As a Mommy,  As an OT

When Your Toddler Has Vacation Blues

What do you do when your toddler has vacation blues or becomes homesick while on vacation? I didn’t even realize that was a thing…until we traveled with our toddler last week. Well let’s explore what it means and what you can do to help your little one who might be longing for the comforts of home.

Last week we took a roadtrip up to New York to stay attend our nephew’s baby dedication, spend some time with my in-laws and then a 5-day vacation in the Hamptons with a few of our friends and their kids.  We’ve traveled with Chase numerous times since he’s been born, including Florida, NY, Philly and CT. He’s become familiar with my in-laws’ home, which he’s visited at least 3-4 times per year. However, this particular visit he experienced his first episode of homesickness. Regardless of my husband and I being present with him the entire vacation, it was his actual home that he was longing for.  On the first night when we were getting ready to go to bed in the same room that we always stay in, Chase became upset and kept repeating “Let’s go home”, “I wanna go home”. He wouldn’t settle down to sleep and even tried to convince my husband to go outside with him, get in the car, and go home. Neither of us saw this coming, but it makes complete sense: the realization of home comfort. He was used to sleeping in his own big bed, with his nightlights and his stuffed animals and classical lullabies streaming as he drifted off to sleep. This was a different environment and thus triggered some anxiety.

Occupational Therapists may sometimes work with children to address difficulties with transitions, whether it’s transitions between activities, between classrooms, between homes etc. They also can help with children having difficulty sleeping, especially in new environments or circumstances. An OT works with the child and parents to develop coping strategies and how to effectively implement these skills. Here are 5 tips I came up with that can help a toddler cope with being in a new environment, such as vacation.

1. Validate their feelings

This may be a no-brainer for you as a parent. However, when it’s late at night and all you want is for your kid to go so sleep but they keep saying “I want to go home”, and you just want to respond with, “We can’t go home” or “home is 300 miles away, we’re staying here”. This can be frustrating for them if they do not understand the concept of geography and distance. Instead, validate how they are feeling and focus on things that are familiar. For example, “I know you miss home, and it’s ok to be sad. We can’t go home today, but remember that you have Mommy and Daddy here and when we wake up we can ___ (insert fun activity that they enjoy)”.  I pointed out to Chase that if we went home, we wouldn’t be able to spend time with Grandma and Grandpa, and this seemed like an alternative that he was ok with since he loves his grandparents.

2. Bring security items

You can’t make an exact replica of your child’s home environment on vacation, but bringing comforts from home that they are accustomed to makes the transition easier. We brought his sound machine, his favorite stuffed owl, bedtime books and ourselves…I thought that was enough, but I was wrong. What I would have done differently would be to bring his own pillow with the pillowcase. Laying your head down a pillow with your scent can really bring a sense of peace and familiarity. If you don’t have security items with you, consider going to a store (like a local target/Walmart), and have your child pick out a new comfort toy or blanket. They might also have a positive association between being  on vacation and a new toy/stuffed animal/lovey/blanket. Remember that toddlers are simple, they don’t need anything too elaborate or expensive, and something small that brings them comfort might be enough to soothe them while away from home.

3. Consider environmental triggers on vacation

Chase has an obsession with ceiling fans. He always looks for them in every home or restaurant we go into, pointing out if they are on or off. However, sleeping under a ceiling fan was apparently terrifying for him. I didn’t realize this until we were trying to put him to sleep in a room with a fan and he was covering his eyes.  Chase is also used to sleeping with a nightlight, and being in a completely dark room was foreign to him.  He ended up sleeping better in a different room that provided some ambient light and had a similar setup to his own room.

4. Try to stick to their normal routine/schedule 

When you’re on vacation and away from home, sometimes you lose track eating/sleeping schedule. However, most toddlers thrive on routine and can be thrown off when they aren’t in their normal environment nor on their normal schedule. Try to schedule activities around naptime if possible and keep to a similar bedtime. Chase tends to protest the nap while at home but will fall asleep in the car, so if we were going anywhere while on vacation, we tried to time the ride back to the house around when nap would typically take place.  This is a no-brainer for toddler parents, but ALWAYS HAVE SNACKS ON HAND.  If you’re out and about and find yourself with a mid-morning/ mid-afternoon hangry toddler, you’ll be well equipped to deal with the situation.

5. Allow for Downtime or Do-Nothing Days

If you have a whole itinerary planned for your family vacation, consider penciling a day or afternoon of doing not much of anything. This might mean just hanging at the hotel by the pool or playing at the house if you’re staying with family, friends or in a rental. While adults love getting out and about to explore and experience new, sometimes toddlers just need to stay local for a day to get acclimated to their new surroundings. It can be overwhelming for them to constantly get in/out of a car and going to different sites, restaurants each day. Downtime helps them also establish that sense of “home” in their temporary dwelling place and lessen the feeling of homesickness. While we were staying at the house in the hamptons with 4 other families, there was one day when the kids didn’t leave the house at all. The nanny offered to stay at the house while they were all napping so the adults could get away for a few hours (lucky for us there was a vineyard 5 minutes down the road!). This way the parents got to get off-base for an activity, but the kids got to relax and play at home for the day.

Has your little one experienced homesickness on vacation or the “vacation blues”? What have you done that has worked. Feel free to comment and share your ideas below!

If you’re planning on taking a roadtrip with your young children and needs some tips on what to consider when packing and traveling, check out my old post here.