If you want a comprehensive list of every little thing to pack, game to play, or contingency to think about while traveling by plane with your baby or small children, this isn’t the post for you. A quick pinterest or google search will lead you to a bajillion of those. (Like this one about flying with an infant that I wrote a few years back.)
But if you’re interested in keeping it simple and just need some reassurance that flying with kids doesn’t have to signal the end of your sanity or put a halt on your travel life for the next 18 years, then this is the post for you.
Since becoming a mom four-and-a-half years ago, I’ve taken roughly 50 flights with little ones. (Yup, I stopped to do the math, because I’m a nerd like that.) Some of these I have done alone, while others I have done with my husband. (I prefer the latter, by the way.) I guess that makes me somewhat of a frequent flyer with kids, and probably explains why I get a lot of emails from friends and readers asking for tips.
In mulling it over, I’ve realized that most parents really only need four tips when it comes to preparing for airline travel with small children. So here they are:
The only 4 tips you need for flying with babies and small children:
1. Do your homework according to your parenting style.
You might think this goes contrary to the “only 4 tips thing”, but really, the goal is to think ahead so you can keep it simple. This doesn’t have to be term-paper research level thinking. I’m talking about normal, “I’m a mom so I know what my kids need” thinking. Ask yourself a few questions: How much can I carry by myself? (Your toddler may decide half way through she hates her little backpack.) Are you bringing a multitude of snacks? Have you put some favorite toys away a few weeks or months in advance so you can pull them out at flight time and have something new or novel to play with? Have you brought along some weird things like pipe cleaners, paperclips, large chunky beads, and stickers that you can get creative with? Have you packed an extra change of clothes for everyone? (Include yourself in this one if you can squeeze it in. Can anyone say inconvenient diaper explosion? My husband certainly can.) Every parent has a different level of comfort when it comes to being prepared. If you need to detail every possible thing and make a spread sheet and flow chart, by all means, make your lists and check them twice. If not, then don’t. As a parent, you need to go with your natural parenting style and what will make you feel more secure about the flight. This part is as much about you as it is about your kids.
2. Relax the rules.
I’m not talking about letting your kids swing from the overhead compartments or barreling down the aisles at breakneck speeds, I’m talking about things like snacks and screen time. What? You had a cracker ten minutes ago and you already want more? Ok, here’s a cracker! You just finished a movie and you want to watch another one before those credits are even over? Ok, no problem! Hey baby, I just fed you but now you’re crying and pulling at my shirt again? Ok, here’s the boob – go for it! If you go into your trip with the mentality that you’re now on “trip rules” instead of “normal rules” you can lighten up about snacks and juice and screen time and naps. Follow your kids’ lead and let them have some fun! (This is their vacation, too.) Both you and your kids and other passengers will enjoy the flight more without excessive arguing about why it’s unreasonable to have a fourth cookie before dinner. Just go for it. Detox them from Dora later. (I found that our kids intrinsically understand this concept – some things are allowed at home that aren’t allowed at grandma’s, some things are allowed when traveling that aren’t allowed at home, some things are allowed in the park that aren’t allowed in the grocery store, etc. Kids are smart – they’ll get it.)
3. Accept that your flight will be all about them.
You might not get to finish a chapter in your novel, watching a movie all the way through probably isn’t going to happen, and if you catch a tiny bit of sleep while one kid is draped over your shoulder and the other is draped over your lap, well then, more power to you! If you go into the flight knowing you can be relaxed mentally, but might not feel relaxed physically, then you’re doing yourself a huge favor. (Parenting little ones is hard physically demanding work — we all know that.) Again, expectations set the tone for almost everything. You may feel dog tired when you get off the plane, but hopefully you won’t be all tightly wound-up due to unmet personal expectations on top of your fatigue.
4. Bring lollipops.
Seriously. A more experienced mom clued me into lollipops when I was still a rookie as we took off on a 30-hour road trip with or toddlers, and this has become one of my favorite travel wild cards ever since. Stock your bag with lollipops (Trader Joes has all natural, sugar free ones!) and then take them out just before you reach the desperation point. These cellophane wrapped nuggets of child’s gold are like priceless treasure when distributed at just the right time. Plus, they are usually just enough to help switch gears. I can only think of one flight that I had to pull out lollipops more than once, and that was on a 34-hour stretch of international travel (with terribly long layovers) that I was doing alone with my then 1 and 3 year olds. (You do what you’ve gotta do!)
Good luck, parents of littles!
Flying with your kids is not as bad as you think – I promise you. You will have fun and it’s so worth the adjustments in order to make it smooth for all.
And lest you tell me that my kids are just really experienced flyers and/or exceptionally well-behaved, let me tell you that I have heard myself say things like this while flying: “Levi, we do not use a weed whacker on the plane! Please choose something more quiet to play.” Or “Judah, you can hold my left hand, Levi already has my right one. Honestly, both work just fine!”
My kids are wonderful, and they are wonderfully normal. In all of our flights I can only think of a handful of incidents that we would have wished away – a diarrhea and diaper incident (thanks to my husband for taking one of the team), a 14-hour flight where both kids decided to be in mommy-mode, wanting me all the time (rather than letting daddy share the load a little more evenly), and the one where I was traveling alone on another 14-hour flight with the kids and my newly potty trained son had to get up exactly one billion times to use the potty, including every time the fasten seatbelt sign went on and every time my 18-month-old finally fell asleep.
But really, three flights out of 50 that were memorable in a less-than-ideal way? That’s pretty good if you ask me! And that is why I can confidently say that overall, your kids will do great. And they’ll do even better if you can relax enough to let them.
Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.
P.S. Just as a side note: In my experience, babies are super easy to travel with (and if you breastfeed, they are even easier). You just have a bit more stuff to wrangle. Older toddlers fly fairly easily as well (especially once they can be entertained with the help of an ipad or video). I personally think the hardest age to travel with little ones is the 12-24 month range. These babies typically don’t like to sit still (they have new walking and running skills they want to use!) and they are still too little to be entertained with apps and movies. Of course, that doesn’t mean they are impossible… it just means you have to be willing to be a little more active with them – walking up and down the isles, singing little songs, playing with them, etc.
If you really need more tips… you’re in luck. I have some: