Travel tips and advice for keeping toddlers & children entertained and comfortable on a plane
With over a million air miles between us as a family, we’ve had more than our fair share of hours trying to keep babies through to school-aged kids calm and entertained onboard long flights.
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This post is part of our flying with kids series – we have a bumper library of ideas to get you planning and get you through all aspects of flying with children
Pre-take off activities on a plane
Before getting stuck into the iPad or rifling through your entire bag of tricks before the plane has even taken off, here are a few ideas to try to keep little ones entertained between boarding and take-off;
- Look through everything in the seat pocket, talk about the flight safety card and where you get on and off the plane, point things out in the duty-free magazine, even the vomit bag can be a source of fascination!
- Talk to your child about where you are going, get them excited about what you will be doing when you get there, who will be waiting for you.
- Flick through the pictures on your phone, kids love seeing pictures of themselves and people they know. Can you get some pictures of your destination?
- If you are lucky enough to have them in a window seat, talk about all the things the ground staff are doing and how they get the plane ready for take-off.
- Introduce yourself to any of your immediate neighbours (and suss out how friendly they might be to your little ones!)
- If available pre-flight, try plugging in the headphones and listening to the music together, show them how the in-flight entertainment and the hand controller works (even if they are too young to function it themselves).
- Get them prepared at take off for the effects of cabin pressure, for infants this might be the time to breastfeed, give a bottle or a pacifier. For children, time to hand out the sweets or sippy cups.
- For most children the loud hum that a plane makes can help lull them to sleep, but do remember that the engine noise on take-off can be as much as 115 decibels, which may well frighten the pants of them instead! Be prepared to block their ears (by covering with your hands or using cotton wool) if you know they are sensitive to loud noises
- Heaven forbid – never let kicking the seat in front of you or pulling down on the tray table be a source of entertainment, no matter how big or small the child, it is simply not funny and incredibly bad manners – you can see our 10 Commandments of family air travel here – a vital read if you are first-time flyers!!
Meals and snacks for the plane
Snacks and meals can be great time users on the plane. Most adults have little expectation of plane food and expect it to be purely a form of sustenance between point A and B. However, for a child, it can be truly the highlight of the show, particularly when airlines put a special effort into their meals to make them bright, colourful and fun (Emirates and Etihad both rate highly with me for this factor, as does Qatar).
Just to reiterate – a child’s meal must be booked in advance – do not assume a child’s ticket automatically gets you a child’s meal.
Although children’s meals are served in priority, you can be sure that they will be hungry before the meals come out so keep a decent supply of children’s snacks with you. Try to avoid the really sugary treats, or you will live and learn from your experience. Small crackers, fruit pieces, vegetable sticks, bread rolls work best. Do keep these rationed on a long flight though in case they don’t like the food that is served or you are delayed.
Countless times we have had the child’s meal served while the child is still asleep. Unless there’s an option that another meal will be served later on the flight, I still take the main meal and fish out all the bits they can eat later like crackers, yoghurts, fruit, before the food disappears never to be seen again…. (Hygiene rules dictate that the same meal cannot be served again later).
Once your food tray has arrived, it can be like mission impossible to get the tray removed again which can involve a lot of additional spillages and frustrations when you have a row full of trays and toddlers itching to get moving again.
When travelling together we have simply gotten into the habit of clearing our own trays now and taking them to the galley. If you are travelling solo, hope for a sympathetic stewardess who will clear trays early for you.
Do try to stay hydrated on a plane, encouraging children to take regular drinks even if that means regular toilet breaks. And importantly don’t over fill bellies as the effects of cabin pressure can cause discomfort to children and grownups alike (Yeah, that’s why long-haul flights have that dreadful smell by the end…).
Sleeping on the plane
Think about your jet lag plan in advance to work out what your sleeping schedule for the flight should be.
If it’s nighttime at your destination, aim to get them settled and quiet activities only as quickly as possible. It may help to even have them in their pyjamas before boarding the flight to be clear what the expectation is once you are on board. Close the blinds as soon as you are allowed and darken the area, sing them a song and rock them if need be.
Try to get them fed before you board as the easiest time to get to sleep (for most children) is during takeoff when the cabin is darkened and the engine noise is at its loudest.
Conversely, if it’s still daylight at your destination, keep the activities going for as long as possible, start exploring your goodies bag, take advantage of children’s activity kits on board and in-flight entertainment systems. Don’t just plug them in and leave them to it as they will likely fall asleep, keep things interactive until you are ready to encourage sleep.
Flying with an infant under 12 months? Don’t forget to look into the advantages of booking yourself a bassinet seat – see our handy guide below!
For older children, you may want to learn more about airplane sleep devices. They are NOT essential, but they can help if your child really can’t sleep unless they’re properly stretched out.
We have a complete guide here as to which airlines accept plane sleep devices and which designs work best.
Entertaining children on a plane
As well as in-flight entertainment and activity kits, what can you bring with you to keep little ones amused on a long flight? (see also What to pack which highlights ideas – as well as our guide what NOT to pack for toddlers!). The key is to pack a special “goodies bag”. This can be a mixture of old and new toys for them to explore.
- Don’t expect to simply hand them the bag and get settled, you should explore the bag with them, and try to pace things out over the duration you expect your child to be awake for.
- Forget trying to watch the in-flight movie yourself or taking a nap, you’ll only end up frustrated at the constant interruptions. If your little angels do fall asleep, consider this purely as bonus time – this is very much an example of when setting your expectations will reduce your stress levels
We have a complete guide to travel toys for every age group, or ready on for some of our favourites by age:
Toys for tiny travellers (up to 12 months)
- Finger puppets, learn some finger rhymes
- Clip-on toys (I love Lamaze but plenty of equivalents) and linkies
- Skwish or Winkel (made by Manhattan Toys) – very popular colourful, squishy rattling toys
- Sophie the Giraffe or similar teether type toys
- Hardcover books – try for stories about planes and travel, books with flaps and a sensory element keep them amused a little longer
- Comfort blanket
Toddler tamers (approx 1 to 3-year-olds)
This is probably the hardest group of all to deal with on a plane. Sitting still is no longer of interest, they have probably learnt to walk, want to talk and explore but cannot for the life of them understand why you would want to stay in one spot while there is so much else going on. Toys and entertainment though can still be kept pretty straightforward and resourceful
- Etch a sketch or a travel Aquadoodle
- Hardcover storybooks as per tiny tots
- A box of pipe cleaners (or similar Wikki Sticks) – these are really light and it doesn’t matter if a few roll away in the process
- Some will be ready for the iPad/tablet or playing with your smartphone around this age but may need assistance in controlling it (and patience to keep headphones on). Download some videos or simply audio storybooks, they love photos too
- A glass with ice cubes and straw can keep them busy, if a little wet
- Playing with an empty bottle or the container after a snack is finished
- Let them move around the plane when possible, walking up and down the aisle, find them a friendly stewardess who will fill their cup/bottle for them
Don’t forget to check out “What’s in my toddlers plane bag“
The picky pre-schooler (3 years plus)
- A step up from the toddler, a pre-schooler should be able to fully control and iPad and have a fairly good shot at using the in-flight entertainment system
- From 3 years up (sometimes younger) they are likely to get an activity pack on a long haul flight with thinks like stickers, playing cards, colouring that will keep them busy
- Colouring can be a great idea to keep little ones busy but remember that crayons and pencils roll away very easily, you will constantly be picking things up unless you get them something like a multi-coloured pen.
- Reusable drawing pad, e.g. sketching letters and numbers
- Stickers normally work a treat, try finding the reusable ones though as they will stick to most surfaces, including the tray table, window and peel off without damage
- Post-it notes will also do the trick, colour them in then stick them everywhere
- Avoid any toys that require lots of separate ‘bits’ like jigsaw puzzles, items can and will fall on the floor, constantly
- Undertake a magazine scavenger hunt or a game of eye-spy
- Let them play with your bags, practising zippers, buttons, velcro
For more great ideas from experienced family travel bloggers, check out this guide by Family Off Duty
Dealing with the screaming child – mid-air meltdowns
I don’t think even the most seasoned travelling parent hasn’t had one of those moments where they have been swaying and rocking a child in desperation to stop the inconsolable screaming (if you’ve never been there, honestly your child is a saint). It can and does happen, despite goodie bags, entertainment, exercise, timing your flights some things you simply can’t control, so what do you do if it happens?
The good news is that the drone of the aircraft does actually block a lot of the noise so they might be quite as loud as you fear! Despite the dirty looks you may receive from your neighbours, the vast majority have probably been there, done that or utterly sympathise with you rather than judging your parenting skills and poor decision to have the audacity to book the seat next to them.
- Go through the checklist of what could be wrong just as you would at home – hungry, dirty nappy, too hot/cold, bored.
- After eliminating all of these causes first, ear pain is likely to be one of the more common disturbances. The high altitudes and change in cabin pressure can put pressure on the eardrum causing anything from temporarily muffled hearing to absolute pain. It can affect adults as much as children, but obviously, infants don’t know how to deal with this. If you already have a stuffy nose or cold this will only exacerbate the problem.
- An adult can try to chew or yawn wide to get rid of the discomfort whereas an infant cannot. As babies cannot chew gum, the alternative is sucking. Use a bottle, breast or pacifier during takeoff and descent (not landing, the ear pressure is worse up to 30 mins before when descent commences, listen out for the pilots warning).
- Try to time your feeds to fit in with this schedule if at all possible. If you know your child is unwell before take-off and their ears may be blocked, you may want to postpone flying and the trauma that could lie ahead.
If, however, you have tried every soothing technique known to man and still, your child won’t settle, this may be the point you wish you understood more about the use of sedatives – this is discussed in-depth on the Health issues page.
Dealing with delays
So iPad fully charged, seat belt firmly on, perfectly timed that baby is ready for its next feed in time for take-off and… “ladies and gentlemen we’re sorry to announce that there has been a delay”. There’s almost nothing more frightening to travelling parents (other than perhaps realizing you forgot to pack a spare pacifier when the first one falls in the toilet bowl before takeoff);
- If the doors are yet to be closed, you may still be able to take your toddler for a walk up and down the aisle.
- Kindly neighbours may allow some peekaboo time.
- Don’t let children pick up on your frustration at this point, it will only make them more anxious and irritable as well.
- Don’t resort to sugary treats to keep them busy, you will only pay for this later into the flight.
- If activity bags haven’t been handed out yet, see if cabin crew can pass these out early or start digging into your goodie bags.
- Tell stories, look out the window and make things up as to why you’re delayed
- If you have a stopover, always be prepared for the worst as this is where delays are most likely to occur. Bring plenty of nappies and a spare change of clothes, I would always allow enough for 24 hours “just in case”.
Don’t forget to check out Preparing Children to Fly and Getting to your Flight
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