Treating an Airline Flight With a Small Child Like Game Day


My wife’s family lives far away; mine lives local. Since our two-year-old was born we’ve flown five times and it’s getting to be a nightmare. I don’t know if any of you have travelled with a toddler but we could really use some tips and advice because between the whining and the tantrums and the squirming on the plane I swear that I never want to leave my state again. I’m normally a very nice person. But not when we fly. Help!

Answer by Joe Newman (Behavior Consultant)

Sometimes, no matter what you do, or how well you do it, flying with two-year-olds can drive you crazy.  At two years old, children are in the middle of redefining their relationship with their parents; they are in a developmental stage that is characterized by conflict and testing boundaries.  Add to this the inability to move around a plane, the cabin pressure’s effect on their ears, and the strange and unfamiliar environment and it can quickly become an overwhelming experience for a toddler.  And when this happens it’s natural to feel like they’re holding you hostage.  When flying, I’m often more annoyed with the irate passenger who’s complaining to the flight attendant than I am with the parent trying their best to deal with a screaming child.

Having said that, there are a number of things you can do to improve your chances of a good flying experience with your toddler:

“Never do on Game Day what you haven’t done in practice.”

Flying with children is Game Day.  In order to have a chance of controlling your toddler on an airplane you must have first successfully handled those same behaviors at home, in restaurants, and in the car.  Having a toddler you can successfully fly with has more to do with what you do when you’re not flying than what you do when you are flying.

Although you might find certain behaviors and demands acceptable when you’re driving or eating out with your toddler, try to hold them to a standard of behavior that would be acceptable when flying.  This is the practice time and should give you an indication about what you can expect from them when flying.

Use a trip to the restaurant to teach them to stay in a seat for gradually longer periods of time.  Bring toys and games that they can play with without disturbing the other patrons.  Get a sense of how long they can sit and be quietly entertained without needing to get up from the table, then use different strategies to gradually increase this time until they can sit for an entire hour.  This will also give you an idea of what and how much to pack for a long flight.

Prepare them for the flight by talking about it and explaining what’s going to happen and what they should expect.  Have car rides where you pretend that you’re on the plane.  Teach them about each step of the trip then ask them to tell you while they imagine it.  Build anticipation about the trip.

Prepare special items for the trip.

  • Have them choose some special travel games, books or toys that can’t be opened until the plane takes off, then another for after the meal, and perhaps a third for after the movie.  Or if you prefer, you can have surprises that you give them at crucial moments on the flight when they’re especially bored.  Over-prepare! It’s better to have more than you need to keep your toddler engaged than not enough.
  • Bring your toddler’s favorite foods and snacks.  Don’t count on finding foods they’ll like at the airport or on the plane.
  • If you like to limit the time your child spends watching videos or playing games on your laptop, in-flight might be the best time to indulge them with these.

Lastly, consider booking flights that are during your toddler’s normal sleep times.  The easiest flights with a toddler will be the ones they sleep through.

If all this fails and your toddler is still driving you and everyone around a little crazy, consider offering to buy the person next to you a cocktail or a sandwich and tell them how much you appreciate their good-natured tolerance (even if they look irate and not very tolerant).

Joe Newman is a behavior consultant who trains parents, teachers, administrators and specialists. During the last twenty years he’s taught 2nd through 12th grade classes, designed curriculum, and founded a national mentoring program. His book Raising Lions is available at