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Surviving Redeye Flights with Kids

Planning a redeye flight with babies, toddlers, or young kids? While redeyes with kids can be a challenge, these tips and advice will make the process easier on you and your little ones.Redeye flights are a necessary evil of air travel for cross-country or international flights.  Need to get from San Francisco to New York and leave after your workday is over?  A redeye is your only choice because of the time difference.  Redeyes are also often the cheapest flights of the day for many destinations, so they are a tempting option for families since those savings can really add up when you are traveling with multiple adults and kids.

Redeye flights with kids, however, can truly be a trap for the unwary for parents of small children.  I’ve sometimes heard parents say that they seek out redeyes because “the little ones will just conk out anyway, right?”  Maybe, but maybe not.  Choosing a redeye is really a roll of the dice when dealing with the mercurial nature of infants and toddlers.  Your kid might sleep quietly the whole way, or your kid may be one screaming for five hours straight preventing a whole section of the plane from getting a wink of sleep.

The biggest advice I can give you in deciding whether a redeye is right for you is to know your child.  Some kids sleep anywhere when they are tired.  Mine wasn’t one of them for the first several years of her life.  Up until about her third birthday, my daughter was perpetually awake on airplanes.  The excitement of flying was too overwhelming for her to rest.  We could rarely achieve a successful nap on a plane, so we knew that trying to squeeze in a whole night’s sleep would be a recipe for disaster.  Naturally, we avoided redeyes like the plague.

Our first redeye ended up happening, of course, but it was an unintentional one!  We found ourselves stranded in Hawaii this past summer when our Alaska flight was cancelled.  We were rebooked on a flight 6 hours later that was a redye from Hawaii to California.  My daughter was so exhausted from a full day at the airport with no naps that she went right out.  She had a fitful sleep, however, and also slept until noon after we arrived back at our home at about 7 am.  So it isn’t something I’d do again at this age unless absolutely necessary.

As kids get older, of course, they become more flexible and ready to survive and even thrive on redeye flights.  Each age and stage of travel is different, so be prepared to evolve with your kids.

If you do end up choosing a redeye flight with babies, toddlers, or younger children, here are a few tips to make it work for your family and your little ones:

1) Bring PJ’s

Having your kid in comfy clothing that he or she is used to sleeping in will help set the mood for a restful flight.  Remember to pick PJs that are easy for diaper changes or bathroom trips.  I avoid the footed ones on flights!

2) Bring favorite blanket or stuffed toy

It’s also helpful for your little one to have the usual items he or she sleeps with such as a stuffed animal, lovey, or blanket.  This will help trigger your child’s sleep associations, hopefully resulting in a better chance of a sleepy kid.

3) Buy your little one a seat

If you plan to sleep on a flight or have your child do the same, you absolutely need to have as much space as possible to stretch out and get comfortable (not that you can ever be comfortable on a plane these days, but that is a post for another day!).  You aren’t going to sleep with a squirmy 14 month old on your lap for 5 hours or more.  Don’t try it.

4) Consider bringing a car seat

When my daughter was an infant and young toddler, the car seat was the place she was most likely to fall asleep while on the go.  If your child needs the security of being strapped in to calm him or her down enough to fall asleep, bring the car seat along.  A car seat is particularly helpful when your child is still in the “bucket” version (we used the Chicco Keyfit 30) that is partially reclined and will allow a comfortable sleeping position.  It is a tougher call for older toddlers, as the car seats are upright and also position little legs in a place where they are likely to kick the seat in front of them the whole flight (note: a CARES harness is a viable alternative for toddlers).  I quit bringing a car seat when my daughter was close to two years old, and we have her curl up with her head in our lap when she needs to sleep.

5) Ask for the infant bassinet on international flights

Some flights on some airlines do have bassinets available that attach to the back of the bulkhead.  These are almost exclusively available on international flights and have fairly low weight limits, so they are only good for small infants.  Also, getting them is a bit of a crap shoot – not all airlines and all plane types have them.  And, of course, there could be other families traveling with infants on your plane who beat you to booking the bulkhead row.

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