Family Vacation: 7 Things You Must Pack in Your Bag O’ Sanity

Traveling with Young Children?

What parents should pack in their carry on bag on the next vacation trip

Dr. Robyn J.A. Silverman

It’s happened to all of us at one time or another. Whether it was our own child or someone else’s, we’ve all been confined in a plane, train, or automobile with a child who just never settled down or with parents who were dangling on their last shred of sanity and the prognosis didn’t look good.

Today, the New York Times was talking about being prepared when you visit someone else’s house with children– which reminded me of an incident that my husband and I will never forget when we were traveling. Not too long ago, after a conference where we presented in front of a large group of educators, my husband and I got onto a plane and realized that we were sat across the aisle from one another —me, next to a set of grandparents and a young baby, and my husband, next to an already wound-up mother and her very energetic 2 year old daughter.

During the flight, the frazzled mother tried to keep her child from launching herself over the plane seats as she jumped up and down, threw off her socks and shoes, and yelled “I want that!” with a voice that carried clearly throughout the plane. The father, who was at best, useless, was sitting with his two sons behind my husband, the mother, and the hyper child. Hearing the ruckus but not wanting to take any responsibility for it, he rustled his newspaper and passed his wife a family-size box of Oreos saying “here, maybe these will keep her quiet.”

I know. Those parents who prepare meticulously for long trips are likely cringing right now. Oreos? Don’t give that girl any more sugar! Perhaps needless to say but for pure entertainment, the toddler ate half the box and then proceeded to lick the remaining Oreos and stick them on her mother’s face. All the while, she was yelling—loudly—to anyone who would listen.

What was wrong with that child? Many of you are probably shouting “too much sugar!” while others are shouting “not enough discipline!” But what was perfectly clear was that the child was bored and the parents were dreadfully unprepared. Long trips necessitate planning. Why? Because the longer the trip, the more likely you will face messy delays, confined spaces, and hungry faces. We remember to pack our scuba gear and our underwear but we may overlook some of the most important items that can make things much easier…for everyone involved.

So, what should you pack in your bag-o-sanity? After some research, I’ve found that the items fall into 7 categories: Digestibles, Toys, Clothes, Necessities, Books, Cleaning agents, and other things that could only fit into a category unto itself “Genius Miscellaneous.”

  1. Digestibles: Leave the sugar at home. Granola bars, clementines, bananas, cheerios, animal crackers, juice and water are great choices. To keep the sugar factor down further, mix the water and the juice together to dilute the potency. These foods are all easy to handle and drinks can be easy too if you remember to bring your child’s sippy cup.
  2. Toys/Entertainment: Think compact. Toys should not take up that much room in your “bag o’ sanity.” Nesting cups, legos that snap together, children’s playing cards, small dolls with layers of clothes can occupy a child’s imagination for a significant portion of your trip. Even paper and crayons can go a very long way. Packing some toys or games that the child has never seen before or hasn’t seen in a while can keep a child’s attention for even longer. Of course, if you have a portable DVD player, you can ask your child which movie s/he would like to pack, and view it when all else has failed.
  3. Clothes: Comfort is dependant upon being warm, clean and dry. Putting your child in his “feety” pajamas (if they don’t mind their feet being covered) before the trip can ensure a comfortable trip and may even encourage sleep along the way. An extra change of clothes is invaluable because it can be used for additional layers as well as your first course of action if a spill occurs. Of course, you want these clothes to be easily accessible so that you don’t need to go into the overhead bin or the trunk of the car to retrieve them. This goes double for extra diapers. Time is of the essence when trying to keep a child from crying, screaming or yelling during a vacation trip!
  4. Necessities: All the comfort of home. Don’t forget to pack small packets of tissues, antiseptic hand gel, hand cream, band-aids, and Tylenol (for you and for your child). In addition, if you are used to using pacifiers with your child, make sure that you bring at least 2 or 3 on your trip in case one gets lost. Beside soothing a child, a pacifier or other toys to suck on can be helpful when ears get clogged during the altitude changes. For older child, gum can work just as well. Bring Zip-lock baggies or small trash bags for dirty clothes, dirty diapers or left over food. Your child’s favorite lightweight blanket may seem like an extravagance but to a tired or sick child who regards his blanket as his buddy, it is a necessity.
  5. Books: If your child is old enough, have him choose which book(s) he wants to bring. Books are a great way to keep a child calm and focused because it is an intimate and often “snuggly” activity. Books on tape can also work if you are juggling more than one child at a time. The great thing about books is that they can be read more than once—and you are almost guaranteed that you will know the text word for word by the end of the trip. It ain’t Shakespeare but it can be a far more productive skill to be able to quote “Elmo goes to the Circus,” at a moment’s notice, don’t you think?
  6. Cleaning agents: Oh, the magic of wet wipes. No parent should be without them—especially on a trip when you are confined with your child for hours at a time. There are bound to be spills, dirty faces, stained clothes, and filthy surfaces to wipe down. Of course, if you have a baby, I am sure you can think of some other uses.
  7. Genius Miscellaneous: This is really the magic of being a prepared parent. Feel like we have already covered the basics? Just wait. For parents who have a baby and need to heat up milk on a plane, just ask for a cup of hot water and place it in the thermos you remembered to bring. The bottle can easily be placed in the thermos and heat to the temperature that you desire. It is also advisable to pack bottles with disposable bags so that you do not need to worry about washing the bottle out during the trip. If your baby or toddler is in a carry car seat, you know that you must keep the handle down during travel. Pack some Velcro and hang a bunch of toys on the seat in front of the child and behind the child. You can even connect the toys from one seat to the next and make a make-shift mobile. Plastic cups can also be useful for small finger foods like cheerios so that you don’t have the urge to vacuum the floor once you have arrived at your destination.

One last thing that can make all the difference; an extra set of hands. Grandparents can be an exceptional distraction for children and a godsend for parents who need a break. If you are a single parent or do not have the kind of parents you would like to include on your vacation, bring a friend. While this may mean “extra baggage” on your trip, when one child needs to go to the bathroom and the other one is in a deep sleep, an extra set of hands can be worth its weight in gold. After all, you deserve a vacation too!

Have a wonderful weekend!