Up in the air, I fly…

Oh my, oh my. It’s good to be home. I’ve just spent most of a week in an unfamiliar city with a not-quite-two year old.

I’ve learned a few things over the course of six days. The first is that despite airline assurances that a child under two is an ‘infant’ and should travel on a parent’s or caregiver’s lap, a child who is almost two is most definitely a toddler and far too big to share a single seat with comfortably.

Actually, to be fair, I don’t think many single people can sit in a single airline seat comfortably – at least not in cattle class, which is the way I travel. But travelling with a small child on your lap presents some interesting challenges.

Boarding presented our first conundrum. If you are travelling with children, you have the option of boarding before everyone else. This is a great idea, because wrangling small children while trying to stow away carry on luggage does require the patience of Job and the dexterity of Mandrake the Magician. However, there’s a catch.

It’s difficult enough to get into or out of a seat on an airplane with an infant, but basically impossible if there are seats between you and the aisle. If you want access to the toilet or change table, you need an aisle seat. Murphy’s Law dictates that if you are stuck in a window seat, your child will poop shortly after takeoff, whereupon you get to decide what will irritate your fellow passengers more: crawling over them with a wriggling toddler to get to the change table and back again, or sitting quiet while their nostils are assailed by an unpleasant olfactory crescendo. I don’t know about you, but as much as I like to adopt a devil-may-care attitude to other people’s dirty looks, either option leaves me quailing.

So you select an aisle seat, of course. Which makes sense; except that by getting on the plane first, you ensure that at least one and probably two people are going to have to squeeze past you to get to their window or middle seats; and that of course is impossible with the added mass of a toddler strapped to your lap. So you have to vacate your seat with a protesting child at least once and possibly twice before you finally get to sit in relative peace and wait for takeoff. Naturally, unfastening your seatbelt two or three times is enough for your toddler to work out how to take his belt off himself, ensuring fun and games for the rest of the trip.

When the plane begins its ascent, the adults on the plane begin to chew and swallow and make whatever other jaw movements they need to make to even out the pressure in their ears. Babies and toddlers need a bit of help, and airlines recommend breastfeeding or bottle feeding infants through takeoff and landing for this reason. It’s a fabulous idea, and works brilliantly, but the practicalities can leave a little to be desired.

Breastfeeding a toddler who’s attached to me at the lap belt in a space the size of a small sardine tin is an acrobatic feat I don’t ever really want to repeat. My toddler just doesn’t fit in my lap any more: certainly not cross-ways, anyway. Eventually we worked something out where he just about folded in half and his legs stuck out into the aisle (see? another reason to grab an aisle seat), and concertina-ed thusly we got through takeoff.

The airline I flew on has a feature which, at first glance, seems tailor made for parents trying to keep small children amused in a fixed position – cable television on screens in the back of the seats in front. However, my toddler found his face virtually pressed against the screen, and I battled to keep his headphones anywhere near his ears. I did think ahead and brought along a cheap pair of old school headphones – the kind that have a band going over the head, rather than the ‘bud’ earphones the airline hands out. Still, the cord kept tangling in our seatbelts or being knocked out of the socket by flailing toddler arms and legs.

Another interesting feature of flying with a toddler strapped into your lap is that you cannot lower the tray. If you ever need a tray to rest food and drink on, it’s when you’re sharing them with a toddler. Heck, it would be handy just for resting books on, or playing with toys, or colouring in. I had the marvellous idea of bringing a sticker book with me, but was foiled by the fact that I couldn’t actually open the book in the space I had (note to self: nothing bigger than A5 is at all useful).

On the plus side, it turns out that a not-quite-two year old can (mostly) sit (mostly) happily for a two hour flight. He found the big glass windows in the terminal excellent for watching aircraft and vehicles going back and forth. Most other passengers don’t mind the odd rendition of “Open, Shut Them”, “Up In The Air I Fly”, or even “Old MacDonald’s Farm” when things get tough. And occasionally you’ll find a nice person sitting next to you who offers to share their tray.

Mostly, I’m quite proud of myself. It’s a great relief to be home, but I’ve learned that I can travel accompanied only by a toddler. It will be different next time: in a few weeks he turns two, and that will mean he’ll need his own seat (which will mean paying a full fare for him). I’m confident now though that I can do it. Travelling with a toddler in tow was terrifying, at least before I did it. Now, I think it’s challenging, but not unduly so.

Now I’m just deciding where I’ll take him next, and when.

9 responses to this post.

  1. Oh CAt I shouldn’t laugh but I did……. I have only travelled with a 4 month old wrapped bundle stuck to my boob. I cringe at the thought of flying with my figet toddler. Thanks for preparing me 🙂


  2. Posted by plahski on June 3, 2009 at 8:06 pm


    You think you will have a “people have to deal with the reality of children” attitude until you are on the plane alone with your baby and you feel a bit sorry for the person next to you who’s nose becomes a fixation for your child’s exploration. Goes back to the Octopus myth – They DO turn into octopi up there!


  3. Posted by Coran on June 4, 2009 at 8:00 am

    Well done cAt.
    Having taken too many airline flights lately, I quickly learned that if you’re in an aisle seat, you might as well just hang in the terminal until almost everyone else is on board. Of course, the overhead locker space will be gone by then…
    We were lucky coming home with DD2 recently – I had the aisle (and the tray table), DW had the middle, and the guy in the window seat played with DD2 for most of the flight (and told us how important it was to keep BF for as long as possible XD).


    • Oh that’s fantastic. In contrast, I had a woman across the aisle giving me the hairy eyeball when she saw the small boy was breastfeeding. What interested me is that she had to turn around to do it!

      Overhead locker space is critical to my flight missions, because I don’t ‘do’ checked luggage. (Perhaps that’s another blog post: how to pack for one adult and one toddler for a week in one small to medium backpack?)


  4. Oh it all sounds so familiar….we recently returned from a ‘holiday’ that involved FOUR airplane flights, each between 3-4 hours long. Thankfully there were 2 of us and we managed to score a spare seat on two of the flights. We also managed to be surrounded by mostly pleasant people who thankfully thought that the antics of our 18 month old daughter were just the thing to stave off airplane-induced boredom. At one stage she was standing on my lap peering over the seat behind me pulling faces and playing peek-a-boo with the passengers behind. Otherwise she managed to be generally entertained by finding ancient sultanas on the floor, obviously scattered by someone else’s toddler on a previous flight. And, yep, I bought a sticker book too…and got caught out by the size as well. Ahhhh…brings back the memories!


  5. Glad you had a good experience and got back safely! We’re looking at flying when the little one will be about 20 months, and have decided we’ll just pay for a ticket. Much better than trying to deal with both of them and only one seat. We do a lot of flying and luckily both girls are terrible little flirts, Widget invites herself into the galley with the crew and Midget will stand on your lap and gurgle at everyone around you. I’ve had to fly by myself a couple of times, but generally I’ve found people are really good about it.


  6. Posted by Jess on June 6, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    I’m about to go on 2x long haul flight (ie. there and back) with my 15mth old (she’ll be 17mths then) and I’m dreading it. She’ll be too big for the bassinet thingy, so a lap will have to do. I am really lucky that my DH, Mum and Dad will also be on the flight, and hopefully we can sit together.

    The description of the feeding acrobatics made me laugh. Unfortunately DD has only really fed football style, so I don’t know how this will work when she’s attached to my lap. Oh well, if she needs/wants it, then we’ll figure it out.


  7. […] than a travelogue and a bit in the spirit of cAt’s earlier post, here are some of the tips and tricks and ‘Things I’ve Learnt While Being […]


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