Ways To Stop Young Travellers Getting Overstimulated (Without Resorting To Actual Sensory Deprivation)
In every discussion I’ve had about travelling with young babies, somebody will say, “Oh, babies are so easy! You just put them in the stroller/carrier and they sleep while you go sightseeing!” My policy is to take an immediate, strong, and largely unfair dislike to these people.
I’ve heard of settled babies who take the world happily in stride, then conk out for a long, predictably-timed nap, and of course their parents don’t need to take the sorts of precautions I’m about to suggest.
I’ve also experienced (don’t hate me) the joy of an alert but calm child, which still makes for pleasant journeys, even if our down time never amounts to more than twenty, randomly-dispersed minutes per day.
But this one’s for the kids who can’t contain their excitement, are unable to filter the overload, and have a nasty habit of combusting spontaneously with the slightest ignition. Here’s what we’ve learnt about managing overstimulation, without resorting (well, barely resorting) to actual sensory deprivation.
1. Book quiet destinations in natural settings
So let’s kick off with the sensory deprivation. I love a good, bustling city, but what I really love is not having to spend my whole holiday coping with an adrenalin-fuelled child, especially in meltdown. Have you ever been tempted to shout, “Head for the hills!” when a two-year-old starts a tantrum? Now’s your chance to take that literally.
2. Go deep, not broad
It’s exhausting for a toddler to do a brand new thing every day, but much less tiring to visit the same attraction for a second time. We’ve developed a fondness for places which sustain multiple viewings.
This is easy with attractions like big, city gardens which have free entry (plus or minus small fees for special areas or activities to add variation to each day), and you can always spend just one more afternoon at the beach/on the ski field. Large museums, big, historical buildings, and hop-on-hop-off bus tours can also work if you watch the ticket prices.
Failing that, try cultivating an amateur interest in photography, videography, sketching or sound recording. Then you and your toddler can both spend hours (if not days) examining the same, compact scene from every conceivable angle while your travel companions grow increasingly frustrated and restless in the background.
3. Familiar Anchorpoints
The sights may be new, but that’s less of a problem if they’re anchored in the familiar. From keeping usual meal times and bed times (helps to stick near your own time zone), to bringing favourite toys and books, to following the little rituals that accompany each transition, there are many ways to help a child gain respite from the strange. And games, too! Remember there was that whole thing on games for this.
4. Split the party
Let’s pretend you want to see something crazy-exciting. Is there a reason you have to all do it together? Maybe the more intrepid travellers can go one at a time and compare experiences later, allowing the less intrepid to laze peacefully by the pool, not threatening a meltdown. Want company? Travel with more people and you can split into whole subgroups. Travel with certain people and you’ll feel glad to just leave the hotel.
5. Eat right
Restaurants can be busy and noisy, and foreign ones can serve weird food. When we travel, we aim to eat out only once a day, with the other meals eaten at our accommodation or the park. Some days we’ve eaten serially, with the non-eating parent walking “junior” around outside, then swapping over.
Returning to the same restaurant each day can give an extra sense of stability, plus an extra sense of welcome, depending on how you tip on the first day. We also allow the kids to order food they’re familiar with. Never let it be said that you can’t live on bananas, toast, and boiled eggs for a week. P has done it.
6. Expect clinging
A stroller-friendly child may need a carrier. A walking child may want a stroller. An independent sleeper may want a spot in the same room, or even the same bed. Spoon-feeding may make a reappearance. I swear letting them wear their favourite shorts for the entire holiday can even help, although my real motivation that time was accidentally forgetting to pack P any changes of shorts. In any case – expect clinging. Be ready. Go with it. Use special equipment where necessary. It won’t last forever.
7. Anything it takes to protect everyone’s rest
Most parents already plan rest periods into their normal days, and it won’t be too much of a stretch to extend this practice to vacation time. Booking a well-situated hotel (close to sightseeing and transport) makes this easier, as does staying at a place with a garden, pool, or just a living room. Failing that, it’s handy to develop a mental model of the city built around parks and green spaces, for pit stops.
Overnight, ear plugs, designated sleep-ins, apartments or adjoining rooms, cosleeping– well, as far as I’m concerned, just whatever. Then there’s the old tricks – tight wrapping or tucking, white noise recordings, and black-out blinds made out of blankets. In other words – lots of sensory deprivation.
Last time we had one of these discussions I ended up with even more tips, which is great, because I’m the kind of person who forgets to pack shorts for my son. What did I forget with this post?
Updates – see comment thread for full story:
Amanda (from Happy Sensitive Kids) alternatives busy days with quiet days, avoids short/whirlwind trips to allow settling in time, and often chooses the same holiday destination year after year to give that sense of familiarity.
Leila (from Sensitive And Extraordinary Kids) votes for self-catering all the way.
Danielle (from Bubs On The Move) only ever plans half a days’ activities at a time, leaving the rest free for lingering or down time.
Julieann (from Browsing The Atlas) notes that a balcony can also serve as an extra living space for some down-time.
Joy (from Joy Loves Travel) reports that the unwillingness to try new foods gets better after six or seven years of age – in her experience. Hurrah! And let’s hope we’re the same.
Four Meltdown Triggers to consider when planning a family holiday.
Find more posts on travel with sensitive children.