I didn’t sleep well during the several weeks before flying long-haul with my baby from Hong Kong (where we lived) to Los Angeles. At that time, my daughter was 2 months old, and this was the longest distance she’d traveled. On top of that, we also had to connect in Tokyo due to a last-minute booking. The journey was about 24 hours door to door, and my baby had pretty severe reflux.
In the end, we were both fine, and we completed the same journey frequently after that. With a little trial and error in addition to advice from sleep experts serving our community of expats (who were also often flying long-haul with kids), I eventually figured out what works for us. Believe it or not, with some preparation, flying with kids and babies can actually be fun and comfortable for everyone even with new precautions that we have to take in 2020 and beyond.
I was so nervous though before my first long-haul flight with my baby, and I found it very helpful to read any tips I could find that had worked for other parents. I’m sharing my experiences here in the hope that I can help make that first flight and subsequent flights easier for someone else.
Note: We fly primarily Asian airlines long-haul like Cathay Pacific, which are often much nicer amenity-wise and more kid-friendly than domestic U.S. airlines. Also, keep in mind that the advice below is mainly for parents flying with young children and babies. Tweens and teens, as I’m learning, are okay with their digital devices and inflight entertainment. They can benefit from the jet lag advice below and even enjoy some of my recommended games.
What I Learned From a Long Flight Overseas With My Kid
Before I continue to my tips, I want to make it clear that as much as I’ve enjoyed traveling with my daughter, our flights haven’t always been picture perfect. No matter how prepared you are when flying with kids and babies, random things can happen, or you can find yourself on a flight that’s not ideal. It’s awful at the time, but, as mentioned earlier, it’s an opportunity to learn more about the type of traveler your child is.
Long flights aren’t going to be picture perfect.
The worst flight I ever took was one of the midnight direct flights from Los Angeles to Hong Kong when my daughter was about 5 months old. If you fly to Asia, you probably know this is a common time to schedule a direct flight because it will put you at your destination in the early morning, letting business travelers enjoy a full day of work. In theory, it’s designed to help eliminate jet lag by trying to force you to get some sleep on board since it’s night time in the U.S. and you’ll wake up when it’s morning in Asia.
Kids can become overtired and confused when traveling internationally.
The problem was that my routine-dependent baby was not used to so much activity so late at night. She slept a little bit in the car on the way to the airport but woke up as soon as the car stopped. I thought eventually she’d pass out on the plane and sleep for most of the flight. She didn’t, and became so incredibly overtired and confused that she screamed nearly the whole way to Hong Kong (in business class).
I nursed her to try to get her to sleep, but it didn’t work nor did any other form of entertainment that I could think of. I had my own seat with plenty of room, and she had the bassinet, which she never actually used (more on airplane bassinets later). I never retook a late night flight, though some of my friends swear that late night long-haul flights with kids are more relaxed because their kids sleep.
Expect the unexpected.
We didn’t take another midnight long-haul flight to Asia until she was almost 12 years old and never had another issue like this again. And, we’re talking about multiple transpacific journeys per year.
My advice to you is to expect the unexpected and that these things happen. Learn from them.
Planning for Long-Haul Flights with Kids
If possible, schedule your flight or flights in a way that allows your baby or toddler to remain on the same daily schedule that they’re on at home. That way there’s a chance they’ll get some sleep — and you’ll get a break, too.
For example, our first long-haul flight put us on the airplane to Tokyo exactly when my daughter usually napped in the morning. I arrived at the airport much earlier than necessary so that I could relax, change her diaper, and feed her before we boarded the plane. I didn’t want her to be hungry in case we got stuck on the tarmac before takeoff or in turbulence shortly after takeoff — at which point I’d be unable to reach my bag due to airline restrictions. It sounds like a no-brainer, but you can easily get caught up in the stress of travel and realize that necessities are out of reach.
Manage Expectations with Conversation and Books.
Once your child can understand, start talking about the flight well before departure to manage expectations and familiarize them with the process from start to finish.
Read children’s books about flying and travel. Emphasize that there’ll be a time at the beginning and the end of the flight where they’ll have to stay in their seats with their seat belt on. Talk to them about what they can do during this time.
Children’s books about flying include:
- Maisy Goes on a Plane
- My First Airplane Ride
- Richard Scarry’s A Day at the Airport (has stickers, too)
Find the Best Plane Seats for Kids on a Long Flight.
Before selecting seats, it’s a good idea to check out the seat configuration on your flight on SeatGuru. It’s a great website where you can check the seating configuration by airline and airplane. In 2020, keep in mind that some seats may be blocked off for health and safety reasons. When in doubt, contact the airline.
Most families request bulkhead seats when traveling with young children. This makes sense because if you have an active child, there isn’t a seat in front of them to bump into or lose toys under. The bassinets are also typically in the bulkhead. Check with your airline to verify the location of the bassinets, because they are not in every bulkhead row, through SeatGuru tends to point out their locations.
Economy class bulkhead seats do not have baggage storage, so keep in mind that all will need to go in the overhead compartment during takeoff and landing.
Pick the seat with the best line of sight and access in premium classes.
I’ve found that if the seats in first or business class are in a 1-2-1 formation (one window seat, two aisle seats, one window seat), kids are better off in the first row (or bulkhead) window seat. If only one parent is traveling, he or she should take the aisle seat directly across from the child’s window seat. This seat has the best line of sight into your little traveler’s pod, though it’s not perfect. If two parents are traveling, take two window seats (one behind the other), and then the second adult should take the aisle seat next to the child’s seat.
This seating arrangement is counter-intuitive, as you would assume the window seat behind to your little traveler would be better. It’s not, because the partition makes it hard to see down into your child’s “pod” without standing up. Also, if you need to help your child with something, it’s more bothersome to the other passengers to get up out of the window seat and make a u-turn into your child’s pod. With the aisle seat, you can duck in and out, and no one will really notice.
In business or first class, you might also assume that the two center aisle seats might be better as they’re right next to each other. The dividers between these seats on many airlines make it so that you need to walk around the entire cabin and into the other aisle to reach your child and his or her belongings. It’s imperative to check with the airlines to confirm which seats provide the most access to your child, but also keep in mind that many airline help desks may not know the answer either so it can take some digging.
Preventing Kids From Getting Jet Lagged on Long Flights
Because my baby was routine-dependent and not a great sleeper, we went to a sleep clinic. Hong Kong is full of American, British, Australian, and other expats who routinely fly long haul with kids and need to address the issue of jet lag in kids. The clinic gave us handy jet lag advice which I will share here.
Keep your child on the same daily routine in the new time zone.
One of the big reasons to schedule your flights so that your kids can keep their daily routine while in transit has to do with jet lag. You should always, regardless of the time change, keep your baby or toddler on the same daily routine until you arrive at your destination. After you arrive, plonk your little traveler into the new time zone by implementing their regular routine using the time of the zone you’re in. This seems cruel, but trust me, it works.
I was lucky that my flight times often made it somewhat easy for me to do this. If we were to arrive at my house in La Jolla around 1 p.m., then I would put my daughter down for a 2-hour nap since she napped around 1 p.m. in Hong Kong. Remember, she was tired, so getting her to nap was not hard. Waking her up after 2 hours, though, was a nightmare because her little body thought it was nighttime (as it would have been in Hong Kong) and she would cry and whine like you wouldn’t believe. Trust me, the agony of the first day is worth it the result.
On the flip side, keeping kids awake is hard too. I would sometimes perform an insane song and dance (sometimes literally) to keep her awake so that she’d go to sleep for the night at her usual time. As the parent, it’s exhausting, but it’s MORE exhausting to have a kid with jet lag for a week or longer when you have it, too.
If your child wakes in the middle of the night, calmly play until your child is ready to sleep.
If you do all that, your little traveler will still most likely wake up in the middle of the night on the first night. My daughter would somehow realize she was in a strange bed and not know where she was. After she woke up, I would go in, hold and console her, and when she leaned toward her bed, I’d put her in, and she’d go back to sleep.
Sometimes I’d have to do this several times during the first night. As she got older, she wanted to walk around the house in the dark to remind herself where she was. The sleep clinic said that if she was wide awake in the middle of the first night, I should go ahead and calmly play or do whatever she liked until she wanted to go back to sleep.
I can say from experience that eventually, they will want to go back to sleep — except at this point, 20 minutes feels like 20 years. Keep the room as dark as is tolerable. Keep your voice and motions calm and sleepy. Easier said than done, I know.
On the second day, wake up in the morning and do your routine like normal. If your little traveler is sleeping in longer than usual, despite maybe being awake in the night, wake them up. And if your little traveler wakes up during the second night, then you do not go in the room. Let them sort it out by themselves. It sounds harsh, I know, but you use your judgment.
By day two, my daughter was usually back to normal. Even to this day, she does not get jet lag. I firmly believe that the deliberate flight scheduling had a lot to do with it, along with her inconvenient habit of not sleeping well on the plane and needing to catch up on sleep after landing.
What to Pack in Your Carry-On for Long Flights with Kids
Back when my daughter was younger, I would usually carry two huge carry-on bags in addition to her. It was a lot, but I always managed just fine even though I was flying with a baby and without my husband. I wanted to have plenty of toys, digital entertainment, crayons, paper, and other sorts of stuff she might need ready when she needed it.
Make space for toys in your carry-on bags.
To get everything to fit in my carry-on bags, I used gallon size Ziploc bags to pack diapers, clothes, and more. I then squeezed all the excess air out to get the clothes and diapers as compact as possible. This also helps to organize all of your things so that stuff isn’t flying all around your carry-on. Diapers go in one Ziploc bag, clothes in another, etc. The bags also double as trash bags and dirty clothes holders, too, if your little traveler spills orange juice or whatever and needs to change clothes.
Here’s what else I brought on board.
Bring your own antibacterial cleaning supplies for airplane seats and high-touch areas.
This is important now more than ever. The first thing I do when we get to our airplane seats is to use an antibacterial wet wipe to wipe off everything that my daughter and I could touch in our zone. I think the key word here is antibacterial. Dr. Bronner’s makes an organic lavender hand sanitizer spray that I sometimes use with a tissue or napkin, or Wet Ones has travel antibacterial wipes (they also have singles). The latter is easier.
The one time I forgot to do this on a flight before she had touched a bunch of stuff, my daughter came down with a scary flu that almost landed us in the hospital. It might be a coincidence, but it doesn’t hurt to be a clean freak. If you’re fast, this takes about a minute or two, at the most.
Pack kid-friendly in-flight snacks.
When she was little, what usually worked to keep my daughter quiet and happy was stuffing her full of snacks, while praying for zero turbulence right after takeoff so I could quickly release her to do whatever. Eventually, she became interested in everything that was happening before and after takeoff, so that along with a packet of Goldfish would keep her occupied.
Do pack a ton of snacks — even the kind you swear you’d never let them eat in abundance. If they want to eat it, and it won’t make them sick, think about allowing it. We once went through three tubes of Gerber Puffs on a 10-hour flight from LAX to Tokyo. She didn’t cry once. That’s a lot of puffs for a baby, but it was worth it.
Ideally, foods that keep kids satiated are ideal. I made nutrient dense pancakes that she loved and brought these onboard as snacks.
Pack in-flight entertainment for kids.
An iPad or another fun electronic device will be your best friend on a long-haul flight with kids. This brings me to another point. You may disagree, but personally think that you must do whatever it takes for you and your fellow passengers to survive this long, international flight together. If you don’t let your kid watch TV at home, in the air is not the time to reinforce that rule.
If it keeps your little traveler in the seat, allow it for the sake of everyone involved. Back in the day, we started bringing a portable DVD player and all sorts of DVDs on board as soon as she was remotely interested in watching shows. I also bought extra external batteries, so the DVD player never ran out of steam. In most business and even some economy classes now, each seat offers an electrical plug and USB plug. However, I have been on several flights lately where they do not work. And, not all planes offer plugs or the plugs might be DC power outlets (like cigarette lighter power adapters in cars). Or, you might think your plane has power, and then they switch the aircraft at the last minute to one that doesn’t. I’ve been there, too.
Tip: If you rely on a Macbook for entertainment, note that the big square plugs (mine is 87 watts) do not stay plugged in well on planes like Boeing 737s (at least this is my experience on American Airlines). They’re heavy, so they fall out of the sockets. I bought a smaller 60-watt plug, and it’s been a lifesaver.
Bringing our own entertainment saved my life because we knew she already liked the shows I brought onboard. I once thought that the Disney Channel on one airline would be good enough but she’d never seen the shows before, and it just didn’t hold her attention. Lesson learned.
If you are flying business or first class, the TV might be too far away for a young child. Also, remember that device batteries never last as long as advertised. My external battery is supposed to last eight hours, and it usually depletes after five hours. Do what it takes to keep devices charged.
Invest in kids’ headphones.
Headphones provided by the airlines are typically too big or cumbersome for children. Plus, kids headphones limit volume to protect their young ears while delivering quality sound that helps to drown out the roar of plane engines.
Over the years we’ve tried most brands (we’ve found that they do tend to break, get stepped on, or lost when you travel with them frequently). These are our favorites:
Don’t forget the meltdown presents.
The best trick for flying with young kids I can give you is the following: Take about 5-6 very lightweight, cheap presents on the plane that they do not know about. When my daughter would start to fuss, I would bring one out for her to open. This worked because just the process of opening a gift would reset her mood. That’s what these gifts are, actually — a giant reset button.
These presents were usually items such as new stickers, pop-up books, a small toy, or something like that. You can even wrap them in multiple layers of wrapping paper to drag out the opening process. Kids love presents, right? Once, when she was not yet a 1-year-old, I even wrapped a few toys that she already owned, and it yielded the same effect because she was happy to have them. I am incredibly proactive about stopping crying immediately on long flights, because of a large number of people trying to sleep.
People of all ages are prone to some fussiness on a long haul flight, so expect your little traveler to at some point express his or her “are we there yet” or “I’m SO tired” feelings. It’s pretty amazing how quickly a little present can help calm those feelings, even when you’re flying with big kids.
Lollipops also calm kids down.
If your child is old enough to enjoy lollipops, these are brilliant for quieting meltdowns as they are tasty and keep kids occupied because they can take a while to eat. Don’t tell them in advance that these are lurking in your bag. Make it a surprise.
Bring plenty of diapers and diaper changing pad.
I packed more diapers than I’d ever need because I had a fear of being on one of those flights stuck on the tarmac for hours and hours and running out of diapers. This happened to someone I know. Once, I was supposed to get a complimentary diaper pack on the plane, and they ran out. Airplane diaper kits may also not be the right size for your baby (and, therefore, leak). I also worried about my daughter eating something that didn’t sit well or picking up some quick bug that would have her going through diaper after diaper while on the plane. I wanted to be prepared.
Passengers do not love it when parents change diapers in seats. If you don’t see a changing table in the airplane bathroom near you, ask a flight attendant where it’s located. The Skip Hop Pronto Portable Changing Mat is big enough to cover the changing table in the airplane bathrooms and easy to clean.
Do also bring diaper disposal bags so you can toss used diapers in the bathroom trash in a more sanitary and polite fashion. Diaper disposal bags can come scented on the inside to mask the smell, which I recommend on airplanes. You could even use a plastic shopping bag if need be but do not shove a dirty diaper into the bathroom trash without bagging it.
Tip: Bring extra diaper wipes and be extra careful to seal open packs tightly. The recirculated air dries them out quickly.
Don’t forget a change of clothes for both of you.
I always packed a change of clothes for myself and several changes of clothes for my daughter. I needed the clothing changes because I had a baby with acid reflux. Now that she’s twelve, we still both pack a change of clothes because accidents happen.
One time, she vomited during landing while I was holding her in a Maya Wrap sling so that my arms could be relatively free. The sling caught all the vomit, but I just had to sit there until the plane reached the gate. Luckily it was milk, it didn’t stink, and no one saw. Also, on another occasion, I think she ate something funny and threw up all over me. And then there was a time when she spilled a glass of orange juice all over me, and I up-ended a glass of wine on myself while reaching over to help her with something.
I usually survive without looking like a complete vagabond by wearing black or dark colors. The black color hides all sorts of sins. When I travel almost everything in my suitcase is black because I also know it’s going to match.
I also once made the mistake of wearing drawstring pants. It’s not a good idea to try to tie your pants in an airplane bathroom while juggling a baby or toddler. I couldn’t do it, so I held them up while trying to get back to my seat. Go with elastic waist pants that you can easily pull on and off with one hand if you are in the bathroom with your child.
Other useful items for kids on long flights.
Diaper Cream: If you are traveling with a sitting baby or toddler in diapers, I would suggest that you apply as much of this as you feel comfortable with. My daughter has had some terrible diaper rash emerge after long-haul plane flights due to extended sitting.
Saline Nasal Spray: The recycled air bothers my daughter’s nose (mine, too) on the plane, so I buy children’s saline nasal spray to use on the airplane. She doesn’t mind it, actually, and asks for it when her nose feels dry.
BandAids: There aren’t always bandages readily available even though they have first aid kits on the plane. I bring my own because there can be sharp bits on the seats. I’d also bring a nail file because on one flight she had a hangnail and scratched herself up. That was miserable.
Here are all of these items consolidated into a flying with kids packing list.
Plan for Extra Time at the Airport
Arriving at the airport at least an hour earlier than necessary allowed me to get through security, change my daughter’s diaper, and feed her before boarding the plane, all in a relatively relaxed manner. Your child will sense if you are stressed, so don’t put yourself in a position to rush.
Think about when your child should eat.
Getting your child to eat before boarding the airplane is less of a concern if you are nursing. In a perfect world, your baby would be hungry enough to nurse during takeoff and landing. This will help prevent their ears from bothering them as a result of the change in cabin pressure. A good nursing cover-up is invaluable and will help make your fellow passengers more comfortable. I used one from Bebe Au Lait, but you might want to consider a multi-use cover that can cover car seats and strollers, too.
When my daughter was starting solid foods, I fed her as much as possible before boarding the plane. The reason is two-fold. One, we could get stuck on the tarmac or at the gate. Two, the seatbelt sign could remain on longer than usual due to turbulence after takeoff. These days, baby food pouches help eliminate juggling a glass, jar, spoon, and baby for some parents which, trust me, was complicated during times when the seatbelt sign is on, bags are stored, and tray tables remain up.
Prepare for going through security.
For travel from or within the United States, you may read the TSA’s traveling with children section for more information. They’ll let you take reasonable quantities of formula, breast milk, and juice that exceed 100 ml through security for babies and toddlers. You must inform the officers at the beginning of the screening process, and they may test it, which is even more of a reason to arrive at the airport early.
Prepare your child that their precious security blanket or stuffed animal must go through the X-ray machine. I’ve seen many kids melt down because they’re not keen to be separated from what they’re carrying. The good news is that children ages 12 and under may keep their shoes, hats, and light outerwear on.
Kids will need to be removed from strollers, which must pass through screening. Infants (in a sling is okay) and small children may be carried through the X-ray machine by parents.
Outside of the U.S., security rules vary. It’s hit or miss, though. I have friends who were able to take through special purified water for mixing with formula, by just showing it to the security agents. It also depends on where you’re traveling to and from. Some airports offer family security lines that you can look out for.
When you are juggling a stroller, gear, and kids, the last thing you want to do is get held up at security. Pack your carry-on so that anything that needs to be removed can quickly be taken out at security.
Tip: Children ages 12 and under can use the TSA PreCheck line if a parent has TSA PreCheck indicated on his or her boarding pass. Global Entry privileges do not extend to children even if the parent is a member, but parents may apply for their children to have Global Entry privileges (which I would recommend).
Utilize airport lounges — many have family amenities.
I find that airport lounges make flying with kids much more relaxed. Lounges tend to offer cleaner bathrooms, comfortable chairs, WiFi, snacks, drinks, and more included with the price of admission, which is often free with certain credit cards, top tier airline status, and when flying overseas in business or first class.
One-day passes to American Airlines Admirals Clubs are available for $59 per adult. The Airspace Lounge in San Diego offers day passes for $35 per adult. Most airports have some a pay-in lounge.
If you don’t have regular access to an airline lounge, you may want to consider an annual Priority Pass. They have over 1200 lounges worldwide across the world and membership tiers based on how often you travel.
In-flight Meals for Long Haul Flights with Kids
Some airlines allow parents to request child meals in advance. What one baby or kid eats in one country may not be what your little traveler eats. Airplane meals often reflect that, which is another reason to bring lots of snacks.
What kids snacks can you take on a plane?
My daughter has been served some bizarre airplane kids’ meals. The one that cracked me up was a dinner of potato salad, tiramisu, a little bit of fruit, Oreos, chocolate, gummy bears, chocolate milk, and some other stuff like that. She was barely 1 at the time.
I laughed and sent the meal back (well, not really — I ate the Oreos) and re-ordered her some noodles. If you’re in business or first class, you can request meals when you like, however, there will be times when even the flight attendants have to sit down and service stops. Still, have plenty of snacks within reach.
How to carry baby food on a plane.
You probably should bring your own baby food. Even though some airlines provide this (in my experience), it’s not the time for baby to try new food flavors if they don’t happen to stock something baby is used to. Imagine an allergic reaction at 35,000 feet in the air. I remember asking specifically what kinds of jarred food one airline stocked and was not able to get a clear answer. It’s nice that they offer it, and my daughter did eat airline provided jarred food that she was already familiar with.
Tips for warming kid’s bottles or food on planes.
Do test the temperature if you’re having the crew warm bottles or food, as flight attendants are busy or may not have babies at home. I’ve had a few scalding-hot bottles delivered, but never let it upset me as flight attendants are doing their best. Just check the temperature before you begin feeding. Be prepared for the crew temporarily to not be able to accommodate this request in 2020.
Tips for using sippy cups on planes.
If you can, remember to very slightly unscrew the tops before take-off and landing. The change in cabin air pressure can sometimes cause the liquid to start squirting up everywhere. This happened with my daughter’s Nuby straw cups. If I didn’t unscrew the top and the straw was flipped down for storage, when I flipped the straw back up, juice would squirt everywhere with force. If I happened to be holding the cup, I’d slightly squeeze the straw open to relieve the pressure as we’re ascending or descending.
Sleep Solutions for Getting Babies and Young Kids to Sleep on a Plane
I always wanted my child to be able to fall asleep during long flights. It took a lot of trial and error but I dedicated a lot of time figuring out sleep solutions using the best gear and hacks to get kids to sleep on flights.
Airplane bassinets are available on some longer flights.
If your baby needs a bassinet, you’ll be seated in the bulkhead. The bassinet, unfortunately, can take up quite a bit of space, even in business class. The flight attendant assembles it to ensure that it’s done correctly, usually after the plane is in the air, and will remove it before landing.
Check with the airline regarding the length of the bassinet and remember that these are usually the exterior dimensions. My daughter was a very long baby and grew out of the airplane bassinet quite quickly, even though she was far away from the weight requirement. I found the bassinets on Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific to be quite lovely, and my daughter was even given silk bedding once.
If you don’t need an airplane bassinet, you might want to think about whether you want the bulkhead since you have to put your bag and larger toys in the overhead compartment during take-off and landing. There’s no seat in front of you to shove bags under. I think the bulkhead still worth it for space, but I know the lack of baggage storage bothers some people.
What to do when kids grow out of the airplane bassinet.
Because my daughter grew out of the bassinet so quickly, we were stuck in a weird situation. She couldn’t sit upright in her seat at 6 months old but had to have her own seat because I didn’t want her in my lap during an entire international transpacific flight and my husband usually did not fly with us. Kids can ride in your lap up until 2 years of age, usually, but it’s honestly not ideal. She flew as a lap child on a 2-hour flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok, and I thought we were going to die.
Japan Airlines will install a Britax convertible car seat in their airplane seats, should you need it, and Cathay Pacific will, as well. It must be requested well in advance, is subject to availability, and once it’s installed, the car seat is there for the rest of the long haul flight whether it works for you or not. I made that mistake once. That car seat served as expensive toy storage because my daughter wasn’t used to it, didn’t like it, and therefore rode on my lap the entire flight.
While some airlines will allow you to strap in your car seat, other airlines also will not allow you to strap in a rear-facing infant car seat. Always check with your airline to see what they can provide and what you’re allowed to bring. As another example, Cathay Pacific offers a baby seat belt that attaches to the adult for use during takeoff and landing. My daughter HATED it, but we managed.
Consider the CARES airplane harnesses for kids.
Later on, I bought the Kids Fly Safe Cares Child Airplane Restraint System (CARES). It’s very, very easy to use and weighs about 1lb. I applaud your parenting skills if you have a kid that will sit in it for 10+ hours straight (or even a few hours). I was lucky to get my daughter in it for takeoff and landing. Anyway, long-haul flights usually have more unwritten, relaxed “keep your kid in the seat” requirements than domestic flights do. It’s not required that you have CARES, but it provides peace of mind and safety in the event of an emergency or severe turbulence.
One thing I found was that if the seat was either upright or fully reclined, and my daughter fell asleep wearing the CARES, she could slide down off the seat as a result of the plane’s vibrations. There is no between-the-legs strap to stabilize her like there is in strollers or car seats. We stopped using CARES when she grew out of it, but it’s still a good product. Note that there are many generic versions of this restraint on the market, so be sure to buy the FAA-approved version by Kids Fly Safe.
How to Get Your Child to Sleep on the Long Plane Ride — Helpful Techniques
This is a hotly debated topic that you’ll need to discuss with your pediatrician to figure out what is best for your child. When my baby was about 9 months old, I asked our pediatrician if it would be okay to give her Children’s Benadryl on our next long-haul flight. The doctor said it was totally fine and gave me dosing instructions based on weight. You MUST check with your doctor before administering it. Children’s Benadryl can also have the REVERSE effect where children instead become hyperactive. So, with your physician’s permission, consider testing the prescribed dosage first to see how your child reacts to it.
I gave her the Children’s Benadryl when we boarded the plane, and it knocked her out for a very pleasant 4 hours. That’s a long, long time for my daughter because she does not sleep very well on airplanes, like her mother. On the next long-haul flight we took, she gagged and spat it out. The flavor is gross. I could never get her to retake it. To be honest, it didn’t matter because we had learned how to cope in other ways.
Use a familiar object and establish it as a sleep cue.
The sleep clinic we went to suggested we use a familiar object as a “sleep cue” so that every time she saw it, she knew that come hell or high water, she’d be going to sleep. Her sleep cue was a soft little duck blanket, and this technique worked on the plane.
We’d bust it out in flight, and she’d immediately start sucking her fingers to try to put herself to sleep. She never could sleep for long stretches on planes, though, and as she got older, she started taking the duck blanket everywhere, which was both good and bad.
Medicine to relieve ear pressure to help babies fall asleep.
Some people swear up and down that Infant Tylenol causes drowsiness. It doesn’t — just ask your doctor. What may be happening is that the Infant Tylenol may relieve some ear pressure, making it easier for the baby to sleep. Ear pain is a common issue for flying with kids, and it’s exacerbated if the child is experiencing any congestion during the flight.
I was told by my midwife and doctor that if my daughter started to pull on her ears or become extraordinarily fussy during takeoff and landing, to give her age-appropriate Tylenol immediately. You’ll need to have this okayed by your physician. Parents with kids who are prone to ear pain tell me that they proactively administer an age-appropriate Tylenol 30 minutes prior to takeoff and landing. It’s one of the things that I keep stuffed in a seat pocket for easy access.
If babies or toddlers still use a pacifier, give it to them on takeoff and landing or provide them with something to eat. This will help with the ear pressure, as does nursing. Some parents use a finger or anything that the child will suck on. Ear pain is most common upon descent.
Consider inflatable travel pillows for sleep in economy class.
Inflatable footrest pillows bridge the gap between the child’s seat and the seat in front of them, which better enables kids to sleep on the plane. Parents swear by them, but you’ll need to check with your airline to make sure these inflatable pillows are permitted.
Popular brands include:
These footrests can also be used in cars to prevent kids’ legs from fatiguing after a long time spent in a car seat.
Airport Gear to Make Flying With Kids a Breeze
Take care of strollers and consider a baby carrier.
I carried my daughter in a sling when I was breastfeeding, graduated to an Ergo carrier, and then eventually transported her in a small stroller that I checked at the gate. When she was in the sling or carrier, I sometimes used the stroller to push our carry-on luggage.
I never had problems with checking my stroller at the gate. Make sure your stroller is well-marked with your information. Take off all hooks, cup holders, and anything else that can get juggled loose. Some airlines will cover strollers in plastic and some won’t. Your stroller will get tossed around. Another drawback of gate-checking a stroller is waiting for it when you land, versus getting off the plane and heading straight to baggage claim or your connecting flight.
If you happen to have a large stroller that rides in that a big transport case, be aware that it might be considered over-sized baggage (measure it to find out). I never had to pay any extra money, however, but check with your airline before flying, so there are no surprises. At LAX, oversized stroller bags had to be picked up at a special side area that’s not the regular baggage carousel.
A sling kept my daughter confined during takeoff and landing while leaving my arms free. We traveled without her car seat during the baby years, mostly because we were flying long-haul and she would not tolerate sitting in a car seat. The sling was my savior.
An Ergo carrier with the infant insert may be equally handy if you can sit upright comfortably in your seat with a baby inside (practice at home). I can tell you from experience that it’s difficult to adjust an Ergo carrier while seated on the plane since the buckle is in the back. However, since this carrier grows with children, I used it until my daughter hit the 40-lb weight limit at approximately 4 years old. I used the Ergo to carry her exhausted little body on my back after long-haul flights.
Older kids might want to consider the Stokke JetKids BedBox. It’s a carry-on suitcase that kids can pull (it has swivel wheels), sit on, and convert to extend the airplane seat so that they can sleep. It carries a little mattress and bumpers to guard against armrests. It didn’t have a bed feature, but our ride-on suitcase was a Trunki. I highly recommend ride-on suitcases as they give kids a place to sit while waiting in line to check-in and at the gate.
Airplane Toys for Kids
These are toys that other readers and we have had luck with. The idea is that these toys keep kids entertained with minimal risk of losing pieces between seats and on the floor of the plane.
- Wikki Stix: These fun little sticks of yarn covered with non-toxic wax (the same wax in lipstick) twist and bend into fun shapes kids create and stick onto smooth surfaces. They are reusable, inspire creativity, and are a ton of fun. We took small packets on the plane, but they also have travel kits.
- Triangle crayons and pencil grips: The upshot of triangle crayons is that they do not roll so are easier to contain if kids want to color. Even though pencils have ridges, triangle pencil and pen grips help keep the pencil from rolling. This helps kids who would like to write on the airplane. We use them when my daughter wants to do homework inflight. (Mad Libs are super fun travel games for kids old enough to appreciate the humor.)
- Crayola Color Wonder: You can also try Crayola Color Wonder products that don’t make a mess because the color only appears on the special Color Wonder paper, which is perfect for the airplane.
- Boogie Board LCD writing tablet: The Boogie Board LCD tablet was a great distraction. We’d play tic-tac-toe, hangman, and other games or draw with its stylus. With the press of a button, the screen erases, saving paper. Choose between the Scribble and Play Color LCD or the Boogie Board Jot.
- Magnetic games: For games that you can’t scribble on the Boogie Board, turn to magnetic games like checkers or even chess.
- Suction cup high chair toys: Fishing toys off of the airplane floor and from dirty crevices is not ideal. Avoid this with suction cup toys that (hopefully) will stick to the tray table. In our experience, they stick most of the time as it depends on the tray.
- Pacifier and toy clips: Attach sippy cups, bottles, pacifiers, precious stuffed animals, and other loose toys to your child with pacifier clips or toy clips.
A Comprehensive Packing List for Flying Long Haul with Kids
Every parent’s packing list for flying with kids and babies will probably be a little different, but here’s the packing list I used when my daughter was younger. Having these items did make a huge difference in how she and I handled long flights.
- Face covering
- Change of comfortable dark-colored clothes (remember, no drawstring pants)
- Toothbrush (the Colgate Wisp disposable mint brush is also convenient) and toiletries
- Cleansing wipes (easier than washing your face in the bathroom)
- Moisturizer and lip balm
- Saline nasal spray
- Eye re-wetting drops
- Extra contact lenses and solution (contact lenses dry up or get irritated in recirculated air)
- Gum (helps with ear pressure and breath)
- Antibacterial wipes
- Antibacterial gel or spray
- Nail file
- External battery for phones and devices
- Pen for filling out customs forms
- Ergo carrier or sling
Most of these items plus a few of my daughter’s things fit conveniently into a small makeup bag that I kept within reach at all times.
For children or babies:
- Face covering for children over the age of 2 (or as required by the airline and airports)
- 3-5 changes of clothing for longer international flights
- Three pairs of socks
- Comfortable shoes (remember that their feet can swell on longer flights, so make sure shoes have a little give in them)
- Digital entertainment like an iPad or DVD player
- Whatever small, lightweight toys and games they are into
- Surprise gifts and lollipops to calm fuss
- Wipes for changes and to clean up messes (it never hurts to have extra)
- Lots of diapers
- Diaper disposal sacks (do not forget!)
- Diaper cream
- Changing pad (like the Skip Hop Pronto)
- Something for possible ear pain relief be it medication, pacifier or similar
- Clips to keep toys, pacifiers, sippy cups from falling on the ground
- Snacks (bring a ton)
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Moisturizer to combat dry spots from cabin air (I carried a nourishing stick)
- Kids headphones (may want to also look into airplane adaptors so that the kids can use them on inflight entertainment if possible though not all planes have the same plugs – ask your airline)
The most important thing you can remember as a parent flying with kids or a baby is that you will survive. Seriously. I know how stressful it can be in the days leading up to those first few flights.
I have no problem hopping on a plane to go anywhere in the world with my daughter, who is an excellent flier. I also have written several other posts related to flying with kids