Two weeks ago, Sally Fraser-Mackenzie shared some Tips for Trips to make our holiday journeys a little easier. Today Dana Katz shares some ideas for travelling with children who have sensory processing difficulties which make those trips a little more challenging. Enjoy the journey!
Some of my favourite memories centre around family holidays. Holidays are fantastic but getting to your destination can sometimes be quite an interesting, if not stressful and harrowing ordeal! Those of us with children know this only too well!
Travelling in a car or on a plane for hours on end can be extremely challenging for all of us. Not to mention tiring and perhaps even anxiety provoking for some. Maintaining a regulated, ‘calm-alert’ state is challenging when we have to sit still, have limited space and need to keep quiet. Our bodies need sensory input to stay calm and regulated. As adults we are generally able to override our sensory needs using top down strategies, such as cognition. We are able to tell ourselves to sit still for a while longer or not to kick the seat in front of us or not to shout out in frustration.
Alternatively, we are able to come up with other plans, that are acceptable to those around us, to get what we need to stay regulated. Children can’t do this as effectively without some help. It is far more challenging for them to use top down strategies to stay in control of their bodies. They need input through their sensory systems; touch, movement, vision, hearing and taste to help them to stay in a ‘just right’ state of arousal. If they do not get the input they need, they may become overloaded or dysregulated, and you might see some of the following behaviours:
Irritability, restlessness, avoidance behaviour (covering eyes or ears, hiding away), anxiety, increased sensitivity, distractibility, flight behaviours (running away), crying easily, before a full meltdown sets in. Try to be alert to changes in behaviour that might be signs that your child is becoming overloaded and intervene with regulating input before a meltdown occurs.
As an OT mom trained in Sensory Integration, I decided to tap into my SI basket of tricks, to try and keep my sensory seeking children happy and regulated on our long journeys.
Here are some of the ideas that have helped me:
Being prepared and preparing your children beforehand is super important. Using a visual schedule (especially for younger children or children prone to anxiety) to help them to understand timelines can be very valuable. You can plot the number of days before you leave with a picture of your destination at the end, plot the time on the journey, including rest stops when travelling by car, if you are flying: airport and aeroplane schedule from arrival at the airport, check in, meals to landing and collecting bags. The more they understand and are prepared for what is to come, the easier the journey will be.
Ensure that everyone (including Mom) has had a good night’s sleep before you leave. Being tired makes our nervous system more susceptible to sensory overload and resultant meltdowns.
Ensure that you have some regulating (sugar free) snacks, cold water and a few easy fidget toys in your bag at all times.
In the car:
- Plan regular stops at spots that have child friendly areas to run and play.
- Try to stop for meal breaks and not to eat meals in the car.
- Use sippy cups / water bottles that can’t spill and keep snack food to simple finger foods, not sticky, saucy snacks that can ooze and drip.
- Be aware of smells in the car – coffee, strong foods, these can also overload a sensitive system.
- Use weighted blankets / weighted teddies to help calm or help them to sleep longer.
- Block out overloading visual stimuli from the outside using a dark blanket / towel on the window (or some form of sun visor) so that the visual stimulus passing by doesn’t overload them.
- Be aware of the noises in the car – aircon, music, talking, radio etc…that might become irritating.
- Keep clothing soft and comfortable and unrestrictive. Try to eliminate zips, buttons and tight elastics.
- Have a box of fidgets available using your child’s sensory preferences or special toys that they enjoy; play dough on a lap tray, squeezy toys, filled balloons (helium quality) with; flour, rice, cous cous, little beads etc… and have mini textured stress balls to play with (or buy some)water and oil timers, mini lava lamps, snow globes / kaleidoscopes to look at etc…
- Mobiles / a balloon on a string attached to the back of the front seat can be fun.
- Blowing bubbles
- Books –
- Touch and feel books.
- Mellissa and Doug “Water Wow” books
- Dry wipe books
- White boards for drawing on
- Card picture books (not paper pages that can be torn by accident or in frustration)
- Spotting books
- Music and ‘dance’ – favourite music and nursery rhymes, a few musical instruments – shakers, castanets. Sing fun songs and do action songs together. NB: Don’t have music on the whole time, regular quiet time is very important.
- Provide regular snacks – chewy and crunchy are regulating, i.e. dried mango, savoury biscuits, rice cakes, fruit rolls, popcorn, biltong, favourite snacks (NB limit sugar intake).
- Suck activities: milk / tea / water bottles, drinking yoghurt through a straw, dummies, ‘Squishes’, to help keep them regulated.
- DVD’s / favourite cartoons / interactive Apps – for a short while or if you are desperate! Remember these are hard to take away once introduced.
- Audiobooks are always a winner!
- Blow Pens / “Sprayza Pens” (from Hamley’s) – to colour in pictures / shoot at targets on a page
- Scratch and sniff stickers
- Magnetic games
Ensure that all activities are easily accessible, so that you don’t have to dig around or struggle to get to them. Have a few plastic containers in the foot well filled with the things your child may need.
On the Aeroplane:
Prepare them before boarding
- Brushing and joint compression protocol
- Deep pressure massage / squashes
- Let him jump and run (up and down an incline would be best)
- Carry a heavy backpack / push the trolley etc…
- Board last
- Seat them last – let them move around for as long as possible
- Tie seatbelt quite tight
- Have a schedule of events from boarding to landing – try to find out from the airline and print visuals
- Can use ‘Rescue Pastilles’ to help with calming.
On the plane
You can use all the car ideas above on the aeroplane too. Here are some extra ‘aeroplane specific’ ideas!
- Ensure that they drink enough water.
- Have chewy sweets, gum to suck for take off / landing – if you have a baby, let them drink a bottle – to help equalize pressure in their ears.
- Have a few surprise treats packed that are new and novel, that can be used as incentives / reinforcers.
- Massage hands / feet to calm
- Squash him under a pillow or use a weighted blanket or weighted teddy
- Sit on a deflated beach ball / move ‘n sit cushion
- Bounce them on your lap while hugging tight
- Give regular (15 – 20min), varied calming sensory input while awake.
- Take him for short walks, play games, i.e. “Simon Says”, balancing on one foot, push ups, at the back of the plane / air hostess’s area …. find a spot that vibrates / shakes and let them sit there for a little while.
- Look out of windows etc…
- Plan a scavenger hunt and let him find things around the plane.
- Vibrating massagers (handheld) / toys / pens / toothbrush
I hope that some of these ideas will be helpful and will make travelling to your next holiday destination fun, happy and relatively stress free!
Dana is a mom to 2 sensory seeking kids and an SI OT with 20 years’ experience in paediatrics. She lives and works in Cape Town where she runs an inclusive preschool and an SI OT practice.