Flying with a toddler can truly be anxiety-inducing. I know the first time I travelled with both of my children alone when my son was 6 months and my daughter was 2.5, I was terrified. And that was just a 2 hour non-stop flight. When I flew 5 hours with my daughter to Disneyland at age 3, I felt a bit more confident in my abilities but still wanted to make sure we both were prepared for the long flight.
It can be difficult for toddlers to sit still for hours on end as it is, now imagine their thoughts as they’re flying in a huge airplane for the first time with lots of new faces and things around them. Total sensory overload.
Which is why I think its important to bring some familiar and comforting items on the flight to ensure your air travel is as stress-free as possible.
Tips for Flying with a Toddler
Prep Them for the Flight
When my kids are trying something new for the first time I do my best to talk about that new activity for a few weeks beforehand. We talk about what it will be like, what we can do, what we can’t do, what we’ll wear, etc. We even play pretend and role-play that new thing we’re going to be doing.
You could read a book about flying on an airplane, find a YouTube video that tours an airplane or talks about flying, look at photos of airplanes together, etc.
I think when you truly prep your toddler for this new thing they’re going to be experiencing, they’ll know what to expect and in turn their own fears or anxieties will be minimized.
One example regarding sitting on the flight: I personally would explain to my toddler that it is totally awesome to get our wiggles out in the airport before the flight. But once we’re on the airplane, we should try out best to sit in our seat with our seatbelt on while we do quiet activities like coloring, stickers, or watching a movie together. If we need to get up, we can walk to the bathroom and back again.
Talking about that expectation beforehand helps prepare your toddler’s understanding of what they *can* do on the flight and even gets them excited about those special activities.
Consider Flight Times
I see so many travel sites that explicitly say “book the flight during your toddler’s nap time” with the intention that your child would sleep on the flight. I personally don’t think that blanket advice is going to work for everyone. Instead, I think choosing the “best” flight time is going to be dependent on a number of factors.
Every child is different. My son had no problem napping in the car or his stroller when he was a toddler. My daughter on the other hand, ONLY napped in her bed. It didn’t matter how tired she was, she just would not fall asleep in a stroller or the car seat, etc. Booking a flight during her nap time most likely would have resulted in a disaster.
You know your child, if they sleep well on the go, great! Take advantage of that and book a nap time or even evening flight and take advantage of their sleep schedule!
If your child doesn’t sleep well on the go, consider an early morning flight or something in the afternoon after their nap. Sure they’ll be awake on the flight but they’ll be well-rested and happy! Bring some fun airplane-friendly entertainment and they’ll be ready to go!
Personal Item & Diaper Bag
Did you know that most airlines allow a personal item AND a diaper bag when traveling with young children? Take advantage of this and pack diapers or pull-ups, wipes, snacks, a change of clothes, etc. in the diaper bag leaving space in your personal item for entertainment during the flight.
My kids truly look forward to packing their own backpack with fun things to play with on the airplane. If they have a seat, they also get a personal item too!
Things I Bring to Entertain my Kids on Flights
Make sure if you plan on using technology (either your own or the screens on the plane) that you bring headphones that have the old-style plug (not the newer iPhone plugs) and kid-friendly. My daughter always loved her soft headphones.
Also, if your kids typically play games or watch movies that require wifi, plan ahead and download things to the tablet that they can watch on the plane without an internet connection.
Bring Plenty of Snacks
If your kids are anything like mine, any kind of travel = 1 million snacks. Plan ahead and pack things that can go through security in your personal item or diaper bag without issue.
You also can bring an empty or refillable water bottle to fill before you get to your gate.
My kids have never had issues with their ears when flying but if you were concerned about that, you could definitely bring some lollipops for them during take-off and landing.
Use Their Car Seat
If you purchased a seat for your toddler, you may want to consider using their car seat on the flight.
When traveling with a car seat, you have the option to check the car seat with your checked luggage, gate check the car seat as you board the plane, OR as long as your car seat is FAA approved, you can use it on the flight.
When I travelled with my toddlers I always used their car seat. There were even instances that I did not purchase a seat for my son and planned to lap-sit. However, I always asked the airline before boarding if there was space for him to have his own seat and use the car seat. As long as the plane wasn’t full, they didn’t have any issue with this.
The reason I liked using the car seat on the plane (besides it being a safe choice), was because he was comfortable and used to his car seat. Sitting in the car seat was like second nature, even though we were doing something very new to him.
Another plus is that with his car seat, he is safely buckled the entire time which prevents him from the up-down game and wanting to roam the airplane. Once your kids figure out how to undo that airplane seatbelt, it can be a tiring struggle to keep them in their seat.
You can see more details regarding car seats on airplanes on the FAA website.
Once my kids were older, we started gate checking their car seats and highly recommend using a bag like this and/or a trolley system to both protect it and make it easier to carry through the airport.
When traveling with my kids as babies, I always wore them through the airport and onto the plane. It helped keep my hands free and available for handling luggage as we made our way to our gate.
Even as my kids were young toddlers, I still wore them on my back in the airport. It made it easier and less stressful for me to know exactly where they were and not worry about them getting lost in a crowd or running off on me as my hands were full.
Consider Investing in a Travel Stroller
When I was traveling to Disneyland with my daughter, I decided to invest in a small and lightweight stroller that was higher quality and more functional than a typical umbrella stroller. I decided on a stroller that could fold small enough to even fit in the overhead bin on the airplane!
I ALWAYS use this stroller when traveling now and even use it quite often at Disney World as well! It’s a really great stroller and I highly recommend it if you’re looking for something that travels well but also is a great all-around stroller.
Stretch Legs Before the Flight
One of the best things you can do before your flight is allow your kids to get their wiggles out! Whether that be playing at the gate or at a children’s play area if your airport is lucky enough to have one. Even as adults we get stiff and antsy on a long flight. Allowing your toddler to burn some energy before the flight is going to help you in the long run.
We usually like to find a spot near the windows of our gate to stretch and play. My kids love looking at the airplanes out the window while walking the aisle.
If you plan to use technology on the plane, like a tablet, try not to use that at the gate. Keep the screen time as a tool that you can use when all other forms of entertainment aren’t working. That makes watching a movie or playing a game more special and not something they’ll be bored of in 10 minutes.
Board Early (or Late)
Most airlines will allow families with young children to pre-board the flight. This can be very helpful if you have your hands full and just want to get situated on the plane before everyone else is boarding. We’ve done this plenty and it is indeed less stressful when boarding.
Another option is to hang at the gate and board after everyone else. If you know your toddler would benefit from the extra wiggles vs sitting for even longer while everyone else boards, you could consider this option as well.
Sometimes its nice to get on the plane after the last boarding group has been called knowing that you’ll be taking off shortly after vs. answering “when does the plane leave?!” 1,457 times.
I hope these tips for flying with a toddler are helpful for you! Please feel free to share any tips you have as well in the comments! I’m sure they’ll be a helpful resource for others!
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