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7 Activities for Keeping a Sick Toddler Occupied

Homemade sensory play for toddlers with cold cooked pasta | Nicole Watford Photography


We’d been planning it for months: our first, big family road trip. The rental car was reserved. Our hotels were booked. Clothes were laid out in neat piles on our guest bed. While I was compiling meticulous lists for packing—things that needed to be done at the house before we left, snacks and activities for the car, necessities for hotel stops, our gear for almost a week at a lake house—Jeremy was carefully mapping out our route and making an Excel spreadsheet of every rest stop between here and destination, possible stopping points for breaks and meals, and ideal places to take our toddler to get out to run and play for a while.

Then, three days before we were supposed head north in our rented minivan, our son got sick. And it wasn’t just a summer cold… it was a fever that came out of nowhere.  A fever that spiked high enough for me to yell downstairs to my husband, “Hey, I need you!” and for him to abandon dinner preparations to help me make an after hours call to the pediatrician’s office for advice. It was one of those parenting moments that you’re never fully prepared for.

Fortunately, we were able to bring the fever down enough with Motrin and Tylenol, but we were still uneasy. We had a fitful night of sleep, worried that we’d end up in the ER with our son before the morning, but thankfully, we all made it through to the morning, and our pediatrician diagnosed him with a virus that just needed time to run its course. “It will probably get worse before it gets better,” he told us, and as we drove home from that appointment, we knew we had to do the hard thing: we had to cancel our trip.

What a huge, huge disappointment.  Instead of spending a week in New England visiting family, we were stuck at home trying to keep our sick toddler occupied with quiet activities. And I don’t know about your toddler, but unless he’s feeling absolutely awful (a rare occurrence), he generally is not super interested in “quiet” and “calm” play. So we had to get creative by finding some new-to-him activities to keep him occupied while he was recovering! Maybe they’ll help you next time you’ve got a sick toddler…

7 Quiet Activities for Keeping a Sick Toddler Busy | Nicole Watford Photography


1. Ice Cubes and Empty Containers

I was amazed at how long this kept him occupied!  I took out a few plastic containers and cups of various sizes and put three or four ice cubes in them. He enjoyed picking them up, transferring them from container to container, and dumping them out on the table. ​We also did a (slightly messier) variation of this activity while we were stuck inside this winter with some cold, cooked pasta mixed with a little olive oil. Fun sensory play!

2. Inside “Pool” in the Bathtub

One of our favorite summer activities has been playing outside in our little inflatable pool or the water table, but those aren’t good options when you’re sick. We made a little indoor “pool” in the bathtub and let him splash and play with some pool toys in there to his heart’s content. We could have called it a bath, I suppose, but an “inside pool” just sounds more special, don’t you think?

3. Dramatic Readings

Story time is one of the few activities our son will sit quietly for, so we decided to up our game with some dramatic readings of his favorites. Think character voices, sound effects, gasping for dramatic effect… it brings story time to a whooooooole new level.

4. Looking through Family Photos

This has been one of our favorite activities lately, with both printed and digital images. He loves seeing people he knows in pictures or videos and gets so excited to point them out and call them by name.  We like to talk about what is happening in the picture to help build those language skills, too! Win-win!

5. Fun in a Cardboard Box

If you’re like me, you pretty much always have an empty cardboard box ready to go out with the recycling. Our little guy loves to sit inside and play—we play peek-a-boo with the flaps of the box, “bury” him in toys in the box (which he then tosses out one by one), or give him crayons and stickers and let him color and decorate the box. They’re also great for making a garage for his trucks or a bed for his babies… the possibilities are endless!

6. Out with the “Old,” in with the “New”

Instead of keeping all the toys out all the time, one of the things we try to do on a semi-regular basis is rotate them so that “old” toys become “new” when they haven’t been played with in a while. We had already put aside some old favorites for our road trip, so bringing those out made for some exciting “new” activities that were great for quiet play!

7. Have a Special Activity to Celebrate When the Sickness is Gone!

Once we were feeling better and had been fever and symptom-free for 24 hours, we celebrated our return to civilization with a family outing to one of our favorite local spots, Blue Flour Bakery, for a special treat!


I’m still disappointed that we had to miss our trip, but I know we made the right decision. I have several unfortunate memories of being sick on vacation while I was growing up, and there’s absolutely nothing more miserable than being away from home while you’re sick! Hopefully it’s not a family curse—eek!—but I’m just so, so thankful that we realized he was sick before we got on the road!

What are your tried and true tips for keeping a busy toddler occupied while they’re sick? I’d love to hear them in the comments below so I can file them away for next time!


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Hey, I’m Nicole!

Columbia, SC Newborn, Maternity, & Family Photographer

I’m a sentimental mom of two with a heart for helping moms like you have a stress-free photography experience. I’m here to help you feel comfortable and confident in front of the camera and capture beautiful photos to tell the story of this season of life.

Serving Columbia, SC & the surrounding areas