The best baby travel toys that aren’t toys

Turkish hazelnuts - the miracle nut/toy!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a small child in possession of a toy in a box will prefer to play with the box. Swear as you might that you won’t let baby toys take over your home, sometime in your child’s first year, your life will be slowly invaded by beeping hunks of plastic, squeaky rubber teethers, and assorted stuffed animals. Yet inevitably, when you are on a plane or on the road, it’s not the educational, organic toy handmade in an artisanal cooperative by blind nuns that will calm a fussy baby; it’s usually something riddled with germs and a potential choking hazard that will keep your child from a full-on meltdown. Here are some free or cheap entertainment ideas; these distractions should of course be used responsibly, under strict supervision, and with a sense of humor.

  • Keys: Toy makers have long ago gotten wise to the fact that babies love to play with keys, and have started to produce safe, kid-friendly key rings. But the plastic things are no match for the clang of the filthy, stabby, metal real things; the more attachments, the better. My mother has an excellent set, with more customer-loyalty-card key fobs than a supermarket gives out in a month, and more keys than a janitor. I also had a jangly key chain that came with a pair of jeans clipped to the hood of her stroller as a sort of make-shift mobile, but it was recently loss in transit.
  • Water bottles: A friend of mine traveling through India has seen small Indian children spend hours on a train occupied with only a plastic water bottle with a bit of liquid in the bottom. Vera is not so minimalist, but something about the crinkling of the plastic, the weight of the bottle, and the slosh of the water is pretty mesmerizing.
  • Mints: I always have a tin or two of breath mints in my purse, and hold on to empty containers to use for storing foreign coins. Now I frequently give them to Vera to play with, using tape or a sticker to hold them shut; the size is perfect for her small hands (and mouth, she sucks on the container too) and the rattling sound is satisfying and less annoying than anything electronic. They can be wiped or rinsed off when they are invariably thrown on the floor, but if there are mints inside, they get gross and gummy when wet; fill with coins, dried rice or beans, or anything else rattle-y.
  • Bags of nuts: Airlines used to give out packages of peanuts along with beverage service, but since the rise of peanut allergies, you rarely see them (or any other free food on US flights) anymore. Turkish Airlines still hands out bags of hazelnuts, one of Turkey’s largest exports and dubbed the Miracle Nut. I discovered these are perfect for entertaining a baby: crinkly packaging, rattle-y, small enough to hold but too large to choke on, and the bag can be wiped clean. I’ll be stockpiling some on my next Turkish Airlines flight.
  • Paper: I’d like to take it as a sign that Vera will love to read as she so enjoys a magazine, but her joy is more in the destruction than the articles. In-flight magazines, boarding passes, beverage coasters, even stroller gate-check tags are fun to throw around, tear up, and try to eat. If your baby does rip up paper, don’t be a jerk: clean it up.
  • Cell phones and other devices: Toy makers have also cottoned on to the allure of electronics, making baby-friendly cell phones, remote controls, and computers. Discerning babies will prefer the real, expensive thing. My subway-riding baby rarely rides in cars, and the only way I could keep her from crying every time we drove around with my mother in Raleigh was to let her bathe in the light of my cell phone, occasionally showing her videos (I had a great one with traffic sounds from our Istanbul apartment, sadly gone along with my phone on our Athens trip) or any app with sounds and movement. The adorable flying chipmunk on the Hipmunk app is particularly entertaining. At home, I sometimes give V a TV remote without batteries, and the arm rest controls on a plane have good buttons to press, just make sure it’s your own she plays with and not another passenger’s volume button!
  • Seat belts: One of the first discrepancies I’ve noticed between American and European airlines (along with free booze, food, and idiotic security) is the child seat belt. Turkish and British Air insist on giving me a seatbelt extender for the baby on my lap, though it’s rather futile, and potentially dangerous according to the FAA. Whether she’s on my lap or in her own seat, after the seatbelt sign is off, the seat belt buckle can provided hours (okay, maybe just minutes) of fun! I’ll just have to use another distraction once she figures out how to open it while buckled in.
  • Jewelry: Babies are like magpies: they are drawn to anything shiny and sparkly. Also, any kind of pearls or beads are quite pleasing to hold, even before they are old enough for candy necklaces. One time at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, an old Muslim man let Vera play with his prayer beads, while I worried she’d do something offensive, she thankfully was as respectful as a baby can be. Be careful with anything on a string that can be bitten off, but should be okay for a few minutes if you watch closely. I recently saw some baby teething jewelry online and got all excited, but unfortunately, it looked like teething jewelry (here are some options if they happen to be your style).

Want some actual, non-dangerous travel toy ideas? Check out my Pinterest board on baby travel gear or my Gadling family travel gift guide.