Flying with a toddler is not for the faint of heart. It is also not for people who pooh-pooh planning and pack three hours before take-off.
We recently flew with our extremely active and vocal (but not verbal) 16-month-old son to California where we celebrated Christmas with family.
You better believe I was making a (packing) list and checking it twice the entire week before departure.
We first flew with Luke when he was 8-months-old, and everything went smoothly. However, as all parents can attest, mobility changes everything.
At this stage of the game, we can hardly keep him occupied/quiet/still at home for five minutes; how was this going to work in a cramped row of economy seats for more than four hours?
I’m happy to report that outside of a few whining outbursts, wetting through an outfit and kicking a few seat backs, we were flying high. From my experience (and excessive Googling of travel tips), here are some nuggets of advice that might help before you board with your toddler in tow.
1. Get the “worst-case scenario” out of your system.
To shush my anxiety, I thought, “Well, what’s the worst that could happen?” Then I played out in my head the most negative scenario I could dream up.
My personal flying nightmare was Luke fussing non-stop at a loud, disruptive volume and lots of stink-eyes from my fellow passengers. Maybe some eye rolls, dramatic sighs and a “Can you please control your child?” thrown in there.
I imagined the dirty looks and his ear-piercing shrieks. I let myself marinate in the awfulness. Minutes that would feel like hours.
Would it be unpleasant? Yes. Would I be at my wits’ end? Probably. Would I be tempted to knee the back of the seat of the jerk that rolled his eyes? Yes, I’m ashamed to admit.
But would I survive? Absolutely. Would I still be landing in California in late December, where the temperature was in the low 70s? Hallelujah, yes. Would the little guy eventually calm down (or conk out)? Affirmative. Most important, would I ever see any of the unsympathetic passengers again? No. Even in your most cringe-worthy hypothetical situation, it will be OK.
2. Consider if pre-boarding is really best for you and your child.
Before I became a mom, I used to think pre-boarding with young children sounded like a pretty sweet deal. You don’t feel quite as hurried or herded getting on the plane. For those with mild-mannered infants, this might work. However, when you have a toddler who is constantly in motion, why would you want to get on the plane early and spend an extra 20-30 minutes in tight quarters?
If you have your hands full with a busy toddler and have a confirmed seat, I’d highly recommend getting on dead last. As everyone else boards, this time will give your little one his or her last chance to stand, walk around and burn off some energy.
An exception might be if you’re flying Southwest and have an unassigned seat. Mamas flying with lap children probably don’t want to be sandwiched in a middle seat in a back row. In that case, go ahead and pre-board.
3. It’s all about distraction.
Moms and dads of toddlers already know this, but the need for distraction and diversion is heightened at high altitudes amid rows of strangers. On an airplane, it’s our job to trick them into thinking this experience is completely normal and enjoyable.
For us, this included bringing a bag of toys, books and other random objects that my mom and I affectionately called “the bag of fun.”
I recommend throwing a new book or toy into the rotation to catch their attention. It doesn’t have to be expensive.
Here are some cheap items that Luke seems to find fascinating: a cosmetic mirror, a plastic cup or straw, an empty container with a lid, a small hairbrush or comb and an old remote without batteries.
Of course, for all the trinkets and tchotchkes in the world, it still pretty much comes down to you, Mom. You’re the best in-flight entertainment, so try to get good sleep the night before in order to muster up your most riveting performance.
4. Be strategic with the milk.
Ah, milk. Mothers love it as much as kids because it immediately makes them happy and peaceful. Reaching for a sippy cup or breast might be your instinctual go-to at the first sign of distress on the plane; however, if at all possible, postpone giving your child a drink until takeoff.
Plan on another milk break when you make your final descent. The sucking motion will help alleviate any potential discomfort or ear-popping as the cabin pressure changes. I stole this strategy from wise mamas online, and it has served us well on eight flights. Knock on wood.
Please note that some airlines do not offer milk as a beverage option. It’s a cruel fact that we learned the hard way en route to Phoenix. To be safe, call ahead and ask or stop by a fast-food place or grab-and-go kiosk to buy a bottle before you board.
5. Food is your friend.
This piggybacks on Tip No. 3. Look, our culture truly struggles with childhood obesity. There’s no doubt about it. That said, when it comes to toddlers on airplanes, I fully support food as a distraction. Baby, on that plane, go ahead and eat those feelings.
Cheerios. Raisins. Blueberries. Puffs. Pouches. I highly recommend a fully stocked diaper bag; it should be like a toddler mini-mart in there. Pack a special treat for if you get particularly desperate. Maybe get crazy and swap out that milk for apple juice. No judgment here.
6. Always pack a change of clothes.
During my pre-flight Googling, I came across a note to pack an extra change of clothes for your child. Initially, I thought this was overkill; I’d put him in an overnight diaper, change him regularly and we’d be fine. I did not want extra clothes taking up prime space in my already stuffed diaper bag.
Luckily, I ended up packing a spare outfit anyway. While we didn’t encounter a blowout, there was a super-soaked bottom to be reckoned with. Thank goodness I listened to someone smarter than myself.
P.S. If you have room in your carry-on, pack a change of clothes for yourself, too. If that bottom had been much soggier, it would have looked like I’d had an accident. Lesson learned.
7. Rent or borrow the big stuff.
Babies come with a lot of baggage. Car seats, high chairs and cribs/pack & plays are necessities that can make you say “Yeah, right” to traveling light.
Instead of checking these larger items, check out rental options in your destination city. I'm a big fan of Baby’s Away, an infant and child equipment rental service with dozens of locations nationwide. You simply go online, select the items your child will need at your destination and the company delivers your order to wherever you’re staying.
Also, most rental car companies will rent you a car seat to use during your trip. These options are so much easier than lugging stuff around or checking gear at the airport.
If you’re not convinced about renting, at least make some phone calls ahead of time to investigate borrowing. In California, our hotel provided us with a complimentary high chair and pack & play. All we had to do was ask.
Staying with family or friends? See if they know someone who will let you borrow a few baby/toddler essentials during your visit. Again, when you’re rushing from gate to gate or waiting in line, you’ll be glad to have one less item to worry about.
Traveling with a little one is definitely doable. You just need a plan and as much support as you can get (whether that’s from a relative or a flight attendant). Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t let your fear of flying with an unpredictable toddler rob you (and him or her) of precious life experiences and memories.
Because we flew from Omaha to Phoenix and from Phoenix to Orange County, Luke got to laugh and snuggle with some beloved family members and dip his toes in the Pacific. Needless to say, the packing and planning were well worth it.
Sarah Weller, an Omaha mother and writer, wrote this guest blog for momaha.com
When she's not spending time with her son, Luke, she works full-time in marketing and public relations.