For travelers without children, the goal is to get from point A to point B. When you add a small kid to the mix, the challenge becomes fitting all of your all important, carefully calibrated and time-consuming rituals and routines—from sleeping to feeding—within the chaos of flying, while also managing to get to your destination.
I won’t sugarcoat it: it’s complicated. But it’s also doable. My first flight with my now-4-year-old was intimidating, but I’ve learned a lot from the dozens of subsequent flights. Now I hope those trips to the end of the earth, more than half of the 50 US states, and 14 countries—plus tips from child health experts—will help you understand what may be going on inside your toddler’s mind and body when traveling by plane. When you know that, you’ll be better equipped to ensure everyone stays happy, healthy, and safe.
Help your child get mentally prepared
Discussing the process of flying and even simulating the experience of visiting an airport using make-believe, stuffed animals, and the bags you plan to pack is a great way to help your child understand what’s going to happen and prime them to enjoy the flight on the big day, says pediatrician Jen Trachtenberg, an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “Play pretend airport [and] go through a security maze line, wait to board the airplane, set up airplane rows, and pretend passengers and toys are others in the row,” she says.
With our toddler, who seemed to ask above the average number of questions children ask per day (that is, anywhere from 73 to 390 within a 24-hour period), we liked to explain every stage of the journey, step by step, for several days (even weeks) ahead of the big day.
For instance, we explained that to check in, we’d have to drop off some of our bags, show our IDs, go through security, take off our shoes, and have our bags scanned. And that we’d have to wait at the gate until it’s our turn to board, go to our assigned seats, and put our carry-on bags in the overhead bins. We even covered what we’d eat and do on the plane, how our ears might feel pressure, how we’d have to pick up our bags at the end, and what the next steps of our journey would involve. Doing all this helps set expectations, so there are no major surprises and makes the unknown a little less intimidating.
You absolutely do not want to end up without the right number of diapers (been there), amount of milk or formula (happened to us), or sufficient changes of clothes for both you and your child (yep, experienced this one, too) while at the airport or on the plane, with no other options but to improvise. These kinds of scenarios are sometimes unavoidable and, if they do occur, may become part of the travel lore your family will talk about for years to come. But you can get ahead of mishaps like these by deciding what you want to carry with you at the gate and on the plane by planning with the worst-case scenarios in mind—think flight cancellations and delays, lost luggage, and more.
Here are the must-haves you should keep within reach (not in a checked bag):
- Healthy snacks for both you and the family. As Trachtenberg says, “Hunger can make for cranky kids and adults.” She and other child health experts recommend avoiding foods and drinks with a lot of sugar, junk food, and caffeine, all of which can cause sleep and stomach issues for kids. Instead, look for snacks that include a balance of proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates.
- A change of clothes. In anticipation of messes, spills, and changing plane temperatures, plan on having at least one or two backup outfits for everyone in your party.
- Entertainment. Bring along your child’s favorite activity books, picture books, puzzles, small toys, stuffed animals, music, movies, and TV shows. Trachtenberg says that even though best practices may say to limit screen time for young ones (and yourselves), it’s okay to be more flexible when flying, as familiar shows may help keep your kids occupied, especially when they need to stay seated for their safety.
- Other essentials. Make sure to bring wipes, diapers, diaper rash cream, bottles, sippy cups, formula, a travel first aid kit, baby thermometer (either a digital or traditional one will do), medicine (see the medical packing list in our guide to traveling with small children), a portable potty-training seat, travel bed, baby carrier or folding stroller, and whatever else your little one needs on a regular basis.
Know what to expect at TSA
Be sure to check out the latest TSA guidelines before you leave your home, and expect the entire screening process to take twice as long as it does when you’re not traveling with a child. The good news is families traveling with infants and toddlers are allowed to exceed the standard 3.4-ounce liquid limit when transporting formula, breast milk, and juice for your little one.
While children won’t have to take off their shoes or light layers, you will need to remove them from a baby carrier. All of their items—including stuffed animals, blankets, formula, breast milk, and juice—will need to go through the X-ray scanner and the liquids may need additional testing “for explosives or concealed prohibited items.” As the TSA advises, we always tell agents about all the liquids we’re bringing with us, so they are aware the items belong to us and that we’re allowed to go over the 3.4-ounce limit.
Use your time wisely before boarding and take off
You’ve made it through TSA successfully. Go ahead and celebrate. But the time you have before you board is also a good opportunity to get water and grab a meal. After all, staying hydrated and sticking to mealtimes are both important for everyone’s well being.
It’s also a good time to squeeze in a bit of exercise, especially since it’s hard for kids to get their usual levels of physical activity while on a plane. Try to get as much energy out of them as possible before stepping onto the aircraft, Trachtenberg says. Ideally, this would start before you even arrive at the airport, perhaps with some extra running around at home. Then when you’re waiting at your gate, you can do family jumping jacks and toe touches, play charades, or walk around. The more you’re in motion, the more ready your little one will be to sleep—or at least sit still—on the plane, Trachtenberg explains.
When the time comes, be sure to take advantage of your early boarding privilege, so you have plenty of time to sanitize your seats and tray tables, arrange your child’s things so the most important items are easily accessible, request a sickness bag (in case your little one suffers from motion sickness; more on this below) or blanket from a flight attendant, and go to the bathroom or take care of diaper changes one last time.
Set yourselves up for smooth sailing while in the air
One of the most important things you can do is to try to stick to your child’s routines as much as possible. Predictability, that can help make for a calmer trip, Trachtenberg says. If you’re curious, this same advice will help on long road trips, too.
You can get started on this step the moment you start booking your flight. If you know your little one sleeps well while traveling, pick an option that coincides with their regular nap or bedtime, so they can peacefully catch some Z’s while you’re in the air. Here’s a pro tip from Trachtenberg: Be sure to feed your baby or toddler before having them try to sleep on the plane, so they don’t go to bed hungry.
If you know (or are worried) that your kid may not sleep, my advice is to fly when you would normally be awake. That way, if your child doesn’t sleep, it doesn’t matter if you can’t either, as a result. It doesn’t take a seasoned traveler to know that overnight flights where neither the parent nor the child gets any shuteye are far from pleasant.
Beyond sticking to your regular routines, it’s also important to get ahead of common health concerns related to flying with small children. Start by being aware of the risks and taking the necessary precautions to avoid them, including:
- Motion sickness. To prevent your little one from getting sick mid-flight, be sure to have them avoid eating sugary snacks and junk food and getting dehydrated or overheated. Keeping your child’s overhead vent on high, having them look out at the horizon, and giving them calming music to listen to can help. Reading or looking at screens can worsen queasiness, Trachtenberg says.
- Burns or accidents from hot drinks. The safest seat for your little one is near the window, to avoid any incidents as flight attendants come by with beverages, especially if you have a toddler who likes to move around, she explains.
- Ear pain. Due to air pressure changes, Trachtenberg says your child may cry out or complain of ear pain during takeoff and landing. Chewing food, drinking water, sucking on a pacifier or bottle, or breastfeeding can all help relieve this discomfort.
- Airborne illnesses (such as colds, the flu, and COVID-19): To protect against COVID-19, Zachary Hoy, a specialist at Pediatrix Nashville Pediatric Infectious Disease, told PopSci young kids should wear masks in enclosed spaces like airplanes, where distancing from others isn’t possible. Check out the CDC’s guidelines for what to look for in a face mask for your child.
Be patient with your little ones and yourselves
Delays and unexpected events can and will happen. Our family of three once made it through a 19-hour flight delay through the kindness of strangers—who gave us extra milk at no charge when our supply ran out—and by being kind to ourselves, too.
Know that things may get stressful, for you and your child, and try to keep your cool. Reacting to kids who are acting out may only make their tantrums worse, Trachtenberg says.
Remember that your end goal is to get to your destination safely, so there’s no need to feel guilty if you give into your child’s demands more than usual, she adds.
And don’t forget to take plenty of pictures and videos that you can enjoy over the years and to ask a flight attendant for your child’s “wings” — a commemorative pin many airlines have available for kids (see pictured above).
During moments of calm, I try to appreciate the little things—like the experience of seeing the wonders of the world for the first time through my child’s eyes—and it’s in these moments I’m reminded that although the journey may be harder with kids, it’s also all the more rewarding.