Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
tear free toddler travel
Credit: Getty Images

Traveling with children can be challenging, and flying with a toddler can be especially tough. Even kids who are usually easygoing get stressed out; they whine, cry, refuse to be soothed, insist on running around or kicking the seat in front of them. You're surrounded by strangers and have nowhere to escape.

If your child is having a meltdown on a plane, you don't have a lot of options. You just have to pull out all the stops to distract him or her, which usually means screens and food. But there are ways to prevent problems before they even take flight.

1. Let your child get her energy and tension out before you board—and at any convenient moments during the flight.

Toddlers need to move, and they don't understand why they have to stay belted in on the plane. Arrive early enough that children get to run around the airport before they are forced to sit still on the plane. Once you're on the flight, whenever the aisle is relatively clear and you are allowed to move around, get up and let her walk. Do it before she even asks, so that she won't demand to move around as soon as the "fasten seatbelt" sign goes on.

2. Keep her fed and hydrated.

It will make her less likely to get grumpy. The airline won't necessarily have food that your child will like, and certainly won't serve it on your child's schedule, so bring familiar snacks—and more than you think you'll need. Nursing is great, especially on takeoff and landing, because the sucking can help relieve pressure in their ears. You might consider packing treats that your child would not usually get, such as sugar-free lollipops (again, great for takeoff and landing). Be sure the stick is firmly attached to avoid a choking hazard, and, of course, supervise.

3. Distract and entertain.

The job of a toddler is to explore her world. If she can't explore by walking around, you can count on her driving the passenger in front of you crazy by checking out the tray table. Bring headphones and an iPad with appropriate apps, or a computer with movies and games loaded. But while screens are an effective way to keep your child entertained, they aren't always enough.

I spent a lot of time on planes with my little ones, and learned to wrap a bunch of tiny presents—at least three or four, and probably six to eight for a three-hour flight. You don't have to use them all, but if you get delayed on the runway, you'll be glad you have them. I relied heavily on books, but be sure to also include "activities." They'll like office supplies like scotch tape or colorful paper clips to make a chain, household objects like tiny flashlights, a battery-operated fan, a lock and key, lip balm, anything with a suction cup, and craft materials like pipe cleaners. You could also use small toys you want to give them eventually anyway, like a rubber duckie, stacking dolls, crayons, Duplo blocks, board books and lift-the-flap books, puppets, a mother-and-baby stuffed animal, magna doodle, little wind-up toys, stickers, puzzles, magnet toys, stamp pens, etc. I used to buy these things when I ran across them and keep them in my suitcase so when I went to pack they were ready to wrap. (Kids love unwrapping them!) These little distractions are worth their weight in gold.

4. Calm your little one.

Flying is stressful even for seasoned adults; your child is probably tired and over-stimulated. You can try various methods to help her unwind and sleep.

  • Connect. Her connection with you is what will help your child feel safe and relax. You might even tape up a baby blanket around the two of you to shut out the outside world while you rock her to sleep. (Traveling with blue painter's tape can be very helpful.)
  • EFT. This is short for Emotional Freedom Technique, which is a simple technique of tapping your baby's acupressure points.
  • Homeopathy. I'm a fan of Rescue Remedy, a calming blend of extracts from Bach Flower Remedies. It comes in a spray as well as drops you add to a glass of water.
  • Tell a story. Capture her attention by making up a yarn, or recounting family memories. Sing to her, snuggle, read to her.

5. Calm yourself.

Remember that your children pick up on your stress; that's one of the reasons they act out while traveling. Staying relaxed is the most important thing you can do to keep your child calm. I rely on breathing and EFT, and some people swear by Rescue Remedy. There's nothing wrong with having a glass of wine if that helps you to smile sweetly at the passenger who's giving your family the evil eye!

6. Introduce yourself to your neighbors

at the start of the flight, and tell them you'll do your best to keep your child entertained, and to please let you know if she's bothering them. Most people are sympathetic, especially if they know that you respect their right to a relatively peaceful flight and are doing all you can to ensure it.