Flying with toddlers

The prospect of flying with toddlers can be utterly terrifying. Having your energetic, unpredictable offspring confined to a small space with 100 pairs of beady eyes watching for a kick, a wail or flying pretzel so they can begin their chorus of synchronised tutting, is stressful on anyone.

Babies are a breeze by comparison; you feed them, you rock them and they go back to sleep. They are even blessed with the comfiest, roomiest seat on the plane courtesy of their very own bassinet. Older kids can sit in their own seat, walk, talk and feed themselves. Most importantly they can confidently operate the in-flight entertainment system which opens up a world of bribery and distraction opportunities.

Without doubt, toddlers the wriggliest, noisiest, fidgety, impatient, frustrated and inquisitive of them all. But rest assured with a bit (okay, quite a bit) of preparation you can make that long plane journey a little bit less fraught for everyone. Here's our top ten tips for surviving flights with little ones in tow.

1. Allow plenty of time

Before being encumbered with children arriving at the airport used to mark the beginning of the holidays for me. Giddy with excitement, I'd breeze through security and ponce about in duty-free for ages. Next stop, WH Smith for a smash and grab of all the latest glossies to read onboard, leaving just enough time for a G&T before smugly sauntering to the departure lounge and casually boarding the plane.

Things are a bit different now we have to factor faffing, gawping, tantrums and the inevitable mother-of-all-nappy changes into our timeframes. The scrabble of clearing security takes on a whole new level with toddlers in tow. There is also a high probability you will be pulled aside for a routine bag search due to the industrial volumes of food and liquids you are lugging onboard.

To fill in time before the flight seek out the airport play area or anywhere the little ones can let off steam. Avoid getting to the departure gate too early as there’s nothing to do there and often no loos. You’ll also have to spend longer avoiding eye contact with other passengers - safe in the knowledge you have become the family no-one wants to sit next to.

2. Check in

Back in the days before kids we could skip this bit altogether and use a civilised online check in from the comforts of home. But some airlines seem to think it'd be more fun for families to have a bit more faffing at the airport and don't authorise check-in online for infants.

Sounds obvious but request seats together for all legs of the flight. We had a particularly memorable check-in where the airline thought it acceptable to seat Jessica (aged 2) at the opposite end of the plane to us for one leg. They reasoned we could just negotiate swapping seats once 4am….in Cairo….cue planeload of not-very-impressed passengers.

A half empty flight is a huge bonus - request a row to yourself so you can spread out - the extra seat will be welcome as a toddler bed or to stash all your paraphernalia.

Make sure you bag an aisle seat - or beg the passenger in them to swap once you're on board. Trust me they'll be glad they did to avoid you climbing over them approximately every 12 minutes to change a nappy, retrieve a toy thrown 4 rows down the aisle or to retreat to the privacy of the loo to weep and pass some time.

If travelling with a buggy ask that you can take it right to the gate with you and if you have a stopover request that you can get it back between flights. You can guarantee your little angel will fall asleep just minutes before your first leg lands and you will be thankful of the chance to wheel them round in peace whilst you stretch your legs. We always pack our baby sling onboard with us too as some airports will only return your buggy with your luggage after you’ve queued at immigration for an hour.

3. Never, ever, preboard

The truth is you are about to be trapped in the confines of a tiny metal object for hours on end. Why-oh-why would anyone sane want to add on a bit of extra time for fun by voluntarily boarding before everyone else does.

We always board at the last possible second, bumbling into our seats as the doors close behind us. If you like to have a bit more time to prepare yourself then one of you could get on and get stuff organised and the second parent stay in the lounge wearing out the little ones.

4. Wear comfy clothes

Lycra is your friend. Wear layers and bring a spare set of comfy, easy to roll "plane clothes" for everyone. Pack the clean clothes in Ziploc bags so you can stick the dirty ones safely away when you change. A small favourite blanket is great to sit on, to make a pillow or wrap them up in.

On long-haul flights, I bring the girls jim-jams so they can "get ready for bed." It's often fruitless trying to get too very excited small people settled but the whole bedtime routine gives us something to do and at least storytime guarantees five minutes peace and quiet!

5. Pack a picnic and plenty of wipes

As soon as the grumbling, whining, moaning or wailing starts we temporarily calm the storm by administering snacks. Airline food can be hit or miss so make sure you’ve got enough to keep them eating and drinking throughout the flight.

Small, fiddly snacks keep them occupied and things that are slow to eat work best - breadsticks, cheese cubes, raisins, fruit, popcorn and bagels. A single apple can sometimes keep Millie entertained for over an hour. It's wise to minimise sugary treats or anything likely to send them hyper at 30,000ft.

Pack more baby wipes than you think you could ever possibly need and embrace the fact that you will disembark with remnants of every snack and meal stuck to your clothes and hair.

6. Toys

Less is more - don’t be tempted to bring loads of toys on board as you’ll just lose them and spend hours rummaging down the sides of seats.

Sticker books are great especially the ones where you can remove and reuse the stickers over. I have been known to spend almost as much on sticker books as the flight itself. Any new bribery stuff can be given wrapped in layers of paper and loads of sellotape. It adds to the excitement and more importantly takes them ages to unwrap.

In our experience, one of the best toys of all onboard are plastic cups and straws. You won’t even care when they fall to the ground and you never see them again.

7.Take off and landing

Little ears are much more sensitive to air pressure as the plane takes off and lands. We've had some really stressful flights where our little ones have wailed hysterically throughout the entire descent.

Crying helps clear their ears though sucking and swallowing can have the same calming effect and is certainly easier on everyone's ear drums. Have bottles and pre-mixed formula ready as it will help them equalise the pressure and keep them distracted. If they don't take a bottle anymore then Chupa-Chups make a good (but be warned very sticky) alternative and if all else fails Calpol sachets can save the day.

8. Apps

12 hours at 30,000ft is not time to test out your Alpha-parenting, take the easy route and invest in some apps. Survival is survival and there are some great, simple apps out there that even little hands can master. Some of our favourites are:

- Baby Silencer - aimed at 3-6-month-olds but our girls loved it for a lot longer - a godsend app that keeps our little ones happy, engaged and quiet.

- Sago Mini - Forest Flyer - join Robin for a wonderful day in the magical forest where he can explore and make new friends - always gets a giggle.

- Sago Mini - Mini Monsters - create your own lovable monster and make him happy with paints, food and decoration

- Peekaboo Barn - tap the bouncing barn doors and friendly farm animals will pop out and surprise your little one - have fun guessing who is behind the doors.

- Boca Toca - any of the Boca apps are utter genius and are designed to suit varying ages. Toca Doctor, Hair Salon and Train are good ones for tinier ones.

- Duplo - a whole host of free colourful apps including a fun train to drive and days out meeting the animals at the zoo or circus. A bit tricky for little hands to master by themselves but good to
watch and tell stories.

- In the Night Garden - meet Igglepiggle, Upsy Daisy and Macca Pacca in the garden for dancing and hide and seek

- Marco Polo Weather - explore the fascinating world of weather! Create rainbows, thunderstorms, blizzards, and more with colourful, friendly characters. A big hit with our girls.

Remember to invest in some headphones for your little ones or you may wish to stick the forks in your ears very quickly (or find other passengers doing it for you). If you are on a long haul flight make sure you have the apps available on multiple devices or take chargers with you onboard to avoid battery related meltdowns!

9. Set your expectations

Long flights are just that…..long. Be prepared and then some, expect the worst and that way the sheer relief will perk you up if it all goes well. The joy and gratitude of being the parent of a sleeping toddler on a long haul flight is indescribable.

10. Other passengers

Some people will tell you not to worry about other passengers, they’ve all been through this and they will understand. That’s a lie, someplace on the plane a passenger is undoubtedly cursing you. There is something about being stuck in a glorified tin can for hours on end which brings out the worst in human nature and passengers will tut and glare, making you feel like the most unpopular person on the plane.

But ignore them and don’t worry they’ll get over. We’ve had flights where we would have freely given our children up for adoption at the end of it, but we all survived and you don’t notice the tutting so much after your fifth G&T!

2 Responses

  1. Sophie Mill

    Cath – glad to be your inspiration (sort of!) for this one. I have just shared it with the SW18 mums network that I told you about. Mum’s always asking for tips on travelling so think this will answer quite a few questions. Love your blog – miss you xx

  2. Kate Bradbury

    I saw this on FB via a mutual friend and have sent this to all my friends with young kids. Great advice!


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