Successfully Flying with a Toddler

My family travels a good bit, and having a baby did not slow us down much. We are much more wary about traveling, but we have not been deterred. Maybe it is foolish, selfish, or just plain crazy, but this kiddo has flown to Boston, Miami, Orlando, Baltimore, Dallas, Raleigh, Tampa, Atlanta, and a few other places in his short time on planet earth, and we have never regretted it! Now, this was mostly when he was an infant. It was easy then, and we didn’t even know it!

All we really had to do was entertain him with the new people and surroundings for a few minutes once we were on the plane, feed him, and then snuggle him until he fell asleep. He would usually sleep for a good portion of the trip, and if he cried, people understood. Who is really going to get upset at a crying baby? Upset infants with stressed out parents typically elicit sympathy from most people. 

Toddlers, however, can annoy people more easily. They yell. They throw. They kick. They punch. They grab. They spill stuff. They have meltdowns. They flail. All of this can happen in the span of about two seconds at any given moment. Now, put a full sized adult and a toddler in a 3×2 space, also known as a commercial airline seat, and you’ve got yourself a party. This is true until they hit age two, which is when you have to buy a seat for them as well.

While this may seem like the worst case scenario, some of it can’t be avoided. After all, the sweet little kiddo hasn’t been alive long enough to learn how to regulate those emotions. Some adults still can’t do that! We have to understand that they have a lot of energy and excitement to get out, and that doesn’t translate well to being in a small, cramped space for a prolonged period. So what can be done about the challenging task of flying with a toddler?

PLAN AHEAD. 

This is so important, and it is very obvious. However, you can plan ahead and not be smart about it. I have done it more than once, unfortunately. Hopefully you will learn from my mistakes, as I lay out our plan for successfully traveling with an active toddler. 

Choose your flight time wisely. If your child does better in the morning or afternoon, schedule the flight for within that time. The same things applies if your child does better at night. For us, the morning to mid-afternoon times works best. There is more flexibility to miss the first nap as opposed to the second nap. There is no need to set the kiddo up for failure if it can be avoided (and sometimes it can’t be).

In the days and weeks leading up to your trip, pay close attention to what your toddler is really liking. This applies to food, toys, and books. Start tapering off these things a day or two before the trip. Bring them on the airplane, and that way, seeing these items again will be exciting for the kiddo!

Bring a lot of snacks that they like. Make sure to bring a variety, just in case your toddler is feeling picky. These are best packed in small plastic bags, or some other sealed, flexible container. Space in your bag is at a premium, and it will not be easy to get them during the flight because your bag will be underneath the seat in front of you. Basically, don’t use a bulky container with a sketchy lid and expect things to turn out ok. 

One of our our favorite containers has soft flaps that prevent food from simply falling out (perfect for flying)! It also makes it difficult for kids to just grab handfuls of food to stuff in their mouth, which is helpful when teaching kids how to pace themselves while eating. Many different companies make containers like this, but we got ours from Target.

When you pack the snacks, be prepared for messes and total snack losses. Kids spill stuff easily, so consider having a back up of the favorite snacks in case an accident happens. I learned this one the hard way. If anyone stepped on a rogue grape tomato piece in the Atlanta airport recently, I’m sorry. I tried my best to clean it up. 

Bring comforting books, blankets, and toys that fit in your bag easily. Blankets, baby car keys, and books are must have for us. Our kiddo doesn’t watch much TV, so electronics are not a big draw for him at this point in his life. I know that will change one day, but I am currently enjoying it. One thought about bringing toys and comforting things; be careful to not lose them while traveling, or have a solid backup plan if you do. If your great grandmother handmade the baby a blanket from Depression era fabric and a unicorn’s mane, don’t bring it. You will not be able to replace that. Murphy’s Law will prove itself to be true, you will lose that precious item, and you will forever regret it.

Allow time for your little one to run around and get some energy out. This is essential! If you want there to be any chance of the kiddo being sleepy on the flight, or even just calm, they have to be given time to be active prior to the flight. This can be done at home, at the airport, or both! Find an empty gate when you get in the airport, and let them have fun! They can run around, watch planes leave/arrive, and see new sights! They will love this, and it will really help you out too. After all, little people just were not made to stay still for long.

Bring a stroller, even if you think it may be more trouble that it is worth. This will be especially vital if you are the only adult. There will be times you need to be able to put the toddler somewhere that you know he/she will stay, ie, while waiting in line (there so many lines at the airport) or while eating a meal. The stroller can be checked at the gate right before you get on the plane, so there is not reason to not bring it. You will drop it off at the bottom of the jetway immediately before boarding, and you will pick it up there when you get off the plane. Easy

While it is undoubtedly stressful to travel with a little one, it can absolutely be done. It requires patience, preparation, planning, and a good sense of humor. Don’t forget to enjoy it, too. You will only fly so many times before it becomes old hat to the kids. Enjoy their sense of wonder and amazement at being on an airplane or watching the planes land and take off. Make it a fun event instead of a chore. The kids will pick up on your mood. Be confident in your preparation, but know that nothing will go according to plan. Be flexible, gracious, and kind, but most of all, don’t forget to laugh. After all, we tend to look back and laugh at the disasters that happened with the kiddos, don’t we?

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