A Mom’s Tips For Flying Solo With A Toddler On Your Lap Or In A Car Seat For The First Time

I flew home to Canada for the first time with my 14-month-old baby. I hadn’t been to my parents’ home in a few years, so a visit was long overdue — especially since it is their first grand baby.

I had a couple of months to plan this special trip and how I would work out the details of flying with a toddler in my lap. I was so excited, yet so nervous all at the same time — because my husband would not be making the trip and I would be flying solo with my toddler.

My baby is generally very well-behaved in public, but he does have his limits before pure melt-down mode occurs. And I didn’t want to be the one with the screaming, inconsolable baby on the plane.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned after flying with a toddler (alone) for the first time…

After checking our bags, this is everything we carried onto the plane.


My Experience Flying Solo With A Toddler On A Plane

These are the details of our trip and what it was like flying solo with a 14-month-old:


Checking In For The Flight

We had a 7:49 AM departure out of Knoxville, TN — which meant we had to be at the airport 2 hours before our flight time, because we were flying international.

Here I'm checking in for our flight. For the first leg of the trip, I would be flying with baby on lap.

We only live 20 minutes from the airport but baby and I are very rarely on any set schedule with our normal routine, so anything out of the ordinary is always a mad scramble trying to make it on time.

I had everything packed and ready to be loaded — except for the last-minute items that I would need in order to get ready in the morning.

I bathed with baby the night before and even laid out the clothes we would be wearing on travel day.

Thankfully, my husband had the day off to drive us to the airport and help us get our baggage to the ticket counter.

After checking in for our flight, getting our tickets, and dropping our bags, my husband walked us over to security where we said our goodbyes. We sure missed being away from him for one whole week!

Here are my tips for getting through airport security quickly and easily with a toddler.


Getting Through Airport Security With A Toddler

Fortunately, security did not have a line — so I didn’t have put my little guy in the Ergo 360 baby carrier as planned (in order to have both hands free).

Instead, I rolled him through the “cattle lines” in his car seat using a car seat dolly that I made using a basic luggage cart.

I rolled my toddler through the airport in his car seat using a car seat dolly that I made using a basic luggage cart.

See how I made this portable car seat dolly. (It was a lifesaver!)

I had to carry him through the x-ray machine, because they wanted to manually screen his car seat.

TSA does not allow a baby to go through security in their car seat or stroller — so I was prepared to carry him through. They will allow you to wear your baby, and they will swab your hands. (Since I wasn’t wearing my baby, they didn’t swab my hands.)

Once we breezed through the security gate, I loaded my toddler back into his car seat dolly, and from there we were on our own to navigate the rest of the trip.

We were excited to meet up with Grandma and Grandpa in Canada after one layover, one connecting flight, and getting through Canada Customs.

Eager to see his grandma, we read books in the airport during our layovers.


Passing Time In The Airport With A Toddler

I decided to bring the car seat through the airport with me for a couple of reasons:

  • I knew that my toddler would travel great in it on the plane — if we happened to score an empty seat next to mine.
  • Plus it was a great way to transport him throughout the airport.
  • And if the plane was full with no extra seats, then I would simply gate check the car seat (with attached dolly) into a car seat gate check bag.

This is the Car Seat Gate Check Bag that I used on the flights where he sat on my lap.

NOTE: The bright red, giant car seat gate check bag fits most car seats and folds into its own built-in carrying bag when not in use. They also make one for single- and double-strollers, if you prefer to use your stroller to navigate the airport.

Our first gate was not a far walk after we got through security, so we strolled around the small airport until we could speak to a gate agent to find out about an extra seat.

Luckily, the plane was about half full, so I was able to bring and use the car seat on board with the FREE extra seat for my toddler!


Boarding The Plane With A Toddler

I gate checked my carry-on bag — so I would have fewer items to deal with.

Since I was pre-boarding, the plane was empty enough for me to pick up the entire car seat with my baby in it until we could get to our seat.

Baby's first flight at 14 months of age. We enjoyed our first flight together!

In my personal bag (carried on top of my rolling carry-on bag throughout the airport), I packed:

  • a couple of diapers for easy access
  • diaper wipes
  • snacks
  • a snack cup
  • a sippy cup
  • never before seen toys
  • baby headphones
  • a modesty wrap for nursing
  • 1 outfit change for baby
  • 1 pair of leggings & top for me (in the event of air sickness from baby)
  • a travel pillow (for nursing, or a sleeping baby)
  • a portable DVD player
  • a sticker book

…Basically anything I would want easy access to on the plane!

I brought plenty of distraction devices for my toddler's first airplane ride.

In my carry-on bag, I packed:

  • my Ergo 360 baby carrier
  • more diapers
  • my baby’s favorite DVD movies (to switch things up in between flights)
  • a portable DVD plug
  • iPad mini with stand
  • extra snacks
  • toothbrushes & travel toothpaste

I used a small crossbody purse to carry:

  • my phone
  • a phone charger
  • lipstick
  • a credit card
  • cash
  • my permanent resident card
  • my driver license
  • our passports

Here’s what it was like getting my baby’s first passport — a U.S. Child Passport. Plus how to get your baby’s Canadian passport.

See what it was like getting my baby's first passport -- a U.S. Child Passport. Plus how to get your baby's Canadian passport.


Flying With A Toddler In A Car Seat (In An Extra Seat)

Our first flight from Knoxville, Tennessee to St.Paul, Minneapolis went relatively smooth.

My little guy fell asleep in his car seat within minutes of being in the air. He slept for about 1 hour of the 2.5 hour flight.

When he woke up, he:

  • watched some of his DVDs
  • played with toys
  • nursed
  • ate some snacks
  • played with his sticker book

…And then it was time to land.

Passing time by putting stickers in a sticker book on the plane while sitting on my lap.

He fussed a bit when I loaded him back into his car seat, but was fine within a few minutes.

I waited until everyone was off the plane and asked for help to carry my personal bag — so I could carry the car seat with baby in it.


Waiting For A Connecting Flight In The Airport

We were lucky enough to be dropped at the exact gate of our next flight.

We had a 2.5 hour layover, so I decided to burn up some time to grab lunch at an airport restaurant located near our gate.

I brought a potty seat in my carry-on bag, hoping to continue our Elimination Communication during the trip — but he refused to go potty in the public restrooms. I tried countless times to offer him pottytunities, but I kept striking out.

Trying to potty train while traveling on a plane was a little difficult.

The 2.5 hour layover went by fast, and we found ourselves back at the gate speaking to a gate agent, only to find out that our next flight from St.Paul, Minneapolis to Edmonton, Alberta was full. This meant I would be required to fly with baby in my lap!

I placed my carry-on bag on top of/within the car seat and placed the gate check bag over top of both items.

Then I got in line for preboarding and gate checked the big bag of consolidated items.


Flying With Toddler On My Lap (Since The Flight Was Full)

I carried my toddler and my personal bag into the plane and found our aisle seat (which I secured when I originally booked our flights).

I figured the aisle seat would be our best option if the flight was full, and I do believe it was the right choice.

I paid extra to secure an aisle seat on Delta and I'm glad I did - because it was a full flight and he was on my lap the entire time.  My 14-month-old was very well behaved on his first flight. I'm glad we had an aisle seat - because it was a full flight!

The infant in lap experience was okay — but definitely tight with an infant in your lap aboard an already full plane.

My baby did not want to sit still, but he finally succumbed to sleep nursing after we exhausted all other baby distractions.


Arriving At Our Destination

Once we arrived in Canada, we had to clear Canada Customs.

We flew with Delta and their staff helped us load the car seat, my carry-on bag, and my personal bag onto one of those airport cars. They chauffeured us directly to the Customs gate.

From there, one of the same staff members helped me work the automatic screening computer and then continued to accompany us to the baggage claim. She got a baggage cart for our 2 suitcases (1 was full of gifts, 1 was our luggage) and continued to push the cart for us until we cleared Canada Customs. I was really pleased with Delta’s thoughtful service — because I’m not very good at asking for help, but they clearly realized we needed some.

We breezed through Customs and the Delta staff member headed back through the door after I reassured her my parents would be there soon to get us.

I found my parents within a few minutes — and we were done with the first leg of our trip.

Meeting my mom in Canada after the first leg of our trip.  Meeting my dad in Canada after the first leg of our trip.

We got a hotel room in the city, ordered some take-out, ate dinner in the room, caught up with friends in the hotel lobby, and then called it a day — to try get adjusted to the 2 hour time difference.


Returning Home / The Final Leg Of The Trip

The flight back home was relatively the same experience — however, this time we had to clear U.S. Customs in Canada before we got to our first gate.

At this point, my toddler was over his car seat and unwilling to go back in it after passing through security — so it was time to bring out the Ergo baby carrier to get through U.S. Customs.

We made it through another automated system with some help from an agent. Our gate was relatively close, but baby was getting tired and unhappy on top of catching a cold halfway through our visit with family.

Aside from catching a cold while we were in Canada, he had the best time visiting all of our relatives!

I was worried it was going to be a long couple of flights home — especially after I found out the first flight was full again.

Since baby was being a handful, I decided to board at the last possible minute — instead of pre-boarding — and it seemed to shorten the amount of time trying to distract baby while seated in my lap.

Luckily, he slept for most of the flight and we were on the home stretch from there!

During the layover in St. Paul Minneapolis, we discovered a fun play zone area on our way to our next gate. This gave my energetic toddler a chance to crawl, play, and a much needed break from sitting.

This is one of the Play Zones in the airport. It was a great way for us to pass some time during a layover.

The layover time went quickly — before I knew it, it was time to load baby back up in the car seat dolly to find the gate for our last flight of the trip.

We talked nicely to the gate agent and scored another empty seat. Hallelujah!

I waited until the last minute to board, and I gate checked my carry-on bag — so I would have both hands to carry aboard my car seat and baby.

Riding in his car seat dolly on the escalator at the airport.

TIP: I do not recommend waiting until the last minute when using a car seat. It was very difficult to carry the baby in the car seat aboard a plane that was loaded with passengers. Then again, it was a long day by this point and we were both eager to get through the last flight.

The great news about clearing Customs before you arrive home to the U.S.A is you don’t have to do it once you arrive to your final destination!

We were sure happy to see Dada greet us at the terminal. Baby kept repeating the words Dada near the end of the trip — he was ready to come home, too. There’s no place like it!

Dada was there to greet us at the airport after the final leg of our trip.


16 Takeaways If You’ll Be Flying With A Toddler Soon

To summarize, here’s what I would do differently or pack differently, if I were to fly solo again with a toddler:

See the 16 things I would do differently if I could do it all over again... flying with a toddler.

#1 – Travel with your spouse or someone else — to help whenever possible. I wish my husband could’ve made the trip. We definitely agree that traveling together is better!

#2 – The car seat dolly was a great set up! It worked awesome when I scored an extra seat on the plane, and was nice to have a place to secure baby without having to hold him the entire flight. It also made transporting a toddler through the airport a breeze, and it was easy enough to gate check when the plane was full.

#3 – Here are my recommendations for boarding the plane when flying with a toddler:

  • If baby will be sitting in your lap… I would encourage you to board the plane at the last possible minute.
  • If you’re using the car seat and traveling solo… then definitely pre-board while the plane is relatively empty.
  • If you have someone traveling with you to help… have them pre-board with the car seat and/or bags. Then board with your baby at the final boarding call. It is very difficult to carry an infant plus carry-on items by yourself when you are the last to board.

Flying with a toddler on your lap wasn't bad, but I prefer flying with a toddler in a car seat on the plane.

#4 – Check whatever you can at gate check — to lighten your load on the plane. Strollers and car seats can be checked at the gate for FREE.

Like car seats, strollers can be checked for free. The advantage of gate checking is that you can use it at your departure and arrival airports. The downside is that it can sometimes take 10-15 minutes before it’s delivered to the jetway. Waiting for a gate checked stroller can also ensure that you’re last in line at customs. When checking it through, you don’t need to worry about it until you arrive at the baggage claim of your final destination, but you may have to carry your child through a large airport. Therefore, carefully consider your choice before each journey. Source

#5 – Pack the bare minimum! I definitely packed too much. The items to distract baby were definitely nice to have and we used every bit of them on the first travel day. But we hardly used any of them on the last travel day home. We were both exhausted after a week of travel, and I was definitely wishing I had packed less by the end of the trip. Try to pack light and “live off the land” — so to speak.

#6 – Don’t count on the airplane having monitors to keep your toddler entertained. We didn’t have a monitor on all 4 flights of the trip — which I found very interesting, because I always remember having in-flight entertainment when flying in the past. The portable DVD player and tablet with headphones worked great for us — especially since the in-flight WiFi wasn’t working on any of the flights either! It would’ve been a real problem if I was counting on streaming something for the tablet. I was able to keep baby entertained by showing him all of our home videos that I have stored on my phone.

We took a portable DVD player and tablet with headphones. We used them a lot!

#7 – Bring a couple of books for your baby. Reading together gave us another way to pass the time on the plane when you’re flying with a toddler.

#8 – Snacking is a great distraction! I refilled my toddler’s sippy cup every time they offered refreshments on the plane. I packed my own toddler snacks — to make sure I’d always have some readily available. He ate them with ease from his favorite snack cup.

#9 – Have baby drink, eat, or nurse during take off and landing — because the swallowing will help equalize the pressure on their ears.

#10 – Allow your baby to crawl and play between flights. Finding a play zone was a great help to burn off some of my toddler’s energy. He fell asleep on the plane for portions of all 4 flights — which made flying with a toddler not so bad.

  I let my 14-month-old crawl and play between flights to burn off some energy. He ended up sleeping for portions of all 4 flights.My little guy loved exploring the airports, whenever he wasn't in his car seat dolly.

#11 – In the future, I would carry only 1 personal bag (and make it a backpack) for the items you want to have easy access to on the flight. That way, I could carry the backpack on my back and just stroll the baby in his car seat dolly.

#12 – A multi-functional wrap for modesty while nursing is a must-have on a full flight, and a travel pillow gives you a place to rest your arm when holding a resting baby (or use it to stabilize baby’s head while sleeping in the car seat). When my baby would start to fuss, nursing him was a great way to distract him and help him fall asleep on the plane. (I like the Milk Snob multi-use car seat cover.)

A travel pillow comes in handy in various ways when you're flying with a toddler.  Another way we used the travel pillow on our flight.

#13 – A crossbody purse makes it possible to carry small necessities while keeping your hands free to carry other items (and baby). This crossbody bag was perfect to keep my cash, credit cards, passports, plane tickets, phone, phone charger, etc. safe and accessible during our entire trip. I found myself constantly double-checking that I had all of my important items — just to make sure I didn’t forget them with an agent or a cashier.

#14 – Be polite to the gate agents and ask early if there is any way to accommodate you with an extra seat. If they can help, they will. If the plane is full, then they can’t. I was always super appreciative when we would score an extra seat. It provides just enough of a break from baby when you’re faced with a long day of travel.

My hands were full, but flying with a toddler was so much easier thanks to this car seat dolly I made!

#15 – If traveling internationally, you’ll need a pen to fill out the Customs form on the plane. I forgot one, so I had to borrow one during the flight from a fellow passenger.

#16 – Don’t plan a busy itinerary immediately after arriving at your initial destination. It was nice to just take it easy and check into a hotel room when we were done flying for the day. It helps to rest and get adjusted to the new time zone — and helps baby adjust to his new environment.

My son enjoyed learning about airplanes on his first plane ride.


The Bottom Line…

I absolutely love going places, but I could always do without the travel part associated with it.

However, since there is no high-tech transport machine in the immediate future for any of us, hopefully some of these tips will help you the next time you find yourself flying with a toddler.

Happy travels!