Family Travel: Flying with a baby or toddler


Women and Baby on an airplane
Woman holding a baby in-flight

Many of you are probably flying somewhere for the holidays. And some of you might be doing it with a very demanding little companion for the first time. It can be dread-inducing, right?

We’ve actually been pretty lucky as far as flights with Hudson have gone. No hostage situations on icy tarmacs. No solo sojourns. No vomit. (Yet.) Sure there were poop-explosions and a couple of crying bouts: he had a tooth literally break through the gum as we took our seats to fly home from St. Lucia. They paused the safety announcement because passengers probably couldn’t hear how to fasten their seat-belts over the wailing 10-month-old in the back.

Still, we’ve logged many hours in the air these first 16 months, including a cross-country flight at 8-weeks and a trip to (and from) Bali with three legs that added up to 40-hours of travel each way this past summer.

We talked before about favorite travel gear. Now, here are a few of my best travel tips for flying with a baby or toddler. Buckle-up… it’s a long one…

Before the you get to the airport:
Schedule your flight for when the baby sleeps. Whether or not this means flying on a red-eye is a bit more complicated. I never wanted to fly red-eye when Hudson was a tiny infant because I felt like, if he didn’t sleep, it could be so much worse (everyone else quiet and trying to sleep and terribly angry at our colicky baby). But we still tried to time every flight to naps or at least push a nap so that he’d sleep through as much of the flight as possible. That’s the goal. Now, with his predictable sleep-through-the -night routine, I’d choose a red-eye, no question.

Decide whether or not to purchase the baby a seat. They don’t have to have their own until they’re two–but it might be worth it to have one if you’re flying long-haul. There’s no way we would have survived those flights to Bali without Hudson having a seat. It meant we had a whole row to stretch out in, make a mess in, etc. We brought his carseat and could sleep well knowing he was strapped in and not in danger of rolling onto the floor in the middle of the night. Having a carseat will also leave their hands free and allow you to lower your tray table as well as theirs.

Choose an aisle seat for one or both of you (if you’re lucky enough to be traveling with your partner). We always have sat beside each other, but others have suggested having aisle seats across from each other–and that could work out really well, too.

Confirm your airline’s policies for luggage allowances. Make sure that your baby is on the ticket as a lap infant if he or she doesn’t have a seat. If you’re bringing on a carseat, will it fit? Check before you get to the airport.

Get your baby a passport, if traveling internationally, well in advance.

Pack strategically. Imagine yourself at the airport and going through security. Can you manage it all? Pack your carry-on with a change of clothes for the baby and more diapers than you think you’ll need. Put a small bag within the bag that can stay at your feet with those things you think you might be accessing often: blanket, distractions, snacks or bottles.

Dress strategically, too: For using the bathroom with one hand. And nursing–if you still are–comfortably. I didn’t buy too many nursing-specific clothes, but I really liked wearing one on flights where Hudson was likely to fall asleep on me (something like this).

Have a sleep routine in place that both you and your partner know. In stressful moments, it’s easy to snap at each other. We found that the more we’re in sync about what happens next, what to try when the baby seems overtired, etc., the better. Moreover, getting the baby to sleep in an unfamiliar setting is easier if you can pull out familiar sleep cues–like a song or a book.

Stock up on distractions (for an older baby or toddler). Depending on his or her age, this might mean toys from the dollar store to unwrap one by one, an iPad with videos loaded, board books, crayons, stickers, finger foods, etc. If you’re planning on watching videos, bring kid-appropriate headphones and a splitter so you can listen along.

Baby in a car seat on a flight

At the airport:
Don’t let the people behind you intimidate you when you’re going through security. You’re doing the best you can and you have a whole extra person to account for. Here are the TSA policies for screening children and carrying on liquids required for babies. Note that you do have to take your child out of the carrier or stroller to go through, so we usually used the stroller as a luggage cart and started out with me carrying Hudson when he was a super sleepy infant. (And if you’re still worried about being quickly through, check out these tips.)


Otherwise, keep them up and moving in the terminal. If you have a really little one, try to save the sleep for the flight. With the walkers and crawlers, get them moving around before they’re confined!


Stay off the plane as long as you can. (This is perhaps my number one tip .) When Aron and I fly together–which luckily has been every time so far–he gets on the plane with the pre-boarding families and gets us all set up. He grabs the necessary overhead space and puts only what we need at our feet. If we’re traveling with a carseat, he’ll set that up; or he’ll gatecheck the stroller. I’ll stay behind with Hudson–and usually with a babycarrier like the Ergo or a sling, and a diaper case. (This is a great time to do a pre-flight diaper change.) The flight attendants sometimes see me with the baby and will double-check: “would you like to pre-board?” Don’t be tempted! Stay off until the last possible minute–just be sure to stay close to the gate. Even once you’re in the gangway, bounce or play until they really need you to board. There’s no reason to spend any more time entertaining the baby in your tiny little row (or trying to keep him asleep over the overhead announcements) than necessary.

On board:
Say hello to the flight attendant and introduce him or her to your child–especially if you’re traveling alone. They just may end up being your best ally. Our flight attendant on our Frankfurt-to-Bangkok leg brought Hudson a toy and then offered to let him crawl up and down on the stairs between economy and business class!

Double check that you have everything you’d need for the baby at your feet. (What if, say, turbulence were to force you to stay seated? This has happened to us a surprising number of times.)

And get set up. If they are in a carseat (and on a flight that still gives out blankets), tuck a blanket underneath the seat and connect it to the seat pocket in front of them. It can save you from fishing too deep for every toy that gets tossed overboard.

Try to have your child sucking on something or chewing something at take-off and landing. Most moms with infants use this time to nurse. Just don’t start too early: planes can taxi for what feels like an eternity.

Break all your rules! Snacks! Movies! Photobooth with your iPhone!

If there are two adults on a meal-service flight, see if you can stagger your meals. Some attendants are willing (others are not) to hold one meal until their next trip down the aisle.

Enjoy it when they sleep: Either sleep yourself (a must if it’s a red-eye), or finally watch a movie and have a glass of wine with your partner. (That splitter comes in handy again!) I think one of my favorite “dates” with Aron was that flight with 8-week-old Hudson; I was worried we’d never see a new(ish)-release movie together again and voila!

And finally:
Relax! It usually goes better than you’d think. And when it doesn’t, you at least will have a good survival story (and often some wonderful vacation memories, to boot.)

holding a baby on a flight

What am I missing?

P.S. Note that these are all based on what has worked for us. You know your baby best! Also, my favorite gear for traveling with small kids.

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Let’s Discuss

  1. These are all brilliant! You guys should write a book. Seriously. I especially love the “tuck in the blanket” tip. It sounds very MacGuyver-ish.

    A few tips of my own:
    -Wear slip-on shoes for security.
    -Always anticipate a delay on the runway.
    -If you have an under-2, call the airline the moment you book your flights online to reserve the bulkhead row. Sometimes they have a fold-down bassinet.
    -Ignore people who give you dirty looks/comments for daring to “interrupt their flight” with your (normally-behaving) child. You have as much right to fly anywhere with your child as they do. Also, you’ll never see them ever again.

    Thankfully, Ed, Alex, and I are spending this Christmas in NY! Happy holidays!

    • Ashley

      Thanks, Alli! That is so true regarding a delay on the runway. The longest we waited was an extra hour–which still felt crushing when our four hour flight suddenly was five–but I’ve heard horror stories about being stuck on the tarmac or in the terminal with delays. You really do have to try and tell yourself: just a day, just a day…

      • Stephanie

        Geting stuck on the run way isn’t the worst that could happen. When I was younger my flight had to circle the airport in the air for what seemed like forever because the flight ahead of us ran off the runway while landing. the air plane kept rising and lowering in altitude to stay in the air. It was horrible on my ears.

  2. Erin

    Hi Ashley – great tips, thank you! Flying with a little one is definitely a challenge… It’s interesting, I actually have had the best luck (and this has been when flying with at least one other adult) when we have requested or paid for a window and a middle seat in the bulkhead row (the one at the front of coach with the flat panel in front of it). Although you sacrifice the under-the-seat room and some access to the overhead bin (which means even more planning in advance for what to take out and cram into that front pocket pre-flight), you gain a tiny, but contained, play area where the kiddo can move around a little. Also, my little guy has always really liked looking out the window.

  3. Baker Martin

    Rotten kids on planes is like a bad tooth ache (and I’m a mother who has travelled extensively with my two daughters so I know it’s very, very hard work). As a couple of recent articles report (NY Times and Wall Street Journal) the majority of flyers would like to keep the little kiddos off the planes or corral them into a “Family Section”. Indeed Ryanair now has childless flights. So your tips are appreciated. But what I didn’t hear in your post is an acknowledgment of respect for your fellow passengers (the road warrior who is working, the student studying, the widow grieving, the ill person just trying to get to their medical treatment and yes, that couple just starting a honeymoon or vacation). Mothers like Ali need to shift their mindset away from me, me, me (really you thinks it’s OK to submit 120 people to your brat because “you’ll never see them again”). Now on the flip side I just recently sat next to a new baby for 5+ hours and that baby was perfect… large measure because of the thoughtful mother. Good luck.

    • Sara Dill

      Some people (like blogger Joanna Goddard) suggest making gift bag like things for people around your seat with earplugs, snacks and what not as an apology for an unpredictable baby that might cry.

  4. Ashley

    Thanks for your comment! I guess I take it for granted that anyone looking for tips on flying with a baby/toddler is already concerned with being considerate. If it were just me in the cabin, everything would be easy-peasy, right? I think the rude fliers Alli is referencing are those ones who glare at you the minute you step onto a plane with an infant, the ones who shoot you a glance the minute your baby coos, or who shoot you daggers when you stand up to bounce the baby to sleep and might block their view of the movie for a minute as you shush and sway your way up and down the aisle. Most of all, I think it’s directed as those who scare parents away from traveling with young ones–which is such a crime! And I agree–don’t worry about them! Even a perfect baby cries, right?

    • Alli

      Yes, thank you for clarifying, Ashley! I definitely didn’t mean that parents flying with kids should not be considerate of other passengers. Absolutely apologize where you can, soothe your child as best you can, and do not take up more space than necessary, among other things. But there are people on flights who are downright mean to passengers with kids–I’ve encountered them before. I’m saying that you cannot do anything to appease those kinds of people, so just get on with your flight and try your best not to feel the heat from the lasers they’re shooting at you with their eyes.

  5. Your suggestion about sending your partner ahead of you and staying off the plane with the baby until the last possible minute, is genius! I can’t believe we haven’t thought about that before now. I can’t tell you how many times I have been internally begging them to take off already because May is on the verge of losing it. Once she gets in the air, she is pretty good, but that time before take off can be brutal. We have flown short distances with her a lot, and these are great tips! Thanks!

  6. Thanks for the post – we are flying with our 13 month old in January for the first time and are just unsure of how it will go so I am gathering as many tips as I can ahead of time. Staying off the plane until the last moment is genius! As well as making friends with the flight attendants…smart! Our little one does not stop moving unless she is asleep so any perks of letting her crawl for a bit would be great. Thanks again and I enjoy reading your blog every day!

  7. I really enjoyed reading this! I don’t have kids but all of your tips makes perfect sense! As a traveler without kids my husband and I always try to be considerate of those with kids, and offer to hold or watch their baby while they use the restroom, get up to stretch etc. I figured my parents traveled with me when I was a baby (and I most likely wasn’t perfect on flights) and eventually Nick and I will travel with kids – so maybe karma will be good to us when our time comes around! Everyone forgets we were ALL babies once! :)

  8. Marge

    Love your blog and all the travel tips for families. Just got back yesterday from a trip from Boston to Colorado, including layovers and redirected flights for refueling, with my four month old. We didn’t buy a seat for her, but asked at each gate to see if they had any free seats available and got lucky to have a row to ourselves on two of the flights. I would recommend a window seat if you are planning on breastfeeding, as I found my tall little girl was too long to lie across my lap and nurse without sticking out into the isle or onto my neighbors lap. Also, forget the travel boppy and just buy a cheap neck pillow to use in its place. Worked great! Fortunately, our Penny was a trooper and slept most of the time on the flights and flirted with everyone when she was awake.

  9. Tina

    Ashley, I loved this post!!! Great tips… I’ll use it next March when we fly with our 2 year old boy from Buenos Aires to Miami….long trip to visit friends… and very stressfull, and most of the time what stresses me is the looks of reproval of other people. We do the best we can, and are always respectful, but kids are kids, and long trips can be really stressfull for them.

  10. Your tip of having one person board first has to be the smartest travel tip ever!! I’m always so concerned that I won’t have enough overhead space, or that we’ll be standing in the aisle forever, that I board first. Luckily, I’ve never had a negative travel experience with my little guy, but I will definitely do the next time we travel.

    Having a new toy, coloring book and book has always worked well for us. The novelty of it being new (a surprise), even if it’s a dollar store pick, usually last for a while.

    Once while traveling alone for business, I had to help a mom change her infant on the floor because the plane did not have a changing table. I hadn’t run into that situation beforehand, but I’ve now noticed that many planes don’t have them (on domestic flights). Not sure if you can find out from the airline beforehand, but for those traveling with little ones, it might be helpful to try.

    • Ashley

      So true! And how nice you were to help–she must have been so relieved to find a friendly fellow parent.

  11. Jenny

    I’m sorry Alli but I get so annoyed with the super sensitive people who equate looks with being sooo mean. It’s a LOOK. Perhaps you are expecting this look and see it where it doesn’t exist. Had anyone yelled at you? Said something to you? Kicked you off a plane? Don’t forget that good parents are usually more rare than the neglectful or lazy, so we’ve all dealt with some bratty kids on flights. We can give a look without meaning anymore than “ugh, please don’t be a brat.” Don’t take every little thing so personally. And it really goes for every part of life. People just don’t waste that much of their time thinking about everyone around them and it screams of insecurity and defensiveness to bring “those people” up.

    • Alyssa

      I’m sorry Jenny, but the blog was sharing tips, tricks, and minor suggestions on how to make your travel with infants and toddlers easier. Discussing “those people” is not wrong, because they are just a part of the whole ordeal. When you are around a large crowd of people and your child is fussing you DO get insecure because you don’t want people thinking those negative thoughts about your little bundle of joy and you certainly don’t want to disrupt their flight anymore than necessary.

      From my own experience traveling with our son when he was 7 or 8 months as soon as we reached the gate for each flight the “looks” would start. It’s not just one or two, its much more common than that. When you are stressed out already from the usual stresses of travel PLUS traveling with a little one that requires twice as much stuff for you to keep track of, its hard to remember to not worry about “those people’s” looks. Tomorrow we leave for a night (flying Red Eye of course) of cross country travel with our now 19 month old son and I look forward to utilizing some of the suggestions from this blog. Thank you for posting! :)

    • Jenny, just as a smile can make you feel better a “look” can cause negative emotion. Its not because of over sensitivity, I’m guessing from the defensive nature of your post you often send looks toward people with children. Remember, cHildren pick up on the emotions of people around them. As the mother of a young child I do my best to keep her happy and soothed in public. However, I care more about offending friendly people than I do people who give us “looks”.

  12. Brianna Meighan

    This article had a lot of great travel tips for parents flying with babies. I wrote a book called How to Fly with a Baby: Your Mile-High Guide to Air Travel with an Infant by Brianna Meighan. After my baby and I flew on 40 flights (20 flights of which were international flights) and all before my baby reached his 1st Birthday, as you can imagine, I became an EXPERT in the area of family travel. So if you have an upcoming trip with your baby, be sure to check-out the guide that gives you all the information on flying with a baby. I put down all my travel tips in my book which is available as an eBook. Feel free to visit my Facebook page and send me any questions you may have! Happy Travels!

  13. Heather

    Great ideas. I am curious if you ever used one of the bassinets on international flights? We are flying to England overnight on KLM when my LO is nearly nine months and not sure if she will be too big by then. If so, is the bulkhead a bad place to be with a baby since the armrests usually do not lift up? Any experience with that? I was also wondering if you have ever seen anyone try to make a cover over the bassinet to shield baby from light..I was thinking scarf and duct tape if they will let me! Trying to decide if we need to get an extra seat….

    • Sorry for the delay! I’m afraid I’ve never used the bassinet, but on our last flight some parents beside us had reserved it. They weren’t able to use it though bc the baby was too heavy. They let them try using it on the floor, but the little girl just ended up sleeping at their feet. On the other hand, we prefer to have H fall asleep strapped into his cars eat. It’s nice knowing that he’s safe if we fall asleep.

      The bulkhead is really nice bc it keeps the issue of them kicking the seat in front at bay; and you have a little room to play. BUT there are big downsides too: armrests don’t lift, trays are in armrests, and you can’t keep a bag at your feet during takeoff and landing. I’d usually still take it for the space, but…. You have to weigh those cons.

      Hope that helps!

      • Brie

        I have used the bassinets on international flights on u tied/continental up til my son was 8 months. After that he was too big.

  14. Emily

    What is this hulk comment above with the inappropriate name?? Sounds like spam of some sort so you may want to delete it. Love the tips though!

  15. Brie

    Great tips. My family and I live as expats in Asia and travel to and from the USA a few times a year plus our holiday travels to other destinations. I follow many of the same tips as you provided but love the blanket under the carseat to save toys com being lost! Awesome idea. Will try it next time.

    One sad thing about the use of baby carriers (ergos, baby bjorn, etc) on planes that I just learned from a snotty flight attendant-they are banned for use on airplanes by the FAA. I can’t tell you how many times I have walked the aisle with my son in our ergo to get him to sleep, I about cried when the attendant told me I’d need to remove it. I have tried to look up FAA guidelines on this, but can’t seem to get anywhere. Do you know anything about this rule?

    • Carrie

      I have only had flight attendants tell me no baby carrier on take off and landing. During the flight using it was fine. I loved having the ergo baby for my baby to sleep close to me. He’s too big for it now. Prepare an extra shirt for yourself, it gets sweaty having a baby pasted to you for hours. And tuna sandwiches are a bad idea during the flight. Never bring food you wouldnt want to wear and smell for 7 hours. Lollipops are a good alternative for takeoff and landing. Sticky, but a good backup in case your baby isn’t hungry.

      • Ashley

        Glad to hear it! Thanks for the tips! (And, ugh, tuna… that smell… blech.) 😉

  16. I needed to thank you for this excellent read!! I absolutely enjoyed every little bit
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  17. Great advice! Especially ‘staying off the plane as long as possible.’

    We traveled with our newborn on a cross country flight and didn’t think of that one. He was fine except for one teething episode. Next we have an international flight with him- wish us luck!

  18. Charlotte

    Hi there

    Thanks for the great information in your blog. I will be travelling with my 10 month old son from New Zealand to the UK in a few months time and have booked a separate seat for my son. We’re flying Singapore Airlines and have learned they don’t allow rear facing car seats which isn’t ideal at his age as I would like him to be able to recline a bit to be able to sleep. Can I please enquire what seat your child is using in the above photo. It doesn’t look too big or obtrusive! Thanks!

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