Flying with a toddler

27 Jun

Planning a trip with a toddler this summer that includes a flight? Terrified about what might be in store? We’ve flown several times with our daughter (now 2) since she was 1. It’s always gone great with her, and I end up being the one who’s stressed out. Every time we go, I stress less. Here are some tips from our experiences:

Use a CARES (Child Aviation Restraint System) toddler harness instead of lugging a carseat if possible ( It’s FAA approved for all aspects of the flight and super-easy to use. It also only weighs one pound and easily stows in a carryon or diaper bag. You can rent a carseat when you rent a car if necessary. If you’re not renting a car, but need a carseat, some larger cities offer child equipment rental. The CARES is a little expensive, but if you travel a lot, it will pay for itself by saving hassles. If you don’t travel often, consider co-purchasing it with another family (or families). The odds are pretty slim you would need it at the same time, and cost-sharing makes it more affordable.


Plan the flight for nap time if you can.

Let them have a pacifier (if they use one). It helps keep their ears clear and their mouths closed and is usually a comfort object.

Bring a sippy cup. If they start screaming from pressure in their ears, get them to drink (tell them it will make it better). The swallowing helps relieve the pressure.

Take favorite snacks (obviously). Again, the chewing and swallowing helps with pressure in the ears.

Take a diaper bag/carryon that’s easy to carry and easy to organize. I would recommend a messenger bag style or a backpack. We use a Short Haul Backpack from Baby Sherpa. It’s a little more expensive than some bags, but TOTALLY worth it, in my opinion. I also know we’ll use it for years when traveling – even in the car. It has lots of great compartments for organizing and it makes airport navigation a breeze (hands-free!). There is a larger bag (the Baby Sherpa) available with more compartments. We found the Short Haul to be plenty for us, but if you have more than one child, you might want to size up. We chose our bag in cobalt blue for easy visibility during airport maneuvering.

Take a variety of small toys. I saved the great, zip-up plastic packaging from Robeez shoes and collected misc. small toys before the flight. Mostly old favorites are great, but throw in a few new ones to cash in on the novelty factor. Here are some things we’ve packed: Matchbox cars, FP Little People, Schleich plastic animals, *safe* kid’s-meal toys, finger puppets, etc. In the absence of Robeez packaging, a ziploc bag works just fine too.

Take a few small, paperback (light) books. Our Baby Sherpa bag has a back pocket with a changing pad. We left the changing pad at home, packed a couple of lightweight disposable changing mats, and put the books in that outside pocket. Perfect.

Take doodle materials. A Doodle Pro or Etch-a-Sketch and/or crayons (the triangular ones don’t roll off the tray table) and scribble pad work great. Throw in some stickers they can create with too.

Pack a favorite stuffed animal or “lovey.”

Take a travel pack of tissues.

Take a mini bottle of hand sanitizer if you’re a germaphobe like me.

In case of puke, take a plastic shopping bag or 2. (Check to make sure there are no holes!) They wad up nicely in a corner of your bag and can be used for catching puke or putting soiled clothes in afterward (firmly tie them shut after use). A gallon sized ziploc works well, too. Also pack a change of clothes, wipes, and 1 or 2 cloth diapers.

Talk about the airplane ride beforehand, including the fact that it might be bumpy and noisy, that their tummy and ears might feel a little “funny” but that it will go away, that there will be a lot of people and, finally, that they will have to stay buckled. Don’t forget to talk up the fun factor: being in the sky, seeing the clouds, getting to your vacation FAST, etc.

Don’t forget to talk about the security checkpoint. For some reason, this was probably the scariest part for Jenna. Maybe because of the line of strange “big” people? Maybe because everyone is pretty tense and she picked up on it? Maybe because of the stern looking people in uniforms? She was especially hesitant and alarmed about placing her stuffed animal buddy on the belt to go through the x-ray machine. I wished I would have prepared her for that stage a little better. Tell them there will be a big line of people, that they’ll have to take their shoes off, that there will be people in uniforms (like police), that bags, shoes and animals have to go through an x-ray machine so the “police people” can see what’s inside them and make sure they’re safe, that they’ll have to walk through a doorway while a “police person” watches to make sure they’re safe, that you put your shoes back on and get your bags and stuffed animal and then go find the airplane.

Dress everyone (you too) in shoes that are easy to take off and put back on for the security checkpoint. It just makes that whole process go more smoothly.

I’m probably forgetting something, but you’ll do fine. Remember, a flight is just a small brush stroke in the big picture of life. Even if it goes poorly, it will be over before you know it. And you’ll probably never have to see those other passengers ever again in your life. Happy traveling!

Flying with an infant? Check out this review at Thingamababy


Posted by on June 27, 2008 in Product Reviews, Travel


27 responses to “Flying with a toddler

  1. Heather

    June 28, 2008 at 1:17 am


    thank you for your kind words about Baby Sherpa. I designed it for travelling and we still use ours even though our daughter is 7 now! Last weekend it was our bag of choice for Valleyfair in Minneapolis and for my husband to take to Back to Fifties Rod Run. I am working on 2 new bags- ones that you can carry your laptop in along with baby gear. With the new restrictions on carryon luggage and the airlines this is becoming an issue and hybrid backpacks are definitely a necessity.

    Tip for keeping things cool in your sherpa cooler when you are flying- use frozen vegetables! Peas make a great cold pack and security does allow them.

    Take care,

    Heather Campbell-Dewar
    Baby Sherpa

  2. emily sparkle

    June 28, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    We flew recently with our infant. It’s amazing how people look at you like you’ve just carried a spray bottle of liquid plague onto the plane.

    The one thing I will never fly without is a few pairs of foam earplugs. I had them at the ready in case mr. baby had a meltdown and jokingly offered them to folks who were giving me the stink eye. No one took me up on them, but mr. baby was gem for all four flights on that trip.

  3. psychmamma

    June 28, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    Heather – So glad you stopped by! I feel honored to “meet” you. Your bag is brilliant and I really can’t say enough good things about it. I’ll have to keep watching your site for the new products coming out.

    Emily – I love your description of the looks passengers give you when you board with a baby! Funny and spot-on. I also love the phrase, “the stink eye” and am storing it away for future use.

  4. ShopLittleGifts

    June 29, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    Very good points. I think sometimes kids don’t know what to expect and when they are surprised that tips their calm emotional state. I definitely think talking about being on the plane, going through security check point and maybe even practicing those things at home will give them a sense of calm when it happens. Bring a laptop that plays dvds or a portable DVD player. It’s the last resolution but if the trip is really long, it helps to appease all kinds of tantrums.

  5. psychmamma

    June 29, 2008 at 5:19 pm


    I totally agree that DVDs are another great suggestion. Just depends on how much you want to pack and carry-on. I always opt for as little as possible, but would not be above this for extended flights or multiple connections/layovers. Thanks for the tip!

  6. Leslie

    June 29, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    Great ideas! I wish my children would sleep on an airplane. As a flight attendant I’d like to add a couple more. It helps if you bring along a couple of new toys your kids have never seen. This not only gets them excited to play with new toys but keeps them busy. Don’t forget to bring headphones for your little one. Fellow passengers get a little testy when they have to listen to “Sesame Street”.

  7. psychmamma

    June 29, 2008 at 8:37 pm

    Leslie –

    Thanks for your tips. I did mention bringing new toys under “take a variety of small toys,” so I guess that means great minds think alike! 🙂

    The headphones tip is fabulous and, I would agree, a must if you bring movies or music.

  8. BRash

    June 29, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    Save the best toys for last, and if you still run out, give them the air sickness bag – my kid spent more than HALF AN HOUR just putting all those little toys into and out of the bag!

  9. psychmamma

    June 29, 2008 at 9:18 pm


    I LOVE it! Thanks for sharing.

  10. jen

    June 29, 2008 at 9:55 pm

    hey there…
    just stopping by through allmediocre and had to chime in…
    as the wife of a pilot, we’ve had numerous opportunities to fly…and a few ideas??
    1. wrap, wrap and possibly wrap again (with newspaper/tissue paper/wrapping paper)…several of the toys (old and new) that you bring…
    –the unwrapping takes a good extra 5-10 minutes (don’t help!)
    –tell your children ahead of time that they can only take out a new toy out of the mysterious toy bag every 1/2 hour or hour…(plan accordingly! and have extras…you can always rewrap before coming back home!)
    2. a roll of tape and paper pieces…honestly…a roll of tape can keep a toddler busy for hours! it’s not something that we typically give our children…so it seems new and exciting!
    3. stickers and a notebook…let your child go CRAZY putting stickers into the notebook…takes quite some time…
    hope that is good info!

  11. psychmamma

    June 29, 2008 at 10:09 pm


    Great to hear from someone with lots of flight experience! Thanks for the fabulous tips. When you’re the one “driving,” do unruly kids bother you? Maybe you could get on the intercom and offer some of these suggestions… Hee Hee!

  12. Almost American

    June 30, 2008 at 12:45 am

    Great tips!

    Travelling on longhaul flights to the UK from the US I always planned on a diaper an hour – I figured that way if we got delayed I wouldn’t have to panic. When DD was potty training and we flew, I put her back in a pullup just in case, but made an hourly trip to the bathroom whether she thought she wanted to or not.

    A change of clothes for the kids is important. A friend flew from the UK to Australia on her own with her baby, and ended up having to buy an adult sized Tshirt to put the baby in at one of the Asian airports where she changed planes – the baby was very sick and she went through all the changes of clothes she’d brought for her.

    DD’s favorite ‘new’ plane book when she was in kindergarten was a sticker math book! The flight attendant came over and asked me if I was a teacher, cos only a teacher would have their kid doing math workbooks on a plane. I *am* a teacher, but I also know what my kid likes and she loved it! It kept her busy for a long time.

    On flights with seat-back TVs the kids’ favorite thing to watch is often the map that shows where we are! DS was furious the last time we flew and there were no seat-back TVs. Since then we’ve bought a portable DVD player.

    Oh, and as far as car seats are concerned – my sister works for a car rental company and she says only hire a car seat from them as a last resort. She says they are often in poor shape and they cost an arm and a leg to rent. We bought a bag made specifically for car seats and used it to check the car seat. The booster seat fit in it too, and our coats too when travelling in the winter. (Less to carry on!) Even if they charge $20/bag for checked luggage, it’s still going to be cheaper than renting a car seat at the other end.

  13. Holly Tried It

    June 30, 2008 at 1:17 am

    We’ll be flying with a two-year-old soon. I’ll be bringing her Word World figurines, coloring books, and a portable DVD player with Signing Time and Word World DVDs. It should be a smooth trip!

  14. psychmamma

    June 30, 2008 at 2:06 am

    Almost American –

    Thanks for your input! The diaper math is a great idea, and it’s good to hear another perspective on the car seat rental issue. No, the rental ones are not what I would choose to purchase myself, but we carefully checked the Mfr. date, and for any signs of structural damage like cracks, chips, breaks or belts that didn’t work. It was worth the extra cost to us to not have to haul it around, but that’s obviously an individual choice. I definitely agree that if you DO rent a car seat, you need to do your homework beforehand on what to watch for regarding safety features and recalls. In fact, I might do a post about that in the future! Thanks again for sharing.

    Holly Tried It –

    Sounds like you’re all set and don’t need any more tips! Good luck. Come back and let us know how it went.

  15. Amy

    June 30, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    We’ve had great success traveling with our son (who is nearing 2). So we have a few more to share:

    G flies in overnight diapers. You just don’t know when you’re going to have to delay a diaper change, so it helps avoid leaks.

    We bring Dum-Dums suckers as a last resort for ears. If G’s uncomfortable enough that he rejects drinking or eating, he can’t say no to a lollipop.

    We tote his carseat in a JL Childress carseat backpack ($40ish at that makes it super-easy to get through the airport.

    Finally, we got a Phil and Ted’s travel bed that’s longer than a pack and play (because G is crazy tall). It also packs down much smaller (so it fits in a suitcase) and can’t weigh more than 5 or 6 pounds. Plus it includes a thermarest mattress. He loves it.

  16. psychmamma

    June 30, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    Thanks Amy!

    Great tips. I especially love the news about the Phil and Ted’s travel bed! Jenna is also “crazy tall” and the Pack and Play barely works for her anymore. I’ll have to check it out.

  17. Verda Vivo

    June 30, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    These are great! My daughter is having her first baby this October. We’re planning a family trip November 2009 so I’m sending your tips along for future use. Her baby will be just over a year old so she will need all the help she can get when traveling! ~ Daryl

  18. psychmamma

    June 30, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    Verda Vivo –

    Hope the tips help! I figure you can never have enough helpful hints from other parents who have already been there and done that.

  19. Megan

    June 30, 2008 at 7:16 pm

    Perfect timing! We fly cross country Wednesday with our 8 month old and 3 year old. We’re such infrequent flyers that we’ve been struggling to remember what to bring and how to pack. Thanks for the great tips.

  20. leahmcchesney

    July 1, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    I use to travel from the UK to the US with my 3 children then ages 3-7 all by myself. I would jam pack a back pack, each full. of all kinds of new stuff to keep them busy. I also use to pack their comfort items such as their blankies and stuffed animals. Make sure they have had proper rest and wear comfortable clothing. Be sure to bring food they like. Now a days you have portable DVD players which just makes it that much easier, either go to the liabray or to target to get new videos.

  21. psychmamma

    July 1, 2008 at 9:53 pm

    Leah –

    Wow! UK to US would be quite a flight to undertake with 3 kids by yourself! I’m sure you learned lots of “tricks” to keep your sanity. Thanks for sharing.

  22. Stephanie

    July 2, 2008 at 10:49 pm

    Thanks for the fantastic list of tips and recommended products! Have you used the CARES device? I’m curious how it would work “in real life.”

  23. Liza R

    July 6, 2008 at 10:56 am

    I found your blog via 5 Minutes for Mom. Great post! We live in Israel and my family lives in the US. We’ve made four trips to the US with our 4 year-old son – including one trip without my husband, so long-haul flights are definitely our specialty!

    In addition to all the great suggestions you made and those mentioned in the comments, I’ve got a few ideas that have worked for us:

    If you’re sitting near the back of the plane, ask if you can spread out a blanket near the rear emergency door. It allowed us to have a small play area away from the other passengers and out of the cart path.

    The bulkhead seats are great, even if your child is too big for those baby beds that attach to the wall. After take-off, we put our son on a pile of blankets at our feet and he slept for five hours!

    In addition to buying a few new toys, coloring books, etc. before the trip, if we have a layover somewhere, I’ll often take him into one of the shops and let him pick out one inexpensive item, making sure he realizes that it’s a “reward” for behaving so well during the trip (and especially during the security procedures at the US airports!).

    If I know we’re going to be spending a long time in a particular airport (especially before or after a long flight), I’ll check out the website for that airport to see if they have children’s play/activity areas and note their locations. The play area near our gate at Atlanta-Hartsfield was a godsend after our 14-hour flight from Tel Aviv!

  24. psychmamma

    July 6, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    Liza –

    Thanks for the fantastic additional tips! I like your suggestion about letting them pick something small in an airport shop. My daughter loves to shop (uh-oh), so that would be a good treat/motivator.

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  26. PsychMamma

    May 7, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Mercy –

    Thanks so much!! Connecting with and helping other parents were my main goals with starting this blog! I really appreciate your feedback!

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