15 Tried and tested tips for flying with toddlers

Screaming toddler sitting in his stroller near luggage at airport terminal
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Flying with toddlers can be frightening. Nobody wants to be “that parent” with the screaming child on the airplane. It’s hard enough surviving a regular day with a toddler without an epic meltdown, never mind bundling into a closed space with lots of strangers for hours on end! But I’m here to tell you, don’t worry. With plenty of preparation, it’s possible to have a smooth flight with a toddler. Sure they will be a little tired or cranky at times, but this is where our tried and tested tips will come in hand.

Before we go through the tips, I must point out that flying with a toddler presents an entirely new set of challenges than flying with a baby. Some might even say, it’s much harder. Babies aren’t on the move. They aren’t climbing over the seats and throwing tantrums. Babies can be more easily lulled to dreamland with some warm milk. Toddlers, on the other hand, don’t like to sit still. They want to explore and touch everything. They know what they want, and they aren’t afraid to tell you or scream it to you. So, it’s very important to set the right expectations from the beginning.

So, without further ado, here are our 15 tips to help you make it to your destination with fewer tears shed. You might not only survive the flight with your toddler but say “That was so much better than I expected!”.

1. Choose your flight wisely

The flight that you choose will greatly impact how your trip goes. Here are a few tips to consider:

Book a direct flight

Of course, this depends on your finances and many other factors. Maybe you are going to a remote destination that can only be reached with a connection flight. If you can’t do a direct flight, try at least to keep the number of connecting flights to a minimum. Landings and takeoffs are what typically put pressure on ears causing the pain that makes babies and toddlers scream on airplanes.

Schedule extra time on the ground between flights

If you must book a connection flight, go for a longer layover. This will give you the chance to change a dirty diaper, grab a bite quietly, and let your toddler run around for a while to burn off some energy before you board again.

Choose your flight time wisely

Some people find that night flight works best for them. In our case, we found that our toddler is the happiest in the morning and our day trips were much smoother than our night trips. If you do choose a late-day flight, make sure your child gets a proper nap during the day. Otherwise, you will end up with an overtired and unsettled child. Not the best on a flight, right?

Reserve a bassinet seat

This is highly recommended especially if your child is less than one year old. For overseas travel, most airlines have a baby bassinet in the front seats. Of course, these special seats come sometimes at an extra price, but they are totally worth it. If you book these seats, don’t forget to bring a light scarf or blanket to cover your baby. It’s also important to know that if there are turbulences in the air, you will be requested to remove your baby from the bassinet.

2. Consider buying a separate airplane seat for your child

Of course, this decision depends on your finances. Lap children under age two typically fly free. Most airlines provide a seat belt for lap children, but you should confirm that with your airline before your flight. If not, you can always purchase a seat belt online.

However, if you can afford to buy an extra seat for your toddler, do it. First, it’s the safer option as you can buckle them up in their seat or their car seat if you choose to bring it on board. Second, it gives your family more room to spread out and relax on the plane, as opposed to having to bounce your child on your lap.

3. Book a window and an aisle seat

If you are like me and don’t like to pay for an extra seat, here’s a trick for you. Book the aisle and the window seat and leave the middle one open. Usually, middle seats are the last to fill up. This increases your chance of scoring a seat for your toddler without having to pay for it. And in the unfortunate event that the middle seat does fill up, you can always offer the better window seat to the passenger in the middle. Trust me, nobody wants to sit in the middle of two parents juggling a toddler.

More importantly, always secure an aisle seat. You need quick and easy access to the bathroom and the ability to walk around with your toddler.

4. Dress smartly

Dressing yourself and your child for a flight needs a little bit of preparation. Think comfort and convenience first. My number one advice is to dress in comfortable layers. Layers will help you with drastic temperature changes aboard the flight. They are also a must if you are going from a sunny locale to a winter one and vice versa. My second advice is to consider inspection at airport security. Wear things you will not have to take off like boots and belts. This is not fun whilst chasing a toddler.

5. Divide and conquer

While most airlines allow families with young children to board first, it’s not always the smartest move. Unless your child is on the verge of falling asleep, I advise you to skip it. It usually takes 30 minutes for all passengers to board the plane. That’s a lot of time stuck in your seat with a restless toddler. The better strategy is to have one parent board the flight early to put away the carry-on luggage, gate-check the stroller/ car seat, and if you’re concerned about the Coronavirus and other germs, disinfect the armrests and the tray tables. Meanwhile, the other parent can wait with the toddler in the gate and let them run around to burn off a bit more energy and then boards last.

If you are flying solo with your toddler, my advice is still the same. Board last!

6. Visit the airport restroom before you board

A visit to the airport restroom before you board means one less trip to the tiny airplane bathroom. This translates to less work for you and less inconvenience to those seated next to you. Plus, you never know how long the sign “Keep your seatbelt fastened” will stay illuminated. If you are traveling with a potty-trained toddler, of course, you will want one last potty break too. Better be safe than sorry.

7. Bring double the child necessities

Bring twice as many diapers, bottles, baby formula, and snacks on the plane as you think you will need. You never know when you might face flight delays caused for example by bad weather at your departure or arrival airport. Again, better be safe than sorry. And since we’re talking about baby necessities, make sure to pack your baby’s medication.

8. Bring lots of airplane snacks for toddlers

Maybe the best piece of advice I was ever given for successfully flying with a toddler is snacks, snacks, and more snacks. The idea here is to use small snacks as an activity. Eating raisins or cheerios can last for quite a long time! Yes, it can be annoying bringing an extra bag of food, but if their tummies are satisfied and they are chewing, they are quiet. Fruits, veggies, biscuits, energy bars, dry snacks, there’s really no limit to the rainbow of snacks you can bring on a flight and pull out at any given moment.

Here is what we had on-hand as travel snacks on our last trip:

  • Raisins
  • Grapes cut into pieces
  • Blueberries
  • Multigrain crackers
  • Apple cut into wedge pieces.

9. Kiss screen-time restrictions temporarily goodbye

Mother and toddler son using tablet  while on board of an airplane
Photo credit: Shutterstock

No matter how opposed you are to screen time under normal circumstances, flying is not the time to stick to your principles. A tablet or a phone might save the day a few times. A couple of hours staring at a screen isn’t going to damage your child’s brain. However, it’s better to pull the tech last, once you have exhausted other old school options like books, coloring activities, stickers, and small toys. Depending on how long is the flight, be sure to download their favorite movies, television show episodes, and songs before you leave the house, just in case there is no internet on the flight.

10. Keep your toddler happy with distractions

Blonde toddler boy, flying with airplane and entertained with book coloring
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Maybe the most draining part about flying with a toddler is the amount of energy you have to put into their entertainment. But, if you make the necessary effort, you might escape onboard tears and tantrums. That’s why at the beginning of this article, I emphasized on having the right expectations. The days of enjoying a good book or a movie while onboard are gone. The bottom line, you need to keep your child happy onboard using whatever means you can.

Every child is different when it comes to their interests. As their parent, you would know best what might keep them busy and entertained. As an example, this is what I packed in our carry-on on our last trip to keep my toddler content in the air:

  • Water coloring magic book with a water pen. What I like most about this book is that it’s mess and stain-free, which is exactly what you need on a flight.
  • Sticker book. Since my son is at an age where he is obsessed with animals, this fun activity book with 500 stickers turned out to be a good buy.
  • Small toys. Before the trip, I got a very nice toy that focuses on eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills. However, I will not link it here as I don’t think it was a success on the flight. Even though it’s a great toy in general, we ended up constantly fishing the pieces under the seats. What’s the lesson learned? Bring one piece toys on a flight.
  • Few books. Check this post to learn more about our favorite books.

My final piece of advice is don’t bring too much. It’s easy to overpack for entertainment. The strategy here is to have a plan of attack: Food, books, toys, tablet…then repeat along with any other entertainment you can create along the way. Expect to vary activities pretty quickly as toddlers have a very short span of attention.

11. Protect ears

To help with ear pressure discomfort, use whatever you can to get your child’s jaws moving: breastfeeding, bottle, pacifier, sippy cup… Chewing a cracker or a cookie can work too.

12. Strategize sleeping time

How do you get your toddler to sleep on a plane? It can be challenging at the best of times. Lots of stimulation from the bright lights, people chatting, and just the new environment. Many people swear by using medication. I  prefer to take the conservative approach and not do medications. For your best chance at getting your toddler to sleep on a flight, follow the below tips:

  • Make sure your toddler has burnt off some energy at the airport and got a chance to explore his new environment on the plane. This way you make sure he’s tired and ready for sleep when the right time comes.
  • Don’t plan sleep until some time on the plane. Unless your child is tired and falls asleep on his own, wait for the food and beverage to be served and everyone is settled so there are fewer distractions around.
  • Pack in-flight sleeping aids. Those familiar smells and comforts from home can help your child fall asleep more easily.

When my eldest son was 18-months-old, we did the same bedtime routine that we follow at home on the flight. When the cabin lights darkened for sleeping time, we shut off any screens around to wind him down and stopped engaging with him. We then put him in his sleeping bag, gave him a bottle of milk, and even turned on our white noise app pretty quiet. Once he finished his milk, we gave him his pacifier which is attached to his cuddly toy. This routine worked pretty well for us. But sometimes it takes a while for the child to fall asleep and it might involve a little bit of crying, which is o.k.

When we travelled again when he was 26-months-old, we followed a different strategy. It was an overnight flight and he insisted on continuing to watch a movie. We let him, but we pushed him to watch laying down with his pacifier in his mouth. Eventually, he let go and slept on his own.

13. Get up and walk around

Airplane aisle
Photo credit: Unsplash

If your child wants to walk around, let him. Sometimes a few minutes in the plane galley or a few trips up and down the aisle is enough to distract your child, burn off some energy, and avoid an impending meltdown. Plus, it’s nicer to everyone involved. People prefer to see a happy child zooming past as opposed to a contained upset toddler. Note that the best time to go for a walk is after the flight attendants have finished their rounds with the service cart.

14. Pack an extra change of clothing for your child and you

Oh, how I wish I did that when I flew solo with my son when he was about two months old. The morning of the flight, I changed him into the warmer outfit that I kept in the diaper bag, and guess what? I was so nervous about flying solo that I forgot to pack a replacement. Of course, my son had a major blow out mid-flight. What is the lesson learned? Always pack an extra change of clothing for your child. And if you can accommodate some extra space, pack a compact one for yourself as well. You don’t want to be left sticky and wet for the duration of the flight in case of a diaper leak on your clothes.

15. Ignore the cranky pants on the plane

Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Sometimes, no matter what you do, your toddler might have an epic meltdown on the airplane. If this happens, keep your cool and try to breathe. More importantly, don’t panic and don’t stress. As long as you try and other passengers witness your effort, you have nothing to worry about except the welfare and the happiness of your child. Soon enough, your plane will land and you will not see the other passengers again. With a positive attitude, you can do this!

The bottom line

I hope this article can help you be prepared for your next flight with your toddler. Do you have more tips that worked for you? Don’t forget to share them in the comments below.

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