How to Help a Toddler Sleep on a Plane

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The biggest dream come true for a traveling parent is having their toddler sleep on a plane. In spite of booking flights at nap times and adhering to other toddler travel tips and advice, that rarely happened for us.

Now my kids have slept a lot, on lots of flights, but mostly they are too excited and quite nosy. 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 sleep 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 I gave 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 and sleep 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.

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5.5 Hour Flight from Ixtapa, Mexico to Toronto at Age 2

Using Drugs to Get a Toddler to Sleep on a Plane

Years ago I wrote a piece for Canadian Family magazine (RIP!) about how I considered giving my then-two-year-old daughter some Benadryl to knock her out before a flight. Another mom and I were discussing trying it at the departure gate like two teenagers considering trying weed for the first time. I chickened out. She gave it a shot. We all survived! I’m not sure if her toddler slept. Mine ate cookies and chips and fell asleep as we were landing (as always!).

For the article, I interviewed a pediatrician about using drugs to get your toddler to sleep on a plane. 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.” For me that was enough of a warning to find other things to do to survive flying with a toddler with the bonus of getting them to sleep on the plane.

But, if you think a tranquilizer is the way to go, be smart about it. Consult with your doctor beforehand. Be responsible with the medications you choose and always use appropriate doses. And remember… Medicines like Benedryl and Gravol, that often have drowsiness as a side effect, also can have the opposite effect: hyperactivity. Regardless, being 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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An Early Morning Flight to Cuba from Toronto

Drug-free Ways to Help a Toddler Sleep on a Plane

Luckily, I’m friends with two experts who were happy to share their expertise. Lianne Phillipson is a nutritionist and the founder of Sprout Right – Nutrition from Tummy to Toddler. Tracey Ruiz is better known as The Sleep Doula. Tracey has helped hundreds of families with infants and toddlers get their much-needed rest. I turned to them to ask about ways to help a toddler sleep on a plane.

To Red Eye or Not to Red Eye?

To help your toddler sleep 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.

Bedtime Snacks for Sleepy Flights

I turned to Lianne to offer a snack suggestions that would be good to induce sleep on a plane. I always try to limit sugary treats or juice until towards 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.” For naptime flights and red-eyes, an oatmeal cookie (ideally juice sweetened or made with a minimal amount of sugar) with a glass of milk is an excellent snack idea for mid-flight rest.

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Flying to Montego Bay, Jamaica from Toronto

5 Tips to Help Your Toddler Sleep on a Plane

  • Follow your bedtime/naptime routine as closely as you can on the plane. This includes changing into PJs, brushing teeth, songs and stories, etc.
  • Keep distractions to a minimum. No screens, and turn out the reading light.
  • Consider using your toddler’s car seat on the plane. Even if they are over two-years-old, they may feel more safe and comfortable (and likely to sleep).
  • No sugary drinks or snacks.
  • Consider something containing oatmeal and milk as a bedtime snack.

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

  1. 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 #

    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.

    • Ben at #

      We just booked multiple overseas long haul flights. Our son will be 15 months when we leave and I made sure to get him his own seat! He is similar to your daughter that he sleeps in his car seat, so I figured it would work on the plane so long as he was strapped in. What activities would you suggest bringing to keep him occupied? He currently destroys paper so I hope that when we leave he will understand the concept of coloring.

      • Corinne at #

        At 15mos. he might not appreciate the concept of colouring too much, but there are cute sticker books that he might enjoy (the stickers are easy to peel off) and also if you have any old magazines kicking around he might like to flip and tear the pages.

    • Estella at #

      Thank you Ed for this. I have been debating whether to splurge and buy a travel car seat, or spend a little less and get a stroller car seat cart which turns any car seat into a stroller, then putting it away under my child’s seat and strapping my kid into the car seat for the 4 to 6 hour flight…OR getting a CARES carseat and buying a Fly Tot (airplane toddler napping cushion).

      The way it sounds, my kid does sleep pretty good in the car, so I should be fine with JUST a older toddler car seat and a car seat stroller cart. THANK YOU I BEEN SEARCHING AND GOOGLING FOR A WEEK STRAIGHT!

      • Corinne at #

        Estella–have a wonderful trip! I’m sorry you had to Google for a week straight… You’ve inspired me to spruce up the site so hopefully others can find the info they need more quickly 🙂

  3. Corinne at #

    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 #

    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. @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 #

    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 #

      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 #

        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.

      • Joe Murphy at #

        Tim, do you still have your Britax aircraft fitting kit? They are like rocking horse sh!t! If so would you consider selling it to us? We’d even hire it from you!

  7. >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 #

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

  8. Teresa at #

    When my boy was young, I faced so many difficulties with his sleep while traveling on the plane. But now he has grown up and I am free from this trouble. But this advice is really very helpful for the parents having little babies with them.

  9. Maggie at #

    My 3-year-old doesn’t sleep well traditionally in cars or on planes, and has that hyperactivity response to benadryl so we’ve never tried meds. Honestly, on our last long flight, we tried one of those inflatable travel pillows (Fly Legs Up or something like that) and she actually slept the entire flight. I think being able to stretch out her legs seemed to help. Or maybe we just got lucky…

  10. Traveling with kids can be hard! Yet traveling with a baby or toddler is like a different level of difficult! Thanks for these great tips. I agree that avoiding sugary drinks or snacks is a must!

  11. It frustrates me when you’re on a night flight and they take forever to turn the cabin lights off. We always take a couple of sarongs in an attempt to partially block the light out.

  12. Kathryn Dickson at #

    I could never get my kids to sleep on the plane, never. Drove me insane!

  13. Jen at #

    My oldest gets so excited to fly that she cannot sleep on the plane. She’s always been this way. She actually is super excited about overnight flights, get crazy excited about having to sleep on the plane, gets too worked up to sleep, then cries when we land and she hasn’t had a chance to sleep. It’s crazy. Fortunately our other ones can sleep—unless they’re sitting next to her of course! 😂.

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