Flying with a Toddler
Let's not sugarcoat things. This could be the hardest flight of your life. These tips will make it easier.
Here’s something you may not realize when stressing over your baby's first airplane ride: The younger the baby, the easier the flight.
When does it get hard? After blowing out the candle on their first birthday, or when your baby starts to get really active. Grabbing, crawling, walking: All of these exciting milestones become mini punishments within the confines of Seat 34C.
This post is going to address the challenges of traveling with children in the one to two age range—curious, very mobile, and likely still flying in your lap—but think of this article as part of a trilogy. Part One (Your Baby's First Flight) is required reading, as all of those tips still apply. Part Three—flying with kids over two—is still in the works, but the major themes (conflict resolution, the light—from your iPad—at the end of the tunnel) will make their ceremonious appearances.
And now for Part Two. Like most trilogies, this book is the worst. Suit up, parents, for the ride of your life.
Before You Fly
Consider the schedule I usually buy the cheapest tickets available, but it’s worth taking your toddler’s routine into account when researching flights. If there’s a chance they’ll sleep on the plane, try to book a flight that corresponds with nap time. If it’s unlikely they’ll rest, opt for a time when they’re happy and alert (likely the morning) vs. tired and over it (likely the evening).
Select flights with fewer stops You might think that connecting flights gives your toddler the opportunity to run around the airport, but direct flights or routes with fewer stops is always the best option. Layovers only invite the risk of delays or missed connections, and getting on and off the airplane is particularly harrowing with a toddler in tow.
Minimize your stuff Active toddlers make it difficult to keep an eye on your things, so limit yourself to your stroller and one carry-on. I carry a backpack that doubles as a diaper bag.
Game plan If you’re traveling with your partner, a pre-flight strategy will keep you from googling “Mexican therapist” when you land in Cancun. Talk about how you’re going to divide up responsibilities from nose up to wheels down. Will you hand the baby off every hour, every half hour? (My husband and I literally set a timer.) Who changes the first diaper, and will you alternate? If your child naps, does that count as on-the-clock time, or is it considered a break for both of you?
At the Airport
A quick reminder that the majority of the airport tips—checking luggage, navigating TSA—are located here.
Got milk? Note that some airlines—especially on short-leg flights—don’t carry milk on board, just coffee creamers. If your child has moved from formula or breast milk to cow’s milk, stop at a Starbucks or other coffee shop and fill your sippy cup or bottle with warm milk for the plane ride. They don’t understand the meaning of warm, so grab a few ice cubes for what will likely be a scalding hot liquid.
Find your tot spot Get to the airport with some time on your hands so your child can run off some steam before boarding. Some airports—Dallas’s Love Field comes to mind—have playrooms outfitted with mats and toys, but they are the thoughtful exception. In most cases, you’ll want to pen off an empty gate area and let your kiddo crawl, climb, toddle…anything to burn a bit of energy. This is also a good moment to remind you to bring hand sanitizer.
On the Plane
Pick an aisle seat Wait, is that a nimbus or cumulus cloud outside of your airplane window? I’m here to tell you that your toddler doesn’t care. They just want to move, so be sure to select an aisle seat and walk them up and down the row frequently. You can also point restless feet towards the aisle instead of your front neighbor. Just keep an eye out for that bullish drink cart.
Acknowledge your fellow passengers It’s time to channel your pre-parent brain. Remember the way you felt when a mom or dad with a toddler plopped down in the seat next to you? Something within the range of poor luck to total devastation comes to mind. If you’re sitting next to a solo traveler, introduce your child, try to keep your kiddo within your seat’s limited real estate, and ask if you can dominate the shared armrest. You’re going to need it.
Pack snacks Bring lots of easy finger foods. These buy you glimpses of peace in five- to 15-minute increments. Think of dry foods like crackers, and if you bring fresh foods or purees, avoid stain makers like cherries and beets.
Pull out small surprises Consider buying a few new toys—I’m talking dollar store material here—and pack a few favorites. A handful of matchbox cars, magnet tiles, finger puppets, and a tactile board book or two should do the trick. My toddler devours crayons, so those are probably out. And you clearly want to avoid toys that roll (balls) or make noise (see ya, Woody). Pull them out of a paper bag, one by one, throughout the trip. Playing games like hide-and-seek will extend the toy’s shelf life, and the bag itself may end up being the most exciting distraction of all.
Get stickers These brilliant little inventions get their own write up. Why? They rank among the best in toddler distractions. Put them on paper, on their hands, on your nose. Try not to eat them. Repeat.
Flip through photos In an effort to stick to CDC recommendations, our kids have had very limited screen time, especially under the age of two. I have little guilt, however, of taking a 10 minute breather and flipping through pictures or baby videos with my toddler on the plane. Most kids this age are screen self regulators anyway, and have a very short attention spans.
Get creative My one year old spent 20 minutes flipping the prongs on my computer charger on our last Air Canada flight (points for AirCanada, by the way, for having milk). Sloshing water around a clear bottle was another unexpected distraction. Think of everything as a toy: Leaf through pages of those back pocket magazines. Play peek-a-boo with your scarf. Grab that pocket mirror, your jacket zipper, the crinkly pretzel bag. On the ground or in the air, utilitarian items sometimes make the best toys.
Skip the drink Or rather, ask your flight attendant to fill up your water bottle. At the very least, hold the ice, and ask if you can get a cup with a lid (yes, my guardian angel is quite eco and just cringed). A toddler is going to beeline for that drink, and even if you manage to down the liquid before the chubby hand grab, ice is just another toy—a cold, slippery, messy toy—to a one year old.
Wear your contacts I repeat, wear your contacts. If your child can reach your glasses, consider them a casualty, a toy just as worthy as those non-plastic, non-toxic Melissa & Doug toys you so carefully curated.
Ask for help when you need it Need a handful of napkins, water in your baby bottle, or directions to the closest changing table? Just ask. Flight attendants want to help however they can. Happy toddlers = happy(ier) passengers.
Before you exit Clean up. If you’ve had a big spill you can’t handle, especially a liquid, be sure to bring it to a flight attendant’s attention. Accidents happen, but Seat 34C's next victim doesn't need to add "wet derriere"' to a list of discomforts that already includes limited legroom and a malfunctioning tray table.
Also, do a thorough check around your seat to make sure you have all of your belongings. My dad left my first lovey, a bear named Hotpants (I have no explanation to offer here) on an airplane in Spain. It’s my first memory. I have yet to forgive him.
Actually, after flying with my 15-month-old son on an international flight, I totally get it. In fact, maybe I owe him an apology. Dad?