How to get your child to sleep on an airplane — and what to do if they won't

Flying with young children — especially those under 5 — is often the biggest source of stress for parents when traveling. In fact, we know more than a few parents whose fear of a meltdown 30,000 feet in the air has prevented them from traveling at all with their kids.

It's understandable. The thought of being stuck in an airplane with a crying baby and a bunch of glaring strangers for many hours is terrifying at best. But fortunately, that isn't always the reality of flying with a baby or toddler.

There are lots of things you can bring to keep your kiddo comfortable and entertained in the air, but sleep will be your most powerful ally when flying with kids. Getting your child to sleep on an airplane is the best way to ensure a smooth, happy flight for everyone. Who knows, you may even be able to watch a movie from start to finish — or catch some winks yourself.

Here are our tried-and-true tricks for making it happen.

1. Book your flights with your kid's sleep schedule in mind. Of course, this isn't always possible, but if it is, this is your best chance at getting your child to sleep on the flight. Booking short trips during their usual naptime or longer hauls overnight is an easy way to stay on their regular schedule and get them snoozing before you've hit cruising altitude.

2. Tire them out before the flight. This tip mostly applies to toddlers and older kids, but it can work for babies as well. Try your best to keep them on their usual sleep schedule before your trip, then do whatever you can to wear them out before boarding. This may mean some Airport Olympics that will exhaust you as well. Go ahead and let them climb all over the chairs or run around in a deserted area. It'll be worth all of the chasing once you're stuck on the plane.

3. Give them time to settle in. Once you've boarded the plane, they'll no doubt be excited about their new surroundings and curious to explore. Don't worry too much about getting them ready to sleep right away. Let them play with the window, peek at your neighbors, and play with whatever's in the seat back pocket (after wiping it down thoroughly, of course). Don't even bother to settle them down until the cabin crew stops making their loud announcements.

4. Set the scene. While your kiddo is getting their wiggles out, you can start setting the scene for sleep. Make sure you have everything handy that you'll need: a cozy blanket, a favorite lovey, a bedtime book, maybe even noise-canceling headphones. Change them into their PJs and a fresh diaper when they start winding down.

5. Feed them. Get their bellies full of (non-sugary!) food, and get them hydrated as well. You don't want them waking up because they're hungry or thirsty. For babies, this may be the time to breastfeed or offer a bottle — and this may be the magic moment they drift off into dreamland.

6. Get cozy. Things should be getting a little quieter on your flight — the cabin lights may even be dimmed! Now's the time to cuddle up with your little one and channel your typical bedtime or naptime routine. Read a book or sing a song, rub their back or stroke their hair. Do whatever you normally do to squire them into dreamland.

7. Be prepared for your efforts to fail. An airplane is an exciting — and noisy — place, and your little one may not be ready to drift off when you want them to. It's OK — be prepared with some calming activities to do in the meantime, whether reading books or coloring or playing quietly with a toy. Avoid screens if you can — they can make sleep harder to achieve — but you know your kid best. If watching a favorite movie will cause them to pass out, go for it.

8. Have a wakeup plan. If you're on a longer flight, you'll be lucky if your child doesn't wake up at least once, whether due to noise, cabin pressure changes, lights, or just because. I always like to have a blanket handy to block out bright lights that may be turned on unexpectedly. Also, don't underestimate the power of loud "shushing" in their ear when cabin announcements happen at inconvenient times. You may have to hold and rock them for a while. In short, be vigilant, and be ready to work those mom or dad superpowers to get your baby back to sleep.

9. Stay calm. Whether your child goes to sleep or doesn't, they will feed off of your own energy. If you're super anxious and on edge, they'll sense it, and it'll be harder for them to relax. 

10. Focus on your child. Bottom line: No one else matters. If they won't sleep or they won't stop crying, hold them, rock them, and comfort them as much as you can. Turn your back to anyone who may be throwing you shade and focus on making your little person as comfortable as possible. Know that eventually the plane will land, you both will step off of it, and you will continue your adventure together. The flight, good or bad, is only the beginning.


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