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Flying with a Small Child

Airplane Travel With a Toddler

By Amalah

Hi, Amalah,

Congratulations on your soon-to-arrive newest boy! That’s so exciting! You make some darn cute babies!

Advice Smackdown ArchivesI’ve been dragging my feet on asking this question but I finally have to ask for help: My husband, 2.5 year old son, and I will be flying from Portland, OR to Chicago, IL in about 2 weeks and I don’t know what to do to help make the trip easier for my son. The first and only time he flew, it was a disaster. I wasn’t prepared, he was 6 months younger, and it was just a mess. He was miserable, I was miserable, and the sweet, kind people on the plane were miserable.

Do you have any suggestions for how to make this trip go more smoothly? Toys, tricks, anything? We have a row of three seats to ourselves and we’ll be toward the back of the plane. We’re going to get a portable DVD player, some new toys that he won’t get until the day of the trip, his security blanket (of course), and some good, nutritionally-lacking snacks.

I hate the thought of him being miserable and sad and confused and anything that we can do to make it a less annoying trip for him means a less annoying trip for everyone else on the plane. And less gray hair for mama.

Thank you!
-j

Honestly, your existing plan sounds extremely solid. There’s probably not a whole lot I can add to that list, other than “take a deep breath and accept that sometimes, IT JUST DEPENDS.” Sometimes, your kid will get on a plane and be miserable. Sometimes, your kid will get on a plane and make everybody else miserable. And sometimes, your kid will get on a plane and be an absolute perfect angel and the other passengers will give you a standing ovation after you land because your kid has been so wonderful…but then it’s time for your return flight and that same wonderful child decides to SPROUT HORNS and KICK TRAY TABLES and WHINE and WAIL and THROW THINGS.

I have not, personally, taken my kids on that many flights, but the Internet advice I received lined up pretty well with what you’re already planning: a DVD player or laptop, a generous supply of new small toys, and an even more generous supply of crappy special snacks. I would probably qualify this list with a couple additional tips, including:

1) Making sure your son is okay with wearing the headphones for the DVD player BEFORE the day of the flight. This ended up being more of a challenge than we expected.

2) The toys should be checked and screened for noise-making ability ahead of time. We picked up some Dollar Store doo-dahs that we didn’t realize squeaked or rattled, and a talking toy Zurg from Toy Story 2 with NO OFF SWITCH and an easily-activated-from-inside-a-backpack button so we were the jerks at airline security with a bag that occasionally said stuff like, “WE MEET AGAIN, BUZZ LIGHTYEAR, FOR THE LAST TIME!” and “I. AM. YOUR. FATHER.”

3) The snacks should include stuff your son to help with the ear pressure thing. My kids aren’t gum chewers, so we brought lollipops, super-chewy fruit leather and sippy cups with straws. We purchased thick fruit yogurt smoothies at a stand near our gate and put them into the cups before boarding. If you have those homeopathic earache drops in your medicine cabinet, those might be worth tossing into your carry-on as well, just for emergency ear-numbing peace of mind. (Though you’ll probably want to apply them in the bathroom, if your kid is just as much of a fan of them as mine are, which is not at all. I brought them as a worst-case scenario sort of thing, but thankfully never used them in-flight.)

And on that note, the worst-case scenario probably WON’T happen, and you are soooo not doomed to repeat your last experience. Six months is a developmental eternity in toddler years, and this time your son might be way more interested in the whole AIRPLANE YAY!!! experience, or more apt to be lulled into a nice quiet video stare with the right movie or TV show. You weren’t prepared last time — and this time you’ll be more than prepared. Your flight could fall at a different time in his schedule and he’ll be more generally happy/accepting of the situation or put his head down in your lap and fall asleep. (Noah made it through take-off on his very first flight at age four, despite talking non-stop about going on a plane for WEEKS, then promptly passed out from all the excitement and slept straight through the first leg of the trip.) You just don’t know.

And so, really, my best advice is to proceed with everything you’re already planning, but to also focus on YOURSELF and ways to keep YOURSELF calm, so your anxiety about your son’s possible behavior won’t like, seep from every pore and rub off on him. (They can ALWAYS sense when Mama is worked up, you know?) Remind yourself that it won’t be YOUR FAULT if your kid makes a scene on the flight, that you’ll likely never see any of your scowling, judging fellow passengers again, and that believe it or not,  somewhere on the flight are people and parents who also were once in your shoes and understand.  Be optimistic and bring your own Kindle or iPod to enjoy once you get your son settled in with a movie or toys. Order a damn drink, whatever. It’ll be over in just a few hours.

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Caroline
Guest
Caroline

Stickers! And some kind of album to put them in. Keeps them occupied and fits in every handbag. Good luck!

bobo plants
Guest
bobo plants

Yes they r brill

Amy
Guest
Amy

I just flew cross-country with my 17 month-old. I happened to have dried apple rings, and they were chewy enough to help his ears. I had a sippy cup too. He also got some juice from the flight attendant, and boy was that a hit since he doesn’t normally get juice. I buy him his own seat even though he’s young enough to be a lap child. I usually fly on long flights with him by myself, and I can’t imagine having an now even squirmier kid on my lap. Some airlines offer discounted tickets for children. Bring the car… Read more »

Olivia
Guest
Olivia

I just took my 2 yr old on her second flight recently and I wasn’t even as prepared as the OP. I had snacks, books and one stuffed animal, but didn’t brink out anything except the snacks because she was so much more interested in the planes and moving walkway at the airport. On the plane she slept and looked at the Sky Mall mag. On our return flight I was alone with her and our flight was very delayed so I was worried she would break down. But again, she was just so jazzed about the planes and the… Read more »

Lunnette
Guest

OMG markers and coloring books. A wipe will remove washable markers from plastic and metal surfaces. My kid is not usually allowed markers, so such a mess-making activity is a big hit. Also stickers, stamps and pipe cleaners. Messy, but not permanently so.

Megan
Guest
Megan

This is all great advice – I have a two year old that I’ve taken on 5 or 6 plane rides already, including once to Asia (that, I wouldn’t say was really fun). He’s done great on all the flights, for the most part, and everything here is great advice. I second, third and fourth the DVD player – that’s a godsend! Also, the packing of FAR more diapers, snacks, milk, juice, etc. than you ever anticipate needing – you never know when a delay will happen, and I hate relying on the airport “convenience” stores. Pack one carry-on bag… Read more »

Lori
Guest
Lori

I can’t recommend the car seat enough. Not only are they used to it, it raises them up so they can see out the window better.  

Ensure you’ll have enough time.  Plan on everything taking twice as long as it should.  This will give your boy enough time to explore the airport, run around, get changed, etc.  You need to remain as calm and relaxed as possible, and having to hurry your child along and constantly redirect will just upset him and you.

Good luck!

Katie
Guest
Katie

I’m going to be labeling myself as a horrible person for even typing this—but when you buy headphones, make sure if they’re a kids pair, that the volume “ear protection” feature isn’t set too low. We had one set of headphones where you couldn’t hear a single thing once the background noise of the plane factored in. We’ve had the most luck with pair of cheap-ish adult noise cancelling headphones that were adjustable enough to put over a small head, and really padded around the ears.

Amelia
Guest

My son and I flew to Phoenix while I was 6 months pregnant.  Ask for family pre-boarding if you can to get situated, and then try to be the last ones off the plane – I found that people around me felt this was a giant courtesy.  Also, we took our carseat on the plane – it is a Graco Nautilus, and because my son is used to it, he didn’t freak out when put in it, it was totally routine.  Also, it kept him immobile during the flight, and helped him to sleep.  I will ALWAYS take a carseat… Read more »

Sally
Guest
Sally

For snacks, make sure you bring something that is more substantial than Cheerios and the exciting junk food(which is also crucial), if your kids are like mine.  They turn into angry monsters when they haven’t had enough real food.  Not sure if it’s the protein, fat, or what, but we need more than granola bars for an airplane flight.  Consider cheese sticks, beef jerky, nuts, dried fruit, peanut butter, etc.  This also prevents CRISIS EMERGENCY if you had been planning on getting a meal during a layover, but run out of time.  

Erin
Guest
Erin

I just wanted to say, from a frequent cross-country traveler’s perspective, that I scowl at the people on planes who are scowling at the parents of kids who are melting down. It’s your own fault if you didn’t bring an iPod/headphones/noise-canceling headset. We all have to share the plane and sometimes kids have trouble traveling. It is what it is! I say (to the judgey-glarey people), put your headphones in, crank the volume, and close your eyes. 🙂 Good luck!

Rachael
Guest
Rachael

PREBOARD, yes. And if the airline people are being dicks and don’t specifically call for families with small children to preboard? Step up for yourself and cut in line. I had to have some rookie mom’s prod me to do this while going on a discount airline (Allegiant), but it was worth it. And no one really minded, since everyone knows that people with babies are SUPPOSED to get on first. And also YES to being the LAST one off the plane. You’re not in anyone’s way and also don’t feel stressed and rushed. Also I second the buying-them-a-seat thing.… Read more »

HereWeGoAJen
Guest

I’ve taken my daughter on about six flights and only one was truly horrible, when she was seven months old and it was bedtime. If you are on one of the planes that lets you chose your own seat (which it didn’t sound like, but I wasn’t sure), I always get on first and then hold the baby up above the seats while everyone else boards. This lets all the jerks self-select and they sit elsewhere and leave us alone while all the people who love babies sit near you. Once, when she was crying during boarding and the plane… Read more »

Linden
Guest

We also live in Portland, and most of my family is on the East Coast, so we do a fair amount of travel with our two kids.  Our son is about the same age as your son, and we just flew to Florida and back this month, so the experience is very fresh in my mind. One thing that we didn’t anticipate prior to this trip was that our son at this age really needs advance warning of what to expect.  We had a number of meltdowns in the airport during our most recent trip.  The first one was because… Read more »

Rachel C
Guest
Rachel C

Bring a giant jar of earplugs for the other passengers in case your child gets a case of The Screams. My boyfriend and I took a red-eye from Hawaii to California once and we had babies in the row in front of us AND directly behind us. THEY BOTH SCREAMED THE ENTIRE 6 HOURS. I would have paid $100 for earplugs that night. I’m sure those poor parents assumed their babies would sleep the whole time but they did not. Yes, the other passengers could bring their own earplugs…but they don’t know if possibly screamy babies will be on their… Read more »

Christine
Guest
Christine

Sooo happy to see this topic today!  I’ve been trying to find the time to write my own Dear Amalah letter about this.  We’ll be taking a trip to California (from Michigan) in August with our 6 month old daughter (I’m not very happy about this- pushy family, I wanted her to have more shots before flying, etc, etc)  And I’m somewhat afraid of not only the flight but just what “stuff” we’re going to use once there.  I’ve just added a GoGo Babyz to my Amazon cart (thanks everyone that commented above), so we’ll be bringing our Keyfit 30… Read more »

IrishCream
Guest
IrishCream

Christine, I flew with my daughter when she was four months (easy, she slept the whole way) and then last weekend at nine months. An older, more mobile baby was a little trickier, but much easier than I had feared. We have a Snap and Go stroller frame that our Graco carseat snaps onto, and we gate-checked both with no problems. The stroller frame would not have fit onto the plane the way that Go Go Babyz device would have, but it was extremely handy to have that extra storage space underneath for a carry-on, and then of course you… Read more »

Olivia
Guest
Olivia

Christine, personally for a 6 month old, I’d skip buying an extra seat to put the car seat in and check it with my suitcase. Wear the baby at the airport and use a backpack for your carry-on and you’ll be totally hands free. Then buy a cheap-o umbrella stroller when you get there. Plane tix are so expensive, I was happy to take advantage of keeping my kiddo on my lap for her first two trips. YMMV.

Ms. Huis Herself
Guest

I’ve done a few on-my-own-with-my-toddler transAtlantic flights. If you wrap the new toys in tissue paper/old comics, they’re even more like presents! Plus, you can tell which they’ve gotten so far. I’d actually go with familiar & healthy snacks w maybe a couple of treats – tummies can get upset traveling & meal times are erratic, so having healthy-ish snacks worked well for us. Also, overnight diapers hold more! In fact, here’s a tips-and-hints post I did back closer to when I’d actually done all that travel with her. That way I won’t be leaving an uber-long comment here! http://tinyurl.com/kidonaplane

tasterspoon
Guest
tasterspoon

My baby is 6 months and has been on 6 cross country flights. Five of them went great! Two toys that worked well on the planes were hand puppets (they can be silent) and those tiny music boxes with the hand crank (not silent, but relatively quiet so baby has to hush to hear it). The puppets were also a hit with a 2 year old during church at our destination. I must point out that two of those airplanes DID NOT HAVE CHANGING TABLES in the lavatories. On one, the flight attendants were super nice, laying down blankets on… Read more »

cagey
Guest

I’ve flown a lot with my kids and have been lucky to have had only one hellish flight.  *Shudder.* First and foremost, let your kid explore and run a bit in the gate/waiting area before boarding.  I always let my kids stretch their legs and it went a long ways in helping them not be so antsy on flights.  It makes me sad when I see folks keeping their kids penned up BEFORE the flight.  Sure enough, the kid is a MESS by the end of the flight because they’ve been cooped for so long. Also?  Empty/non-charged gift cards –… Read more »

Wallydraigle
Guest

Yeah, that sounds pretty good to me. I do suggest putting your kid in a heavy-duty diaper for the flight, though. One that will contain a lot of liquid. Changing a kid in an airplane bathroom is a total nightmare unless he’s the size of a postage stamp, and please don’t be that person who changes him right there in the seat Please only do that if there’s absolutely no other alternative. . I brought Dum-Dums for the older one. Her mouth isn’t big enough for a regular sucker, but those are perfect for takeoff and landing. . I brought… Read more »

glittergirley
Guest
glittergirley

I’m a frequent flyer with NO kids and I have absolutely no problem when I hear other people’s kids cry/fuss/scream. First of all the background noise of the plane practically cancels out kid noises, so unless you are sitting right next to the kid you can’t really tell anyway (which means the kids sound louder to the mom, but probably don’t bother other people as much). most people have headphones or earplugs anyway and those who don’t and get angry at baby noises are mean grouches. I mean, come on, its an airplane, not a library! Honestly I prefer to… Read more »

Stephanie
Guest
Stephanie

I’ve flown with my 23 month old daughter over a dozen roundtrip flights since she was born — the only horrible flight was at 6 months old. I cannot emphasize enough how important having a car seat is. My daughter squirms like crazy, but she’s totally complacent in her car seat. Here is our one mistake: we just flew home this week from Chicago, where my in-laws live. I assumed that 1 hour and 45 minutes was plenty of time to check luggage and get through security. It wasn’t. We had to run to our gate (only to be then… Read more »

AngelB
Guest
AngelB

Here is my mantra when I fly with my kids – “I will never see these people again.”  I just say it over and over to myself when the little ones get restless and I start to worry about annoying the other passengers.  Half the time what gets my kids worked up is my being so anxious about annoying the other passengers.  Then I end up being short with the kids and my frustration leads to their getting louder and more inconsolable.  If I can just stay calm I can wind them back down and we have a good trip.… Read more »

Juila
Guest

I flew with my daughter at days shy of one and a few months shy of two. The just under two trip was a lot easier. The increased language capacity made it easier to get our points across to each other. Saw someone else mention stickers, and yup. Be silly. Put them on your nose, your partner’s nose, your son’s nose. Is he into colouring? Blank paper and a couple of crayons (not a whole box because JESUS, no kid, you can’t have ALL OF THEM AT ONCE!) Got any books about little kids and air travel? There’s a Caillou… Read more »

Amy
Guest
Amy

Amy here again. I also recommend bringing extra clothes on board for kiddo, and for you (tops mostly). Babies are wont to do icky things all over you on a plane or in the airport, and turbulence can do nasty things to anyone. I second the Snap n Go when traveling with an infant in an infant car seat. If you don’t buy kiddo a ticket, you can check both the stroller and the car seat at the gate. If you don’t buy a ticket, ask the gate agent if there might be an open seat. They might be willing… Read more »

Another Rachel
Guest
Another Rachel

There is an amazing amount of good advice here already, but I will add a couple of things I haven’t seen mentioned. First, if the flight crew seems receptive to having company, try striking up a conversation with them when they’re not busy. Plenty of bored flight attendants LOVE being able to interact with an adorable toddler, and what kid doesn’t like being the center of attention? Hard to be upset when everyone is smiling at you. Second, do not underestimate the Daddy Effect. If Daddy is the one pacing the aisle with his fussy little one, people seem to… Read more »

heather
Guest
heather

Great advice here. The only things I have to add all falls under the category of Take Care of Yourself too. That is, don’t over pack. Pack toys, snacks, etc. for the plane but don’t bring a pack’n’play, big stroller, 12 pairs of shoes, etc. Make getting through the airport easy on yourselves. If you don’t want to bring your car seat on the plane (we don’t) then consider renting one once you get to your destination so you have one less thing to deal with checking. We travel with an umbrella stroller, our backpacks, one suitcase and THAT’S IT.… Read more »

JayelleMo
Guest
JayelleMo

So much good advice here, so I’ll only add one more:

Band-aids. If you run out of stickers, band-aids are awesome. Stick them to themselves, stick them to their stuffed animals, stick them to Mom and Dad. Plus actually helpful in case of any sort of bump. 

Jae
Guest
Jae

Thank you, everyone, for the suggestions, ideas, and, most of all, your kindness.   Logically speaking, I know it won’t be my fault if my boy has a meltdown but, as his mother (and as every other mom in the world sometimes), I’m so quick to shoulder the blame.  It was a relief to hear someone say it’s not my fault.  It was also a relief to hear people encourage me to take care of myself, too.  I was so focused on him that I totally forgot that a key component of him not losing his shit is making sure… Read more »

bhn
Guest

I actually disagree with the preboarding advice. I feel like preboarding just traps a toddler in a crappy environment for longer than necessary. My trick is for one parent to preboard with the stroller, carseat, diaper bag, etc. The other parent stays in the gate area with the toddler, having one last diaper change, handwash, play, look at the plane, run, etc. Then board with the toddler at the last minute, where her snacks, toys, etc. are all ready for her. The worst part of flying with a toddler for me is the part where they’re on the plane but… Read more »

Liz
Guest

I like the CARES harness for my daughter who just turned 3. We’ve been using it since she was 19 months old. She gets her own seat, is buckled in and I don’t have to lug an enormous car seat on the plane and install it. I always gate check the car seat, though. I’m paranoid it won’t get to our destination and I don’t want to be stuck at an airport without a car seat. For the plane ride I bring her portable DVD player and a selection of movies–SigningTime, Sesame Street, some Pixar too. Also washable crayons and… Read more »

Karen Odea
Guest

As pointed out, I think the key is stimulation for your toddler so that they can play or use something familiar which helps take their mind off the noise and unfamiliar environment of the plane and helps make the time go so much quicker 

Hillary
Guest
Hillary

I’ve flown by myself with my now 16 month old daughter many times. This most recent trip I realized I cannot hold her in my lap – it is way too unfair to the people next to me as she squirms and pats them and I’m in total paranoid agony. It is nice to hear that others have cried traveling alone with babies. I think it is just really hard and you feel all this pressure because at least once in your life you were the person on the plane sending evil thoughts to the parents of that horrible toddler… Read more »

Susan
Guest
Susan

Definitely read the first Related Post above, where Amalah talks about their flight to Jamaica – I bought the first item mentioned, the Traveling Toddler Carseat Accessory, and it was AWESOME – strapped the carseat right to the wheelie suitcase and away we went. My 2.5 yo son thought it was the coolest thing ever (and it’s a lot cheaper than the Go-Go thing). Also, I agree with bhn – do NOT take your child on the plane first. Send Dad with the carseat and the bag o’ entertainment and let him get that all situated, then be one of… Read more »

Cathy
Guest
Cathy

Everyone has given great advice…the carseat is a godsend because they are used to the idea that they are restrained when in it and the GoGo Baby wheels make lugging it along so much easier.  While I also bring along lots of junk food treats, I do try to focus more on chips and salty snacks than sugar (but chewy things are useful for ears). I just don’t want to add a sugar high and inevitable crash into the mix of things that can go wrong. My kids go bonkers over the individual packages of chips.  I also like trails… Read more »

Sonja
Guest

The only thing I’d add is that my kid’s tendency seems to be to scream/cry/complain a lot during take-off and then be completely fine the rest of the way. So if your son is miserable during take-off, don’t let it scare you.

Eileen
Guest
Eileen

If it’s two parents and one child, buying a seat for the child and getting an entire row is AWESOME. Kid can play between you during the flight and not escape or bother anyone else. Our next flight will be more of a challenge because we’ll have two kids and will need to split up, but we’re doing a 3-1 split (with the second adult right across the aisle) so we still have an entire row to ourselves. Also, last time, I hit the dollor store and bought a ton of cheapie surprisesd to keep her amused, and will likely… Read more »

Holly
Guest
Holly

This will sound weird, but something that works for car trips is a loop of masking tape, sticky side out, around the child’s palm. You’d be amazed how long they’ll be amused by sticking their hand to the seat, their face, etc., and peeling it off again. Needless to say, the tape gets really gross, but the kid is entertained. 🙂

Good luck!

Tracey
Guest
Tracey

We did two long haul flights last year with our two children, and did pretty much what you are doing, the portable DVD player was a life saver, can’t recommend it enough. We also brought along little toys, new ones because of their novelty value, stickers, wipe clean books, and markers. And snacks. Having done all this though, our three year old did not do well on a couple of landings, and both times she was seated with my husband, and the cabin staff won’t let you get up when the plane is getting ready to land, so I couldn’t… Read more »

Jae
Guest
Jae

You guys! OP here and I wanted to pop back in to say that things went SOOOO well! My kiddo was an angel and all your advice was spot on, particularly the part where mama chilled the eff out. Thank you, everyone, a million times over. And, thank you, Amy!

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