Flying with the under-5 set: How to travel with young ones

Toddlers are complicated little beings who thrive on structure and routine. So it’s no wonder that taking them on the road can put them into a bit of an emotional and behavioural tailspin.

There are several considerations to keep in mind long before even arriving at the airport

The author's daughters at Itasca State Park, Minnesota.

With three hours to go on a six-hour flight from Punta Cana, Dominican Republic to Winnipeg, Canada, my then 2.5-year-old was losing it. 

She was a couple of hours past her bedtime and had missed her afternoon nap that day. She was cycling through an emotional roller coaster ranging from whining and screaming to full out crying. Her attention span was about four minutes long, and in between nursing my then four-month-old baby, and trying to entertain and calm the toddler, it was quite a scene.

This story may sound vaguely familiar to many travel-loving parents. Toddlers are complicated little beings who thrive on structure and routine. So it’s no wonder that taking them on the road can put them into a bit of an emotional and behavioural tailspin.

But my own life has been so enriched by travel, and I am certain that my love of travel was instilled by my parents at a very young age.

We lived in Prague for the first four years of my life, and getaways to Hungary, Romania and around then Czechoslovakia were the norm. When we immigrated to North America, travel continued to be an integral part of our lives.

Baby Sadie enjoying a view of “The Hill” in Ottawa, Ontario.

And so for our young family, the “getting there” is a necessary evil — which often includes flying — in aiming to expose our own girls to travel. 

The good news is that there are quite a number of things you can do to make the experience easier and more enjoyable for your toddler (and for yourself!).

In fact, there are several considerations to keep in mind long before arriving at the airport. 

For instance, if possible book flights at times when you know your kids will be well-rested. That means avoiding red eye flights and late night arrivals. 

And if you have flexibility, travel mid-week since loads on most airlines are lighter on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, meaning airline staff may be more attentive to your family’s needs; check-in and security line-ups will be shorter; and you may even luck out with empty seats beside you on the plane.

Once you arrive at the airport, take advantage of any and all opportunities to let your child run off steam. Many airports have play structures, observation decks and other kid-friendly activities. The point is to get them to burn as much energy as possible before stepping foot on the plane. 

And while you’re at it, consider holding off until the last possible moment to board. Many parents jump at the chance to board early, but getting to your seat early and waiting for the plane to load can easily add a half hour or more to the amount of time you will be on board. If you are travelling with another adult, have them board early and get your seats set up by pulling out drinks, snacks and activities.

Once you’re on the plane, there are countless ways to help manage the captive time with your young child. 

The key is to keep them really busy, says my friend Tara, a Winnipeg mom who has visited Grandma in Florida several times while her son was a baby. 

Take full advantage of the seat-back personal entertainment units, which provide great entertainment for young kids.  But be aware that the ear phones that many airlines provide may not fit your child’s ears properly.  On our recent trip, I picked up a pair of child-size ear phones at a local electronics store so that I knew they would be comfortable for my daughter.

Today’s portable electronics — such as DVD players, smart phones, iPads, and laptops — allow you to personalize entertainment options for your child. 

On a recent trip to Orlando, Jennifer of Oakville, Ontario knew that her 18-month-old’s attention span would be limited. 

“Before the trip, I spent some time downloading various apps on her Dad’s iPhone, which my daughter loved,” she explains.

Many parents have found that bringing new toys and activities is great way to keep their child entertained. Collect the little toys that your child gets at birthday parties or at restaurants to create a loot bag.  Or simply purchase new items that you know your child likes, such as stickers, colouring books, games, or puzzles. 

At key times when your child’s attention starts to wane, have them pick a new treat.  The excitement of getting a surprise, plus the novelty of a new toy is a great way to focus little people’s attention.

Finally, bring along plenty of snacks (we all know that the only thing worse than a tired and bored toddler, is one who is tired, bored, hungry and thirsty). Bring along things that are easily consumed on the plane; so no crumbly muffins or squeezable yogurts.

Opt for things such as granola bars, dried fruit, cereal or cheese sticks. And try to keep snacks nutritious since they may have to stand-in for meals in cases of delays or cancellations. Although you can’t bring beverages through security — except for milk or juice for children under two — flight attendants are more than willing to fill sippy cups with milk or water soon after boarding.

Young kids are super excited to go on airplanes and it can be great fun to fly with your toddler. But, as with so many things concerning young kids, it takes planning to keep your toddler happy, comfortable and entertained.  Thankfully, some parental foresight can help ensure happy flying with your little jet setters.

Bon voyage!


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