Tips for flying with toddlers and keeping them entertained

The toddler years can be both trying and fun. Toddlers are rambunctious, squirmy, and messy. But don’t let fear of the occasional tantrum prevent you from traveling or flying with a toddler. Traveling with a toddler has taught us a lot over the short temperamental years. But we wouldn’t trade the experience for the world! Having flown with babies, toddlers, and now with older children, we can undoubtedly say the age between 12 months and 24 months is the most challenging time to travel.

This post provides tips for flying with a toddler, advice for how to keep toddlers entertained on a plane, and information to help prepare you and equip you for your first flight with a toddler.

As trying as it may be, we encourage parents to travel more during the toddler years. Toddlers are unique, strong-willed little humans who come with their own unique challenges. But flying with toddlers doesn’t have to be stressful. In fact, if you are adequately prepared for the trip, a flight with a toddler can actually be surprisingly easy. So, if you’ve found yourself asking “What do I need when flying with a toddler?” or “How can I keep my 1-year-old entertained on a flight?”, just know you are not alone. Flying with toddlers is one of the subjects we are asked about most from friends and readers.

Our experience flying with a toddler

The toddler age can be a blast. Toddlers are curious little explorers. They’re constantly learning new things… how to walk… how to talk… how to become independent. It was during our daughter’s toddler years that we traveled the most!

Flying with a toddler is so much different than flying with a baby. While trips in general became easier as our daughter got older, the time spent in planes and cars became a bit more difficult during the toddler stage. We flew countless times with our daughter during the toddler years including numerous international flights, which haven’t always been fun.  And we’ve learned a thing of two from each flight we’ve taken.

But before we jump into our top tips for flying with a toddler, let us just say the most important thing to remember is to simply roll with the punches. Toddlers are going to be toddlers. They are going to cry and throw a fit at times. And chances are, if your flight is more than a couple hours long, one of those fits will happen on a plane. Don’t stress.

Every child is different. If your child is a laid-back, quiet type, your flights may be a breeze. We raised an extremely energetic, strong-willed, spirited child. In fact, her “terrible twos” started at one-year-old and lasted until she was five! So, while these tips for flying with a toddler are helpful for everyone, those with independent busy toddlers like ours, probably need them most!

Our top travel tips for flying with a toddler

Flying with toddlers takes a bit more preparation and planning ahead to make the actual time spent in the air easier. Here are a few tips for flying with toddlers that worked for us. Hopefully, these travel tips will help you make it through your trip with a lot less anxiety, as well.

Pack A LOT of snacks

Planes don’t always have child-appropriate food, even the long-haul flights. So when flying with a toddler, be sure to bring plenty of snacks for the plane. We always pack more snacks than would typically be necessary for the length of the flight. We are also a bit more lenient when it comes to what we let our little one eat when traveling, but we still like to have plenty of healthy, organic options, as well.

Food pouches for kids
Food pouches are one of the go-to snacks we bring when flying with a toddler.

Our favorite go-to snacks for flying with a toddler are food pouches, like Organic Slammers. These pouches are packed with organic vegetables, fruits, and super foods, and are great for independent children who want to feed themselves without making a giant mess in the plane. They’re a crumb-less and healthier alternative to crackers and other sugar laden snacks and candy. We’ve been able to bring food pouches through security just as easily as baby food, liquid formula, and expressed breastmilk.

I also bring along a variety of other snack options to hold our toddler’s interest. When flying with a toddler, the worst thing that could happen is that you run out of snacks!

Easy, go-to snack options when flying with a toddler.

Bring toddler airplane activities and entertainment

The hardest thing about flying with toddlers is keeping them entertained while remaining seated for a long duration of time. Come armed with lots of different airplane activities for toddlers, travel toys, and books. Toddlers love books, and they are perfect for traveling because they are much more compact than most toys, so you can bring several of them with you in a small carry-on or personal item that fits under the seat.

Our toddler absolutely loved the Lift-the-Flap books by Karen Katz. There are a ton to choose from, and since they are thin books you can bring four or five along with you on the trip without taking up too much space in your child’s carry-on. You will also want to pack it full with travel toys, electronics, and a million other things to help entertain a toddler on a plane.

Reading a children's book on an airplane
Bring tons of entertainment when flying with a toddler. You’ll need it!

On long plane rides, we packed about six of our toddler’s favorite books that we would read over and over again. It kept her quiet and content, which kept all the other passengers happy. Plus, it’s a way to entertain her without a tablet!

Wondering what to pack in your toddler’s carry-on bag? See what is in our carry-on bag here.

Say yes to screen time

And speaking of tablets, regardless of what your screen-time rules may be at home, on flights we strongly recommend bending the rules! We were fairly strict about television and tablet use at home when our daughter was a toddler. She actually never watched television before the age of one, and had limited TV time before the age of three. But when traveling, it is a different story! We always have a few children’s shows downloaded onto our tablet for trips.

Toddlers love cartoons and children’s shows, and they can often hold their interest longer than a toy or a book. Our toddler would get through one 30-minute show before she lost interest, but that was thirty minutes we didn’t have to spend entertaining her or worrying about a tantrum on the flight.

Also, don’t rely on in-flight entertainment. Bring a tablet. Not only do some flights not have screens behind each seat, we’ve found our toddler preferred to watch a show on a tablet or iPad. So, we would suggest investing in one. We use this one. Then download a few of your child’s favorite shows for off-line use to get you through a flight without WiFi.

Give your toddler juice in an early stage sippy cup

When our daughter was an infant, she was nursed or bottle fed during take off and landing to keep her ears from hurting. Once, she was weaned and no longer using a bottle, it became harder to get her to drink anything on command… unless it was juice. Like screen time, juice is very limited in our household. So, when traveling with our toddler we would always buy a small container of juice once we got through airport security, or we would have the flight attendant pour some into her sippy cup once we got on the plane. We diluted it with water since our daughter doesn’t typically get juice at home. This was a huge treat for her, and we gave it to her right at take off. She would suck it down!

The jaw motion from sucking on a sippy cup and swallowing helps keep a toddler’s ears from hurting when the pressure changes.

With juice in her sippy cup, our daughter would stay occupied for awhile, too. Bring one of the early-stage sippy cups, that requires just a little bit more sucking to get the liquid out. This is great for helping combat the pressure changes and ear popping.

Select an aisle seat

While we love the window seat, toddlers will inevitably want to get up and walk around, especially on long, international flights. Instead of having to crawl over a stranger every time your tiny traveler gets a burst of energy, purchase the aisle seat if flying with a toddler. That will allow the two of you to make an occasional trek up and down the aisle. Word of warning: this will annoy some travelers, usually the grouchy ones who get annoyed at everything. But better to parade your child through the aisle then to have the whole plane annoyed by a screaming child.

Walking the aisles with a toddler on airplane
Our daughter walking the aisle of an airplane.

Bring disinfectant wipes – You’ll need them!

We recommend bring disinfectant wipes when traveling with children of any age. It is one of our baby travel essentials, and disinfectant wipes are especially a must with toddlers! The first thing we do when we get into the plane is wipe down our surroundings. The arm rests, tables, windows, walls, in-flight magazines, and the laminated inserts in the seat-back compartment all get wiped down with a disinfectant wipe. That way, we are less worried and disgusted when our germ-loving tot decides to lick, chew on, or touch everything in sight. We also recommend a quick inventory of the floor beneath your seats. If there is a used tissue, trash, or anything else in the floor, trust us, a toddler will find it and try to eat it.

Buy toddlers their own seat, if possible

Until the age of two, children are allowed to sit in a parent’s lap on a flight. After that you have to buy them their own seat. But even in those early toddler months we still like to invest in an extra seat, when possible. Although having your toddler ride on your lap can save quite a bit of money, we only flew with our toddler on our lap during shorter flights (less than three hours).

On long, international flights we forked over the money on an extra seat. Toddlers won’t always stay in their seat, but having one gives them a little extra room to wiggle around in the row. You won’t feel as confined and your child won’t require as much walking up and down the aisle. Even better, bring along your toddlers’ car seat. Many children like the comfort and familiarity of their car seat. Using a car seat while flying means your child will not only be safer, but will be better contained and less inclined to want to get up while in their car seat. Younger toddlers especially can really benefit from having a car seat on the plane, as they will often fall asleep easier in their car seat.

Flying with a toddler in an extra seat
Our toddler taking full advantage of having her own seat on an airplane.

Bring an inflatable leg rest and travel pillow

If you plan to get an extra seat for your toddler, or your toddler is old enough that airlines require one, bring an inflatable leg rest and travel pillow with you on the plane. This is primarily something you will want on long, international flights. The cushion inflates to fill the gap between your child’s seat and the seat in front of them, giving them a comfortable way to extend their legs or even lay down and sleep. You’ll also want to bring along a travel pillow for the plane. There are several great kids’ travel pillows that are both cute and comfortable for little ones! If your little one is well rested after a flight, they need less time and help overcoming toddler jet lag.

Plan for the tantrum

Tantrums and toddlers go hand-in-hand. Even the calmest toddler throws a full-blown fit every once in awhile. When flying with a toddler, plan for the tantrum, and be armed with all the distractions (snacks, videos, toys, etc.) when you see your little one’s frustration begin to turn into a meltdown.

Pre-boarding tips for flying with a toddler

While many of our travel tips for flying with a toddler are for the time when the airplane is in flight, there are also some things you can do before you board and even in the weeks leading up to your flight to help make everything go smoother.

Include them in the process

Toddlers can be very independent. They don’t like being told what to do, and when flying with a toddler, unfortunately, sometimes it’s an unavoidable reality. But if you give them a role and some choices when traveling, chances are the trip will go much smoother. When our daughter was 2 years old, we let our little traveler pull her own suitcase through the airport even if it took us longer to get to the gate. There are so many great children’s travel bags to choose from; you could even let your toddler pick out her own suitcase.

toddler in an airport
Our toddler pulling our carry-on bag through the airport.

As an older toddler, our daughter helped pack her suitcase and would even pick out outfits that she wants to take on our trip. We would also let her buckle her own seat belt on the plane, although we double checked it for safety. Giving her choices and responsibilities when we traveled ultimately made her feel included. Because she didn’t feel like she was constantly being told what to do, she was more willing to cooperate with us on the plane.

Prep toddlers before the flight

Preparing your toddler for a flight can also help alleviate stress for both of you. Talk to your little one about having to stay seated, wearing a mask if required, and what to expect on an airplane. Older toddlers will understand more of what you tell them than you may think. Younger toddlers may not understand words, so you may need to practice. Play pretend travel with them at home leading up to your flight. Have them wear their mask, and sit down for their pretend airplane ride. Show them videos of airplanes and tell them they will soon get to be on one.

Let them play before the flight

Whether you have a layover or just a little time in the airport before your flight, let your toddler roam, explore, and play as much as possible. This will only help them to tire out faster and be more willing to relax and sleep on the flight. In fact, when we would fly with our toddler, my husband would board when our boarding group was called while I would stay in the terminal a little longer with our toddler. This gave my husband plenty of time get the luggage in the overhead bin, the car seat put in place, and everything situated. Meanwhile, it gave our toddler an extra 30 minutes to explore and roam freely before she had to be confined to her seat.

Airport play area
Our toddler burning off some energy at an airport play area before our flight.

Frequently asked questions about flying with toddlers

While we hope the tips above will help make your flight with a toddler easier, we realize you may have other questions about the traveling process. So, here are a few frequently asked questions we have received and read about flying with toddlers.

What documents does a toddler need to fly?

For domestic travel, bring a copy of your child’s birth certificate with you for the flight. We’ve never been asked for it, but it is good to have just in case. That will be the only document your toddler might need other than their name on an airline ticket or a “lap infant” added to your ticket. For international travel, a passport is required for all passengers regardless of age. While there are a few extra steps to getting a baby or toddler passport, this post walks you through taking a passport photo for a baby or toddler and applying for their first passport.

Do I need a car seat to fly with a toddler?

No. Toddlers can sit in their parents lap on a plane until the age of two. Afterwards, they are required to have their own seat. If your toddler loves his/her car seat, it may be worth spending the extra money and buying a seat for your toddler and bringing your car seat along on the airplane. Keep in mind, car seats may not fit in smaller aircraft. If that is the case, you may be asked to gate check your car seat, and hold your toddler during take-off and landing.

How can I calm my toddler on a plane?

Toddler tantrums are inevitable. When flying, plan for the tantrum and have the best snacks, a new, interesting toy, or even a favorite video loaded on your phone and ready to pull out as a distraction when the tantrum begins. We have also found our toddler loves to watch videos of herself, so pull up those cute videos you’ve taken on your phone and let your toddler watch them when they start to act out.

Can I bring milk for my toddler on a plane?

Yes! You can bring milk through airport security for babies and toddlers to drink in the airport and on the plane. The milk will be opened and tested or screened. For more information on this check out our post on flying with milk, formula, and baby food.

How do I keep my toddler’s ears from popping on a plane?

Use an early stage sippy cup and fill it with something your toddler will want to drink on command, like juice. Drinking from the sippy cup during take off and landing will help regulate the pressure in a toddler’s ears to prevent discomfort.

Can I bring toddler snacks through airport security?

Yes! You can (and should) bring toddler snacks through airport security to keep toddlers fed and distracted while traveling. Snacks are a great way to keep toddlers calm on a plane. You may also consider wearing your toddler in a baby carrier through airport security to make the TSA process easier.

Can my toddler sit on my lap on a plane?

Yes! Up until 24 months, your toddler can sit on your lap on an airplane and does not require a seat. While this can save a lot of money, depending on the length of your flight, you may want to purchase a seat for your toddler rather than holding them for the duration of the flight.

How do I keep my toddler in a mask on a plane?

Who knows how long masks will be required on planes, but as of May 2021, face masks are required for all passengers 2 and up. While younger toddlers aren’t required to wear a mask, older ones over the age of 2 will need to keep their mask on during the flight. Keeping a mask on a toddler takes practice, repetition, and lots of discussion prior to the flight. Help them to prepare and practice keeping a mask on at home for several weeks before the flight.

Make sure your toddler’s mask is fun and lightweight. This will increase the odds that your toddler will wear it longer. Additionally, masks can be removed when eating or drinking, so come armed with snacks. Finally, make a blanket fort over your child’s seat, so if the mask comes off, the blanket shields your toddler and their germs from the rest of the cabin.

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Have a comment or question about flying with a toddler? We’d love to hear from you! Leave us a comment below.

This post on air travel tips for toddlers was originally written in April 2016 and has been updated for accuracy and current information.

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