So you’ve flown internationally with your baby — here are 4 tips on traveling with your toddler

Guest post by mamacita

By: Chunky SalsaCC BY 2.0
Plenty of parents have written about plane travel with wee ones, and I’m grateful: I learned a lot from their experiences. An international flight is so daunting I feel like contributing to the conversation. My daughter’s godmother lives in Ireland, and last fall we took a two year-old in a plane ride over the ocean. What an undertaking!

You get an extra checked and carry-on bag with the price of the toddler ticket so it’s difficult not to overpack, but here is the most crucial piece of advice I have for you: bring as little as possible, both on the plane and in your luggage. On an international flight you will be lugging your belongings all over multiple airports, through security multiple times (up to four times if you don’t have a direct flight), and tucking all that stuff into small areas on various planes.

I kept it to a minimum, but made sure to have something new for each set of flights. In other words, on the way to Ireland she had a new book, coloring book, set of crayons, and activity, plus one familiar toy. Likewise for the return flight. So imagine my disgruntlement when she barely looked at her toys! Planes fascinate children, especially on their first flight. Between the window, the tray, the in-flight movie and the seat buttons, the toys did not get much action.

It will take more time to get through Security than you expect

Even our “minimal” amount of stuff was too much; I think we had ten bins. (Some of this was coats and shoes). There’s always something difficult for the kid at Security — lines, strangers, parental stress levels, etc — requiring extra patience and gentleness. Being able to slow down to respond to a toddler’s need is better than having the kid escalate into a tantrum; plan for that. (And good luck on layovers; we had to run for it in Chicago and barely made the last call for our flight.)

To that end, managing a lovie gives the kid a job at Security. Gobo Fraggle went to Ireland with us. We told her that he would need to take a “special ride” in the bins at Security, and let her pick his bin, put it on the conveyor belt, and wait for him to come out. With the kid occupied, we managed the rest of the stuff. Plus, people in line around us melted at the adorableness of a tiny child managing her toy through Security, and thus cut us some slack as we wrangled our endless piles of stuff.

Bring the right snacks

Baby food is allowed through security, which includes those disposable puree packets. Put the pouches in a 3-1-1 bag. (Note: you can take liquid meds such as baby Tylenol in its original container without having to repackage it, but it should be unopened and in a 3-1-1 bag.) I made sure to declare everything in advance, and no-one seemed to care about my items. I took my chances with home-packed snacks in Ziplocs, and those passed right through security as well.

Water bottles, however, are often questioned and even confiscated; it’s better to bring an empty container and fill it once past Security. Don’t forget a sippy cup/bottle for your kid; mine often wanted her drink in a familiar cup rather than the container in which it was served. Juice boxes are not as good a choice as they seem: many of them are lined with foil, which blocks the X-ray machine. Friends of mine were told they had to either drink from each juice box (thus rendering them impossible to carry without leaking) or throw them away.

If you have questions, the TSA’s list of prohibited items is kept updated, and also allows you to search by name to see the rules for a particular item.

There are small things you might not think of

  • Kids with ear tubes have zero trouble on planes. Kids without ear tubes might need to nurse on takeoff/landing, or have an object that makes them swallow (pacifier, bottle, lollipop). My kid didn’t need the lolly, but it was a good bribe to get her happy for takeoff and landing.
  • When you’re talking about flight lengths of 6+ hours, move your bodies as often as you can. Walk around during layovers. Help the kid walk the aisles of the plane when you can. Take her with you to the potty. This makes time in the carseat less difficult.
  • Make sure that the house is clean when you return. It feels great to come back to calm and peaceful spaces that have clean sheets on the bed.
  • Triple check any substance that might mold/mildew while you’re gone. I had a crazy-making level of vigilance around this issue and I still missed things, resulting in one scary kitchen mold incident and a nasty mildew mess in my shower.

Don’t check your carseat

For a domestic flight, buy a cover to protect the seat and check it (or see if you can rent one on the other end; some car companies do). For an international flight, use the carseat on the plane. Be warned: it will be a royal pain in the behind. The carseat is heavy; US airports charge for those carts on wheels (Irish airports don’t); most carseats won’t fit in the X-ray machine and have to be hand-checked, causing more of a delay at Security; your kid will probably want to play with it at the most inopportune times.

It will be worth it once you get on the plane. Some airlines require the carseat to be placed by a window, which can get you better seats. And it’s invaluable to be able to strap the kid in a seat that will restrain her. My daughter made it about four hours into each flight before getting insanely restless; I would not have been able to keep her in a regular airline seat. Be warned: the carseat may enable a child to kick the seat in front of her. It’s still worth it not to have to fight over the fasten seatbelt light. (Though in moments of desperation when she refused the seat I held her on my lap. I figured that if it’s allowed to transport an infant that way, the flight attendants wouldn’t give me too much trouble. They didn’t.)

That’s what’s worked for me — how have fellow toddler-toting parents successfully traveled?

Comments on So you’ve flown internationally with your baby — here are 4 tips on traveling with your toddler

  1. If travelling with two parent figures, I wonder if its reasonable to volunteer to have one take the seat in front of the toddler rather then all sit in the same row. That way you aren’t kicking an outsider. You could alternate who is on kid duty. Especially if the child is in a window seat, they’re only going to be able to interact with one parent at a time anyway.

    • OMG this is brilliant! This is the part I hate the most about plane trips with my toddler. He is big enough to reach the seat in front of him (on some airlines- Jet Blue had a bit more legroom and he couldn’t reach!) but not old enough to follow arbitrary-to-him rules like that 100% of the time.

    • I had parents like that next to me once – it is HORRIBLE for the neighbors. The parents have to get up constantly, the child is being handed over, feet are hitting faces, pillows…. no sleep for me on a 13h overnight flight…. please don’t do that.

  2. When I was a small child, I hated sending my stuffed animals through the scary, mysterious black box that was the security camera.

    Come to think of it, I STILL hate sending my laptop through security:p But that has more to do with the fear that someone will walk off with it before I get to the other side to claim it than with any fear of what goes on inside the security camera.

    Given that, I would recommend talking to children who are old enough to understand ahead of time about the fact that they will have to put their stuff through a security camera and reassuring them that nothing bad will happen to their beloved toys in there and that they will get them back once security has had a look at them.

    This might only be important with children like little me who are deeply attached to their toys and have budding anxiety disorders, but it’s worth considering.

  3. A note on the carseat. We picked up the Diono convertible car seat when buying one. It is great for it’s compact design but it is heavy. However, you can buy straps that turn it into a backpack to more easily carry it and it is 100% certified for car and plane travel which is nice. I think you can also pick up one of those rollers and attach it to it as well which essentially gives you a rolling seat for your child.

    We also have one of the Melissa & Doug Trunkies which is a cool suitcase that kids can pull or ride on while you pull. Similar to the post author, we let her decorate it and she was in charge of getting it through the airport. This worked when both my husband and I traveled. I’ve not decided yet if I’m going to try using this when I travel alone with daughter next month.

    http://www.amazon.com/Diono-Radian-Convertible-Seat-Shadow/dp/B005MQRAAK

    • I second the Diono Radian car seat with straps (although now I want the rolly wheels you mentioned). They fit in airplane seats and best yet if you are like us and have 2 kids and 1 on the way you can fit three of them across the back seat of most cars.

      We were also car free for the last 2 years and when we did need a car we used our local car-share. Which meant needing to lug 2 car seats with us. It wasn’t a problem when we had the little infant car seats that click into a stroller. But became a world of problems when we needed to switch to a bulky toddler seat (how do we carry 2 babies and 2 car seats to the nearest car, will the car even fit 2 toddler sized car seats, what do we do on the other end of the trip with 2 car seats, take them to the doctors with us?). The Dino Radian carseat came to our rescue because we could fold them us and wear them on our backs as we walked the 4-5 blocks to our closest car-share. And if we were solo-parenting we could wear one on our back and tuck the other under the big stroller.

  4. Holy good timing batman! I’m taking my 4-year-old, 3-year-old, and 3-month-old on a 6 hour flight by myself TOMORROW, and I’m kind of freaking out a little bit. If you want more tips, I googled “flying with children” and I found a blog by the same name (flyingwithchildren.blogspot.ca) that is incredibly detailed and helpful. The author was a flight attendant for a long time and flew internationally with her three children by herself. I’m not affiliated with the blog at all, I just found it very useful.

    I’ve been explaining about security for about a week now, hopefully we survive without too many meltdowns tomorrow!

    • I did this 2 summers ago – International flight, still breast feeding and with 3 kids (6, almost 3 and 6 months). People are very happy to help and realize that you need help. My biggest concern was keeping one eye on my almost 3 year old – she was my wild card. Wear comfortble clothing for you and easy access for feeding. Its doesnt matter what you look like through the process or at the end. If you are fortunate enough to have booked a seat for all kids then make sure you take the baby car seat he/she will sleep in it a lot and you can put her down there safely. You can also request bulkhead for the cots (I think international flights only). The only problem with them is that as soon as slightest bit of turbulance baby has to come out. Also cannot be in there for take off and landing (exactly when you need baby to sleep). Also if you get bulkheads there is room for other kids to play on floor – but again if turbulance that wont work. I even had kids lie out flat and sleep on floor. Some airline hostesses are better than others at helping and friendliness. I have found Virgin Atlantic to be the best and American Airlines to be the worst for international flights (my opinion). There are plenty of parents, grandparents and other families that will be travelling around you that will help – take their help. There will also be the grumpy person that cant stand kids – push their reactions to the back of your mind. Ask the air hostess if they can accomodate the person in a more comfortable place (Ie away from kids) as possible. This for me has actually worked really well.. they have been grumpy, I have asked the air hostess to help and move them so they are more comfortable and then they have spent half the flight either helping me or entertaining my kid! (amazing what a bit of thoughtfulness will yield). You will be fine. Go in knowing it will be crazy but dont stress about it … you will still get there in one piece. Try to give the kids a job to be responsible for – thier own hand luggage or pushing the stroller – especially the biggest kid can be asked to be mom’s helper on this very important mission of flying… Good Luck!

      • It is. The person who invented it deserves to be a millionaire. I remember thinking how much easier it was to use that then lug the carseat around (and I had done both). Both my girls used it, and I think my youngest just might have outgrown it by the time we go to Paris and the Netherlands this spring!

  5. My husband and I flew with our 2 small kids last summer. It was only a 4 hour trip, but it went pretty well thanks to suggestions from well traveled friends.

    Bases on those suggestions we brought my daughter who was 3 her own backpack with coloring stuff, snacks, a camera, and kid friendly headphones a friend lent to us.

    My son was only 11 months so he mostly nursed and slept the whole time, although we had toys and snacks for him too.

    Based on the best traveler tip ever, I would highly recommend packing only carry on luggage if possible. Our trip was to visit friends with kids in the summer, so we only needed to worry about clothing and diapers. There is no waiting for luggage and you always know where your belongings are.

    My husband is an ultra efficient packer, and only needed a regular sized backpack. I used a rolling carry on suitcase, and the kids’ shared another rolling carry on. I also had my purse and a backpack filled with all the non clothing items and an umbrella stroller and Ergo baby carrier.

    At the airport each adult was responsible for one child: daughter in stroller, son in Ergo, adults wearing backpacks and pulling suitcases. It worked out pretty well for us. Until my son had a mega blowout. At least I knew where his extra clothes were…

  6. We travel alot with our (now) 3 year old. And yes it’s gotten trickier as she’s gotten older & wanted to be more active. I’m surprised no one has mentioned smartphone/tablet apps (esp as the pic shows a kid holding one). We find that invaluable. She used to like airplanes because she got to breastfeed more. Now she likes them because she gets to watch TV more (she watches an avg of 1/2 hour every few days at home so it’s really exciting for her) on my phone. Just got a couple of educational apps too that we plan to use on the next flight.

    As the author said, you don’t need as many toys as you think. And lots of little stuff drops on the floor & gets lost so avoid that. We bring a little backpack with crayons/notebook & a favourite toy (lately a tea/cooking set & her “phone”). Having her own backpack is quite a thrill, and she loves to unpack/pack it = another toy! There are some “toys” on the flight too: the plastic cups & spoons that come with meal service, headphones, pillows, in flight magazines, and ours loves the safety cards!

    Stickers/sticker books are brilliant at keeping her busy for takeoff/landing.

    Snacks, like rice cakes, raisins, dry cereal, crackers, muesli bars are also good for keeping busy as well as filling a belly. Quite often she doesn’t like the in-flight meal so I make sure to have lots of this stuff on hand. Never had a problem at security except once with hummus in my own container, b/c not marked w ml.

    We avoid bringing a stroller if possible (if you’re not in a city, how much do you really need? If visiting friends/family a spare can usually be found to borrow). Happily she still fits in the baby carrier for the slog across the airport, esp. when I’m on my own with her.

    She’s never had any issues with putting her stuff through security machine so maybe everyone doesn’t need to expect that with their toddler?

    Hope that’s helpful to someone!

    • We travel internationally (9-24 hour travel times – yikes!) about 1-3 times a year because we live overseas (different country every 2 years) and travel home to see family in the US or for other reasons. My son will be 2 in March and has been on more than 25 planes. I agree with all the comments above about snacks, entertainment, etc. iPad is our savior now that he is older and not nursing and sleeping all the time! We also love overnight flights. Also, I love our Go-Go-Babyz wheel attachment for the car seat. And regarding seats not having the EU sticker on car seats- we only had Lufthansa question it and they were OK after we showed the US sticker. Otherwise, other airlines don’t seem to care. I am also a huge proponent of baby carriers in airports. I have a ring sling that I put my son in and it helps when trying to get everything through security or handling carry-on luggage before getting on a plane. In the end though, long flights are tough no matter how much you prepare. It will all be over eventually and then you can focus on enjoying your trip. :o) Oh, also for huge time differences many families give their kids (and themselves melatonin for a few days after a time change (see this Cochrane Review: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12076414). Be sure to do you research or talk to your doctor as even ‘natural’ remedies can have nasty side effects. And water – make sure you and your kids stay hydrated. Everyone (me! lol) gets testy when you don’t drink enough.

  7. I have so been meaning to write one of these. But mine would be ” yes that kid on the plane was mine and it pretty much broke me”.

    I would highly recommend that your child be well rested before flying even if you are going on a red eye. And flight attendants will mostly do their best to help (they forgive you for standing in the back or asking for mor milk and things of that nature).

    My little had been on seven flying sessions (often with layovers or whatever) one of them being of equal length on the first leg of the trip. I thought he would sleep on the plane… Did the whole brushing teeth changing into PJs stuff, had a nice blanket, and was well prepared with tons of food and activities (new and old) just in case. By the end of the flight I was in tears and couldn’t even bring myself to speak to any of the other passengers. And by then the little guy had thrown up from exhaustion (while on the decent into the airport) and fallen asleep.

    Yeah. Prepare a much as possible but also forgive yourself if it all goes wrong.

  8. Agreed with the above posters about the flight itself being more entertaining for the kid than you might imagine. On every flight we spend time going through the safety cards (my 3 y/o likes me to make up stories about what the people are doing), sky mall catalog, pondering beverage options, talking about what’s going on with the plane, what’s outside the window. I have fond memories as a child of my family pretending with me that care bears were hanging out on the clouds outside the plane.
    Snacks have been really essential to keeping both parent and toddler happy and entertained. I haven’t been on any airlines that wouldn’t allow me to bring food. If I have something in a sippy cup they usually ask me to open it so they can wave a paper strip over it that detects whatever they’re looking for, and then we move on. I go for my usual snack strategy of covering major macronutrients and food groups (protein, fat, veg, fruit) with emphasis on things that are hard to chew. Now that my kid is 3 and chews like a champ it doesn’t slow her down as much, but from 1-3 things like super chewy homemade granola bars, beef jerky, apple slices, trail mix, and dried mango, were great. (Also good for equalizing ear pressure)
    Lots of toys I thought would be great bombed on the plane ride, but these have been favorites: Tegu (magnetic) blocks, Crayola Color Wonder on The Go Tiny Tube, Calico critters, travel magna doodle, golden books (light, thin, strong covers, long stories), and a “quiet book.” When we get tired of our books we sometimes flip through the pictures and I ask questions like, “do you see something red on this page?” or “which animal looks happy?” We also do our standard time killing games, like making each other laugh with crazy faces/expressions, stacking hands, and looking at pictures I’ve taken on the camera (especially on the way home!).
    Not being able to move around is definitely the hardest part, and it’s worse now that they want everyone to sit as often as possible. I agree about taking the toddler with you to the bathroom. One way to avoid the kid asking if they can get up over and over is to tell them you can only get up when an alarm goes off. Then you can set an alarm on your watch, ipod, or phone, for however often you’re going to pretend you have to go potty 😉

  9. I traveled to India (24 hours of flights and 3 airports…) with a 1.5 year old once upon a time. The doctor recommended a light sedative to help her sleep on the plane and it worked very well…she even managed to wean herself completely off of bottles somehow in the process of the flights (something to this day we can’t figure out).

    The things that really made the travelling easier was having all travel documents (passports, etc) in one folder/packet and having the baby in a lightweight jogging stroller. This was especially helpful during our 1-hour layover in Hong Kong…that airport is huge and 1 hour is just not enough time. This was pre-smart phone and pre-iPad, so we used good ol’fashioned books and toys to keep little Olive entertained. And plenty of snacks!

    All in all it was extremely smooth, which I’m assuming is because she was still very small at the time (could barely even walk). Older toddlers, on the other hand, I’m not sure…

  10. One thing that I did not know about traveling with kids pertains to having two lap children: they are not allowed in the same row. Only four humans are allowed in each (three seat) row (because there are only four oxygen masks in each row). So if you and your spouse each are carrying one, try to get seats across the aisle from each other. We had never heard of this rule and had to move at the last minute so we were a couple of rows apart. It’s a lot easier sitting across from each other to share the “holding stuff” job while fishing things out of carry-on luggage and holding a toddler at the same time.

    • Very true. Paying for the in class upgrade doesn’t always work. From what I remember the extra oxygen masks are on the even rows on the right side of the plane (at least I am pretty sure that was the case on the smaller planes United flies). So even if you plan in advance for seats together or pay for a small upgrade you may get shifted to another seat.

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