At three years old, everything I learned about flying with toddlers was suddenly wrong

Last summer, my wife and I flew to Portugal with our then two-year-old twin boys. We thought we had flying with toddlers figured out. Huge bags full of toys and games were barely even needed while the boys kept themselves occupied nearly the whole flight with watching the other planes and the ground go by through the windows. A trip to Seattle last fall when they were just under 2.5 was similar. But this year, just stay the cusp of three years old, everything we knew and learned about flying went out the window and we needed to rapidly adjust our strategy.



Our family is no stranger to flying with our boys. We took them to Norway when they were only a year old, Portugal at two, and Seattle a bit later. This spring we brought them with us to London while I ran the marathon. Seattle was the first time we flew during the day rather than overnight, a strategy we decided on because they never seem to want to sleep on planes due to the excitement and novelty of it. This worked fairly well so we took the same approach with London. It turned out we we’re right because they opted not to sleep the entire six hours on the way there.

During this time, we had to quickly come up with new ways to keep them entertained. Even though it wasn’t a red-eye flight where everyone expected to sleep, we knew we couldn’t be responsible for two toddlers bouncing up and down the plane yelling the whole time, so we needed to find ways to keep them busy. Unfortunately, just watching out the window the whole flight didn’t seem to be as fascinating to them at three as it was at two.

Our giant bag of toys also seemed poorly prepared as we ended up going through almost everything in it before finding anything that wanted to play with. The giant wooden puzzles that kept them busy for hours in the car and in the air when they were younger just didn’t hold their attention now. This was doubly painful as they were the largest and heaviest items we brought. They essentially stayed put in the bag for the entirety of our trip.

We also couldn’t get them to take a nap on the flight, no matter what we tried. Even though it exactly overlapped with nap time, they just didn’t seem at all interested in sleeping. Even when one would start yawning and lay down, a minute later they would pop up and happily tell us that it was “morning time” and start jumping around again. I didn’t expect them to sleep the whole flight, but I thought we might st least get an hour or two of a break. Maybe it had to do with our anxiety about napping, but of course while they refused to sleep on the way out, on the way back when I had absolutely no expectation of them napping, they slept for over two hours.

Booking two sets of window seats with two seats before the aisle worked perfectly as it gave each of us a slight controllable area to contain the boys. It also meant we could put up the arm rests and make a small bed across the two seats for the boys which actually allowed them to sleep for a bit on the way back. One tried to fall asleep on a blanket on the floor briefly, but couldn’t get comfortable. We also got yelled at for not having seat belts on, so sleeping in the seat was really the only option.

Another item we brought along was an extensive set of coloring books and crayons. While the boys don’t tend to do a lot of coloring at home, they do color quote often in their daycare, so I figured the novelty of it on the flight might entertain them. I was wrong. They had no interest in coloring at all. The only thing that did occupy them for some time was putting stickers on the coloring pages. I even came up with the brilliant idea to tear up the sticker sheet backing into a ton of small pieces which they still liked sticking to the paper. Had I known this, I would have brought way more stickers and left the books and crayons at home.

The boys were also far less occupied with watching things out the window this time. In the past, they had been absolutely obsessed with forms of transportation, so seeing other planes flying in the distance, tiny cars in the ground, and boats in the water was enough to keep them busy for over an hour. This time they were only interested in watching the planes on the ground while we were still at the airport as well as watching some of the construction equipment move dirt around the area. Unfortunately this didn’t extend to our time in the air so we had the entire time to keep them entertained.

We also brought a long a ton of books. Our kids have always been entranced by books, often demanding we read to them at any moment and never satisfied with just one book. We even let them pick out several books to pack up in their little backpacks themselves so that they could feel involved in the packing. However, on the plane they didn’t want to read at all. We ended up reading half of one book before they got distracted and started asking for other things. Thankfully they shouldered the weight of carrying the books around so that we didn’t have to, but it ended up being something we didn’t really need on the flight. At least having the books came in handy for bed time once we we’re actually in London.

Thankfully, a few of the things we brought actually did entertain the boys and keep their attention through much of the flight. The boys have always enjoyed puzzles, growing from the big blocky wooden animal puzzles they had as infants to more complex jigsaw puzzles as toddlers. They still require a lot of help to actually put them together, but even a small puzzle with a dozen pieces can keep them busy for a while. Luckily, we had been given a few sets of puzzles from family recently. Since the don’t take up much room and stack together easily, we brought along a half dozen puzzles with us. These kept the boys busy for nearly two hours on the flight. Not only did they want to do each puzzle, but they actually tried each one multiple times, even trying to do a couple entirely by themselves. While they still got frustrated periodically and would whine for help, even the one or two minutes of calm we had while they tried to figure it out on their own was a nice break. I even got the chance to read about one page of my book while they were going through them all!

I guess around three years of age is when children begin developing enough imagination and creativity to start enjoying playing with toys and figurines. They boys have had dinosaur toys for a while, but they decided to bring a few along on the trip while packing themselves, probably inspired by a recent visit to the Museum of Natural History where we saw tons of big dinos. On the plane, they actually played together with their dinosaurs for a while and force once didn’t spend the entirety of the time playing fighting with each other over one of the toys. Though they did pretty much continuously drop them in between seats which was a ton of fun to find novel ways to have to crawl under seats to find them.

One thing that had never really even taken their notice before but was suddenly successful this trip was the in-flight entertainment. On our Seattle trip, we tried to distract them with some movies when they absolutely refused to sleep, but they quickly lost interest after a few minutes. At home, they never watch TV except maybe the occasional sporting even we have on. On the flight to London though, looking for something to at least take some of their attention, we put a few movies and shows on like Frozen and a Mickey Mouse cartoon and both actually kept their attention for a while. I still have no clue what happens in Frozen after essentially watching it three times on repeat without any sound, but the reindeer and snowman were certainly interesting for the boys. Unfortunately even the shows really only distracted them for 20-30 minutes.

Meals on the flight were also a huge and new success this time. Whereas on previous flights the boys either missed meals due to naps or weren’t interested in the bland food, this time they were all about trying out whatever random food was delivered by the staff. At least they were equally enthusiastic about saying thank you. I wasn’t surprised that the ice cream was a big hit, but they were just about equally excited for pasta and sandwiches throughout the flight. It apparently made such an impression that a few days after we landed when I asked them what we’d do on our flight back home, they said, “eat sandwiches”. I guess I should have expected it from two kids who get excited and carry on about my running fuel, or “daddy’s waffles” every single day.

Lastly, the plane itself was a big hit with the boys. While the view out the window wasn’t as captivating as last time for them, the aisles, seats, and even bathroom on the plane were intriguing enough for them to constantly want to be running around. I suppose they’re now at the age where they just want to be in constant motion, but simply walking or running up and down the aisles of the plane kept their hearts content. They also wanted to check out every inch of the plane from the pantry to the restrooms. They even asked to go see the bathroom several times when they didn’t need to be changed. I don’t know what was so fascinating about the tiny closet of a restroom to them, but a few visits actually bought us some time on the flight.

Between two and three years of age, toddlers undergo several cycles of rapid cognitive and emotional development. Apparently, this development is enough to change what interests and entertains them and nowhere is this more prevalent than when taking a long flight. Basically all of the toys and tricks we learned would work to entertain them on long flights before were no longer valid and we needed to scramble to find new ways to occupy them on this recent flight. Thankfully planes are novel and interesting enough to provide ample opportunities for new and exciting experiences, so we were able to make it through the flight. I just wish I had known these differences earlier so I could have avoid packing so many heavy and bulky toys and carting them around London with us. I’m sure our next flight in a few months will be just as completely different too.

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