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Flying with Toddlers and Preschoolers

If your family is anything like mine, you and your kids will be flying plenty to visit family all over the country. Babies are fairly intuitive with their adorable ability to be nursed or bottle fed. Once they start to move around you enter what I like to term as “the no-fly years” which stretch from around 7 months to 2 years old.

But once you have their own seat as a 2-year old? Game on.

A few disclaimers first on big questions.

  • No, I’ve never traveled with a car seat on the airplane.
  • Yes, I recommend bringing one stroller to gate check during boarding.
  • No, I do not recommend boarding at the last second to minimize their time on board. You’ll need to get organized, which takes time.
  • Yes, I do recommend doing wind sprints, stair climbs, jogging in place with them, whatever it takes to get the wiggles out before getting on board.
  • Yes, the majority of my travel has been solo-with-two-kids, but my husband’s been with us on the long international legs.
  • No, I don’t drug my kids with Benadryl or other medications. I’m scared of alternative outcomes.

 

Here is a comprehensive list of what I pack for both children regardless of length of time in the air:

Kids sized head phones (when I remember to). The airline provided ones are usually too big. 

PJs for overnight flights, plus an outfit change prior to landing. This is only for super long stretches, though. Each child needs their own change of clothes including underwear and socks in case of spills, an accident, or life happening.

A change of clothes for yourself. Just in case. I prefer not to travel in jeans, but I highly recommend a stretchy maxi dress and long sleeved sweater or workout pants with a jacket-top. Make sure you’re completely covered up (long-sleeves, long pants, closed toed shoes) since it can get pretty chilly.

Bottles of water purchased once you clear security. I hate traveling with cups or bottles from home since I have to wash them. One per child, two for you. You can never count on flight attendants getting to you fast enough, or providing enough. Have your own. 

Individual snacks. Make sure they’re pre-portioned with their names on them. This will prevent fighting over who gets what.  Nothing too messy and something they can eat unassisted. I recommend graham crackers, mini-cookies, veggie straws, beef jerky, gummy candies and good old fashioned cereal. I once dumped an entire bag of Cheerios into a gallon ziplock and it got us through a 3-hour flight. Bonus points for anything with protein. PBJs travel well too but aren’t allowed internationally. My rule of thumb is expect to feed the snack equivalent of a full meal every 4 hours, plus snacks. Then you’ll have snacks and bribes for when you land and haven’t gotten to food yet. The ultimate bribe for us turned out to be jelly beans.

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Only put yourself through the inconvenience of packing neck pillows if you’re sleeping on the plane. I have found that kids have the best chances of falling asleep during takeoff and landing, so have them ready in your seat area. Make sure you are able to pack them inside a bag, not just clipped to the outside, otherwise you’ll have Bag-Zilla banging up and down the aisles. 

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Definitely have a lovie for each child, even if your child doesn’t use a lovie. Having a soft, squishy happy animal from home is a must for snuggling up to watch endless movies or TV. I pack each child’s special blanket also, just if you’re on a long flight, they’ll provide you with a crappy large blanket which does the trick too.

Easy shoes are a must for traveling and should be closed-toe. No sandles, no laces. Stick with Velcro or crocs. It’s nice to have your child in socks for when they inevitably kick off their shoes to guard against all the germs of the world.

Pull-ups. All kids, every flight. I don’t care how long your child’s been potty trained. They need to be in a pull-up. Otherwise, they’ll have to go potty during taxi or takeoff and may go in their seat, which will be messy and embarrassing. While you’re at it, pack 1 pull-up for each 2 hours of flight as a guide.

Jackets. Because kids aren’t likely to want to wear a jacket in the airport, they’ll be looking cute in whatever T-shirt and pants you’ve lovingly dressed them in. When they’ve been on board for an hour-or-two, sitting still, they’ll get chilly. Then you’ll whip out a light jacket or windbreaker for them like a pro! You go!

Sticker books are my favorite in-flight activity because there’s no mess, no markers or crayons to roll away, the stickers can always be removed from hair or seat-backs, and there are endless sticker books on the market that aren’t expensive. Then when the flight is done you just toss it into the recycling like a boss. 

Bag of medicine. You never know when someone will need a band-aid, get a bug bite or spike a fever. If you’re on a flight longer than 4 hours, forget your own toiletry bag but DO NOT forget your mini-bag of meds.

Wipes. Duh. Must be within arms reach at all times.

Activities are essential to long flights, and I’d aim to be fully prepared for any scenario. Always over pack on this. My go-tos are: mini-containers of Play-doh, coloring books with mini-markers, Chic-Fil-A books (thin and disposable), small hand-held toys, scratch pads, paint-with-water pads, sticker books and activity books for preschoolers. Just drop the cash and be glad you did. Above all, make sure you have a small notebook of blank paper and a pen.

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Staying busy on board is doable, I promise, even for little movers and shakers. You can do it! Here are free activity ideas for when your bag of tricks is empty.

  1. Discuss the safety card in the seat-back pocket. What’s your favorite picture? What’s the man wearing? Etc.
  2. Talk about each individual page in the airline magazine. Does that look like fun? Would you ever eat that snack? Etc.
  3. Review your ABCs, numbers, shapes . . . colors . . . TV characters . . . on your notepad with pen.
  4. Allow them to shamelessly watch endless TV, movies, music or whatever’s offered in flight.
  5. Go for a walk on the plane, stretch in your seat or in the aisles, or twirl them around next to the potty endlessly.
  6. Take a large number of potty trips and practice washing hands.
  7. Look for ‘friends’ on board (aka other children). What are those children doing? Would you like to share a sticker with them?
  8. Discuss shopping options in the duty free. Which bottle of alcohol looks best?

 

Above all else, just go in with the mentality that this will be an exhausting experience. It doesn’t have to be negative, but it will be tiring. Give yourself a lot of slack. Understand that everyone around you is silently watching your every move. Know that your kids will go-with-the-flow better than you imagine. Expect to simply focus on them 100% of the time, and any small breaks will be even more appreciate for yourself. Gone are the days of knocking out entire books or movies on board. The kids will follow your lead, so if you’re relaxed and happy, they will be too.

For yourself:

Have a lip balm and hair tie in one pocket and a tissue in the other. Wear closed-toed shoes and long pants or skirt. I recommend backpacks for all the above-mentioned items instead of a shoulder bag. I also recommend weightlifting since the most likely scenario is you carrying said backpack AND both your sleeping children as you de-plane.

Good luck, mom. You can do it.

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