Holiday Not-So-Fun? Seven Tips for Enjoying the Season with Your Special Needs Child


Both my boys struggle with different challenges: my oldest is on the autistic spectrum and my youngest is an alphabet soup of ADHD (with a lot of “H”), ODD and OCD. After years of therapy, educational intervention, and pure patience, at 19 and 16 they are both very functional in the world — attending Oakland Community College, working, both with realistic hopes and dreams for an independent future.

When they were small though, it was a different story.

When my oldest was in preschool and early elementary school, he was obsessed with ceiling fans. He would sit and wave his hand in front of his face because he was “making the fan.” He banged his head against his crib and later up and down on his bed. He memorized “Green Eggs and Ham” and would recite it to himself when he got bored. He would answer questions based on what he guessed the question might be; his speech therapist said he had a huge vocabulary for his age, but no understanding of what the words meant or how to string them together. As he grew older, his “presenting” issue became auditory processing disorder, and many of his behaviors settled as he matured.

While he had a number of unusual mannerisms and ways of perseverating, he never really had behavioral issues. Enter son number two. He was a 24-week micro-preemie, born at 1 lb. 7 oz. in an ambulance. We didn’t even know about him until the end of his three-month stay in the University of Southern Louisiana hospital, where he “always progressed and never regressed.” He was clearly determined to be here and has had no physical challenges — in fact, he became a competitive gymnast and extreme sports enthusiast, from skateboarding to snowboarding, parkour to rock climbing. The determination that helped him survive stuck with him, and his frequent frustration resulted in many outbursts at home, in school, in public, and at family gatherings. People were far less tolerant of his constant curiosity; the tearing apart of anything that interested him; the interruptions to conversations; and the insistence on scaling walls, furniture, fences, stair railings; than they were of his brother’s relatively more muted and explicable behaviors.

Needless to say, the holidays were challenging. When the kids were little, we lived in San Francisco and typically stayed home for Christmas but flew back to Michigan at Thanksgiving to visit family. This involved packing, airports, airplanes and confined spaces, and long car drives from one family gathering to another. The Michigan weather at that time of year often precluded being outdoors, while at home, hikes, scooters and bikes, tree-climbing, playgrounds, and the beach were all necessary outlets available to us year-round. Containing the energy of our youngest was especially challenging, made worse by Grandma believing “children should be seen and not heard.” Fortunately my sister had a master’s in early childhood education and had been a Head Start teacher, so her house was often a respite. Still,  noisy and crowded family gatherings were hard for both boys in any location.

Here are some tips that helped us get through our holiday excursions:

  1. Talk to your kids about your trip and what to expect. Explain the parts that will be fun (e.g., the moving walkways at the airport, getting to see and play with their cousins, yummy desserts) as well as what will be challenging (e.g., sitting still on the plane, being quiet at Grandma’s house, playing indoors most of the time). Talk about what quiet activities they can do and let each child pack a carry-on bag. Now is not the time to stay attached to your screen rules so if the 6,000th  viewing of Frozen or an online game on the phone is going to help you survive the plane trip or salvage some adult conversations, go for it.
  2. If you have a long plane trip, try to break it in half. For us, the mid-point between San Francisco and Detroit was Minneapolis, which made two 2-1/2-hour flights rather than one 4-hour flight to Chicago and a hopper to Detroit. This gave the kids time to run around and two flights that were about one movie long when the kids got bored with books! Tip: Pack external batteries and be sure you bring chargers for the rental car so you don’t run out of juice.
  3. Think about how to arrange seating on the plane. For us it was sometimes best to split up the boys, so we would each take one and put him at a window. We’d put our youngest, who was most likely to kick the seat in front of him, behind his brother. When they were a little older, it was easier to take all three seats plus the aisle across and put the boys next to each other, with the grown-ups switching off. If the kids all want the window seat, make an agreement about timing and when you will switch seats – but make sure they understand that it may not work exactly as you plan if the seatbelt light is on.
  4. Unless you know you are going to be very comfortable staying overnight with family, consider getting a hotel room if you can afford it. This will give your family an excuse to leave a large gathering and give you somewhere to go. Many hotels have a small indoor pool that can be a gift for expending pent-up energy. If you are concerned this might hurt your extended family’s feelings, make sure they understand your concerns are not about their hospitality, but about meeting the practical needs of your children.
  5. Talk to your family ahead of time. Make sure they understand what you are dealing with, what your children need, and how it may be different from the needs of the other kids in the family who they may see more often. Ask if they can set aside a “quiet room” in the house where you can take the kids. See if at least one family member is willing to be your ally, support your efforts, and make sure you get some adult time and respite.
  6. Scope out your recreational options ahead of time. Find the indoor bounce houses, the community pool (which may even have a water playground), the gymnastics places that offer open gym times, etc. If you are visiting a place where you grew up, your school friends who still live in the area and have kids can be an invaluable resource for the “secret” things to do with kids. If you are lucky enough to go somewhere warm, take frequent walks, go to the playground, and bring some adults with you so you can catch up while the kids run around. This can be a far better way for your family to get to know your kids than in a stilted family environment with an “adults only” vibe.
  7. Arts and crafts offer great cross-generational opportunities for bonding. Print out multiple copies of holiday coloring pages and offer crayons and colored pencils. Make ornaments for the tree or get some unpainted dreidels to decorate. “Stained glass” can be made using sheets of transparency film and markers. If space permits, consider setting up a dedicated arts and crafts table for the duration of the holiday.

These tips don’t include meeting physical challenges, which we did not have to manage, but here is a great article by a dad who travels frequently with a child who needs a wheelchair and has had a feeding tube. Real Simple also has some helpful tips for celebrating the holidays.

While you will be focused on your child, try to make sure you take some time for yourself and your spouse. Even if you don’t get some physical respite, take some mental respite. Remember that you are doing the best you can in a challenging situation. Don’t assume that the heavy sigh of a family member is directed toward your child. If someone offers to help, let them! Take the time to teach them how to help care for your child, and you’ll not only give yourself a break, you’ll give them the gift of getting to know your child better and strengthening those family bonds.

– Kathy Henry is an adoptive parent to two teenage boys. She is also a marketing consultant, business coach and copywriter who volunteers for several organizations, including the Beaumont Parenting Program.

Breastfeeding or pumping while traveling

MIAmamas nursing pod for breastfeeding mothers

image credit: Miami International Airport

Traveling with children is always an “experience” and it seems the younger the child, the more stuff you bring. Being a family that loves to travel, we didn’t slow down after the birth our first child. Our son was 3 months old when we took our first road trip, 4 months when he took his first domestic flight, and 6 months old when he traveled internationally. When we had our second child, we continued to travel. To date, our 3-year-old son has been on 18 flights; our 1-year-old daughter has been on 12 flights. I’m not saying it’s been easy, but we created fun memories.

Traveling with babies in the airport

gate check bags First, I recommend getting gate check bags for your car seat and stroller. The airlines always do a number on these items! Even though these items are usually gate-checked, the gate check bag lessens the chance the item will get damaged or dirty. I find it helpful to label my own for easy identification.

If your little one is under two, I suggest putting him in a carrier and using your stroller for older children or all that extra stuff that you are packing. The benefit of putting your little one in a carrier is multileveled. First, it keeps him content and in one place. Second, it frees up your hands, especially if you need to give the airline attendant your boarding pass. Finally, if your little one gets fussy it provides an inconspicuous means to nurse on demand.

A few other pieces of helpful advice:

  • Give yourself extra time to go through security. Seriously, add 30 minutes to your pre-flight plan because with stroller, children, and transporting breastmilk or baby items, it takes longer than the average person. I will talk about this in more detail later.
  • Just like the pilots, have a preflight checklist: Diaper change, pack stroller into gate check bag and leave at gate, have boarding passes ready, be first in line.
  • When traveling with children, you’re allowed to board the plane first, even before the first class or priority members. When they make the first announcement that they are boarding people with “special needs” that means you. I always take advantage of this because I get prime overhead storage space for the diaper bag, not to mention getting to unstrap that baby you’ve been carrying on your chest for the past 2+ hours!
  • Check the breastfeeding laws for your destination. As of the end of July 2018, every state has laws on the books to protect a nursing mother’s right to breastfeed in public. I still recommend doing some research ahead of time, especially if you’re traveling internationally.

Nursing and pumping in the airport

As I mentioned earlier, I find it easiest to nurse in the airport while the baby is in a carrier. If that isn’t your style, plan to give yourself extra time to have a quick nursing session before boarding. As for nursing/pumping rooms in airports, they are a hit or miss. Currently there are 28 domestic airports that use Mom Aboard private accommodations for nursing or pumping mothers. Here is a site to check for a list of airports with maps of the unit locations. Bonus: airports that do have these units usually have one per wing of the airport. Some airports have adopted permanent rooms in their facility. The easiest way to find these in any airport is to pick up the white courtesy phone and ask. Sometimes airports refer to these as “family rooms” and other times they will send you to a family restroom. Slowly but surely, they are catching on that pumping in the bathroom is not acceptable or hygienic.

Here are a few tips if you plan to pump and travel:

  • Bring a small insulated cooler and a frozen ice pack for easy storage. This allows you to transport breastmilk to your destination ready for the fridge or freezer within a 24-hour window.
  • Bring pre-sterilized, sealable bags that are specially designed for storing breast milk.
  • Keep in mind that if you are transporting breastmilk from the freezer in your cooler, it must be consumed within 24 hours for safety purposes. It cannot be refrozen.

Nursing on the plane

Breastfeeding on the plane can be intimidating the first time. If you’re unsure about coverage methods, I suggest that you read my previous article, Breastfeeding in public: Feeling comfortable and knowing your rights. If you’re traveling with your partner, you can take the window seat and give your partner the middle seat as this creates more privacy during nursing. I loved nursing during plane rides; if my children were fussy, I breastfed to calm them down. Swallowing repeatedly while nursing helped their ears adjust to the pressure of the altitude. Bonus: My little ones usually fell asleep during the nursing session.

Transporting baby supplies and breastmilk

Many people don’t know that food to be consumed by children is exempt from the TSA liquid rules in proportion to needs and duration of travel. For example, if you are going on a 12-hour flight, you could bring a gallon of milk if that’s what your family needs. So pack those bottles and pouches without worry! Again, give your family extra time to get through TSA and know they are going to screen all your liquids/pouches/yogurts with more care.

Breastmilk is an exception to the liquid rule with or without children present. If you are traveling without baby, notify TSA as you’re going through security that you’re carrying breastmilk with you. Make sure it is in its own bag/cooler because it must be kept separate from your other items. It does not have to be a certain number of ounces per bottle, but all the bottles (or bags) will be tested by TSA. They open the bottles and wave a special strip over them, as well as rub a strip around the outside. I’ve had this done countless times and TSA was quite accommodating and never spilled my liquid gold. I usually ask that they put down paper towel so my baby’s bottle doesn’t touch their counter. Feel free to check out the TSA website for more info.

Traveling with children isn’t effortless but it is rewarding. Creating memories and building a healthy world view are some of the best experiences I can give my children. There is no need to feel intimidated by the age of your little one. In fact, I find it easiest to travel with an infant. All they need are clean behinds and breastmilk. Pack those bags and bon voyage.

– Sephanie Celaya de la Torre, MSW, is a Beaumont Parenting Program volunteer and past program participant.

Things I learned outside of the classroom during Study Abroad

young woman in front of a canal in Europe

My mom was asked to write an article about my study abroad preparation. She, in turn, asked me to write a mirror article so that you, dear reader, could see both perspectives and gain understanding from both the parent and the child. Maybe this will help you if your child ever decides to study abroad.

Who I am

I don’t remember exactly when I realized I loved traveling, but I learned the word “wanderlust” in high school and have identified with it ever since. I adore traveling; I like seeing new places and exploring. I like being able to touch history, try new foods, and have fun and unique adventures. I travel with friends and family; sometimes I go alone, much to my mother’s dismay. My dream job would be traveling and blogging about it. I’m currently I’m doing it on my own dime and not getting paid, but it’s still lots of fun. Check me out at

You can meet so many different people while traveling too. I have a talent for making friends so this aspect is always fun for me. I’m also a bit of an adrenaline junkie; I like things that go fast and are a little on the crazy side. In fact, my bucket list includes cliff jumping, sky diving, bungee jumping and more. When I heard about studying abroad, I was instantly drawn to it. It helped that my school offered exchange programs where my scholarships applied and my credits transferred. I could travel and study at the same time, making a great combination.

The planning stage

The planning was mostly on me, with some reminders from my parents about making sure I was checking into things and that I knew what I needed. I’m usually organized but sometimes things fell through the cracks like forgetting an important document and having to figure out where to print it only an hour before my visa appointment in Chicago!

It stresses me out when other people get stressed, so with my parents being stressed and getting on me about me not having somewhere to live along with, “Why haven’t you packed? You leave in two-and-a-half days!” really got me in gear. Though I’m the one who did the preparations, my parents lit a fire under me about doing them in a timely fashion. It would have gotten done no matter what, because once I had my parents on board, there was no way I wasn’t going abroad; I wouldn’t let that happen.

Battling homesickness with technology

In her article, my mom mentioned loving technology. It really is great, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve been exposed to it for a decent chunk of my life. Technology is a life saver! It can help when you get lost, it can help you find places to stay and to eat, it can help you plan all aspects of your trip. Mostly, I use it to keep in touch and battle homesickness. As I said, I love traveling but I’ve rarely ever gotten homesick. Sure, this is probably because I’m usually traveling with family, am not that far from home, and not gone for that long.

That being said, this trip does not meet any of the standards that I am used to. So while I don’t get homesick at school because I’m two hours from home, surrounded by friends, and crazy busy with classes and extracurricular activities, I’m missing a lot of that over here in Europe. I’m usually about six hours ahead of everyone else, which means I don’t hear from anyone until Noon at the earliest. I also only have classes here without any of the extracurricular organizations that I regularly participate in. Being less busy means more time to myself just sitting, thinking and missing home. When I left, I didn’t expect to be homesick, even though the Education Abroad advisers warned us that it would happen. Boy was I in for a rude awakening.

Being homesick is rough. My support system is more than 3,000 miles away and six hours behind time-wise, so they aren’t always available when I need to talk. On top of that, I don’t like talking about it anyway so I usually bottle it up.

I found that FaceTiming the people at home helps a great deal. I talk to my family via FaceTime once or twice a week; yes, I am guilty of FaceTiming my boyfriend more than that (sorry, Mom). I also call some of my friends every couple of weeks. One of these calls was with my two of my fraternity brothers who I hadn’t talked with face-to-face in three months. We were on Skype for five hours until they pretty much kicked me off so I would sleep! FaceTime also means I get to see my dogs which is great because people don’t really pet each other’s dogs in France (and that’s weird to me but that’s a totally different story). Long story short: technology, specifically video calling capabilities, really help you handle the huge distance and homesickness.

Expect the unexpected

Ha. This has been a theme with me since the start of the year when I went to Chicago for my visa. Things like to not go according to plan for me. This can be inconvenient, like having to postpone my Ireland trip three months or sitting on the freezing cold floor in Union Station for hours because my train was delayed because of ice (both of these examples were caused by winter weather … maybe I should avoid that). Sometimes delays can be fun; my extended stay in Edinburgh let me make a bunch of friends with the other people staying in my hostel.

These situations led me to my biggest travel tip that I will be sharing continually until forever because it’s so valid: Pack your patience. This can be hard sometimes, like when I was in Edinburgh freaking out about getting back to Nantes in time for class and my mom was an ocean away telling me to chill out (a bad joke considering the weather at the time, I know). But packing your patience is so essential. It helps you find a solution to your problem faster because you aren’t freaking out. It also makes a more pleasant experience for you and those around you because you’re calm and rolling with the punches. Plus, you never know, these crazy situations might bring about good things like personal growth (I’ll get off my soapbox in a second). Being put in situations that were very stressful made me a better critical thinker, and more patient and understanding because everyone around me was facing the same difficulties and having to find a way out. So now that you’ve read this, the number one thing on your packing list, study abroad or not, should always be your patience.

Stay strong

As for strength, I knew this experience was going to be rough on my mom, partially because she told me a lot that it would be and partially because it was going to be difficult in general.

I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed my first day in France trying to weigh kiwi in the supermarket on a scale in a foreign language, but I was and I got through it. I know having me in Europe and not being able to help as much is stressful for my mom, especially since I’m the first one out of the nest. But we’re doing good! Less than a month left! (She’s been counting down since Christmas!) Communication and detailed preparation I think helped ease this a little for us, and it probably will help you too if your child is hoping to study abroad.

I’m not saying it’s the easiest thing it the world (that’s baseball), but it will be worth it. Your child will grow and learn and you will too.

Katie Capozello, BGSU Analytics major. She is the daughter of Nicole Capozello, Beaumont Parenting Program Staff.

Tips for traveling with babies or young children

mom with baby and young boy on airplane

Cropped image. Lars Plougmann, Flickr. CC license.

Which statement best describes your thoughts on traveling with your baby or young child?

  1. I’d rather organize a sock drawer and find matching lids to my Tupperware® than travel with my infant or toddler.
  2. Did someone say family trip? Give me an hour and our bags will be packed.
  3. I’d love to get away but I don’t know how we’d do it with our little one. It’s so much work to pack all the baby supplies. Plus, what’s the point? Our child won’t remember the trip anyway.
  4. Who wants to watch our baby while we’re gone?
  5. It would be great to go on vacation but there’s no way I’m taking my kid and there’s no way I’m leaving her home either.
  6. We’re going to my parents for Thanksgiving. Wish us luck.

As a Beaumont Parenting Program speaker on traveling with a baby, I’ve heard all of the above from parents. While moms and dads do take road trips and hop on planes, they are understandably apprehensive, especially before their first trip. Granted, it’s not easy to travel with a baby or young child, but for those who love to get away or need to travel, there is no reason to stop post-baby. And there are many things parents can do to ensure a hassle-free, safe and, yes, even fun trip.

Simple organization

During my talks, I offer a variety of advice to make traveling as smooth as possible. Did you know that when packing, zip-close bags could be your best friend? Infant and even toddler clothes are small enough that you can organize everything in these self-sealing bags. For example, onesies can easily fit in one bag, socks can go in another and shirts can also be placed in their own bag.

Don’t over pack

You can always buy what you need at your destination. However, do plan for delays and bring extra supplies like diapers, wipes and snacks. Consider where you’ll be staying. Do you have access to a washing machine and dryer? Will there be a dishwasher or will you have to wash bottles, breast pump supplies and feeding utensils by hand? If so, bring some dish soap and a few sponges.

The same rule also applies to toys. Even if you’re traveling by car, avoid the temptation to bring too many. Putting a baby into a new environment is stimulating enough that you probably won’t need to bombard him with toys. 

Air travel made easy

Air travel is stressful enough these days, even without taking a family along for the ride. Consider this scenario: Get to the airport two hours early. Wait in a long line to check in. Wait in a longer line to pass through security. Pray your flight isn’t delayed. Cross your fingers your luggage makes it to your final destination. And, if you’re a nervous flyer, the list grows even longer.

Does baby need a ticket?

You don’t have to purchase your child a ticket for domestic travel until he or she is two years old. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the use of a car seat for those weighing under 40 pounds. If you are not using your car seat on the plane, you can typically check it (and the stroller) at the gate, but put them in a decent bag so they stay clean.

Start with security

TSA agents confiscate a lot of stuff because travelers don’t know or forget the rules. Regarding some of the most common baby supplies, here’s what is on the do and don’t list.

  • Liquids and pastes are allowed in travel-size containers that are 3.4 ounces or less per item. TSA recommends placing these items in a small bag and separating them from your carry-on baggage to facilitate the screening process.
  • Formula, breast milk, and juice for infants or toddlers are permitted in reasonable quantities. TSA also suggests removing these items from your carry-on bag for screening and informing the TSA agent if you have more than 3.4 ounces of formula, breast milk or juice. The agent may need to test these liquids. Also, you do not need to travel with your child to bring breast milk through security.
  • Ice packs and other accessories required to cool formula, breast milk and juice are allowed in carry-on bags. You can also bring gel or liquid-filled teethers as well as canned or jarred baby food in your carry-on. However, these items may be subject to additional screening.

To pre-board or not? That is the question.

If you fly to Orlando, there may not be an opportunity to do so because, as a gate agent once told us, “Just about everybody on this plane is traveling with an infant or child.” However, almost every other flight will give families the option to be among the first to get on the plane. If two adults are traveling, consider having one pre-board with all of the carry-on luggage while the other stays in the boarding area with the child and is among the last to board. This strategy minimizes the amount of time spent in a restricted space on the plane.

Ease pressure change discomfort

This is some of the most common advice for air travel so most likely you’ve already heard it already, but it is still worth repeating: Feed or nurse your baby during takeoff and landing because it helps alleviate discomfort in baby’s ears. Don’t stress if your child refuses to drink doing those times.

Other helpful travel tips

  • Try to stay on baby’s schedule but remember that babies can adapt.
  • Consider bringing crib/pack-and-play sheets because they have a familiar scent and feel.
  • Download a white noise app to drown out unwanted noises.
  • Bring scented bags for dirty diapers.
  • Baby-proof your hotel or wherever you are staying as best as you can.
  • Most of all, take pictures, have fun and try not to sweat the small stuff!

Traveling as a family, even when your child is just a baby, can be such a positive bonding experience for everyone. There are not the responsibilities of home so you have more time to really focus on your family. Developmentally it’s great for the little ones because they tend to progress by seeing new things in new environments. So although they won’t remember the trip, you will and most likely you’ll have some great pictures to share with them when they’re older and those great memories of your own.

– Jen Lovy is a Beaumont Parenting Program volunteer.

Do “North”

view on Mackinac Island

I’ve lived in Michigan for over four decades; my wife was an Air Force brat growing up around the world, but her roots were always in the mitten state. Together we ate in New Buffalo, swam in Lake Superior, and tailgated at our alma mater numerous times. So it’s amazing that neither of us ever hopped on the ferry to Mackinac Island. That changed in a recent family road trip “Up North.”

First off, let’s talk “Up North.” Where does it start for you? Past Midland? West Branch? Gaylord or crossing the mighty Mac? For our family, we consider “Up North” anything past the 45th parallel is north. We even make sure that everyone lifts their feet so no one trips over the imaginary latitude line that crosses over the highway.

We’re lucky enough to have family all over “Up North” which is great because it helps keep costs down, but more importantly gives us a little more time to reconnect with those we don’t get to see enough. And truthfully, it gives our girls the time to meet family for the first time and create a bond that can be built on for years to come.

One evening, my wife and I went to her class reunion (the reason for the trip) and had to leave our girls with family they don’t know very well and the plan was to go to a BBQ at another family member’s house they never met.

Our girls are OK at meeting new folks, but they have separation anxiety when we leave them for a longer period of time. But guess what? When we returned, our girls were running around like they’ve been there for years. They met cousins they never knew they had and a neighbor girl who showed them the ropes on the trampoline. The next day there was talk about coming to visit for a week next summer — without us!

Our trip ended on the mainland in the shadow of the Mackinac Bridge. Beautiful part of the state; the mix of tacky shops and history is perfect. Nowhere else can you buy a Mackinaw Strong camo hoodie and learn about how soldiers lived watching out for redcoats. It sets the stage for a whole different world on the island.

The four of us didn’t know what to expect when we got on the ferry to Mackinac Island. We knew we were all going to experience something new as a family. We sat on the second deck of the boat to see the sights. We saw the bridge, buoys up close and personal, and the island itself.

I won’t give you every twist and turn of our Island adventure, but I can say it lives up to the hype. You are transported to a simpler time (if that simpler time had 24 different types of fudge). Our girls learned a lot about the history that is around every turn and they seemed to soak it in.

The point of all of this is that we all experienced something for the first time that we’ll remember for a lifetime. Our state is built for lifelong memories, you just have to go find them and make them.

– Jim Pesta is a Parenting Program participant and father of two girls.