How to Help a Toddler Sleep on a Plane

sleep on a plane, flying with toddler, traveling with kids

The Best Case Scenario…

The biggest dream come true for anyone flying with an infant or toddler is having them sleep on a plane. In spite of booking flights at nap times and adhering to other travel tips and advice, that has rarely happened for us. Now my kids have slept a lot on lots of flights, but mostly they are too excited and quite nosy, so sleep does not come for them whenever I think it might. Typically, I bank on them (and me, obviously) being awake for the duration of a flight, and whatever shut-eye any of us actually achieve is viewed as a real bonus.

But I was mortified to read in the Globe & Mail about a father experimenting mid-flight with lorazepam with his 3 1/2 year old son to get him to sleep. I know that things like Gravol and Benadryl can make some kids drowsy, but when giving it to my kids for their prescribed reasons, it made them hyper. So–however I may feel about it–drugging my kids for a flight is not an option. The only consistent with my kids falling asleep on planes has been when we’ve taken a really early flight – they both pass out almost before take-off on every dawn departure. Other than that, I feel pretty ill-equipped to offer advice to get your baby or toddler to sleep on a plane without resorting to tranquilizers.

Luckily, I’m friends with two experts that are happy to share their expertise. Lianne Phillipson-Webb is a nutritionist and founder of SproutRight – Nutrition From Tummy To Toddler, and Tracey Ruiz is better known as The Sleep Doula – who has helped hundreds of families with infants and toddlers get their much-needed rest. I turned to them to ask about ways to help toddlers and little kids settle and fall asleep on a plane.

Tracey actually recommends night flights and red eyes, simply because there is less stimulation to keep your child alert and interested in their surroundings. She suggests following the bedtime routine you typically have at home, with a trip to the washroom to brush teeth, changing into pajamas, a snuggle with a story or song, and then cuddling into their special blanket or cuddly toy that you’ve brought on board. “Even if they don’t actually fall asleep right away, keeping distractions and stimulation to a minimum signals that it’s time to settle down and rest,” offers Tracey. That means switching off any gadgets or seat back entertainment, and turning off the reading light.

I turned to Lianne to offer a suggestion for snacks that would be good to induce sleep. I always try to limit sugary treats or juice until toward the end of the flight, so I would never offer them at bedtime. But I have heard about the power of a bedtime snack to induce sleepiness, and Lianne confirms this. “Oatmeal is a slow release carbohydrate, that is well liked and digested easily. Milk is also a sleep inducing food containing both tryptophan and calcium for restful sleep.” Sounds like for naptime flights and red-eyes, an oatmeal cookie (ideally juice sweetened or made with a minimal amount of sugar) and glass of milk are excellent go-to snacks for mid-flight rest.

But if you think a tranquilizer is the way to go, be smart about it. Consult with your doctor beforehand, and be responsible with the medications you choose and always use appropriate doses. For an article I wrote for Canadian Family magazine, Dr. Michael Rieder, chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS)’s drug therapy committee cautioned that “serious toxicity is rare, but rare is not never.” Remember – medicines like Benedryl and Gravol, that often have drowsiness as a side effect, also can have the opposite effect – hyperactivity. 30,000 feet in the air is not the best time to be experimenting with drugs on your child, so please make informed choices.

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11 Responses to How to Help a Toddler Sleep on a Plane

  1. walkingon travels at 00:43 #

    Love the post! All great advice on how to help our busy toddlers settle down and get a little rest. As my son has gotten older and more aware, he is certainly distracted by the excitement of being on a plane.

  2. Ed at 12:24 #

    If your little one is under 2, I always tell others to splurge, buy them their own seat and strap them in their car seat. It was always worth our sanity. We flew during naptime and like clockwork, our daughter fell asleep on takeoff and didn’t wake up until landing. This might not work if your child is not a good car napper but ours was. The only time we didn’t do this was for a 9hr red-eye to London. I wish we had – she would’ve slept the whole way. But instead, she fidgeted around on our laps the whole trip and slept for a total of 45 minutes. Mom and dad didn’t sleep either because we had a squirming toddler on our lap.

    Now that she is over 2 and needs her own seat, we still choose a flight around nap time, bring a car seat and strap her in. Still working for us.

  3. Corinne at 21:03 #

    Thanks, @walkingon!

    @Ed, my kids had/have very predictable sleep habits, EXCEPT when we’re traveling. I’ve learned just to go with the flow – they always sleep eventually 😉

  4. Michelle at 15:53 #

    Any advice on if there are car seats you can’t take onto airplanes? We have a Cosco convertible seat that I would want to take onto a flight but don’t want to get there and have it be unable to take on.

  5. BabiesRUs at 11:59 #

    @Michelle, You could come in to Babies R Us or Toys R Us and buy a car seat for the travel. As long as you keep all the items and the receipt, you could return it to the store for a full refund. That way, you have a peaceful flight and you don’t have to worry about having that extra car seat.

  6. Maria at 11:18 #

    I am travelling with my 14 month old baby and I am very concerned about the sleeping issue. It will be a long night flight. Which one would be the best rear facing car seat with good recline feature and confort???

    • Tim at 09:03 #

      As far as I know, rear facing car seats aren’t allowed on planes at all. They would probably stop the seat in front from reclining.

      We use a forward facing Britax Eclipse – it’s one of the few cars seats that I know of that is certified for use on planes (it’s TUV certified – they won’t be allowed unless certified). You also need the strap shortener (Britax aircraft fitting kit) to avoid buckle crunch. The kit also includes the TUV certification sticker which should be present before the seat can be used on a plane (so don’t just buy any old belt shortener from eBay etc).

      Seat –

      Aircraft fitting kit –

      • Corinne at 13:34 #

        Hi Tim!
        Depending on the airline, rear-facing car seats have a higher priority than seat recline. The FAA even has a document that spells that out. Non-American airlines aren’t beholden to FAA regulations, of course, and in those cases you must defer to airline policy.

  7. Christine at 16:48 #

    >a father experimenting mid-flight with lorazepam with his 3 1/2 year old son to get him to sleep

    Wtf… reading that article, he’s not even ashamed about it, like he just thinks it’s like a silly “hehe dirty little secret” not a big deal sort of thing… I don’t think it’s funny at all. I would’ve never been able to get my kids to sleep on a plane when they were toddlers, but I never would’ve resorted to drugging them for God’s sake… some people I swear…

    • Corinne at 16:50 #

      I know, right?! My blood still boils when I think of that article!


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    […] found that the complex carbohydrates, protein, and calcium would have helped to relax his son and send him off to sleep, says Lianne Phillipson-Webb of Sprout Right. Following similar bedtime routines as at home, […]

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