If you haven’t experienced it yourself, you’ve heard the horror stories. Or you’ve heard the screams of the child a couple rows behind you on a plane. You know that bad, bad things can happen when traveling with a toddler. Loud things. And now you’re about to step on that gangway. Because you’ve discovered that parents with toddlers want to travel, too, and that sometimes that means getting onto a plane.
You can do it! But I can’t promise it will be fun, and anybody who does is a liar. Some kids do great, some don’t, and the same kid can be a peach one flight and a devil the next. Most of the time you’ll never even know why they’re so pissed off. After all, this is a toddler. It may be that she hates the color of the shirt on the guy across the aisle. Who knows? But I still think you should do it (family travel is worth it!), so I’m sharing my top tips for improving your chances of a peaceful, or at least bloodless, flight.
Schedule Your Flight Carefully
Even this isn’t without difficulty, because now you are wondering if you should schedule the flight at night so the child will just sleep through it, or during the day? Will your kid even sleep on the plane? No one knows and it’s up to you to find out.
Personally, I have experienced the screams of a kid who won’t sleep on the plane, and I prefer to schedule flights that are NOT in the middle of the night or nap time. I feel it’s easier to distract them when they’re awake and happy. Obviously, sometimes the flight is long, and they are going to have to sleep, somehow, someway. However, try to avoid nap-time occurring right while the plane is boarding, for example, because the chaos of Gate D10 and an overtired baby are a terrible combo. It’s better if they can get settled and comfortable first.
Whatever you do: never fly after bedtime. I mean, you can risk it if you want. It’s a free country. My husband has talked me into a red-eye with a toddler before. Let’s just say he’s still paying for it.
Make it as Comfortable as Possible
A teddy bear, a blanket, a little pillow, the pacifier you’re trying to break them of…whatever they need to sleep, bring it. Play lullabies on your phone and ignore the person next to you if they complain. After all, would they rather hear lullabies or screaming? One product that may help is an inflatable footrest that makes a little bed for your kiddo — it would be worth a try on long-haul flights. Airplanes do naturally provide white noise, so there’s that.
Consider their ears, too: often kids cry because it will equalize the pressure in their ears. If your child still uses pacifiers or bottles or is nursing, take advantage of those during take-off and landing. I rarely give my kids juice, so I have used a juice-filled sippy cup to make my two- year-old swallow in order to pop his ears while flying —he’ll guzzle that sweet stuff down. If you’re child doesn’t enjoy any of those things, try a teething toy or giving them a firm cookie to chew on, and when all else fails, well, take off and landing don’t last forever.
Note: the flight will inherently be more comfortable if your child has his/her own seat. However, I am cheap, so I have flown with plenty of lap infants (kids under age two, who fly for free on a parent’s lap). Also, there is considerable disagreement among parents about whether or not your child is better off in a car seat. I am not stepping into that debate, because of course your child is safer buckled into a car seat; however, whether or not your child will be happier in it is completely dependent on your child.
Have a Giant Bag of Tricks
Toddlers have short attention spans. You’re going to need a lot of little distractions. A variety of snacks is a necessity. An iPad/tablet with games and movies is useful, but so are books, toys, and other little distractions like mirrors, masking tape, and measuring tape. Wrapping their toys in wrapping paper can keep them occupied for while, as most kids like unwrapping. I recommend avoiding any toys with little parts that will get lost or dropped. A few of my favorite toys for travel with little ones at this age are:
- One or two little toy cars to drive over the seats; these are great through airports too
- Some type of activity book for their little hands to work on
- Paper to color on and washable crayons or markers, if your child is old enough/inclined to color
- Magnetic blocks like Tegu blocks; a small set of 4-6 pieces can keep them busy taking them apart and putting them back together
- A doodle pad is good for all ages, too
Plan for Messes
Body fluids, drinks, food…allllllllll the messes. You have to plan for emergencies, and not just diaper blowouts. (If you haven’t had to change diapers on a plane before, read this first.) What if the kid gets a stomach flu on the flight? I’ve been there, and it wasn’t pretty. What if the plane is stuck on the tarmac for seven hours? This shit happens. Bring spare clothes — for toddlers I believe in two extra sets of clothes for the kid and an extra shirt for myself. You should also pack Ziplock bags, wet wipes, and lots of diapers. You’ll probably need it all.
Be Willing to do Whatever it Takes
You will not be reading the great American novel on this flight. In fact, don’t bother bringing anything for yourself. If magic happens and your child sleeps, you can read the in-flight magazine and look at all the glossy photos of people on vacations without toddlers. You’re going to be playing peek-a-boo, making silly faces, and keeping as calm as possible so your kid will stay calm. You will also likely be walking up and down the aisle a million times. I don’t feel guilty about this anymore. As long as the seatbelt sign is off, if I have a super wiggly toddler (or crawler), I just get up rather than trying to keep the fussy tot seated. It’s just not worth it. Flight attendants are usually very understanding. And yes, you will want to use a lot of hand sanitizer on your kid afterward.
Have an Emergency Plan — Like Lollipops
At some point, there may be a total meltdown and screaming that you just cannot stop. I do not support the movement of apologizing to other passengers for the existence of your child, but it is on you to try every trick imaginable to keep your kiddo quiet. Maybe it’s not lollipops for you, but any normally forbidden item can often get a child’s attention and stop tears in their tracks. My kids don’t get suckers very often at home, so I pack a bunch of Dum-Dums in the bottom of my carry-on on every trip. They work like a charm every time, and since they take a few minutes to lick, they buy you time. Will you pay for the sugar rush later? Sure. But airplane flights don’t last forever. They can crash when you get home.
It’s really not as bad as I’m making it sound. Most other passengers will smile at your adorable tot and even given you a sympathetic hand every now and then. However, I do believe a little preparation makes for a great trip. Happy travels!