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How to Survive Flying with a Lap Toddler

Flying with toddlers is hard. They are fully mobile, totally opinionated, and incapable of all reason and logic at the most inopportune moments.

But why stop there? If you are really up for a family travel challenge, fly with your toddler in your lap. Up until your little one’s second birthday, your child is eligible to fly for free as a lap child. Many budget-conscious families take advantage of those savings for as long as possible, which can make for some very tight accommodations in tiny airplane rows.

Flying with a toddler in dad's lap

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Should You Fly with Your Toddler in Your Lap?

I’ll level with you: the lap toddler is controversial. In fact, all lap children are controversial. Airline safety experts agree that the safest place for your kiddos is in their own seats in child restraint devices (a car seat or CARES harness). But until and unless the FAA rules change, parents get to make that safety call for themselves. I’m not going to judge. While I always tried to buy a seat for my children whenever possible, they’ve both also flown in my lap several times too over the years.

Toddler boarding airplane with mom
Toddler travel companion ready for flight!

There is an additional reason, however, that lap toddlers are so controversial. Toddlers are just very different than babies. They are much bigger and more likely to have developed an independent streak. They can throw serious tantrums when things don’t go their way. In short, they are just more likely to need the extra space of another seat. (My friend and fellow family travel bloggers over a Points With a Crew wrote a brilliant diatribe calling for the end of the lap toddler for just these reasons.)

So, should you take on this air travel challenge? Before you make the call to fly with your toddler in your lap, make sure to assess your child’s personality and the length of the flight you are planning to take. My first child, for example, was fiercely independent and did not make a good lap toddler at all. Luckily, my son was much mellower. While budget is often the final deciding factor, your sanity is worth a lot too.

If you’ve thought it through and have made the call to travel with a lap toddler, godspeed and good luck. Now you need to live to tell the tale! (I’m exaggerating here of course, but only somewhat.)

Here are my best tips for lap toddler travel success – a.k.a. how to survive flying with a lap toddler. And while these tips focus on having a toddler in your lap, most of them work for flying with a toddler in his or her own seat as well!

Squirmy toddler on airplane with mom
Squirmy toddlers who want to move can be hard work on airplanes – even when happy!

Tips for Lap Toddler Success

1. Pick the right flight and time.

Is your toddler super-cranky during the pre-dinner witching hour? Don’t pick a 5 pm flight. Does your little one really need a full night of sleep to make it through the day? The 6 am flight is not for you. Would being stranded overnight after a missed connection be really, really rough with a toddler? Don’t book the last flight of the night that gets you to your destination.

In short, don’t pick a flight that sets you up for failure before you ever leave. I happen to think that mid-morning flights are just about right for many toddlers. They give you enough time to wake up at a reasonable hour and get to the airport but they are still substantially before nap time meltdowns start.

Of course, if you are flying longer distances like on cross-country or international flights you won’t be able to time things perfectly. Additionally, the 2021 return of air travel is pretty volatile right now so you may not have any real choice in the matter when it comes to micromanaging the perfect timing. But when you do have options, set yourself up for success, even if it sometimes costs a tiny bit more!

2. Maximize your chances of getting an extra seat.

Even if you don’t buy a seat for your toddler, that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to get one. If there are empty seats on a flight, many airlines will try to make them available for families with lap children to use.

Toddler on airplane in separate seat with CARES harness.
In a separate seat we snagged for free thanks to Southwest’s open seating policies.

The easiest airline on which to make this happen is Southwest. Because of the airline’s open seating policy, if there is even a single extra seat on the plane, you will be able to snag it for your child. Just double check with the gate agent and ask nicely. The answer, in my experience, has always been yes. I have better than a 50/50 success rate on Southwest flights, even when traveling at peak periods. See my complete guide to traveling Southwest with kids for all the details you need to think about when flying the airline with little ones.

Other airlines are a mixed bag, as you often need the gate agent to rearrange seat assignments to leave an empty seat next to where your family is sitting. If you want to maximize your chances, book yourself and your partner or other child into an aisle and window seat (leaving an empty middle seat) near the back of the plane. Those are often the last seats to be filled and may be empty anyway.

3. Electronics are a must.

Yes, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for little ones until their second birthday. But I recommend leaving your perfect parenting pride behind on the jetway. You won’t wreck your toddler’s development by allowing some videos or apps in-flight to get through a tough moment on a single airplane flight (or in my family’s case, dozens of flights!). A little screen time can definitely be a lifesaver with any toddler in a moment of tiredness or boredom.

Toddler watching iPad on airplane.
Bubble Guppies on an iPad for the toddler entertainment win!

With the exception of JetBlue, very few airlines have seat back entertainment anymore on domestic US flights, so be sure to pack your own screen. We find an old iPhone works great, especially since older models still have standard headphone jacks that match what you’ll find on many toddler headphones.

Related: Tips for Flying JetBlue with Kids

4. Bring non-electronic entertainment to keep little fingers busy.

Although electronics can be amazing distractions, toddlers have incredibly short attention spans. You’ll be lucky to get 5-15 minutes of sustained attention out of a TV show or movie for the under 2 set, so a phone or tablet simply cannot be the only entertainment you bring.

What works for my toddler? Wikki Stix have been a big hit as he has neared his second birthday (one word of warning – these are NOT good for toddlers who still mouth objects, but my little guy has never tried to eat them). I’ve also had good luck with little cases to open and close filled with treats like goldfish or M&M’s. My toddler loves opening each compartment and grabbing the goodies inside.

Seriously, this counts as toddler entertainment (we cleaned them all up before deplaning – don’t worry!)

Other toddler-friendly entertainment ideas:

  • Stickers
  • Matchbox cars
  • Post-it flags
  • Toys that shake and rattle (a box of Tic Tacs actually works well!)
  • Bendy straws
  • Coloring pads with triangular crayons (they don’t roll off tray tables)

Check out my post with 20+ tech-free travel entertainment ideas for kids for lots more inspiration.

5. Bring a wide variety of snacks.

For toddlers, food is entertainment too. Bring a wide variety of non-messy, toddler-friendly food and bring out new items at strategic moments to avoid meltdowns. Double bonus if the food takes a long time to eat.

I pack snacks in individual Ziploc bags and then put them into a snack trap to eat to help contain toddler messes.

Related: 50 kid-friendly snack recommendations for air travel

6. Walk the aisle. But not too much.

Trying to keep an active toddler in your lap for a long flight is a pretty tough endeavor. Handing them back and forth between two adults helps (assuming you aren’t a parent traveling solo), but that only goes so far. Toddlers want and need to move!

For anything longer than an hour flight, plan to spend some time in the aisle getting a little exercise. Letting them take a lap or two can burn off some energy. Just try to time these walks around the beverage and food service so you can stay out of the way of flight attendants.

7. Pack a baby carrier.

Baby Asleep Southwest Airlines
The best kind of airplane selfie – a sleeping toddler!  At 17 months, toddler slept successfully in a baby carrier all the way from MDW to OAK.

Most parents ditch the baby carrier before age 2, but it can still be a great tool when flying with a lap toddler (although it can’t be used on takeoff or landing). Sometimes, you just need to keep your toddler contained.

More importantly, the carrier can be particularly good for getting your toddler to sleep on you. We used a carrier for a flight with my then almost 2 year old son when we departed late in the evening and knew he would sleep most of the flight. It worked like a charm and was much more comfortable than trying to get him to stretch out across my lap awkwardly for bedtime.

If you don’t already have a soft carrier, I particularly like the super-compact Bitybean carrier for flying as it takes up very little space (see my full review of the Bitybean here).

8. Don’t stress the nap.

Depending on your child, you may or may not get your child to nap on the plane if you are flying at nap time. Some kids conk out as soon as the plane starts moving, but my daughter never napped on planes between the ages of 1-3. She was simply too distracted and excited by the new environment. I certainly tried mightily to force a nap (rocking her, etc.) which ended up being more trouble than it was worth and probably provoking bigger meltdowns.

I was much more flexible with my second child at nap time on planes, and it went much more smoothly. And sometimes we even got a nap without trying because I was less stressed about the schedule.

Have you flown with a lap toddler? How was it? What are your secrets for toddler travel success?

Flying with a toddler under 2 in your lap? If you haven't bought a seat for your little one, here are tried and true tips for managing a mobile and opinionated toddler on a plane, even in tight quarters!

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