Reader Questions: Keeping an Active Child Calm on a Plane

This is a reader question from Kristen, a mom from Michigan who wants to know how to keep her active son from kicking the seat in front of him.

Toddler reading the Airplane Safety Manual
Toddler reading the Airplane Safety Manual

Hi Debbie, my son is about 2.5 yrs old now - we travel twice a year to see grandparents in Florida. The airplane routine is fairly familiar, but we continue to struggle keeping my son (a very active kid) occupied and happy on the plane - he's characterized by good behavior, but just cant stand sitting still for longer than an hour on a plane.

We used a car seat but found that his feet touched the seat back in front of him, resulting in kicking/pushing on the back of the passenger (embarrassing!). So then we purchased CARES over a year ago because his feet wouldnt touch the seat in front, but we only used it once because my son seemed too short for it and it irritated his head/neck area which caused more fussing. In addition, it just seemed that the airplane seats are too concave and push his head forward (even I find the same discomfort because Im only 5' 2").

Here we are hoping that we can try CARES again on our upcoming trip in a few weeks, and hopefully my son will be tall enough to be more comfortable? If not, what is the protocol for taking the child out of the CARES harness during flight so he can get more comfortable? When he was in his car seat we never allowed him to get unbuckled. Our flight to Fla is during the day, so I dont expect him to sleep, but the flight home is always after his bedtime and I want him to fall asleep. With the car seat he was reclined a little (so after he was done kicking the passenger in front of him he would finally fall asleep), but with CARES he wont be reclined - unless I put his seat back a little? If I take him out of the CARES harness to lay in my lap, is that a violation of FAA code? Any advice/thoughts you have are helpful

Thanks! Kristin from Michigan


It can be difficult for even the most well behaved child (or adult) to sit still for several hours. Here are some ideas that might help:

  • Schedule some time at a playground on the morning of your flight. If that's not possible, arrive early at the airport and find an empty gate and encourage your son to run.
  • Because he is young, your son might be able to sit "criss-cross applesauce" in the seat" (which would help with the kicking)
  • Give your son milk and a protein rich (not sugary) snack as the plane takes off. The chewing and sipping will help with his ears and both the milk and the protein will help make him drowsy.
  • If you think your son is tired enough to sleep, try some of our tips for Helping Your Baby or Child Sleep on a Plane
  • Pack an Airplane Busy Bag filled with new activities (and old favorites) for the plane.
  • At the first sign of the jiggles, take your son out of his seat and let him go for a walk, that way he'll use some of his excess energy before he has a chance to discover seat kicking, and you'll get to hold off on the reprimands a little bit longer.

You also asked about the CARES harness With respect to the CARES and seat belts. Yes, hopefully the belt will fit better now that he is older, and there is no reason not to recline the seat once the plane is in flight.

The rules for keeping a child buckled in on a plane are the same as for an adult. You are always safest when you are in your own seat with your seatbelt buckled - and that advice goes double for children who are more lighter and more likely to be jolted by turbulence. That said, there is no requirement that your child use a five point harness in flight. Legally, you can remove the cares harness and use just the lap belt (but just as in a car, a 5 point harness is safer than a lap belt). It is also legally ok for the child to have their seatbelt off whenever the seatbelt light is turned off.

This is one of those times when you have to use your best judgment as a parent. On a calm flight, I often let D sit on my lap. When she's sleepy, she hides her eyes in my shoulder, or I cover her up with a blanket. Once she has drifted off to sleep, I transfer her back into her own seat, buckle her in, and place a pillow under her head. She thinks it is a huge treat to fall asleep in my arms, and she's much less fidgety than if I tried to have her fall asleep in her seat. E, in contrast, is perfectly happy to fall asleep in his own seat just like he does in the car.

Good Luck!

Related Links
Helping Your Baby, Toddler or Child Sleep on a Plane
Tips for Flying with Babies, Toddlers and Kids
Keeping a Toddler Busy on a Plane
Amazon: CARES Child Aviation Restraint System

 Subscribe to our feed

Subscribe by email:


  1. jen laceda on February 19, 2009 at 6:29 a.m.

    I am so glad I read this post. We are travelling with our 2.4 year old daughter to Paris, Barcelona & Marrakech in May, and are trying to prepare for the trip as early as now. I didn't even know that there was such a thing as an airplane harness. I will definitely look into getting one.

  2. chivet on February 19, 2009 at 7:08 a.m.

    That whole "letting your kids run" is no joke. After reading tips on this blog, I did my best to look the other way when people gave me the dirtiest looks they could muster as my two boys ran up and down the broken people mover before our 4-hour flight from Chicago to Guadalajara. They ran and ran and ran and ran and...were the only kids to fall asleep on the flight! All the other kids were wide awake and started to get really fussy/loud about two hours in.

    This was especially helpful because I was alone (I'm 5'0") with a hyperactive 2-year-old and energetic 4-year-old.

  3. Lorraine Akemann on February 19, 2009 at 10:47 a.m.

    Great post! This is one of the reasons why a mom friend and I started up a company called My Busy Kit. We make activity kits to keep kids busy while traveling. It has become a sanity saver for adults, and an unplugged solution to help kids use their imagination and exercise their independence. Happy to give some samples:

    Wishing you calm & safe travels!


  4. Peter Carey on February 19, 2009 at 11:50 a.m.

    One important thing to add, make sure YOU get enough rest before the flight. I know it's not always possible, but the times I've got even 6.5 hours of decent sleep as compared to 5 make a big difference in my ability to make sure my daughter is 'on track' and I don't get over grumpy. Your ability to handle an active child is equally important.

  5. Debbie on February 19, 2009 at 1:34 p.m.

    @jen we're fans of the CARES (bought two ourselves). I hope it works well for you too.

    @chivet I would so much rather deal with dirty looks in the airport than on the plane, and if people think about it for a half a minute, they'll realize that they'd much rather have the running happen in an empty gate area (or on a broken people mover in your case) than on the plane too

    @peter GREAT point. Part of the battle is taking care of yourself, and also setting your own expectations about what will happen on the flight - the days of being able to read a book or catch up on work are gone.

  6. Caitlin on February 20, 2009 at 2:05 a.m.

    'Criss-cross applesauce'? Is that the same as sitting cross-legged?

  7. Debbie on February 20, 2009 at 2:31 a.m.

    Yes! Somehow I couldn't remember what people over the age of 3 called it.

  8. jamie on February 21, 2009 at 9:20 a.m.

    @Debbie and Kristen:

    Kids just can't control kicking at that age, at least mine couldn't. One of the best tricks I know is to seat your husband (if he's traveling with you) directly in front of your toddler. Let him kick!

  9. Traci on February 24, 2009 at 8:09 a.m.

    Jamie, that is great advice actually! :o) Let hubby take the pounding.

    The kicking is the worst part. Ugh. I can't even imagine being in a seat where you were just kicked constantly. That has got to be torture on even the most understanding people. You know how even the slightest bump just completely jolts you.

    I wonder if it's possible to use some sort of cushion behind the child in the seat, like a lumbar support or small pillow or something, just to make the seat more comfortable and try and correct that concave problem? It really would be nice if there was a product that better covered that transition from baby in car seat to toddler in regular seat.

  10. Debbie on February 24, 2009 at 11:06 a.m.

    @jamie Great advice! Thanks.

  11. David Schmidt on March 3, 2009 at 3:37 p.m.

    The CARES harness is great. Not only does it help keep the child controlled and safe, but then you can check-in your car seat (for free!) and not have to lug it onto the plane.

    Here's a little blog post I wrote on the harness:

  12. Susan on September 6, 2011 at 11:31 a.m.

    I will be traveling alone with my 0 month old son for 36 hours including layovers. I cannot afford a separate seat for him and hence will request a bassinet. Is it a good idea to take a new foldable pet bed for him to sit below the bassinet by my feet?
    He is in the tantrum stage and also suffers from severe food allergies. He can eat only rice, carrot, grapes, apple and elecare formula....hence no snacking on choclates, candy, etc
    any tips and advise how to deal with the situation will be highly appreciated.

  13. Susan on September 6, 2011 at 11:31 a.m.

    I will be traveling alone with my 20 month old son for 36 hours including layovers. I cannot afford a separate seat for him and hence will request a bassinet. Is it a good idea to take a new foldable pet bed for him to sit below the bassinet by my feet?
    He is in the tantrum stage and also suffers from severe food allergies. He can eat only rice, carrot, grapes, apple and elecare formula....hence no snacking on choclates, candy, etc
    any tips and advise how to deal with the situation will be highly appreciated.

  14. Debbie on September 6, 2011 at 11:16 p.m.


    Good luck on your flight! I'm not sure whether he'll fit in the bassinet at 20 months old, but I also doubt that the airline would consider it safe to have him sitting by your feet. I would contact the airline for information about whether they have something bigger than the bassinet that might work.

    WRT the food allergies, plan to pack plenty of food and bring along a doctors note so that there is no question at security if you are going over the liquid allowances. If his allergies include contact allergies, you'll want to wipe everything down before you get seated.

    Here are some more tips about traveling with a child with food allergies:

    Good luck!

  15. Susan on September 8, 2011 at 10:24 a.m.

    Thanks Debie for the link on food has a lot of useful info.
    Fortunately my son does not have any contact allergies and it is just his food that i need to watch.
    The airline site states that their bassinet is about 30 inches long , with a weight limit of 11 pounds. My son is 30 inch and 10 pds....hence keeping my fingers crossed that i will be able to use the bassinet.
    I will also ask for the doc for a note...thanks once again

  16. Beth on September 27, 2011 at 6:05 p.m.

    Hi, I'm travelling with my friend and her two sons (3 and 18 months)long haul from NZ to UK soon. They are both active, chatty and clever boys who should sleep for the first leg (and hopefully most of the second). I don't have kids myself, so I want to know how I can help most. What will make things easiest for my friend?

  17. Debbie on September 27, 2011 at 10:11 p.m.


    The best thing you can do (if the kids will allow it) is to separate the two boys. Perhaps you can sit with the 3 year old across an aisle - he'll be able to see mom and feel comfortable, but you'll prevent the two kids from riling eachother up.

    Good luck!