I’ve taken 6 solo flights with my son, starting when he was 6 months old. The last flight we took he was about 21 months old. Before each flight I did hours of research to calm my nerves about flying with baby and then with toddler.
In the early stages I was worried he would just cry the whole flight and I wouldn’t be able to soothe him. In my more recent flights I was worried he wouldn’t stay in his seat and would poke and kick other passengers. But, it turns out flying with an infant isn’t so bad! And neither is flying with a toddler! Not all of our flights went well, but we survived and you will too!
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Scheduling Your Flight
When scheduling your flight, you want to make sure you give yourself a little extra time during layovers. You may be able to rush for a short 30 minute layover by yourself, but with a kiddo everything takes longer. My layovers have always been in a smaller airport (Charlotte, NC). About 1 hour or a little longer was the perfect amount of time to fit in a diaper change and grab a snack if needed. It also allowed time for my son to have some space by laying on the ground on a blanket or running around a bit when he was bigger.
If you’re traveling through a larger airport you may want to consider a longer layover.
Time of Day
I’ve flown with my son at night and during the day. The flights that we have taken during the day have gone much better than at night. Even the ones that interrupt nap time.
I took an after bedtime flight with my son when he was 12 months old in hopes that he would sleep the whole way. Why not? He slept plenty on the plane at 6 months. He did not sleep at all. Not even a little bit. He screamed and cried and wanted to escape and fought me with that weird superhuman strength that angry 1-year-olds have.
It was awful. But we survived. Other passengers gave me looks of sympathy and the 19 year old guy sitting next to us let my son snuggle on his lap during the brief moments when he wasn’t acting like a lunatic.
Scheduling Summary (& a little motivation)
When debating a time for your flight consider your child’s age and whether they are in the habit of snuggling on you to sleep. Based on my experiences I recommend daytime flights, but that doesn’t mean your kid won’t rock a nighttime flight like a pro.
If you have to schedule a flight after bedtime and your child loses their mind, just remember it’s okay. You’re not the first person with a screaming kid on the plane and you won’t be the last. Your flight is probably 4 hours or less. You can totally do this for a few hours. Try to keep your cool and have a drink when you land. You’ll deserve it.
Lap child vs. separate seat
Following the loud, dramatic flight I had with my son at 12 months, I have always purchased his own seat. He is so wiggly and it’s just impossible for me to hold him on my lap for a 3 hour flight. You don’t have to purchase a separate seat for your child until they are 2 years old.
Plane tickets are expensive, but it was worth my sanity to purchase a separate seat for my son. If you plan your trip well in advance tickets are generally more affordable. This optional expense was well worth it in my opinion. Airplanes are so small and the extra space made a huge difference in the quality of our flights. And, again, my sanity.
I have always checked my son’s carseat with my luggage rather than carry it on the plane. I choose to check it simply because I don’t have enough hands to carry it through the airport. And, carseats check for free on every airline!
It has been difficult convincing my son to stay in his seat during flights, but with his carseat I know he would have sat much better. If you’re considering bringing a carseat on the plane, I recommend reviewing the Federal Aviation Administration Website for guidelines. Not all carseats are airline approved, so you’ll want to check ahead of time.
I just recently learned about CARES – a special harness you can buy that attaches to the buckle on the airplane seat. They are pretty expensive, but it may be worth it if you plan on traveling frequently.
Update: I have started traveling with my son’s carseat and it has made a HUGE difference! I even wrote a whole blog post about how it completely changed our travel. Since I often travel without my husband, I purchased this luggage cart to strap the car seat to so I can easily carry it around the airport. The car seat is bulky, but TOTALLY worth it!
Stroller vs baby wearing
My answer is both! When my son was small enough to ride comfortably in a carrier, I wore him in the airport. I also brought the stroller to lug our carry on in. As long as your stroller folds up, you can gate check it at your flight and pick it back up when you exit your flight. Bringing a stroller is awesome, because you don’t have to carry all of your stuff and you can strap your kiddo into a seat he is used to instead of trying to carry him through the airport.
I have always brought my full size stroller so that I have storage for my carry on. But, some people prefer a lightweight umbrella stroller instead. Just keep in mind that the people loading your stroller into the cargo area of the plane might not be very gentle with it. I have had the handle padding ripped on my stroller and the bottom basket damaged from flights.
What to pack in your carry on
For flights I have taken with my son I have just brought a backpack style diaper bag as our carry on because I know I can fit everything I’ll need during the flight. I have one similar to this and love it! During our last trip when he was 21 months I also packed a toddler backpack for him to carry and use. I don’t bring any other items on the plane because it’s just too much to carry and keep track of for me.
The Usual Stuff
You’ll want to pack most of the regular stuff you lug around in your diaper bag.
I found that separating things into gallon-sized bags helped me to keep the bag organized and it was easy to quickly grab things out. Plus, you can squeeze the air out of the ziplock bag and give yourself a little more room. I had a ziplock bag for clothes, one for snacks and one for toys. Everything else went into pockets.
Here’s a quick list of the practical things you don’t want to forget: diapers, wipes, a change of clothes, burp cloth, blanket, jacket, lovey, pacifier, medicines, diaper cream
So, one awesome thing about traveling with a child under 2 is that you can bring bottles of water through security for your flight. I hate paying $4 for a bottle of water that costs $1 on the other side of security, so I always take advantage of this. You can also bring milk, breastmilk, formula, whatever liquid meets the dietary need of your child. These items don’t have to meet the 3.4 oz rule that is regularly enforced for liquids.
You are also permitted to travel with ice packs in your carry on if necessary. During one of my trips my son was finishing up a round of antibiotics that required refrigeration. I was able to bring an ice pack to keep the medication cold and it was no issue at security. I recommend looking into both your airline and your airport’s policies to make sure you have the right kind of ice pack before your flight.
At the time of our flights my son was either on formula or no longer took a bottle. When he was on formula I packed as many bottles as he would need for the trip, plus an extra just in case. I filled each bottle with the right amount of powdered formula and brought bottled water to mix the bottles as needed.
You already know that food is the only way to a toddler’s heart. Snacks have been the best way to keep my son busy and happy during a flight. Here are some of our favorites: applesauce pouches or other fruit/veggie pouches, bananas, pretzels, raisins, graham crackers, granola bars, peanut butter cookies, goldfish and Belvita breakfast cookies.
In my experience the applesauce pouches or fruit/veggie pouches have to meet the liquid requirements to pass through TSA. You’ll want to make sure your pouches are 3.4 ounces or less and are stored in a quart-sized ziplock bag.
My son also enjoyed eating his snacks out of a bowl because it was easier for his little hands to pick things up. If you have a small bowl or even a small Ziplock style container, consider bringing it so you child doesn’t get frustrated trying to eat their snacks.
Toys and Distractions
When my son was 6 months and 12 months I didn’t bring much along in the way of toys. Just a couple of small things he could hang onto and a couple board books. During those times I mostly kept him entertained by talking to him and giving him whatever snacks his heart desired.
On my last 2 trips my son was 18 months and 21 months. I packed more activities for him. Here are some of the things we brought:
- Toddler backpack – I ordered this backpack before our flight and I’m so glad I did! It has different types of buckles and a zipper that kept my son busy. He also liked taking stuff out of the backpack and putting things in. Over and over and over.
- Crayons and a little notebook – He didn’t have much interest in coloring, but I knew that ahead of time. It’s a pretty quick activity for him.
- I have since discovered these Wonder Wow coloring pads that use water to color the images and Charlie really enjoys them! They would be great on a plane and easy to fit in a carry on.
- Stickers – He wasn’t quite old enough to think stickers were fun. Just sticky.
- 3-4 small toy cars in a little container with a twist lid – This kept him the most busy. He loved taking the cars out, driving them, putting them back in the container, putting on the lid and then doing it all again. And again. And again. Win!
- 2 board books – We read every day at home, but I wasn’t sure books would keep his attention on flight. We did pretty good and read each book a couple times.
- 1 stuffed animal – He likes to snuggle with a stuffed animal when he’s sleepy so this was my attempt to get him to sleep. I think he only got a few minutes of sleep between all of the flights, but he did do a bit of snuggling.
- Stacking Cups – Between ages 1-2 Charlie really loved stacking things. These cups are little, easy to pack and provided way more entertainment than I expected on the plane.
- Kindle with Dora episodes downloaded – If all else fails, bring out Dora. This is really what saved me for those last flights. He isn’t allowed to play with my tablet at home so watching Dora on it was a real treat. I just kept the volume low, and I don’t think I bothered any of the other passengers.
Other passengers are not as annoyed with you as you think. Most people have been around young children before and know that sometimes their behavior can be unpredictable. So resist that guilty feeling in the back of your head that you and your kiddo are disrupting other passengers. As long as you’re doing your best to keep your child from running down the aisle screaming and punching people, you’re doing okay. I promise.
Remember, it’s okay if you need help
My terrible flight when my son was 12 months old (yes, that again) is prime example that not everyone hates the lady with a screaming baby. People were sympathetic. Even the guy beside me who clearly had no experience with children was helpful and encouraging.
During this terrible flight, I let my son dig through our carry on bag to try to keep him busy. Then, during my layover I realized that he had taken my cell phone out of the carry on and it was still on the plane and the plane was… in the air again. My next flight was delayed and I had no way to communicate with my family about our new arrival time.
I literally cried at the gate for my next flight. Sobbing, embarrassingly cried. I was dreading another flight with my squirmy, grumpy son and I had just lost the phone that held all of my photos, contacts, passwords, everything.
You would not believe the kindness of other passengers
A woman took my son and held him for me while I used her husband’s phone to call my parents about the delay. Another woman bought me a bottle of water and snacks. A man went all the way back to my previous gate to try to retrieve my phone and report it missing. These were complete strangers!
This sob story is just to say, people are nice. When you feel overwhelmed and stressed, there will be people there who get it. And if you’re sobbing while holding a baby in an airport, people will offer to help. Take the help.
You can do this!
Thinking about flying with your little one for the first time (or second or third) can be stressful! If you’ve read this far you must have a trip coming up, and I hope that sharing my experiences has made you feel a little more prepared.
I hope you have an amazing, stress-free flight! But if you hit some snags along the way just remember, this flight isn’t forever and you can do anything for a few hours. You can also totally get a drink and some chocolate cake when you’re done. And if you cry, don’t worry girlfriend. I’ve been there, too. You’ve got this!
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I want to hear from you!
Do you still have questions about flying with an infant or toddler? Is there anything I left out? Leave your comments below and I’ll respond!