My flying-with-a-toddler checklist

22 Jul

I had an idea for a book once, and if my life had not taken several unexpected turns, I might have pursued it. It was supposed to be a guidebook for new mothers, a manual of practical advice based on the things I found I needed when my daughter was born.

When I was pregnant I thought everything about my baby was going to be smooth and easy, because I was a smart, mature woman who would have the energy to get up at dawn, clean the house before the baby woke up, keep her in lacy, pristine outfits all day and still cook wonderful, nutritious meals that would help me lose the pregnancy weight.

Well, life made me adjust to reality very quickly. I had a cesarean and could barely get out of bed. It took me weeks to feel like a normal human being again, and I was lucky if I took a shower before noon every day. My daughter turned out to be a high-need baby who wanted to be carried all the time. She was not colicky, but she slept very lightly and when awake she demanded all my attention.

I bought many books on pregnancy and baby care. Some were better than others, and some concentrated on things like having the perfect nursery or the most stylish pregnancy wardrobe. I liked the What to Expect When You’re Expecting series very much, but what I had in mind was something light-weight, easy to carry, with chapters on shopping for the essential items that a mother really needs, like which car seat is easier to handle. I wish I had known things like that, because I hated my car seat.

My book would have sections on things like dealing with hospital staff, preparing the house for the return from the hospital, choosing a pediatrician, arranging for childcare, and traveling with young children. Common sense information that a first-time mother may simply not know or be unsure about. These days many people live far away from their elder relatives, who in the past would have been available to provide guidance in times of doubt.

And so, here’s a page from my own The Hectic New Parent Guidebook that lives in my head.

Tips for Flying with a Toddler

  • Start your preparations well before your travel day. Traveling with children is twice as busy as traveling alone, and organization is the key to an untroubled journey. Begin by making a list of things to do, about a week before the trip, and make special headings for things to buy and things to pack. Take care of things like refilling prescriptions, laundering and pressing the clothes you will take with you and photocopying and organizing passports (if needed) and other documents. Make an effort to pack only what you really need, especially when it comes to the carry-on luggage. Remember that you will have a little one to care for as you make your way through the airport, and carrying an over-loaded bag will make it more difficult. Try to have everything ready two days before the flight so that on the last day you will be free from the hassle of last-minute chores.
  • Pack an outfit or two for your child in your carry-on bag, because luggage gets lost and accidents happen. When packing clothes for your child, more is better. Consider the weather at your destination, but pack for the unexpected. I usually do two outfits for each day, plus extra pieces just in case. When it comes to underwear and socks, I take more than I think I will need. Always pack a blanket, wet wipes, and a pair of slippers.
  • Spend a few minutes with your child packing some favorite toys to take along. Put some in the checked luggage and some in the carry-on bag.
  • Pack a small toy as a surprise in your handbag, and hand it to your child as a distraction when things get noisy.
  • If your child has a cold, do check with the doctor before the flight. My children have flown while nursing a cold with no adverse effects, but it is a personal choice. A quick phone call to the doctor’s office will help you make an informed decision. Remember that over-the-counter medicines in liquid form are subject to security restrictions. Chewable tablets are a good alternative.
  • Take some dry, low-sugar cereal as a snack. Crackers or raisins are also a good choice. A boiled egg is a meal by itself, it’s easy to make (always a plus while getting ready for travel), and it fits into a small container or a zipper bag. Consult the airline if you can request a child meal. Dishes that have a lot of sauce are more likely to be spilled, and a meal made especially for children will be easier to handle in the confined space of an airplane. If you have a picky eater, bring a home-made meal your child is sure to eat. Liquids are under tight restrictions so don’t bring any drinks from home, as they may be confiscated. I always buy a bottle of water for my children after I pass the security checkpoint.
  • Sugary juices and carbonated drinks will make your child go to the bathroom frequently so they should be avoided, or you will spend a lot of time in airplane lavatories. My rule is that when we are thirsty we drink water, other drinks are treats to be taken occasionally.
  • If you are nursing and want to take a bottle of expressed milk, check the security restrictions regarding breast milk. There’s a link at the bottom of this page. I have flown with both my children while they were nursing, and I always managed to do it comfortably and easily during a flight, without losing my privacy. All you need is suitable clothing (wear separates, and choose a loose-fitting shirt in a breathable fabric, in a light color and with a pattern, in case of spills), and a receiving blanket or a scarf to cover yourself. The window seat is the best place in this case.
  • If your child is still wearing diapers, it makes sense to buy the premium, extra absorbent kind to use during the flight. It will save you a lot of trouble and inconvenience. Take the time for a diaper change just before boarding. Don’t forget a plastic bag to put away the soiled diaper, and take a cloth nappy or something similar to cover the baby-changing tray that sits over the toilet in the lavatory. If you use cloth diapers at home, consider using the disposable kind while you’re traveling. Do not create more work for yourself unnecessarily.
  • Pack a washcloth to soak up spills, and carrying a small packet of wet wipes is a good idea.
  • If you have the choice, and your flying time is short, avoid flying too late at night or too early in the morning. If it’s not possible, it’s especially important to make sure your child is well-rested before flying. A tired toddler is more prone to tantrums and irritability. For transatlantic flights, I have found that flying through the night is the best option: children will sleep and you’ll be on the ground before you know it. Some airplanes are equipped with sky cots or baby bassinets that can hold children under a certain weight, usually 24 pounds (11 kg). Ask the staff at the ticket counter to assign you one when you check-in if your child meets the required weight limit. Being able to lay your child down for sleeping can make all the difference during a long journey, for you and your little one. Sky cots are assigned on a first-come first-serve basis, so get there early. Remember that the equipment rests a couple of feet up the wall and off the floor of the plane, so always keep an eye on your child. I never sleep during the flight when I travel alone with my children, as I prefer to be watchful and alert in case they need me.
  • Always book a separate seat for your toddler if you can afford it, even if the airline allows you to share a seat. Carrying your child on your lap may be feasible during a short flight, but if you have several hours of flying time, it is far too tiring and uncomfortable. I’ve done it, and it was a dreadful 14-hour flight. Don’t count on empty seats; chances are there won’t be any. This is an instance in which the money spent will be well worth it, so make adjustments somewhere else if you must.
  • If your child turns two in between your travel dates and you would prefer not to buy a separate ticket until it is required, let the airline know. Usually you will be charged two different rates, infant and child, one for each part of the journey, but you should check with the airline before you finalize your ticket purchase. Remember that the airfare will be charged according to your child’s age as of the date of the flight and not the date in which you make your booking.
  • Consult the airline if you’d like to take your car seat on board, and make sure your car seat is fit for use on an airplane. The information should be listed on the back of the seat. Airlines usually do not require special restraints for children (other than the seat belt that loops around yours if you carry your child on your lap), so the use of the car seat is up to you. Before making a decision, consider whether you are traveling alone with your child, or you have a companion who can help you carry the extra load, an important point if you have a layover. Car seats are bulky and heavy, but they are an added safety measure you can take, and they are the perfect way to restrain an energetic toddler who won’t sit still. If you would like to check-in your car seat with the luggage, consider having it wrapped in plastic for protection. Luggage handling can cause real damage to the fabric and the safety buckles. Ask the airline if the seat will be treated as a piece of luggage for allowance purposes.
  • Dress your child in an outfit suitable for the flight. Nothing too fancy, constricting or uncomfortable for the pressurized, air-conditioned cabin of an airplane. Pants and longer shirts are best. A shirt that leaves the tummy exposed may make your child feel cold. I like bodysuit-style undershirts in this case because they do not ride up. Layers that can be removed or put on according to the temperature in the cabin are a good idea, and comfortable shoes that won’t pinch little feet after a long day are a must.
  • Carry a stick of lip balm in your handbag. Airplanes are notorious for causing dry skin. Air travel regulations do not allow liquids or gels to be carried on board or to pass through security checkpoints, so consult the rules if you’d like to carry moisturizing lotion in your hand luggage.
  • Inform yourself about the current security restrictions. The preparation will result in a smoother path through security. Shoes that are easy to remove are a good idea. The screening process may be upsetting for some children, so it’s good to be prepared. My daughter was in tears the first time we traveled, especially when I was screened with a hand-held metal detector, so now I always talk her through every step, in a cheerful and reassuring tone of voice.
  • Get there early. Give yourself enough time to reach the airport even if you find yourself dealing with unexpected delays, like traffic jams or road construction. Remember that security screening takes time, and gates close well before departure times.
  • Have something ready to give your child to chew during take-off and landing, as it will help relieve pressure in the ears. Chewing gum is the obvious choice, and even if you do not approve of it, consider making an exception and allowing its use on this occasion, as nothing else serves the purpose half so well.
  • Take along a couple of crayons (not too many or it can be a mess if they roll away), and a small, blank notebook, or a light-weight coloring book.
  • Pack a small, favored backpack for your child to carry in the plane. Include a few small toys like miniature plastic animals and small books. Don’t pack too many or the bag will be too heavy. Encourage your child to play with one or two toys at a time. You want to avoid losing a small, hard-to-find dinosaur in the plane.
  • If your child likes to throw toys on the floor, consider taking only a soft stuffed animal. You don’t want to have an irate neighbor who just got a plastic toy thrown at his head.
  • Request a window seat for the child. The two-seater row is best, as you’ll be without a neighbor.
  • Take a funny, entertaining  picture book to combat boredom. At home, try to keep the book away from your child for a few days so it becomes new again the day of the flight.
  • If a tantrum is looming, take evasive action. Get up and take your child for a walk around the airplane.
  • If your journey is long and you will have a connecting flight before you reach your destination, a change of clothes will refresh your child, so make use of the spare outfit you packed in your overnight bag.
  • Don’t forget to pack your child’s feeding bowl and spoon and fork in the checked luggage. Children get attached to their own things, and familiar items will help calm any feelings of unease upon arriving at a new place.
  • If shopping right away once you arrive at your destination will be an inconvenience, do pack some non-perishable food you can feed your child.
  • Keep in mind that small bodies feel tired more quickly, so be understanding if your child cries and feels out of sorts.
  • Be calm and don’t lose your temper. Pass along some good vibes to your child and make use of your sense of humor. Flying can be a fun experience for young children.
  • Here are some useful links as you prepare your trip. In the United States, the Transportation Safety Board‘s website has information on what you can take with you, and this link will take you to the section on traveling with children. In the United Kingdom, go here for the latest on security control.
  • Finally, a disclaimer. The information on this list is based upon common sense, and my own experience as a mother who travels with young children. I have tried to keep in mind the latest security restrictions regarding airplane travel when writing this list, but you should do your own checking. Official sources are the only ones who can dispel your doubts unequivocally.

26 Responses to “My flying-with-a-toddler checklist”

  1. SusieJ July 25, 2007 at 7:38 pm #

    Very good list. You should really write that book …

  2. Helen July 27, 2007 at 2:02 pm #

    This is a really good list and one I will be consulting when we fly with Kiko in December. It will be a thirty-hour journey so I’m going to have to be very prepared! That’s a good tip about packing soft toys. Kiko still loves to hammer with anything he can find…

    I like the sound of your book too. I found most of the pregnancy/baby care books I bought were totally unrealistic. I searched everywhere for lists on what kind of clothes to buy for the newborn baby and they all said things like: “Just buy 4 vests and 3 babygros!” which was so impractical – I needed about 10+ of each because you need to change their clothes so often. Nobody tells you that newborn babies’ body functions defeat most nappies and so you have mountains of laundry. I also needed loads of sheets for that reason and had to make an emergency run to the second-hand shop in the days after he was born.

    The section on dealing with hospital staff sounds good. I wish I’d known what questions to ask when Kiko was in intensive care. I also wish I’d demanded some answers as to why I produced no breast milk, instead of allowing myself to be stuffed into the “failure” basket. I really should have been more assertive there.

  3. Lizzy July 27, 2007 at 11:25 pm #

    Right now my daughter goes through three outfits a day, and when she was a baby it was double that. Mashed potatoes, fruit puree and cereal all ended up on her clothes.

    Doctors and nurses are a big deal. In America you have to choose your pediatrician before the baby is born, or they will simply not accept you as a patient. I disliked the lady I chose, and I think it was mutual. I chose her because she was a woman and a Hispanic like me, but she was cold and impersonal. I tried to change but none of the doctors I called wanted to take us on. All I could do was to get appointments with our original doctor’s partner only, although my daughter was still her patient on the books.

    I should have taken the time to interview the doctors that I had under consideration before signing on with anyone. I feel that they should be the ones who should be approved of, and not the patients, but unfortunately most medical practitioners think the opposite.

  4. Sean February 19, 2009 at 2:49 am #

    the content is great, but i would’ve read the whole thing if it were formatted correctly. You lost a visitor/reader because they were intimidated by the way your content was formatted…

  5. Lizzy February 19, 2009 at 8:14 am #

    Thank you Sean. Your criticism is valid, and it is welcome, but it would be much more useful if it came with suggestions for improvement.

    I follow the format of my WordPress theme without upgrades, as this blog is merely my hobby. To be frank, the bullet format looks fine to me, so it would help if you specified what it is you dislike about it.

  6. carlos March 13, 2009 at 10:13 pm #

    l read it just fine. This blog is very informative. Slow reading problem maybe??

  7. Megan May 14, 2009 at 11:03 pm #

    I had no problem reading this either. As for traveling, my daughter and I have been on 8 or so flights and she has yet to reach 1 1/2. Though we are frequent travelers, I still turn to the internet for new ideas because I hate not being prepared. I too would love to read your book if you ever decide to write it! Thanks for the great list :)

  8. Carol June 30, 2009 at 3:50 pm #

    Great tips and very useful article. Thanks.

  9. JFort January 29, 2010 at 9:49 am #

    I prefer bullet pts to paragraph style, and you have great travel tips. Thank you !

  10. kelly February 10, 2010 at 3:54 am #

    I’mglad to know that I was not the only one who had trouble being assertive with hospital staff. I too did not produce enought breast milk for my preemie and was told that I “was not making ENOUGH” and therefore they had to feed my baby formula. Even though he was on a PIC for low blood sugar and did not really need the calories!

    love your list!

  11. Jennifer March 14, 2010 at 7:18 am #

    I’m leaving from Michigan to Texas with my two year old. This is my first time flying and i’m glad I found your site because i’ve been searching the net for the last few days and yours answered a lot of my questions and concerns the best so far. thanks.

  12. Bobby April 8, 2010 at 9:26 am #

    Thanks so much loved this list has been very helpful and informative. Definitely the most useful list have come across this evening.

    Have started compiling a rough list based on ideas from yours for our trip to Ireland in May. Luckily the flight there will be at night but return flight will be daytime.
    Have bookmarked so can return to this again and share with friends.

  13. Karen May 5, 2010 at 2:48 am #

    Thank you so much for great information. I am flying with a toddler last minute and appreciate this information being here.

    I like your formatting as well. I didn’t have any issues reading it. Great job!

    BTW….Write that book!

  14. Tanya May 13, 2010 at 5:49 pm #

    Read on my blackberry with no problems! Great info! Hoping the first flight with my two year old daughter goes well this Sunday. Thankfully my parents are driving so they offered to take things like diapers. Thanks again for this info!

  15. namie November 17, 2011 at 1:05 am #

    great list thanx for this really needed this..

  16. Monica December 13, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    This is great! We are going on a short trip soon but are military and will most likely be flying overseas in the next couple years with a new little one too!
    Great tips! I wrote a lot of your ideas down and am excited to use them this coming spring!!

    Do you have any tips flying with multiple children? :0) I know I’ll need that in about 2 years

    • Lizzy December 30, 2011 at 11:43 am #

      Thanks for visiting, Monica. I first wrote this list back in 2007 and since then I’ve had a son, who is now three-and-a-half years old. The time has flown! I might be adding a few things to this list, so stay tuned.

      I wish you safe travels!

  17. lucy December 28, 2011 at 4:13 pm #

    Thanks so much for this info. It’s helping me prepare myself for a 27hr trip with my 21 month yr old. Hate the distance factor but i’m hoping with good preparation as you mentioned, we will both survive intact! Thanks again.

    • Lizzy December 30, 2011 at 11:45 am #

      I am happy my suggestions have been useful to you, Lucy. I hope your flight is safe and comfortable!

  18. Ivana February 28, 2012 at 10:16 pm #

    Great article, I for one like the style of writting and the format. Your list reminded me of stuff I need to do prior to the flight

  19. IdeO April 27, 2012 at 7:28 pm #

    Ehmmm…why haven’t you written that book again??!!! As a first-time mom, I have been searching for travel tips on the internet and this is by farrrrr the best I’ve found. All grounds covered. Kudos to you. LOVE IT! Please let me know when you do write that book. I’ll definitely grab copies and spread the word:) Thanks much…

  20. Tina May 21, 2012 at 7:34 pm #

    Just an FYI: I flew last week and the TSA sign at security said that children under the age of 12 are NOT required to remove their shoes. Going to try it out tomorrow for my return flight.

    • Lizzy June 25, 2012 at 6:42 pm #

      My belated thanks for letting me know, Tina. The change is listed on the TSA website now.

      Safe travels!

  21. Carrianne June 12, 2012 at 12:41 am #

    Id like to comment about getting there early. This is a recipe for disaster in my opinion. I’ve done 17 trips (68 flights) alone with my first and now with a three year old and a baby. The three year old is always so excited to be going that any extra wait is pure torture. I time it to get there 15 minutes before the checking is closed. They will always let you to the front.

    As for flying with two children including an infant. Wait until the free seat assignment eriid (usually 24 hours before the flight). Book the aisle and window in the last row in front of the bathrooms. That middle seat will be the last to go so if the plane is full you’ll have a free empty seat. Then go directly inboard with your infant carseat, install it next to the window and sit down. The flight attendant will show up tell you you really shouldn’t have your carseat there without paying but will let you keep it there.

    As for a toddler in the window seat? Never! Put them in the aisle

    • Lizzy June 18, 2012 at 10:09 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Carrianne.

      As your experience makes clear, everyone is different, and what works for one person will not work for another. In my case, I find that I would much rather keep my children entertained (no easy task, I grant you), than be in a rush to get to the airport and risk missing a flight. As for using a car seat without paying, I would be petrified of getting in trouble, especially because cabin crew members are not as obliging as they used to be, in my opinion.

      My children love the window seat, I still remember the fuss my daughter made when I didn’t book it for her and the occupant was unwilling to give it up! It’s great to lean against when sleeping, too. I have two kids now, so I make them take turns.

      I appreciate your input. Good luck with your next flight!

      • Anni'sbubble (@Annisbubble) May 13, 2013 at 11:14 pm #

        All really great tips. I am traveling this weekend with my 2 year old and I am so nervous. I am in the process of writing a similar list for moms traveling along with toddlers.

        Let me know if i missed anything :

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