Flying with less Crying (for Babies and Toddlers)
By my 20th birthday, I’d taken one trip involving air travel. One. By my child’s second birthday, she’d flown around the world. She’d done a half dozen long haul flights and at least a dozen shorter hops.
Here’s what you need to know before flying with your baby or toddler. I wish I’d figured all this out sooner.
Overtired and over-stimulated. Those are the states we wish we could avoid. But travel does mess up bedtime routines. Babies will get tired. They will be fussy.
Our goal as parents is to limit how overtired and how over-stimulated our little ones become. And to help them recover sooner rather than later.
It is a great irony of parenting that a well-rested child will rest. An overtired, exhausted child will not fall asleep. “Sleep begets sleep,” the experts say. Lack of sleep just brings out the ugly in all of us.
It’s the same for adults. You know the drill. You’re up against a deadline. You push through the fatigue into the wee hours of the morning. When your head hits the pillow, you’re acutely aware that you MUST. SLEEP. NOW.
But you can’t.
An overtired, overstimulated baby will shriek, squirm, fuss, and throw tantrums. Routines will get messed up during travel. Our goal is to limit how bad it gets and how long it lasts.
Goal #1 Limit Exhaustion
When traveling, overtired is bound to happen. Make it an event. Not a chronic state.
Don’t let your child stay overtired for days on end. Plan for rest.
Set out rested.
Don’t cram as much sight seeing as possible into the last hours before boarding the plane. At least know that you may pay for it later. Try to have a relaxing last day of vacation and a good night’s rest the day before you travel.
Plan for Rest and Recovery
Even an 18-month old can recover quickly from one long flight and a day or two of mixed up nap times. Push the same kid for four full days of sight-seeing with no naps, and you will pay. It’ll take weeks, not days, to get back on a sleep routine.
After one or two long days, give your child (and yourself) a restful afternoon to sleep or lounge by a pool. Opt for an early night and order room service. Kids can crash early while you linger with your glass of wine.
You don’t have to see everything. You want good memories, not just stressful ones.
Goal #2 Limit Stimulation
An overstimulated child is restless. He’ll fidget when he should sleep. He’ll climb and squirm and whine and have meltdowns.
Two things help to limit over-stimulation. First, limit the stimuli your child is exposed to. Second, help your child know what to expect. This can help reduce any anxious excitement.
Use the Car Seat to Limit Stimulation in Flight
An airplane is sensory overload. Lights and sounds. People and bags and food. Everything is in motion.
Kids this age are relentlessly curious. They need to see who’s behind them. Stand up. Sit down. Climb under the seat. Dash down the aisle. Light on. Light off…. (You’ve seen this kid on a plane, haven’t you?)
A two-year-old can slide in and out of an airplane seat belt. It’s too big to restrain him. And too fun to click. Open. Shut. Open Shut.
No wonder kids have trouble settling. They are over-stimulated. Even adults depend on eye masks and head phones to rest inflight.
When our kids are old enough for their own seat and up to about four-years-old, we strap them into their car seat. Infants can travel in their car seat in a paid seat, but not in first class pods. We discovered this the hard way.
Strapping your child into his car seat gives him some boundaries. Escape is no longer an option. It limits his field of view. Less to see = less stimulation. He still has enough to look at — a show, toys, a snack on his tray — but he can’t see all the people and lights in front and behind. This helps him settle down. Relax. Eventually, sleep.
Avoid Anxious Excitement
If you are flustered, your child will be, too.
Think through in detail who will carry the paperwork, where you will sit and who will carry each bag. If this feels like overkill, trust me!
It’s easy to miss something in the shuffle. And it’s hard to direct your kids in the rush of passengers boarding a plane.
We once left a backpack behind. We were on the plane. The backpack was not. We noticed a half-hour into a 13-hour flight when we wanted to snap some photos.
Where is the camera? Where is the bag with the camera and ALL the electronics?! Laptops, cameras, GPS, the works. (The bag was thankfully picked up by Air Canada staff so it did join us later, along with a hefty FedEx bill.)
Here’s how we board a plane now.
Tell The Kids The Plan
When kids are old enough to understand, tell them the plan as it applies to them.
As we prepared to return from Argentina to Canada, our almost-three year-old recited his flight plan several times a day. For weeks*!
“I go in the air-pane. I go up, up in the sky. I sit in my car seat. I sit wit’ Daddy. I bring my blankie. I eat a cookie. I eat a muffin. I drink juice. I watch a show. I go to sleep.”
And when travel day came, that is just what he did.
For younger toddlers, tell them the plan just before boarding. Let him know who he will sit next to, if he’ll be in his car seat. Let him carry a toy and a snack onto the plane.
Knowing what to expect helps kids not become overly flustered.
Knowing Mom and Dad are calm helps kids stay calm.
*Side note — don’t start a countdown too soon. Ten days is lots. Before that, use broad landmarks — after school is out or after the snow melts — we’ll go on an airplane. Months is too long with little people!
Choosing Your Seats
On most airlines, babies under two years of age don’t need their own seat. They can sit in your lap. This saves money on tickets but require a massage or chiropractic care after.
Putting baby in a carrier helps. I use my ErgoBaby. Sometimes, I’ve needed to stand and bounce for awhile, but eventually, baby settles. I can recline and even doze knowing she can’t fall off my lap.
Nursing in Flight
I’ve nursed all my babies on planes. Once you’re comfortable nursing, it’s not hard to do, but there are things that make it easier to be subtle.
Wear a cardigan or zip-up hoodie. This hides your side and back from those behind you or across the aisle.
Wear a light scarf or sarong. It’s a backup baby blanket for warmth — planes can be chilly — in a pinch, it’s a burp cloth.
Choose your seat.
Being squished next to a stranger while you maneuver baby into nursing position can be awkward. If you are traveling with someone — your spouse, another child, or a friend — have them sit next to the stranger.
Choosing the Best Flight
Price isn’t the only thing to consider when choosing your flights.
Here are some key points to think about. Read more on this here.
Short Flight ≠ Better Flight
Our worst flights were not long. They just felt long! Afternoon flights lasting 3–4 hours are the worst. When a 10-month-old is exhausted but too stimulated to sleep, the crying is inevitable.
One inconsolable baby + annoyed glares from other passengers makes for a very stressful flight.
Long flights have been some of our best.
Daytime is Not Necessarily Better than Red-Eyes
For long-hauls, we prefer overnight flights. We change into PJ’s in the airport and brush kids’ teeth. (Superman’s phone booth was a more spacious change room than an airplane restroom.) They still may have a snack on board and they may watch a show. After that, they know it’s time to sleep.
It takes three of four hours for older babies and toddlers to settle on a plane. The last thing you want to do is wake them an hour later. Given the choice, I’d take one 12-hour flight over two six-hour flights any day.
You know your child best and you know when she is about to lose it.
Help your child enjoy the trip and avoid meltdowns by limiting how overtired and over-stimulated she becomes. And if/when it happens, help her to recover sooner rather than later.
Make your own trip less stressful by choosing the seat, baby gear, and flights that work best for you.
And carry a snack in your pocket! A rice cracker for baby, a granola bar for bigger kids. Anything to keep them chewing and swallowing during altitude changes!
Let me know if you have any tips to add to these!