Toddler vs. Baby Travel

We’re back from our 2-week trip to Europe! I’ll be working on Travelogues over the coming weeks, but one of the things that’s been on my mind a lot is the shift between traveling with a baby vs. traveling with a toddler. I knew it would be different, but hadn’t really anticipated the significance of the differences. Here are some of things that stood out the most.

The Bad (sorry it has to come first, but save the best for last?):

1. Jet Lag


Julia was always a pretty good sleeper as a baby. She didn’t sleep for as many consecutive hours as some friends’ babies, but she also didn’t tend to wake up a zillion times per night, either. That pretty much held true for traveling to Europe with her last year, and for trips to the East Cost that had a time change. She would wake up at night, and possibly cry, but as long as someone was holding her (or she was breastfeeding), we all got relatively adequate sleep. She also slept great in the stroller or the baby carrier, so we could take her out and about, and she transferred well (pack and play to carrier/stroller, or vice versa) so we didn’t have to worry about moving around.

Skip to toddler Julia, who turned 2 a couple of weeks before our trip. For the first 3 nights of our trip or so, she was awake from 12-3 a.m. straight. The first night she was content to sit in our bed, singing quietly to herself and climbing around, but the second night was pure hell. She climbed out of her pack and play multiple times (which I’ve never seen her do before and which she couldn’t quite repeat the following day when I asked her to show me), yelled, and generally made herself a nuisance. I finally got her to sleep after 3 hours by holding her while she screamed and then putting her in the baby carrier to rock when she’d worn herself out. She would fall asleep in the baby carrier, but would usually wake up when transferred, so we couldn’t walk her to sleep and then take naps ourselves (which we desperately needed after those sleepless nights). Sleeping in the stroller went reasonably well, but heaven forbid you recline the seat before she was fully asleep or she would wake up mad and you’d start all over again. This was definitely the biggest struggle for both of us and I’m glad we were able to travel for 2 weeks, or we just wouldn’t have had enough time post-jet-lag to explore as a well-rested family.

2. Mobility

As an 11 month old during last year’s trip, Julia wasn’t quite walking yet, so she was pretty happy to ride in the carrier or stroller as long as she could see out. We also didn’t have to worry much about preventing her from running into cars/people/bicycles.

2-year old Julia, on the other hand, is an excellent runner and loves to walk by herself (preferably without holding hands, unless she’s tired). Her order of preference would generally be: walking on her own, pushing her own stroller, riding in the stroller, being carried in someone’s arms, and then the baby carrier o my back (not on the front, please, Mama). Luckily, there were squares, parks, beaches, and apartments where we could often let her run around by herself, but often she had to be toted around for efficiency or safety purposes. This leads me to:

3. Independence/Opinions

Babies are awesome. They are perfectly happy to do whatever you want as long as Mom and Dad are around. We took Julia to the Prado museum in Madrid for 3-4 hours last year and it was a piece of cake because she looked at the art, napped, and then crawled a tiny bit in a safe space.

Toddlers, on the other hand, must do everything themselves and have a very specific preference for every situation. Julia’s favorite words (other than “No” and “Mine”) are currently “My do it.” We had to allot a significant amount of time (over an hour) every morning to getting ready since this particularly applies to dressing and feeding herself. Traveling between sites also took longer, particularly if there were stairs involved (we sometimes went up and down the same flight more than once). This is also sometimes cute, like when your toddler eats carbonara pasta and charms all the other diners with the way she crams noodles in her mouth like you’ve been starving her, or when she feels okay leaving you to chase bubbles in the square with other kids.

The Good:

1. Engagement

Baby Julia had an attention span of about 2-3 minutes most of the time. That was perfect for distracting her when she was upset, but also made entertaining her for long flights more difficult, and meant that she wasn’t that interested in any particularly activity we were doing.

Toddler Julia did really well entertaining herself on the flights (and on train rides/at dinners). Yes, it absolutely took more effort from me to make sure we had a variety of toys/games along and to get her started on them, but she could pay attention to a task for a longer period of time with light supervision. She was also much more interested in what we were doing and ready to engage with the activity. She loved pointing out colors for me at the Monet Museum (Musée Marmottan Monet) in Paris, interacting with other kids at playgrounds and restaurants, and talked about what she had seen and done like she had really enjoyed it.

2. Communication

Babies coo and smile at you, and Julia was using a few signs during our trip last year to communicate basic needs (milk and more), but one of the cutest things about toddlers (and what keeps me sane when the jet lag crazy kicks in) is their hilarious chatter about everything. For example, our road trip through Normandy included seeing lots of farm animals (cows, horses, sheep, chickens, etc). If she missed seeing something from her seat, we would tell Julia to keep her eyes open for more of whatever it was. This became a cute running joke throughout the trip where she would say “Eyes Open. More ____” without prompting. It let us know what she was interested in seeing and made us laugh, like she said she was keeping her eyes open for more cows on our first day in Paris (sorry, kid, probably no feral cows running through Sainte Chapelle). She also kept comparing everything to “At home!” As in, croissants “at home!” or another kid’s stroller “at home!” It was so sweet that she noticed that even though people live differently around the world, there are a lot of similarities between us all. Seeing the world through her eyes was particularly fun once she could tell us what she was thinking.

3. Eating

This is actually sort of a tie: Baby Julia was either breastfeeding or eating very small pieces of our food if we could manage to get something soft or puréed. That made feeding her easy since it could happen on the go, but it wasn’t necessarily fun. Toddler Julia, on the other hand, is reasonably open minded about food and wanted to try some of almost everything we ordered. This made dining with her more of an experience. Watching someone taste amazing Italian or French food for the first time is awesome, and everyone around us enjoyed her appetite, too. She had foie gras, paté, and mussels without blinking an eye. Could I guarantee that she’ll eat them willingly again tomorrow? Nope, because she’s a toddler, but I love that she enjoyed trying new things. One note about eating with a toddler: if you would typically slip them a fruit/veggie pouch or another healthy-ish snack, you might have to be flexible when in Europe. There were pouches available in some of the larger grocery stores, but they tended to be all fruit (primarily apple-based), so you won’t be able to sneak veggies in that way. There didn’t seem to be any naturally-sweetened finger food (something like Puffs or Melts) either, and the children’s biscuits available had a lot of sugar, so I skipped them and got Julia some horrible whole wheat crackers that we all hated. I also accepted (and somewhat looked forward to) the fact that gelato/ice cream is a perfectly acceptable late afternoon snack in Europe. Julia probably had more sugar over our 2 week stay than she’s had in months, but it was delicious. Sorry, dentist!

Things That Seemed Similar (short list):

  • Europeans’ treatment of children – everyone in Europe loved both Baby and Toddler Julia and complimented her on her behavior. We were able to jump several lines and interact with locals more because we had a child with us on both trips. This was rewarding and really made the vacation extra special.
  • Amount of clothes needed – at 1, we had to worry about blowouts and dribbling food, so we needed extra clothes for when laundry wasn’t feasible. At 2, we needed those extra clothes for when Julia slid down hills and dug through rocks and got her clothes insanely dirty/wet. She’s also still not a particularly precise eater and has earned the self-given nickname “Chocolate Face” for a reason, so there was still a lot of food everywhere.

Overall, traveling with a toddler was a LOT more difficult than I was expecting. It was primarily the jet lag (which increased the severity of independence-related tantrums), but having a curious and mobile little one around means that you don’t really get breaks like you may have with a baby. That being said, I don’t regret our decision to bring Julia along at all, although I’m supremely grateful for the babysitter we had for 2 nights. It was amazing to see things through her eyes and I enjoyed her commentary on everything immensely. I can’t wait to see what the next age group will bring in terms of travel surprises.

Did you noticed big differences in traveling with your kids in different age groups? What made it more difficult or easier?


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