Flying with a toddler. Crazy?? Maybe. Exhausting? OH YES. But exhausting in the best way possible. Exhausting in that “I did it! OMG I’m so tired. But I did it!” sort of way.
And the cool part is this: you get to have a true adventure with your tiny human. And the adventure starts even before you arrive at your destination. Airports are exciting places! Giant planes, shuttles, conveyor belts, beeping machines at security, SO MANY PEOPLE, luggage to roll, snacks to eat, bathrooms to explore, escalators to use. I mean, airports just might be toddler paradise.
Ok, ok, maybe that’s a bit optimistic. This flying with toddlers thing is HARD. But we like a good challenge, yes?
This past week we embarked on our first post-COVID flight, which also happened to be the very first airplane flight for our 19-month-old daughter. So today I’m sharing, Toddler’s First Flight: 10 Survival Tips!..
We Went to Maui with Our Toddler
You guys know I love to travel. It is one of my favorite things, and it keeps me grounded, inspired, happy and ALIVE.
So. Hawaii. After a long travel hiatus due to 1) a pregnancy. 2) And a pandemic.
But wait, there’s a catch. We are a party of THREE now.
So does this mean I can’t watch three movies and leisurely sip ginger ale on my flight and call it a day???
Yes. That is correct.
But spoiler alert: it was SO worth it.… Look we arrived in one piece! And were even super happy about it..
Finally My turn to Fly with Le Bebe
For the past year or so, I had been hearing all my new mom friends talk about their first airplane flights and I had always been super freaked to take the plunge into toddler flying as well. (Or baby flying if we had gone a bit earlier.) Well, I did some quick last-minute research (since we booked our trip just a few days before flying out), planned as best as I could, and off we went.
The Truth About Flying with Toddlers
The truth is that you can read every book, blog post, article, and friend tip on this subject, but you really just have to do it yourself to “get it.” planning and prepping and being informed ahead of time definitely eases the pain, but like all things in motherhood, nothing beats first-hand experience. You have to experience it to truly understand it.
The bottom line is that flying with a toddler is exhausting. Even the BEST flight will be tiring. And the worst flight would be pure hell. But you get through it. Unless your toddler is so unruly that you have to turn the whole plane back around – consider it a win. Ha. No, seriously.
So with that.. There is so much to say, I’m just going to hop right into the tips.
10 Tips for Flying with a Toddler
Aka, my 10 Parent Survival Tips…
1. Go to Target and Stock Up. (With a Caveat)
Everyone told me two things: snacks and toys. And for the toys part, I took a trip to Target and loaded up. My cart was overflowing with stickers, small toys, plastic animals, crayons, play dough, sticker books, coloring books, random ‘crap’ from the seasonal section upfront. I have leftover ‘flight toys’ that I have stored away for later – that’s how much stuff I bought.
But when I got home I realized that the number of toys I had seemed insane. But even still, I packed a good half-target back full of toys for the flight.
Did it work? Yes and no. She really got excited about two things. A silly plastic toy horse figure and the stickers. Everything else was a 5-minute play and she was over it.
And actually, I think shoveling so many toys in her face only ramped her up more on that outbound flight.
Looking back, I would enact my new “One Toy Per Hour” rule. And only bring enough toys to count maybe one new toy an hour. Because the truth is, the iPad, the airplane window, the seatback pockets, the drink cup, straws, and other random travel things were toys to her.
Me, after buying way too many last-minute target toys….
2. Snacks And More Snacks
Flying with a toddler? Don’t forget the snacks!
It’s funny because I actually wish I had brought a few fewer toys and more snacks. I kept thinking I could just buy snacks at the airport and at our destination, but it is actually really hard to find “high quality” snacks during travel! And the last thing I wanted to do was wander into a food store with a jetlagged toddler grabbing at all the things…. We ended up at the hotel “gift shop” about three times just to buy snacks and drinks and that was a bit frustrating since I could have just packed a few more bags of Rosalie’s fave goodies.
Her faves include cheesy crackers, peanut butter crackers, cereal bars, dehydrated fruit like strawberries and banana, fresh fruit (her fave!), and veggie puffs. At the hotel, we ended up buying random white cheddar cheese-its because that was all they had for a toddler.
Note: Rosalie is vegetsrian. So she eats eggs and dairy in snacks. I did this for allergen purposes and hope to transition her to being plant-based when she gets a bit older, but I’m also super flexible about it until she is at an age where she can decide for herself. She has never had meat.
So yeah, pack snacks!! Not just for the flight, but for the destination.
3. Timing of the Flight
This first flight with our toddler was a bit of an experiment. Our outbound flight to Maui was at 9 am. Our inbound flight (home) was around 1:30 – nap time.
The results of that: Rosalie slept for only an hour on the outbound flight – and bounced around rambunctiously for 5+ hours. The naptime flight was SO much better. She slept for 3.5 hours and was only energetic and fussy for about an hour. On the nap time flight, I actually watched a movie!! (King Richard, it was great.)
So while every child is different, for us, Rosalie is most active in the mornings and so constraining her on a flight at 9am was not great. She was wild. Felt like she was rolling in her seat for a while there. I will try to do nap time flights in the future — but again, your kid may differ. And you don’t always have a choice when flying.
Waiting to board around 8am…
4. Screen Time?
Do you bring an iPad when flying with a toddler? Maybe. It’s not mandatory, but can be a quick fix if a tantrum surfaces.
Here is the key: do not start with the iPad. Save it for that emergency scenario when your toddler is bouncy or fussy. The iPad helped Rosalie chill out for a bit, but she is way too young for a long attention span. And after a while of watching, she got bored with it.
Save it for when you need it.
In everyday life, our toddler really only watches one show: Alphablocks. She loves it. So I downloaded a few episodes of that, along with some OwlKitty videos. Those kept her happy and giggling. We watch Disney+ sometimes as well.
I think as they get older, screentime becomes more helpful, but for toddlers, it’s just a nice quick fix for maybe 15-20 minute intervals a few times per flight.
5. Extra Seat or On Lap?
If your budget allows, and if your child is under age two, you will have the option of buying their seat or traveling ‘on lap.’
If possible, buy a seat for your toddler. You get extra wiggle room (literally), you can bring an extra carryon, and you will likely get an entire row – if traveling with two parents on a plane with rows of three seats per side.
However, if you cannot buy the extra seat, don’t stress. Rosalie actually stayed in my lap for a very long period of time. And she could have slept sprawled from mom to dad instead of mom to empty seat.
If you have an older or larger-sized toddler, you will definitely want to try for the seat. Rosalie is tall so her limbs were sprawling already and she is only 19 months!
Children ages 2 or older are required to have their own seat.
The truth is, even if you buy the extra seat, your kid will likely be in your lap a lot. But that extra seat still helps.
6. Sit Where You Feel Most Comfortable – Plane Row
If you choose your row on the plane, choose where you personally feel most at ease. Think about having a screaming baby or toddler, where do you want to be? Up front? Middle, where the wings tend to make it nice and noisy? Back of the plane, also usually noisier?
We sat in the middle of the plane – over the wing – both flights. This was not my ideal space. The wings killed a bit of the “view” for Rosalie and being in the “heart” of the action – furthest away from bathrooms wasn’t my preference. In the future, I would go for the back of the plane before the middle. Even if I miss out on extra legroom – yup. Otherwise, a nice roomy seat towards the front – a premium seat – would obviously be ideal. But usually more pricey.
You will get to preboard no matter what, so you don’t need to factor that into your row, unless you are considering a quick exit upon departure.
7. To Carseat or Not on the Flight?
We brought the WayB Pico travel car seat on the flight, expecting that strapping Rosalie into her seat on the plane would help her calm down. We installed it, buckled her in, and immediately changed our minds. Nope. The car seat took up so much room and with a wiggly little girl we needed all that seat space. So we folded up the car seat and popped it in the overhead storage compartment.
Total side note: We used the WayB Pico travel car seat in Maui and it was amazing! Setup is in minutes and it’s super light and compact. We will be using it for many years to come, I am sure.
Should you strap your baby or toddler into a car seat on the flight??
If you have a baby (under a year) who is super used to being strapped into car seats or strollers, go for it. But my guess is that around 15 months or so the squirminess cancels that out. When your baby can sit upright, walk and move pretty independently, I think a car seat would feel weird.
But every baby is different.
Bottom line, a car seat on a flight feels like the safest option due to the quality of the buckle versus the airplane seat belt, but at a certain age, a squirmy toddler just won’t be able to sit constrained that long — and trying may stress them out.
I’d say, do it as long as you can get away with it. Otherwise, be prepared to strap your child into their own seat, or be buckled in with you while you hold them on your lap.
I loved this tip from babycantravel.com, so I wanted to include it here. Their site says:
“Let’s start with your expectations. You should go into this with the notion that while traveling with a toddler on a plane, you will be entertaining your toddler THE ENTIRE TIME.“
I really think I survived both flights totally unscathed, mentally, by anticipating the most disaster-infused scenarios. Not great for anxiety, lol, but definitely helped my expectations for the flights. I anticipated screaming, crying, squirming, smiling at and apologizing to strangers, and overall being a complete puddle of mush at the end of the flight.
Funny enough, physically, I was exhausted at the end of both flights. But mentally, I was fine! I was actually really positive and proud of myself. My body ached and I couldn’t wait for a hot shower and snuggly bed, but emotionally, anticipating the WORST helped me arrive in style – in a happy place!
9. Ear Pain
Rosalie was grabbing her little ears and screaming. I felt awful. A flight attendant walked by and said “You should get her to nurse, that can be really painful.” Um, ok, thanks. That certainly didn’t make me feel better!
I think I replied with, “Yes, I’m trying…” And felt a wave of mom guilt. First off, the flight attendant should not have said that. How did she even know I was able to nurse? Maybe she saw me doing it earlier on the flight, but what if I had been a mom who was not able to nurse. That would have made me feel extra awful. Anyways. Luckily, I’ve grown a thicker mom skin in these past 19 months, and I brushed it off.
But yeah, the worst part of both flights for me: Rosalie’s ear pain upon landing. Poor thing. I tried getting her to suck on the straw of her water cup or nurse, but she was just wiggly and antsy from the pain and wouldn’t sit still. It was probably a bit scary for her.
Also, I was not fully prepared for that.
Next flight I will have some suckable (toddler-friendly) treats and Ear Planes for kids.
This trick with paper cups is also interesting to check out!
Getting Rosalie familiar with toddler-friendly lollipops will also be a good tip for our next flight since sucking on one may help reduce her pressure.
10. No Fear of Embarrassment
Every time I started to feel a pang of embarrassment during our travel journey, like when Rosalie sprawled out on the Maui airport floor in a 30-second tantrum, screaming and waving her little limbs back and forth, I just remembered the best rule….
You will never see these people again.
(And tbh, I giggled a little at that sprawled floor tantrum because it was so classic toddler. I felt like I was a full-fledged parent of an almost two year-old.)
But back to my point. You will never see the airport strangers again!. Every single person on your flight. So who cares.
And also, about public judgment of your kid.. Travel is exhausting for adults. Just imagine how overwhelming it is for a little person. So those people staring at your screaming child, if they have kids, they will get it. If they don’t, who cares. And either way, you will never see them again.
Yes, I tried to be as compassionate towards the other people on the flight. No one wants to be in front of the toddler who kicks the seat quite a bit, but also, I totally understand being a parent now. You can’t control everything. You can only do your best as a confident, loving, smart, and savvy parent. Be prepared and go forth! (You are reading this, so obviously, you care about doing your research… good job!)
I mean who cares what people think on a half-day flight when the end result is this…
See, traveling with a Toddler is Actually the Best!
Our trip in Maui was absolutely one I will never forget. It was beautiful. Exhausting on a new level, but I loved it.
Seeing Rosalie have so much fun at the hotel, at the pool, by the ocean and just strolling around on her two little feet or in her stroller, made me so full and happy.
Seeing her blossom and grow independent from doing tiny things like stepping into and out of an elevator, throwing away a piece of trash all on her own, or scouting out her favorite spot in the lobby – right by the koi fish pond – all on her own. It was magical.
Even with the worst flight, it would all be worth it.
So if you are someone, like me, who tends to have a level of anxiety over new or scary things like this and needs a little pep talking to, consider this your pep talk.
Just do the thing. Go. Travel. Take your little one! You can totally do this. It will be one of those totally exhausting parenting things you come to know and dread, but the experience is all an adventure and well worth it in the long run. Especially if a fun travel destination awaits you on the other side. And if not, the adventure of travel with a toddler is good for them! Adventures expand their view of the world.
Adventures actually help to make the BIG world seem a little less big and scary. I have found that the more adventures I take Rosalie on, the more confidence she gains. And that’s a huge win for me.
Rosalie loved exploring the big new world of the resort! We stayed at the Hyatt Maui.
Don’t be frustrated if your toddler ends up being a bit “off” when you get home. For us, the night we got home, she erupted in a big tantrum of tiredness. Totally understandable. It’s also a weird feeling to come home after a long trip – even for adults! So just imagine all those big feelings in a tiny person.
I was told that it’s totally normal for some post-travel adjustment to occur.
Ok, hope those tips help you a bit! And after such a crazy past few years, I truly hope you can get out there and travel!
Cheers to new adventures — and warm wishes for many hours of toddler sleep on the plane!