Fuss Free First Flight!

This blog can be relevant for any age, but I’ve chosen the toddler group because I think the ages from about 16 months to about 2.5 years can be the most challenging age group to fly with. At this age, your little one has just enough language and mobility to be dangerous but can’t yet perfectly follow a rule or understand exactly what flying is! But, as with every topic on behavior-mom.com, flying with a toddler doesn’t have to be that challenging, and armed with a little science, you can take even the toughest of ages and fly with them fuss free. In this blog, I’ll give tips and tricks for traveling with a toddler.

  1. Choose flight times wisely. Your toddler likely sticks to some kind of schedule, so you want to be thoughtful about when you choose to fly. This might seem obvious, but I’ve worked with several families who book flights during less-than-ideal times, only to realize afterward, at least some of the fuss could have been avoided by planning differently. The good news is that universal rules don’t apply – what works for your tot, may not work for another. But there are two things you want to be considerate of: feeding, and sleep. Because let’s face it, nobody, and especially not a toddler wants to travel hungry or tired. Even the best behavior management falls short in the face of a hungry belly and tired tiny human!
    1. To avoid the hunger issue, eat as close to your regular time as you can before leaving for the airport. Then, pack LOTS of snacks. Snacks you know your toddler will eat, things that can be easily taken on an airplane and don’t require refrigeration. For the most part, eating before you leave and packing snacks should take care of the hunger issue. If you’re traveling cross country and taking multiple flights, schedule enough time on your layover to get another meal should you need it.
    1. Now – on to sleep. I happen to have a toddler who has difficulty sleeping in places that aren’t his crib, with his stuffed animals, his blanket, his white noise, etc. etc. We’ve established a lot of stimulus control over his sleep behavior, which is great when we want him to go to sleep at home (he falls asleep almost instantly), but not so great when we travel and need him to sleep somewhere else. So, for me, avoiding booking travel during his nap time was a good strategy. My son is an early riser (think 4:30/5am most days), so the earliest flight for us, the better – we can get to our destination and almost always get him down for his afternoon nap. But for some toddlers – those who can easily sleep anywhere, who may have difficulty staying seated, etc. booking a flight over their nap is the best strategy.

So, think about your kids’ schedule, how they sleep best, when they need to eat – shop around a bit on airlines and find the BEST possible arrangement for you.  

  • Pack stuff. Yes, Amber – we’ve got this – we’re going on a trip, of course we’ll “pack stuff.” Here, I mean to pack things that are likely to keep your child engaged and busy both in the airport and on the flight. This is easier said than done because there are space limitations. If we all could pack a sophisticated Thomas the Train set or huge building blocks, we’d be fine, but those things just won’t fit in a backpack even if they would keep your kid occupied the whole flight. So – what to pack!
    • First, find things your child will willingly play with around the house that are easy to pack. If you’re not sure, give some exposure to those toys and see if they engage and for how long. I sometimes make the mistake of thinking my son will like something when in realty he has no interest in it. So, test it out a few days before. Then, once you find those things – keep them hidden for several days before your flight. This will capitalize on motivation – if they haven’t played with that toy in several days, when seeing it on the flight, they will likely be more excited to play with it!
    • Also, don’t over think things. My kid was fascinated with buttons (large ones he couldn’t choke on), so on one flight we took a big pack of buttons and he played with them, put them in and out of cups for a good period of time on a flight!
    • Finally, don’t be afraid of screen time – it’s okay! If they are interested, they’re interested – think of it as a special treat for flying that may be in excess of what you’d typically allow but won’t become the rule.
  • Make the airport your playground. If you have a long layover or need to be in the airport for a longer period, try and fun with it. To a toddler, airports are fascinating places! Escalators are endless fun, watching out the window as all the vehicles pass can be captivating and walking side walks are the best! Try and get your kiddo running and playing around while you wait for the plane to board (you’ll both be sitting for awhile, after all, so some extra movement will lead to extra happiness for you both!)
  • Keep busy on the flight. Once you’ve boarded, keep your little one busy with the things you’ve gathered. Pay attention to boredom and the likelihood of frustration and provide positive reinforcement for engaging in the various activities. Once it’s safe to do so, if your little one wants to look around or walk the aisles- go for it! Airlines are typically extremely accommodating to young children and most people really do enjoy seeing a cute human pass by (they’re probably just as bored as he is!)
  • Reinforce all the good stuff you want to see. It’s easy to ignore your child when they are doing well and only pay attention when they get fussy. Try the opposite – praise your child when they are engaged with an activity, staying calm and quiet or positively interacting with others. This will keep them understanding that you are paying attention and attention will come when they are engaged and happy, so the fuss doesn’t serve any function.

So pack your bags and get ready to go! Have fun and give yourself a little grace!

Happy flying!

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