What worked for us on long-haul flight with toddlers

Amazing, how little practical advice is out there and how useless the generic tips are!

Wouldn't it be great if I knew how to put my little one to sleep in an economy class chair? I mean, how does it physically work in these extra-tight chairs we've come to know in the 21st century? Wouldn't it be awesome to know ahead of time what I can do when my daughter's ears hurt during climb or descent? If only I could master making those flimsy plastic headphones work for my 3 years old... and stopping her toys from rolling away using just my willpower.


Flying toddlers over the Atlantic like a pro!
Generic tips don't teach this magic. Our family is learning it the hard way. We live in US West coast and traveling to Europe every summer. 15+ hours in the air, two or three legs. Three kids: two, three and five years old as of writing. We love traveling with kids and staying home is not an option.

I'd like to share some things we learnt so far. The list is not comprehensive in any way, and we keep learning with every flight. We'd love to hear about any improvements we can do for our future flights! Disclaimer: I am not selling any of the linked products and not paid by manufacturers to advertise them. The affiliate links may be present.

Hand out small toys during towing/climb/descent. Have spares!

During the towing, climb or descent there are usually a number of restrictions on what you can do. Kids have to be in their seats, no walking, crawling, fighting, and so on. Tablets may be forbidden while in-seat entertainment may lock your screen with some boring safety stuff. Luckily, it usually takes less than an hour before your kids can resume being kids and do (almost) whatever they want. If you know they will have trouble sitting still for an hour, you want to occupy them with something suitable. Usually we give them small toys that fit in their hands.

Be prepared for toys being dropped without an easy way to pick them up: you're supposed to be buckled up during this time (and even if you break that rule the toys can roll away far from your reach). Don't gamble, just have some extra ones with you, it'll be worth it.

Give tiny bites of food during climb/descent

Due to the changing pressure in the cabin during the climb or descent your little ones may don't like what they feel in their ears. Grown-ups know how to deal with that, but toddlers may need some help. The easiest is to make them swallow once in a while by giving them small pieces of food. We prefer Happy Baby Organic Superfood Puffs which are safe even for 6 month olds, but any baby's rice crackers that you can break in pieces would work. You can also try giving them cookies in the small pieces. Just make sure you give out one piece by one, so that you have enough for the whole climb or descent which can take up to 15-30 minutes.

As an alternative we give the pieced food in OXO Tot Flippy Snack Cup with Travel Lid which makes kids to ration. This is especially helpful when it is not easy to reach your kids, for example when flying in a 2-2 seating plane with three kids and someone sits alone.

If you are out of food, give your child a drink. If out of beverage, ask them to yawn every couple minutes. In worst case just keep yawning yourself until kids follow you :).
Have hand sanitizer and napkins

Hand sanitizer will help you to quickly clean your kids hands before the meal. And the baby wipes are much more handy for cleaning up spilled drinks or food scraps than dry napkins.

By far the best wipes we ever used are The Honest Company Baby Wipes Travel Pack. We started to use them years ago and still use them a lot even though the dipers time has long gone. Can't recommend them enough. They can even remove a fresh stain from your clothes which is very convenient with little kids around.

Help your kids study everything around them

Once in the cabin, encourage your kids to study things around them. Tell them about items they find in the seat pockets, about the belt, wings in the window, how window is made, why is it so noisy? and so on. Many good things will come out of it: it is a great learning opportunity, feeds their curiosity, teaches to observe and more.

Another important aspect is that getting to know things around them helps your kids to get comfortable with where they are. It'll help to bring down their anxiety, to be not afraid. Remember how you felt flying for the first time? That feeling could be much more intense for the kids and can repeat on every flight. You want to exclude that option. Best of all, pretend you don't know something and let them explain it, or figure something out together. Next time you are not immediately answering their question they'll use that skill instead of getting scared or anxious.

Inflatable foot rest pillow is a must!

Now this is the single most important item to have. An absolute must-have. If you don't manage to prepare anything else, at least try to bring an inflatable foot rest pillow to fill the space in front of your toddler's seat. It will make sure your kid's legs have decent support.

Not-so-tall folks know how bad the discomfort can be if you sit on a high chair and cannot rest feet for a long time. Add to the nightmare a seat that is way too deep for a toddler and you'll have an extremely uncomfortable and unhealthy place to sit for many hours.

The pillow should be high enough to turn the seat into a flatbed for your little one. If you travel with two kids their two seats can be turned into a real bed that is tall enough to fit even a 4-6 year olds alongside each other (featured on the first picture in this post). For the very tall kids you can additionally support their legs or heads sitting in the third chair next to them. In all those cases having the pillows is a complete game-changer for the overnight flight.


Stretching many legs on a sturdy HOMCA travel footrest

The pillow that worked best for us is Travel Foot Rest Pillow by HOMCA. It was sturdy enough for our 5 years old to lay on two pillows flat and sleep like that for many hours. Its double valve with direct opening made it very easy to inflate and deflate. And we travelled with three of those pillows! No leaking or softening the support at all: it keeps sturdy for 8+ hours. Note though that the pressure in the plane cabin is changing during the climb and descent. It will feel less sturdy by the end of descent if you inflated it up in the air.

I'd recommend to inflate the pillow as early as the seatbelt sign is off after the initial climb. As a precaution try make it less visible for the plane crew as some passengers reported on the forums to be asked not use the pillow due to unknown safety regulations. I personally never had that problem and do not believe there's a safety issue. Obviously, don't use the pillow in an exit row!

Beware that the pillow will likely not work well in the rows with extra space, such as "economy plus" or "economy comfort" rows. Another commonly overlooked tip is to check the pillow at home long before the flight: you don't want to discover a leak when you are already in the cabin.

Cartoons or movies is your best friend

Hands-down the best time-killer is watching cartoons or movies. Kids are quiet and self-dependent. While it is OK to make an exception to the 15-30 minutes a day screen time rule for the rare long flight, be sure to not overload them. While teens can spend the whole flight with the screen, it will unlikely go well with your toddlers.

Give your kids breaks from watching cartoons or movies

Make sure your kids are changing their seating position, stretching their legs frequently during the watch time. It is so easy for toddlers to forget to move and react on their aching body too late. Not only this is a bad experience, but also very unhealthy.

Plan some watching time before their sleep

If you are flying overseas the lights will be likely taken out mid-flight or earlier (faking the "night time"). It'll make it hard for your kids to play with toys. You can try to read to them before the sleep, but it will hardly be as convenient as reading next to their bed in their bedroom: too noisy. You might want to plan a little watchtime before they fell asleep.

Make sure to take rest yourself while kids are at the screen

You won't have much time for your own rest during the flight, so use any opportunity. The best time, of course is while kids are locked to a screen. When they don't have food in front of them, they don't ask you to pick up toys from the floor or share a game with you. You should even try to take a power nap!

Bring your own tablet, but start with stock entertainment

If you are flying the route for the first time be prepared that you may not find good programs or cartoons to watch for your kids that you'd like. Most airlines have upgraded their entertainment on board, but not everywhere. Some parents are also very picky in what to let their kids watch, and rightfully so! Our advice, is to avoid gambling and to bring your own tablets which are not that pricey nowadays.

A good choice for a tablet would be Kindle Fire HD 7 or 8, kids edition. You'll get a good quality lightweight case almost for free and no annoying Amazon ads. If you need more than one, try to find a two-pack promotion, which will save you $50+. For whatever reason the search on Amazon won't show such option, but may show it as a banner on a single-item Kindle page. Here're the links for the pack of two Kindle Fire HD 7 and two Kindle Fire HD 8 which worked last time I checked.

If you are an Amazon Prime member you'll want to install Prime Video app that is available for iOS, Android and mentioned above Kindles. Amazon Prime Video has a lot of great shows free for your little ones, such as Tumble Leaf and Stinky and Dirty. Those are free for Prime members and are of incredibly good quality!

You will want to pre-download the videos. Beware that video won't download on cellular for whatever reason, so you better do it at home. Also, they say "the time period you have to view a downloaded title while your device is offline varies by title". Usually it is 24 or 48 hours, plenty enough for a flight, just be sure you don't start watching it a day before :)

Bring your own comfortable headphones

This is a big one. Headphones that are handed out in the cabin are almost never suitable for kids. They can be too loud for a toddler, may not fit their head/ears and hurt your child.

Bring the headphones that at least have protection from being too loud, fit kids well without a need to fix them up frequently and ideally allow them to rest their head in any position.


Enjoying the flight in very cozy CozyPhones kids headphones (with HOMCA travel footrest) 


The headphones that worked well for us are: CozyPhones Kids Headphones. They are very comfortable to wear for a long time, they don't put pressure on ears and weigh nothing. Kids were able to adjust them on their head on their own. They were able to rest their head with headphones on and even fell asleep. The sound is not too loud which is a must to keep kids' ears healthy. Note, that the speakers inside can be moved to make sure they aligned with the ears. The headphones are also impossible to break. The only wish I had is for them to be cordless, but that would likely increase their cost a lot and make them bulky. Their price is not small as is, but definitely worth every penny.

Use micro-sets of toys with action figures

We found the best toys to play with to be small action figures. There are plenty of themed sets out there and you can always find the ones your kids are into at the moment. Small sets will allow your older toddlers to create endless stories, will encourage creativity and pretend play.

Don't bring cars and other "moving" or "dynamic" toys. Even small ones, like Hot Wheels and similar. Kids will obviously want to run them around and push fast. Toys will constantly fall down, or worse, fly to or even hit others. You know this is not cool, but good luck explaining that to your toddler. Better to not bring the toys your kids won't be allowed to play with ;)


Quiet play time with Snow White action figures playset and Fun N' Fly foldable travel tray
 
For our girls, the toy sets that worked really really well are Disney Animators' Collection Micro Playsets. Our favorites are Tinker Bell and Snow White (there's also a one of Frozen but we found it be of much much worse quality). The action figures are small and fit well in their hands. They have lots of details to study. The house creates a lot of opportunities for stories. The house also keeps the play close to it, which means figures are not traveling too far. And it makes it very convenient to gather and pack them if needed, for example when food arrives or when the tray must be up. The big bonus is the handle for carrying so you don't have to fight your kids to let them put the toys off into backpack during a walk in a terminal.

Our boy also enjoyed playing with the above sets, but given he is into dinosaurs now we picked the small Dinosaur Action Figures set that worked well. The set is big enough to split into multiple and use a "fresh" one for different travels. The figures are made of good quality plastic and very durable, but may feel too hard and edgy to some.

Use special tray to keep toys from falling down

When it comes to playing with toys the most annoying and disruptive thing is when they fell down from the tray table. Don't even get me started on a toy that fell down and rolled away. No good time for both parents and kids.

Luckily, there are trays available that you can put on top of the tray table to create a secure space for toys. They are a real lifesaver (featured on the picture above). Not only toys stay on the table, but it also creates a special "their own" place for your child.

We looked at and tried a lot of trays, but returned all of those apart from Fun N' Fly Foldable Travel Tray. It looks much simpler than others, for that reason I would've hoped for the smaller price, but it is by far the best one for the job. It is actually a no-brainer choice. All other trays are advertised as being suitable for the car seats as well. Those are not good at all: being suitable for laps adds unnecessary bulkiness to them and makes them completely unusable during the travel. On contrary, the Fun N' Fly Foldable Travel Tray can be folded to take very little space. It is truly lightweight, but provides sturdy enough walls to keep toys on the table. The front wall can be brought down to allow resting hands while playing. It also has very well thought through adjustable straps which keep the tray always in its place and helps to fit the tray to different table sizes.

Bring your kids to bathroom before sleeping

It is so tempting to not disturb a sleepy toddler with a walk to a bathroom, but it will completely ruin their sleep if they wake up crying wanting to pee. So don't hesitate to bring kids to the bathroom to make their sleep longer and more comfortable. As a side note, unless it is just our personal observation, it seems like little kids sometimes don't sense their urge on the plane well ahead of time. Maybe it's due to constant shaking/trembling or because they don't want to leave their comfortable place. Or maybe they just don't want to make it easy for us :)

Somehow fasten your kids when they are asleep

Another way to ruin kids' sleep is trying to fasten them when the seatbelt light turns on. Turbulence would already try to awake them, and this will add more trouble. It is better to do that when it is convenient and there's no urgency. Even if the seatbelt sign is not on, it'll only make it safer to fasten them.

Dress kids in comfy pajamas and thick socks

You want your kids to be comfortable in any position during the flight and comfortable clothes is a must. Though especially important during the sleep time you may want your little ones to put on stretchy, loose clothes even before boarding. And don't forget spares! If your kids are close in their age, as ours, think about bringing the spares that can be shared between them to keep the stuff to the minimum.

Kids will be on and off the chairs constantly and thick socks will come handy. You want to put off their shoes as soon as you board the plane to keep kids feet comfortable. The thick socks will be their shoes for the flight. I bet you'll most appreciate not having to put on their shoes when your kids wake up to go to bathroom.

Take some baby medicine with you

I hope that medicine will never be needed during the flight, but just for your own sanity you want to bring some basic items with you. The flight attendants are well trained and have a stock of medicine on board to help you in worst scenarios, so in usual case you only want to take medicine for convenience. For example, the fever or pain relief or allergy medicine would be easier to take in syrup. The forehead or ear baby thermometer would be easier to use than the one for adults. We use Exergen Temporal Forehead Artery Baby Thermometer, but you should bring the one your kids are most comfortable with.

Be prepared that it will be hard or impossible to wake your kids up at landing

Be prepared to carry your kids while they are asleep. Think ahead about what bags and backpacks you'll have to carry as well. Plan to take a stroller if you have a connecting flight. In that case be sure to leave it at the gate and not to check it in with the rest of baggage. Try to confirm with the crew before the boarding or even by calling airlines ahead of the flight. It is not too uncommon when an airline would not give you back a stroller during the connection. In general, I wouldn't recommend to check-in stroller in any case: too many times folks reported them being damaged.

A last note on the way out that needs no further explanation: do not overlook others travelling with little kids and offer your help whenever you can.


This article has taken me several hours to create and edit so I’d love to hear your feedback. Please let me know what you think of my tips by posting in the comments below. If you liked it and don't want to miss the future posts please or follow us @aflightwithkids.

Comments

  1. Really glad I found your blog and this insightful article is very helpful! I'm travelling with my 15month old son for the first time this coming weekend and just preparing myself mentally, making sure that I've got a full bag of tricks. Thanks for sharing this post.

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