Flying with young kids

I realized recently that after flying several international and domestic flights with my family, I have considerable experience in flying with kids. By the time my children were 10 years old, I’d logged well over 100 hours in the air with them!

We have received so many sweet comments from flight attendants and fellow travelers about my kids’ good behavior on board. Although my children deserve credit for their own good behavior, I’m just going to take a moment here to pat myself on the back for having a hand in it. After all, I do think my husband and I prepared them well. We’ve got to take a bit of credit sometimes, right parents?!

Basic premise

Before I get into my tips for traveling with kids, I want to share the premise upon which most of my suggestions are based, and that is simply to help your children understand what to expect. The unknown is scary and can be overwhelming – for any of us! But if kids are equipped with a basic understanding of what will or may happen on a flight or at the airport, it’s easier for them to go with the flow.

Now, I know what you might be thinking: my kid isn’t even two years old! How am I going to get through to him or her? That’s where my tips come into play. Below, the ideas I’ve shared are all things I did with my first child before she was even a year and a half. (We adopted our second child at 27 months old, and I went over the same things with him then.)  I firmly believe that our kids can understand a lot more than we sometimes give them credit for. We just need to find engaging ways to communicate with them at their level.

Tip #1: Play “airplane” well before you fly

One of the best things we did with our kids was to play “airplane” – and we played it often! In fact, we even had a name for our airline: “Claire-Bear Air” (since we only had Claire at the time we started the game).

We would arrange chairs and stools two by two, a few rows deep, with an “aisle” between the sets of chairs. I’d start by explaining how an airplane is set up (rows of seats, with bathrooms at the front or the back, etc.), and that we are expected to remain seated and buckled in for safety throughout the entire flight, just like we do in the car. A flight attendant would come around, help ensure everyone is buckled in safely, and serve drinks and sometimes food.

Of course, I would then have to act the part of the flight attendant while my children pretended to be civilized passengers on board. Ordering their own drinks was something they particularly enjoyed.

We all know kids learn from repetition, but I didn’t want to repeat myself constantly with rules about what they couldn’t or shouldn’t do on the airplane. So instead, I’d get them to tell me the rules in a silly quiz-like session. For example, I’d ask things like:

  • Are we allowed to hang out in the aisle?
  • Should we take off our seat belts?
  • Are we allowed to stand on our seats?
  • Should we kick the seats in front of us?

My kids loved answering back with firm “nos” to all the questions I posed. They would then proudly proceed to tell me why these things aren’t permitted. If they wanted, they could turn the tables on me and ask their own questions about airplane dos and don’ts.

Tip #2: Invest in an approved child-restraint system

As soon as our children were old enough, we purchased the Cares Harness Child Aviation Restraintfor each of them. Approved the Federal Aviation Association, this child restraint harness supplements the airplane seat belt, and provides for a much more secure ride, especially in the case of turbulence.  In addition to the all-important safety aspect, we also appreciated the harness for the fact that it kept our kids “contained”; my husband is certain that the harness helped impart to the children that they were to remain buckled and seated, just as they are in a car seat.

The harness is quite compact and very easy to install. We never had any issues with flight attendants questioning our use of it, although it was sometimes new to them at the time.  I can’t recommend this harness enough. Just don’t forget it on board when you deplane!

Tip #3: Explain about lineups and going through security

If your kids are anything like mine, they don’t like waiting in lines. To help prepare them for going through security and customs / immigration, I explained in advance that there may be long lineups where we have to wait our turn.

Explaining is one thing – again, just helping to set expectations – but the real challenge comes during the lineup itself. Be prepared to chat with your kiddos about everything and anything while waiting in line … their favourite TV show or characters, their favourite stuffies, what they want for Christmas, etc. Just keep them engaged to keep them from getting bored. Remember, kids love our attention, and this is a chance to dote on them while also distracting them from an otherwise boring lineup.

The other aspect of security that can be daunting for little ones is when everyone needs to walk through the scanner separately. My daughter in particular was nervous whenever she had to be separated from me in public even for a moment. Again, just talking this through in advance and then again in the lineup helped alleviate her concerns.

Tip #4:  Have your carry-on well-stocked and with like items in ziplock bags

This is kind of a no-brainer, but be sure to pack:

  • a variety of snacks (within aviation regulations, of course);
  • a compact change of clothes for the kids in case of vomiting or a diaper blowout;
  • any required children’s medications,
  • formula, diapers, wipes, etc., and
  • lots of things to keep little hands and minds busy.

The last point, in particular, is vital. Don’t rely on in-flight entertainment to keep your kiddos busy; it’s not uncommon for the entire in-flight system to be down, or for a particular headrest screen to be nonfunctional. Pack an assortment of new-to-the-child activities that will help keep their interest: stickers, small puzzles, finger puppets, mazes, colouring books, washable markers, etc.

Package like items with like in ziplock bags for easy removal when you go through security, and for easy access on the plane.

Your carry-on bags will be F-U-L-L. In the early days of traveling with our kids, our carry-ons were almost exclusively filled with stuff for the kids. I probably had a magazine or a book in there for myself somewhere, but between their diapers, wipes, formula, snacks, and activiites, there wasn’t a lot of room left for my stuff. But nevermind, I didn’t need things to keep me busy because … see Tip #5.

Tip #5: Anticipate that you’ll be very busy

Don’t expect to relax much on the plane, especially if you are traveling with toddlers. You’ll need the carry-on with all their snacks and activities tucked under the seat in front of you, and believe me, you’ll be accessing it regularly.

You’ll be busy handing your kids new activities, picking up fallen markers, putting things back in the carry-on, holding their drinks, etc. I’m not going to lie, it may tire you out a bit but it is totally worth it for the peace of mind it provides. Tiring yes, but stressful? No.

If you are traveling with a partner who is going to be looking after one of the kids, be sure to familiarize him or her with the carry-on for that child, and prepare them in advance for how busy he or she will likely be during the flight.

By the time my kids were five or six, they were managing all their activities on the plane themselves. They knew the deal. They knew how to behave appropriately. I could finally sit back and relax! So have faith, your time will come too!

Tip #6: Sweeten the deal whenever you can

Dentists would surely not approve, but we always gave lollipops to our kids at take-off (obviously not when they were babies, though!). Not only did the sucking action help with ear pressure, but it also just gave them a happy distraction.

At home, we rarely had juice as a beverage but on an airplane? Absolutely! They thought it was fun to order their juice all by themselves, and then enjoyed savouring its sweetness. You may want to hold their juice on your tray, though, to avoid spillage.

Tip #7: Go to the bathroom before its an emergency

Kids need to know in advance that there can sometimes be long lineups for the bathroom. If they wait until they really, really have to go, they may get stuck waiting in line – or even have to go back to their seats if the plane encounters turbulence. So give them fair warning that they need to tell you if they have to go before the urge is very strong; that they will probably have to wait in line and hold it until it is their turn. Ask them often if they might need to go to the bathroom soon.

Tip #8: Read books together about air travel

I’m putting this great tip last simply because it’s something we didn’t actually do with our own kids. Being book-lovers, I have no idea why it didn’t occur to me to find some books on the subject. I guess we were too busy playing “Claire-Bear Air”.

Here are some that I would consider:


And that’s my list! I hope these ideas are as helpful to you as they were for us. Our children have been very easygoing travelers since the beginning, and I truly think its due in large part to them knowing what to expect, how to behave and being kept engaged with us or their activities. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to alleviate their stress – and therefore ours – on the flight. It may take a little effort on our part – at least in the beginning – but it is so worth it!

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