I hear/see this question ALL.THE.TIME. in the many parenting groups I’m in, whether in person or online. Parents in a panic because they are planning a trip with a baby, toddler, or young child. They are stressing over how to keep the littles happy and quiet and calm and what time of day should they fly and what should they bring on the plane and what apps are the best…STOP! Just stop. You are asking the wrong questions.
First, safety: your kid needs a seat. I don’t care if they “can” fly on your lap for free, it isn’t safe. If you can’t afford a seat for every person in your party, you can’t afford the trip. Period. No, I’m not being mean and no I’m not some rich elitist – I get it. We don’t take as many trips as we used to because instead of two seats, we now have to buy five. It’s expensive and some trips just can’t happen due to the cost. And I’m not perfect – my oldest flew a few times as a lap baby, before I knew any better. I don’t beat myself up about it because the past is the past and I was doing what a lot of people do, without even thinking about it. But, as the saying goes “Know better, do better.” I know better now, so we buy every person a seat. Why? Because my children’s safety is at stake. I know I will not be able to hold on to my child in case of an emergency or severe, or even mild, turbulence. And neither will you. Because physics. Don’t believe me? Check out some of these recent headlines: Babies Thrown Out Of Their Mothers’ Arms; Baby Sent Flying. And this page from the FAA is great for the whats and hows of safe flying with kids: FAA Child Safety.
Ok, now that I’m the nasty mom who told you to buy a seat for the baby, I’m also going to tell you that your kid(s) needs to be in their carseat(s). Again, physics. It’s safer. If your baby rides rear-facing in the car, which they should do until AT LEAST age 2, then they should ride rear-facing on the plane. I say should because I have broken this rule myself…flying with all three, logistics of installing three car seats and we couldn’t get the seat installed rear without major wiggle, so our one-year-old rode forward facing on the plane. We did the best with what we had at that moment. And yes, your toddler needs to be in a car seat too. I know, it’s a giant pain. Trust me, I have three little kids. It sucks to lug three car seats through the airport and security and onto the plane and install and then get them off the plane and to the rental car/cab…total pain in the ass! But again, it’s my kids’ safety we are talking about and while sometimes they drive me batty, I would do anything, even lug three carseats through the airport, to keep them safe! If your kiddo is a bit older and meets the requirements, the CARES harness is a good alternative to bringing the carseat BUT it’s just for the plane…so if you need a car seat at the other end, just install it on the plane. Which brings me to…
NEVER check your car seat on a plane! Never! Have you seen how they handle the baggage?! Tossing it around, with bags often falling off the top of the conveyor belt. Yeah, that can damage your car seat. And it could be internal damage, which you can’t see, that can compromise the structural integrity of the seat which is a fancy way to say IT ISN’T SAFE! But all that is irrelevant because you want your kids to be as safe as possible, so they’ll be riding in their car seats anyway. Right? 🙂
Ok, if you’re still reading and don’t hate me yet, I have a lot of other tips for making it through the airport and through the flight, all with everyone relatively happy. First of all, with the car seat, besides being safer, it makes for a much nicer ride for everyone! For you and your fellow passengers, your kid is contained. Our poor kids, at least while still in diapers, think that you aren’t allowed out of your car seat on the plane, just like in a car. Makes life that much easier for everyone. Our older kids know you can just get out to go potty, that’s it. But the big thing is, especially for littles, they sleep sooooo much better in their car seats! And you will be so much more comfortable and happy not having to hold them while they squirm and kick and stand up and sit down and mess with the tray table and steal your glasses and then try to get comfortable and eventually fall asleep on you in the most odd position, pining you to the seat just as you have to pee, while you lose feeling in your left leg and arm. Oh and forget snacks and drinks for you while you’re holding a baby or toddler. And their snack crumbs will for sure end up on your sweater and their drink will inevitably spill between your legs…see, I told you I did it before I knew better. And holding a lap baby sucked way worse than carrying some car seats.
Ok, so logistics: this may slightly differ based on number and ages of kids, but generally speaking, I check all the luggage I can and only carry on one bag. That bag is life, it can’t be lost. In this very valuable bag I carry the following: diaper and wipes (lots of wipes!), a few empty ziplock bags (leaky diaper? Spilled drink?), a complete change of clothes for everyone (I won’t even tell you about the spit up incident, but it did involve me needing to change my entire outfit, even underwear, mid flight), a few non-messy snacks, empty bottles or water bottles that can be filled after we get thru security, activities (more on that in a bit!), one or two muslin swaddle blankets (even if you no longer have a baby, these are great for everything from spills to keeping warm to providing shade), something for babies and kids to suck on, one special lovie per kid (helps for sleeping!) and of course my wallet, phone, charger, and personal stuff if needed (hello tampons).
Of course I also need to get myself, the kids, and the carseats through security and to the gate. I prefer to babywear my youngest and I also prefer not to take a stroller unless I need it where I’m going. I know some people love their strollers. They can be gate checked BUT always check with your particular airline, I’ve heard some don’t let the giant ones, like the double bob, through. We have the Mountain Buggy +one and have never had an issue. I do highly recommend a good sturdy stroller bag…while our bag has been ripped, our stroller never has been (but clearly would have been without the bag). Which is yet another testament to why you never check, even gate check, a car seat! I like to use the Go Go Baby Travelmate for one car seat, which lets a kid sit in it while I pull. We use the Diono Radians, which can fold flat and be worn in a backpack style bag, so that’s another good option. Your car seats and stroller will need to be “hand inspected” at security, but that isn’t a big deal. I’ve heard of people “packing” things around their car seats…I assume those are for people who are intending to gate check, which again, is a bad idea, but also, I’ve always had to take my car seats out of any bags at security, so I wouldn’t pack anything with them to make it faster and easier. Kids can leave their shoes on (yay!) and if you’re baby wearing, they can stay on you but you will need to go do that hand-swipe thing on the other side – it adds maybe one minute but is easier than taking the baby out. Babies and kids will need to come out of car seats and strollers, just a heads up. Since logistics can really look a lot different for each family depending on number of adults, number and ages of kids, car seats, stroller, etc., feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll be happy to tell you how I would get a particular group through! J
Notice I have written a lot and haven’t even gotten to the common questions yet – how to keep my kids quiet/happy/entertained on a plane. Well, here you go. First, book your seats in the back of the plane where it is louder. That white noise serves to help block out your loud kids from your poor neighbors and it often helps lull them to sleep. Plus, you are closer to the bathrooms, you won’t be blocking people while you install/uninstall the car seats, and you are closer to the flight attendants, which may be your savior! If you are traveling with two adults, have one board first with the car seat(s) to get them all installed safely. If at all possible, the one adult at the gate with the kids should be doing everything possible to get them ready to sit for awhile…one last potty break/diaper change, let them stretch their arms and legs and let baby wriggle around on a blanket on the floor, not contained. Basically, don’t make them sit nicely and quietly at the gate and DO NOT bust out any of your activities yet. Of course you don’t want them running around like crazed lunatics either. Take a walk, go on a scavenger hunt, play “simon says” or “I spy”, watch the planes, etc. If dad or someone is already on the plane with the car seats installed, I board absolutely last…walk straight back, strap in, and there’s not all that waiting/down time. If, however, I’m by myself, then obviously I need to board in the earlier time frame to get the seats installed. In that case, I give every kid very specific jobs and ask for their help – you’d be surprised how much kids love being given an important task and will really rise to the occasion. But again, even in that situation, prior to boarding, we are active and not just sitting.
Once on the plane and everyone is safely strapped in, still do not bust out any of the activities! Let them look around, answer all their questions, have them watch the bags being loaded or the other planes taxing around. I think many people would be surprised at how much time can be spent simply observing and taking it all in without the distraction of electronics or toys or snacks. Tell them it’s important that they watch/listen to the safety talk. We have never even cracked into our activities until we are well into the air! The one thing you will need to have out, however, is something to help with their ears/pressure. For babies, bottles or pacifiers. I have always exclusively nursed, so a bottle wasn’t an option, and my sons didn’t regularly take pacifiers. But, a pacifier with a little milk on the end, is enough to get them through…even my non-paci kids would at least suck on it a little, to figure out what it was, and that was enough. Or if your kid sucks their thumb or fingers, that’s good too. If we give my youngest his lovie, which he usually only gets when it’s sleep time, he instinctively puts his fingers into his mouth. For older kids, have them eating a little snack, drinking some water, or my kids all-time-favorite, the lollipop! We don’t really eat candy in our house, so it’s a big treat and works like a charm for their ears. By about age 4 or 5, my kids have been easily able to understand the “swallow” or “yawn” command and the tricks aren’t needed as much.
Now that you are at your cruising altitude, it is time to break out your activities! We only do one thing at a time and all are no noise, no mess. We also don’t do electronics (GASP!) and yet we have survived many a plane flight and car ride. So if you’re looking for app suggestions, I’m not your gal. But for quite activities for the maybe 6 and under crowd, we love: Water Wow books, Color Wonder markers, crayons (washable) and coloring books/plain paper, Wikki Stix, reusable sticker scenes, etch-a-sketch, magnadoodle, aquadoodle, flashcards or playing cards (for which there are thousands of games based on age), color-by-number books, sticker-by-number books, or really any activity book (check out the dollar store!). We also have several dry-erase style workbooks, but beware, as dry-erase markers are not washable, so only use for older kids. But my very favorite plane activity is virtually free – bring along some old magazines, kid appropriate of course. First, read through. Then do a scavenger hunt… “can you find a picture of a cat?”, “how many babies can you count in this magazine?”, “find something red.”, etc. When that is exhausted, bust out the glue stick and paper to make some collages! If they are old enough, they can do this themselves, mine still need some help so they tell me what to tear out. We have done collages based on themes (all the dogs or everything that is blue) or we do them with things we like. This is especially fun with toy catalogs! I like this activity because it can take quite some time but isn’t boring for me and doesn’t take up much space at all. Obviously we don’t bring all of these things every time and sometimes we pack some in our checked bag to switch them out for the return flight.
We intersperse our activities with snacks. The snack list is virtually endless and of course entirely dependent on your kids’ preferences, allergies, family dietary restrictions, etc. Just don’t pack anything messy or smelly! We do lots of dried fruit, goldfish, pretzels, trail mix, yogurt covered raisins, cereal bars, granola squares, things like that. I feel like Trader Joes is the best place to shop for travel snacks! If you have a baby who has started to eat solids, those toddler pouches are a god-send on trips, even if, like us, you follow baby led weaning. Heck, even my older kids like them since they are rare for us – they think they are a treat! We steer clear of sweets (you do not want a kid hyped up on sugar stuck on a plane!), anything messy, or even just foods we don’t normally eat – no need to temp fate with something new for the digestive system!
While planning around naptime is ideal, it’s a little tricky when you have to take into account the drive to the airport, checking bags, getting through security, boarding the plane, the flight time…for those under age 2, that is a long time and it becomes virtually impossible to plan perfectly, mine always end up cat napping in the carrier before the flight. But for the 2-4 crowd, it is a good idea to plan your flight for their naptime if at all possible. Do not, I repeat, do NOT think that if you skip nap and keep them up later, they will sleep better on the plane…in my experience, an overtired kiddo on a plane is the one who fights sleep the most. And they often fight it loudly. Of course you can help them take a little nap. The car seat, obviously, makes them more comfy. Make sure they’ve had a snack and they’ve gotten to look around, ask their questions, and generally experience the flight. For those potty trained, a bathroom break is good. My kids know I have activities, so we always have to do a few first. I close the shades and turn off the lights, give them their lovie or blanket, and I often also close my eyes or at least stop engaging with them. Knock on wood, but they have always at least taken a cat nap and sometimes we get lucky and they sleep most of the flight!
Last but not least, you land. Just wait. You are in no rush, and if you scheduled a tight connection, well, that was dumb. J Let everyone else get off the plane. Don’t unstrap the kids yet or they will move…and by move, I mean try to escape. Take the time while everyone else is deboarding to pack up your carry on and get out your car seat bags (if needed). Have your plan…I usually take the kids while my husband gets the car seats. Be sure to check all around, especially under the car seats, for lost items. I have always had kind flight attendants who have helped at this point – frankly, I’ve always had really great, helpful flight attendants. And fellow passengers. I think as long as you look like you’re trying and are kind, everyone understands if a kid cries or kicks a seat.
But the single best advice I can give you for a happy, easy flight is not to stress. Which I fully realize is easier said than done. But here’s the thing – kids pick up on stress. Especially babies and toddlers. They will feed on your stress and fear and nerves and turn into tiny little terrors in the sky. Relax. Come prepared, plan ahead, but then try to let go and realize that you did what you could. Someone may have a poopsplosion or giant spit up or complete meltdown. Someone will cry (hopefully not you). It happens. And everyone on that plane was a kid or has a kid or knows a kid. Again, if you look like you’ve prepared, if you make an effort, if you smile and acknowledge whatever it is, people will understand. Many will lend a hand – they may play a little game of peekaboo with your bored toddler or listen enthusiastically as your four year old describes his latest dinosaur knowledge. You’d be surprised.
I’ll leave you with this little story – my youngest was 2.5 months old when I had to fly home, by myself, at the very last minute to see not one, but two dying relatives. It was not a fun trip at all and I was stressed and sad and exhausted (because I had a 3 year old, 2 year old, and a newborn at home). On the way back, so now I’m even more exhausted and sad, we had a seat right in the front, the first row behind first class. Not where I wanted to sit (but remember, last minute flight). We share the row with an older, distinguished looking businessman. Just before take off, instead of falling asleep, as I’ve expected him to do, my infant begins to scream. Not cry. Scream. Top of his lungs. He won’t take a pacifier or my finger. I take him out of his seat as soon as I can (safe cruising altitude. still not ideal to take him out but this whole scene was not ideal!) to try to nurse him again. He refuses. I shush. I rock. I swaddle. I pray and curse under my breath. Several people in first class have turned to look. The flight attendant has asked three times if she can get him anything (on the third time, I politely asked her to stop asking). I am just about to start crying myself when this man next to me, who I assumed hated us by now, pats my arm and says “It’s ok. Everyone understands. And anyway, I miss my grandbabies, may I hold him?” I think I was too shocked by this kindness to say anything, but I did hand him over and damn if that baby didn’t shut right up and coo at this total stranger! It was a miracle. Or it was just someone being nice and I was so stressed that I had freaked out my own kid. But this older, obviously wiser man was cool and calm and my baby picked up on that. He calmed down and FELL ASLEEP! ON A STRANGE MAN! We moved him to the car seat where he slept the rest of the flight. So yeah, shit happens. But you will all survive. And sometimes you will even get to experience some really cool kindness from strangers.