There are a million traveling parents out there who worry about whether they will survive air travel with kids. Parents especially worry whether we will bother others with a fussy infant or tantruming toddler. To complicate matters more, it is very hard to anticipate how your infant or toddler will behave on a flight when you need to book plane tickets months in advance. This is especially for a first time parent where every day presents new and unanticipated changes in routine and habits.
Now that my daughter is 5 and I've added another baby (who has a much more mellow temperament) to my traveling family, I have some more insights to offer about the best and worst ages and stages for air travel. Here's my new and improved guide for each age and stage.
0-3 months: I don’t recommend flying at this age unless absolutely necessary, particularly for first time parents. Often, babies are colicky and sleep at the oddest times, which can be hard on everyone aboard a longer flight — especially parents. Plus, new parents are stressed and moms may still even be recovering from childbirth. Finally, infants may be susceptible to all sorts of basic germs that thrive in crowded places like airports and planes, and it is no fun finding yourself on a trip with a sick newborn.
3-9 months: A great age to fly. The biggest challenge at this stage is for first time parents who are still just figuring out how to be parents. The babies are actually quite easy, but the parents often don’t know it because everything about parenting is still so new! Babies will still sleep a lot and aren’t that mobile at this stage. Your baby will still be nursing or taking bottles regularly, so you can feed on takeoff and and landing and avoid ear pressurization issues.
9-12 months: At about the time your child starts to crawl, things get a bit more challenging. If your child is active, he or she may want to spend the flight squirming out of your arms and crawling in the aisles. It is at this age that I highly recommend that parents start buying a seat for their little ones (for longer flights especially), so that you can put them down in their car seats for a nap or just to rest your arms.
12-18 months: Once your child starts walking, all bets will probably be off unless you are blessed with the most mellow of children. One year olds are still too young to understand and follow instructions, so discipline is ineffective. Distract, and if needed, bribe. Walk the aisles with your toddler, hang out in the galley when you can, and bring a variety of snacks, books, and toys to deal with a short attention span.
18-24 months: Things continue to be challenging with a fully mobile but not yet rational toddler. It is at this age that you will be beginning some discipline with your child, so you may be able to register occasional successes. You may also be able to start using an iPad or DVD player for distraction, in short intervals. This age is often easier with girls than boys, as girls tend to develop verbal skills to express frustration a few months earlier than boys.
2-3 years: A true light at the end of the tunnel! At around 2 years old, our daughter finally started developing a more sustained attention span and we could begin to rely on electronic assistance like an iPad or DVD player to give us a bit of a break on long flights. Hopefully, your methods of discipline will also begin to be more effective at this age, so your toddler will begin following instructions like staying seated on command.
The hardest thing at this stage will be potty training — you won’t be able to take your child to the bathroom at all times and toddlers who are just learning can rarely wait as long as a taxi and takeoff when they have to go. I recommend avoiding starting training if you are going on a flight soon afterwards. We waited until our daughter was fully trained on land for about 4 weeks before braving a trip in the air (sans Pull-Up).
3-4 years: In comparison to the three years before, flying is a breeze! After her third birthday, my daughter would sit still and watch a whole movie, gab with the flight attendants, and show concern for (and often entertain) younger children in the cabin when they are fussy and tired. You should still be prepared with all sorts of distractions, but you may find that you don’t need all the supplies you’ve brought along.
4-5 years: Even better! Most kids will have a year or two of preschool under their belt at this age and will be accustomed to listening to authority figures and following rules. And most will love TV and movies enough to be entertained for hours with an iPad or in-flight entertainment system (limits on screen time don't apply, in my opinion, on planes!). The only major issue we had at this age was (completely inadvertent) seat-kicking. Little kids of this age have legs that seem to be just the right length to bump up against the seat in front of them. Watch for this and encourage your child to sit cross-legged if this is an issue.
5 and up: If you've been traveling with your child regularly, most kids will be travel pros by age 5. Cranky moments will happen when kids are exhausted from travel, but they are much more manageable. Our daughter was almost perfectly behaved on a 13 hour flight to and from Hong Kong at this age.
Once you reach that promised land where you can watch an entire in-flight movie with a child seated quietly next to you, all is well. Until, of course, you have your next child and start the process all over again!
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