahead of time. The Disney Cruise line has an amazing E-Book about what to expect getting ready to go on a cruise and the many transitions that come with the boarding process.
- Remember to pace yourselves. It’s not necessary to see EVERYTHING, take the pressure off rather than having to push to see everything. Don’t push to the point of exhaustion.
- Don’t overbook, schedule in some down time or quiet time for you and the kids.
Tools to Help Prevent Sensory Overload
- Understand that sensory triggers may be exacerbated. Avoid activities that your child is sensitive too (e.g. rides that spin may be too much for some children with movement sensitivities) or loud echoing auditoriums may be overwhelming for a child with auditory sensitivities.
- Bring noise cancelling ear buds or earphones if your child becomes overwhelmed or frightened by loud noises.
- Keep post-it notes in your bag to cover the sensors on automatic flushers in bathrooms.
- Wear a hat and sunglasses.
- Bring a sleep mask or a night light.
- Don’t forget the goggles.
- Take Deep breath in through your nose for a count of 3 and deep breath out through your mouth.
- Teach deep breathing techniques in advance. Deep breathing is the most portable and easiest tool to use to calm the nervous system. Practice with your child at times when you’re not stressed.
Tools for the Road: What to bring on road trips, planes & trains
- Use a car organizer or hang a shoe organizer on the back of seat in front of your child to easily access snacks, games, fidgets or books.
- Let your child pick out their own backpack to fill with sensory tools such as the ones listed below.
- Tactile fidget toys that entertain: Rubiks cube, Perplexus, Tricky Fingers
- Keep them busy: reusable water activity coloring pads, wikki stix, LEGOS, Look and find books or hidden picture books, travel tangram, card games (UNO, Spot it) See amazon.com and search for travel toys
- Imaginary play: small figures or dolls, stuffed animal
- Attach exercise tubing onto the arm rest or car ceiling grab bars to pull and stretch while seated. It’ll help keep your hands to yourself.
- Neck pillow, blanket or pillow.
Snacks for Energy and Calming Oral Motor Input
- Provide a variety of chewy and crunchy snacks. Chewing gum helps calm. Chewy snacks such as dried fruit or jerky not only provide calming oral motor input they also prevent “hangry” episodes.
- Sipping from a straw, sippy cup or spout water bottle is also calming due to the sucking motion while drinking.
- Extra sugary or overly processed snack foods with artificial colors and flavors can also negatively impact your child’s activity level and mood. Be observant if you notice any behavioral changes after eating certain types of foods.
- Play games such as “I spy” or the Travel ABC Game where each person thinks of something that starts with that letter. “I’m going on a trip and I’m gonna take A= apple, B=backpack” or use other easy categories such as animals or foods.
- Entertainment: Toca Boca Apps (preschool and young children), predownload airplane video players, movies and apps in advance
- Bring headphones with books on tape and calming music.
P.S. Don’t forget to download this convenient and handy packing list. These sensory tools really work when it comes to preventing meltdowns in Disneyland or wherever else you may be traveling! 🚗 😀