Pediatric Associates of the NW Blogs

Traveling With Young Kids: A Parenting Adventure

Scott Spencer, MD, MPH
January 17, 2017 09:30AM

Ahh, vacation: A chance for relaxation, sleep, good food. 

Wait. Vacation with kids? I think of airport stress, long car rides, multiple bathroom breaks.

It can be tough. Here are some tips to make travel with children less of a trip and more of a real, enjoyable time to rest and recuperate:

Being new parents in Alaska, we spent our son's first two years learning to travel with him comfortably and safely by plane, car, boat, foot or ski. Seeing the beauty of Alaska or flying to the “Lower 48” to see relatives in Portland meant providing entertainment, assuring nutrition, enabling good sleep and preventing meltdowns. Often this also meant braving the elements and assuring warmth and dryness in our son’s little body. Though I had my pediatric training behind me, it didn’t necessarily prepare us for all the travel challenges. Along the way and through trial and error we picked up a few things that I hope will help you in your next adventure!

The longest journey we took with my son was when he turned two. We drove the Alcan Highway for three days, followed by four days on the Alaska Ferry from Haines to Bellingham, Washington. Aside from packing nutritious low sugar snacks, new toys, comfortable clothes and lots of diapers, we also considered and made the leap to introducing THE SCREEN. At the time, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended no screen time under two years old. More recently, the AAP says that “Some media can have educational value for children starting at around 18 months of age, but it's critically important that this be high-quality programming,” like that on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Read the entire recommendation on the AAP website

We started with Thomas the Tank Engine and he loved it, but, we noticed that 30 minutes a time was about his limit of ability to watch. More than that was frustrating for him. We also tried the movie Cars, which backfired. The media was way too fast paced, that it caused him to get upset. If we had only gone to the website commonsensemedia.org, we would have learned that Cars is recommended for kids ages five and up!  So, check your content or even preview with or without your child before letting them watch. And for ages two-five, I would recommend at the most one hour at a time.  

Despite the trial and error of the screen, it was an amazing trip. We saw wildlife, breathtaking views and even woke our son up at 2 AM to see the Northern Lights dancing over Haines Junction, Canada.  But, in true Alaska fashion, we also experienced multiple snow storms and subfreezing weather– much like what just happened in Portland this month! But living in Alaska had prepared us to dress our small child appropriately. The book Babes in the Woods, is a great resource for advice on outdoor kids’ clothes and many other outdoor survival tips!   The authors make the point that high quality kids gear is expensive, but worth the investment for comfortable travel, and is durable and useful for many years!  

It wasn’t all hard core outdoor life in Alaska.  Earlier on my wife and I traveled with our then 7-month-old to Hawaii.  Sleep was a BIG priority. And the prospect of missing one to two naps per day on the flights struck fear in my heart! It certainly crossed my mind to give a medication. The most common medication for sleep on flights is Benadryl, the generic name is Diphenhydramine. Experts differ on the recommendation to use Diphenhydramine for children before flights or travel. The medication is an antihistamine used to treat allergic reactions, but has a side effect of making children drowsy. However, 5% of children will have the opposite side effect and make them hyper.  

There are also medical conditions where Diphenhydramine can have serious complications. Therefore, contact or make an appointment with your provider at Pediatric Associates of the Northwest (PANW) before using Diphenhydramine for your child. If recommended, only use the approved dose, and try it out one week prior to the trip in case the hyper reaction occurs. Even if you don’t use Diphenhydramine for sleep, it is good to pack, in case of allergic reactions.

Other medications I recommend bringing are Tylenol and Ibuprofen – These both treat both pain and fevers. These medications can be helpful before takeoff and landing to decrease the pain that ear pressure can cause. Drinking or nursing during a flight can also help to equalize the pressure by opening the Eustachian Tube.  

Fortunately, for that Hawaii trip we didn’t have to use any medications. But what I did find the most helpful for sleep was our baby carrier. With lots of pacing the airplane isles and airports, somehow my son slept in the carrier for the majority of two flights and a stopover! Added bonus? With a carrier you are hands free.  Combining this with packing light carry-ons is a must for ease of plane travel. 

Now my son is six and my daughter is two. Lately, we have traveled closer to home (exploring Oregon) but we are gearing up for another airplane trip soon and writing this blog has reminded me of some of the necessary preparation. It takes a lot of forethought to make travel easy (well, let’s say easier) but the payoff is worth it! 

For additional information on travel tips and packing lists, check out healthychildren.org – searching for key words such as travel, sunscreen or insect repellent will bring up the latest AAP recommendations on these subjects for your next kid adventure. If you have other questions about your child or concerns about their health before or after your trip, please contact or make an appointment with your PANW provider.

Check out our Pinterest page for more cold weather gear ideas and travel tips, plus more of our favorite things for babies and toddlers.