What Parents Need to Know Before They Fly With a Small Child

By the time my son celebrated his first birthday, he had been on half a dozen cross-country trips. This wasn't because we live a life of travel and leisure or because we're masochists (although I understand how you would think that), but because my husband and I live in San Francisco and our families (as well as many of our close friends) live on the East Coast, primarily in Boston. A fun flying fact that I always trot out when sharing our well-worn itinerary: the nearly-six-hour flight from Boston's Logan Airport to San Francisco International is a mere 20 miles shy of being the longest domestic flight you can take. In fact, you can get to some places in Europe from Boston in less time.

Despite the perils of air travel with a little one, we want our son to know our loved ones, so we travel back east a lot. While I wouldn't call the overall experience of traveling with a baby relaxing, I can honestly say that most trips have been good. Some have even been surprisingly pleasant, but at least one has been downright nightmarish.

Now, after more than two years of frequent flying with a kiddo in tow, I've come to realize one big thing: every age we've flown with him has been a different experience than the time before, even if he was only a few months older. How do we navigate constantly changing waters? From infant through toddler, I'm laying out my tips for surviving an airborne adventure ahead.

Tiny Baby
Unsplash | Minnie Zhou

Tiny Baby

With its soothing white noise and lulling vibrations, flying is like being back in the womb — your newborn's not-so-distant past home. On my son's first flight, shortly before his 3-month birthday, he basically just slept. My biggest advice is just to remember to feed your little one at takeoff and landing to open up his or her ears, and you should be golden.

A lot of people are nervous about flying at this time, opting to postpone until their baby is older. In my opinion, this is a rookie mistake. When your baby is tiny, they sleep most of the flight, fit comfortably on your lap, and don't require their own expensive seat. In short, when your child is a small baby, travel as much as you can.

Pro Tip: You're going to have a lot of equipment, so give yourself extra time to get through the airport and get TSA PreCheck. All the baby gear is particularly cumbersome when going through security, but with TSA PreCheck, you streamline the entire security process and eliminate a major air travel stressor.

Curious Crawler
Unsplash | Alexander Dummer

Curious Crawler

Babies at this age require more movement and entertainment, so traveling isn't the breeze it was before, but, barring any ear trouble, it's still pretty simple. Your little one won't sleep the whole time, so come prepared with books and toys and expect to take a few trips down the aisle so your baby can move around.

During the period of time when my son was around 7 to 12 months, we would suck up the expense on long flights and buy him his own seat. That way, we could bring his car seat on board and strap him in. And there's something about being strapped into a car seat that just seems to make babies more content to sit still, as opposed to plopping them on an empty seat, which welcomes the wiggles.

Pro Tip: If you have a good sleeper, travel when your baby normally sleeps. Since our son was a solid-12-hour-a-night sleeper, we flew a lot of red eyes during this time. He would be slightly annoyed at being woken up for security, but once we got on the flight, he would pass out until landing. We were a little bleary-eyed the next day, but it was cheaper than a daytime flight and easier.

Mobile Toddler
Unsplash | Jordan Whitt

Mobile Toddler

Prepare for a busy flight. I'm not going to sugar coat it for you: the period of early toddlerhood, from around 12 to 15 months, was hard for our family. My son was too old to want to sit still and sleep during flights (red eyes were out now), but too young to be enticed by the iPad for any length of time. I would prepare with lots of small activities, from books to toy airplanes to stickers and crayons, that captured his attention for short increments. Then, I'd pray he took at least one nap.

This period of dexterous mobility, from around 15 to 24 months, was an improvement from my son's earlier toddler days for one reason: he was suddenly interested in the iPad, and it was a game changer. We would load it with a variety of videos and age-appropriate games that could capture his attention for chunks at a time. But he wasn't yet mature enough to be enraptured by the iPad for the entire flight, so I would also bring along the aforementioned activities. The periods of iPad use took the pressure to entertain him off of me and made the flight go by faster.

Pro Tip: Trade off toddler duty with your partner. If my husband was with me, we would each do a 45-minute shift of being responsible for our little guy while the other relaxed, switching back and forth until landing. This way we each got a little time off to read or watch DirectTV and could come back to our next shift feeling refreshed.

Tantrum Thrower
Unsplash | Arwan Sutanto

Tantrum Thrower

The terrible twos descended on my son seemingly the day of his second birthday and hit hard for about two months; unfortunately, we had a couple very long flights over this period. During the first flight, he refused to sit down, screamed loudly, kicked seats, threw toys, never slept, and managed to irritate pretty much everyone on board, including his mother. Somewhere between the Pacific and the Atlantic, I sobbed silently into my tray table beneath the glares of fellow passengers. I tell you this not to scare you but to say that sometimes toddlers are awful and it stinks, but you'll survive and the other passengers will deal.

As a result of this airborne disaster, we restrategized our air travel plan for our big toddler completely.

We started by encouraging him to go wild (ahem, burn as much energy as possible) in the airport before boarding. Instead of pushing him through the airport in his stroller, we let him run beside us. If he found a small platform in the terminal he wanted to jump off of, we would hunker down beside it and let him climb up and jump down repeatedly for 45 minutes before heading to our actual gate. We were thrilled to see him getting out so much energy.

We also stopped rushing to board the plane. While families with young children are often given priority boarding, we decided to pass on this perk. Sure, it's nice to gate-check our stroller without a long line behind us, but boarding early only meant there was more time my son was restricted to his seat. Instead, we hung out and played by the gate, only boarding at the last minute.

Pro Tip: Consider packing Plan B: Benadryl. Yup, this is a controversial one and everyone will have to figure out what makes sense for their individual family. I did some research into the safety of children's Benadryl, and, for us, a small dose on an especially long or arduous flights was 100 percent the right decision. In fact, it was downright miraculous.