How to fly with little ones (and not end up in tears)

Kinderling News & Features

Chris Minogue is our Kinderling Helpline expert, with 30 years’ experience in providing care and support for parents of newborns, infants and toddlers.

One of the questions I’m asked most frequently is, “How do I travel with young children and stay sane?”

I have helped families travel with their little ones for years – including moving a family with three children under three to the other side of the world – and have developed travel strategies to help all age groups arrive in one piece.

Before you fly

When planning a family getaway, whether it’s a short flight or a long haul, there are a few things to think about before you leave.

Firstly, consider the age of the child. There are definite sweet spots when it comes to the ages best suited for travel.

Babies from six to ten months old are one of the best ages to travel with. They are normally very social plus they are more settled into their rhythm of feeding and sleeping than older infants.  

However, as any parent who has tried it knows, up to the age of around two years, you’re not really on holiday with a child, it’s more a case of same routine, different location. That’s not to say you shouldn’t go on holiday with little ones, just that you should adjust your expectations of what your holiday will look like. Young children want a familiar feel to their days, particularly when their surroundings are changing.

Consider the length of the trip, especially with children under two years old. If you are on a long-haul flight then I would not go away for less than two weeks, otherwise you will just go from one state of jetlag to the next. Remember that children don’t do well if every few days things will be changing around them. Consider staying put for no fewer than five days, rather than moving around every couple of days, as they will become very unsettled by the constant movement from place to place.

Those parents travelling with toddlers are the bravest of all, in my mind!

People often book a flight thinking it will be easy with a 16-month-old sitting on their lap. For city-hopping, that may well be fine but for longer trips, I would urge you to consider paying for another seat for your child. Take their car seat with you and ask the airline if you can buckle it into their plane seat. It’s well worth this extra cost and effort if you’re travelling a long way, as most toddlers are comfortable in (and familiar with) their car seat. This means they will also generally sleep much better, which as any frazzled travelling parent knows, is worth its weight in gold.

When heading to Europe, try to take night flights out of Australia where possible, as everyone gets more sleep. And no matter where you’re headed, go for the flight with the shortest stopover time possible. Two hours is a great time frame because everyone can stretch their legs but get back on with the trip relatively quickly.

On board

You need to consider how the length of the flight impacts your child’s feeding routine.  

Young babies need fluids every three hours to keep them well hydrated. On a long-haul flight, they can have one six-hour period of sleep where you do not have to wake them for a feed (and maybe get some sleep yourself). This feeding pattern is the same for both bottle- and breast-fed babies. It will help keep them hydrated in the dry plane air, which helps with the jetlag but best of all, it reduces the irritability that young babies feel when they get even mildly dehydrated.

Listen to Chris on Kinderling Conversation:

Speaking of dehydration, remember if you are a breast-feeding mother you will need to drink water with each feed.

If you’re travelling with a toddler, pack several snack boxes with food you know your child will eat. Even the best in-flight menu cannot cater to everyone’s needs and 30,000 ft above the Indian Ocean is not the place to start introducing new foods!

Before you leave home, get your toddler used to wearing a pair of headphones and bring them on the flight. When they’ve had enough screen time, switch to the inflight audio, such as Kinderling Kids Radio, to keep them entertained. You can switch to one of the other channels, such as ‘Settle Petal’ when you want them to start to calm down.

When trying to settle a young baby, a muslin or light wrap is a travel essential. If you have the bulkhead seat with the bassinette, gently wrap the baby’s arms before laying them down. By wrapping, they generally sleep better because they’re not bumping themselves on the sides when the move inside the narrow bassinette. You can place a light wrap over the top half of the bassinette if you need to block out a little of the light.

Of course, babies don’t always drift off to sleep peacefully, especially in a noisy, foreign environment like a plane. Added to which, the baby’s parents are often anxious that their poor overtired baby will cry and disturb everyone else on the flight, further adding to the baby’s distress. If your baby is out of sorts and won’t calm down, wrap the baby in a muslin and go for a walk to the darkest part of the plane (usually near an exit door). Hold your baby close and just keep rocking until they fall asleep. This may well take you 20 minutes – but 20 minutes of eventually crying themselves to sleep is better in the long run for everyone – baby, parents and other passengers.

Arrival time

No matter what time of day you arrive at your destination, you need to move your baby into that time zone. For instance, if you arrive at 6am, then you need to set up the day as if it were 6am at home, with breakfast, getting dressed and play time. Sunlight on the first day dramatically helps reset your body clock and reduce the jetlag.

Don’t let children of any age over-sleep their normal sleep patterns during the day - it will only lengthen the jetlag period.

If you’re staying in a hotel, consider booking a room with a separate living area, otherwise you and your partner may find yourselves sitting in darkness at 7pm because you’ve had to put the baby down to sleep. That way, baby can get some much-needed sleep and you two can enjoy some time together.

All of this may sound very daunting but being prepared (and then flexible once things inevitably fail to go to plan) makes travelling with young children a far less arduous experience. Remember, in the end the travel time is only one day in your life, albeit a long one!