How To Mentally Prepare For a Long Haul Flight With a Toddler

expat issues, Little Aussie

In a couple of weeks, Hushpuppy and will be boarding flights for the long trip back to the States.

My current panic level: Moderate to calm

Hushpuppy and I have clocked a lot of long-haul miles together, and my increasing familiarity with travelling with a toddler is the only reason I’m not in the Red Zone. Last year, I very nearly cancelled our first trip home because of my anxiety over flying alone with a then-22 month old firecracker of a lap baby. I would have missed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and my brother’s wedding, all because the thought of the 21 hours in transit alone with a feral toddler had become an anxious obsession. I was having nightmares every time I went to sleep.

Thankfully, I turned to the wise advice of other expat mothers I knew. Long haul travel with children is the well-trodden territory of expat mothers, so these marvelous women talked me down and convinced me to go. And, honestly, is was fine. Mostly fine. In any case, far, far more fine than all the personal apocalypse scenarios I’d been playing in my head.

So, I wanted to write this post for anyone who is going to do long-haul with a squirmy, rat-bag toddler. There are millions of excellent posts out there with advice on how to physically prepare for air travel with young children – what to pack, how to get the best seats, and so forth. You have Google. I won’t repeat that here. This post is to help you mentally prepare for the trip, so perhaps you won’t lose quite as much sleep as I did.

How to Mentally Prepare for Long Haul Travel With a Toddler

You Need Mantras

I am serious. My expat ladies loaded me up with an arsenal of mantras to keep me going. I wasn’t sure how much words would help me, but knowing that there were skilled travelers behind these personal cheerleading moments made me feel like I had a small army backing me up. So, please consider me part of your team, and let me give you a few of the mantras that get me through.

  1. You Can Do This!!! (Simple, but imagine a whole marching band and drill squad singing this. You Can!)
  2. It’s only ONE DAY of your life.
  3. You will never see these people again.
  4. If any idiot shoots you a dirty look, just remember how lucky you are to have this awesome kid. Their life is empty. Empty and loveless. You are winning.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Everyone Does Not Hate You

A lot of my anxiety came from the idea that I was going to walk down the plane aisle to a chorus of sighs and eye rolls, that I was going to make people mad, and just generally that everyone was going to hate me for being the mom with the baby on the plane. I packed bags and bags of chocolates to give to flight attendants and seat neighbors (most of which I never ended up giving out), and braced myself for being the Most Hated Woman in the Sky.

But, none of these fears came true. Here’s what actually happened. Lots of people offered to help. Flight attendants helped get me the best possible seats and brought me food when I missed a meal. The businessman next to me, who I apologized to for my very presence before I even sat down, played iPad with my kid and was kind as could be. When my kid cried for 20 minutes at landing, people came up to me after and said, “you did great, Mom” and “I remember those days with my kids.”

I’m not saying that no dirtbag will ever cross your path with an ugly look or snide comment, but most people are decent human beings with compassion and empathy.

Ask for Help

See above.
Yay – society works!
Also, accept help when it’s offered. People like to help. Let them.

Don’t Pack All the Things

Individually wrapped toys that your kid can open each hour – that’s the advice a lot of sites will give you for keeping your kid entertained. I am here to call B.S. Do you know how much room that takes up in your carry on? A lot. I did it. It takes a lot of precious space. And, you know what? All your kid is going to want to do is play on the tablet, watch the in-seat entertainment, pull out and put back the safety information cards, and – hopefully – sleep. In all of the flights we’ve done, I’d estimate Hushpuppy has logged maybe 14 minutes of interest on crayons, 41 on stickers, 6 on books, and 2 on Matchbox cars. I’m not saying don’t bring anything, but I am saying don’t go crazy. Being able to access things you actually need in your carry on is far more important than packing half of Daiso in hopes that your kid doesn’t suffer one single moment of boredom.

The one exception to this rule is snacks. Popcorn, raisins, crackers. Pack ’em all. Pack lots.

You Probably Won’t Sleep

Prepare ahead with as much sleep as you can manage the night before. Even if you’re lucky enough for your poppet to sleep, the best you can hope for is to drift off into what I call “mom sleep” – that state of sleep where you still know every breath your kid takes, every move she makes … every smile she fakes, every bond she breaks. You’ll be watching her.

It’s OK. You’ve been there. Remember the newborn months? Or, the night before every single research paper was due in college? It wasn’t awesome, but we survived it. This is just one day. And, the good news is that you’ll sleep like a boss on the other end where there will, hopefully, be some doting and helping hands.

It’s OK to Cry

Airplane crying? Welcome to the sorority of Expat Mums and long-haul travelers. It will probably be something so small that sets you off. For me, I asked a flight attendant to help me put up my bag. She scolded me that my bag was too heavy. I sat in my seat and cried for 10 minutes. I just really needed that cry. And, then I remembered my mantras and all the women I had behind me. A little cry doesn’t mean you’re not going to get through it. It’s just another way to kill a few minutes. And, it was nothing like the ugly airplane crying I did when I watched Marley and Me on the plane a few years ago!

Drug ‘Em. Or Don’t. Who Cares.

Oh, the great Benadryl/Phenergan debate. Do you give your kid a mild sedative to ensure that they sleep, or does that make you the #worstparentever? Do you want to try it? Do it. Makes you feel ooky? Don’t do it. You’re not going to ruin your kid’s life or make or break your trip one way or the other.* Me, I had it with me as a “break glass in case of emergency” precaution. It made me feel secure, and I never ended up needing it.

But, for the love of all the air and space gods, test it out first if you think you might go that route because you do not want to find out that you have one of those kids who thinks it’s Mountain Dew. That would ruin your trip.

*All disclaimers about pre-existing medical conditions, check with your doctor, I am not a trained professional, etc, etc.

Try to see things form your child’s perspective

This may sound a little treacly, but if your kid truly does crack it and make you feel a kind of crazy, try to change the script in your head by putting yourself in your child’s place. They’re not actually acting up to make your life miserable, but because they’re tired, uncomfortable, excited, overwhelmed, and maybe a little scared. And, they may be tiny dictators, but they really are just little.

Is there anything you can do to change their reality and make it easier? If not, see if you can cut them a little slack. You’re on the same team  – Team Let’s Get Off This Airplane Together In One Piece. Go team!


Are you a survivor of long haul travel with young children?
What are your mantras?
Tell us how you did it!

Seychelles Mama

22 thoughts on “How To Mentally Prepare For a Long Haul Flight With a Toddler

  1. Anphy

    I traveled alone from India to Sydney with my 19 months old daughter last Jan. As you said, wasn’t as bad as I had feared it would be. And she was totally not into screen time at that age – snacks and naps came to my rescue.
    Got another trip to India in July this year. The in flight entertainment should help this time around 🙂
    Thanks for the tips – the “Everyone Does Not Hate You” part is spot on !!!

    1. Cristin Post author

      Good luck with the next trip! Yes, mine has definitely been increasingly appreciative of the screens as she’s gotten older (though, weirdly, on our first flight she just watched Peppa on a loop with no sound!).
      You’ve got this!

  2. mark

    Do whatever you have to do to get through it i say. We have travelled to Europe with a 10 month its a challenge but in the end its only 1 day really we will all survive

  3. Robyna | the Mummy and the Minx

    Such a good point about people being kind. I think because the people that comment on things on social media about kids and plane travel are so mean, we sort of prepare ourselves for that kind of reaction. When in reality most people ads quite understanding.

    1. Cristin Post author

      So true – seeing so much negativity about children on planes puts you on the defensive long before you even board! It’s easy to forget that 99% of people will be kind (or at least indifferent!).

  4. Liv @ eeniemeeniemineymum

    “You will never see these people again” – best advice and such a good mantra!! I’ve only done domestic flights with my three so far but even then I was just like you and felt like I was the most hated person on the plane! In Xmas 2017 though we are going to Hawaii and my kids who are now 4,4 and 14 months will be 6, 6 and 3. Should be interesting!

    1. Cristin Post author

      Start practicing the mantras now! 😉 😉 Just kidding – I’ll bet your kids will be fine, and Hawaii will be well worth it!

  5. Hugzilla

    Oh this is wonderful! I LOVE that your first tip is to have a mantra. I can totally get on board with that! interesting point about not packing ALL THE THINGS as well. Will have to remember that if we ever do long haul. Is there nothing a tablet can’t do? HEART.

    1. Cristin Post author

      If there was EVER a time for a tablet, long haul flights are it! My daughter is already asking what shows they’re going to have on the in-flight entertainment, as well. I don’t think she needs any extra toys!

  6. Ersatz Expat

    WE have found most people to be incredibly kind and helpful. We are lucky that Mini EE sleeps through most of the flight. We have also found flight attendants love to pick her up and take her to the back to feed her cake, we don’t rely on this of course but it is nice when it happens. We don’t bother with the toys but we find the ipad/inflight entertainment systems are a godsend.

    If you are still using a pushchair check with the destination airport in advance whether it will be returned to you at the door or at baggage. Most places get it back to you as soon as possible but some are less than helpful with this.

    1. Cristin Post author

      Awesome flight attendants who take the kiddos for cake!
      On our last flight, I didn’t have one go that far, but when my daughter slept through dinner, she came around for the whole rest of the flight with little snacks for her.
      So true about the pushchair. Now that mine is 3, and doesn’t use it much, I’ve given up on traveling with one, mostly because it’s such a hassle at the airport!

  7. Katy

    Great advice. Last year we flew London to Melbourne and back again in the space of 4 weeks. With our 18 month old twins 😱 Obviously not something you do on a whim! The trip back to the UK was the worst 24 hours of my life and I learnt a lot from that. Your advice – especially about the little wrapped presents and the phenergan – is sound. Giving your child something to settle them is usually a last resort. We had to resort to it when my son did not sleep for 12 hours on our last trip earlier this year. Best decision I ever made. He was happier and so were our fellow passengers which made me a lot happier too. Although I am not ashamed to say that I cried my eyes out on the earlier trip. Hope your travels were ok!

    1. Cristin Post author

      18 month old twins is definitely an adventure!
      I used the Phenergran on one leg of our last trip, as well. Mine was so exhausted, but just too wired to sleep. It was a big help to both of us.
      You are not alone in the sorority of crying mums on long haul – been there, too!

  8. Seychellesmama

    Great great great post!! The first time we flew with Arthur I was totally in the red zone, had no sleep etc etc and it was totally fine!!! Definitely agree with ALL the snacks, I.C.E calpol and no to the millions of presents….so please my husband convinced me that was ridiculous before we flew haha!
    We are doing our first 2x child flight this summer and I can already feel the stress rising haha!
    Love the mama mantra’s YES WE CAN!!!!!

    Thanks for linking with #myexpatfamily

    1. Cristin Post author

      Thanks for having me again! And, good luck with the upcoming flight – hope the kids behave perfectly!

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