Ask Shelly: Use car seat for overnight flight with toddler—or lap?

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Will she or won't she sleep in the car seat on the long, long flight to Brazil?
Will you be better of using a car seat for an overnight flight or letting your child sleep across your seats?

Here is one of those “million dollar” questions I know many of us face at one time or another, recently posted to the Travels with Baby wall on Facebook:

Hey there – We are flying to Brazil in May. The flight will be from 8pm to 10:30am. Prime sleep time. I’m trying to figure out if our son will get better in sleep in his car seat or lying down with his head in my lap. I think the prior will be more comfortable for me. What’s your experience with this? Trying to survey some seasoned travelers. ;P

In my experience flying redeyes with 3 different kids at different young ages and stages I can say without blushing that, unless you have a crystal ball, there is really no easy answer to this. Sure, your child will be safest flying in his car seat, and you’ll inevitably rest better knowing he’s buckled in and not about to roll off of your lap onto the floor. And I’ve been on flights where it was such a blessing that my child was used to traveling in the car seat and did not think twice about the need to be buckled in during the flight. But I’ve also been on flights where they could settle in to no avail without sprawling over me.

There are, however, some important points to keep in mind that may help you make your “best bet” decision about flying with the car seat for overnight flights—or reserving that precious space for more luxuriant snoozing (at least for your child, but probably not for you as the parent pillow).

Consider your history.

Have you used the car seat in previous flights, and will your child remember and have that expectation of being safely buckled into his seat as you will be to yours? Or has it been long enough in his young life that he won’t remember that detail—or rather, might he remember flying without the expectation of being in a car seat?

Consider the car seat.

Some car seats are simply easier for children to sleep in than others—especially when it comes to forward-facing car seats for toddlers. Does it have a slight recline option when installed facing forward (such as some Britax models, as an example—see other recommended car seats for travel here)? If it doesn’t, might you be able to install the car seat rear-facing for your flight, to allow a little more recline than the upright airplane seat will allow (see “Turn Around Testy Flights with Your Toddler” for more on this concept)? You can also add extra cushioning or a head cradling pillow pre-spritzed with lavender essential oil (see Recommended Car Seat Travel Accessories for more ideas).

Consider your bedtime routine.

One of the easiest ways to get young toddlers to (finally) go to sleep on overnight flights is to mimic the bedtime routine of home as much as possible. Reading books together and snuggling a beloved blanket or lovey translates easily to overnight air travel. For some breastfeeding moms of babies and toddlers, however, the maternal nightcap may be the final sendoff—which may make a much more abrupt transition from lap to car seat and straps, depending on the child’s sensitivity to his surroundings.

The good news is that, whatever your current bedtime routine at home, you have some time to evolve it to one that is more travel-friendly before your May takeoff. Heck, you can even experiment with the car seat during bedtime drives and see how it works out! 😉

Travels with BabyDon’t forget the “At the Airport and On the Plane” tips in Travels with  Baby and keep your Take-Along Travels with Baby handy for the “Tips for Helping Babies and Toddlers Sleep on the Airplane” in case you need some ideas to try in flight–and best of luck to you all! [Click here for more posts related to sleep.]

Safe journeys,

Shelly Rivoli, author of the award-winning Travels with Baby guidebooks

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