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Tip #42: Keep a Toddler Content Flying Overseas

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
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