The thought of travelling with a toddler on long-haul flights is something that tends to scare the living daylights out of parents faced with the prospect – and to a certain extent, rightly so.
Show me the toddler who enjoys confined spaces, unchanging scenery and the need to be quiet and respectful of personal space for long periods of time, and I’ll show you a fictional character (I’m sure you’re familiar with her – she features prominently in the latter chapters of those toddler-taming books sitting on your night-reading table gathering dust).
Travelling with a toddler long-haul does not have to be a continuous nightmare, however. I’ve flown right across the globe (about as far as it’s possible to go without starting to come back again) with my daughter at age four months, 13 months and 17 months.
Here is what I have learnt.
Top tips for travelling with a toddler on long-haul flights
1. The bassinets that airlines provide for babies are excellent – if the baby fits in it
There will be a weight or height restriction, usually of around 11 kilograms or 75 cm (the Emirates bassinet was perfect for four-month-old Maja; out of the question for 13-month Maja). The bassinet will clip into the wall in front of the bulkhead seats (those with a wall in front of them rather than another row of seats), but the cabin crew won’t be able to install it for you after take-off until the seatbelt sign goes off, for safety reasons.
The bassinet is great because it gets the kid off your lap (and prevents the passage of those annoying people who want to step over you on their way to the bathroom)! It is not so great in that it may prohibit you (and sometimes those sitting next to you) from hoisting up your little media screen and watching a well-deserved movie.
If you can’t use the bassinet and your child is under two (that is, they are not allocated their own seat) you’ll be consigned to having them on your lap for the duration of the flight. If those words put the fear into God of you, be reassured – the reality as not as bad as you’d think.
2. Are there any spare seats anywhere in the plane?
The flight attendants will let you know about them (cross your fingers and hope that includes first-class) there may be a place where your child can have their own seat beside you (this was very useful for Maja at 17 months; she could even eat her meal off her own tray in a seat beside me), or even a row over which you can lie down together.
Failing that, you’ll be able to get up and walk around as long as the seatbelt sign is not on; this is invaluable. (You’ll be the mother of that kid: the one who totters up and down the aisles providing a small respite from the boredom for other passengers, smiling and babbling and forging friendships.)
Even the tiny little bit of personal space you’re allocated, the confines of your own seat, can provide a surprising amount of wriggle room (quite literally) when you’re trying to keep a toddler out of trouble. Toddlers are experts at squeezing interest out of every possible level available to them: floor level, lap level, shoulder level (particularly if you’ve got a monkey like my one on your hands).
3. Pack toys if you feel inclined, but remember that toys take up space in your luggage
You need to consider whether the minutes’ worth of boredom the toy is going to zap is going to be worth the volume and weight it will add to the luggage you’re hauling to your final destination.
Personally, I have found it more efficient to work with what we find along the way. On various flights, we have passed the time playing with toys handed out free by the airline (Emirates provided hand puppets, Korean Air a brilliant magnetic drawing toy), looking through complimentary magazines, trying on headphones, slippers and eye-masks, and figuring out the remote control.
Maja spent a blessed hour trying and eventually succeeding to plug the headphones into the right socket, and then unplugging them. And then plugging them in. And then unplugging them. (Toddlers: you never know what’s gonna float their boat, but when you find it, you use it. I managed to read a record fifty pages of the book I had not-so-hopefully packed.)
4. Meal times are arguably the most stressful aspect of a flight with a toddler
This is especially because of the space confinements. Don’t worry, the airlines know this too – they will bring food for a little person before the meal service for everybody else begins, and they will usually have lots of options, including bottled baby food or a child’s meal, which is designed to be fun (we got smiley-face potato croquettes at one meal, and fruit jelly in a squeezy tube at another) and reasonably healthy.
If your child is sleeping when the meal comes, they’ll hold the meal for you until you’re ready.
And never fear, there’ll be unlimited supplies of wet wipes and napkins and whatever else you need to clean up afterwards. The amount of rubbish I see generated on the average long-haul flight always boggles my mind. Until I became a parent I always used to feel a pang for Mother Earth as I witnessed the rubbish bags filling up. Now I’m too busy screaming ‘Paper towels and wet wipes, stat!’
5. Nappy changes can also be stressful
You’ll be in that tiny little toilet space under fluorescent lights, praying for a minute and a half free from turbulence. Again, be reassured that clean-up materials are abundant, and if worst comes to muckiest the cabin crew are there to help.
Pack a lot more nappies than you’re likely to need, just in case. If you usually use cloth nappies: this is not the time.
Cabin crew are also very willing to help with the baby when you need to go to the bathroom. Most times, I found it easier to take Maja in with me (as I often do at home), but there were a couple of times when she was sleeping on me and I needed to go: I enlisted the help of the nearest attendant to hold her so I could do so.
Additionally, crew are trained to be there in an instant if a baby is crying, no doubt for the sake of all the other passengers on the flight. If you need help at that point, rest assured someone will be there, asking you what’s wrong and how they can help.
6. Managing transits and stopovers
The process of transferring from one plane to the next can be fraught with logistical difficulties especially if you’re by yourself. Your fundamental problem will be the sheer physical challenge of hauling the child, your luggage and the child’s luggage, filled with all that vital and inexplicably heavy paraphernalia.
The best solution for me has been the kid in a front pack and two shoulder bags (one for me; one for her) criss-crossed across my body, but I’ve witnessed many parents take the stroller route. This will give you the advantage of a lesser burden on your shoulders, but the disadvantages of being obliged to lug the stroller on and off every plane and the fact that your baby might be like mine: inclined to be calmer snuggled up next to you in a carrier.
7. Liquids, bottles and food pouches
It has been my universal experience that airport security are lenient about liquids and gels going through the security gates if they’re baby-related, but I’ve also heard horror stories about mothers having to throw away bottles of prepared formula and the like, so prepare yourself for the worst and make it easy for yourself.
Ultimately, you might find that your toddler enjoys the trip a lot more than you do
That has definitely been my experience. Maja has never been a good sleeper, but white noise and a sensation of constant movement have always helped, and aeroplanes provide those things in abundance, so she’s always slept beautifully on the plane.
Waking, there was enough novelty to ensure that she was never bored and, unlike for her mother, fear of flying was not an issue at all. (Whenever we are waiting in an airport lounge, we spend a lot of time looking out the window at all the planes, but I think I have yet to convince her that we’ve actually been on one ourselves: I’m sure she doesn’t make the connection as we are walking down that covered tunnel to board one.)
Remember, too, that people are going to help you all along the way
Staff are paid to do so, and you’ll find that random strangers will do it out of the kindness of their hearts (or perhaps because they are watching you cry or listening to you swear, in the sheer frustration of trying to wrangle it alone).
The whole experience of travelling long-haul with a toddler will not be the nightmare you’re expecting. Who knows? It might be the best trip you’ve ever had! One can always hope.
For more expert advice on traveling with your family, check out our Grown ups: Family travel section.