Having flown countless flights with my babies and toddlers, I can say from experience that flying with toddlers is more challenging than flying with a baby. The dynamic begins to change around the time when you start flying with a 1 year old, but it seems most challenging when you are flying with an 18 month old. Flying with a toddler takes patience and setting the right expectations.
This is not to say that travelling with a toddler on a plane isn’t worth it – quite the opposite. Although it can be challenging flying with toddlers, the overall experience of traveling with a toddler can be quite enjoyable. This post will give you the tools to not only survive a flight with a toddler, but have you saying “that was so much better than I expected!”.
“I Need Advice on Flying with a Toddler”
As a baby and toddler travel expert, I see parents asking this question over and over. For parents traveling with a toddler, the most common focus of the question is usually about how to entertain a toddler on a plane. For example:
- “How can I keep my 1 year old entertained on a flight?”
- “Anyone have advice to keep an active 14 month old busy during a flight?”
- “Help! Long haul flight with a busy toddler… please send me all your tips!”
Sound familiar? Who hasn’t planned a trip with a toddler and not gone out seeking tips for flying with a toddler. I know I have, especially when we were flying with a toddler for the first time.
Traditionally, I would respond by sharing our best airplane activities for babies & toddlers post. But, after so many flights with a toddler, it finally occurred to me that there is more to successful long haul flights with toddlers than just keeping them busy during the flight. Why?
Because a few suggestions for activities aren’t going to give an anxious parent the comfort and confidence they need that they will survive that long flight with a toddler… That flying with a toddler isn’t so bad and they will come out on the other side [only partially] unscathed.
Flying with a Toddler – Table of Contents
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Toddler Airplane Activities
Ok, so let’s just get this out of the way… this is not a post about toddler airplane activities. If you are looking for suggestions on specific activities to keep your toddler busy on a flight, you can find them all in this post on airplane travel toys for toddlers or in these toddler travel toys lists:
- Screen Free Toddler Travel Toys
- 1 Year Old Travel Toys
- 2 Year Old Travel Toys
- 3 Year Old Travel Toys
This post about flying with toddlers is more about their behavior. Read on to learn what to expect on a flight with a toddler and how to survive air travel with toddlers.
Flying with a Toddler vs. Flying with a Baby
So why am I specifically addressing tips for flying with a toddler? We have written separate posts on flying with a baby and flying with a toddler, as babies and toddlers have completely different needs when it comes to air travel.
Babies aren’t on the move. They aren’t climbing over the seats and throwing tantrums. Babies can more easily be lulled into sleep by some warm milk.
Toddlers, on the other hand, are completely different. They want to move. They want to explore. Toddlers know what they want and they aren’t afraid to tell you (or scream it at the top of their lungs).
As a parent, having to keep your toddler contained in one seat for the duration of a flight can be frightening.
My Experience Flying with a Toddler
I can speak from experience that my kids had very little attention span for movies or games on the iPad until about 2.5 years old. Even after limited TV at home, it still wasn’t exciting enough to keep our toddler entertained on the flight for very long.
I never thought I’d wish for my kids to be addicted to the screen, but when it comes to long haul flights with toddlers, this is exactly what I find myself hoping for.
Now every kid is different in this aspect. My daughter was eyes glued at 2.5 years old but my son still isn’t there. There are some shows, like Little Baby Bum, that work better than others but overall he had an attention span of about 20 minutes (and it was much less at 12-18 months).
What does that mean for the flight with our toddler? It means I spend a lot more time trying to keep our toddler entertained on the plane, but still content in his seat.
Preparing for a Long Flight with a Toddler
So with screen time offering up only an intermittent distraction, how exactly do you survive a long flight with a toddler? I’m going to share my secret for traveling with toddlers on airplanes.
The Secret to Airplane Travel with Toddlers:
The key to getting through air travel with a toddler depends on two things:
- your expectations, and
- repeatedly cycling through all your toddlers airplane activities.
Your Expectations for the Flight
Let’s start with your expectations. You should go into this with the notion that when traveling with a toddler on a plane, you will be entertaining your toddler THE ENTIRE TIME.
If you plan on getting on that plane, setting your toddler up with an iPad then starting your own movie, you will be disappointed. If you get on that flight with the right expectations, then any time you have to yourself is a bonus. Your toddler may just surprise you.
I won’t lie, this part of traveling with toddlers is exhausting and I hope you either have someone to share it with or you can get your toddler to sleep on the flight. But, even if you don’t, just remember that the flight is such a VERY SMALL part of your family trip.
And just to prove that I know what I’m talking about, we took our 14 month old on a 12 hour flight. He did NOT like being held and was in a stage where he loved to scream. On that entire flight, we managed to get a whopping 1 hour and 45 minutes of sleep.
Sound like your worst nightmare? It actually wasn’t that bad. Although we spent a lot of time trying to get him to sleep, I got to know the flight attendants and some other parents pretty well at the back of the plane. Before we knew it, the long haul flight was over and we arrived in Japan tired but ready to explore.
Continually Cycle Through Your Toddler Airplane Activities
So here is how this next part works…
Bring multiple activities for your toddler, but don’t over do it. Just plan to have a lot of little activities like iPad games, movies, toddler airplane snacks, stickers, coloring, etc., then repeat that along with any other entertainment you can create along the way.
Often, just the new things your child will discover on the plane make for excellent in-flight toddler activities. Let your toddler play with a plastic bottle & lid (this is a winner with my little guy), give your little one the remote (on super old airplanes), find a willing participant to peek-a-boo or let them play with the menu or safety card.
Some people swear by bringing wrapped gifts for your child. I have never done this, and likely won’t ever do it. I don’t think it’s a bad idea, I’m just not that organized. Besides, in the end, with toddlers on airplanes it comes down to just having a lot of little distractions to switch between.
The key here is to get creative and keep your energy up. You will get through this.
A Typical Flight with a Toddler
This is what a typical flight with our toddler looks like:
We get on the flight and he’s excited! He wants to touch and play with everything. I let him (at least within the confines of our seat). Seat belt light goes on and I use the iPad or a snack in a spill proof snack cup to entertain him while we take off.
Then we basically rotate through the activities until the food arrives (which provides another distraction). After the food has been cleared, we do our best to get him to sleep.
Getting a toddler to sleep on an airplane isn’t always easy and not always successful, but we just keep trying to get him to lay down. This can take up to an hour even when mimicking our usual bedtime routine, but eventually he will sleep.
Sometimes we even pack a portable white noise machine just to help block out noise and keep him asleep! Then once he’s awake, it’s back to rotating through activities until we land.
There is some crying and some tantrums in there. Getting the seat belt on and having him not continually unbuckle it is sometimes an issue, especially if the flight has a lot of turbulence.
8 Tips for Flying with Toddlers
I’ve had plenty of experience traveling with a toddler on a plane. Drawing on the highs and lows of my real life experience, I’ve prepared some tips on flying with toddlers. Here is what has worked (or not worked) for our family:
1. Save the best distractions for when you really need them!
Am I the only one that avoids letting my toddler know we can walk up and down the aisle? Seriously, aside from taking my newly potty trained toddler to the airplane toilet, I never let on that we can walk up and down the aisle.
Why do I do this? One – so I don’t have to spend the entire flight doing it. Two – so I have one really special distraction in case I need it.
2. Plan for those inevitable toddler tantrums.
When traveling with a toddler, I try to think what will cause a tantrum and plan for managing toddler tantrums on the go. As an example, I know take off and landing will typically be the hardest parts of the flight so I make sure to have a fun snack and an activity ready to go for when that seat belt light goes on.
3. Have fun toddler airplane activities to cycle through.
In our toddler travel toys post (mentioned above), we give sample activities that our kids have enjoyed at each stage. We use these lists as our starting point, then we adjust depending on what our kids are interested in most at the moment.
Before flying with a toddler, look for activities related to the things they love at the moment. If they love Paw Patrol, we will get a Paw Patrol Color Wonder book. We also try games and movies out at home. Our 2 year loves trucks, so we got the Trucks & Diggers app and he loves it. Test out a few toddler-friendly apps a few days before your flight to ensure they have a chance of holding their attention for a while.
Our kids love reading, so the Epic! digital library app is an amazing app for entertaining toddlers on an airplane. Epic has a great selection of downloadable books, which are narrated out loud. Simply pop on some toddler headphones and they will be entertained for a long time. The Epic digital library is a smart alternative to simply downloading Netflix cartoons for your toddler.
Don’t have time to put together toddler plane activities? Order one of these travel activity packs for toddlers from KeepEmQuiet, which include entertainment and snacks!
4. Let your toddler play before sleeping.
When flying with a toddler, a mistake I’ve made is trying to stick too rigidly to our schedule. I’ve tried to get him to sleep too soon and failed miserably – flying is just way too exciting and stimulating for toddlers to fall asleep right away. I’ve learned that it’s best to wait at least an hour (unless he’s tired enough and falls asleep on his own. I think this happened once?).
Let the food and beverage service finish so everyone is settled and there are far less distractions around. Experience has shown this gives us our best chance for getting him to sleep on a plane.
Check out these inflatable airplane beds for toddlers to give your toddler all the room to play, eat and sleep.
5. Try different ways to get your toddler to sleep on the plane.
Before flying with a toddler, make sure they have time to burn off some energy in the airport and to explore his new surroundings on the plane. You want him tired, but not over-tired, and ready for sleep.
When it is time for our toddler to sleep (on an overnight flight), we have tried to get him to lay down by repeatedly telling him “head down, time to sleep” and not engaging with him otherwise. This has worked pretty consistently but usually takes a while and involves some crying.
On our last flight, I positioned the iPad so he had to lay down, which helped him to calm down on his own and eventually fall asleep. If it’s not an overnight flight, I don’t stress about naps.
Check out these family friendly airports! Perfect for getting your toddler to burn off some energy before the flight!
6. Bring a travel car seat or inflatable airplane toddler bed.
Before flying with a toddler, decide whether bringing a car seat on the plane or an inflatable airplane bed for toddlers will work best for your child. Be prepared with the best option to keep your toddler content and help him sleep. (Keep in mind both of these options require your toddler to have their own seat).
We always had success getting our kids to sleep on an inflatable airplane toddler bed – it’s one of our all-time favorite toddler travel hacks. We’ve used the Flyaway Kids Bed and the Fly Tot, both of which we were quite happy with.
These toddler airplane beds can be a bit pricey, so if those aren’t in your budget, check out these budget airplane travel beds.
You can buy the Flyaway Kids Bed directly from their website. It’s one of our best ways to get a toddler to sleep on the airplane and worth every penny!
7. Talk to your toddler about the flight.
Before flying with our toddler, we spend a lot of time talking with him about being on the airplane. We talked to him about what would happen, what to expect and what he needed to do. We continued these conversations with our toddler on the plane.
For example, we talked about the seatbelt lights over and over and over. Pointing it out each time it went on or off. Asking him if it was on. Asking him what it meant. This made putting the seatbelt on less of a fight.
When he went to take his seatbelt off, I’d ask if the light was on or off then explain again what it meant. He was almost 2 years old when we did this, but it worked. On our most recent flight, he got into his seat and immediately asked for his seatbelt (he even did this on a bus!).
8. Know when to ask for help.
The truth is, even if you are the best prepared parent in the world, flying with a toddler can be tiring. When I’ve had enough, my husband jumps in. We have an older daughter, so we switch kids. This helps us both keep our positive energy up.
Even More Tips for Flying with a Toddler
Although we think we know how to fly with a toddler, we wanted to tap into the experiences of the traveling parents in our community. So, we asked experienced parents from our Instagram audience to get their tips for traveling with toddlers by plane.
Here are their best tips for flying with toddlers:
What is the one thing that is always on your “Flying with Toddlers” checklist?
Of all the answers we received, the number one answer was plenty of airplane snacks for toddlers, followed by iPad, toy cars, toddler headphones & their favorite stuffy or blanket.
“Not just for the toddler, but for my husband and me. We strapped our car seat (Diono Radian RXT) to a Magna Cart, put the kiddo (16 months) in the travel toddler car seat, and wheeled her around the airport that way. She didn’t have to walk, and we could take it down the aisle of the airplane.” – @solmiano
What are your best tips to get toddlers to sleep on a plane?
Flying with a toddler car seat looks like a huge pain to carry around, but traveling with a car seat contains the toddler better and also easier for them to fall asleep in. Having a car seat trolley makes it pretty manageable! @hychan1
We create a mini bedtime routine that we do every time. About 20-30 minutes before we are ready for them to be asleep we start to wind them down, change into jammies have a bottle of milk, start talking about how it’s nap/bed time. We shut off any screens we have going and turn on our white noise app pretty quiet. We read 1-2 stories (usually from memory) and snuggle them in with fav stuffy. It has worked 100% of the time since I discovered this easy little routine. @howwetravel4
Security blanket and pillow from home. Patience!! @Burgessadventures
Have them in comfy clothing, bring a blanket just in case, and stay as calm as possible. We also sit on or behind the wing (it’s the loudest) which mimics a sound machine. @apietry
It’s tough to get our son to sleep before the lights are out, so we try to have realistic expectations of him. Once the lights are out, we nurse him to sleep. @Mamatravelpants
When flying with a toddler on a short flight, accept that sleep will be a bonus rather than relying on it. Do a physical activity at the airport… let them run as much as possible. Also eat at the airport, napping on a full belly is always easier. On larger planes try to find a space without distractions (particularly the TV screens). Find a way to be able to lay them down to keep them asleep. @Katief_bubsandus
Only way to get her to sleep is taking a red eye flight and not letting her sleep all day before taking that flight. During the day time flights she’s way too excited and won’t sleep, no matter how long the flight is. @lara_on_the_move
A warm blanket from home, keeping our toddler busy before the flight and tiring them out by getting them to walk from the gate to the plane if possible. @rupeat
What do you wish you did differently or knew before your flight with a toddler?
Before flying with a toddler for the first time, I wish I had just accepted that babies cry sometimes and that’s ok. I remember panicking the first time we flew every little whimper and I would stress and it wasn’t what anyone needed. Now I just accept that sometimes there are tears, but if I keep a positive attitude it keeps everyone calm and happy. @howwetravel4
Don’t board first (unless it’s Southwest and the seats will fill up). If you have assigned seats wait to board last with your toddler and let them run their energy out in the airport. Waiting for everyone to board can take 30+ minutes. That’s 30 minutes your baby isn’t trying to climb over everything and get off your lap. @irishtwintravels
This time I had everything. A blanket, toys, an inflatable leg rest pillow and I ordered in advanced the kids menu. @Ticamominhh
Toddlers will lose their mind for no reason, its best to just roll with it. I try not to ever let myself get worked up. I try and bring her down to my level, not rise to hers. @Burgessadventures
I wish I would have been wearing layers because I got so hot holding her and was stuck in a hoodie @apietry
Try to plan a convenient flight for their awake times (knowing that for international long haul flights you will need to arrive at the airport several hours early). @Myfamilyfeliz
We were lucky for all our long haul flights. For the 4 times we flew from Paris to LA, we always had spare seats, the baby bed, and the flight attendants were awesome on the plane. Maybe I will pack less as I had planned too much stuff to keep her busy. @Fifi_babyselena
Eating meals in a cramped space with a toddler can be a disaster. We ask the flight attendant to bring one meal first so that we can take turns entertaining our toddler while the other eats. @Mamatravelpants
Don’t board the plane with the family boarding announcement – when flying with a toddler, the earlier you board, the longer you have to keep them entertained on the plane! @finelinetravels
Small toys sometimes just end up being extra weight. I carried most of her favorite toys but ended up useless because she was more interested with other stuff (a play set gift from the flight attendant, seat entertainment controller, magazine and etc) @vidiatoffany
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This post was written & edited by:
Celine is the owner of Baby Can Travel. Not only does she have years of experience traveling with babies & toddlers, but she's been helping new parents travel with their babies and toddlers for over a decade. In addition to writing on her baby travel blog, she has contributed to articles about traveling with a baby with the Washington Post, the Lonely Planet magazine and Pregnancy & Newborn magazine.
Celine also writes about family travel on the site FamilyCanTravel.com, which she co-owns with her husband. Being from the Canadian Rockies, she shares her passion about her home and travel to Banff National Park and area on their site TravelBanffCanada.com.