A 12 Step Guide to Flying With Toddlers

Because, let's face it, they're harder than babies.
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Published April 4, 2018
Happy toddler on airplane with relaxed parents
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There’s a reason parents dread traveling on a plane with children, especially toddlers. The terrible twos and the ups and downs of kids who quickly go from happy to angry—and unafraid to let others know it—make flying with toddlers even harder than flying with infants.

It doesn’t have to be this way! With planning and preparation, parents can boost their odds of a successful flight and continue traveling to places beyond driving distance. I believe that parents shouldn’t have to sacrifice the things they love, and should find ways to share that love with their kids, even if that means facing challenges along the way. Sometimes, getting through those challenges can actually help parents and their children grow together.

When I first flew with my twins, they were infants. While the flight was far from easy because they didn’t want to sleep, eventually they did. Four hours of the six-hour flight were pretty easy for us. We even managed to get some sleep. Now, with two toddlers, we have to be even more prepared if we want to fly international. We’ve had to learn how to cope with the unexpected and accept that things won’t work exactly how we want them to. For two parents used to control, this is the hardest part. So we’re sharing 12 tips we learned along the way to enjoy a successful flight and vacation.

1. Plan The flight ahead

Secure the bulkhead seats by calling the airline. These seats, at the front of each section with a wall ahead of them, rather than more seats, are usually reserved for parents traveling with young children. If requested far enough ahead of time, can be easily booked without any additional cost. There’s additional legroom for parents which can double as a space to keep playing kids contained. Many airlines also have a pull-out bassinet in the bulkead too.

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To get these seats, you may need to be persistent. On our flight, we were originally told that they couldn’t guarantee the seat for us until check-in, but a call a day later with a different agent netted us confirmed seats that usually cost the premium economy upgrade fee for nothing. If possible, I suggest buying a separate seat for toddlers. (On some airlines, depending on the flight, children under the age of 2 can sit in your lap.) While they may love cuddling at home, they might not love it for the full duration of a plane ride. This usually costs far less than a full fare ticket.

2. Use Bedtime As A Tool

International flights tend to have overnight options. Book flights around bedtime, ideally about one hour before the normal time to give them a chance to calm down, get used to the setting and fall asleep. This also helps in the case of a minor delay. Our boys refused to sleep on our first flight until two hours after their bedtime. They got so overtired they couldn’t settle down. Once they fell asleep though, they were out for the rest of the flight and gave us time to ourselves.

3. Find The Airport’s Play Areas

Get children tired out before the flight by letting them run amok at the airport’s play area. Many major airports have at least one, often sponsored by a local museum or science center with things to climb on and over. These are perfect both for keeping toddlers busy before boarding and getting them tired for the flight. It also helps to keep them from falling asleep in a stroller or on seats at the gate right before boarding. Speaking from experience, waking up a toddler who has just fallen asleep before marching them onto a plane is a terrible idea.

4. Get Help From Anyone You Can

Other than parents of young children, the only people more likely to get assistance and perks at an airport are honeymooners. Take advantage of it. At security, if you ask for help with the stroller, you might be surprised at how friendly and helpful TSA agents can actually be. At the gate, make friends with the agents who can help with pre-boarding, gate-checking the stroller, and help with the seats if there are any issues. On the flight itself, get familiar with the flight attendants as soon as you board. They can help throughout the flight with the bassinet, getting snacks and getting settled in. These folks can be huge helps if you’re nice to them.

5. Pack Cups, Not Milk

Getting milk—whether breast milk or store-bought—through security is completely legal and possible, but not a fun experience. Everything gets scrutinized, and less experienced agents may not know the official policies. They don’t tend to be super friendly if you correct them, either. Especially when it comes to store-bought milk, it’s far easier to leave it at home and get it in the terminal or on the plane instead. Bring empty cups and either buy milk at the airport stores or ask for it on the plane itself. There’s usually a lull during boarding before takeoff when flight attendants have no problem providing it. Sucking down milk is a great way for toddlers to stay calm during takeoff. It can their help ears pop from the pressure, and may even make them sleepy.

6. Overpack Games, Puzzles, Books And Snacks

While the goal is to aim for sleep, not activity, this isn’t always going to work and a back-up plan is important. It’s better to have games and books that you don’t end up using than not have them when they could be your last resort and secret weapon. New situations also offer new perspective, so that book your child loves for hours at home may not be of interest to them at all on a flight, but that other one they’ve never picked up will suddenly occupy them for hours. New toys are also great for this; the novelty can be interesting for a while. Books, wooden puzzles, busy-boards and coloring books are great for flights because they pack pretty easily and don’t require movement to be used. I love the Melissa & Doug Wooden Latches Boards and their reusable coloring books that use water instead of crayons to minimize mess.

7. Know That Takeoff And Landing Are The Hardest Times

Getting through the times where the seatbelt sign is on can be the hardest part of the flight. Most toddlers don’t like being restrained for lengths of time and just want to get up and explore the plane. Our boys decided they would get up and walk up to every single person on the plane to say hi. Take off and landing are the times to heavily rely on books and toys. With the bulkhead seats, there’s at least some contained room to move around when the sign is off. Otherwise, the aisle, while it will result in some funny looks, is really your only option.

8. It’s Not The Time To Enforce Every Rule

Flights are one of the few times I allow the relaxation of some of our rules. We don’t do any screen time at home, but when we’re out of options, a game or video on the seatback screen is acceptable. Realistically, it’s not going to start a habit. We run a tight bedtime routine at home and never go past 7:00 p.m., but on a flight, we know that might not be possible. We also don’t encourage snacking at home, but if one of the boys is throwing a full-on tantrum, it’s time to give cookies, chips or pretzels a try. Snacks are another great tool to pack on flights—even healthy ones. Parents might worry about disrupting eating routines, but the jet lag and time difference will do that anyway, so why not utilize snacks to maintain the peace?

9. Use The Bulkhead And Aisles For Sleep

At home, our boys usually put themselves to bed without a big fight each night and fall asleep without intervention. However, a disruption like the new experience of a plane can be so exciting, it totally breaks that routine. In these cases, it might be necessary to revert to infant mode and rock them to sleep in the aisle before they will actually sleep. It can take a while, but consider it some bonus exercise. Once they fall asleep, use the bulkhead’s bassinet, which might be a little small, but still better than nothing, or even the floor padded with a few airline blankets. Our boys not only slept for hours in their makeshift floor and bassinet bunk beds, they also had an absolute ball cracking each other up by playing peekaboo above and below each other when they woke up.

10. Don’t Worry About Anyone Else

This is probably the hardest one for parents, but worrying about what others think or if they are judging will only make the situation more stressful and worse. No parent wants to be the stereotypical “bad parent” on a plane with a screaming kid, but there’s a reason it’s so prevalent. Parents need to do what they need to do and what’s best for their children, regardless of whether it interrupts another passenger’s enjoyment of their inflight movie.

11. Grab Sleep When Possible

The temptation to watch a movie while your toddler is sleeping is strong. But getting some actual sleep is far more valuable. I know on the first day of a vacation after the flight, I’d be much happier if I’d grabbed two hours of sleep rather than watch the latest superhero movie. Even a few hours of sleep can be the difference between making it through the first jet lagged day of vacation and suffering through it. The worst thing to do for jet lag, especially for children, is to immediately take an afternoon nap when in a new place. Getting adjusted to the time quickly is critical for enjoying and making the most of a vacation.

12. Accept The Problems And Roll With Them

Things aren’t going to work out exactly as you planned. On the flip side, some things will be easier than expected. By planning for the worst, anything less than the worst will seem great. But even if things do go terribly, parents need to do their best to accept this and move on. Even the most epic meltdown won’t ruin the rest of your vacation.

It’s easy to feel like toddlers are intentionally ruining things. But even the most smart and aware toddlers are still developing their cognition and emotional skills. They don’t know how to process new information and new situations well. These tantrums and breakdowns aren’t malicious; they are a sign of frustration. Remembering this might be the difference between a bad flight that is a side note to an otherwise great vacation, and a bad flight causing a bad vacation.

Tyler Lund is the founder and lead contributor to Dad on the Run. Tyler is a software development manager, tech nerd, home-brewer, 3-time marathoner, and rescue dog owner. Tyler loves traveling to new and unique places a bit off the beaten path and sharing stories from these adventures. A foodie with a taste for the unique, Tyler enjoys trying anything new.

Published April 2018

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