Traveling with Intense Children – It Can Be Done!

We have 3 kids, two of whom have significant sensory sensitivities.

We also have family scattered across about 20,000 miles, so we end up traveling. Long distances. With multiple children.

And it works. Some days are rougher than others. International flights with nursing, stranger-anxious twin toddlers comes to mind. Being stuck in traffic going through Staten Island with an inconsolable 8 month old also comes to mind — as well as moments like when the contents of the sweet potato pouch squirted all over the stranger next to us on the plane. (Sorry!)

We’ve learned a great deal about travel with intense little ones over the years and have come up with four basic principles of travel.

1. Take Your Time

When we schedule out travel, we plan for extra time practically everywhere we go. Our ultra-sensitive kids pick up on our stress if we’re in a hurry, and they also need down time to adjust to new situations. At the airport, we make sure there’s plenty of time for airplane watching, potty breaks, or, if we’re lucky, even an airport play area. It’s so important for kids to be able to move, to get that excess energy out, and to get the sensory input they need to help regulate their emotions.

When we drive, we plan for stops that allow for sensory input as well, whether that means finding a playground, running through the field at a rest area, curb jumps, an indoor play place, or the rocking chairs in front of a Cracker Barrel Restaurant.

2. Maintain Your Rhythm (Schedule)

Some kids seem to be ultra-flexible and able to shift wake ups, naps, meal times, and bedtimes without much of a problem. Our children are not. Instead of trying to force them to be something they’re not, we work with their schedules, planning flights and car trips around when they will be happiest.  Otherwise, we end up with 2 year old A, who was *supposed* to have napped on the way to the airport, serenading all of JFK’s terminal 4 with how happy she was to be there.

In the same way, we DO NOT push our kids’ naps or bedtimes back to squeeze one more thing in. It’s not worth it. It’s better to try 3 rides at Dutch Wonderland (amusement park in PA) and still be happy than to try to squeeze in 5 and then have competing meltdowns from various children. This is a mistake I made fairly often for a while. My kids were enjoying themselves, and I was too. What’s the harm in staying a bit longer?



Otherwise, you’ll get the looks I did in Dresden last fall while pushing my double stroller over the cobblestone streets, holding one of my screaming two-year-olds down while she tried to escape, racing to catch the streetcar, in hopes of averting a total and complete meltdown.

3. Make the Unfamiliar Familiar

When we travel, we find small ways to bring home with us, especially for bedtimes. I pack their small blankies, one (small) comfort object, maybe a favorite book, trusted nighttime water bottles, night lights, and pillowcases.

I also let them help me pack their bags, starting with a packing list (downloadable, editable .docx file) that we go over together. This ensures that they will feel ownership of whatever items are in the suitcase and will be more willing to wear them. We try not to do new clothes on trips. Instead, we give them a “trial run” at home first to make sure they’re accepted.

Their grandparents also let them choose, over Skype, a stuffed animal or toy to be put on their beds when they arrive. That way, they immediately see a familiar object that helps them connect with where they’ll be sleeping.

When navigating public restrooms, we sometimes bring stickers or post-it notes to put over the automatic toilet flush. This reduces the anxiety of unexpected noises. And I make sure to have napkins or similar in my purse to avoid those scary automatic hand dryers.

We also try to help them anticipate the people and places we’ll be going. We make picture albums or slide shows of people we’re going to visit and tell stories about them to make them seem familiar. In fact, I make picture books of our trips (thanks, Shutterfly!), and we read them again before we go. We look at pictures of where we’re going. When we took our oldest to NYC for the first time, I found a picture book called Miffy Visits New York City that we read again and again. When we got there, he was so excited to identify the various landmarks. Now that he’s older, we look at maps, let him read travel brochures, or even anticipate different types of architecture he may see and get books related to that.


4. Plan For the Trip Home

Often, the hardest part of the trip is the way home. The adrenaline is spent, nerves are wearing thin, and sleep may have been less than ideal. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to plan for the trip home. When we pack suitcases before our trip, I reserve one of the outer pockets for my “trip home” stash. I include favorite snacks, new activity books, maybe a small craft they are going to love.

We talk about the trip and what to expect, seek to support our kids along the way, and help them transition home, knowing that re-entry is often also hard. When we get home, we plan as little as possible for about two days to come down from the excitement and get back into a routine.
And, if all else fails, we ask for grace, and go with the mantras,

  • It’s only temporary.
  • We’re building memories.

Want to  know some of our favorite things to pack?  Check out the sister post here!


This blog post is part of Hoagie’s Gifted Blog Hop, Traveling with Gifted Kids. Want to read more great advice, encouragement, and harrowing tales? Click on over to read more!


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