Moving Past Fears of Travelling with a Little One

I received a great question from a reader the other day, and requested her permission to answer through the blog. This is the first time I have formatted an article this way, but I thought her question (and my answers) would help other parents. Thanks, “J”, for launching this great dialogue! I hope you’ll all chime in using the comments below and offer your insight, too.

Reader question:

“Before I had my son (now 19 months old) I used to travel all the time. Spent time in Africa, grew up in South America and traveled in the US. I felt fearless and so free. Since having my son however, I’ve been nervous to travel. My husband traveled some in Europe and, similar to me, feels the itch to pack our bags and go, but with our little one it feels different. I see you travel with your sweetie and have been to so many places! My question is, what were your initial fears/hesitations about traveling with your little one and how did you move past them? Thank you so much for your time and inspiring us wanderlust mamas to keep traveling!”

I felt fearless and so free. Since having my son, however, I’ve been nervous to travel.

Beach time at Kailua Beach, Hawaii. Photo by Paul Zizka.
Beach time at Kailua Beach, Hawaii. Photo by Paul Zizka.

My answer:

Your question is timely, as I’m currently in Belize on my second trip abroad with my young daughter, who turns two in just one month. And you know what age two means in the world of travel? No more free (or dirt cheap) plane tickets. We’ll have moved beyond that “0-2” price bracket, which usually equals $0. Since what terrifies me more than travelling with my little one is not travelling with my little one, I’m thankful that our journeys have already taken us throughout Canada, to New Zealand, Niue, French Polynesia, Hawaii, and now Belize – all before she turns two.

Still, the travel has not come without some fears and hesitations. To answer your question, I’ll lay those out here, and take my best stab at an explanation of how we’ve moved past them.

What if Maya gets sick or injured while we are travelling? Will we be able to get her adequate care and attention?

This is the first fear that comes to mind. In some destinations, such as Hawaii and New Zealand, I wasn’t as concerned about receiving proper medical treatment. On others, such as the more remote islands we stayed on in French Polynesia, it was a real concern. There was no doctor on Fakarava, and any serious health crisis required a flight back to Tahiti. I just had to trust that nothing imminently serious or life-threatening would happen, and that the odds were low. Otherwise, I knew that a health crisis was more of a financial matter. Having travel medical emergency insurance for all three of us was essential (I always book this here in Canada through RBC Travel Cuts or Travel Guard). I ensured that the insurance included flights and evacuations, and kept the insurance company numbers handy at all times.

Thankfully, nothing serious happened on that trip (we had one near-miss when Maya tomahawked her way down a set of stairs, which left her with a goose-egg).

Departing Maupiti, French Polynesia - perhaps the most remote place I have ever been in my life. Photo by Meghan J. Ward.
Departing Maupiti, French Polynesia – perhaps the most remote place I have ever been in my life. Photo by Meghan J. Ward.

What if travel becomes more stressful than enjoyable?

I understand that travel, particularly adventure travel, has its fair share of challenges and stressful moments. Those often make the best stories of the trip. My pre-parenthood travels were mostly adventurous backpacking trips, and I didn’t mind absorbing some stress – a gnarly bus ride along crumbling cliffs in Nepal – as long as it got me somewhere or opened the gateway to an amazing experience.

But travel with a baby or young child is different, at least for me. My tolerance level has changed, and I have now learned that travel will be more enjoyable if efforts are made to alleviate unnecessary stress (enough challenges will come up on their own).  I say “I have now learned” because our trip through the South Pacific last winter was poorly planned. We did the best we could, with the knowledge that we had, but we struggled our way along, each and every day, growing more sleep-deprived by the minute.

A particularly bad morning in Franz Josef, New Zealand.  Photo by Meghan J. Ward.
A particularly bad morning in Franz Josef, New Zealand. Photo by Meghan J. Ward.

We learned our lessons, and for this trip to Belize we have booked accommodations with a separate bedroom, an area to hang out in as a couple and a full kitchen, and we are staying put for three weeks. Some children might cope better with moving around the way we did on our last trip, but not our little girl.

Parenthood is overwhelming enough as it is. Why make it more complicated with travel?

In a previous article I made the comment that no one floats through motherhood. I found my first year to be very challenging, especially (and unexpectedly) on the health-front. Instead of acknowledging the challenges, I tried for a long time to brush them off. After all, I thought: [insert mother’s name A here] is already running 10K races, [insert mother’s name B here] is back in her skinny jeans, [insert mother’s name C here] lives her life as if she didn’t have a baby draining her energy and patience 24/7. Am I the only mother whose baby refuses to sleep unless I’m walking, and cluster feeds around the clock?

Looking back, I was really struggling to keep my head above water. Now add a 70-day trip to the South Pacific into the mix. Insane? Yes. We could have toned it down a notch.

Hiking up Mt. Iron near Wanaka, New Zealand. Photo by Meghan J. Ward.
Hiking up Mt. Iron near Wanaka, New Zealand. Photo by Meghan J. Ward.

But, even on the most challenging of trips, I gained incredible insight into the resilience of my little girl, into the tenacity of her spirit, and the uniqueness of her personality. I found confidence in my role as her mother, in sheltering and comforting Maya through the unknowns, and in instilling in her a desire for adventure. Finally, it was through travel that we both bonded and separated somewhat as mother and child. It was through travel that I was able to allow her to start growing her wings.

Parenthood is complicated. Taking it on the road only changes the complications. Plan a trip based on the unique characteristics of your little one and it shouldn’t be much more complicated than life at home.

All grown up and drinking her juice like a champ in Belize. Photo Meghan J. Ward.
All grown up and drinking her juice like a champ in Belize. Photo Meghan J. Ward.

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Author: Meghan J. Ward

Meghan J. Ward is an outdoor, travel and adventure writer based in Banff, Canada, and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Meghan has written several books, as well as produced content for films, anthologies, blogs and some of North America’s top outdoor, fitness and adventure publications. She has a forthcoming travel memoir (Fall 2022), to published by Rocky Mountain Books.

26 thoughts

  1. Thank you Meghan for the post. I remember when my mom gave me my wings at 14 flying transcontinental alone. Never gets easier to tAke that leap but instilling a sense of adventure and wonder is something I know ill regret if I don’t do, so thank you for your honest and encouraging words 🙂

    1. I’m learning to appreciate my parents much more now that I’m a parent, and how difficult it is to truly give our kids their wings. Every little step helps! I like to think there is more risk in not instilling those values in our children. We are only helping them by empowering them in the midst of a very uncertain world.

  2. Great post Meghan! thanks for sharing your insight, experiences and ‘lessons learned’. I have devoured your blog posts since discovering it in December. I’m 33 weeks pregnant and have no clue what my adventures with a family of 3 will be like. Thanks for helping me continue to dream of the possibilities while remaining grounded.

    1. Thanks, Annique! I’m so glad you ‘found’ me, and that you took the time to comment. All the best with the rest of your pregnancy, and be in touch if you have any specific questions!

    1. Stephen, honestly, yes! If you look at the recommended articles at the end of this post you’ll see one about jet lag. So brutal! Here in Belize we’re only an hour different and it’s awesome. Nap schedules would be harder now that Maya is almost two and has settled into a solid afternoon nap. On the last trip, we could let her nap in a carrier, car seat, crib when she wanted to. The harder part was air travel – she would not sleep on the plane. Now we try to be back at our place in the afternoons, and of course we’re staying next to a construction zone. The noise has been an issue. All part of the challenge, I suppose! I know every kid is different, so some parents may not have as many issues with that as us.

      1. The luggage intimidates me a bit but it’s the nap schedule and a cranky tired little girl that fears me the most. We were going to travel west this year but I’ve talked myself into not shifting time too much.

        1. A time difference of a few hours is manageable. I find it’s actually easier to ease them into it before we even leave by gradually getting her sleeping earlier or later – even an hour will help. Luggage has never been an issue. I just share a bag with her, and extra items I generally put in my husband’s (and we carry a ton of photography gear, too!) Now the cranky kid part – yes, I can certainly relate to those concerns. We use a lot more bribery and treats when we’re travelling than we do at home – a sense of rewards – and she copes quite well. I think it’s more about making sure you book accommodations that will allow for a nap (separate bedroom, not a one-room suite), and plan an itinerary around that/take your turns as parents.

  3. Hi Meghan, thank you very much for this insightful q&a. We had our own experiences with a challenging first year of being mom and dad for our daughter (yes, Maya is not the only one who Needs to be on the move to sleep!) and a Major trip during the first two years. We travelled through Ontario and New England for one month when she was 1.5 years old and it was one of the best things we’ll ever do and did. We drove roughly 4000 miles on this trip, saw a heck of places and grew a lot as a Family. One key choice was to travel in a motorhome, we had a home base that was mobile and that was great. Honestly, we had more Problems as husband and wife than as parents 😉 Not too much! Greetings from Germany to Belize, Jan

    1. Jan, thanks for your comment. How did you find the motorhome in terms of a carseat and keeping the little one entertained? Did you have to place it in the very rear of the motorhome? We thought of renting one in New Zealand and then ended up ditching the idea when we thought about where she would be sleeping (ie. if it was raining, where would we be?) and the hassle of keeping her entertained in the motorhome when she’s sitting 10 feet behind us.

      1. Hi Meghan, the little one was seated in the front row on a child seat – actually the only option because the child seat could not be placed and secured anywhere else in the vehicle. That was perfect, she was always in the middle of the entertainment when we drove. Sleeping situation was great, we had to big beds, one in the rear (with a curtain to separate the rest) and on top of the drivers cabin. We were lucky on this trip concerning rain, but the only two occasions when it rained, she was the first wanting to go out 😉 All in all, this is really a solution I recommend for travelling with small children. Of course, we had a rather large motorhome (25 feet).

        1. I suppose it depends on your kid, too. Ours never would have slept without the containment of four walls, such as a crib or pack and play. I also didn’t know you were allowed to put a baby in the front of a motorhome! Sounds like a cool trip.

  4. Thank you so much for this post. It definitely makes me feel more capable of traveling with our 16 month old. I yearn for the adventure but am already so drained at the end of the day as it is. Thanks for sharing this, it makes me feel like we can do it!!!

  5. Travel with an infant/toddler has introduced a lot of questions for us too. I’ve wrestled with all of the ones you’ve identified above and more. In all of our travel discussions, I think the underlying issue (for us anyways) is finding compromise. There are trips I know we would love to do, trips I know my daughter would love and then there’s the challenge of finding the overlap in the venn diagram 🙂 We decided we wouldn’t give up travel as parents but have learned that it’s a very personal decision how much “discomfort” on a trip is worth the price of admission. For us, some trips are on the backburner for this reason.

    1. Ah yes, compromise. I also like to just call it “acceptance.” Accepting that travel will be different for a little while, that our needs and wants come second, and that we as parents need to take our turns so that we can go and do things we can’t do with the little one. And as you mention, accepting the level of discomfort, if it is worth it in the first place. I’ve said it a few times in the comments here, but it all depends on your particular child. Some sleep anywhere, travel really well, are easy going. Not mine (or yours, from the sounds of it!) We have learned to adapt, and this trip we’re doing things very differently.

  6. Perfect read for a new mom up at 3 am with her 6 week old for a feed! Its usually the time I’m dreaming about where our first adventure as a family of three will be!! Thoughts on camping (tenting) in the rockies with a 6-7 month old??

    1. Oh, Shannon, can I ever relate to the 3am feed/scrolling through articles online! 🙂 Thanks for reading! We certainly hope to see you in the Rockies this summer, and if camping doesn’t work out you’re welcome to stay in our guest room! As for camping though, in my experience, the younger the better. Once they get more mobile it’s trickier to get them to sleep in one place. If you’re still nursing that’s a bonus – it provides a way of settling/silencing them. It all depends on your little one and how well they are sleeping. I did write a few tips about this:

  7. We were lucky in a way, in that we live on an island in Alaska and have to travel by air if we want to get ANYWHERE. So we were flying with our son when he was 3 months old, and if you could earn miles as a lap infant, he’d probably have a few free tickets by now. My son is pretty easy, I will make that disclaimer; always pretty cheerful despite missing naps or being hungry. He’s almost 2 and we just had a horrific customs experience on Sunday; in line for 2 hours for passport control and customs, just making our connecting flight at the final boarding stage, so no chance for lunch or even a diaper change. Honestly, though, I was possibly losing it more than my son was!!

    My best advice, that I’m not totally sure is true but I like to think is at least a little bit; the more nervous you get, the more your kiddo will pick up on it and get stressed out. I remind myself that to him, Mom and Dad are “home” and as long as we are around, all is right with the world, at least to some extent. I prep as much as possible, anticipate things to be bad (ie, expect blowouts and crying the whole flight, and be prepared so you don’t have to be stressed) and go with the flow.

    Right now my few “must haves” traveling are, besides the basics: a Kindle (yes, Puppy movies the whole flight if necessary–not really into games yet), some instant oatmeal and a collapsible bowl and spoon (for when you just can’t find food–you can normally find warm/hot water), and a favorite small book. We also hoard airplane snack packages, because they are the perfect size and my son digs the pretzels and dried fruit in them. I also am a huge fan of the Lotus travel crib (10 lbs!) and the Ergo (even if they are having a fit I can still sorta function, and it contains the fit to some extent). I really think the Lotus makes life easier, having the same bed everywhere you go, and we pack it in a bag with other stuff.

    I remember being a new mom and finding this website–so I am just adding my two cents in so people know it can be done. We’re not necessarily “adventure travelers” or anything–just people who fly a lot to visit family and like to see new places when we can.

    1. Thanks for your thorough response, Dani! I agree wholeheartedly with what you have written. After 35-40 flights with Maya in the last two years, I learned to control my reactions, whether to her behaviour or to things out of my control in the airline system (which seem to be PLENTY!) . Expecting the worst sounds pessimistic, but it’s really just being realistic, isn’t it? 🙂

  8. So encouraging post! We’ve traveled 2 times with our toddler so far and everything went smooth. Hope our next moving abroad to be as smooth as our last one! Greetings, Man With Van South Kensington Ltd.

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