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  • Writer's pictureMacaile Hutt

Sensory Smart Travel

With lots of fun holidays just around the corner, many families will be piling in the car to drive to grandma’s, to see the cousins, to chase warmer weather, or to visit an out-of-state family member to spend the holiday festivities together. As much as this can be a fun and exciting time filled with traditions and new memories made, being in the car for an extended amount of time can also heighten anxiety for parents and children alike. As a pediatric occupational therapist, I hear a lot of these anxieties and fears spoken aloud, along with horror stories recounting road trips gone wrong in the past. I have created a short list of sensory-smart travel strategies to help your holidays run more smoothly. Happy (almost) Holidays from all of us at Star Speech and Occupational Therapy. We are all in this together.

  1. Prepare children in advance: Start talking about holiday travels enough in advance that it doesn’t come as a complete shock when it’s time to go. Read stories about traveling, watch movies or television shows that depict positive family travel experiences, and google “social stories” for long car or airplane rides if your child needs increased visual reminders and information about what’s going to take place. This can help decrease some of the child’s anxieties surrounding travel and help avoid meltdowns that seem to be “out of nowhere” but might actually be due to unexpected changes in routine and inflexibility.

  2. Bring fidgets and “car smart” activities: Create a fun bag of activities that are safe for the car and don’t include a lot of tiny pieces and parts that could get lost or dropped. Bringing a lap tray (or even using a lunchroom style food tray with divided sections to use as a cheap lap tray alternative) can help assist with lap activities and avoid meltdowns when items are dropped or unable to balance on the child’s lap. Allow your child to help create this “activity bag,” perhaps allowing him or her to choose a couple dollar store toys or items to add to the bag and look forward to playing with in the car on a long trip.

  3. Snack Smart: Try not to change food or drinks too much outside of the norm, and be careful not to snack too much in the car, as over-eating with vestibular input (movement of the car) can lead to getting carsick. Often times, families will stop at the gas station or stock up on fun “road trip snacks” including lots of sugary candy and out of the norm chips or cookies. This change in a child’s typical diet can lead to blood sugar changes, headaches, and tummy aches. If a larger meal is eaten during a road trip stop, take even just 15-20 minutes before getting back on the road to let food begin digesting and avoid the dreaded carsick outcomes. Also, if your child does struggle with car sickness, it isn’t a bad idea to keep a bowl or trash bags on hand just in case a potential disaster could be avoided. Keeping baby wipes and paper towels on hand can also help with spills and accidents.

  4. Use weight or compression: Adding a weighted vest or blanket can help reduce the instances of getting carsick, as weight and compression help to increase our body’s proprioceptive input, which is a fancy word for where your body is at in space. You can also get weighted stuffed animals or just bring a stuffed animal that the child is encouraged to hug when he or she is feeling sick. I’ve even seen backpacks filled with a few books or other items used as a last resort, worn backwards so the backpack rests on the child’s front. This light weight and compression helps a child’s body regulate even when there is external movement from the car taking place. My favorite brand for weighted vests and blankets is actually local and can be found at

  5. Take body breaks: Encourage your kiddos to bunny hop from the car to the gas station bathroom, or stop to wheelbarrow walk in the grassy area near the restaurant you stop for dinner. Adding short but effective “body breaks” can not only help your child regulate, but also help wear them out enough with heavy work to be more compliant with the car ride portion of the trip. Adding big body movements whenever possible is a simple and efficient way to help their bodies get the wiggles out and accept longer bouts where they’re expected to sit still. Come up with a code word to use when they are in need of a body break and try to take the breaks before a meltdown happens, not during or after. Also, teach your child(ren) ways to move his or her body while sitting in the car. Some of my favorite options are chair “push-ups” in which he or she places their hands on the armrest of their seat and then presses up to extend arms/elbows and repeats as many times as needed. This movement provides joint compression, as well. You can also give light resistance to his or her legs while he or she presses against you, almost like a leg extension at the gym. Be careful not to apply too much resistance; just enough to get their muscles working and help get the wiggles out while stationary. You can “bike in place” to get the legs and core involved, have a “shadow boxing” match, or do the macarena! I’ve even seen success with families bringing 1-2 pound hand or wrist weights and using them to perform seated “work-outs” while driving. Encourage your family to have a dance party and share their silliest moves, taking turns copying one another as you make your way around the car.

The holidays can be a really exciting time, but some of the logistics can also be stressful and overwhelming. I hope that some of these tips can be helpful and make your time in the car or on the plane more enjoyable, so the memories stand out more than the meltdowns.

Happy traveling!



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