Helping Your Child Sleep on a Plane

While we're not big fans of using a sedative to get our kids to sleep on a plane, especially in light of the recent warnings, so we've gotten pretty sophisticated in our tactics for getting our baby and toddler to nap on the plane. Here are our top tips:
  1. Schedule flights at nap time or bedtime, and make sure that your kids get plenty of physical activity before the flight. Many airports have a play area (ask a gate agent) but if yours doesn't you can often find a lightly used gate for them to run around.
  2. Seat your child in the window seat where there will be less distraction from passing flight attendants and passengers. Once you takeoff, close the window shade and turn off the overhead lights.
  3. A full tummy makes everyone drowsy. Take some time after clearing security to make sure that your child is well fed, preferably with lots of protein and not very much sugar.
  4. Takeoff is the easiest time to get your child to sleep as there's little activity in the cabin and the soothing engine noise is at its loudest.
  5. We go through as much of our sleep routine as possible, including putting on Pajamas, reading books, and singing quietly or giving them earbuds and an mp3 player loaded with calm music. (I figure my neighbors would rather hear quiet singing than loud crying.) We tell the kids that it's going to be a long, boring flight and its best to go to sleep, so that they understand what we're expecting.
  6. A sippy full of milk will not only help clear your child's ears during takeoff, but milk also has a mild sedative effect (as does sucking on a sippy or bottle. Of course it's no secret that breastfeeding, especially with a cover, super effective at inducing sleep.

References:
NY Times: These Drugs Are for Colds, Not Fidgets
Times Online: Mothers who drug their babies on flights
Tips for Flying with Babies, Toddlers, and Children

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Comments

  1. HCY

    April 14, 2008 at 12:12 p.m.

    Hello. I am traveling with our son (2 years, 1 month old at the time of the trip) to New Mexico. This will be his first plane trip ever. He does terrific in the car (we regularly drive around for long stretches), and we are flying out around his bedtime, so I am going to put him in his PJ's and hope he sleeps all the way there. We will then stay in a hotel and have a car ride afterwards. We are taking his car seat and I ordered the Go Go Travelmate (it arrived this past weekend) for him as well. Wish us luck!

  2. Debbie

    April 14, 2008 at 10:16 p.m.

    HCY,
    Have a wonderful trip. I bet your little guy will do great.

    Debbie

  3. jen laceda

    http://jenlaceda.blogspot.com/
    February 19, 2009 at 6:32 a.m.

    I like the idea of an mp3 player full of her fave songs. Would you suggest to indulge and bring a portable dvd player for kids?

  4. Melissa Bryner

    February 28, 2009 at 2:36 p.m.

    We are traveling to Hawaii in May and are a little worried about the flight home. It is a red-eye flight, and we have a 3 year old and a 1 year old. I will have the 3 year old in a car seat, and the one year old in my lap. I am concerend that they won't sleep no matter what we do. The one year old won't sleep anywhere but in her crib. Any suggestions on how to make them sleep?

  5. Mallory

    March 6, 2009 at 12:08 a.m.

    I am traveling to South Africa alone with my two year old daughter in June and am so nervous! The flight is 25+ hours and I really don't know how she is going to handle it! This website has given great tips! I know she will hopefully sleep for 15 hours of the flight. I plan on brining a dvd player because nothing captures her attention like Spongebob! Would you suggest buying a cheap stroller at my destination or trying to bring mine with me. I've already to decided to lug her carseat with us because we will be traveling by car all over SA and i'd rather be safe than sorry! I have alot of anxiety when flying and usually tame it with Zanex but I know i wont be able to with my daughter there! Any advice to calm a nervous mother down? I am also so concerned with the jetlag, it is a 9 hour difference!

  6. Regan

    September 10, 2009 at 3:19 a.m.

    Wanted to share what worked so well for me on a recent trip that I took with my 13 month old daughter from Hawaii direct to Atlanta, GA. I was extremely nervous because I was traveling with my daughter alone. Fortunately, I was seated in an empty row (two seats on the side, putting my daughter in her car seat in the window seat.) I always keep diaper pins in my bag, for mishaps (like fixing a nursing bra or my daughters ripped pants), so I waited until my daughter fell asleep and I pinned one end of the airplane blanket to the top of her car seat and then the other end to the back of the seat in front of her. LIFESAVER!! Once the cabin got dark (red-eye flight), all the babies fell asleep. As soon as the adults started getting bored, reading lights were being turned on and off all over the place, waking up all the kids and filling the plane with tired cries. My daughter was the only one to sleep through the entire flight in her little tent. She woke up 20 minutes before we landed, just as the attendants were handing out yogurt. By the time I fed her the yogurt, we landed! I have shared the airplane tent idea with all the moms I know. Hope it helps you guys!

  7. Seasa

    February 25, 2010 at 6:02 p.m.

    Hi Debbie, I love your site! It has lots of great advice. We are planning a trip in a few months with our daughter who will be 21 months at time of travel. Based on your info and other research, we have decided to use CARES for the plane, and I am confident it will go well. The part I am most nervous about - the hotel. Specifically, getting her to sleep in the hotel while we are there too. She is really used to sleeping in her room by herself, and we just did a trip to my folks where we tried to share a room. It was a total disaster. No one slept. We are staying at a resort for our trip, but we have to drive to a bigger city for the flight, and are spending the night at a hotel near the airport the night before we fly out. It will be a long flying day, and we HAVE to sleep. Not staying in the hotel isn't an option, and it isn't an option to get a suite or two rooms (they don't have connecting ones). How do you get your kid to sleep in a hotel? At my folks, we even tried having her in bed with us, rocking her to sleep, etc, and nothing worked. We finally put her in her stroller and rolled her around, then let her sleep for a few hours in her stroller. That won't be possible in the hotel. I haven't been able to find any advice on this anywhere. Some friends suggest setting up the pack n' play in the bathroom, which I would totally do if we could all sleep, but she can climb out of it. I am struggling to find a solution, wondering if I have to start sleeping on the floor in her room to get her used to sleeping with someone else there. I just don't want her to get used to it at home. Thank you for any help you can offer!

  8. Debbie

    February 25, 2010 at 8:06 p.m.

    Seasa,

    Wow, it sounds as if you are really in a tough spot. Here are some ideas that might help:

    - start talking to her about sleeping in the hotel a few days before your trip & maybe show her some pictures from the hotel website
    - bring along a lovey or blanket from home
    - there's no reason you cannot push a stroller around the hotel grounds
    - a sling is another nice way to get a young child to sleep (assuming she will stay asleep when you move her into the bed later)

    Hope this helps!

  9. lauren

    April 7, 2010 at 3:55 a.m.

    hi, i have a 1 yr old and we are going to florida from london 8 hrs we are travelling at her nap time but the only problem is she wont sleep on anyone loves her bed to much ive tryed to get her used to sleeping on me but she has none of it what can i do, and what are the best toys to keep her happy when shes awake thank you.

  10. Debbie

    April 7, 2010 at 11:18 a.m.

    Lauren,

    I think you should do what you can to get your daughter used to sleeping in different environments before you go on your trip. Once you are in London, she'll probably be so tired with the time change that she will be more flexible.

    Here are my best recommendations for travel toys: http://www.deliciousbaby.com/products...

    Have a great trip!

  11. Aditi

    April 20, 2011 at 6:08 a.m.

    Hey Thanx that was helpful as i am travelling with my 2year old to new york in november from Dubai.

    I also needed some tips/ suggestions on the foll if u could pls help.
    1. We r going from dubai (hot climate ) to new york(cold climate), anything specific other than warm clothes that i may need to protect my child from climatic changes?

    2. How do i ease out the time zone differerence adjustment as it would be nearly an 8-10 hr difference?

    3. Any travel tips as my flight would be for 16-18 hrs and i have an active toddler with me?

    Looking forw to hearing from u.
    Cheers
    Aditi

  12. Cammie

    June 16, 2011 at 8:48 a.m.

    Debbie, do you know under how many pounds a baby must be to sleep in one of those airline cots? Additionally, how long (or rather, short) should he be? I have a BIG 9 month old who I really hope will fit into an airline cot, but I'm doubtful ... Thanks!

  13. Debbie

    June 16, 2011 at 10:06 a.m.

    The cots are a little different on each airline. If you absolutely need to know in advance whether it would work, you'd have to try calling the airline directly.

  14. fayy

    June 22, 2011 at 8:02 p.m.

    hello,i have an 8month old daughter that im travelling with next week ...im so nervous we are going from florida to morocco and we have one stop in new york i didnt get her a ticket just an on lap ticket and i dont know what to expect on board,,,will she sleep ok and people keep telling me that the pressure when landing and taking off is bad for her ears..she is used to her car seat she sleeps right away i dont know if she will do the same on my lap!! and they say that they dont let u take water thru security how can i give her milk then and they say that airplane water is bad ?? and the water at the airport is expensive ...anyone have any suggestions please help me ...

  15. Mia

    May 7, 2012 at 3:21 a.m.

    Dear Mallory:
    I highly suggest the sit and stroll carseat instead of a traditional carseat. Much better than lugging just a car seat around and it folds relatively easily if you have average upper body strength (which I lack so I often ask taxi drivers for help, after opening the door so they don't drive off while waiting).
    On caveat is to try it w your daughter before buying that my daughter outgrew the straps way before the stated weight limit and she is on the lanky side.
    I just bought the BoosterApak (travel booster seat) online and will see if it works out.

    Dear Debbie

    Question for Debbie (great site btw):
    Suggestions for how to cover in flight bassinets? The flickering lights from the screen was very distracting when we traveled internationally last time.

    Thanks!

    Mia

  16. Debbie

    May 8, 2012 at 9:46 p.m.

    @fayy I hope your flights go well. With respect to airport water - bring along an empty bottle and fill it before you head through security.

    @Mia - Great question, and one that I don't have a good solution for - I'll pose it to readers later this week and see whether anyone else has a clever ideal.

  17. Charlotte

    May 20, 2012 at 4:06 p.m.

    my family and I live in the UK, but have family in NY, too, so we have flown with our daughter since she was 4mths old, for visits. I don't have any genius tips that haven't already been mentioned, as such. But in regards to the sleep issues - our daughter is a terrible sleeper, at home or away! (She's now almost 2) She found the whole airport/plane experience so exciting that she couldn't bear to close her eyes and miss it, and on our last trip (aged 19mths) she only slept for an hour of each 7hr flight....despite one of these being a red-eye! My point is that, worst case scenario and they don't sleep, it isn't necessarily disastrous....she was happy enough to play with the (new) toys and books we'd packed, eat snacks, walk about, and watch the tv (albeit silent for her, as she's scared of headphones).
    If your child doesn't sleep, or you suspect that they might not, then I'd recommend day flights as it won't bug you so much that you're tired and not getting any sleep either.
    If you have a child that will sleep in the stroller/car then you'll most likely find they'll sleep on the plane, too. (my daughter sleeps in none of these unless utterly wiped out!)

  18. zee

    January 23, 2013 at 1:59 a.m.

    am planning to travel to U.S from india with my 5 month old infant for the first time,i had travelled in domestic flights somehow i managed him for 2 to 3 hrs but internationally flying is the 1st time,i have also heard for that long time to travel their will not be a seperate seat alloted for infants,but am thinking it will be very difficult to me carry him on my laps for the whole journey,so please sort me out from this problem,can i get little place where i can make him lie down while he fell sleep & how to manage him in the whole journey and which kind of seat preference should i request while giving the boarding passes??help me out any 1 by which i feel happy to see ur replies.

  19. Debbie

    January 23, 2013 at 1:57 p.m.

    zee,

    If the flight is not full, ask a gate agent whether there is a place on the plane where you could have an empty seat next to you. Otherwise, the bulkhead is the best place to be, and that is what I would reserve in advance.

  20. zee

    January 27, 2013 at 12:23 a.m.

    thanks debbie,hoping it works...

  21. Al

    June 24, 2013 at 12:32 p.m.

    Hello, we are travelling internationally and was worried with my 7 month old baby girl being fuzzy throughout the flight. This short but informative details definitely put some ideas to the bank. thanks for the info and we do appreciate if you put more updates regarding long periods of flight.

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