A long haul flight with a toddler can be a little intimidating, but setting the right expectations is half the battle. If you go into your flight with a toddler expecting to spend most of the time entertaining your toddler, it will make it much easier. Getting your toddler to sleep on the flight will be a bonus, but something that’s well worth the effort!
We believe that trying to get your toddler to sleep on the plane is more than worth the effort. This doesn’t mean keeping to a rigid schedule but you’ll both be happier if your toddler isn’t so overtired.
In our post on flying with a toddler, we give advice on how to keep your toddler busy and what to expect during your flight. We also mention that one of the key tips to surviving a flight with a toddler is to get them to sleep, so we thought it would be helpful to expand on how to get a toddler to sleep on the airplane.
These toddler sleep tips may not work every time (trust me – we had a giant failure on a 10hr+ flight with our toddler) but this will give you the best chance to get toddlers sleeping on airplanes.
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How to Get a Toddler to Sleep on a Plane
After years of flying with a baby and toddlers, here are our tips for getting a toddler to sleep on a plane.
1. Bring a white noise machine on the plane for your toddler.
It might seem unnecessary on a plane, but a white noise machine can help block out more of the sounds and distractions on the plane. It’s also helpful to keep your toddler sleeping.
See all our recommended portable white noise machines.
2. Use an audiobook or music for your toddler on the plane.
When it’s time for your toddler to sleep, he may still be wanting to explore the airplane. Use an audiobook (for older toddlers) or music to help your toddler calm down. If you can get your toddler to lay down and listen, even better.
3. Create a tent on the plane for your toddler.
One of our favorite toddler travel hacks is to create a tent for your toddler to sleep in. The airplane blankets are perfect for making it darker and blocking more distractions for your toddler. You can tuck it in the tray on the seat in front of your toddler and somewhere on their seat (either the headrest or even along the back of the seat will work).
4. Don’t stick to a rigid schedule.
Don’t try to get your toddler to sleep as soon as you get on the plane – give your toddler time to play and explore.
This one is for your own sanity. You’ll just get frustrated if you get on the plane and immediately try to get your toddler to sleep. It’s a new environment and it’s exciting.
There’s going to be a lot going on around them and they’ll want to explore and touch everything in arms reach. Even if it’s their usual bedtime, put it off until later.
5. Choose the right flight time with a toddler.
If your toddler does pretty well going to sleep for naps or at night and she also sleeps well in new places, there’s a good chance you can get her to sleep on the flight. If you have a long haul flight with a toddler, plan it overnight so you’ll get a few hours of sleep too.
6. Book the right airplane seats with a toddler.
Don’t pick seats right near the toilets or where people congregate when they are tired of sitting. They’ll be talking loudly and your toddler will be distracted.
7. Talk to your toddler about the flight.
This has been, and continues to be, one of the best ways to get kids to sleep on a plane for us. We started doing it before our toddler was 2 years old. A week before the flight, we’d start talking about it. We’d describe the plane, explain the seat belt light, and go through what our flight was going to look like.
For example: “Once we get on the plane we will play for a bit then eat. Once the food is all cleared we will get our pajamas on then read books. Once we are done with the books, it will be time for you to go to sleep.”
We’d have this talk over and over throughout the week. Then there were no surprises on the plane. And even on the plane, we’d talk through each part: “See there is the seat belt light. Is it on or off? Should your seat belt be on or off right now?”
8. Minimize your toddler’s sugar intake.
Traveling with a toddler on a plane is hard enough, keep the sugar and sugary treats to a minimum both before and during the flight.
That’s not to say you should pack a few treats for emergencies.
9. Pack all the snacks and milk for your toddler.
Bring plenty of toddler airplane snacks. Snacks are great for both keeping your toddler busy on the airplane and keeping their bellies full. Don’t forget the milk, especially if it’s part of their nighttime routine.
Some of our favorite airplane snacks for toddlers were cheerios and blueberries. We’d also bring a couple of food pouches with the assumption that our toddler wasn’t likely to eat the airplane food. Don’t forget a spill proof snack cup to prevent the entire thing being dumped on the airplane floor.
10. Use your sleep routines on the plane for your toddler.
What do you do before bed at home? Toddlers thrive on routine. While a bath is out, put your toddler in their pajamas and read books. Sing the same songs you typically do at home before bed.
Follow the same bedtime routine on the plan with your toddler, just like you would at home.
11. Pack a favorite blanket or stuffed animal in your toddler’s carry-on luggage.
Help create a familiar sleeping environment for your toddler on the plane by packing a favorite blanket or toy.
Your toddler will be happy to have this to cuddle with on the plane and it will be worth the space in your toddler’s carry-on. Get our full toddler carry on packing list here.
12. Travel with a toddler car seat on the plane.
If you have (or can get) an airplane seat for your toddler and if you think it will make a difference to getting your toddler to sleep on the flight, then you should bring a travel car seat for your toddler.
13. Let your toddler burn off that energy before you get on the plane.
While waiting for your flight to board, let your toddler burn off all that extra energy. Just don’t let them get too overtired, as overtired babies and toddlers are even harder to get to sleep.
14. Pack some quiet toddler travel toys to entertain your toddler on the plane.
Pack a few books, small toys or any of these screen free toddler travel toys in your toddler’s carry-on. You’ll want the books as part of your bedtime routine anyways.
15. Pack an inflatable toddler travel bed.
If you have a seat for your toddler, create a toddler airplane bed with one of these inflatable airplane beds for toddlers. It will not only give your toddler more space to play, but they’ll have their own space to spread out and fall asleep without being in your lap.
We also have all the best budget inflatable airplane beds for toddlers to turn the airplane seat into a bed for toddlers.
16. Test new toddler travel gear before bringing it on the plane.
If you do bring an inflatable airplane travel bed for babies and toddlers, take the time to set it up at home first. The same goes if you are planning to use a toddler carrier during the flight for those flights when you are flying with a lap toddler or think your toddler might need some extra help to fall asleep.
You don’t need any surprises while on a long flight with a toddler.
17. If you are feeling frustrated, trade spaces with your significant other.
Getting a toddler to sleep on a plane can be frustrating. Don’t hesitate to get your significant other to take over for a bit. They might bring some extra calm to the situation if they haven’t been dealing with it up to this point.
18. Ignore and pretend to sleep yourself.
This is all going to be a novelty for your toddler. Your toddler might not be used to having you beside them when it’s time to sleep. He will likely try to keep playing and engaging with you. Tell your toddler it’s time for everyone to go to sleep, including mommy. Then close your eyes and pretend to sleep.
19. Give your toddler a calming eyebrow rub.
If your toddler is lying down, but still seems full of energy try slowly rubbing his eyebrows (from the nose outwards). This can really help little ones to calm down and fall asleep.
20. If your toddler just won’t settle – let him watch something lying down.
Sometimes just getting them to lie down helps them settle. Position the iPad in a way that they can only watch lying down. You can either play it with the volume low enough that only they can hear or get toddler headphones for the airplane like these ones.
21. Reserve an airplane seat for your toddler.
You won’t have a choice once your toddler turns 2 years old, but if you can get your toddler her own seat, you’ll all really appreciate the extra space. Let alone the freedom of not flying with a toddler on your lap for hours.
If it’s not in the budget to pay for the extra seat, make sure you ask at check-in if there are any extra seats. You can also check with the gate agent.
If all else fails, bring along a toddler carrier to help your toddler sleep while you stand and rock them at the back of the plane.
Get a summary of our top tips in our Get Toddler to Sleep on Planes web story.