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Traveling With a One-Year-Old: The Best Toys and Travel Tips

I'm a mom of two, super-powered by a biochemistry degree from UC Irvine and a lot of firsthand experience!

Tips and tricks for a pleasant trip.

Tips and tricks for a pleasant trip.

Whether traveling by car or by plane, traveling with a one-year-old child is a challenge. Babies of this age will be strapped into a car seat—a rather uncomfortable way to spend a large block of time. One-year-olds are not developmentally capable of spending large amounts of time doing nothing, and coloring, drawing, and reading are simply not options for this age group. What can you do?

Traveling With a One-Year-Old

One-year-olds have generally mastered the "pinching grasp" and are beginning to work on their gross motor skills. This means they really want to move their bodies and practice grabbing a lot! Finding travel toys for kids this age can be very difficult; the toys must be tough enough to withstand some abuse, but they must also be safe, interesting, and able to entertain the child for more than two seconds.

It is best to bring a large assortment of small, age-appropriate toys, as a one-year-old will quickly become bored with any one toy. What sort of play do one-year-olds enjoy?

Motor Skills a One-Year-Old Wants to Play With:

  • Fill-and-dump: they love to dump things out of containers and put them back in again.
  • Stacking and nesting: they love stacking cups and blocks.
  • Gross motor play: crawling, toddling, walking, and other large motor skill activities are all favorites.
  • Cause-and-effect: they love to push buttons and see what results from their action.
  • Music: they love songs, for dancing and singing.
  • Pulling and ripping: Much to their parents' dismay, one-year-old children love to pull kleenex out of a box, pull toilet paper off the roll, and rip paper into shreds.

Airplane Toys and Car Seat Activities for a One-Year-Old

Stacking cups

One-year-olds love to stack and nest, so stacking cups make an excellent travel toy. The “nesting” factor also makes them easy to pack into a carry-on. Munchkin caterpillar stacking cups are billed as a “bath toy,” but they make an excellent travel activity. These cups can be stacked, nested, and clipped together to form a long caterpillar. As an added feature, they can be used as a bath toy when you arrive at your destination.


Find a pair of small children’s sunglasses. One-year-olds love trying to put them on their face and will play with them for quite a while. Don’t spend a lot of money on the sunglasses, however, because the hinges will likely be ruined by the end of the trip!

Post-it notes

It might sound strange, but an office supply store is a wonderful travel toy shopping spot for one-year-olds! A large pad of post-it notes will entertain your kid for quite a while. The adhesive is just sticky enough to adhere to the plane window and car seat sides, but won’t leave any residue behind. One-year-olds love pulling each sheet off the pad: it satisfies their need to pull apart and tear! For an 18-month-old, stickers can be added to make pretty patterns on the post-its. Don't forget to bring a pen to decorate the paper and practice writing. This activity will require a lot of monitoring by the parent to be sure the child doesn’t put the papers into his or her mouth, and to clean up the post-it notes when the play is complete.


“Activity” books such as touch-and-feel books, lift-the-flap books, and soft, cloth travel books may entertain a one-year-old for a certain period of time. Be aware, however, that the tabs of most lift-the-flap books will be torn off sooner or later. Find sturdy, board book-style books and enjoy the flight!

Finger puppets

Finger puppets are a great activity. Parents can put on a little puppet show, sing songs, and tell stories with them. One-year-olds also like putting them on their fingers.

Laptop, iPad, or DVD player

Even parents who prefer not to plug their kids into electronic devices at home will happily bend the rules for a long flight. Nothing beats a movie for entertaining a one-year-old. This is probably the easiest, most entertaining option for toddlers. Don't forget to download a few options before you leave the house, although one-year-olds do like repetition and will oftentimes watch an old favorite with more interest than they would a new, unproven movie. (Check out Disney's Planes, which might be extra exciting if you're traveling by plane!). As for apps, there are a few decent ones out there. Baby Zoo Piano, Baby Phone, and I Hear Ewe are great choices.

One caveat: screens require sound for the baby to enjoy them, and you cannot play sound over a speaker on an airplane. Most one-year-olds will not tolerate headphones, so these apps might not be so helpful until a child is old enough to use headphones (usually over the age of two). For a car ride, however, these apps are a great option.

Toy cell phone

Pushing buttons and seeing things light up is a great activity for most toddlers. Add a toy cell phone to your travel toy menagerie: they are small and have a good play value for the plane or car ride. Be sure the sound effects are not too loud or obnoxious, though: you don’t want complaints from other passengers!

Hanging Playset

Not only do these soft toys transform the boring back-of-the-seat in front of your baby into a fun play space, but they also help you protect your child from any germs. You can strap this Kids Play-n-Go tray set to the back of the car or plane seat in front of your baby or just lay it across their lap.


While snacks are not exactly “travel toys,” they can be entertaining and will keep your kid happy for a period of time. Animal crackers in a box are a wonderful travel snack: they are fun to eat, and the box doubles as a play item when the snack is finished. Small snacks that can be slowly parceled out over time are better than one large snack item: consider packing tangerines, dried blueberries, Gerber puffs, and cheerios in the travel bag.

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Soft nesting toys

One-year-olds will love stuffing little toys into a bigger toy. Manhattan Toy manufactures a wonderful "Put-and-Peek Birdhouse": the birds can be pushed through the roof, under the roof, and stuffed through the door, and the whole birdhouse can be carried like a suitcase.

Electronics should be your back-up plan for long road trips with toddlers. Many babies will not tolerate headphones, but some wear them happily!

Electronics should be your back-up plan for long road trips with toddlers. Many babies will not tolerate headphones, but some wear them happily!

How to Make Traveling With a Toddler Easier for Everyone

  • Travel at night. You can save everyone some pain and suffering if you simply schedule long trips at night when your child is sleeping!
  • Be mentally prepared to work hard playing to keep your child occupied.
  • Choose your seat wisely. Think carefully about the seating arrangements to give you lots of hands-on access.
  • Bring the basics: food, drinks, comfort. Don't forget your child's favorite stuffed animal or comfort blanket!
  • Entertainment: It's better to pack too many toys than not enough.
  • Have some surprises up your sleeve. Especially during long trips, it's always a great idea to have a couple of new toys or activities to distract your child. This might include toys they have never seen, food treats they only get on special occasions, or songs they've never heard (although old faves will always be good, too!). Save these surprises for when you're toddler has exhausted all other entertainment options and is starting to get grumpy!
  • Headphones? Most one-year-olds won't tolerate headphones. If you're traveling by car, this means the whole family will be listening to "The Wheels on the Bus," and if you're traveling by plane, music and screen time might not be an option. Many parents don’t think about the fact that they won’t be able to play their child’s DVD or iPad on the speaker setting on a flight. We forgot and it was frustrating because we didn’t have headphones with us and we could only play the video on mute. Some toddlers don't mind more comfortable and adorable cozyphones, so they might be worth the investment.
  • Keep important items on hand. Pack them in your carry-on or have them stowed in an easily accessed area of your car if you're on the road. You'll need a change of clothes, extra wipes in case of diaper blow-outs, extra diapers, comfort items, food, medicine, etc.).
  • Dress them comfortably. Soft cotton clothing, pants with an elastic waist, socks, slip-on shoes, and layers (in case they get hot or cold). Steer clear of zippers or buttons.

How to Help Your Baby During Take-Off and Landing

Dealing with cabin pressure can be a challenge, especially if your child has a cold or is congested.

  • During ascent and descent, it helps for babies to be breastfeeding, drinking from a bottle or a sippy cup, or using a pacifier. A lollipop might also do the trick. The sucking and swallowing helps them regulate the pressure in their ears and sinuses.
  • If they do have a little cold or congestion, ask your pediatrician to recommend something to ease the pressure in-flight.
  • Make sure to offer lots of liquids, as proper hydration will help.
Pushing the button for the light, fiddling with the air, and exploring tray table will likely occupy your toddler for quite awhile!

Pushing the button for the light, fiddling with the air, and exploring tray table will likely occupy your toddler for quite awhile!

Tips for Flying With a One-Year-Old

  • When traveling by plane, take advantage of the pre-boarding time. You'll need it!
  • If at all possible, purchase the baby his or her own seat. While lap-seating infants is a viable option because they aren't mobile yet, lap-seating a one-year-old child is more dangerous and difficult, particularly for long flights. This is because one-year-old children are active and will struggle to get down and crawl around on a frequent basis, and you never know when the plane might hit turbulence.
  • The supplied “air sickness bag” is another great, free toy. It is likely that you won’t need this bag for its intended purpose: you can use the barf bag to create a puppet, hide snacks and toys in, and play the favorite “fill and dump” style games that kids this age love.
  • Bring some antibacterial wipes so you can wipe down the area...and wipe up any messes that happen!
  • Bring lots of drinks so your baby doesn't get dehydrated. If they use a bottle, the sucking action will also help their ears adjust to cabin pressure.
  • Ask your flight attendant if they have any perks for little travelers. Since the airlines are just as interested in keeping your kids happy (and quiet!) as you are, they oftentimes stock small toys or offer in-flight entertainment options for children.
  • Ask for a blanket from a flight attendant. Place it under the car seat, then take the other end of the blanket and tuck it into the pocket of the seat in front of you. This creates a sling and prevents toys and snacks from falling to the floor and rolling away. This makes picking up dropped toys easier. When traveling with a one-year-old child, you will be picking up a lot of dropped toys!
Use an airline blanket to create a "sling" under the child's car seat. This will prevent toys from falling to the floor.

Use an airline blanket to create a "sling" under the child's car seat. This will prevent toys from falling to the floor.

Tips and Tricks for Changing a Diaper on an Airplane

Most veteran parents have tales about epic diaper blow-outs or airplane bathroom horror stories. Learn from their mistakes! Don't even think about trying to go in that tiny, dirty airplane bathroom. If you are traveling with another adult, have them stand, and use their seat as a makeshift changing table. Spread out a changing mat or blanket first. But if you're traveling solo with your babe...

  1. Ask the flight attendant if there's a changing table in any of the bathrooms. It's unlikely, but you might get lucky!
  2. If not, ask them where the ideal changing spot might be. They will direct you to the best, safest, least offensive spot. Use your changing pad or, if you don't have one, a blanket will work.
  3. If your flight attendant can't help you and the diaper is just wet (not soiled), you might have to change the diaper in your seat, using your own lap as a table. Still, this is preferable to trying to manage in that tiny, dirty me.
  4. Wrap the diaper tightly, put it in a plastic bag, and dispose of it in the bathroom.

Flying With a One-Year-Old: On Your Lap or in a Car Seat?

Do I have to buy a seat on the plane for my toddler?

If you can manage to afford it, it's really worth it to buy your baby a seat. Most airlines don't require that you buy a ticket for a child under 2, but if you don't, your toddler might end up in your lap for the entire flight, which adds extra discomfort and stress to an already tight situation, not to mention the fact that it is potentially dangerous if the plane experiences turbulence.

Should we take our car seat on the plane?

You will definitely want your car seat in case of turbulence. Although most airlines permit children under 2 to sit on a parent's lap, the Federal Aviation Administration recommends that all young children sit in an FAA-approved car seat at all times during a flight. They recommend that all children be secured in approved car seats until they reach 40 pounds. If your child weighs 40 pounds or more, they can just sit in the seat with a lap belt. They recommend that your one-year-old sit rear-facing in their seat.

  • Decide whether to take a car seat with you or not. If your baby is over 40 pounds, you might decide to rent one at your destination.
  • If you're traveling one-year-old has a ticketed seat, bring the car seat on board with you instead of checking it.
  • Bring a strap to tie the car seat onto your luggage. Especially if your suitcase has wheels, this will free up your arms a bit!

Is my car seat FAA-approved to take on a plane?

Most car seats sold today are approved for plane travel, but you can check the label to make sure. If your car seat is very old or not FAA-approved, you will need to purchase a new car seat for the flight.

Should I bring a booster seat on the plane instead?

No. Booster seats are not FAA-approved. This is because they require a lap-and-shoulder seatbelt; since planes only have a lap belt, the booster won't be safe.

Will the car seat count as one of our carry-on items?

No, it usually won't, but check with your airline first to be sure!

How can I avoid problems while flying with my one-year-old?

Tell the reservations agent that you'll have a car seat or that you're traveling with a lap child so they can assign you the most appropriate seat.

Can you take breast milk on an airplane?

Parents who fly with or without their child can bring 3.4-ounce units or 100-milliliter units of breast milk onto the plane in the carry-on luggage, but you must declare it at the security checkpoint.

Road trip with a one-year-old: Food? Check. Toys? Check. Surprise goodies in case of emergency? Check!

Road trip with a one-year-old: Food? Check. Toys? Check. Surprise goodies in case of emergency? Check!

Travel Toys for a One-Year-Old on a Road Trip

Homemade Play-Doh

Sure it's messy, but it sure can keep your kid occupied for quite a while. I recommend making it yourself since your kids might try putting it into their mouths, and who knows what kinds of chemicals they put in the store-bought stuff (which isn't recommended for children under two for this reason).


The great thing about a road trip is that your family can play whatever you want and no other passengers are going to complain! If you have a CD player, your local library might have some wonderful discs you can borrow from the children's section. This is also the perfect time to introduce your baby to your favorite dance tunes.

A magnetic puzzle

Keep their hands busy! Find one with large puzzle pieces are great for toddler hands. The pieces are removable, but they’re also magnetic, so they'll be less likely to fall and get lost under the seat.

Remember those plastic letter magnets you saw on refrigerators as a child? Those—or any other cheap magnets you can find—work very well for entertaining on the road. Put a metal cookie sheet on your child's lap and hand them a baggie full of magnets to play with.

Colorful painter's or masking tape

Take a few rolls of colorful, not-too-sticky tape to play with. Let your child pull, rip, roll, stick, and make whatever they want.

A book full of stickers

Tell your toddler they get to decorate the car however they please.

Have some surprises up your sleeve

It's a genius plan to have a few new, fun things to pull out when everyone is starting to get bored. Save some special tantrum-busting treasures to surprise them with!

Save the electronics for later

Don't start out your trip by plugging them into a movie. Wait until everyone's fussy before you push that magic button!

Tips for Long Car Trips With a Toddler

Get in the back seat

While you can probably sit for hours dreaming out the window, your toddler will need as much face-to-face engagement as possible. If there's another adult in the car, take turns sitting in the back for at least part of the trip.

Put food in easy containers

Pre-pack small servings in easy-to-open plastic containers and you'll avoid the frustration of trying to open difficult packages and pour without spilling while driving.

Set up a changing station in the car

Changing diapers as quickly and stress-free as possible will make everyone happier in the long run, and doing a quick diaper change in the car when your child is sleeping will help your toddler sleep longer. Have all the things you need right there.

Darken the window

If your child is sitting in the hot sun, or if they're trying to sleep, they'll be much happier if the bright sun or light is blocked. Roll a blanket or towel up in the window.

Don't forget comfort items

Especially if you want your one-year-old to sleep in the car, don't forget their favorite blanket, pillow, or comfort object. Even if the view is all new to them, those familiar objects will soothe your baby.

Do I Need a Passport for My One-Year-Old?

For travel into and out of the US, all travelers must have passports, and this includes children of any age. While an adult passport is good for 10 years, a child must get a new photo taken and renew their passport every five years.

Questions & Answers

Question: This is my first time flying with my 1 year old son and I am very nervous. He drinks milk from his bottle still but he drinks Lactaid milk due to digestive problems. Will I be able to bring his Lactaid milk onto the plane?

Answer: If you are flying within the USA, you do not need to be worried about bringing your son's milk with you. It is allowed per TSA guidelines! You do need to notify the screening officers that you have more than 3.4 ounces of liquid and that it is your toddler's milk. The milk will be sent through the X-ray machine. You may be asked to dispense a small portion of the milk to be tested to verify the liquid doesn't contain anything dangerous.

Question: Do I need a passport for my baby?

Answer: I am a writer in the USA, so I will answer with the rules for my country: all babies, even newborn infants, require passports to travel abroad. All people traveling to the United States (including infants) are required to have a passport. My boys have always held passports, and it is quite fun to see the changes in their appearance over time! Children in the USA are required to obtain a new passport every five years (adult passports are good for ten years).

© 2011 Leah Lefler

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