Long-haul can be stressful. Long lines, delayed flights, lost luggage, and cramped cabins can sour even the most experienced globe trekker. Add a toddler to the mix and it can be a downright nightmare. But it doesn’t have to be. By planning ahead and taking a few precautions, it’s possible to get through a long-haul trip with a toddler with ease.
1. Schedule flights around your toddler’s sleep schedule.
If possible, choose an overnight flight even if it costs more. A sleeping child means a smoother journey for the entire family. Morning or afternoon flights aren’t always ideal — trying to keep a little ball of energy confined to a 17-inch seat can have disastrous results.
2. Choose routes with layovers.
Toddlers need to get the wiggles out. Breaking up long-haul journeys into shorter legs will give your toddler a chance to run around and burn off some energy. It will also provide a much-needed change of scenery. Try to keep the layovers brief (no longer than two hours) and avoid connections in the middle of the night.
3. Vary the distractions.
Bring an assortment of activities to keep your little one busy: toys, picture books, coloring, games, and pre-loaded movies or shows on a hand-held device. Purchase new toys just for the trip and surprise your toddler while in the air. Some parents even wrap them like presents to up the surprise quotient. Avoid anything with small parts or pieces that can get wedged in between the unreachable crevices of airline seats.
4. Ration the entertainment.
Don’t simply dump a pile of new toys on your child’s lap during the flight, and don’t allow your child to dig through the toy bag. Be strategic so that the novelty doesn’t wear off before you reach cruising altitude. Pull out one new item at scheduled intervals — say, every hour — and alternate between passive activities (reading or watching a movie) with less passive activities (playing a game or playing with a new toy).
5. Don’t depend on the airline for comfort items.
A favorite blankie or stuffed animal from home can calm a distraught toddler faster than a scratchy airline blanket or flat pillow. Some airlines don’t offer these items in the first place, or they run out quickly. The same goes for entertainment. Not all airlines are equipped with seatback systems, so if movies are a must-have, bring your own device.
6. Pack your own food.
Don’t count on the airline to provide food that your toddler will eat. Even milk and filtered water can be in short supply on some aircraft. Most countries allow parents to carry on expressed breast milk, cow’s milk, sterilized water, and juice for young children. Load up on your toddler’s favorite snacks to ward off grumbly tummies at 36,000 feet.
7. Take advantage of liberal carry-on policies.
Strollers and car seats typically don’t count against a passenger’s baggage allowance. They can even be checked at the gate free of charge. With few exceptions, diaper bags and breast pumps are allowed as carry-on items in addition to the regular allowance, so fill that bag to the brim with necessities.
8. Prepare for a change in pressure.
Frequent fliers instinctively know to yawn or swallow during ascent and descent to equalize the pressure in their ears. But for the youngest fliers, all they know is their ears feel funny. To avoid the ensuing tears, come prepared with a pacifier, bottle, or lollipop. Or, make funny faces at each other during takeoff and landing to encourage your toddler to yawn.
9. Accept that if things can go wrong, they will.
As any parent can attest, if toddlers have a diaper blowout, it’s guaranteed to be at the worst possible time, like just after the fasten seatbelt sign comes on or when you’re lined up to deplane after landing. When toddlers want their loveys, they want them NOW, even though you just sent the toy bag through the X-ray machine. If they realize they’re hungry and need a snack, it’ll be while you’re working your way through customs or passport control while wrangling all your luggage.
10. Most importantly, don’t sweat it.
Stressed parents equal stressed children. Sure, it’s easy to lose your cool when dealing with spilled milk or stinky diapers. But keep in mind that most people have been in your shoes before. You’d be surprised at how sympathetic your fellow passengers are. And for those who aren’t, who cares? You’re doing your best and the rest is out of your control. The memories you’re making with your child are worth any scowls that may be thrown your way.