How to Fly (Happily) With a Toddler

How to Fly Happily with a Toddler

We recently posted about how we planned to survive a four-hour flight with Sally, the busiest 18-month-old we know. Well, folks, we did it. Many of you assured us that it wouldn’t be as bad as we thought, and you were right. That said, we had a few precarious moments when all hell almost broke loose. But, luckily, we were able to contain our little toddler before things got too crazy. Rather than relaying eight hours of play-by-play with Sally at 30,000 feet, we’ll get down to the nitty gritty — what worked, what didn’t, and what we learned for next time.

Just as a refresher, here’s what we planned for the flight out there:


Flight Snacks

What Worked: All of the crunchy snacks and purees were perfect for the flight. The fruit snacks seemed to be an especially big hit for keeping her happy. She loved the smoothie puree and the applesauce puree, but the “meal replacement” chicken casserole wasn’t very well received when she had other, more interesting options. If you’re worried about purees being seen as liquids in airport security, I can report that we didn’t have any issues either time. And I didn’t even take them out of the diaper bag and put them into my “liquids” baggie. The Craisins, Goldfish, and pretzels were all great snacks as long as we only gave her a few at a time.

Flight with Sally-5

What Didn’t: One commenter reminded me that I couldn’t bring juice on the plane. Duh. So I nixed even trying to bring the juice. And I thought the candy was a good idea as a last-resort option, but we ended up not using it at all. In such close confines, it would have been messy, and the fruit snacks were a great alternative as a sweet treat.

Flight with Sally-4

What We Learned: We were able to ask the flight attendants for apple juice and water on both flights. They brought Sally’s drinks in the usual plastic cup, but they added a lid and a straw, which Sally loved, and which we’ll ask for in the future. When she started to get too excited about the straw, we switched the drink over to the sippy cup. Southwest also brought around an array of snacks, which was really helpful with keeping Sally entertained.


Fun on Flight

What Worked: All hail the iPad. Our flights would have been a total bust without it. Not only did she love watching her favorite show (“Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”), but she also loved playing one particular game for several minutes at a time. It’s called Forest Flyer by Sago Mini. She flies a little bird around with her finger, and the bird happens upon entertaining scenarios as it flies from place to place. We downloaded the app when it was free, but it currently costs $2.99. They do, however, have a game that’s currently free that’s called Ocean Swimmer. These are the only games that will hold Sally’s attention, so we’re hooked. She played with her other toys a few minutes at a time, but none of them held her attention quite like the iPad.

Flight with Sally-2

What We Learned: One of our readers recommended stickers for the flight, and they ended up being a great option on the way home. She played with them for several minutes. We also brought a blanket on the way home so she could sleep more easily. On the way there, we had to use one of our sweatshirts as her blanket while she napped, which wasn’t ideal. Also, the headphones we brought her were okay, but after hearing a few others mention toddler headphones, I think we’ll have to get a pair before our next flight with Sal.

Flight with Sally-3

We also made a point of not letting Sally take any naps before the flight. Our flights were midmorning and midday, and it was especially hard to keep her awake before the midday flight. As we drove to the airport, I took away her pacifier, sang songs with her, tickled her, and gave her snacks to keep her from drifting off. Even still, she wanted so badly to fall asleep, but all that wrestling with her actually paid off. On the flight, Sally slept for two full hours. It was amazing! On the midmorning flight, she slept for one hour, so both times we were lucky enough to have her sleep some. In other words, we recommend flying with a toddler who is ready to sleep. For our next long flight, we’ll try to optimize flying when Sally is ready to go to sleep for the night, if at all possible.

Flight with Sally-1

Lastly, we decided to take the window and middle seat for our flights. I was afraid that if we chose the aisle seat, Sally would just want to get down and run around the whole time. And for one of our flights, the seatbelt sign was on the entire flight, so she wouldn’t have been able to. I also wasn’t too keen on the idea of chasing her down the aisle. So as far as Sally was concerned, running down the aisle wasn’t even an option. Johnny and I both really liked doing it this way, and we’ll continue choosing the window seat with her in the future. She loved looking out the window, too, which provided several minutes of entertainment on both flights.

Flight with Sally-6

Got all that? If you’re more of a skimmer like me, here’s a recap of what we do and don’t recommend — in bullet form:

What We Recommend


  • Crackers
  • Pretzels
  • Raisins/Craisins
  • Fruit snacks
  • Purees
  • Sippy cup


  • iPad loaded with shows and games
  • Toddler headphones
  • Favorite stuffed animal and small blanket
  • Books
  • Stickers
  • Pacifier
  • Color Wonder paper and markers
  • Noise putty
  • Any other mess-free activities for keeping your toddler busy

Our final two cents:

  • Choose the window seat.
  • Fly when your toddler is ready to sleep.
  • Keep telling yourself that the plain eventually has to land.
  • If you can choose your own seating, sit in the back with other families with young children. Your kid will seem angelic in comparison to some of the others.

There’s nothing like baptism by fire. And when it comes to flying with a toddler, you never really know what it’s gonna be like until you’re in the thick of it. But now that we’ve done it twice, we feel much better prepared for next time. Would you add anything to our list? Any memorable flight-with-a-toddler stories you care to share? Now that the flight’s behind us, I’m ready for ’em!

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  • Reply Retired by 40 July 14, 2014 at 7:42 am

    I’ve been looking forward to this post! Plus, loved the last suggestion about sitting with the other families because then your kid will seem angelic compared with others! Congrats on being so prepared and having both flights go so well!

    • Reply Joanna July 15, 2014 at 12:29 am

      Thanks! I’m so glad it’s over! I think we deserve “We Survived” T-shirts or something. 🙂

  • Reply Kim July 14, 2014 at 8:12 am

    Oh this is so helpful! And perfect timing, too! We’re headed on a 4-hour flight with our 21-month old on Wednesday. We’ve flown with him before a few times, but never this long of a flight and not for about six months… And six months is like an eternity in toddler months, right??? Thankfully this flight we’ll be two parents to one toddler, but in late August I’ll be flying with him ALL BY MYSELF. A little nervous, can you tell?

    • Reply Joanna July 15, 2014 at 12:31 am

      You’re right. Flying with Sally now was nothing like when we flew with her a year ago. I get kind of sick on flights, so it was nice to have Johnny to help out for that reason. But, otherwise, I definitely could have done it by myself. You will do great!!

  • Reply Lauren July 14, 2014 at 8:13 am

    Glad to hear that it went well! I actually have brought juice on flights with my daughter and never had a problem… airport security is usually very understanding when you’re traveling with a tot. Maybe it just depends on the airport/security staff, though.

    • Reply Joanna July 15, 2014 at 12:31 am

      Nice! Good to know. I will give it a try next time. Thanks for sharing, Lauren!

  • Reply Little House July 14, 2014 at 10:06 am

    Good to hear it all went swimmingly well. Since you took the middle and window seat, I have to ask if your neighbor in the aisle was a-okay with sitting next to a toddler. I know that my first reaction would be, “Oh no….” It’s fine if it’s family, but when it’s a strangers, you begin to worry! 😉

    • Reply Joanna July 15, 2014 at 12:33 am

      Funny you should ask that… on Southwest, people choose their own seats, and neither time were our flights completely full (about a dozen empty seats). So we thought surely no one would ask to sit with us. But both times we got people WANTING to sit next to us so Sally could be their entertainment on the flight. It was crazy.

  • Reply Melanie July 14, 2014 at 10:53 am

    I was looking forward to this post! As a nonparent (hopefully in the future!) what stuck out to me most was “she played with them for a few minutes.” And you were happy about the few minutes of entertainment each time, haha. Sounds exhausting! She’s so cute though so obviously it’s worth it 🙂 Glad it went well-and it’s good to hear how parents anticipate, prepare, agonize over how to keep things cool with children….helps nonparents be more patient and appreciative to kiddos on flights.

    • Reply Joanna July 15, 2014 at 12:35 am

      Haha, yup…. a few minutes of entertainment is all we can ask for. Exhausting is exactly what it was!! Both times I was counting down the minutes because we had to be on high alert for four hours straight. So glad it’s over!

  • Reply Megan July 14, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    Arg- We have our first flight with our kids coming up. 2.5 year old twins… this is going to be interesting… thank you for writing this, hopefully this will come in handy!

    • Reply Joanna July 15, 2014 at 12:36 am

      Good luck, Megan! It really wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be. Having plenty of snacks was key. And the iPad saved our lives. Remember, the plane eventually has to land!! 🙂

  • Reply Melinda July 18, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    Oh how I loved this update. I would have wanted to sit next to you and you cutie-babies entertain me on airplanes :). Unless they are obnoxious:)

    • Reply Joanna July 21, 2014 at 12:29 am

      Sally definitely fit into the obnoxious category a couple of times ;). But not for lack of trying from her parents! I’m glad there are some people like you who don’t completely dread having a baby on board!!

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