Dad and son resting on a long haul flight with United Airlines

Help Your Toddler Sleep on the Plane by Avoiding These Mistakes

Getting your toddler to sleep is hard under optimal conditions. Throw a plane into the mix and you’ve got your work cut out for you. But getting your toddler to sleep on the plane is possible. Here are some common mistakes parents make that can prevent sleepy toddler time.

Forcing schedules

If I could only give one tip to parents traveling with toddlers, it would be this: flexibility changes everything. Travel is not the time to force schedules. Easier said than done when your child has been sticking to a routine, but it will save you in the end.

Mom holding sleeping toddler on plane ride

Instead of putting pressure on yourself to maintain normal nap times, let your little one lead. They’ll sleep when they’re tired. And even if they get off their schedule for awhile, in our experience, they usually get right back on schedule once you return home.

Telling your toddler it’s time for a nap is setting everyone up for failure. Being on a plane can be both exciting and overwhelming for kids, especially if they are new to flying. Have you ever tried to sleep when you’re excited about something? That’s like telling someone to eat when they’re not hungry.

This is one of those things where you’re just going to have to trust us. We’ve made the mistake of enforcing a schedule and we paid dearly for it. As legend has it, people from the flight to Amsterdam are still talking about us.

Forgetting comfort items

Airplanes aren’t exactly known for their extreme comfort. And while space constraints can leave much to be desired, you can equip yourself with things that will encourage sleep.

I recommend bringing a blanket or getting one of these travel nap mats. They roll up small, have an easy carry strap, and contain a blanket and pillow all-in-one. Plus, you can use them at the hotel. And you can always get the adult version to help you snooze with your kids.

You can get all kinds of inflatable airplane beds, but we typically recommend bringing something you can also use in the hotel, car, stroller, etc. to really maximize your space.

If your toddler normally sleeps with a pacifier, stuffed animal, or some other kind of comfort item, make sure it’s easily accessible on the plane and not packed away somewhere. We created a video on things to take with you on the plane when flying with a baby for just such occasion.

Resorting to medication

It can be extremely tempting to give your kiddo a dose of Benedryl to help them drift off to la la land during a flight. Personal take from a non-doctor: we’ve never used sleeping medication to get our toddlers to sleep on the plane. No judgement if you’ve done it; it’s a personal decision and one that should be made after consulting your doctor. Some doctors may give you the go ahead. But even if you get the okay, the benefits may not outweigh the risks.

Toddler sleep on plane
  • The effects can last 4-6 hours or longer, which means if your flight is under 6 hours, you may have the difficult task of getting a groggy child off the plane (and subsequently through the airport). Hot take, but sometimes the rebound effects of using benedryl or nyquil are worse than the sleep loss.
  • Using a sleep aid can mess with your toddler’s natural sleep cycle. If you force sleep, your kiddo may not be tired at night, which may lead to a later wake-up time in the morning. And before you know it, everything is all thrown off. You really risk putting off the inevitable mess, so we prefer to just meet it head on.

This article on giving kids benedryl when flying goes into more detail on how it can backfire.

If you do have a longer flight and you get doc’s approval, think about starting with a half dose. Enough to cause a little sleepiness without all the grogginess.

Not strategizing flight times

Baby sleeping in an airplane bassinet

While forcing routines is never a recipe for success, you can play the odds game to up your chances of your toddler sleeping on the plane. If you have the option of taking a flight during your toddler’s normal nap time, always go that route. They may be too excited to sleep, but it helps your chances if that’s when their body is normally sleepy.

Another great tactic is choosing an early morning flight. They may still be sleepy and more likely to nod off if you have a flight at 6 or 7 in the morning. Plus, if you have an early flight, getting your kiddo dressed is one less thing to worry about because it’s still socially acceptable to be wearing jammies. Win win!

Of course, this isn’t always a realistic option if there are large cost differences, but something that can help your toddler sleep on the plane. So it’s always worth checking.

Keeping them trapped in a stroller

Mom and daughter watching planes at the airport

Bringing your stroller through security is a game changer. There’s no doubt about it. Most airlines will allow you to gate check a stroller for free. And we recommend doing so. It can make it much more convenient to guide kids through an airport. But not allowing them time to escape and burn off some energy is a mistake.

Airports are full of staircases and escalators. Some have playgrounds or family areas. The key is to let them burn off their energy before you board the plane. They’ll be worn out and less squirmy during your flight.

3-year-old girl playing while watching planes at the airport in Chicago

And if you’re worried about not making it to your flight in time, strap them in the stroller, and head to your gate. Once you’re there, let them stand by the window and watch planes. Or locate an empty gate area nearby and let them run around a bit while waiting to board.

Not getting them their own seat

We fly standby and our kids have always flown on lap until they hit their 2nd birthdays. So I totally understand saving money and going for the lap seat if you have a younger toddler. It’s totally doable and your little one can still sleep on the plane with this setup (ours did on many occasions).

Baby in his car seat on the plane

But I also don’t want to paint an unrealistic picture. Getting your toddler a seat will make your life easier. Bringing their carseat on board may help provide familiarity. And they will have more space to spread out. If you have a shorter flight, save some money and do lap. But for longer flights, strongly consider getting the extra seat to help your toddler sleep on the plane.

Forgetting to pack pajamas in your carry-on

Adults wearing footed pajamas on a plane: not acceptable. Kids wearing footed pajamas on a plane: totally acceptable. The idea here is that kids are more likely to doze off if they recognize the routine. When I said before not to force a schedule, I meant it. But you can still encourage your toddler to sleep on the plane by implementing their nap/sleep routine as much as possible.

If your kids have a snack before bed, give them a snack. If they go to bed with water, give them a cup of water. If they read a book, read them a book. You can even brush their teeth. They’ll recognize the pattern and, fingers crossed, get sleepy on their own.

Pajamas are a big part of kids’ sleep and nap routines. Pack a pair (or two – we are talking toddlers here) and change them on the plane when you’re ready for night night time. It’ll get them in the mental state of sleep.

Not choosing the right seat

Nobody wants the middle seat. But you might have to grudgingly accept your fate. If you can snag a window seat and middle, your kid can rest their heads on your shoulder or on the airplane window. Either way it opens up their options. Which is a good thing if you’re hoping for your toddler to sleep on the plane.

Some people recommend bringing a blanket or something to darken the space (making it more conducive to sleep). You could do this, but truthfully, we’ve never felt the need. Just make sure you pull the window shade down and that should do the trick.

If you want your child to sleep on the plane, it’s probably not the time to try your luck with a Basic Economy ticket. Unless your idea of a successful flight is sitting three rows away from your child. Can’t say we haven’t thought about it. Kidding of course. Most days.

Dropping the ball on plane snacks

A perfectly timed snack can prevent an airplane tantrum. And it can also help your toddler to sleep on the plane. The most obvious reason – hangry toddlers are not happy toddlers. And happy toddlers are more likely to sleep. Give them a lil’ something to fill their belly, and they’ll be more likely to drift off.

Toddler with her drink cup and snack on the plane

But it’s also important to pack your own stuff because airline food isn’t always the most kid friendly. Sure most airlines will have snack boxes geared toward kids. But if you want a real, kid-friendly meal, you should be prepared to pack your own. Especially if you’re on a long haul flight, the meal options offered may not win any awards with your child.

Fruit pouches and granola bars are good, travel friendly options. You can also keep it healthy with fruit leather bars and hummus snack sets.

Failing to set the mood

When you have a vast selection of movies at your fingertips, sleep probably isn’t the priority. I must confess, I’ve been guilty of this as an adult. It can be hard to pass up that new release featured in the onboard entertainment. So it may help to look for alternatives when you want to create a sleepy-time atmosphere.

A screen-free story reader, like Toniebox, is a good option for travel. Kids can plug in a pair of headphones while in flight – no wifi needed. It’ll play songs and stories without the screen. And the lullably tonie is a great complement to encourage those sleepy vibes (and to drown out all the plane noises keeping your kiddo awake).

Scheduling layovers when direct is an option

Mom and toddler daughter at the airport during a layover

Sometimes they can’t be avoided – totally understand. But when possible, try to fly direct. Without fail, our kids will fall asleep just before landing on our layover. And it’s almost impossible to get them back to sleep on the next flight. Less interruptions helps with sleep.

And that’s how we help our toddler sleep on a plane

Flying standby means we pretty much take any flight we can get – even if it requires four layovers. We survive just fine by implementing the other strategies, and you will too. But if have the option and the price isn’t too different, opt for direct.

More on traveling with toddlers and babies

The Best Family Travel Credit Card

Pro Tips for Flying with a Newborn

Strategies for Stress Free Travel with Kids

Inspiring Family Travel YouTube channels to Follow for Travel Inspiration

1 thought on “Help Your Toddler Sleep on the Plane by Avoiding These Mistakes”

  1. Do you have a link/name for the inflatable bed in the picture? The link in the article goes to something that looks allot different. Thank you

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