Advanced Baby Travel: Flying with a toddler

Vera entertaining herself in Detroit’s airport.

After three long posts about flying with a baby, I thought I had pretty much exhausted all the advice I had. Then in August, just after Vera turned one year old, we flew to New Zealand via Seoul, then home to NYC, racking up more than 50 hours on a plane with a semi-mobile toddler in a few weeks. Last week, we took our first trip with a full-fledged toddler on a cross-country trip to Portland, and while I’ve spent plenty of time chasing her in supermarkets and quieting her protests of constraint in restaurants, she’s still a champion flier. As an addendum (but not a replacement for) to our previous advice and tips about flying with a baby, I give you the advanced level version. Godspeed; there are few things more challenging than flying with a toddler.

Play to your advantages – So your toddler wants nothing more than to crawl, cruise, or walk up and down the aisle? Unfortunately, that’s not terribly feasible or advisable on a plane or in an airport. What else are they into that would work better in a small and public space? Around twelve months, V got really into packing and unpacking things, particularly my wallet, and I discovered from other parents it is common at this age. Now we try to encourage these behaviors and she has spent many happy hours on a plane going though my cosmetic bag, pulling cards out of a wallet, and stashing things in the in-seat pocket. Just as other non-toys that can entertain like keys, this could be a good time to allow baby to do things you don’t normally allow at home, as it’s much easier to make sure your lipstick isn’t eaten like an ice cream or your Amex isn’t thrown out the window when you are in small space. Baby mesmerized by cartoons? Even if you don’t like to make it a habit at home, you might relax your rules if it can help ease a long flight for everyone.

Think small – To reiterate the previous point, toddlers like small things, and fortunately, there are a lot of them in travel. My vast collection of hotel toiletries and trial-size products have made it into her toy box, and more minis are constantly carried in my purse, diaper bag, and suitcase for on-the-go play. She has her own small card wallet containing all of our recent hotel key cards and business cards we pick up at shops and restaurants on our travels. All leftover airline amenity kit pouches have been filled with small odds and ends like a folding hairbrush, flashlight keychain, and other small things found at 99 cent stores or in the Target bargain bins. Filling a make-up bag with IKEA finger puppets is probably the best idea I’ve had since she was born (also, a good conversation topic; everyone has a different theory about this character in red, who is apparently a fire fighter), and they are always in my purse.

Start as you mean to go on – I read this British-ism in a baby book, referring to the idea that you should start setting a schedule and routine from day one, but unfortunately, I read it when Vera was already six months old. So while Vera might still go to sleep at “adult” hours and nurse on demand, I’ve used the concept for more minor events. Trying to put a freed toddler back in a stroller or carrier is like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube, so I try to never let her out near the gate. She might have a walk in an airport cafe or lounge, but once we are “traveling” to the gate and getting ready to board, she’s under my control in the wrap or stroller. She’s distracted enough by the walk to the gate to not protest being constrained, and if she doesn’t get the idea of running around the gate area and airplane, she doesn’t seem to miss it. Ditto for taking anything out that you might not want the baby to play with, such as a phone, until you really need it. Better to whip out the baby touch screen app as a last resort than to have to listen to hours of animal sounds *and* have no secret weapon in case of a fussy baby.

Do diaper changes standing up – For some reason, around twelve months, Vera began to *hate* having her diaper changed while lying down. She’d cry, squirm, and fight me at every turn, so I started doing it with her standing, often leaning against a (closed) toilet lid (it becomes more interesting when there is no lid). When we visited Seoul a few months ago, I was pleased to discover some awesome Huggies diapers that allow you to either use as a pull-on or regular-style diaper, and they now have them in America too. Why am I sharing this in a flying article? Because if you’ve had to change a squirmy child in a tiny airplane bathroom, you might find it valuable to know there are alternatives.

Go to the back of the plane – Before baby, we never checked bags, stuck to one airline (generally AA) to accrue frequent flier status, and tried to board as early as possible. After a JetBlue flight home from Portland this week, I was quite pleased to be in the back row. We were closest to the bathroom and the flight attendants (who kindly supplied me with free wine when the baby was asleep) in the back galley, there was no hurry to rush off the plane before I’d located all of our stuff, and our stroller was there at the gate when we deplaned. It’s helpful to check your carry-ons anyway with a baby (you don’t need any more to schlep), so you don’t need to worry about fighting for overhead bin space, and your luggage might be at baggage claim by the time you make it down there. Maybe there is something to the so-called “baby ghettos” after all, as long as your baby isn’t prone to mimicking less well-behaved children.

Have other tips about flying with a toddler? I’d love to hear them, and I’ll add more as I learn them.