CBME China 2024

17-19 July 2024 | National Exhibition and Convention Center (NECC), Shanghai, China

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Travel Tips for Children With SEND | CBME, Shanghai Children Baby Maternity Industry Expo, NECC, Baby market news

Nine years ago my daughter Natty was delivered, along with a shock diagnosis of Down’s syndrome. As my brain grappled with outdated notions of what that meant, I am ashamed to say that one of the first – irrational – thoughts that tumbled through my mind was: We will never go on holiday again.

What was behind this ignorance and fear? I was afraid that people would stare, that Natty wouldn’t be able – or, more ridiculously, be allowed – to explore the world.

Of course, I was wrong. As I researched this article, calling on friends and colleagues in the SEND (special educational needs and disability) community, I also asked Natty to name her favourite family holiday.

“I love Jamaica. I want to go there right now!” she said, her face breaking into an enormous smile.

We live in Cornwall. Going to Jamaica has opened Natty’s eyes to the wider world. Whether, when she answered my question, Natty was imagining skinny-dipping in the sea at sunset, dancing to a steel band, savouring freshly caught lobster, or beguiling the kids club staff until each one felt like an aunty, I don’t know.

But for me, Jamaica evokes memories of being able to relax as a family, and enjoy each other’s company, in ways I never could have imagined in the early days after her birth.

What I have learnt is that holidays with a child with additional needs are not only possible, they are essential.

At two years old, Natty had keyhole surgery to close a hole in her heart. This was a short routine operation – and one that she recovered from in days – but my husband and I were emotional wrecks.

Although we hadn’t realised it, we’d been carrying the worry of that procedure around on our shoulders like a physical weight for two years. We had stayed close to home, almost quarantining our vulnerable little person. Deep down, we were harbouring the impossible thought that we might lose her.

Surgery over, that weight was lifted. We stood a little taller, breathed a little more deeply, and dared to think of a holiday.

That trip, to Mauritius, was the first time we truly relaxed in more than two years. It opened our eyes to the possibilities that lay ahead for us and our daughter with a learning disability. Natty and her older sister, Mia, learnt new skills and new words. Relaxing together, we saw our girls for the unique individuals they are, and we learnt the value in taking small risks.

Travel makes the world a smaller place. Over the years, and trips around three continents, we have met wonderful people, visited local schools and charities, and made friends with families just like ours. Without having a daughter who has additional needs, these doors would never have opened for us.

From caravans in the UK to specialist activity camps, adapted villas in the Med or long-haul resorts with inclusive kids clubs, families with SEND children have myriad options today.

From years of happy travel experience, and working with groups for children with SEND, I've developed the following checklist. 

In advance

  • Make an accurate and honest list of your child’s needs so that you can give airlines and tour operators plenty of notice of your exact requirements.

  • Create an inventory of equipment you need to take with you or hire from your tour operator. Label all items and take photos in case they become lost or damaged.

  • If your child has allergies, have food allergy cards printed by Allergy UK that can be handed to hotel and restaurant chefs. 

  • If your child has a medical condition, ask your GP if they are happy for them to travel. Ask for a Fit to Fly Certificate. If your child’s condition changes frequently, you’ll want a last-minute letter, the week you’re travelling. Other children, whose conditions do not change, can have open-ended Fit To Fly letters that are not time-sensitive.

  • Ask your child’s doctor well in advance for any medication you will need for the holiday.

  • Obtain special clearance from airlines if your child needs to take liquids onboard. Take a prescription and doctor’s note and clearly label any medication you are packing. Find NHS guidelines for taking medication abroad here.

  • Consider shipping bulky medical supplies ahead of you, with plenty of time to re-send if they go missing, advises Renata Blower, mum of a child with an undiagnosed condition and blogger at Just Bring the Chocolate.

Healthcare abroad

Make sure that your destination is within driving distance of healthcare facilities that meet your child’s needs, and research in advance how you can get there, if necessary.


  • Always book your holiday with an Air Travel Organiser’s Licence, Travel Trust Association or Association of British Travel Agents-backed tour operator.

  • If travelling within Europe, make sure each family member has an EHIC card, which will entitle you to free or subsidised medical care in 27 European Economic Area countries.

  • Worldwide Travel Plan, World First, Insurance With, and Staysure specialise in insuring travellers with longstanding medical conditions. If you are having trouble getting insurance cover for your child, ask to speak to the underwriters.

  • Consider extra cover for expensive items such as wheelchairs.

Sensory solutions

A different routine and the sounds and smells of travelling can unsettle many children, not just those with autism. Try these tricks:

  • Role play in advance using toy trains or boats, boarding passes and read books about travel.

  • Choose a quiet resort, villa or travel out of season when the crowds will be less overwhelming. Similarly, night flights are easier to manage than those in the day.

  • For children who are fascinated by transport, get an i-Spy checklist book (for example, here is one focused on the airport). Ask if your child can talk to the train guard, pilot, etc.

  • Consider paying extra to check into an airport lounge where it is less noisy, or take your child to a special play area while you wait at airports.

  • Ear defenders or noise-cancelling headphones can help minimise the frightening din of travel.

  • Let you child make choices, such as where to sit, what to wear and which activities to take. This gives them the feeling of having more control.

  • Take familiar, comforting items as well as new toys to spark interest. Sally Phillips, the actress, whose 11-year-old son has Down’s syndrome, told me that a small reel of sticky tape has provided hours of soothing fun for her sensory seeker on a long journey. “It makes a satisfying noise, can imprison teddies, make things out of High Life Magazine and stick paper cups to your forehead!”

  • Wheelchairs

    • Consider using your own mobility car.

    • Some disability tour operators (for example, Accessible Travel and Leisure) can arrange for accessible transfers and recommend adapted accommodation. Many hire specialist equipment.

    • Keep an eye out on eBay for cheap, second-hand, collapsible chairs. They can get damaged during transit and it is best not to risk the one your child relies on.


    • CARES is a harness seat (approved by the Civil Aviation Authority) which provides stability to children with mobility issues onboard planes.

    • The Firefly Go To Seat is approved for use on Easy jet, Air Canada and Thompson holiday flights.

    • Try Before You Fly offers cabin assessments in a replica fuselage so you can run through the practicalities of flying before you travel.

    • Stacie Lewis, who writes the blog Mama Lewis and the Amazing Adventures of the Half-Brained Baby, praises Virgin Atlantic, in particular, which offers its own special needs seat that fits into the normal seat and harnesses the child in place.

    • For your in-flight bag, include enough nappies, wet wipes, mini toiletries and spare clothes and a towel in case of travel sickness, plus loose comfortable clothing – even pyjamas.

    • Take a cool box with tempting (and familiar) snacks and drinks. Little boxes of raisins take little fingers a long time to eat and pass the time nicely.


    • Tania Tiraoro, founder of Special Needs Jungle, who has two sons with Asperger’s syndrome, says that travelling by car is the easiest option: you can take everything you need and they are safely strapped in for the journey.

    • If your child needs an accessible toilet, plan your toilet breaks using the Changing Places interactive map.

    • Take your child’s car seat to use in taxis and transfers at your destination, or hire one for the other end.

    • If your child has a blue badge, take it along with the AA European Parking Card for People with Disabilities, which includes details of regulations in 19 countries and a translation for each.

    I hope you are feeling inspired to go and make some family memories. Accept that not everything will go to plan; your child may have diarrhoea on the way home just as the last nappy has been used up; they may have a meltdown in a hotel lobby; they may even sneak onto the baggage conveyor belt while you check in at the airport like one child I know.

    But don’t be put off. The family adventure will be worth it. Don’t forget to relax and enjoy, and take lots of photos.

 resource: the telegraph