Tips For Traveling Alone With A Stubborn Toddler

My story of screaming, lots and lots of barf, and trying everything.


My recent, whirlwind trip back to the U.S. for a wedding ... with a toddler ... for 5 days was -- surprise (!) -- absolutely crazy. But, it started off with a well-behaved toddler and a hyper-organized mom (me) who was lulled into thinking that perhaps she still was the moderately cool jet-setter that she was pre-baby.

After an amazingly good solo trip to the airport, one flight later, one rushed layover, and a second trans-Atlantic flight with 15 minutes remaining, my smugness was starting to show when I received compliments for how well-behaved my toddler was throughout the flight. Turns out, with 5 minutes remaining till landing, my illusion of awesome travel mom broke down ... and those college girls I was sitting near certainly must have made a mental check to re-fill their birth control prescriptions.

baby iso.jpg

Let me tell you what happened in those last 5 minutes where my illusions came crumbling down. Baby ISO, who is normally a pretty calm traveler, fell asleep just before the plane was landing. But, with 5 minutes remaining and our landing gear going down, his ears started to hurt due to the change in pressure. The poor little guy was so tired and inconsolable that he wouldn't listen to my pleas to take a drink of water or eat a cracker.  I tried so hard to encourage him to swallow, or yawn, or drink something, but he wanted nothing of it. And because he was crying so hard, he vomited EVERYWHERE (though not on anyone else!). My first instinct was to catch it in a provided barf bag, but as it was made out of paper, it disintegrated in an instant (what genius decided to make them out of paper?!). After we landed, Baby ISO's ear pain subsided and he calmed down. Damage was definitely done to his seat and clothes (so much so that I gave up and just threw out his shirt), but the young woman next to me was luckily super nice and already doling out tissues and baby wipes to clean ourselves up.

Lesson learned: just because they've never suffered from ear pain before doesn't mean they won't!

Strategies for Dealing with In-flight Ear Pain in a Stubborn Toddler

Babies and children suffer from ear pain at take off and landing due to the change in pressure with the change in altitude. This is caused by the development of their Eustachian tubes, which is not yet complete and much narrower than an adult's. Because the Eustachian tube is still developing in kids, they are more likely to feel severe pain during take off and landing because the tube can get clogged with fluid, especially when they have a runny or stuffy nose (which is pretty often, really). And as Baby ISO just so violently and grossly demonstrated, just because a baby or toddler has never suffered in-flight ear pain before, it doesn't mean they won't suffer at some point.

In preparation for my return trip to Europe last week (I really didn't want to get covered in barf again), I did a massive amount of research into what I could do to help equalize the pressure in Baby ISO's ears during landing (when it seemed to bother him most). But all of the articles and blog posts I read were geared to infants (offer breast milk, a bottle, or a pacifier) or towards older kids who could understand reason rather than just be pissed off by the pain they are feeling. There was a big hole of information about what to do with (terrible) two-year-old children who are either too tired, too young, or too stubborn to understand that swallowing is key to making them feel better.

So, after understanding that swallowing equalizes ear pressure, thus getting rid of or preventing ear pain, I came up with step by step strategies that I could use with my two-year-old.



1) Do they have a cold?

Mucus from a cold, stuffy, or runny noses can cause even more blockage of the Eustachain tubes, so if you are flying while your toddler has a cold, you might consider offering them some Tylenol and/or doctor recommended, age appropriate medicine to help with congestion. Baby ISO had the end of a cold while we were traveling, so this might have caused his severe reaction. Baby ISO's pediatrician had previously recommended using prescription, baby-safe nose drops that ease congestion prior to flying. I gave these to Baby ISO prior to getting on the plane and I gave him a half dose of baby Tylenol.



1) Offer drinks or snacks

My first step during take off and landing (keep in mind that landing is worse because it takes longer) was to offer Baby ISO drinks and snacks. Because we don't drink juice very often at home, I bought his favorite kind at the airport and allowed him to drink it throughout the flight. I also purchased gummy snacks to promote chewing and swallowing as well as crunchy crackers.

2) Explain the situation

Baby ISO does talk a lot, so during take off (when his ears don't hurt as much) I explained that going up in a plane can hurt his ears so we have to eat and drink to make them feel better. Obviously, this is a step to skip if your toddler is flipping out, but may be worth re-visiting before and after every flight, so they start to understand (repetition is key with kids).

3) Squirt water/juice

Okay, this might sound a little barbaric, but moms who've been there will get it. On our landing into Italy, Baby ISO's ears started hurting and after trying steps 1 and 2, and the pain clearly escalating quickly, I decided to use a clean Tylenol syringe to squirt juice into Baby ISO's mouth. He swallowed, started to feel better, and then found this to be a hilarious way to drink juice. So, as we were landing, I continued using the syringe to squirt juice into his mouth. Alternatively, if you had a squeezy bottle, you could use that to squirt water or juice into your child's mouth.

4) Keep them sitting up

Throughout these steps, it is key to keep your child sitting up since this position helps the Eustachain tubes to drain, whereas laying down can cause them to block further.

5) Talk to your doctor

If in-flight ear pain is causing huge problems with your traveling family, consider talking to your child's pediatrician.

Tips for Traveling Alone with a Toddler


As you might have guessed, traveling alone with a child, especially one who is fully into terrible twos, is difficult. But it is absolutely possible to take a trip alone with your toddler if you plan ahead.

1) Pack the night before (at least)

No matter where you are going, getting out of the house with a child is a challenge. Throw air travel into the mix and you've got a recipe for disaster, because showing up late or with missing documents is something that just won't work. So, the day before you travel, I suggest having everything 100% ready to go. This means, everything should be packed, travel documents should be stowed safely in your bag, clothes should be picked out, and suitcases, car seats, and etc. should be by the door or in the car if you are driving yourself.

Having everything 100% prepared beforehand really helped me out, especially since I was lugging a suitcase, heavy car seat, carry on, and toddler to the airport via taxi on my own.

Crumpler backpack used as a carry-on

2) Be patient

Toddlers are still at an age where they don't understand time, or rushing, or travel, so it is essential to be patient. I also think being calm and patient help the child to stay calm in-transit.

3) Have a great carry-on

I actually really enjoy packing my carry-on bag and often travel solely with one. This time, I opted to only bring my Crumpler backpack, which can fit so much in it, yet feels really light. I stuffed mine full of a change of clothes* for Baby ISO, loads of toys, a coloring book and crayons, baby Tylenol, fun snacks, my electronics, a scarf, a Samsung tablet* full of Peppa Pig et al., books (right now we love Little Blue Truck's Halloween*), and all of the associated chargers. Clipped onto my backpack was my ultimate favorite Skip Hop Portable Changing Station*, which was packed with diapers*, lots of wipes, and an emergency plastic bag.

packing pjs.jpg

4) Enlist help

Need to hit the bathroom while in the air, but your toddler is sleeping soundly on the seat next to you (virtual high five, BTW)? Don't worry that your bladder will explode. Instead, ask for help from a friendly neighbor or a flight attendant to watch your child while you quickly hit the toilet. I did this and ended up having a great conversation with the woman across the aisle from me, who apparently is a travel podcaster!

5) Prepare for in-flight ear pain

Oi, see the story above and learn from my mistakes! Get some juice, chewy candy, and other snacks.

6) Bring a carrier

I haven't carried Baby ISO using a carrier in a year or more, but a friend who has traveled alone with her daughter mentioned that she always brings one along. So, I dusted mine off and tested it around the house with Baby ISO prior to our trip. He wasn't back-breakingly heavy and he wasn't complaining, so I decided to bring it along. And let me tell you, that was the best advice I've received for traveling alone. I was able to wiz through a tight connection, bus rides to different terminals, and customs all with Baby ISO contained in a carrier and my Crumpler backpack carry-on on my back. It made everything so much easier, especially if you don't bring a stroller or if your stroller is checked through after your connection (i.e., not getting your stroller right after you get off the plane in your final destination, having to carry your sleepy child through customs).

I used the Infantino Flip Front 2 Back Carrier*, which although tight, works until your child weights 32 lbs. If your toddler will tolerate being carried and is under the safe weight limit, I have to suggest you try it if you are traveling alone!

What are your tips for traveling alone with a baby or toddler? Have you traveled alone before? What are your best tips for taking care of in-flight ear pain in children?

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