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Flying with Kids: Painless Airplane Flight with Toddler?

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I wanted to get your advice on what you would have done in my situation on a recent plane flight with my 19 month old. It's a 3 hour flight and the first 2 hours were a breeze. The 2 guys in front of us napped the entire time. Well, the 3rd hour was her bedtime - 7:30 PM is when we landed. And she would not nurse to sleep or nurse at all. She wanted to play with the seat tray in front of her - the guy turned around and gave us an evil stare. It was fasten your seat belt time so I couldn't walk her around. And she did not want to have her seat belt on or sit in my lap - she wanted to climb and get into everything. I didn't know what to do. Is it ever possible to have a painless flight with a toddler? 


I'm sorry you had such a hard time. The situation you are describing is the worst of all worlds, where they are tired, won't nurse, can't walk around. They are wound up but you can't let them cry (while you hold them) because of the other passengers. They want to get into everything because they are wound up and stressed out, but the person in front of you does feel the tray table going up and down and the baby's foot kicking the seat. It's a tough situation.

But you ask what I would have done. In that moment where she won't put on her seat belt and won't sit in your lap, I don't think you have a lot of options. You just have to pull out all the stops to distract her, which usually means screens and food.

And, as always, prevention is key. So, for instance, since you know that you will have to sit in your seats for the last forty minutes of the flight, be sure you do a lot of walking around on the plane during the time you're able to move around. That way, she'll be ready to sit and watch a movie for the final stretch.  

A few more tips to increase the possibility of a painless flight:      

1. Let her get her energy and tension out before you get on the plane and at any convenient moments on the plane.

Toddlers need to move, and they don't understand why they have to stay belted in on the plane. Plan to arrive early enough that children get to "run" a bit in the airport hallway after sitting still in the car and before sitting still on the plane. Then, whenever the aisle is relatively clear and you are allowed to move around, get up and let her walk. Before she even asks, so that she won't ask as soon as the "fasten seatbelt" sign goes on.

2. Keep her fed and hydrated so she's less likely to get grumpy. Presume that the airline won't have food that your child will like. Bring favorite snacks and more than you'll need. Nursing is great, especially on take-off and landing to protect tiny ear drums from pressure. You might consider packing treats that your child would not usually get, such as sugar-free lollipops (again, great to suck on take-off and landing. Just be sure the stick is firmly attached to avoid a choking hazard, and of course supervise.)

3. Distract and entertain.
The job of a toddler is to explore her world. If they can't explore by walking around, you can count on them driving the passenger in front of you crazy by exploring the tray table. To give your child something to explore, why not bring a bunch of cheap, interesting objects that will fascinate her? That isn't overkill. You really do need to plan activities in advance for a toddler on a plane. Screens are wonderful to keep your child entertained, but don't count on that being enough.

I spent a lot of time on planes with my little ones. I always wrapped a bunch of tiny presents -- at least 3 or 4 for every flight, and probably 6-8 for a three hour flight. You don't have to use them all -- they'll keep for future flights, or next time one of your kids has a meltdown and you have to distract the other one -- but if the plane sits on the runway, you'll be glad you have them.

I don't mean expensive presents, but interesting small things. I relied heavily on books, but be sure to also include "activities." At this age, they'll like office supplies like scotch tape or colorful paper clips to make a chain, or household objects like tiny flashlights, a battery-operated fan, a lock and key, chapstick, anything with a suction cup, or crafts like colored pipe cleaners. Try small toys you would want to give them eventually anyway, like a rubber duckie for the bath, Russian stacking dolls, colorful trinkets from Ikea, new crayons, duplos, lift-the-flap books, puppets, a mother and baby puppet, magna doodle, little wind-up toys, stickers, puzzles, magnet toys, crayola stamp pens, etc. I used to buy these things when I ran across them and keep them in a bag in my suitcase so when I went to pack for a trip they were ready to wrap. Kids love unwrapping them. (You can use little gift bags so they can be reused.) These little distractions are worth their weight in gold.

And, of course, bring headphones and an ipad with appropriate apps, or a computer with movies and games pre-loaded. 

4. Calm your little one.
Since you know that it's a stressful situation and your child is over-stimulated, you can try various methods to help your child unwind and sleep.

  • Connect. Her connection with you is what will help your child feel safe and relax. You might even tape up a baby blanket around the two of you to shut out the outside world while you rock him to sleep. (Traveling with blue painter's tape is brilliant.)
  • EFT- This is short for Emotional Freedom Technique, which is the simple technique of tapping your child's acupressure points to calm them. Click HERE for an article on How to use EFT with children
  • Rescue remedy, homeopathic remedies for calming, or Bach flower essence can be very effective, especially if you've tried them in the past and found them effective with your child.
  • Sing, snuggle, read. Tell your child a story that keeps his attention.

5. Calm yourself.
Remember that your child will pick up on your stress. Staying calm yourself is the most important thing you can do to keep your child calm. I rely heavily on breathing and EFT to calm myself, and some people swear by Rescue Remedy. 

6. Introduce yourself to your neighbors at the start of the flight. Tell them you'll do your best to keep your child entertained, and to please let you know if she's bothering them. Most people are actually sympathetic, especially if they know that you respect their right to a relatively peaceful flight and are doing all you can to insure it.

7. As kids get older, teach and pre-teach. "The airplane is like a flying village with everyone close together, so there are special rules to be safe and considerate. Let's see if we can guess what they are... It can be hard to stay in your seat... what do you think you could do on the plane if you get bored?" 

8. Prepare. For instance, put it on your calendar to check in as soon as check-in opens (24 hours before your flight), to be sure you're seated with your child and you have a window. Pack a change of clothes for yourself, as well as your child. Bring more snacks, wipes, and diapers than you could ever need. Bring extra bottles and sippy cups in case the ones you have roll away on the airplane floor. And bring the expectation that you'll have to be patient, present, and at your best for the entire flight. Expecting the worst might even make the flight seem painless!

The truth is, it is simply hard for little ones to be on a plane. No easy way around it. But the calmer we stay, the calmer our kids stay. Just remind yourself that it's a lot better than the alternative -- all those hours in the car!

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