Long haul flight with a toddler – will I do it again?

We just came back from an unforgettable trip to California and I am still savoring all the impressions and experiences we had. This trip was literally a dream come true for me, as it was my first time visiting the United States, so you can imagine how excited I was about it.

It was also the first long haul flight for my 15-month-old toddler. While we’ve travelled with her quite a few times, the flights never lasted for more than 2,5 hours, and the car trips are more flexible as we can stop whenever we want and cater to her needs appropriately. And so it should be of no surprise that I felt nervous about the trip this time. Raya is a very flexible baby and doesn’t mind changes in the routines and surroundings, she actually gets very excited whenever we travel and her curiosity towards novelty shines through. But when you are on a tight schedule, and travelling a long time (the total travel time did come close to 24 hours!) things can get unpredictable and a bit more complicated.

I am writing this post to share with you my experience on travelling with a toddler and the things that worked for us across these two long haul flights. I am completely aware that my tips and story might not be applicable to your situation. After all, babies are different and we need to respect their personality and preferences when we travel. What worked for my baby and me might not work for you and yours. If you have a spirited baby, or one that gets stressed whenever the routine is broken than you need to take that into account. All in all, I find that the more you pay attention to your baby and try to predict his or her needs in advance, the more pleasant of a trip you will have. With that said here is what we did to prepare for this trip, and how it actually went for us.

  1. Talk to your baby about the trip a few days before your travels

I am a big fan of talking to your baby about everything. I don’t mean baby talk (I can’t really do it, and frankly find it somewhat annoying), I mean I talk to my baby as I talk to any other person. I explain to her that we are about to “go on an adventure and will take a giant steel bird that will fly us across the ocean!”. Then I go on telling her what kind of things we will do once we arrive. I make funny faces and we laugh. This kind of talking actually got ME even more excited about the trip; I think it’s contagious! J I do believe this helps her understand we are about to go someplace new. I find that even if my baby can’t speak yet, she understands quite a bit, and as a person coming along with us, I find it important to keep her informed about what is going on. She is not just something we take along with us; she is a member of the family whose emotions and needs are validated on an equal level as ours are. Talking to your baby and explaining what is about to happen shows your respect towards the little human beings that they are.

  1. Let her pack her suitcase (or unpack yours!)

In any case, involve her in the trip preparation. I take out the suitcases and she loves to sit in them and play. She watches us pack and we discuss which toys she’d like to have with her on the trip.

  1. Prepare in advance

On the day before the flight I prepared snacks for the plane for the whole family. The food on airplanes is not usually great, and I certainly did not want my baby to survive just on cookies and fruit pouches (even if these are very handy!). I prepared oatmeal for her breakfast (which she loves), and a lentil stew for her lunch/dinner. I packed them in airtight containers along with a few bibs and spoons. I also had fruits, such as banana, apple and pear, which are easy to eat without having to cut them. If she is anything like me I know that she will appreciate having her home prepared food on the plane, which will also offer her comfort and familiarity.

It is important for anyone travelling to stay hydrated while flying due to the air circulation, so we made sure to bring plenty of sippy-cups and bottled water (security lets you take it through if its for the baby).

We also packed plenty changes of clothes, diapers and wet wipes (thankfully!), her favorite pajama and sleeping toy. We were lucky because we could book a baby bassinet with our tickets (she just fit within the weight/age requirements of 15 months and 11.5KG), which meant that she could sleep relatively comfortably during the flight, allowing us time to relax and even get some sleep!

We brought her favorite storybooks, coloring book (she loves to draw), as well as some of her favorite cuddly toys. Think of the items your baby loves that are not too big and things he or she can play with that don’t make much of a mess, and bring them along with you. It will make the trip much easier. You can even buy her something new to play with and only give it in flight that will keep her occupied an entertained, at least for a while. We also had a movie (Finding Dory) ready to play on the iPad in case there was an emergency, but thankfully we did not have to play it. As we believe Raya is still too young for it, we don’t stick her in front of the TV. However, you need to choose your battles, and on occasions, such as travelling for over 12 hours I think it is acceptable to let them watch a little something to keep everyone sane, and not annoy the rest of the passengers on the plane.

  1. The reality

The trip to L.A. was a tough one. Our stroller was mistakenly checked-in all the way trough to L.A. meaning we had to carry Raya during our layover at Heathrow for 4 hours, when we actually hoped she could nap during this time. It was difficult, as she got overtired and was running like the wind across the terminal. Add to that the whole independence phase she’s in these days, where she doesn’t want to hold hands, we found ourselves running behind her for 3 hours! Once we were on the plane to L.A. we could finally catch our breath. She only slept for three hours on the plane but the trip went really well. She was joyfully playing with her toys and we alternated paying a lot of attention to her, and she arrived in the U.S. as a happy little camper. She did not eat much, and wanted to nurse much more than usual, which I was happy to provide for. On this note – breastfeeding is a saver for long haul trips! It just solves every issue, be it hunger, tiredness, or anxiety. I feel so grateful for being able to provide her this comfort. That being said, the airline staff are more than happy to heat up a bottle for you should you need it.

The flight back was different. She was more tired as she didn’t sleep much during the daytime in L.A. and it took forever for her to fall asleep in the plane. We were faced with that uncomfortable situation, where she was crying loud and we were left clueless as to what to do next. It just seemed she could not be comfortable nor relax. Taking into account the fact that we were also very tired, it was almost inevitable that I nearly lost it. And then it hit me. This little trooper has been putting up with us the entire time, without complaining much, with disturbed nap times and jet lag and was still so joyful and calm 99% of the time. How could I possibly be angry with her when she was finally making it clear that she can’t take it anymore? So I held her close in my arms and spoke into her ear to tell her I understand her. Because I finally did! I kissed her wet eyes, let her nurse as much as she needed, and she finally fell asleep. She slept for almost the entire length of the flight, and woke up happy and in a mood for play.

My husband and I took turns taking care of her during the flight. He went for walks with her, cuddled her and played with her, while I was napping or eating. Giving each other the opportunity to take a break is important. This way when it was my turn to take care of Raya I could give her my full attention and love.

And let me answer the question from the beginning – will I do it again? The answer is absolutely YES! Travelling with a baby is a very different experience, one that will test your patience and ability to stay calm. One that will leave you more tired than you have imagined, because your only focus will be your baby and its wellbeing. Your wellbeing comes after that. And once you’ve done your job right, and your baby is peacefully sleeping, go ahead, order yourself a glass of wine and pat yourself on the back for doing an amazing job. Because it is hard, but so worth it to experience new places with your family, you would not have it any other way!

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