Air travel with a baby or toddler is no easy task. What time should you travel? What should you pack? These simple tips can make your next journey a little more manageable. Do you have any advice to add? Please share it in the comments area below!
Plan ahead to get the best flights and seats for your family. Most flights these days are full or nearly full, especially during school vacations. But Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the two least popular travel days, and mid-day or afternoon flights may be slightly less packed. Sitting toward the rear of the plane might be best if you anticipate multiple diaper changes. Children under age 2 can ride for free on a parent's lap (be prepared with a birth certificate to prove his age at check-in). If you're going on a long flight, consider splurging on a seat for your child so that you don't have to handle a cross-country struggle with a squirmy toddler in your space. If your child is riding in her own seat, look into convertible car seats or safety harnesses that will help keep her securely in place and put her in the mindset of riding in a car. Booking aisle seats is the best bet for toddlers since they'll likely want to go for walks during the flight. But if you're using a car seat, keep in mind that it will need to be placed in a window spot.
Consider Your Child's Sleep Schedule
Direct flights tend to work best for tots when the flight is under four hours. For flights lasting more than three to four hours, little ones tend to get antsy and need to move around, so look into flights with a layover. But consider your child's sleep schedule and habits when choosing your flight time. If your child is a great sleeper, choose a direct flight during her usual nap time, and even consider red-eye flights that coincide with baby's bedtime for long trips. Encourage your child to sleep on the plane around her usual time by relying on parts of your usual routine, such as reading books, gently rocking, or quietly singing as you would at home. If your child is not the best sleeper or napper, choose flights that work around her most pleasant awake time. And if you'll be traveling across several time zones, start to prepare your tot for the time change with gradual adjustments to your schedule in the days leading up to your trip.
Know Your Options for Baby Gear
First, decide what you'll really need. Traveling with little ones can be bulky and expensive, so take stock of which gear is essential at your destination and what you can temporarily do without. Look into options to rent or borrow baby gear during your travels. Many hotels offer portable cribs, and car rental hubs offer car seats. Most major cities and tourist areas have baby equipment rental services, including stroller, highchair, crib, and even potty seat rentals. You can also check strollers (at the gate, so you can use it in the airport), car seats, and other gear on the plane, but look into whether the airline charges for it, and consider purchasing a gate check bag to protect your items from getting dirty during travel. If you're not bringing a car seat and will mainly be using cabs or a car service to get around town at your destination, call ahead and request a car seat. Some cities — such as New York City — allow babies to ride in a taxi without a car seat, but it's still wise to secure your tot if you'll be taking frequent or long cab rides.
Pack Small Toys and Distractions
Toys and books are a must during long trips. Leave noisy, musical toys at home and pack quiet, portable classics such as foam blocks, toy cars, play food, and mess-free doodle toys. A new sticker book or "I Spy" book is a great diversion for traveling toddlers. Remember to pack your child's favorite toy, small blanket, or "lovie" as well as teething toys if she's cutting teeth. Also, relax your screen-time rules for your toddler during long trips. The AAP advises delaying screen entertainment until kids are 2 years old, but there are many high-quality educational apps for toddlers. Some flights offer kid-friendly in-flight movies and TV shows, which could be a real treat for a tot who doesn't normally watch TV. Little ones too young for apps and movies will love scrolling through your smart phone's photo album (especially to see pictures of himself!).
Bring Drinks and Snacks
If you breastfeed, try to nurse during takeoff and/or landing because it can calm your child and help her ears handle the change in air pressure. Check out these other tips for breastfeeding on a plane. Drinking milk or water or sucking on a pacifier during takeoff can also help keep your tot's ears from getting plugged (leave yourself time to purchase drinks after passing through security). Drinks and snacks also help ward off hunger meltdowns, of course. Choose foods rich in whole grains and protein rather than sugary snacks, which could make your child hyper and then overtired. Snacks like oatmeal bars, bananas, cottage cheese, yogurt, mozzarella cheese sticks, and milk, contain tryptophan, an amino acid that can help people feel relaxed and sleepy. Breast milk, baby formula, baby food, and medications are considered "medically required liquids" and can be carried on flights in "reasonable quantities," according to the Transportation Safety Authority. Factor in possible flight delays when packing drinks and snacks.
Pack Extra Diapers and Clothes
Make a list of important items to pack in your carry-on bag. Diaper explosions always happen at the most inconvenient times, so be prepared with plenty of extra diapers, wipes, and baby clothes in the carry-on bag you stow near your feet. Temperatures can vary widely in airports and on planes, so dress your child in comfortable, easy-to-remove layers.
Prepare with Airplane Books and Toys
Get your toddler excited about flying with airplane-themed books and toys before your journey. Young children aren't likely to be afraid of flying, but they may be sensitive to the new sounds and sensations of air travel. If your toddler is sensitive to loud noises, or if you're concerned about any effects on your child's ears, look into hearing-protection "ear muffs" for little ones.
Arrive Early and Ask for Help
Try to allow yourself plenty of extra time when flying with little kids. Try to check-in online before you head to the airport, if you won't be checking baggage or gear upon check-in. Many airports now have a "TSA Family Lane" or additional security lines during school vacation times. Still — arrive in plenty of time, and have all your ducks in a row (or toiletries in a Ziploc!) for a smoother experience. Frazzled as you may feel, try to stay calm ('cause kids can pick up on your mood) and politely ask for help from airport staff or kind-looking strangers. If you're flying solo or as a single parent with little one(s), read these tips — and take heart in knowing your flight is only temporary.