Planning a summer trip with your toddler? Dreading the plane ride you need to take to get there? I don’t blame you. Flying with toddlers is no small feat. Here are a few tips that might help. But first, remember: all bets are off. The rules are suspended. You’re in survival mode now.
Bring lots and lots of snacks. It’s a good idea to have a combination of snacks you’re sure he’ll like, and some new things to try. Remember, your usual rules around when and what to eat don’t apply here. A cookie the size of his head? That’s at least ten minutes of flying time in which he’s entertained. It’s also important to make sure everything is packed in individual portions. That way you can just grab a snack-sized bag of Goldfish and hand it over, rather than doling out tiny, crushable fish from a giant bag. If you’ve packed something that doesn’t come in individual sizes, spend some time before you leave putting single servings into Ziploc baggies. You’re going to be crammed into a tiny seat, you want to be able to grab something and pass it to your cranky (he will be cranky) kid, not opening bags, undoing twisty-ties, etc. while he whines for more crackers.
And, while we’re on the topic of being crammed into an airplane seat, try not to pack things that crush super easily. You’ll just end up opening your bag to find your snacks have turned into a fine powder resembling sand and your toddler will be clamoring for his beach shovel.
Novelty is key. If, every half hour or so, you bring out a new toy or activity, you might just make it to your destination in one piece. Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you buy him all his birthday presents and give them to him on the plane even though his birthday’s not for another six months. There are lots of really cheap things you can get that he’ll love. Visit your local 99-cent store, or the “Bullseye’s Playground” section of Target. A pad of post-it notes to stick on the seat in front of you and the window next to you will provide a few minutes of fun. Stickers and a pad of paper to stick them in are always a hit. Little animals, or cars, or people, or whatever are fun to set up on the tray table, or just pull out of the box and examine if they’re new. Coloring books, matching games, Magnadoodles, Etch A Sketches, pipe cleaners, tape — the list goes on. Just grab a bunch of (really cheap) things that you think your child might enjoy. He’s going to be interested for at least a few minutes because all these things are new. And there will be one or two things that hold his attention for a while.
If you have an iPad or Kindle or whatever, bring it. If the plane has a screen at each seat, turn it on. I know, the thought of hours and hours of screen time for your little one feels concerning, but it’s just this once (well, twice including the return trip) and it’s so, so worth it. If your child will sit and watch a show, or play a game on his own, just be grateful. Your goal here is to get through the trip. If the screen will help you do that, then thank goodness for screens.
Make sure you pick up a pair of toddler headphones before you leave for your trip. He won’t be able to use the earbud kind, so all your plans of screen-induced quiet will go out the window if you don’t have a way for him to hear the show or game.
It’s all well and good to have brought all these things, but if you can’t find them when you need them it kind of defeats the purpose. Designate one pocket of a backpack for snacks, another for activities, and another for necessary items like diapers, wipes, a couple change of clothes, etc. If you’ve got all the snacks divided up into appropriate portions, you’ll be able to just reach into the snack pocket and pull something out without even looking. (It’s hard to see into your bag when you’re stuck in your seat with no room to bend over.) It’s a good idea to group the activities in a similar way. If something comes with multiple parts (like stickers and a sticker book, or crayons and paper) put all the pieces for each activity in a baggie. Then you can do a similar fishing maneuver where you just reach into the bag and pull out an activity, instead of finding the paper and hunting around at the bottom of the bag for the crayons.
Also, and this is really important, save some stuff for the return trip. Some things (like matching games or stamps) can be used again. But other things (like post-its, or stickers) might get used up on the first flight. Not to mention the fact that you want to keep some new items in reserve, for the novelty factor. Just divide your activities up and throw some into your suitcase. Before you fly back, switch out some of the original items for the items from your suitcase.
None of this guarantees a peaceful flight. Nothing guarantees a peaceful flight. But at least now you’ve got a fighting chance. Good luck!