How to Travel With a Toddler on a Plane

Toddler looking out airplane window

 Melpomenem / Getty Images

Traveling with a toddler can be exciting and daunting. The thrill of showing your little one a new part of the world, or visiting friends and family, can easily be overshadowed by the stress of taking them around the airport and sitting through a flight.

Most parents find themselves racking their brains about what they should bring to keep their toddlers safe and entertained during the flight. While this will vary depending on the length of your journey, there are certain regulations and recommendations parents should be made aware of to make their flight a success.

Let's take a look at some tips and tricks for traveling with a toddler that will take the stress out of flying, so you can enjoy your trip from start to finish!

Preparing to Travel

Orchestrating a plan before arriving at the airport will make for a far less turbulent experience. Like any vacation, you'll benefit immensely from getting organized in advance. Of course, sometimes travel is more spontaneous, but if possible, you should absolutely take advantage of getting your ducks in a row.

Booking a Flight

Either a direct flight or an indirect flight with a longer layover is in your best interest when traveling with a toddler. As you've seen on most outings with your little one, toddlers can be slow movers who require a lot of baggage. So trying to make a connecting flight with a toddler in tow can be challenging—particularly when you have a short layover.

If you're booking a flight with a layover, a couple of hours is ideal. This will give you time to change your toddler if needed, have a real meal, and let your little one burn off some energy before getting settled again.

While you may want to consider your toddler's naptime when booking your flight, don't fret if you can't find one that perfectly aligns. Revolving your flight around your toddler's regular schedule can be beneficial if you're looking to maintain their routine, but remember, flight times do get changed rather frequently. Also, there's no guarantee your toddler will fall asleep on the plane given the new environment and its excitement.

What to Check

Be sure you know which bags you're checking (and whether they meet the airline's weight requirements) before you arrive. Trying to reconfigure your luggage with a toddler in tow will add undue stress to your trip!

The maximum weight limit for most checked bags is 50 pounds. Carry-on items must meet Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines. They may not exceed 22" x 14" x 19" and must be able to be stored in an overhead compartment or under a seat.

"Always check your suitcases," says Sarah Mann Hall, a mother of two from Denver, Colorado. "It's so much easier to wrangle a toddler if you aren't also dealing with luggage."

You may also want to invest in a travel wallet to organize all passengers' identifications and boarding passes. This will help with getting through security. Remember, the goal is to make the process as smooth and fast as possible. If you're using electronic boarding passes, don't forget to charge your phone before getting to the airport.

What to Bring Onboard

Consider your carry-on to be a more intricately packed diaper bag. Of course, you'll want to be sure you're armed with all the essentials. But, unlike with a road trip or afternoon outing, there won't be the option to stop along the way for items you forgot. That's right: no convenience stores in the sky!

Here are the items you should make sure you have at your disposal before takeoff.

  • Diapers: The general rule of thumb is one diaper per hour of travel time.
  • Snacks: Your child's favorites, plus formula or breastmilk, if applicable.
  • Blankets or loveys: Comfort items are helpful for calming anxious toddlers.
  • Pacifiers: If your toddler uses a pacifier, pack a few. The sucking can also help relieve the pressure in their ears during takeoff and landing.
  • Changes of clothes: You can never be too prepared—one for you, one for your toddler.
  • Toys: Books, stuffed animals, or simple puzzles are safe bets.
  • Sippy cups: Bringing an empty sippy cup is beneficial if your toddler uses one, as the flight attendant can fill it during drink rounds. This way, you can avoid the hassle at security.

Storing Drinks and Snacks

The last thing you want on a flight is a hungry, fussy toddler. Packing snacks and beverages to bring on board will certainly remedy that issue, but you may be wondering what you're allowed to bring and what's off-limits.

TSA guidelines state liquids must be under 3.4 ounces or 100 millimeters to be allowed on board, but the nourishment you pack for your toddler is an exception to the rule. Milk, juice, and formula (if applicable) for your toddler can exceed this amount and do not need to fit in a quart-sized bag.

If you're planning on a shorter flight, remember breastmilk can be stored at room temperature for up to 4 hours. However, once breast milk is cooled, it must remain cool until it is consumed to prevent it from perishing.

Accessories that are used to keep beverages cool, such as ice and gel packs, are allowed in your carry-on. They will be subjected to screening, but are not prohibited on the airplane. You may also bring on jars or pouches of baby food for your toddler.

"Aim for snacks with protein to keep your child full longer," says Kristen Gonzalez, a nutritionist and health and wellness coach at BBK Fitness in Billerica, MA. "Homemade granola, veggies with Greek dressing, and nut butter sandwiches are great options. Kids find snacks especially appealing if you cut them into fun shapes."

Of course, if it's a shorter flight and your airline offers an in-air snack, you may find it easier to simply ask for food and drink for your toddler from the flight attendant. That said, bear in mind this takes the control out of your hands, as the refreshments won't necessarily be delivered on your ideal schedule.

Pros and Cons of Pre-Boarding

Many major airlines have family pre-boarding policies that allow families with young children to board the plane early. This gives parents an opportunity to get their children settled before the rush and also offers the chance for little ones to get acclimated with the environment. Each airline's policy varies in terms of how soon families can board and the maximum age of children who are considered for preboarding.

Pre-boarding means you won't have to make your way through a huge crowd of people, nor will you have to worry about getting your toddler buckled in a hurry while also organizing snacks and toys. However, some parents caution against pre-boarding, as little ones can get antsy if they're seated too long.

"Doing early boarding is not always a good thing," says Julie Zupan, a traveling mother of three from Medford, Oregon. "Sometimes, it is worth waiting until toward the end of the line so they can get as much energy out as possible."

Whether you decide to take advantage of pre-boarding depends on the airline's policies, your toddler's temperament, and who else will be traveling with you. Double-check with your airline before your flight to see what options are available.

Should You Bring a Car Seat?

Whether you bring a car seat on the flight is entirely your decision, as there are no regulations in place that require you to do so. Some parents feel more comfortable knowing their toddler is fastened into a car seat on the plane, while others prefer to get their child their own seat or keep them on their lap.

Pros
  • Your child may feel more comfortable (and nap) during the flight.

  • Securing your child in a car seat is the safest way to fly, per the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Cons
  • Carrying a car seat through the airport can be cumbersome.

  • Installing the car seat on the plane is sometimes difficult given the tight quarters. You will need to familiarize with seat sizes to ensure your car seat will fit.

Car seat safety experts universally agree flying with a car seat is the safest option for toddlers since runway emergencies do occur, which are similar to car crashes but at five times the speed. Toddlers may ride on your lap at no added cost but will need their own ticket if you are installing the car seat on the plane.

If you plan to bring your car seat on board, bring a copy of the FAA regulations along with you, as some flight attendants may not be fully informed about car seat rules.

In short, nearly all convertible and infant seats are approved by the FAA. American airline carriers must abide by these regulations, but international carriers do not. Check your airline's policy before you travel to be sure you're clear on their rules.

Keeping Your Toddler Entertained

Once you're settled on the plane, you'll want to be sure your little one is kept busy. After all, no parent wants to be the one whose toddler is squirming and squealing throughout the flight.

Safe bets for entertaining your toddler include:

  • Mess-free coloring books
  • Board books
  • Puzzles

Even if you don't typically allow electronics at home, you may consider making an exception during the flight. Movies or apps for toddlers can be a great distraction, which will translate into a much smoother flight.

A Word From Verywell

The best way to approach a flight with your little one is to show up calm yet prepared. Your toddler will pick up on any tension, which you can eliminate by ensuring you understand all guidelines ahead of your journey. Having a plan in place for your arrival at the airport, security, and boarding will help things run much more smoothly.

Be sure to bring items on board that will comfort and entertain your toddler, as well as plenty of diapers and food. Remember, you won't be the only one on board trying to keep their little one entertained, and you'll be at your destination before you know it!

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Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Federal Aviation Administration. Carry-on baggage tips. Updated July 12, 2016.

  2. Transportation Security Administration. Traveling with children.

  3. Centers for Disease Control. Proper storage and preparation of breast milk. Updated June 11, 2021.

  4. Federal Aviation Administration. Flying with children. March 19, 2021.

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