If you’re planning to fly with a toddler this summer, you’re probably already dreading the flights and the waits in the airports—which can be more challenging than the flights themselves.
John and I are not seasoned travelers, but we have flown twice with toddlers on the marathon China-U.S. flights. Here are a few things we learned along the way:
1. Do everything slooooowly. Give your child tasks that add time. Wrap a toy inside a blanket and make him find it. Bring out new stickers one by one. On one of our flights, our son unwrapped a whole bag of lollipops and dropped them into a baby bottle. Then he emptied it and started again. He was quiet. He wasn’t kicking anyone’s seat. It was bliss. Well, not bliss. But as good as it gets.
2. Everything is a toy. A piece of paper can be a silly hat or a peek-a-boo curtain. The vomit bag is a puppet or a balloon. The cups and containers your meal comes in—if you get a meal—can become animals or vehicles and scoot around on the tray. On one flight Daniel stacked pretzel sticks for a good half-hour.
3. Choose your books and toys carefully. For our flight home from China with Leo, John packed a shoebox full of little boxes from the hotel (a shower cap, a comb, etc.) and quiet toys. We took them out one by one and played with them. Then we played with the boxes. We brought stickers and travel Aquadoodles and quiet lift-the-flap or textured books. Little cars are great, and so are Playdoh, crayons, and puzzles (as long as you don’t care about losing the pieces on the plane).
4. You are a source of entertainment. You can bounce a child on your knees and sing “Pony Boy” or “Trot, Trot to Boston” or whatever lap game you know or can create. “This Little Piggy” is always fun, especially for children who like taking their socks and shoes off—an activity that also consumes time. Introduce these games before the flight so they are already familiar to your child.
5. Eat up time. We brought gummy fruit snacks, pretzels, crackers, cookies, and a few M&Ms that I saved for near the end of the trip when we were getting a bit desperate. You have plenty of time to worry about nutrition later. One of my brilliant friends gave us fruit roll-ups for our first flight. We tore them apart bit by bit. The boys sat there, licking each little piece and waiting for the next one.
6. Prepare for take-off. Neither of our sons wanted to drink a lot, so a sippy cup didn’t work well for making them swallow during take-off and landing. We brought lollipops too and that seemed to help. You can also give a little Children’s Motrin or Tylenol before boarding to help with the ear pain. (Obviously I am not a doctor and not qualified to give medical advice.)
7. Bring plastic freezer bags that zip shut. The airplane trashcans fill up fast, and you could end up with a bad diaper. Your fellow passengers will thank you.
8. Pack back-up clothes—for everyone. Bring changes of clothes for your child, of course, but also for the adults. When a child makes a mess, it almost always lands on someone else, too. We spilled a whole can of apple juice on John’s pants in the first hour of our second flight home from China, and he had to sit in sticky—and then stiff—pants for the next 18 hours.
9. Remind yourself that every flight ends. Every moment you are standing in line, or sitting on the plane, or rocking your crying child in the aisles, or beginning a Rosary for the 37th time you are one moment closer to your destination. You will get there. And the trip will be worth it.
10. Keep expectations low and be pleasantly surprised when things go well. Your child may cry or scream or want to sing at the top of his lungs. Maybe you’ll cry, too. On one of our flights in China, our son screamed for 45 minutes straight. Our fellow passengers were offering advice in two languages, but our son had met us three or four days earlier and we didn’t speak his language. It was a nightmare. But we will never see the people on that flight again—except for our dear friends who tried to assure us that it wasn’t as horrible as we remember. We survived. So will you.
Have a safe and wonderful trip!
If you’ve flown with a toddler, what advice can you share?