Flying long haul with a restless baby or toddler doesn’t need to be stressful! Here are some useful products and tips to make the experience stress free and enjoyable for you and your toddler!
*Quick note: My toddler is slightly under two years ago at the time of posting this so my experience will be geared towards younger toddlers.
In this blog I am going to discuss:
- Why most airlines are not well catered to young children.
- Our experience flying with a baby BEFORE he outgrew his baby bassinet.
- 5 price point sleep aids for your toddler to have a lay flat sleep experience once your little one outgrows the bassinet
- Our experience at different ages trying out some of the different sleep options and our toddler’s experience on the flight. Each age group brought on its own challenges.
- 9 great tips for traveling smoothly with a toddler on a plane.
Most airlines are just not that kid-friendly.
It’s just a common fact for me that airplanes are just not that kid-friendly. Although those under 2 travel for free, they are expected to play and sleep awkwardly on top of you in your little chair and they don’t get any actual ‘food’ provided for them. At this age, babies are crawling or toddlers are walking, they don’t want to be confined to a chair for long periods of time and they want to be little explorers- so expect tears when they don’t understand that they can’t get what they want. It’s a matter of survival sometimes.
I just wish airplanes (especially long-haul flights) had:
- Toddler sized cribs/beds. All flights I have been on only cater Sleeping arrangements with bassinets to infant size. Ummm… Excuse Meeeeee…..What about the rest of us with older babies? Most of this post will be about what other sleep options there are for babies on toddlers on planes.
- An area to stretch their legs and play on a ‘clean’ floor with their toys. Trust me, babies and toddlers get sick of being held for hours on end. How about have two back rows of chairs that go completely flat to make a soft play space with a safety rail? Yes, please!
- Healthy toddler-friendly orientated meals. My toddler is on solids now, yet there is no option for food except puree pouches. I usually have to pack a load of snacks. I usually freeze some sandwiches the night before and by the time he eats them on the plane, they are fresh and nice still. Otherwise, ill buy something from the airport beforehand that doesn’t require heating or refrigeration.
Wishful thinking? I feel parents are expected to fend for themselves keeping their toddler happy in their chair at this age. Errrggghhhhh! Hopefully, airlines will try to become competitive some day by providing a complete family-friendly airline experience. But luckily there are some airlines starting to make changes and products are being invented out of the need for this horrible sleeping situation.
Our experience flying with a baby before he outgrew the baby bassinet.
I’m sitting under a palm tree by the pool in Hawaii right now on a babymoon typing this (ahhhhhh… the peace and serenity) and reflecting on the past (almost) two years of flying with my son and all the different sleeping situations we have tried on each flight (errrgghhhh, the serenity disappears and stress fills me up because it’s been an everchanging experience of trial and error). My son has racked up at least 120 hours on a plane and at each age, the experience was so different from each other. Here are some of the experiences we had flying with our little one- just focusing mainly on the long haul flights.
3 months old: When my son was 3 months old he slept amazingly in the bassinet provided and was happy sitting in our lap with something to suck on. It was pretty easy! We flew through the night so we all were well rested and our son was easy to look after on the plane. We even managed to watch a movie each between my husband and myself.
5 months old: My son outgrew the bassinet on a long haul flight and my little one got grumpy he could not stretch out his legs and had to bunch them up. Once he was asleep it was ok. At this age, my son was not sleeping on his tummy at this point so it’s not like he could bunch onto a little ball. Some other moms say their child is not phased and will just hang their legs over the edge. But my son is much like his father who likes to have things a particular way or not at all.
The other issue with sleeping with a bassinet was that I had to sleep with 1 eye open too as my son could sit up and I was worried he would climb and fall out when I was sleeping.
On a 6-hour domestic flight, no bassinets were provided and he screamed for a lay flat nap (because he was sick of being handled and was feeling hot from me), so I had to literally give up my seat and sit on the floor. It was horrible physically but beautiful to see him sleep.
Oh, I remember another economy flight we had my son was tired and fighting his nap. We tried all our usual tricks and nothing worked. Lucky for us, there was a mother of 5 behind us who offered a spare hand. She took him and bounced him a little firmer than what we usually do and hushed to him in her own way and within a few minutes, he was magically fast asleep in her arms. Omg, we were extremely grateful and he slept on our lap. Don’t let pride get in the way if another mother offers to help… take it! You might learn something.
It was after this flight that my husband and I were really worried about what to do about sleeping arrangements on our next long-haul flight for our baby who didn’t fit in a baby bassinet anymore and was starting to get a bit big for sleeping on our lap.
I was an exclusive pumper up till my son 8.5 months old and had to pump on the plane. Every single long-haul flight I took, I kept getting mastitis the day or two after I Ianded because of the cabin air pressure on my ducts causing the tissue to become inflamed. I will have a future post about it Mastitis because I learned some amazing tricks and how to prevent it, which actually worked!
How to sleep on a plane when your baby has outgrown the baby bassinet.
(I am going to only mention the top five ideas I found and talk about which ones I tried).
1. BUYING A LAY FLAT BUSINESS CLASS SEAT (HIGH PRICE OPTION)
If you can afford a business class seat with a lay flat bed, these are a really great option and my favorite. I usually do our usual bedtime routine of reading a book, putting him into bed (his lay flat bed) and give him his teddy and blankie and he will fall asleep. When he has gone into a deep sleep, ill come and slide in next to him and try to get some sleep too.
- Your toddler can physically have more room to sleep than any other option.
- If there is a spare seat next to you, it’s nice to slip into that chair when your toddler falls asleep. Just ensure that you get a clear view of your toddler from your chair as privacy barriers usually get in the way. I have flown quite a few business class flights with my toddler and sadly, this luxury of a spare seat next to mine has not occurred yet. Dam!
- On the Virgin Australia planes, they have a raisable cupboard (storing headphones and water) which you can use to help create a small barrier to stop your toddler from falling out of their bed.
- Cabin crew in business class are more friendly and accommodating usually.
- There is a bar area that is usually empty for your toddler to hang around in.
- There is more room around your seat to store your toddler’s toys.
- Cost of business class is really high.
Our experience flying with a 9-11 months old.
We paid extra for business class flatbeds for multiple 16-hour international (return) flights between Australia and Los Angeles and my boy would sleep on my chair with me curled up next to him. I had half my body awkwardly and uncomfortably hanging off the side of the chair otherwise we would not both fit. (I would also wake every time he rolled over-which was a lot).
This I feel was the hardest time to fly with our boy. He was more active and he found it very hard to understand that it was “sleep time” and that he had to fall asleep on a “chair”, instead of his usual crib. It was especially hard because he is not used to all the stimulation around him while falling asleep. He kept sitting up and wanting to look around. He cried a few times too so we had to take him away from other passengers to a quiet spot and cuddle him till he could not fight being tired anymore. He managed to stay up 4 hours past his bedtime usually each flight. At first, it was stressful but then we got into a groove and let him stay up late and then either have him fall asleep in our arms then place him on his chair, or put on a cartoon till he could not keep his eyes open any longer. He got better with it each flight. When I reflect back, I think it was not that bad, but my husband’s view was “I’m not flying again with kids, its hard!”.
It was around this age that he also wanted me to carry him around doing laps of the plane when he got restless being in the same spot when he was awake. He also enjoyed crawling around between the chairs and we also spent a lot of the time sitting on the floor in the business class bar. It was not ideal, but for my grumpy toddler who could not fall asleep or wanted to roam, but it gave other sleeping passengers some peace and quiet.
Business class is very expensive, so I had to start researching other alternatives on how to make flying in economy work.
2. CHOOSING AN AIRLINE THAT HAS ECONOMY CLASS LAY-FLAT BEDS (COST CAN RANGE DEPENDING ON THE AIRLINE)
Several airlines have introduced economy seats where three seats can be converted to flat beds. I believe you have to book the entire row (of 3 seats) for yourself. These convertible bed rows are found in the section in front of regular economy.
- It allows two people to lay together. Business class doesn’t even do this on most flights.
- It costs approximately half the fee of a business class flight. You pay for your standard seat and the third shared seat is half price.
- A mattress protector, pillows, and blankets are standard when you buy these seats. Air Astana also provides a mattress and amenity kit.
- China Airlines provide a toy for young travelers.
- They provide seatbelts so that you can fall asleep laying across your chairs while the seat belt sign is on.
- This may be uncomfortable for some passengers as the bed space is not very large. It is only 1.55m (5ft 1”) long and when the seat and leg rest are combined the approximate depth is 74cm (29”). So expect to bunch your legs up!
- Not many airlines have lay flat economy seating. So far you can find them only on some Air New Zealand (Skycouch) . China Airlines and Air Astana’s (Economy Sleeper). Let me know if you hear of any more.
We have never flown on flights that have these, but I would be extremely grateful to hear from anyone that has.
3. BED BOX By JetKids: $199 USD. (MEDIUM PRICE OPTION)
I first learned about Bed Box after seeing kids riding on them around the airport. BedBox is a “ride-on suitcase, with an integrated bed/leg-rest feature” for your chair so the child can lay flat on their chair with their legs on this sleep aid. It also comes with a mattress for comfort.
Here are my thoughts on it:
- It is a ride on suitcase, so if your toddler is comfortable riding on these, that is a plus.
- It comes with a mattress with side bumpers so your little one will be comfortable and won’t bump their head on those hard armrests while rolling around during their sleep.
- They have straps to tie to the bar under your chair so the BedBox won’t roll away from the chair. (Especially important if you are in the bulkhead because there is no chair in front to wedge it into place).
- Bed Box retail at $199, which is really expensive in comparison to any comparison product flight sleep aid on the market. (But a cheaper option to giving your child a business class lay flat sleep).
- Taking this on the flight would mean that you would be giving up taking your bigger sized suitcase hand luggage. Also, the mattress takes up valuable storage room, when you can simply use folded blankets provided by the airline.
- Bed Box doesn’t have the suitcase handrails like usual suitcases (to my knowledge), so you have to drag it everywhere with a strap, therefore you have less control of maneuvering it around.
I chose not to use this option and look for a more affordable solution.
4. INFLATABLE PILLOW: $21 (LOW PRICE OPTION)
***THIS IS MY FAVORITE OPTION***READ BELOW TO FIND MY HACK TO MAKE THIS FEEL MORE LUXURIOUS FOR YOUR TODDLER.
After much research online, I found a cheaper option. An inflatable pillow version. There are many brands but I got one by Gap Wap and it was rated 4.5 stars on Amazon. Here is my review of using this product:
- These things don’t take up much room in my suitcase.
- They are quick to blow up. I would say, 2 minutes tops. Deflating them are really quick too and can be done in about 40 seconds with a push-in valve.
- Mine stayed inflated the whole flight and I did not need to top up any air.
- The bulkhead is too big to hold these in place: If you’re in the bulkhead seat, the pillow will sit very loosely against your chair. Any kick or movement can easily cause a gap your toddler can fall down or the pillow can fall over. Solution: I tied a long ribbon around the pillow and secured it tight in place to the armrests. (You are not meant to secure things to the chair, in case there is an emergency but I was a bit sneaky and hid it all by blankets.
- Some chairs are wider than the pillow: When I was flying in a normal row (with a chair in front), I did notice that the pillow had a narrow width in comparison to the wider chair. It did not fill up the full width of my chair and my son noticed and pointed at the gap and cried. He did not feel comfortable sleeping there in case his legs fell off while turning in his sleep. Solution: I had to stuff spare blankets and pillows down the side of the window wall to make it feel wider as my son’s legs wanted to spread out. In the end, he slept on two chairs and the pillows acted as a barrier to stop him from rolling onto the floor.
(I would actually recommend buying two just in case you need to fill in the space).
Caution: Make sure that you test it out at home a few days before you fly as there is always that odd faulty one that leaks air.
Our experience flying with the travel pillow between the ages of 12-21 months:
It was around the age my son’s vocabulary really started building up (e.g. he could say new words immediately after I told him what something was) that I really noticed a big difference in our experience flying with our toddler. A month or two before our babymoon to Hawaii (that our son came along to), we had done a topic on planes and helicopters and his airport book was a big favorite of his. the whole experience of flying was very interesting for him. When it came to sleeping, we told him leading up to it that he would be sleeping in a chair on the plane instead of his bed and that it would be special.
On our flight, of course, he wanted to do a few laps to check out all the people and explore. He is very curious and social. My son was also interested in watching a cartoon for a long period of time and much happier to play in the chair when he was at a younger age group. When it came to nap time, the back row was empty so I set up the blow-up travel pillow and put spare suitcase beside it (to turn his single chair into a double lay flatbed (See more about this in the next section!). I lay down on the suitcase and blow up the pillow and my son took the row of three chairs. In the end, he wanted to sleep sitting up so when he adjusted his head, I quickly slipped a blanket under his head so he didn’t wake up with a sore neck. He fell asleep watching people line up for the toilet. I was so proud of him and we made a big deal about how awesome it was that he slept on a plane. It was ‘cool”!
UPDATE: Around the age of 2.5 years old I found the PERFECT solution to making a lay flat bed for my toddler and it cost me all of $35. Simply add an inflatable changing pad on top for extra comfort.
- Inflatable Footrest. $12
- VÄDRA Changing pad $17.99 from Ikea.
- VÄDRACover for changing pad $4.99 from Ikea.
4. USING YOUR SUITCASE AS A FOOTREST: (FREE OPTION!!!!!)
Like my son as a baby, I also struggle to sleep sitting up. On my last flight between Australia and America when my son was between 11-13 months old, I was in the bulkhead (and there was quite a fair bit of room between the bulkhead wall and my seat) so I recreated the previous travel bed ideas with my suitcase for me to sleep on. (Lucky I am flexible in the legs). Note: The suitcase was about two inches shorter in height than the chair, so I used spare pillows on the flight to make it more even with the chair and also create a soft mattress. It was actually comfortable for me, so I’m sure it would be comfortable for a toddler and you could save money by forking out money for travel beds!
*** When my son was 21 months, I recreated this idea in a regular row by placing 3 hand luggage suitcases on their sides on the floor and lay a few blankets over the top of them. My son lay across the chair, and I lay down on the suitcases (because I wanted him to sleep more than I did)
5. TRAVEL SNUG (or simply, BUY A CHEAP PET CUSHION)
TravelSnug (£54.99) is basically a very soft and fleecy carry on cushion that your child sits in. It has cushioned sides almost all the way around for them to rest their heads on. Plus it has been designed so that it is easy to still put their lap belt safely around them. The TravelSnug basically helps shrink the seat down to their size as it envelopes them in their own comfy environment.
If you like this concept, but the TravelSnug sounds too expensive, bring a cheap Pet cushion bed (don’t bring your pet’s dirty one)
as they have a heavily padded border, which acts as extra cushioning, allowing kids to lean or lie against hard armrests or buckles comfortably. This was actually tried and tested by a number of Australian parents traveling on airlines where inflatable beds are not permitted. Desperate for an alternative, one savvy mum came up with this genius travel hack in an effort to help her kids get comfortable.
When you plan to fly with any sleep aids, seating selection is very important. You MUST:
- Remember that BedBox and the travel pillows are great for “little” toddlers, but by around 15 months old your child’s feet will start to hang off the edge of the travel beds or hit the chair in front of you. If you’re in the bulkhead, you can fix this by putting a suitcase sideways at the end of the sleep aid for their feet. If you are in a regular row, you may want to have look at having them laying across the chairs or just squishing up their legs.
- Make sure that any travel beds are approved with your airline online beforehand. (They are currently approved by Virgin Australia.)
- Make sure that travel beds are used in a window seat. The flight attendants did not allow some other parents on my flight to use theirs in the 5 seat middle row bulkhead seats because they must not block any other passengers to get out of their seats, even if it is just your husband. When it was just me and my baby in a row to ourselves, the flight attendants never said anything about using the window and middle seat with travel mattresses.
- If your child is sitting on your lap and you are traveling with another adult, try to book the window and aisle seat in the same row. Middle seats are the last to fill up and if someone does book the seat between you, it is likely they will be very willing to switch seats! If you’re lucky, the seat will stay empty and you will have plenty of space for the three of you. It doesn’t always work and the seat gets taken. I was flying on my own recently in premium economy (which was completely full) so before the boarded the flight I actually downgraded my 1 premium seat for 2 economy seats (a free empty seat next to me) so that my son could sleep in his own chair. Although I downgraded (and would not get a refund of the difference) I was still winning because I technically got way more room having two bulkhead seats instead of one seat. Oh, and no one sat in the aisle seat, so bonus I got the whole row to myself. I was celebrating all the way in the air until I realized that bulkhead armchairs don’t raise- Therefore, I was going to have to sleep sitting up. That is actually when I got the creative idea for myself mentioned above to use my suitcase to sleep on. My top half went on the chair and my torso and upper legs went on my suitcase, with my legs folded up.
BONUS TRAVEL TIPS:
As a bonus, I have included some useful flight travel tips to make your experience smoother.
1. Choose your flight times carefully.
Work in flight departures and arrivals to work in with your child’s nap times. The last thing you want is to be going through security or customs with an overtired toddler.
- Early morning flights: These are great if you don’t want a tired fussy toddler during the security screening process and waiting to get on the plane. Your toddler can settle in and your toddler can sleep at his usual nap time on the plane. Just make sure your landing time is not in the middle of your toddler’s nap time. Remember that your child will have to be back on your lap with a toddler seat belt on the descent.
- Afternoon flights: These can be tricky as you will need to keep your toddler awake later in hope that they can have their afternoon nap as soon as you take off.
- Evening flights: These are my most preferred as once he has a big belly full of milk, he will pass out for the night and we can maximize him being asleep the longest- meaning less entertaining him. We now try to fly at 8.30pm when possible, half an hour after my son’s usual nap time which was perfect.
2. Some rules don’t apply for toddlers:
- Escape long security lines by joining the parents and disabled line. They are for YOU!
- Put all the items through security first before packing up your stroller or carrier and heading through with your toddler. Once through, do this in reverse- set up the stroller or carrier so you have spare hands to pack all your items back up. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to put your stroller together if your hands are full with your baby or toddler. I have helped other mothers who look overwhelmed and encourage you to do this too!
- Food pouches and liquids such as juice, water, breast milk in a sippy, straw cup or bottle are allowed even if greater than 3.4 ounces. Amazing huh?! I guess they know that there is not a lot of options for babies and toddlers on planes, so they allow it in their protocol. To make life easier, put these in a separate ziplock bag ready to pull out of their diaper bag (and separate to your personal items) as these items will need to be screened by x-ray as well as other additional screening tests such as a vapor test. To read more about screening procedures for these liquids, go here: TSA – Parent’s Page.
- Put anything that needs to be pulled out for security screening ready at the top of your bag.
3. Boarding the plane early vs later:
If your traveling on your own, you need to weight up if you want to board the flight early to get set up (and risk your child getting restless quicker being restricted to a small space) or going in later (and risk all the overhead space is taken by other passengers and you will need to put your luggage further away from your chair). Don’t be afraid to ask a flight attendant for help.
If you a traveling with a partner, a great solution is to have one go ahead and gate check the stroller and then set things up inside the plane while the parent with the toddler can let them burn off any last minute energy in the terminal.
4. Getting set up on the plane:
Having all your belongings organized is critical, especially if you have a sleeping child on top of you and you need something.
- I bring out blankets, a bottle of milk or a guaranteed favorite food item (like raisins) for takeoff. (Either bring your own individual serving long life milk or get some milk from the cafe before you board your flight). If its close to nap time, I get out a few small favorite toys (and the inflatable sleep pillow and blankets if it’s close to nap time).
- I tuck an (airline) blanket into the window chair like a sheet in preparation for my son to sleep his head on when it is nap time. You should not set up any sleep aids until the seatbelt sign is off.
- In my hand luggage suitcase, I have everything set up for easy access…
- diapers and some baby wipes inside a diaper plastic bag for quick change emergencies. Therefore I won’t need to take the whole big diaper bag each time. To save room I don’t take a change-pad. I just bring a small blanket or a spare diaper and tuck it under his head for softness.
- a bottle filled with 8oz water and a measured out amount of formula in a tube in case my son needs milk and a flight attendant is not quickly available.
- toys and books all in a drawstring bag or easily sealable bag.
- food/snacks that don’t need refrigerating. Sandwiches for a meal (cut up), cheerios in a spill-proof snack container, snack bars, grapes etc, in zip lock bags.
5. Keeping your toddler comfortably strapped in:
After I am set up, I strap my son in his infant seat belt on my lap. When my son turns two and has his own chair I am going to buy a toddler CARES Safety harness so he is comfortable and secure in his own chair during take-off and landing. You can use these when they are between 22 and 44 lbs.
To ensure he is comfortable and to encourage him to sleep during take off, I try laying him as flat as I can while on my lap by using lots of blankets:
- on top of my seat buckle so it would not dig into his back while laying down
- under my arm so I could comfortably support his head and my arm on the armrest.
- one for him to snuggle up with and keep him warm.
6. Give milk or snacks to relieve ear pressure:
I always give him milk or snacks like raisins (because he loves devouring them) to help relieve ear pain caused by the change in pressure during takeoff and landing combined with having small ear canals. It breaks my heart when I hear babies and toddlers screaming in pain at takeoff or decent because mothers don’t know that sucking and swallowing help clear the ears. If my son gets too tired and fussy, I will just give him milk as soon as I get on the plane as he won’t feel the pain being fast asleep.
7. Setting up travel pillows after takeoff with a sleeping boy:
After my son has passed out asleep in my lap, I grab my travel pillow (that I had next to my lap) and blow it up in preparation for the seat belt sight to turn off. When it was time, I had a flight attendant put the sky pillow at the foot of his chair while hanging the excess blanket over the end of the pillow so I can put him to sleep there. Lastly, I tucked a blanket onto our (and snuck it into the row in front of me) headrests to create a little dark cave so he was not interrupted by people walking around in the cabin. (There is a picture of it earlier up in my post).
8. Sleep trouble-shooting:
Getting your toddler to sleep (or stay asleep) can tricky on a plane because of all the over-stimulation, excitement, movement, and the bright cabin. If your child is a light sleeper, begins crying from over exhaustion and won’t lay down sleep I usually strap my boy in my ergo carrier (he still fits in this at 22 months old) with his favorite soft blanket against his cheek and find a quiet area of the plane and give him a boring view while I rock back and fourth hushing some favorite lullabies or a soothing “shhhhh shhhhh” pattern until he falls asleep. Then I lay him down in his seat.
If I am exhausted, the flight attendants are usually happy to cuddle and do laps with your toddler for 10 minutes or so. Find one that your little one likes otherwise they will just scream for you because they don’t like being held by a stranger.
As a baby, our formula was that I cuddle him and wear him down till he gets tired. I then usually tag with my husband and he cuddles up with him while they watch a toddler-friendly movie till he can’t open his eyes any longer. On our last flight “Bolt” really done the trick!
I think its a very bad idea to give medicines that can cause toddlers to be drowsy on planes. I have heard some bad stories of how it has worked in reverse and made them hyperactive or even cause their child to be ill. Just don’t do it!
9. Activities to do on the plane.
Make Cereal necklaces from Cheerios or Frootloops. Give your toddler a bag of cereal with a string with a toddler threader on it. You can make a simple one by tying one frootloop on one end as a not and wrap some sticky tape around the other end to make a threader. Threading them alone should buy your toddler 20 minutes of entertainment.
GREAT TIP: Seating in the bulkhead means that you can use the swivel TV stands that come out of the side of your chair. For small toddlers, this may be a god-sent if you are not using an iPad because they might not be able to clearly see the screen as it gives off a black hue when not seen directly in front. Most toddlers may be too short to see the screens properly.
Meet the pilot and play in the cockpit.
Most flights that we have been on (both International and domestic in various countries) have allowed my son to meet the pilots and sit in the cockpit in the pilots chair. It’s crazy but they allow him to push any button he wants and teach him a few things. He has been allowed in there since he was a little baby and strangely has never been nocked back if the pilots are not busy. It’s usually best to ask after the flight when you see them standing at their door saying goodbye to passengers. The first time it happened, we were just waving goodbye and they invited us in. I guess it’s a great idea because it gets the next generation of kids interested in flying, similar to how Fire Stations, police officers and sanitation all welcome kids and are happy to show them a thing or two. My son went to town pushing lots of things before a flight to New York once and I remember thinking to myself, “I hope we make it there in one piece now”, but we did. Phew!
If you have any travel tips for babies, toddlers or children I would love to hear from you. Please reply in the comment box below.
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