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Holiday Travel with a Toddler Who Isn't Walking Yet

It's November, and you know what that means? Holiday travel is just around the corner! Traveling for the holidays is tough enough, and parents of children with developmental delays who aren't walking yet have it extra tough.

We've flown with our daughter down to Mexico, across the pond to France, and to different states, and we learned a lot along the way. Whether you're a frustrated, seasoned parent traveler or a newbie, we hope these tips help make your holiday travel less painful.

We know many children with developmental delays are at high risk for COVID-19 complications, so, many parents (like us) will be opting out of plane travel this holiday season. If you plan to travel by car this winter, check out the blog next week for a car trips post!

Booking a Ticket

Should you “carry on” your toddler for free or buy a seat? Most airlines allow children younger than two years old to fly as a lap child for free. Because airlines permit these children to fly for free, parents often assume that it must be safe. But, it may not be.*

If you can swing it, buy that extra ticket and carry on your kiddo’s car seat!

Generally, tickets for children under two years old will need to be purchased by phone (lap child or ticketed child) and car seats may only be put in window seats. Check to see if the airline offers toddler ticket discounts (e.g., Delta offers international infants/toddler tickets for 10% of the price of an adult fare).

For the cost-conscious: Southwest has a pretty sweet option. If you book your child as a “lap child,” and the plane is not full, you may be able to bring your child’s car seat and use the extra seat for your child (for free!). Talk with the flight attendants at the gate before you board.

Check the airline’s ID requirements. You’ll probably need a birth certificate to fly. If you’re flying internationally, your little one will need a passport (with both parents present). If only one parent is traveling, a notarized parental consent form, signed by both parents and a copy of the non-traveling parent's passport or valid identification with be required.

Confirm Your Car Seat is FAA Approved

Most car seats are FAA approved, and your car seat owner’s manual (or a quick Google search) will tell you if it is or not.**

Navigating Airport Security with a Car Seat

Having a stroller/car seat travel system will make this step easy peasy. Unless you want to get in an airport work-out, there’s no need to carry your child the whole time. Let the stroller do the hard work and enjoy your trip! I love the Uppa Baby Cruz Stroller and Mesa car seat and have heard great things about the Doona.

If your toddler is too tall/heavy for these options opt for a Car Seat Travel Cart.

Before walking through security, take your toddler out of the car seat and walk with them through the detector (it’s nice to have a carrier for this part so your hands are free, especially if you’re sans partner). The stroller/car seat cart and car seat will go through separately for screening.

For babies under four months, I suggest the BabyBjorn Baby Carrier Mini. For babies older than four months, the Ergo Baby Hip Seat is my favorite.

Boarding the Plane with a Car Seat

Most airlines let families with small children board early, so keep an ear out for early boarding and take advantage! You’ll need to gate check your stroller (as well as get it tagged at the gate, so get there early!). You can bring the car seat cart on with you if it folds up. If you have an assigned seat, get settled in. If you don't (e.g., Southwest fliers), find a window seat for the car seat.

Put the car seat in rear- or forward-facing, according to the instructions, and using the seat belt to secure it -- just like you would in a car.

PRO TIPS: Bring a bottle or pacifier and offer it during landing and takeoff to help your child's ears adjust to the change in pressure and decrease ear pain. For younger toddlers, bring a thin blanket to cover the car seat with, if your flight is during nap/bedtime, and add a portable white noise machine underneath to create a cozy sleeping space. Make sure to dress them in layers, it gets hot under the blanket in a car seat! And check on them regularly.

Addressing Sensory Processing Issues

If your toddler is startled by loud or unfamiliar noises, has sensory processing issues, or is otherwise extra sensitive, there a few things that can help, like keeping your child in a carrier that faces you. This can offer more comfort and security in airports. You can also put them in their stroller, offer your toddler their favorite toy, and keep a blanket clipped over the front while walking through the airport. Noise cancelling headphones can also be super helpful, we love our Baby Banz. Make sure to practice using the headphones before you go, so your kiddo is used to them on travel day.

Safe flights!

*Both the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly encourage the use of a car seat when flying with infants/toddlers. Infants/toddlers, like adults, may be severely injured if the plane hits strong turbulence in the air when they are not properly restrained. It seems that the FAA has not mandated that infants/toddlers be restrained in car seats while flying because such a measure would be cost prohibitive for many families, leading them to travel by car instead. Car travel is widely understood to be statistically more dangerous than flying, so the FAA is reluctant to put a barrier on a safer method of infant/toddler travel that may result in more injuries (and less airline profit).

**If your toddler does not have control of their neck yet, it’s not recommended to leave them in the car seat for long periods of time. If you’re worried, check with their pediatrician about recommended breaks and time-limits in car seats.

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