How to Survive a Long Haul Flight with a Baby and a Toddler

Written by Melissa from @babysleepcode

Few things strike terror into a parent's heart more readily than the prospect of dozens of hours in a cramped cabin filled with strangers and one's own small children at an altitude of 36,000 feet.

As an internationally certified infant and toddler sleep consultant, and founder of Baby Sleep Code, I have helped thousands of families across the globe with sleep. And have traveled extensively with my children, Henry, aged three, and Ella, seven months. I've learnt from my own experiences, and those of my clients, what works and what doesn't.

With preparation and a bit of luck, I am confident that you will make it through your flight. Here are some tips I've learned along the way. When you arrive at your destination, hopefully you'll have just enough energy left to sink into your lounge chair and order a Mai Tai! 

Featured: Cleo nappy backpack

Pre-Boarding Strategies

Think strategically before the flight even begins: even if that sense of control is an illusion, it may help calm your nerves! Free up your hands in security lines by wearing a baby carrier. I’ve had Ella in the front pack and Henry on my hip many times.

Have one parent in charge of luggage, lines, and paperwork and the other wrangling the kids. Encourage your toddler to run and play as much as possible, as long as they’re playing safely, don't stress about ‘airport etiquette’. Better that they release their energy now rather than when the seatbelt sign is switched on. 

Once you've arrived at your gate, wait to board the plane until you must! Some airlines offer early boarding as a courtesy to families. Consider sending one parent to board and set up supplies. But board with the kids as late as possible. Think about how you will keep your babies occupied for that extra time as you wait for the other passengers to board. Is it worth digging into your emergency supply of sticker books so early in the game?

Your wait at the gate is an excellent time to chat with fellow travellers, too. A smile and kind words can go a long way in establishing rapport. Parents will empathise with you; they may even become your travel allies.

I recall one trip where I had to run across the airport to make my flight. My husband took the bags through customs. Meanwhile, I cradled a breastfeeding Ella, holding Henry's hand and racing him to the toilet for an emergency poo. In the restroom, another mum offered to help me; she held Ella while I assisted Henry. The offer itself was a tremendous relief. Never underestimate the solidarity of traveling parents!

Featured: Cleo nappy backpack

Pack the Perfect Carry-On

I adore my Cleo backpack by Hannah & Henry. It's easy to clean and offers loads of compartments to keep the kids' stuff organised. I also appreciate the bag's trolley sleeve, which makes it effortless to travel with. I secure it right to my suitcase.

What to Pack in the Perfect Bag

Packing will require some thought, and the items you need depend upon the ages and interests of your little ones. Some generally universal items include:

  • Nappies
  • Wipes (baby and antibacterial) 
  • Change of clothes for all!
  • Sleepwear
  • Sleep associations 
  • Snacks and baby food
  • Baby toys & teethers
  • Stickers, crayons and coloring books
  • A toddler tablet and headphones

Nappies are critical, even for the toilet-trained toddler! Toilets will not always be readily accessible. On one of my trips, Henry had an urgent wee when we were stuck on the tarmac!

Aim to bring lots of healthy food for your little ones too, as food options on your flight may be limited. Henry will often eat an apple at take-off to help equalise his ears. Breastfeeding or taking a bottle or pacifier at take-off or landing can mitigate ear pressure changes for a younger baby. 

Your bag should also contain what you'll need at the airport, and what you'll need when you land! I pack Ella’s white noise machine, and Henry’s lovey in our Cleo backpack just in case my checked luggage is misplaced. Do the same with other items you couldn't live without for a night or two.

Featured: Cleo nappy backpack

Baby Sleep on a Long-Haul Flight

As I mentioned, bring your child's sleep associations with you on the plane, including their sleeping bag, a portable white noise machine, and a pacifier or lovey if they use them.

On board, stick with your previous routine timings or let sleep happen when it comes naturally. If your child is awake and happy, let them be! If they're fussy and showing signs of tiredness, encourage them to sleep. And don't stress too much about the timing or length of naps; just let your baby sleep whenever possible. 
Only in the last few hours of your flight should you consider holding back sleep, if it will be bedtime when you arrive at your accommodations.

A courtesy bassinet is one sleep-promoting airline amenity many travellers are unaware is available to them! You can reserve one in advance through many airlines, usually free. Do this ASAP so you don’t miss out. 

"Stay Calm" is Your On-Board Mantra

Your baby may cry quite a bit on the flight or hardly at all. No matter what happens, board your flight with the determination to stay calm. Keep in mind that babies look to us to understand how they should feel about a situation. If you are stressed and anxious, they may mirror this and find it hard to calm down. So, take a deep breath, and try these strategies if you find your child crying on your long-haul flight.

If you're flying overnight, try moving to the back of the plane. The engine noise is typically louder there and provides excellent white noise. This move is also helpful if you're stressed that your baby's fussing is annoying other passengers: the engine sounds will drown out your child's cries. Also, simply walking up and down the aisles may be enough to calm your baby and help them relax.

Please don't be too concerned about your child's tears disturbing others though. Babies cry, and that’s ok! Many of your fellow passengers have travelled with crying babies themselves. And most people will have headphones on anyway.

How to Streamline Your Arrival 

Whether you and your children are travelling with your partner or solo, plan how you will manage your arrival logistics to minimise stress. Have all the paperwork you need filled out and organised before deplaning, including customs forms, and passports ready.

If travelling with a partner, never underestimate the power of dividing and conquering! Put one parent in charge of luggage collection and the other on child management duty while waiting in customs lines.

Keep in mind that some international destinations offer VIP fast-track security and immigration services on arrival. I highly recommend this if it's an option for you. We utilised this recently on our holiday to Bali, and it spared us two hours in customs!

Finally, don't be shy about accepting help from others. Perhaps you are juggling bags and chasing your children around. If someone offers a hand, take it! As I mentioned, many have been in your shoes, and they will empathise. 

Keep Things in Perspective

Approach your trip with the mentality that this is an adventure and things won't necessarily go to plan. Expect them not to go to plan. But remember: the flight represents just one day, give or take, of your life. You'll be ok. Your kids will be ok.
And creating new and cherished family memories once you've arrived will make your flight well and truly worth it.

You're going to do great! Cheering for you!

Melissa x

For more baby sleep tips, visit babysleepcode.com.au and follow Melissa on Instagram @babysleepcode

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