We only write about destinations we have personally visited with our family. This post contains affiliate links. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to UNICEF.
Can anyone give me some advice on keeping my 1 year old entertained on a long haul flight?
Sound familiar? Who has planned a trip with a toddler and not gone out seeking advice?
This is a question I see pop up over and over and over:
“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.”
I usually respond by sharing our Best Airplane Activities & Travel Toys post. But it has finally occurred to me that this is not enough. Why? Because a few suggestions for activities aren’t going to give an anxious parent the comfort they need that they will in fact survive that flight…That they can actually come out on the other side [only partially] unscathed.
So let’s just get that 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 over here.
This post is more about toddler behaviour, what to expect on a flight and how to survive air travel with a toddler.
So why am I specifically addressing flying with a toddler? Babies and toddlers are two completely different creatures. 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. They 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 said toddler contained in one seat for the duration of a flight can be frightening.
Our 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. I limited TV at home and it still wasn’t exciting enough to keep them entertained 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, 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 has an attention span of about 20 minutes (and it was much less at 12-18 months).
Tips for Flying with a Toddler
So with screen time offering up only an intermittent distraction, how exactly do you survive a flight with your toddler?
Here’s the secret:
The key to getting through this depends on two things: your expectations and one simple concept that greats you every day in the shower (or less frequently, since you have a toddler and showering is no longer a daily occurrence):
WASH – RINSE – REPEAT
Let’s start with your expectations. You should go into this with the notion that 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 anything better than this is a bonus. Your toddler may just surprise you.
I won’t lie, this next part will be exhausting and I hope you either have someone to share it with or your toddler rewards you with some sleep, but if not just remember that the flight is such a VERY SMALL part of your 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. In 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. 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 and we arrived in Japan tired but ready to explore.
So here is how this next part works…
Some people swear by bringing wrapped gifts for your child. I have never done this. I probably won’t ever do it. I don’t think it’s a bad idea, I’m just not that organized. Besides, in the end that comes down to just having a lot of little distractions to switch between.
WASH – RINSE – REPEAT
Bring multiple activities (don’t over do it, just plan to have a lot of little activities like iPad games, movies, snacks, stickers, coloring, etc.), then repeat that along with any other entertainment you can create along the way. 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/safety card. The key here is to get creative and keep your energy up. You will get through this.
WASH – RINSE – REPEAT
A 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 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.
The sleep part 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 mimicking our usual bed time routine, but eventually he will sleep. 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.
My Tips for Flying with Toddler
If I had to give some tips/tricks to getting through this, here is what has worked (or not worked) for us:
1. Am I the only one that avoids letting my toddler know we can walk up and down the aisle? Seriously, aside from taking my little guy to the 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. I try to think what will cause a tantrum and plan for it. You can read all about managing tantrums on the go here. As an example, I know take off and landing will be the hardest parts so I make sure to have a fun snack and an activity ready to go for when that seat belt light goes on.
3. In our Best Airplane Activities & Travel Toys for Babies & Toddlers post, we give sample activities that our kids have enjoyed at each stage. This is our starting point then we adjust depending on what our kids are interested in most 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 kids love reading, so the Epic! digital library app is an great alternative to cartoons – simply download some Read To Me books onto your iPad prior to the flight. Our 2 year loves trucks, so we got the Trucks & Diggers app and he loves it. Test things out before you go. Give them a chance to try the apps.
4. Don’t plan sleep until after some time on the plane. Trying to stick to our schedule, I’ve tried to get him to sleep too soon and failed miserably. 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. This has been our best chance for getting him to sleep.
5. When it is time 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.
6. As he got older, we started to talk a lot about the plane, what will happen along the way and what we need to do. For example, we talked about the seat belt 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 seat belt on less of a fight. When he went to take it 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!).
7. Lastly, knowing when it’s time to tap out. 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.
Our toddler is sleeping on a Fly Tot airplane cushion. You can read our full review here.
Let’s hear from other parents
What is the one thing for your toddler that you would never fly without?
Of all the answers we received, the number one answer was SNACKS, followed by iPad, toy cars, headphones & favourite 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 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
Share any tips to get your toddler to sleep on a flight.
The car seat looks like a huge pain to carry around, but it 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
A carrier (still magic!) Sarah from exploreasafamily.com
A warm blanket from home, keeping them busy before the flight and tiring them out by getting them to walk from the gate to the plane if possible. @rupeat
For short haul 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
What do you wish you did differently or knew before your flight?
Before the first time I flew 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 shit 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 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 you will need to arrive at the airport several hours early). @Myfamilyfeliz
We were lucky for all our flights. For the 4 times we did Paris to LA, we always had spare seats, the baby bed, and staff that was 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 attendants to bring one meal first so that we can take turns keeping our toddler entertained while the other eats. @Mamatravelpants
Don’t board with the family boarding announcement – the earlier you board, the longer you have to keep a toddler entertained on the plane! @finelinetravels
Small toys sometimes just end up being extra weight. I carried most of her favourite toys but ended up useless because she was more interested with other stuff (play set gift from the airline, seat entertainment controller, magazine and etc) @vidiatoffany
You Got This Mama!!
If you have any tips or questions about this post, please comment below!