If a regular PCS is challenging, planning and completing a move with toddlers takes it to another level, as a move rocks a toddler’s entire world. Our first military-mandated move involved only my husband and myself. No kids, no pets. Fast-forward to move #2 a few years later, and we now had a newborn and a two-year-old to consider. I’ll never forget our toddler sitting very seriously on the front porch as the moving van pulled up, big eyes taking it all in. He was excited about the “big truck” and curious about everything the movers did. He needed frequent reassurances to questions like, “Is my big boy bed going to the new house, too?” (It was.) and “Is my baby brother coming?” (He was.) It could be noted here that he wasn’t nearly as excited about the answer to the second question as he was to the first!
His questions showed me how insecure he was feeling. Obviously, little ones process life completely differently than a grown person with more maturity, so here are a few things I’ve learned from moving with toddlers a time or six.
1. Know that you will be explaining a lot
Over and over again. As their whole lives are upended, you will be your child’s touchstone. Be patient with the seemingly constant questions about what is happening. Everything in your child’s life is changing.
2. Tell them sooner, rather than later.
Every child and family is different, but we found it best to give young children time to get used to the idea of moving. Highlight the positives and allow time for lots of questions and discussion.
3. Keep certain routines the same.
Maintaining some semblance of a structure will help. While it can be challenging in the midst of the moving chaos, keeping meal times and bedtime routines as close to the norm as possible will give your toddler a sense of security.
4. Sometimes you do what you have to do.
Nothing wrong with a special treat here and there! One cross-country move had us split up our young family (4 kids by then) between our two vehicles. I rolled into town with two sticky yet happy young ones and a giant empty bag of candy on the seat between them. I wouldn’t normally hand over that amount of candy, but it bought an hour of quietness!
5. Turn a challenge or inconvenience into fun.
Capitalize on a toddler’s great capacity for throwing themselves into anything deemed “fun”: a picnic on the floor of the empty house, strange sleeping arrangements, their first plane trip. Or start a new tradition by making a game out of a task like unpacking boxes.
6. Take breaks
It’s easy for the PCS to-do list to become paramount. Plan in breaks to make one last visit to a favorite park, blow bubbles, have a tickle fight, or explore the new area with a short walk. Both you and your child will appreciate a break here and there.
7. Accept help
Maybe I should reword that to, “Ask for help.” Even if you don’t think you’ll need it, trust me—you’ll be grateful later. During The Great Crying Road Trip from Texas to Florida, we spent days held hostage in a vehicle with our colicky 5-month-old. Since we’d also had the brilliant idea to pull off a partial DITY with four kids under the age of 10, this meant my husband and I both pulled trailers behind our cars. I was so grateful that my mother-in-law insisted on flying out to Texas and making the drive with us to help out with our young family. I can never repay her!
8. Make arrangements for children on moving day
On that note, plan for childcare or a playdate or, at the least, a mother’s helper on moving day if you can. If that’s not possible, tag team with your spouse between supervising the movers and watching children. If that’s not possible due to a deployment or TDY and you’re on your own, do what you can and know that this too shall pass! (And allow me pass you a large glass of wine for the end of the day when you can finally put your feet up.)
9. Allow your toddler to help
While this dubious “help” will likely set you back a bit, practically speaking, allowing them to feel some control over what is happening is important. Let them select toys for travel or help organize their room for packing. My friend Angie says, “Let them choose what goes into their carry-on bag or backpack. Some toys were like old friends and more important to have along than lots of things mom might have chosen.”
10. Pack their things last
Keep their room intact as long as possible. Then, last on the moving truck should be first off at the new place, and you can get them set up quickly.
11. Prepare yourself for heartbreak
While I wish I had a magic formula to get past this, there’s simply no way to safeguard against the heartbreak of goodbyes to beloved places and friends when moving. And when your child’s heart breaks, yours will, too. Model healthy behavior and allow time for goodbyes. Cry together. Let them know it’s ok to be sad. Take photos of friends and places to look at later. Walking through it with your child will be a great comfort.
I polled a few friends who’ve moved with young ones, and here’s their advice! What would you add?
“My tip for moving day is an empty closet and a bag of toys and a screen or two of some kind. Toddlers love a toddler-sized play space and it’s out of the way. I usually use the master closet because it’s close to the master bath for the potty training toddler. It also doesn’t have a hallway to and from the bathroom that could be packed with movers trying to settle boxes.” –Katie R.
“If you’re flying, let your child pull his/her own small carry-on, as it helps with confidence.” -Angie
“Always pack extra power cords/batteries for electronics and picture books in an accessible carry-on bag, along with lots of little bags of snacks. Being prepared helps to prevent meltdowns from tired toddlers.” –Virginia
“If you have portable DVD players, Red Box is a life saver. Every morning when we left the hotel to drive to the next stop, we turned in our movies from the day before and rented four new ones. At LEAST six hours of entertainment.” –Katie F.
“Make sure to have lots of kid-friendly, no-prep snacks on hand!”- Teisha
“A must to have accessible is an extra outfit for either flying or driving. You never know when someone will get a stomach bug or motion sickness.” –Kate
Some suggested children’s books about moving:
Boomer’s Big Day by Constance McGeorge
Moving House (Usborne First Experiences) by Anne Civardi
The Berenstain Bears Moving Day by Stan and Jan Berenstain
Katie Moves by Liesbet Slegers
Bella and Stella Come Home by Anika Denise