11 Strategies to De-stress the Toddler Flight
Flying with your toddler can be a little like playing roulette, some flights are great, and some don’t turn out so good. However, there are plenty of ways to set youself up for success and mitigate any stress traveling with your child. At this stage, they begin to feel some autonomity and develop their own sense of independence. So you have to plan a little more strategically. For us, the combination of a 15 month old…boy…who never wants to sit still, this is a much different stage than when they are infants. In-flight entertainment has a whole new meaning.
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#1 Timing ⏱ ✈️
This might be one of the most important strategies when planning a flight with your toddler. The time of day (and their sleep schedule) is critical to a successful flight. Every child is different, but most toddlers tend to throw fits or get hangry 😫 an hour leading up to their nap or meal time. We try to avoid any flights an hour before/after naptime as well as an hour before dinner time. If you’re leading up to mealtime, be sure they eat a full meal before flying, or at least bring a meal to-go on the airplane. If at all possible, we try to fly with our toddler from 8pm on, since they are calm and typically sleep the entire flight 😴.
Speaking of timing, up until they are 2 years old, they can fly as a lap child for free. So this is your window of opportunity to visit friends or familly without paying for their plane ticket.
#2 Packing: Plan, Organize, and Streamline 👜🎒
Don’t be those parents that have too many bags hanging off their shoulders struggling to get their toddler from running for the escalators 😳. I was there. I’m getting better.
Checked bags: Plan ahead the night before and pack your check-in bags. Do yourself a favor and pack large suitcases so that you consolidate your toddler’s stuff in your bag. For a week long trip, having 2 large check-in bags for a family of 3 is manageable. Any more and you’re outnumbered: suitcases to adults.
Carry-on bags: Unless you’re certain your toddler will sleep the whole flight, don’t expect much time for your own in-flight entertainment (Books, tablet, headphones, etc). You’ll likely be playing with your toddler most of the time they’re awake. As such, I typically only pack my earbuds and maybe an iPad for myself. This leaves most of the room in the carry-on bags for toddler snacks, toys, and diapers. You’ll want to pack a variety of snacks and a variety of toys to keep them occupied during the flight. Make sure to keep your carry-ons to 1 bag per adult.
We tend to leave the stroller and Pack-N-Play crib behind for weekend trips, but take the carseat regardless. For anything longer, a lightweight stroller comes in pretty handy since you can get around much quicker and your toddler can sleep at their own convenience. You can rest the carseat upside down on your rolling suitcase and still manage the stroller. Read more detail in the On-the-Go section.
One of the best pieces of advice for parenting that I read was to be inclusive with your child and give them a dose of responsibility. They want to feel important and involved. We recently went shopping and came across a kids backpack 🎒that he just couldn’t pass up. We got it. It has become his own carry on bag filled with his toys/books when we travel. He legit takes pride in wheeling it around and feels like the most grown up 20-month-old ever.
#3 Teamwork makes the dream work
I don’t know how those brave single parents flying with 2-3 active kids do it. Respect. I’ve found it nearly impossible to travel with my toddler without my spouse. Between pulling out new snacks to picking up dropped toys to playing with the fold-up tray, it is a full time job to keep them both entertained and contained. After 10 minutes of our toddler standing on my lap and jumping on me to reach the air conditioning outlet, I need a break. One parent can ready a new toy while the other is trying to contain the play dough to the tray.
#4 Window seat for the win ✈️💺🖼
It took us a couple flights sitting in an aisle seat to figure this one out. I thought being on the aisle, I could get up and walk our toddler up and down the aisle. While that’s true, the fact that there’s an aisle within reach at all times means that you’ll likely be walking those aisles more than you wanted. With the 3-person row and a stranger in the aisle seat, it’s a nice invisible wall removing that ever-enticing aisle exploration. Plus with a window seat, they can play with the window shade as well as looking out the window during take-off and landing.
It’s all about the snacks 🍌! Having a variety of snacks on board is super helpful since your toddler has probably developed their own palete and preferences by now. We’ll pack several ziploc bags of dried mango, dried snap peas, dried cranberries, crackers, raisins, cherrios, peanut butter packets on a banana, popcorn, as well as plenty of water. We’ve tried our fare share of sippy cups. At this age, I’ve found the Camelback Podium bottle (designed for cycling) to be a game changer. It holds plenty of water, so you never run out. It’s also leak proof, it stays cold thanks to it’s insulation, and it is intuitive enough for a toddler to sip from.
You will also want to make sure that they are either well fed prior to the flight, or you get a meal to-go and eat on board (get something that isn’t messy!). You don’t want to get in between a hungry toddler and their food 😳. Eating on board can be good because that can occupy them for some time. However relying only on snacks when your toddler is hungry for dinner is a recipe for disaster…trust me…we thought we could wait to eat until we landed.
At this age, your toddler has probably developed a preference for the temperature of milk 🍼, whether it’s warm 🔥 or cold ❄️. My son has also learned to like his water chilled 🙄. Most airlines don’t have milk on board, so if your toddler needs warm milk to help with naps, make sure to grab some at a coffee shop before boarding. If you brought milk from home and and are in a pinch, just set the bottle between your legs and it’ll get to at least room temperature a little quicker. Another great strategy is packing a Hydroflask bottle or something similar to fill with warm or cold milk before you get on the plane. These types of tumblers can keep liquids at the same temperature for a good 12-24 hours. The only downside is that you’ll have to have the milk inspected in the TSA line.
#6 Sleeping 🤔
If you can book your flight for after bedtime or for a redeye flight, this is the best case scenario. The flights where my toddler is already in his PJ’s, he’s comfortable, and it’s past his bedtime have been the best because he’ll sleep the entire flight 💪👊.
Most toddlers tend to take only a single nap each day. Getting your child to nap on the plane during their normal nap time can be pretty challenging, since a plane is a new and exciting environment.
They will crash…eventually 😴
I know, it can seem like an eternity sometimes with the amount of energy that toddlers (especially boys) seem to possess. If at all possible, book your flights so that the flight times overlap with normally scheduled sleeping times (i.e. mid-day nap or late evening). This way your toddler will inevitably get some amount of quality nap time in. For long haul flights (over 5 hours) we only book red-eyes. I couldn’t imagine keeping a toddler both entertained and contained for much longer than that.
#7 Entertainment 🦄
One of our goals is to try and get creative with entertainment, and not rely on screens or movies 🎥 while they’re young. I think it’s possible. We load up our carry on bag with many types of interesting things to play with, small books, old magazines, tactile toys, snacks, you name it. They can listen to music from your phone. One peculiar gem we found for entertainment is ice ❄️. Yep…we were surprised to find that a cup of ice (broken into small pieces) can provide some good quality, long lasting entertainment. Just make sure you’re prepared when you run out.
#8 Take-off and landing
Pack some sort of gummy snacks for when the plane takes-off or lands. My son hasn’t had ear troubles during this part of the flight, but some do. It’s best to have them chewing on something to get their jaw (and ear canals) engaged. This also makes for a great time for your toddler to look out the window, so take advantage
#9 Plan for the worst 💩 & pray it doesn’t happen 😟
I’ve done it, but it’s not pretty. You’ve got two options: changing your toddler from your seat in the airplane or from the tiny airplane bathroom. Neither are ideal. With the bathroom, you have the privacy and your neighbors won’t complain about the smells. But you do have to make your way to the aisle and bathroom, not to mention the lack of counter space once you get there. Changing from the seat, you’ll want both parents helping to make the swap-out as quick and seamless as possible. Make sure to remember to pack a couple plastic/ziploc bags to dispose of the used diapers.
#10 On the go 🏃💨
Every child is different, but toddlers will generally nap once a day. Keep that in mind when making plans for the day. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been out and about exploring our destination, and our toddler got cranky and fell asleep in the stroller. These are magical moments. Take advantage! Grab a drink at a rooftop bar and enjoy some relaxing time as adults. We have a nice, heavier stroller at home for around town errands. We opted to get a second lightweight and compact stroller for travel. The Summer 3Dlite umbrella stroller was just the ticket since it comes in at 13lbs, folds up easily, it reclines, and the handles are high enough for me to push comfortably.
Inevitably on any trip we’ll hit the local playground 🤸. Toddlers especially need some time to run around and stretch their legs after being cooped up in airplanes, cars, or strollers all day. We’ve just accepted that exploring new playgrounds on our trip have become the norm. I’m good with that.
#11 Post Trip
It seems like after every trip away from home, we inevitibly break the sleeping routine. It’s hard to mantain while traveling because you’re in a new environment and your toddler likely won’t be in his own room like they’re used to at home. Also, you are more on the go when your traveling, so naps are more impromptu in the stroller, and late nights out are not uncommon. Bedtime routine is always a bit more difficult the first or second night back home, but we try to be strict on timing and try to mantain normalcy and routine.
So what are you waiting for?
Don’t let your toddler stop you from your adventures…in fact…SHARE your adventures with them! These experiences while they’re young will lay the groundwork for a confident, well-rounded human being.
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