How to survive a flight with a toddler

A lot of friends ask us how we manage to travel with such an energetic toddler. If you go for it with the right frame of mind and you prepare yourself well, travelling with a toddler will not be as challenging as it might look like. By the age of 18 months our son had already boarded 9 flights, slept on a night train and been on a couple of ferry rides. We are not going to say it gets better by time, although it did get better for us because we learned how best to go about it.

The worst plane experience was not the first time our son boarded a plane but it was that one time when we were feeling very anxious because we were boarding our first long haul flight with an 18 month old and he had a runny nose! Parents of young children could probably relate to this.  We are all humans and it’s only natural to worry that some thing might go wrong. But trying to avoid thinking that the plane ride is going to be a torture is already a huge step forward.

Before a holiday we like to show the travelling flashcards to our son and we think that they have served very well. Thanks to the flash cards our son knew what to expect when we were queuing at the airport to check in our luggage or when going through security check, that he needed to hand his passport to the check-in desk, and what it was going to be like when on the aeroplane. Indeed he was very excited when he saw the airhostesses serving food because he had already seen it on the cards. He knew that he had to put the seat belt on because he also saw it on the flash cards. I must admit however that the latter was not easy initially, but then when we explained to him that when the seatbelt sign is on we must put our seat belt on, it became like a game and it worked wonders.

We bought and read to our son (over and over again) the Maltese publication “Frollu jsiefer” (Frollu goes abroad) which explains in a simple way the experience of this young boy who went to Sicily with his father and what he saw while on the aeroplane and when in Sicily. We think this book made our toddler a bit more excited to board a plane and experience the fun stuff like the boy in the story. There are many other similar books in different languages which you can borrow from libraries or buy online or from local bookshops.

We also bought him holiday related T-shirts to wear whenever going on a plane – one with an aeroplane on and another one with a holiday checklist on – simple things that make a toddler feel more excited to be going on an aeroplane and somehow make him more cooperative.

Going on a flight with our toddler now means having a hand luggage full of baby stuff – milk, snacks, change of clothes, blanket, books, toys, and if we are boarding a long haul flight the list also includes thermometer and paracetamol (just in case), more snacks and some more toys. Although yes you do need to take snacks and toys to make sure you have enough to keep your toddler busy, there is no need to go overboard. For our first long haul flight we had a 30 litre backpack full of toys and snacks just for our son, and we barely used four items. The most useful things we found to keep our son busy were the Colourful Smiles Stickers which our son spent hours sticking them all over himself and the Dry-erase book because we could draw whatever we like and erase and start again. We are not fans of tablets and electronic devices, so we do not take any tablet with us not even for long haul flights. We do however download some nursery rhymes on our mobile phones which we use only in crisis situations.

During take off and landing we make sure that our son is either having a bottle full of milk or else is munching on something to ensure that the air pressure does not cause any pain to his ears. We always carry paracetamol (although never used it so far) with us just in case our son is in pain. Do not rush in handing the bottle/drink to your children as soon as you are settled on the aeroplane because take off takes time and by the time the plane is off the ground they would have already drank it all.

Aircrew tend to be nice with children. Do expect however to be told to wake a toddler up in the middle of a flight because the aeroplane is going through some turbulence and you need to have him sitting on your lap (or up in his seat if over 2 years old) with the seat belt fastened instead of laying down. It has happened to us a number of times. I know that the last thing you want is to wake your baby up while asleep on a flight but these are safety rules which everyone has to follow.

Not letting a child sleep before a flight in order for him/her to sleep through the flight is not recommended because over tiredness can back fire. So what we found best is that we let our son go by his routine. If the flight is at 4pm and he usually has his nap at 1pm, we let him have his usual nap. Our son is more cooperative when he is full of energy and not tired. Of course, every child is different and what we recommend is that you do what you think will work best for your child.

Toddlers are still toddlers on the plane – so do not expect to get a lot of self sleep or reading time like the old times when you were kid-free. In reality even at home we do not manage to get much of that either. We feel that managing expectations makes you calmer on the plane. When we are calm every situation is tackled better especially when confined in restricted spaces such those of a plane.

We have read a lot of articles and blogs on how to survive a flight ourselves before we went through this and it did serve us well because we felt like we were prepared on what to expect. But certain things, like for instance taking a hand luggage full of toys, we found them not to be useful for us. So our recommendation to you mummies and daddies who are feeling anxious because you are boarding a plane with the kids is: prepare yourself, prepare your kids, try to control your anxiety level because children feel you and just go and board that plane! Yes sometimes it is easier said than done, but with the right frame of mind things do turn out right! Buon voyage!

TIPS on boarding a plane with a toddler:

  1. Prepare yourself – preparing yourself and having the right mindset is the best thing you can do before going on an aeroplane with kids.
  2. Prepare the kids – kids also need to know what to expect. The use of travelling flashcards and travel related reading of books before the day of the flight will make everything look familiar to the kids during the course of the flight: check-in, security, boarding, etc.
  3. Essentials in your hand luggage:  milk/drink for take off and landing, nappies, wipes, 2 change of clothes, small blanket, any medicines your child may need, some snacks, 2 reading books, Dry-erase book , Colourful Smiles Stickers, favourite (small) soft toy.
  4. Make security check easy – the least you want is to start your journey with a chaotic security check which sets your adrenaline sky high. We like to avoid wearing any belts and ensuring any liquids are of permissible amounts.
  5. Make the aeroplane ride fun – have a family photo with the aeroplane before boarding.

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