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7 Helpful Tips for PCSing with a Toddler

by Erin Whitehead - September 20th, 2021

7 Helpful Tips for PCSing with a Toddler

Making a PCS move due to military orders always presents with some challenges. Making that military PCS move with children can add additional challenges. When those children are toddlers, well… let’s just say the challenges can be a bit maddening at times.

I have made a PCS move with a toddler in tow, on more than one occasion. I have traveled long distances with a toddler both with the help of my husband and completely on my own. And I survived with my sanity mostly intact. I also reached out to other families who have done the same to create a list of tips and tricks that might be of help to you if you are currently planning a toddler-friendly move! May the odds be ever in your favor…

1) What's the big rush?

Look, we all want to get there already. But traveling 14 hours a day is a recipe for disaster when you have a toddler. I am blessed with a really tolerant kid. But when an unexpected traffic jam and weather landed us on the road for 14 hours on our last PCS move, it was horrible. By hour 10 the screaming and crying in the car was at a fever pitch. By hour 12 my kid joined me in that behavior and it was non-stop until we finally made it to our pre-planned destination. Oh, how I regretted my over-confidence in booking (and paying) the hotel reservation that morning.

If you are able, take your time. You will get there. You will find a house. We all know your movers are gonna be late anyway. Set aside some extra money and plan more time than you need. Stop to eat meals at a restaurant instead of in the car. Then, when you get there early and no one had a mental breakdown at the front desk of a hotel (not that I am talking from experience here) you will be better prepared for the next set of stressors that come when you arrive at your new duty station. Read more about kid-friendly hotel options here.

2) Forget your plan

So you map it out perfectly. You will spend exactly 8 hours on the road each day. You will stop at XYZ for bathroom and food breaks. You will get to your pre-paid hotel before dinner, everyone will bathe and settle down for a good 8 hours of sleep. When you are the parent of a toddler there is one thing that will always ring true. Plans are kind of like that bag of goldfish you packed: destined to be torn open, flinging little golden crackers in every direction except the one that you intended.

I’m not saying not to have a plan at all. But be flexible. When you are packing the car, have supplies for unexpected messes and events. Weather happens. Traffic jams happen. Cars break down. Kids breakdown. Parents breakdown. A perfect plan is just asking for someone to projectile vomit in the car. Remember, you have allowed for the extra time. If everyone is just DONE… find the nearest hotel, stop for the night, get some food and sleep, and start over tomorrow!

3) Target is your friend

It’s because of that incredible dollar bin. Stock up on a million little toys and snacks that you can give to your toddler one at a time throughout your trip. Consider giving out a new toy or activity every time you cross a state line. For an added bonus, wrap them and put a new gift in their activity bag they can unwrap after a certain point in the day. It will be like Christmas and is 100% a form of bribery for not making you listen to the Veggie Tales soundtrack for the 429th time in a row. And then, when you get to your new location, they have some stuff to play with while you wait for HHG to arrive. When they arrive, they will be so excited to get their old toys back, you can toss all that cheap stuff in the garbage with no guilt.

4) Find places to play

Toddlers do not like to sit still for long. I know, I know… this is breaking news, right? Find all those places on your way to your destination where your kids can get out and play. And stop often. Use the app Roadtrippers to find playgrounds and unique sites along your route. Restaurants with playgrounds and parks are great places to let kids burn energy. Hotels that have indoor swimming pools are a great option as well, plus most of them have a really good bonus: hot tubs are wonderful for grown-ups after driving all day. Remember, you have given yourself extra time to travel, so check out that children’s museum or zoo in the town you are passing through. Breaking up the drive when possible can make all of the difference in the world. 

5) The problem with napping

This brings me to my next point. Naps seem like such a great idea when you are traveling. Two hours where no one asks you if we are there yet? No kids fighting over what movie you will play next on the DVD player? Heaven, right? Yeah… until you get to the hotel and are exhausted from traveling all day. But your toddler is ready to GO and you spend the next four hours trying not to get kicked out of the Holiday Inn because your kid is screaming and running while you beat your head against the wall.

I will do just about everything in my power to avoid any naps after about noon when we are traveling. Want to eat a tenth bag of fruit snacks while we play I-Spy for the 436th time? (In the dark… hint, everything is black or gray) Sure! You want Mommy to excitedly recite the entire Chica Chica Boom Boom book from memory with crazy voices for the 278th time? No problem! Bribe you with a litter of new puppies? I like my kids to be just as exhausted as I am when we get to that hotel!

6) PCS and potty training don't mix

No one wants their little one to regress with potty training, sleeping in their own bed or getting rid of that binkie. But the reality is that a big change like a PCS move can cause these things to happen on their own, no matter how hard we may try. It’s okay. Your kid won’t be using pull-ups when they go to prom because you put them back in them for your cross-country move. Yes, you can throw a potty in the back of the car and whip it out on the side of the road while in a traffic jam, but… but… do you really want to be wiping someone else’s behind, doing the “yeah you pooped” happy dance, and hoping no one pees on you in a mad rush to get it all set up… on the side of I-65? There is nothing wrong with putting a diaper on your child just in case.

My daughter was more than old enough to transition to a big-girl bed well before our last move. But she really, really loved her crib. We waited. When the movers came and took all our stuff, we donated the crib to another family. By the time we arrived at our next duty station, she was already used to sleeping in a big bed (or air mattress) and had forgotten about the crib, so the transition was no big deal. I have a friend who told her toddler that they didn’t have diapers at the new duty station. It worked. Use that transition to your advantage. Sorry, there are no binkies in Texas, honey!

7) Forgive tantrums

Oh, I’m not talking about your toddler. Certainly, we should be more forgiving of a little bit of crankiness with our kids when we are traveling… but we don’t want to completely derail our discipline efforts. I am talking to you, Mom and Dad. The entire PCS process is one giant pain in the behind, no matter how much you plan and prepare. Things will happen. There will be roadblocks. Emotions are running high, you are probably not as well-rested as you would like, and there is a lot of stress to go around. It’s okay not to have it all together at every turn.

Give yourself extra time, don’t be so married to your plan, wear the kiddos out… but at the end of the day if you are overwhelmed and over it, lock yourself in the hotel bathroom for a few minutes, have the temper tantrum you deserve, get a good night’s sleep… and start over tomorrow. You can do this!

Erin Whitehead

Erin Whitehead recently made her final move to Florida where she is enjoying the beautiful beaches, sweet tea, and southern football rivalries, now that her husband has officially retired from the Marine Corps.