We took our first *real* family vacation this past December, and it was our first time flying by plane with a toddler. Anticipating my toddler’s first flight was an anxiety-inducing marathon to say the least. Can anyone else relate? Are you taking your toddler on a plane for the first time this upcoming March Break and have similar anxieties?
What my anxieties boiled down to were all the uncertainties of how my toddler would react. How would she deal with wait in lines? How would she react to the whole onboarding process? It can be scary. Is she going to sleep? Our fight directly conflicted with her nap schedule. And the list goes on.
What I learned is that when you’re travelling with a child, especially for the first time, you need to be prepared to bend the rules. But it’s a very fine balance between bending the rules temporarily and eroding the foundation you have so carefully been working on by sticking to regular routines and schedules.
This can feel extremely challenging, and it certainly was for me, as it feels like a failure on all dimensions when having to break your own rules and expectations that you've spent so much time carefully setting for your child.
Every child is different, and the way every family copes and does things is different. A strategy for one family might not be the right one for a different family. But here is my family’s personal experience with air travelling with a toddler by plane:
Acceptance Is key
A huge part of the experience can be affected by your thoughts and mental state. There I was psyching myself out with all the what-ifs and then overcompensating for my anxieties by becoming obsessed with making sure everything will go smoothly. I was allowing myself to get so stressed out that I was missing the enjoyment of the trip, even after landing.
But if you accept that it might not go perfectly, lower your expectations and acknowledge that you might have to use all your energy on the flight entertaining your toddler the whole time, and know that there will be some tears, but it also won’t be the end of the world, you’ll come out the other side way more at peace and thinking, “you know what, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”
And if you get on that plane, train, or car with the right expectations, then anything better is a bonus. Your toddler might just surprise you, and at the very least you’ll be in a heck of a lot more peace.
Talk To Your Toddler About The Flight
Before the flight, we spent time talking with our toddler about travel and planes to better prepare. Using picture books, we discussed what would happen and what to expect. Then we talked about it some more throughout the day. Some airplane books we loved are:
- Angela's Airplane by Robert Munsch
- Planes by Byron Barton
- Fly by Nathan Clement
- Hello, Airplane! by Bill Cotter
- The Airport Book by Lisa Brown
Giving your child as much predictability as possible is important to reduce stress because familiarity is calming to a child. Not knowing what could happen next, especially in new and unfamiliar environments, can be super stressful for children. For children who are especially anxious and have difficulty with change, or children with special needs, consider visiting the airport with your child prior to the actual trip.
Snacks, Snacks, Snacks
If my child has a love language it is most definitely that of food. And, I’ll admit, food and snacks are the only fool-proof way to get my daughter to calm down whenever a tantrum arises.
But the key thought was to pack snacks that didn’t make a mess and can last longer (in essence to keep my daughter busy and help kill time). I did this by using snack cups to encourage eating things one at a time and packing fruit rolls that take some time to unroll and consume.
A helpful tip I received from a fellow Mama was to freeze food pouches to use as ice packs (likewise with single serve hummus or guacamole), that way if you pack snacks that need to be kept cold they stay cold and then you can serve the pouches up as another snack when they thaw.
Whether or not your toddler will sleep on a plane is very unpredictable, especially when our flight directly conflicted with our nap schedule. Best thing we could do for her was try to get her to lay down, keep calm while not engaging with her aside from discourage non-sleep activities, and hope for the best.
For some children, aids like white noise machines or a favourite bedtime blanket or stuffy can help with the process. Some crying might be involved, but crying can actually tire kids out, too. Speaking of tiring kids out, you can even give your toddler some time to let their energy out in the airport prior to the flight to tire them out a little.
Stay Flexible and Positive
Last but certainly not least: keep calm and carry on with your travel plans. Nothing ever goes 100% according to plan, especially when it involves a toddler, am I right? When issues arise and plans fall through, adapt to a new plan with positivity and resilience.
Is it hard for my daughter or for me to step out of a set routine? Who relies more on the buffers and aids that I’ve purposely set up in my life to help cope with the challenges of the day-to-day, my daughter or me? The likely answer is both - but I do think I set an example of how much resilience we can expect from our children when our usual aids are not available or the controls we set up are out of sync.
Can I, myself, see change as fun, not scary? Can I roll with the circumstances and find a way to make it work temporarily? Chances are, if I can do it and show my daughter how, she will almost certainly learn resilience more readily. Children will model your behaviour, and positivity will help them make happy, lifelong memories of their first family vacation.
What About You?
Have you travelled with a toddler? How was your experience and what did you find helpful? We'd love to know. Leave us a comment on this post below!