“Yay! I get to take my toddler on a plane!”Said no parent ever.
Another phrase never uttered, by any airline passenger: “Yay! I get to sit near someone else’s toddler!”
The toddler/airplane combination is especially problematic, because toddlers are allergic to sitting still. This is compounded by the fact that, depending on their age, their “seat” may be nothing more than your lap. Toddlers are harder to wrangle in small spaces, and they can be difficult to appease if they get stubborn, restless, or tired. Keep in mind, this age group is notorious for losing their minds over the slightest thing, even when they are in a nice, familiar environment, on the ground.
Travelling with a toddler is not for the faint of heart. Despite the crew’s best wishes over the public address system, you likely won’t be sitting back, relaxing, or enjoying the flight. But, don’t lose hope. If you plan ahead and try some of the tips below, you can help keep your toddler – and yourself – from flying off the handle.
Choose clothing wisely
Roomy, elastic-waist pants are a must-have – and you’ll want a pair for your child, too. In all seriousness, you can save a lot of stress by putting your toddler in a practical outfit that can take a beating (think spills, stains, crumbs, and crumpling). Bring a full change of clothes for your kiddo, just in case. Planes are often chilly, so go with layers – I suggest always bringing a full-zip hooded sweatshirt, which goes on and off much easier than the over-the-head variety.
Pack a toiletries kit
There is no conceivable way to make an airborne diaper change easy. To avoid lugging your entire carry-on up the aisle, pack a small zippered bag or pouch with the essentials for a single change: a fresh diaper, wipes, cream, and possibly a small toy to keep your toddler’s hands busy (and prevent him from touching everything). On the up-side, the seat that seemed small and cramped only five minutes ago will feel like a luxury recliner once you return from the hobbit-proportioned restroom.
Charge up the electronics
This depends on your child’s age and stage. If she has never worn headphones, introduce them ahead of time (and make sure they fit and work properly). In the days prior to the trip, try to cut down on screen time or limit the use of favourite apps, so she will be excited to rediscover them. My advice is to save the iPad or tablet for when you are on the plane and things are starting to go south, rather than in the airport waiting area. Take advantage of the time at the gate to let her move freely, walk around, look out the window, and burn off a bit of toddler energy.
Bring toys and activities
What will it take to keep your young travel companion happily occupied? Whatever it is, bring it along. Avoid toys with tiny pieces or accessories, as they will be dropped and/or lost, resulting in a guaranteed meltdown. I’ve had reasonably good success with sticker books, lift-the-flap board books, toy cars, magnet scene kits, and puppets. Along with your child’s go-to favourites, you may want to wrap up a couple of new (or “new to you”) toys or books as fun in-flight surprises.
Pack (lots) of mess-free snacks
When you pack snacks (that’s “when,” not “if”), keep it simple and familiar. Choose foods that are easy to handle (like pre-cut fruit and bite-sized crackers) and avoid ones that make a mess (like yogurt or muffins). Bring an empty sippy cup through security and fill it at the water fountain near your gate.
Sanitizer is key
For quick clean-ups, have hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes at the ready. A hand towel is also useful if your child (like mine) is terrified of the loud hand dryers in the airport washrooms. Bonus: if your child (like mine) is obsessed with lining up Hot Wheels cars, the folded towel can be placed on his tray table so they don’t roll off.
Pack an extra bag IN your bag
You’ve artfully packed your carry-on bag with all the necessities, but once you start taking stuff out, it becomes a jumbled mess that will never fit neatly back in. The thing is, you are required to board the plane with one bag, but no one cares how many you leave with! So, stash a sturdy plastic bag or reusable shopping bag at the bottom of your carry-on, and that way you can quickly toss all the toys, stuffed animals, clothes and snack containers in there at the end of the flight.
If you’re lucky, you’ll encounter the kindness of strangers during your travels. One time during beverage service, I asked for apple juice for my three-year-old. Miniature plastic cup in hand, the flight attendant looked at me and paused. She must have seen her past self in my tired eyes, because she passed me the can and whispered, “I remember what it’s like. I’m not supposed to do this, but take the whole thing.” I smiled gratefully and poured some for my son, who had discarded all the books I had carefully packed and was instead studying the laminated safety card from the seat pocket. He looked it for a full five minutes while I took a few deep breaths and drank the rest of the juice. For a parent of a toddler at 30,000 feet, that’s about as sweet as it gets.