Our first trip as parents involved a 19 hour non-stop flight (which also happens to be the world’s longest flight) followed by an 8 hour drive to see Steve’s family when Mark was 11 months old. Since then we have done several short haul flights and two more transcontinental around the world flights. We’ve been asked how it went a couple of times and if there were any tips/tricks. To be honest, every child is so different and they change, develop and grow so rapidly every month, we really didn’t know what to expect each time and every single flight was a new adventure. We did however figured out some things that work for us.
Time your flight
If you are doing long or ultra long haul, try to pick a red-eye. Sleep pressure is highest at night and your child WILL fall asleep at some point if you are traveling on a red eye.
We took the 115am flight from Singapore to JFK. Mark’s bedtime is normally 7pm so we put him to bed at his usual time woke him up at 11pm to leave for the airport. He was not happy when we woke him up and was pretty grumpy in the car till we got to the airport where he got really curious about everything around him.
After take off and when the lights went out around 2am, he settled down for the night and slept a whole seven hours till 9am!
We had to do a 6am flight for a transcontinental trip once and it wasn’t my favourite. We were all tired from waking up at 3am to catch the flight and sleep pressure wasn’t high enough for Mark to go back to bed till midway through the flight. He was just tired and cranky the whole first half till he passed out and there was a lot of whining.
For shorter flights that are less than four hours, we prefer to do it right after he wakes up so that he is well rested and he just plays on the plane. Mark is not a great on the go sleeper. He really likes sleeping in his crib, in a dark and quiet room. Timing a flight during his nap doesn’t really work for us because he’s just tired and can’t sleep. The plane is also such a new and stimulating environment, he really fights sleep and there’s a lot of whining and fussing if we fly during nap time. It might be different if your child is an easy sleeper, coinciding the flight with nap time might work better for you!
We try to fly direct whenever possible, avoiding flights with long layovers, afternoon flights and shorter flights that start/end after his bedtime. We haven’t done 5-6 hour medium haul flights, but we would probably choose a daytime flight for that. With a daytime flight he would be able to get a good night’s rest the day before at home and then a full night rest at the destination. An overnight medium haul flight is too short for him to get sufficient rest on the plane which would probably result in a rough couple of days due to sleep deprivation/jet lag at the destination!
Let go of all expectations around sleep
Try not to obsess over when and how much sleep your toddler gets on the flight. We don’t even attempt to fix jet lag or time changes until we get to the destination itself. Getting them to sleep at your desired time does not work 90% of the time. What happens instead is a power struggle between you and your child which might end in a full on meltdown.
We just go with the flow and let Mark do what he wants. When he’s tired, he crawls to his seat and plops himself down and puts himself to bed.
That’s not to say that we throw routine out the window. However instead of following set timings we try to keep a regular rhythm instead. For night flights, we have our bedtime routine of pyjamas, teeth brushing, book reading and sleep sack to indicate to him that it’s time for ‘night sleep’. He obviously doesn’t go straight to bed but after he has had enough play, he will put himself down to bed and have a solid 6-8 hour stretch.
Get as much space as you can afford! Toddlers NEED to move and expecting them to be still is an exercise in futility.
If your child qualifies as a lap infant, book the bassinet seat even if they don’t fit into it anymore. There’s normally more leg room available and you can place a blanket/shawl on the floor as a makeshift play area for your toddler. International flights are often not fully booked and if you can, ask for seats next to empty seats!
We also always make sure we have direct aisle access for diaper situations. In worse case scenarios, a walk up and down the plane is always a great distraction when nothing else works.
Bring food! Lots of food
We try to eliminate any possible physical discomfort we can, which means making sure that Mark was hydrated and well fed. Like us, they do get thirstier on a plane and might not realise it. We offered water at regular intervals to make sure he was hydrated.
As a general rule we packed a meal/snack box for every 2 hours that we are traveling. Since our travel time could sometimes be more than 30 over hours, we would pack 20 snack/meal boxes. We also tried to pack non messy somewhat more resilient foods. Some foods that we have packed are:
Fruits like bananas, oranges, grapes, blueberries, strawberries
Hard boiled eggs
An airplane is a really new and stimulating environment for a toddler. On our first flight, we packed tons of toys following advice from others to have a new toy for every 2 hours of travel to keep him engaged. He really wasn’t very interested in any of the toys we brought though. Mark was more interested in investigating the environment around him, pressing buttons, watching people and climbing up and down the seat.
On his first flight, his favourite object was the plastic water bottle the airline gave that he kept crinkling, pressing and shaking.
By his 4th flight, we pretty much packed the bare minimum for him with regards to toys. We would bring a couple of his favourite books, 1 or 2 stuffed animals for him to cuddle and 2 of his current favourite toys/activities. During one period it was blocks and spinners and right now it is trains and crayons. We also made sure that none of the toys/books we brought were noisy or too complicated with parts that could go missing.
Clothes and diapers
Running out of diapers on a flight is one of most dreaded fears. We pack a diaper for every hour we are traveling and at least 2 full unopened packet of wet wipes. We also pack 2 extra sets of clothes for Mark. Flight temperature can really vary so we pack layers and alternatives – sweater, shorts, sweat pants, short sleeve and long sleeve shirts. We choose clothes that make diaper change as fuss free as possible. If it is an overnight flight, we also bring his pyjamas and sleep sack.
As your toddler gets older, the airplane toilet will feel a little cramp and diaper changes starts to feel a bit like a contortion exercise. We do change wet diapers at our seat, saving toilet changes for poop diapers.
We also packed an extra set of clothes for ourselves too. We’ve never had to use it but you never know what kind of mess you might get into with a toddler!