Advice on flying with a toddler?
December 13, 2004 3:05 PM   Subscribe

Advice on flying with a toddler: we're taking our two-year-old on a 13-hour flight to LA, then a bunch of domestic flights between LA-Philly-San Jose. We've flown a zillion times, but not with a child. (more inside)

We've booked an overnight flight to LA and I'm trying to be as pessimistic as possible in terms of his sleeping, keeping him entertained, etc. I've read this thread already and got some ideas, but I was also wondering what customs and immigration are like in LAX these days, how sympathetic they are towards parents with toddlers, whether they'll stamp my son's teddy bear's passport for him (you know, the usual). Do security checks extend to small children? Do planes have changing tables? If he doesn't want to sit in his carseat on the plane, is there a way to keep it out of the way?

I also was wondering what solutions are out there for entertaining a toddler (assuming he doesn't sleep), since the related AskMefi thread was more about a small baby. We've got laptop/movies, art supplies, toys, books, bottles (oh, and how tolerant would the cabin crew be if I asked them to refrigerate, say, a half-gallon/2L bottle of milk?). And do rental cars all come automatically with a LATCH system or do we need to ask?
posted by tracicle to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I have flown with three toddlers at one time, but thankfully not for such a long stretch.

I do recall being told that because the air in the cabin has less pressure than air outside the plane, that the little tykes do get sleepy. Mine did.
posted by konolia at 3:15 PM on December 13, 2004

I don't have much advice other than "Don't Fly United!" they are awful and could give a damn if your kids were falling out of the plane
posted by Hands of Manos at 3:16 PM on December 13, 2004

A lot of that stuff is basically impossible to predict, since things like how sympathetic customs or the flight crew is going to be is entirely dependent on the actual people involved. (Regarding the milk, you might look into those little Parmalat boxes, that you don't have to worry about refrigerating, and just break out one at a time.)

There's really not much you can do about the car seat, once you bring it on the plane--it's almost certainly not going to fit in the overhead bin, or under a seat.

One of the best things we ever got for this type of travel, though, was called a "Baby B'air"--it's a vest that you strap securely on to the child, and then it's got an extra loop that you can put a seat belt through. It's great for letting him sit in your lap, and if you decide to go without the car seat, you can basically use it to keep anchored in his own seat, with some mobility where he can move around a bit, but where he can't get away. (It's also a godsend for getting through the airport, since you can attach a longer strap to it, and use it to keep him tethered close by. Be prepared for the occasional dirty look--and possibly snarky comment here--but anyone who's never tried to get a 2-year-old through an airport can just stuff it where the sun don't shine.)
posted by LairBob at 3:17 PM on December 13, 2004

Sound like you've got all your bases covered; the only thing I can offer is a suggestion to use Rescue Remedy.

It's a homeopathic remedy that can be found in most health stores. There are no side effects (unlike Benadryl), it's completely safe for children, and while it won't knock him out, it will definitely be soothing and take the edge off the excitement and stress of traveling. (I've experienced first hand how a frantic cat was reduced to a puddle of purring fur after a dropperful of this stuff.) I recommend you take it too!
posted by Specklet at 3:20 PM on December 13, 2004

Best answer: Lots of questions. There are changing tables in all the airplane lavs I've seen. It folds down over the toilet. Our child is pretty comfortable in his carseat (I hear it's pretty common), so sleeping in the carseat will be pretty easy for many toddlers. Heck, when they're younger that's the surefire way of getting them of falling asleep--drive them around. Air travel should be similar, I would hope. Definitely bring the blanket/"lovey", you can forget everything else as long as you bring that. If you're really worried you can give benadryl/diphenhydramine, but I suspect It won't be necessary.

I'd call the airline on the bottle refrigeration. I don't know. I'd probably just bring a small cooler; it's more common these days to bring your own food since they're charging for it more.

I was flying US-Japan on United with a couple with a young one, maybe a year, a little less maybe. They were quite accomodating--they were next to a bulkhead (must have had prior arrangement?) that was able to accept a little crib/bassinet sort or deal that hooked to it, in front of their seats. A two year old might be a bit bit for that, though. They seemed pretty helpful.

Quality seems to vary more widely with individual people than with airlines, I think. Of course I haven't flown any but United for the last couple of years (~50k miles).

You'd have to ask on LATCH. I'd just bring a locking clip, it's not that hard to use--but I have a slightly older seat that LATCH is a available only as a retrofit--so it's a separate strap and bigger than the aforementioned clip.

No easy way to get the seat out of the way. But then again, if he's up, then he's out of the car seat and it can stay in the airplane seat. If he's down, he can just sit in "his" seat. Wasn't a problem for ours, but we didn't go 13+ hours. I've seen parents on the longer flights walk with their children up and down the aisles.

Definitely being toys, etc. If you want to be more certain of less fussiness, bring favorites and new toys--the latter as you know hold interest much longer.

Our child is among the most active/fussiest I've seen; I'd be happy to share pointers.

Forgot about security. Our toddler was actually selected for the secondary screening! I was wondering how they were going to do that, but they apparently decided that he wasn't a suicide bomber and just waved him through.

On preview: you won't hear a peep from me, LairBob. You leash your dog because he doesn't know enough to wander where he shouldn't and could get hurt. Would you care about your child less than your dog?
That said, I still don't tend to use one, but that's just me.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 3:34 PM on December 13, 2004

I was just in LAX customs Saturday! It was a hassle, the flow control was weird and obnoxious, and there were lots of people hollering all over the place. However, all the customs/immigration people I dealt with were very nice [i.e. stamp teddy bear's passport? maybe not, but I bet they'd try to be helpful in some way] even though the people they were dealing with were not always friendly.

Basically the time from getting off the international plane til getting to the gate for the next plane was about 90 minutes, mostly waiting for baggage. You go through immigration/passport checkers, get your bags, then schlep them through bag-checking customs [mostly waiting in line], then go through airport security again, then go to the next gate. Long lines for each thing, though people were pretty civil. There are places that one of you can often "opt out" and take the kid for a walk while the other parent holds the place in line. The parents who did this the most successfully, it seemed to me had a "one person handles the kid, the other handles the rest" plan. There were a lot of kids on our flight [the Qantas plane from Australia had little in-seat TVs with kids shows and games that seemed to be remarkable narcotics] and without exception, all of them seemed to conk out and sleep a lot of the way. The combination of dinner + turning the heat up really knocked everyone out.
posted by jessamyn at 3:59 PM on December 13, 2004

We took our then-two-year-old with us to Paris and London last year and she had a great time flying. It helped that Air France had video screens in every seat and she could watch cartoons.

The flight attendants on Air France were very sympathetic and helpful, and even when our child got fussy on the return leg, they brought her snacks and kept her from disturbing too many people in the cabin. On our way off the plane back in Boston people complimented us on how well our little girl behaved. I think it's totally dependent on the emotional makeup of the child.

One thing -- we brought her carseat for the flight, which was quite awkward to deal with as we tried to marshal our luggage around and turned out to be unnecessary on the plane itself.
posted by briank at 4:46 PM on December 13, 2004

Best answer: I have done this so many times, and now I do it with a toddler (2) and an infant (6 months). It gets easier every time, you'll be happy to know.

Rental cars should have LATCH, since they're usually fairly new cars and it's mandatory now.

I buy UHT milk in boxes that don't need refrigeration, and the kid drinks them room temp (or you can put them in a thermal bag with frozen gelpacks, if you have a picker kid than mine).

He will be subject to the same security process you are. You can either carry him or he can walk through on his own two legs; my toddler prefers to toddle. But just like you--he'll have to take his jacket off, if there's any chance there might be metal in his shoes you'll have to take them off (Robeez are excellent travel shoes, in my experience).

Most larger planes have a changing table that folds down over the toilet--you can check with the airline. If not, with a toddler you can change them standing up, and I've also just closed the toilet, laid my own changing pad on top of the lid, and worked quickly.
posted by padraigin at 4:55 PM on December 13, 2004

Response by poster: Awesome tips, thank you all. I'll definitely do the UHT milk thing (try some at home with him first, see what he thinks - I can't stand the stuff). We are indeed flying United and it looks like my biggest concern will be the awkwardness of the car seat. I think we'll take it onboard mostly because it's familiar and he sleeps in it well enough in the car. And we can rein him in with it if he's too boisterous, whereas I have a feeling he'd work out the normal buckles pretty fast.

Thanks for the reminder on the locking clip, though, RikiTikiTavi - I'd probably have forgotten that otherwise. We're taking an umbrella stroller so shouldn't have to worry about a leash-type thing, although if he needs to stretch his legs (which he will), maybe it would be an option. Normally I'm not a fan either, having been subject to one myself as a kid, but it would seem the appropriate place for it.

Thanks for answering my questions so well! Jessamyn, I wasn't thinking turnover between flights would be so fast. We arrive at 10am and had the option of a connecting flight at 1pm but didn't think that would be enough time to collect bags, do customs/immigration and get round to the domestic terminal in time. Maybe we should give it a shot after all.
posted by tracicle at 5:32 PM on December 13, 2004

Is the 'crying baby on flight' thing a little overblown? I've had exceptionally good luck with babies on flights -- most memorable experience was being on a United flight from Hong Kong to Chicago that was a baby flight: 15 couples who had adopted babies from orphanages in China and were bringing them back to the states. En masse. Not a single sour peep the entire flight; quit the contrary, in fact, as the infant of the couple sitting immediately adjacent to me did nothing but giggle, coo, and sleep the entire 13 hours (but I was drinking a bit, so I did much the same.)
posted by nathan_teske at 5:51 PM on December 13, 2004

It's overblown, nathan, till you sit next to one for five hours. Mostly, you're right--most babies or little kids will only lose it if they've got something like an earache from the pressure. (I've never had to deal with it as a parent, but I have dealt with it on long flights with someone else's kid. You try to be understanding, but it can really hard to keep your sh** together after three or four hours.)

As a parent, though, traveling with two little boys under five does create a lot of challenges for you and the people around you. On the kind of minor end, there's just stuff like the problem of having them kick the backs of the seats in front of them (which is worse with a car seat, since they're closer to it). On the major end, we actually had my oldest stick his finger down his throat and make himself throw up, when he was 2-1/2, because he was tired of being on the plane, and was trying to make the trip stop. That was fun.
posted by LairBob at 7:28 PM on December 13, 2004

Some great info here. We check an umbrella stroller (once even the double stroller) at the plane, and they have it waiting for us as soon as we get off. It makes it easier going to a connecting flight. Even though you may want the baby to run around and get some energy out, you can load everything else on it.
posted by Mhead at 9:05 PM on December 13, 2004

Response by poster: Is the 'crying baby on flight' thing a little overblown?

I think it is: before we had kids I don't really remember being bothered by crying babies on any of our flights. We even sat right next to a one-year-old on one flight who was an absolute angel, laughing and playing, then sleeping.

But you don't want to be the one parent whose kid causes the plane to crash, either. Or the parents whose kid gets a glass of water dumped on them by an angry passenger (that happened a year or so ago, but I can't find an article about it).
posted by tracicle at 9:55 PM on December 13, 2004

Novelty is the key--DVDs that he has not seen before, new types of snacks, unfamiliar crayons/markers and coloring books, and lots of little toys with folding parts, wrapped up and handed out separately at key moments. And run with him like crazy in the terminals to work off as much energy as possible.

(And lots of bananas!)
posted by LarryC at 10:39 PM on December 13, 2004

Don't worry. If things get out of hand, the flight attendants are there to help you.
posted by idontlikewords at 12:21 AM on December 14, 2004

Agree with the others. Sometimes I wish I had one of the calmer types. He won't fall asleep when he' s tired much of the time; he'll just get more and more worked up and he can't calm himself down. I might be starting a few threads about this, come to think of it. If he was different, though, I suppose he wouldn't be mine.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 10:16 AM on December 14, 2004

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