flying with a toddler

Flying With a Toddler? 21 Secrets to a Stress-Free Flight

Flying With a Toddler? 21 Secrets to a Stress-Free Flight

If you’re planning on flying with a toddler, you might be freaking out.

You've probably seen a multitude of horror stories about toddlers on airplanes. Maybe you’ve been stuck behind a screaming baby on a flight or a melting down preschooler, and the fear is creeping in.

Flying with a toddler can be daunting. 1-3-year-olds are even challenging when they’re in their element! Taking them out of their routines can be like putting water on a gremlin. Traveling is a new experience for many little ones, and toddlers don’t always do well when they don’t know what to expect or when they become overwhelmed.

But as daunting as traveling with your toddler is, it's also totally doable. It can even be a pleasant experience if you take the right steps and prep properly.

We’re going to walk you through those steps and preparations so you can have a stress-free flight (or as close as stress-free as possible!) and avoid a massive meltdown (for both you and your kiddo!)

#1: Prepare Your Toddler for First Flight Fears

flying with a toddler

If this flight is your child's first time on an airplane, they may be nervous about flying. Kids this age often start to fear the unfamiliar and have difficulty verbalizing these fears. If your child is afraid, they may act out instead of saying what is bothering them.

Alleviate some of these fears by talking about the flight beforehand. Just like you do when you’re prepping for vaccinations or the dentist, walk through the entire process with your toddler so they'll know what to expect.

Give your kiddo options to involve them in the process. A script for this might look like:

“First we’ll pack our bags. What toys do you want to pack in your backpack for the flight?”

“We’ll arrive at the airport and we’ll check in for our flight! We get to use these machines to do that, and then we put our suitcases on a fun conveyer belt that takes them away. We’ll see our suitcases again when we land.”

“We’ll board the plane. When we take off, your ears might feel a bit of pressure. Sometimes eating something helps. What snacks would you like to bring for the plane?”

You can play a pretend airport game, watch videos, and read books to prepare your child. Remind your child that they can talk to you about any anxiety they're experiencing, and try to help them verbalize what they're feeling.

#2: Set Your Expectations

Don't let those Instagram photos of adorable toddlers sitting quietly on an airplane fool you. Flying with younger kids is a challenge. If you imagine that everything will be easy, you're only setting yourself up for failure.

Plan for the worst scenarios possible and know that there will be a few hiccups.

Prepare for:

    • Meltdowns
    • Lots of bathroom breaks
    • Spills
    • Overstimulation
    • Fatigue when walking through the airport
    • Your child becoming uncomfortable due to cabin pressure
    • Boredom

If you go into the experience expecting some challenges, you'll be ready to face whatever your toddler throws your way.

#3: Be Strategic About Flight Times

There's no universally perfect time to fly with a toddler. It'll depend on your child's temperament. Some kids do well with an early-morning flight, while others are better off flying at night.

Think about your child's patterns. When do they get cranky? When are they hyper? These are not times you want to fly.

If your toddler is the type of kid who can sleep anywhere, schedule the flight during nap time or bedtime. But if your toddler is a light sleeper and misses nap time, you may be dealing with a grumpy kid for the entire flight.

#4: Choose Either a Direct Flight or a Long Layover

No one wants to dash across an airport between connecting flights. Add a toddler to the mix, and the scene becomes pure chaos. Kids don't do well with quick transitions, so your best bet is to either give them a long transition or don't transition at all.

If your flight isn't ridiculously long, try to find a direct flight. Sometimes it's best to just get it over with and get to your destination.

If the flight is longer and can be broken up, aim for a long layover. Give yourself at least a few hours. Your kids can stretch their legs, grab a bite to eat, and get some of their wiggles out before boarding the next flight. If you have several hours, you can even venture outside to a nearby park to get some fresh air.

#5: Get an Aisle Seat

You may be tempted to get a window seat so that your toddler can look out.

Don’t. You'll be much better off with an aisle seat. You're going to get up and down a lot during your flight, and it'll be much easier to do that from the aisle.

Still not convinced? Imagine how many times you'll have to say excuse me and make the other passenger move their legs so you can get out. You don't want to be that person. If you can't manage to snag an aisle seat, consider asking the person next to you to trade once you board. Once they see your kid, they'll probably agree.

#6: Think Twice About Lap Riders

Most airlines allow lap riders up until the age of two, so this will only apply if you have a younger toddler. While booking your child as a lap rider instead of getting an individual seat can save money, there are few other pros associated with letting your child ride on your lap.

First, the FAA states that kids are safer in an approved seat or harness. Lap riding isn't recommended because it can be challenging to hold your child securely during strong turbulence.

Second, while it may be relatively easy to hold an infant on your lap, you probably don't want a wiggly toddler on you for the duration of your flight. It won't be fun for either of you.

While some parents will book two seats with an empty seat between hoping that the seat won't get taken, this strategy isn't a guarantee. You're just as likely to wind up with an unhappy passenger between you and your partner and a wild toddler on your lap. If you can afford it, it's best to get your child their own seat.

#7: Arrive Early

flying with a toddler

Finding the right time to arrive is a Catch-22. If you're too early, you” have to wrangle your kid while they run all over the airport. If you're too late, you won't have time to deal with any unpredictabilities, and you may wind up missing your flight.

You'll want to find that happy medium so that you have just the right amount of time, with a little extra for mishaps. Typically, you should arrive around two hours before your flight for domestic flights and three hours ahead for international flights.

#8: Navigating the Security Line

Waiting in the airport security line is tough enough. You don't want to get stopped. Make sure to follow all of the airport regulations to help you get through the line quickly. If your child is bringing their own carry-on bag, make sure to check its contents one last time in the car. Kids can often add in a few extra items without your knowledge.

Make sure to wear slip-on shoes. Your child shouldn't have to remove their shoes, but you may want to plan for it just in case. If you have a stroller, you'll need to remove your child and carry them through the metal detector. The stroller will be inspected separately. It's also worth noting that if you're traveling with a toddler, you can bring more than 3.4 oz of liquids like breast milk, formula, milk, and juice.

#9: Make a Plan for Waiting at the Airport

flying with a toddler

Waiting in the airport security line is tough enough. You don't want to get stopped. Make sure to follow all of the airport regulations to help you get through the line quickly. If your child is bringing their own carry-on bag, make sure to check its contents one last time in the car. Kids can often add in a few extra items without your knowledge.

Make sure to wear slip-on shoes. Your child shouldn't have to remove their shoes, but you may want to plan for it just in case. If you have a stroller, you'll need to remove your child and carry them through the metal detector. The stroller will be inspected separately. It's also worth noting that if you're traveling with a toddler, you can bring more than 3.4 oz of liquids like breast milk, formula, milk, and juice.

#10: Schedule in One Last Potty Break / Diaper Change

Make time for one final potty break or diaper change right before the flight. You can't altogether avoid a bathroom mishap, but by scheduling a break right before you board, you can prevent it as much as possible.

#11: Come Up With a Boarding Strategy

If you haven't picked up on this post's theme yet, it's all about the planning. Boarding can be a nightmare. Parents are allowed on early, which is great. You don't want to hold everyone up while you stow all your stuff and get your fidgety kid settled. At the same time, you also don't want to have your kid on the plane any longer than necessary.

If you're traveling with your partner or another adult, you should divide and conquer. One person stays in the terminal with your child while the other boards early and gets everything settled.

If you're on your own, it's best to board early. Your child will have to be confined to a seat for a little bit longer, but at least you won't be dashing to get on the airplane moments before it takes off.

#12: Gate Check Any Gear

Trying to wield a bulky stroller or car seat as you board a plane isn't anybody's idea of fun. Most airlines will allow you to gate check these items at no additional cost. You can usually pick your items up when you exit the plane or near baggage claim.

#13: Or Rent Gear at Your Destination

If you don't want to worry about gear at all, you can always rent items when you reach your destination. Most medium to large cities have businesses that will rent you a car seat, stroller, and any other baby gear you may need. Renting this gear can make the entire process go a little more smoothly.

#14: Use a Car Seat or a Harness

flying with a toddler

The FAA recommends that the safest place for a child on an airplane is in a car seat or a harness*. You can use a car seat if your child is smaller, but if your toddler is over 22 lbs, they can use a CARES harness. A harness is much easier to stash in your carry-on and take out once you're on the plane.

You may not want to use a harness or a car seat, mostly because it's no fun to strap a toddler to a chair for a long flight. However, if you get into some strong turbulence, you'll be grateful to have a way to secure your child.

#15: Dress in Layers

While you likely know that you should dress in layers for a flight, you may not remember that it's essential to dress your child in layers, too. Airplanes have varying temperatures, so it's wise to dress your toddler in a pair of pants, a t-shirt, and a sweater. It's also a good idea to skip the adorable boutique outfit for the flight and go with something a little comfier, like leggings and a comfy shirt.

#16: Pack More Than You'll Need

While you'll usually hear that it's best to be a minimalist when it comes to packing, that's not the case when traveling with a toddler. You don't want to be stuck on a plane without something your child needs. Here are a few suggestions of items you'll want in your carry-on:

    • Diapers (if your child isn't potty trained)
    • Wipes
    • 2-3 extra pairs of underwear if your child is potty trained. You may want to use pull-ups if your child is still learning.
    • Extra outfits for your child and an extra shirt for yourself
    • Ziploc bags
    • Snacks, toys, and activities as listed below

#17: Bring Lots of Snacks

A hungry kid is a grumpy kid. Make sure you bring lots of snacks for the flight. You can't count on the airline to provide much food, and it'll often be something your child doesn't like. Bring an assortment of your child's favorites. Try to bring a few high-protein snacks to curb hunger and pack a few treats. Sometimes, a well-timed snack offering can stop a tantrum or other unwanted behavior.

Snack suggestions:

    • Crackers
    • Cheese sticks (in a cooler)
    • Raisins or other dried fruit
    • Hummus
    • Raw veggies
    • Peanut butter
    • Fruit
    • Dry cereal
    • M&Ms
    • Mini marshmallows

You can even make a kiddie trail mix with M&Ms, marshmallows, dry cereal, and crackers. Something out of the ordinary will keep your kid occupied.

#18: Bring Toys and Activities

Bring plenty of small toys and activities to keep your child occupied during the flight. If your child is nervous, bring a favorite stuffed animal. If you can, you should try to buy a few new toys to surprise your child with once you're on the airplane. The novelty will hold their attention.

If your toddler enjoys coloring or drawing, activity books can be a great way to pass the time. Look for activity books with magnets and stickers to keep younger toddlers busy. Be wary of toys with small parts, such as LEGO. These are easy to drop and you'll be crawling around looking for pieces.

#19: Forget Screen Restrictions

A long flight isn't the time to enforce screen restrictions. It's perfectly fine to let your child zone out in front of a screen for the sake of everyone's sanity. If you're worried about too much screen time, studies show that interactive apps are better than passively watching videos*. Download some new educational apps to keep your toddler engaged.

#20: Protect Your Toddler's Ears

Toddlers have sensitive ears, so you must protect them from the changes in pressure. Gum is one solution, but it can be a choking hazard, so you should only consider it for older toddlers. You can also try a pacifier, sucker, or simply a snack for your child to munch during ascent and descent.

You can purchase special headphones or earplugs that can be helpful. Ear infections can make flying incredibly painful, so if you think your child may have one, you should see a doctor before flying.

#21: Special Situations

As if flying with a toddler isn't hard enough, there are a few special situations that can make it a little more complicated. With a bit of preparation, you can still make things go as smoothly as possible.

Flying Alone With a Toddler

If you're flying alone, it's probably a good idea to bring a stroller with you. Try to get a lightweight stroller that is easy to maneuver and steer with one hand. Make sure you have luggage on wheels that is easy to roll. Also, try to pack as light as possible.

Get a ride or take an Uber to the airport, so you don't have to trek across the parking lot with your toddler. If you need help, ask for it. The flight attendants are there to help you, so don't be afraid to ask for assistance.

Flying With a Toddler and a Baby

Flying with a baby is tough and flying with a toddler is tough, but put the two together, and you have the potential for a disaster. You may want to invest in TSA Precheck, so you don't have to wait in a security line and the option that lets you choose your own seats.

A stroller is handy, and a baby carrier is a must. If one of your kids is needy and the other is more chill, attend to the needier kid as much as possible. If possible, try to schedule your flight during at least one of your children's nap times.

Flying With a Sick Child

Flying can be difficult with a sick kid, but there may be times when you can't avoid it. Before your flight, you'll need to check with your child's pediatrician to make sure they're okay to fly. You'll also want to contact the airline to see what their policy is. Some flights won't let you on board if your child is running a fever.

Make sure to have all of your child's medications with you. If your child is running a fever or has pain, give them a dose of Tylenol a half-hour before takeoff. You'll want to bring some comforting things with you, like a stuffed animal and your child's favorite snack. Also, bring plenty of fluids.

Flying With A Toddler Doesn't Have to be Dreadful

You don't have to dread flying with a toddler. As with most things in life, your experience is what you make it out to be. If you prepare as best you can, have a positive attitude, and treat it like an adventure, you and your child will be ready to fly the friendly skies.

Have you flown with a toddler? Let us know how it went.

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