For fear of sounding cocky, I’m going to refrain from calling myself an expert at flying with babies and young children. Nonetheless, if experience breeds expertise then I am well on my way to earning expert status.
Since becoming a mom, I’ve logged thousands of miles of air travel with young kids in tow. At least half of those trips were done solo, without the help of my husband. Before my daughter was a year old, I’d already braved six transatlantic flights with her, in addition to six domestic European flights. So, I guess you could say that I know a thing or two about flying with little ones.
People are constantly asking me for tips on air travel with kids, so I decided it was time to compile a list of my best tips for flying with young children.
Basic Survival Tips for Flying with Babies and Young Children
Choose your seats wisely
Your seats can make or break you on a flight. Take the time to check out www.seatguru.com where you can read the pros and cons for the seats on your flight. You can choose your airline and aircraft body type in the drop-down menu to view the Seatmap Key.
When traveling with an infant, some bulk head rows are equipped with a portable baby bassinet, though actually getting one can be tough. Read here for tips on reserving a baby bassinet. Remember, should you end up seated in a bulk head row, you will not allowed to keep any bags with you during that time. This can be a bit of a hassle, as take off and landing can be tricky due to the fact that you and your children must remain seated at all costs.
If you’re seated in a bulkhead row, you’ll need to think ahead and prepare a few toys, snacks, a bottle, or anything else you might need to keep your child calm during take off and landing. The rest of your things will have to be stored in the overhead bins until the seat belt sign is turned off.
If you are traveling with a child that is too big for a bassinet (max weight: 20 lbs), then you may want to avoid the bulk head rows. The arm rests in these rows are typically fixed and cannot be lifted, meaning your child will not be able to lay across your lap. The TVs and tables in these fixed armrest seats are also stored in the arm rest and can be complicate life when traveling with little ones.
I usually aim for non-bulkhead seats towards the middle of the plane, typically rows 31-35 (we have predominantly flown on the Airbus A330-300 with Lufthansa for the past few years). I always try to get at least one aisle seat when traveling with kids so that we don’t disturb our neighbor every time nature calls or one of my little ones wants to walk around.
When traveling alone with two kids, my strategy is to reserve both aisles seats on a 4-seat row, plus one of the two middle seats in that same row. I do so hoping that the other middle seat in that row will stay empty. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t – but when it does work, the extra seat makes the flight so much easier! If, however, someone ends up seated between me and my kids, they always happily agree to switch seats with one of my kids so that we can be side by side.
Don’t hesitate to sweet talk the airline staff when checking in and ask if there’s anyway to have an extra seat beside you, especially if you are traveling with a lap child. Most of the time, they will do their best to help you.
Be strategic with your carry-on
Pack as lightly as you realistically can. If you’re traveling solo with kids, this is especially important.
Your choice of carry-on is crucial to a successful trip.
Pick a bag with lots of easily accessible pockets or use one large bag in which you place several different themed bags. You’ll likely to keep your bag in the floor in front of you during the flight, so make sure it opens wide enough that you can easily access your things in a confined space.
For my carry-on, I usually carry an overnight bag with shoulder straps (like this one). Inside of my carry-on, I add smaller themed bags. Plastic shopping bags or reusable shopping bags work perfectly for your themed bags, with the exception of your Bathroom bag. For this bag, I typically use a drawstring bag because I often end up carrying it outside of my carry-on bag at some point during my travel.
Below are the themed bags I carry in my carry-on:
- Bathroom – diapers, wipes, etc
- Liquids – standard liquids bag + childrens liquids in a separate, larger bag (milk, apple sauces, bottles, etc)
- Be sure to present both liquids bags at airport security and inform the TSA security agent that you have extra liquids for your children
- Food – snacks, treats, kid-friendly picnic, paper towels, etc
- Entertainment – toys, headphones, iPads, etc
- Personal Items – passports, wallet, glasses, tissues, etc
- I don’t travel with a purse if I’m flying with the kids. I prefer to pack my purse in my check baggage, only bringing the bare essentials like my wallet and lipstick in my carry-on.
See below for more details on what to pack in your carry-on.
Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.
If you go in to a long air travel day with two kids under the age of five and expect it to be a breeze, chances are you’ll be sorely disappointed. Go ahead and mentally prep yourself for the worst: delayed flights, cranky kids, dead batteries, no naps, spilt drinks, rude passengers, and so forth.
If you go into your day knowing that it’s probably going to be a doozy, you’ll be less likely to get irritated and overwhelmed if and when something goes wrong.
Here are a few ways I prepare for the worst when flying with kids:
- Tylenol & Peppermint Oil for Stress Headaches : I usually try to avoid medication when possible, but travel days are the exception to the rule. If you’re prone to stress headaches, go ahead and take some Tylenol before you head to the airport. I also carry peppermint oil in my liquids bag for headache relief
If you think dealing with a tantrum is tough, try doing it when a throbbing headache when you’re 30,000 feet in the air and people are staring at you and your screaming child!
- Spare Batteries : Your iPad batteries will inevitably die if you travel without a spare battery / chargers. It can be tough to find a place or time to charge up during your commuting day, so I always bring multiple spare batteries.
A dead iPad on a long flight with a young child comes at a high price to your sanity.
- Anticipate Ear Discomfort : Cabin pressure changes that occur during take off and landing can cause ear popping for infants and children just as it does for adults. Not only can this be uncomfortable, but it can also be frightening to children because they don’t necessarily understand what’s going on. It’s not unusual to hear screaming babies and crying children during these phases of a flight.
Sucking and chewing can help alleviate the discomfort caused by pressure changes, so offer your baby or child something to help with the ear pressure during take off and descent. Pacifiers, bottles, or nursing work well for babies. For toddlers and up, offer them a snack, a lollipop, or a piece of gum to help minimize the discomfort.
- Self Talk: When I embark on a 22-hour travel day alone with my little ones, I engage in a lot of self talk. My internal dialogue goes like this:
You can do anything for (insert travel time) hours. It’s going to be hard, but it’ll be worth it once you arrive. One minute at a time, one flight at a time. You’ve got this!
Ignore the haters. Look for sympathizers.
Depending on a number of factors, chances are that your child will not be a perfect angel for the entire duration of your trip. When your child has an inevitable break down, go ahead and prepare yourself:
There will be the haters who give you the stink eye and mumble rude comments under their breath, or even worse, to your face. Just ignore them. Don’t waist your mental energy on responding or worrying about what they think. Chances are that they don’t have kids or, if they do, they’ve forgotten what it was like to travel with them when they were young!
Rather than focusing on the negative energy that those less-than-understanding passengers exude, look for the sympathizers.
Look for the women giving you the I’ve been there, honey smile. Look for that flight attendant that’s ooo-ing and ahhh-ing at precious little baby when you board the plane and seek her out if needed. Remember, for every person who acts annoyed by your child, there’s another person who understands what you’re going through, admires you, and is cheering you on!
What to Pack in Your Carry-On
Small First Aid kit – Think infant pain reliever, diaper cream, decongestant, anti-bacterial, and band-aids. If your child is prone to ear infections and you have prescription ear numbing drops, it won’t hurt to throw those in. Also include Lysol wipes for airplane seats and armrests. Make sure they are well labeled and not mistaken for baby wipes!
Favorite small stuffed animal or lovey – If your child has an attachment object, don’t even think about leaving home without it. Even preschoolers like to have a familiar object to cuddle when traveling, especially for long-haul flights when you really want them to sleep.
Remember to prepare your child for the fact that they will have to place their lovey or stuffed animal on the security belt long enough for it to go through the x-ray machine.
I still remember being completely traumatized as a young child when my favorite baby doll was torn from my hands and disappeared into the mysterious tunnel that was the x-ray machine.
Change of clothes for everyone, parents included – Most moms will remember to bring a change of clothes for a baby, but I recommend bringing a change of clothes for young children of all ages AND for yourself.
Trust me, you’ll be thankful you had a backup plan when your toddler dumps orange juice in someones lap or when your baby vomits all over you.
When traveling with infants, I always carry, at the very least, an extra shirt for me and multiple changes for the baby.
When traveling with toddlers and pre-schoolers, I always have one full change for each child, socks and underwear included. I try to work in an extra shirt for myself, but it’s not as vital as it is with infants.
Paper towels, extra baby wipes, and plastic grocery bags – This seems like a small detail, but these things always come in handy when traveling with little ones. Tear off a few paper towels and place them in a pocket of your carry-on, along with a plastic grocery bag and a small pack of baby wipes. I also recommend putting a few paper towels in your food themed bag or pocket. The paper towels and baby wipes come in handy for spills, snacks, and meal time.
As for the plastic bags, during long-haul flights with kids, you’d be surprised how quickly trash accumulates. Being the neat freak that I am, I whip out my plastic grocery bag and use it as a trash bag throughout the flight. On multiple occasions, I’ve had flight attendants thank me for doing so. Not only does it keep me from having to constantly hand off trash to the flight attendant, but it keeps our travel space more organized and, in my experience, that is one of the keys to an enjoyable flight.
Pajamas – For night flights, bring your childrens’ pajamas in your carry-on. If possible, change them into their pajamas after they have eaten their dinner or when you are ready for them to try for their night time sleep. This signals to them that it is time for bed and helps keep some sense of normalcy in an otherwise relatively unfamiliar setting.
Infants & Babies:
Make sure to read the All Ages section as well.
Plenty of pacifiers – This first one is kind of a no brainer, but it’s essential. If your child uses a pacifier, don’t get on a plane without at least 3. Make sure to stick one in your purse and one in an external pocket of your carry-on bag for easy access. Make sure to give your baby something to suck on such as a pacifier or bottle during take off and descent, as the sucking action will help with potentially painful ear popping. If your baby is breastfed, I highly recommend nursing during take off and descent.
A small baby blanket – If your baby isn’t a great sleeper or if you aren’t okay with covering your precious little one with an airplane blanket, make sure to pack a small blanket. It’s often cold in airplanes, so a soft familiar blanket can be useful when trying to get infants to sleep in unfamiliar surroundings.
Baby carrier or sling – For long-haul flights and flight connections, this can be a lifesaver. For infants and babies, I recommend ditching the stroller if at all possible. It’s so much easier to strap your little one into a baby sling. From walking your baby around the plane if she’s agitated or having a hard time falling asleep to rushing through airports, a baby carrier can be your best friend. I used a baby carrier like this one with my children until they were approaching two years old, at which point I moved to a lightweight umbrella stroller (only until they are old enough to run through the airport, if needed, to catch a flight).
Milk and baby food – Consider how much your baby usually drinks and eats in the length of time that you’re going to be traveling. You will want to bring more milk and baby food than you typically need just in case you get delayed or, worse case scenario, stuck overnight. Some people recommend bringing enough milk and baby food for two days. I found that this was tough due when I traveled alone with children to limited carry-on space / weight. If you can’t bring enough for two days, make sure you at least bring more than your baby would typically consume. Remember that babies tend to drink more when traveling due to dehydration and simply because babies associate sitting in parents laps with drinking.
Extra diapers and outfits for baby – Count how many diapers your baby typically uses in the length of time that you will be traveling and then add at least four extra diapers, or more if space allows. Again, many people recommend bringing enough diapers for two days. If you space won’t allow you to do so, make sure you pack as many extras as you can reasonably manage. Your baby will likely drink more than normal while traveling and thus will likely go through more diapers than usual. With a little luck, all those extra diapers will be a waist of space, but you may just find yourself stuck in an airport due to a delayed flight with an infant that has diarrhea out of the blue. Yep, it happens. Trust me. Also make sure to bring extra clothes for your baby. I never traveled without at least two backup onesies or zip up sleep-n-plays.
A small, separate bag in your carry-on for bathroom visits – In your carry-on, pack a small separate bag with diapers, wipes, a changing mat, a change of clothes for baby, a few plastic bags for tying up poop diapers before disposal, and a small toy to distract your baby during diaper changes. Keep this bag easily accessible so you can grab and go when time comes for a diaper change. Airplane lavatories are small so you’ll be thankful to have a small, essentials only bag for diaper changing time.
A large, light-weight scarf (for breastfeeding mothers only) – A scarf can double as a nursing cape is always a good idea if you’re breastfeeding. Not only will it come in handy in the often chilly plane cabin, but you’ll be able to nurse without flashing your fellow passengers. In my experience, breastfeeding is the single most effective way to keep babies happy and agreeable during air travel. It’s a godsend for soothing their ears during take-off and descent and is ideal for comforting them if they are disturbed by their unfamiliar surroundings or changes in their normal routine.
Small, familiar toys – Don’t go overboard on the toys. For young babies, having two or three small, familiar toys should be sufficient. After all, everything on the plane will be pretty new and exciting for the youngest of travelers – magazines, shiny pretzel bags, plastic cups, in-flight magazines, headphones.
Older Babies and Toddlers:
Make sure to read the All Ages and Infants / Babies Section as well, as many will also apply. Below are some additional tips for older babies and toddlers.
Small, familiar toys + a few new toys – For older babies and toddlers, in addition to a few familiar toys, you can also bring a few new small toys. Hang on to these and bring them out as a surprise as needed. Don’t feel the need to spend a ton of money on these toys – try the Dollar Store or the Target $1 section for cheap, small toys.
Also, remember that babies are often entertained by simple, household things that don’t take up much space: a roll of Scotch tape, stickers, a beaded necklace, anything that can be dumped out like a few playing cards or a few legos and a ziplock bag…
If all else fails and you’re little one is just not having it on your long-haul flight, don’t forget about the entertaining power of a sink. If you’re on an aircraft with plenty of lavatories and you need a last-ditch way to occupy your little one, consider hanging out in one for a while and letting your child play with the sink. On more than one occasion – and usually on redeye flights when everyone else wants to sleep except my toddler- I’ve spent large chunks of time in the lavatory. Not so glamorous, I know, but sometimes survival isn’t pretty!
Coloring Supplies – For toddlers and up, coloring and drawing is a great way to stay busy on a plane. Bring some crayons or colored pencils, a lightweight coloring book, a small notebook, and a pencil or pen. If you bring markers, make sure they are washable as they’ll likely end up on your kids clothes and the tray table. Consider getting some Color Wonder Markers and paper. Note: Don’t bother bringing Play-doh. It often ends up getting confiscated at security.
Snacks – Snacking is a great way to keep them occupied during long-haul flights and during take-off/landing when kids must stay in their seats. Fill a few ziplock bags with various finger foods that your child likes: crackers, nuts, cheese, grapes, raisins, apple slices, etc. I also always throw in a few apples sauce squeeze packs and a banana or two. Ziplock are better than containers, because you can toss them when you’re done and thus gain some space in your carry-on.
Make sure to bring some fun snacks and treats for bribery and rewards. Yes, I am encouraging you to bribe your kids during air travel. A mom’s gotta do what a mom’s gotta do to survive! I always travel with a few lollipops, organic fruit snacks, cookies, and other treats my kids love but don’t get to eat on a regular basis. They are huge fans of Kinder Eggs, so when traveling alone with them I always bring one Kinder Egg each that I hoard until the second half of our long-haul flight. It’s amazing how the promise of a Kinder Egg motivates my kids to take a nap when flying.
*To avoid problems at Customs, make sure that you leave any fruit, cheese, or meat on board upon arrival if you are traveling internationally.
Kid-friendly picnic – On long-haul flights with little ones, meal time is easily one of the most stressful parts. You aren’t allowed to roam the aisles because of the cart service and juggling multiple meal trays can be a herculean feat. Plus, the meals that are provided aren’t always appetizing to your little ones.
Having a kid-friendly, hassle-free meal option in your carry-on definitely comes in handy. I always make a quiche, cut it into squares or small slices, and bring it in ziplock bags in my carry-on. Sandwiches would also be a good option.
If things are going well and you get to enjoy your in-flight meal, more power to you! But, if you see that it’s going to be too complicated, you can always politely decline your in-flight meal and stick with the hassle-free meal you packed in your carry-on.
Also, I’ve learned that if asked, some flight attendants will give you your child’s meal tray and let you feed him before giving you your own meal tray. Don’t hesitate to ask if this is a possibility.
*If you are traveling internationally and bring any meat, fruit, or cheese, make sure to leave it on board upon arrival.
Sippy cup or spill-proof bottle – Airplane cups crack easily and are not ideal for small children. Plus, letting your little one handle an open cup in an airplane is tempting fate.
When traveling with kids, chances are that if it can be spilt it will be spilt.
Bring a kid-friendly cup or bottle with a lid and ask the flight attendant to only fill it half way. Make sure to clarify the amount before she starts pouring or your kid will end up with 8 ounces to drink and you’ll be running back and forth to the lavatories.
I usually ask the flight attendant for a mix of water and orange juice once during the long-haul flight. Given that they rarely get to drink juice, this is a treat for them! The rest of the time they drink water or sparkling water to keep them hydrated.
Ipad or smart phone games and videos – The introduction of the iPad and smart phones changed the ballgame when it comes to traveling with children. It’s so much easier to occupy your kids now than it was just a few short years ago. Take time to download some age-appropriate games or cartoons on your phone or iPad for your child.
Duck Duck Moose apps are great for young kids. Disney Appisodes are also entertaining for older toddlers. For more options, simply google “best apps for toddlers” or “best apps for preschoolers.”
Young children have a tendency to accidentally exit the app they are playing in. You can fix this in just a few seconds by altering the settings on your iPhone.
Benadryl – I may get some flack for this, but I am pro-Benadryl when it comes to long-haul flights with young children. Don’t get the wrong idea: I don’t usually sedate my kids. Nonetheless, when my children were younger, I did occasionally turn to Benadryl during our long-haul flights.
Theoretically, Benadryl sedates children for 4-6 hours, but this will vary. If you decide to give your child Benadryl, make sure to test it on them prior to your travel day. About 5% of children have an adverse reaction to Benadryl and, rather than making them sleepy, they get hyper! When you test Benadryl on your child, take note of how long it takes them to get drowsy and how long they sleep. Keep these things in mind when scheduling your child’s dose of Benadryl.
Pediatricians don’t recommend giving Benadryl to children under 12 months of age. In my experience, I really only needed to turn to Benadryl when my children were between 1 year and 3 years old. Once they get to be around the age of three, they are less dependent on a nap and can be entertained with iPads, coloring books, and the likes.
If you choose to use Benadryl, be sure to give your child the correct dose. The dosing for Benadryl is as follows:
Typically 1mg of Benadryl for every 2.2lb/1kg of body weight.
The liquid is 12.5mg per tsp.
So you would give a 30lb child about 14mg (30 lbs / 2.2 = 13.6 kg = > 1 mg Benadryl p/ kg => 13.6 mg Benadryl). For practicality’s sake, I’d say just round down to the standard dose of 1 tsp (12.5mg) of liquid.
Don’t forget that all liquids and creams must be placed in a ziplock bag and presented at security.
Make sure to read the above sections as well, as many of the tips I have already mentioned also apply to pre-schoolers (change of clothes, coloring supplies, snacks, child-friendly cup or bottle, age appropriate iPad/iPhone games or films, etc)
Children’s headphones : Airplanes are noisy, which means that your kids may need headphones while watching or playing on an iPad, phone, or in-flight TV. The headphones provided during long-haul flights are not made for small heads and thus can be frustrating for your little ones. I’ve dealt with more than one meltdown caused by adult-sized airplane headphones on a sleep-deprived child!
A small backpack (optional) : Once your child gets old enough to carry a backpack, you may wish to allow her to carry a small one as a carry-on. I only recommend doing this if a) your child is old enough to handle the bag without your help and b) you think she will actually do so. Make sure to inform your child that she is responsible for her bag and that she must carry-it and keep up with it for the duration of the trip.
If you decide to let your child bring a book bag, keep it as light as possible. Limit its contents to your child’s lovey, a small snack, a pair of headphones, and a few coloring supplies. Don’t put all of your entertainment options in your child’s backpack. If your child has everything in her bag, she’ll likely pull everything out at once. Your goal is to be able to keep your child entertained for the entire trip, so keep some things hidden away and dole them out as needed.
Last but not least, I recommend your child’s carry-on be one that you can easily throw over your shoulder or stuff into your own carry-on if necessary.
Despite the best of intentions, your child may not always feel like lugging her carry-on through the airport. You may very well end up carrying your child’s book bag, so keep that in mind when deciding whether or not you wish to allow your preschooler to bring a carry-on.
So, there you have it – my ULTIMATE GUIDE to flying with young children and babies. I hope that these insider tips will make your travel experience as painless as possible!
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