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Tips to survive flying with a toddler

Photo: @hennablossom via Instagram

You’ve mastered flying with a baby. But air travel with a one- or two-year-old—sorry to say—is actually much harder: Squirmy toddlers take up more lap space, and you can’t always lull them off to dreamland with a boob or bottle.

Sarah Price knows first-hand that flights with an energetic toddler can be trying. The mom of two lives in Iqaluit, a community that can only be reached by plane. “If we want to go anywhere, even just Walmart, it starts with a three-hour flight,” she says. Her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter screams, kicks and wiggles, even though she’s a frequent flyer. Like many parents, Price’s go-to is the family iPad. “It’s the one thing I can’t live without when flying,” she says. Here are a few more travel strategies for your next trip.

Before you go
Former flight attendant Francine Jackson* encountered her fair share of toddlers after seven years on the job. One of her pro tips: If it’s a longer flight, avoid overlapping the flight with your tot’s naptime, and try to book an overnighter or post-bedtime flight instead. “I know that sounds terrifying,” says the Toronto mom of two. “They may fuss a little more than usual at first, but eventually they’ll be so tired they’ll fall asleep.” Corinne McDermott, founder of the website Have Baby Will Travel and also a mom of two, recommends selecting the seats closest to the washroom (and change table). Pack an extra T-shirt and hand wipes for yourself in case of a mishap. You can bring milk, formula or juice through security if your tot is under the age of two, but the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority suggests using a bag of frozen veggies to keep liquids cool (instead of ice or gel packs, which face restrictions). You can also refill a sippy cup with water after you’re through security. Consider boarding the plane last instead of first to shorten the amount of time you’re stuck in the seats with an antsy kid, and let your child stretch her legs at the gate before boarding.

On the plane
Keep your toddler busy by thinking of your flight in increments. Every half-hour, introduce a new activity, Jackson suggests. (This can include snacks.) “It breaks up the flight, and it feels like time is going faster,” she says. If your child has the attention span, a tablet or DVD player (with kid-appropriate headphones) can be a lifesaver. McDermott is a believer in relaxing your usual screen-time rules. “The kids will see it as a treat,” she says. However, it’s best to pull out the tech last, once you’ve exhausted other “old-school” options, like books, colouring activities and sticker pads. Inexpensive dollar-store finds make great distractions (it’s not a big deal if they get lost or broken). Put each activity into a zip-lock bag to keep things organized, or attach toys to a set of stroller links so you’re not constantly fishing under the seats. For an extra element of fun, Jackson suggests gift-wrapping each new toy. Avoid round objects that roll off the tray table (choose triangular crayons instead of regular ones).

The best time to go for a walk is after the flight attendants have finished their rounds with the service cart, says McDermott. Make funny faces in the bathroom mirror or let your little one totter down the aisles. This burns off energy, and befriending fellow passengers could build goodwill in case of a tantrum later.

McDermott tells parents to “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” If an epic meltdown does happen, keep your cool and try to breathe. “Throw people an apologetic smile before returning your attention to your kid,” she says. “That may placate the bigger grumps.” 

*Name has been changed

Expert tip
Kids under two are allowed to sit on a parent’s lap for a small fee (usually just the airfare taxes), but Transport Canada experts actually recommend using a car seat for infants and toddlers. This requires buying an additional plane ticket (yikes), but there are a few advantages: it’s safer, your kid is contained, and your hands are left free. Check with your airline for policies (and bring the installation manual just in case).

Read more:
Flying with kids: How to have a stress-free flight>
10 ways to keep your toddler busy>
10 tips for taking your kids on an airplane>

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I am a father of three and my wife is a registered nurse specialized in children.

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