Tips for Navigating the Holidays with Toddlers

Tips for Navigating the Holiday Season with Toddlers

Navigating the holidays with toddlers successfully is key for creating a fun, stress-free Christmas week for the entire family.

Toddlers are so excited about Christmas. All of your friends and family want to see your little ones for the holidays. It’s easy to get caught up in the festivities and find yourself running around for a solid week straight. After a few days, you’ll be completely exhausted, and your toddlers will be tired and cranky.

As the parent, it’s up to you to create a holiday experience with your toddler that makes their needs and preferences a priority. When they arrive at holiday parties and events well-fed and well-rested, everyone is sure to have a better time. Make the upcoming holiday season with toddlers a time you’ll remember fondly for years to come.

Set aside time for your own family

The earlier you establish the expectation that you will have dedicated time for your own immediate family, the more likely it is you’ll be able to stick with this schedule as your kids get older. I highly recommend making it a priority once your kids reach toddler age.

I can’t tell you how many friends I have who struggle to sneak in even half a day with just their immediate family somewhere during the holiday season. It’s great to have so many family members who want to see you over Christmas. But you also need to have time as an immediate family for your own traditions and memory-making.

Be honest with yourself about how much time you want for your family and when it makes sense to carve out this time. There is no single solution that works for everyone. If it’s important to have Christmas day to yourself, make plans with extended family on Christmas Eve or the day after Christmas. If it’s not important that your family time is on Christmas day, spend that day with other loved ones and have your family presents and big meal on a different day.

Start your own holiday traditions

It’s never too early to start holiday traditions. There’s no need to wait to start Christmas traditions until you think that your kids will be old enough to remember them. When you begin holiday traditions when your kids are babies or toddlers, they will become staple components of your Christmas festivities that they will remember from their earliest Christmases.

Holiday traditions don’t have to be involved or expensive to be fun and meaningful. Eating favorite dishes, baking Christmas cookies, and opening an advent calendar are sure to become holiday traditions kids look forward to year after year.

Tommy at the Chicago Botanic Gardens for Christmas 2018 |

Plan activities around their schedule

I know, it’s much easier said than done to plan holiday activities around your toddlers’ schedules. I am just as guilty as the next parent of bringing my toddler to Christmas events that aren’t always at ideal times. But I’m getting better at saying no to activities that don’t work or requesting to get together with loved ones at better times for my toddler.

For larger extended family events, don’t be afraid to come late, leave early, or skip out altogether if it just doesn’t work for your family. I guarantee that there will be people who won’t understand. But you need to do what works best for your kids. For your own holiday activities, such as visiting lights displays and holiday markets, you have more flexibility with your schedule. As with any activity, plan to go when your toddlers will be well-rested and recently fed.

If activities don’t allow for naps, do your best to plan for car naps

With that being said, sometimes the best way to ensure your child gets at least a little nap on busy days during the holiday season is to plan for a car nap. If you’ll be driving at least half an hour to visit family or friends or to attend a holiday activity, most likely your kids will nap one or both ways in the car. When you get an early start to a family celebration or holiday outing, you may be able to push a little later than your toddler’s normal nap time. Then they’ll be sure to sleep during the car ride home.

At family and social gatherings, plan kid-friendly activities

When you have Christmas parties and other holiday gatherings with multiple toddlers in attendance, you can work with the other parents to plan a few kid-friendly activities. When your kids will be the only kids there, most likely it will be up to you to ensure they have age-appropriate entertainment.

Having snacks and drinks you know your toddler loves and planning at least a few activities greatly increases the odds of them (and you) having a good time at the event. At a minimum, pack plenty of food and bring along a few favorite toys. Depending on the event and the number of kids who will be there, think about planning holiday kid activities, such as decorating cookies, playing games, and watching a Christmas movie.

Don’t be afraid to say no

It’s a great problem to have a lot of social invitations during the holidays. Family and friends love your toddler and want to see a lot of him/her at Christmas. However, it can quickly become too much, especially when your kids are young and still require one or two naps. Don’t feel obligated to accept every single invitation you receive. Again, you also shouldn’t feel obligated to stay to the bitter end of everyone’s parties. It’s completely fine to drop into an all-day gathering for a couple of hours. Then leave before your kids will get cranky.

Don’t force sitting in Santa’s lap

I know that the topic of Santa photos is somewhat controversial. Many parents feel strongly about getting those Santa photos and don’t want anyone discouraging them. But to me, it seems cruel to force small children to carry out your holiday wishes, especially when the experience is frightening for them. Even when toddlers do want to visit Santa, it’s unlikely that they’re very excited about actually sitting in Santa’s lap. So don’t force it.

Label their presents clearly

Toddlers are under the assumption that all the presents under the tree are for them. As such, they will happily open any and all presents. When we open presents as an immediate family, I label my son’s presents with big card stock letters with his first initial. He knows that all of the “T” presents are his presents. He does a good job looking for them and not ripping into other presents at random. For toddlers under two, consider labeling their presents with simple pictures (i.e., a teddy bear) instead of a letter.

Christmas 2018

Allow time for playing with presents as you open them

Whenever possible, especially with your own family’s Christmas present time, give your toddlers as much time as they need to enjoy the experience. Setting a strict time table and forcing toddlers to wait to play with their new toys while other people open presents is sure to create a lot of unnecessary stress and drama.

Most likely toddlers will want to play with a number of their new toys. Right this very second. Take time periodically to open their new presents, so they’re able to play with them right away. Let them play while other people open gifts. Or take a break from presents altogether and come back to them later.

Embrace the imperfect moments

Having great Christmas holidays with toddlers is not about creating stunning family photos, perfectly decorated cookies, and beautifully-wrapped presents. Inevitably, your toddlers won’t want to sit still for pictures at all, much less in front of the nativity at church. Even with the best laid plans, at least once or twice during the festivities, they’ll have a huge meltdown, usually in front of a lot of relatives. Don’t let the elements of the holiday that don’t go exactly the way you planned keep you from enjoying Christmas. Imperfect toddler moments won’t always be funny while they’re happening, but they’ll often make great stories later.

For extended car and air travel, research and implement best practices for traveling with toddlers

When holidays with toddlers include extensive car and air travel to visit extended family, traveling becomes an important part of the Christmas experience. Having smooth, stress-free travel periods makes the entire holiday week a happier time for everyone, toddlers included.

I strongly recommend saving a few small gifts specifically for the car or plane. Don’t give them to your toddlers until you’re en route to your destination. Make sure to pack plenty of snacks, drinks, diapers, wipes, and toys. If you’re driving, load up the car as much as possible. If you’re flying with a toddler who has his/her own seat, pack your toddler their own carry-on bag to maximize the items you’ll have onboard.

Plan driving times, so toddlers will be able to nap or sleep as much as possible in the car. I know that it’s all but impossible to plan flights around naps. Wear your kids out as much as you can while waiting to board the plane. They’ll be more likely to sit still and even nap once they’re in their seats.

Bring a few new presents along for post-Christmas gatherings

As a kid, there’s nothing worse than getting a bunch of new toys you’re really excited about and then not being able to play with them for a week because you head right to Grandma and Grandpa’s house after Christmas day. Allow your toddlers to choose a few of their smaller new gifts to bring along for extended days with family and friends after Christmas day.

Fellow parents, I’d love to hear your best tips for navigating the holidays with toddlers!

Share your insight in the comments!

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How to Navigate the Holiday Season with Toddlers

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