Home Air Travel Tip #42: Keep a Toddler Content Flying Overseas

Tip #42: Keep a Toddler Content Flying Overseas

by Shelly Rivoli

I received this note from Liana with the subject line:
Portugal with 16 Month Old

“Hi Shelly,

Thanks for writing such a helpful book with great tips.

I know that I’m being a real anal Annie, but I’m trying to come up with ideas of how to entertain my daughter Zara as we travel to Portugal in 2 weeks. The trip to Portugal will hopefully not be too bad since it will be overnight, but the return will be in the daytime.

My issue is that Zara still has the attention span of a gnat. She doesn’t attend to much for very long, unless she is exhausted. Any ideas of things we can do in her car seat to pass the time? I’ve tired Elmo videos and Blues Clues but they don’t seem to interest her for very long.

I’d appreciate any advice. Thanks!”

My two cents:

As you say, it’s hard to keep children entertained with videos for too long at 16 months, though it can help some overtired toddlers finally settle in for slumber in flight. New toys, a Travel Magna Doodle, and board books will likely catch her attention for some amount of time, but one gimmick that never seems to fail for us is what we call the “bag of tricks.” I use some sort of a child’s purse, cosmetics or other small bag, preferably one with a see-through panel (a large slide-lock bag works wonders in a pinch), and fill it with an eclectic assortment of toys and gadgets. The presentation of the items–or perhaps the process of discovering them one at a time–seems to make the contents much more interesting to children in this age range. You might consider a couple of very small stuffed animals, a bath toy, a teething toy, a comb, a small (preferably baby-safe) mirror, and measuring spoons from your kitchen drawer. Ideally, you’ll have a second small “bag of tricks” to surprise her on the flight home.

Assuming your daughter’s car seat is a “convertible” model, you might consider installing it rear-facing for your flight (unless there’s a personal TV screen you want to utilize on the seat in front of her). It may be much easier to interact with her and keep her happy in flight if you are facing each other, plus you’ll have the added advantage that she can’t kick the forward passenger’s seat or obsess over the fold-out tray.

You might both appreciate a travel tray to attach to her car seat during the flight, since airplane trays are small and often don’t fold out at the right height to use with car seats. I’ve had good results with the “Snack & Play Travel Tray” that has a very large surface area (big enough for coloring books) with a tall edge around 3 sides that is very effective in keeping snacks, sippy cups, crayons, and various toys from constantly falling out of her reach and into the “Mommy! Mommy! Uh!” zone next to your feet. It’s very light and rolls up fairly compactly (also might work on your stroller and is helpful on road trips).

Also, be sure to plan occasional walks around the cabin to help her stretch her legs (it may do wonders for her digestion as well as her disposition) and be sure to take advantage of any strangers who show an interest in waving and greeting her, or playing peek-a-boo. If there are other toddlers on your flight, she’ll likely enjoy paying brief visits to them at their seats–and may even be willing to swap a toy or two.

Your two cents:
So traveling parents out there, what is YOUR secret weapon for keeping your babies and toddlers entertained on long flights? And any other tips or advice you’d offer to Liana?

Safe journey,

Shelly Rivoli, author of the award-winning guide Travels with Baby
PUBLISHER’S DISCOUNT – Get 15% off Travels with Baby & qualify for FREE Super Saver shipping when you buy from “Travels with Baby Books”

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Teendoc September 9, 2008 - 2:53 am


I only found one review on the Baby Scribbler and didn’t think I should base my thoughts on just that one opinion. That’s why I was interested in what you had to say. I appreciate the feedback about potentially losing the pieces. Anal Annie would not like that very much!

I’m also going to look for Baby Bumblebee videos and Aqua Mats tomorrow. I appreciate all the suggestions!

Traci: I used to recommend the oral sudafed starting the day before travel as long as it wasn’t too sedating for your child. If so, then a few hours before takeoff (and another dose if it will be over six hours between the first dose and landing). You can also add in a saline nasal spray to help clear passages as well. Again, I recommend discussing all of this with your child’s pediatrician.

I’m starting to think this just might work. 🙂

SOUP OF THE DAY September 8, 2008 - 8:49 pm

I thought of that same issue with the Ear Planes – would she wear them, and I think the answer will be no for us too. There was also a product called an “ear popper” but it’s sold on a medical website and was very expensive – several hundred dollars, so that is more for people with a cronic medical problem, not just the occasional traveler. Well, unless the occasional traveler happens to be swimming in excess cash.

I feel so much better, armed with a lot of info and tricks now to hopefully have a better time in the air the next time.

teendoc- I will talk to the doc about the Sudafed! Which works best, liquid or nasal spray or does it matter?

I have the travels with baby book, and have read it several times over! 🙂 It’s a great resource!

Huntington Beach

Shelly Rivoli, author September 8, 2008 - 6:44 pm

Traci – I’m so sorry to hear about your daughter’s ear pain. It doesn’t happen as often as you might think from parents’ understandable nervousness, but when it does… it’s agony for everyone. Hopefully it won’t be a problem for your daughter on future flights. I have many tips on helping to avoid ear pain in the book (pg. 222+), including to really keep the fluids flowing in the days leading up to the flight to help prevent blockages and keep mucus thin in case it’s present in the Eustachian tube.

Also to both – Ear Planes can help many children with ear pressure problems, but I think most 1- and 2-year-olds don’t have the patience for them, and some will be very tempted to put them into their mouths, so use with great care if you do. Also check out Tip #2 (under label “ear pressure and relief”).

Liana – Baby Scribbler may be fine for Z, but I’m not so quick to recommend it for travel because of the loose drawing pieces that may be easily lost in transit (and under seats, etc.). Read some parent reviews, too–some 18-mo-olds have trouble drawing with it. “Aqua mats” are another worthy option–and if the wand/pen gets lost, any wet paintbrush or Q-tip will work. Videos: You might also try “Baby Bumblebee” if you can find it, also better for her age range. Good luck!

Teendoc September 8, 2008 - 2:45 pm


Thanks so much for the suggestions! We have a Maxi Cosi Priori that can be installed rear-facing. I just wish we had an airplane seat to practice on in advance!

I’ll check out the travel tray. I’ve also been debating between the travel magna doodle and the Baby Scribbler, sold at Amazon that seems to be for younger babies. Any thoughts?

The travel bag of tricks is brilliant! I believe that I can put that together as well.

Also, I’ve found this weekend that she is willing to watch Baby Einstein videos a bit more raptly than Blues Clues. She’s even paying more attention to Elmo lately.

And my Zizi is very social, so we will walk her as much as we can without getting on the flight attendants’ nerves.

I wanted to add for Traci that she might want to check with her pediatrician about using a mild decongestant like Sudafed before flying. I am a pediatrician and have recommended decongestants, both oral and nasal, to help with pressure symptoms, in addition to the drinking and chewing that she already mentioned. I also see that Earplanes can be used for children from 1-10, but somehow I wonder about getting them into Zara’s ears without turning it into a battle!

Again, thanks for the help!

Anonymous September 7, 2008 - 3:12 pm

This e-mail’s timing is perfect!

I have a 17 month old, and I dreaded planning vacation. We finally settled on Maui. We live in southern Ca.

I would have loved to go to Italy, or Miami, but I was afraid of how long the flight would be. We went to Portland a few months ago, and my daughter had an absolute meltdown both ways. Her ears apparently? She was just in so much pain and cried SO hard. It broke my heart because I could tell she was in pain, and I couldn’t do anything! She wouldn’t drink because she was so distraught, so until she drank, the problem just got worse. No one on the plane was even mad, because they felt so sorry for her (and me, who was nearly in tears
myself). I brought chocolate milk as a treat, but since she hadn’t had choc milk before, I don’t think she liked it (so try it at home first!) Her car seat was facing forward, and omg, the poor girl in front of her really got it bad. I felt horrible! It was literally the flight from hell. Twice.

After I got home, traumatized, I posted a message on a parenting board and with the help of lots of other moms, we concluded that although she was drinking
during take-off, she fell asleep before reaching cruising altitude. So the better way to go would have been — a little to drink at take off, then keep giving food or drink until the plane levels off. She fell asleep too soon, then
pressure kept building up in her ears and when she woke about 30 minutes later – she was in severe pain.

A girl at the airport shared with me she takes that really chewy convenience store jerky on board, so her kid can chew on it without biting off big pieces, and then they’re swallowing constantly. I have also heard that for those
prone to ear pain, give Tylenol about 30 min b4 takeoff. We’ll do this next time as a precaution.

Some other suggestions I got to take on were: Balloons – long skinny ones, and round ones. A tablecloth to spread out on the floor so the baby can play
with toys on a clean surface (obviously would work best in bulkhead row seat). A roll of wrapping tape or even masking tape – endless possibilities for kids to play with, add some stackable paper cups and they could build things. Mardi-Gras beads. Cheap flashlight.

Huntington Beach

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