Are sleep devices and kids leg pillows for the plane really going to make long-haul flights easier?
Firstly – what on earth is an airplane sleeping device? They never had anything like this back in my day…..
I’m sure any parent who has flown long-haul with a small child knows; comfort in the air is paramount to not only a safe arrival with your sanity intact but a good prelude to what to expect during stopovers, the ongoing effect of jet lag and well – basically how quick life can return to “normal” after a long flight.
What price do you put on flying in comfort though? Flying the whole family Business Class, or even Premium Economy – is probably out of reach for most. And even on a full-service airline, no matter how far your seat reclines of how good the entertainment is – it’s not a comfortable, or pleasant experience for anyone. Is there a compromise to get through long-haul flying with kids?
In this post we’ll look at:
- Different seating methods to get your kids comfortable on a long flight
- Explain how an aeroplane sleep device actually works
- Which airlines actually allow a sleep device or convertible bed to be used
- Different brands of sleep devices / airplane leg pillows
- Other tips for helping toddlers and young children sleep on planes
This post is part of our flying with kids series – we cover everything from airline reviews to travel toys and top tips to keep your sanity in the air.
This post was first published in October 2018, updated October 2019 with latest products and airline information.
How do you get children comfortable to sleep on a long flight?
When we are talking about children, we are referring to kids who have outgrown the baby bassinet on the aircraft – so beyond around 10-12 months depending on your child’s size.
(Not sure if they’ll still fit a bassinet? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Baby Bassinets – it includes a guide to bassinet size guidelines by airline).
So from larger lap infants, through to 2 years old and beyond, what makes for the easiest way to organise your kids on a plane in order to get them to sleep? We’ll talk you through:
Kids sleeping on planes – Car Seats
Now I will state upfront, I am not an advocate of car seats on long-hauls. There are two distinct camps on this but as frequent ultra-long-haul flyers – the car seat method is NOT our preferred choice.
For one, a child simply shouldn’t be left in that position for such long periods of time. For me though, it’s a matter of hands. Travelling with 3 small children, frequently on my own, it’s simply not practical getting through the airport to plane with them.
If, however, you know your infant sleeps well in their car seat, you may want to try this method. For under 2’s you will need to book them a child’s ticket if you want to bring a car seat on board.
And always, always check the airline’s regulations on car seats and ensure the brand you are using is compliant with the airline’s rule (FAA guidelines are pretty standard worldwide – but they are NOT the authority over every airline in the world!)
Kids sleeping on planes – Hope for a spare seat
For many years, this was the best solution we could hope for – a seat left free between your group so that legs can be spread out sideways.
Being Gold Guest members on Etihad for some years now, we are fortunate that they will automatically allocate us a free seat if one is available. On any other airline though it’s a free for all!
My best advice – just ASK! Prior to the flight ring the airline’s service centre and enquire how full the plane is before pre-booking seats (if that’s an option with your ticket – you may not get a choice on the lowest sale fares). Otherwise, get to your flight as early as possible on the day of flying to enquire with check-in staff.
The further to the back you of the aircraft you sit, usually the better your chances; nobody wants a middle seat in row 73! If there are three of you, book the centre row of 4 and leave Seat E or F free. On a side row of 3, try leaving seat B free. The combinations get trickier as your family size grows but you get the drift!!
Worst case if the spare seat does get taken, I’m sure they’ll be looking for a switch out with the flight crew if it’s at all possible. If still no luck, one of your groups switches with them – nothing lost.
Note that if you also have an infant and you’ve booked a bassinet row, the armrests do NOT move in this row. If you have older children there’s no hope for them to stretch out here, you may want to try and separate your group in this instance – one adult with the baby in the bassinet row and the other further back with any older children trying to play the spare seat trick!
The only airline we are aware of where you can actually purchase the spare seat between you in a row of three and make a bed is Air New Zealand – read more here about their revolutionary Skycouch.
Extend the child’s seat with a sleep device to make an aeroplane toddler bed
So here’s the new innovation! After years of makeshift plane cubbies, leg hammocks and using our own bags – all no doubt completely against airline regulations – there are now actual sleep aid products to extend the length of your economy class seat, allowing little legs to stretch out, smaller children can even lie completely flat!
They come in quite a few varieties. There are several inflatable cushion brands now which we’ll describe in more detail below (blown up by mouth or foot pump), as well as the Bed Box, which is a hard case designed to extend the length of the aeroplane seat, and an inflatable bed – Flyaway Kids Bed.
But are these actually allowed?
Safety rules: Wear your seatbelt!
Using both the spare seat strategy and using a sleep device, note that wearing of a seat belt at all times is still required. You may loosen it a bit to get comfortable, but it should always be strapped around the child’s waist at all times when seated and visible to the flight crew.
Don’t let children sleep on the floor of the plane
Even if you may have gotten away with it in the past or friends have recommended it, please note that infants or children sleeping on the floor of the plane is a big no-no – refer fact above that they must be wearing a seat belt. Even hidden under your legs, sorry folks, rules are rules.
Read the manufacturers instruction
If installed correctly, these devices should not cause an obstruction in the cabin. But we know from experience it isn’t always straightforward. Even practising using these devices at home, when you’re in the air and pressure is on, the seats are incredibly tight it can be difficult to instal the products exactly as they should be for optimal fit.
Note, you should only use devices mid-flight, not during take-off and landing.
Looking for neck pillows instead? We have this detailed review of the best travel cushions from tots through to teens
Why the controversy over kids plane sleep devices?
Whilst it sounds somewhat revolutionary to the newcomer that you can actually make a mini-bed in economy class, others immediately baulk that they think this is a safety issue – either because the object is affixed to the seat or it is blocking exits from the plane.
Some airlines have come out and specifically banned them on safety grounds. Others have taken a more measured approach and specified the exact seats that they can be used in so not to cause an obstruction to other passengers. Many other airlines have simply said nothing. At the end of the day, it can be up to the final decision of the flight crew on your particular flight.
This guidance by Singapore Airlines is the most helpful we can find that accurately explains the best use of a sleep product where it does not cause an obstruction to other passengers.
If your aircraft has 4 seats in the centre it would be allowed in the two centre seats.
Which airlines will allow kids sleep products / Convertible beds?
So here’s what you are waiting for, who exactly lets you take these products. This list is correct to the best of our knowledge (last updated October 2019) but please let us know if you are aware of any changes or updates that we have not picked up.
“Not explicit” means we cannot find anything directly from the airline’s website that any of the products we will mention are allowed. The manufacturers themselves list many more “approved” airlines than we have been able to find, based on publicly available information.
Related reading: Still travelling with an infant? Read our complete guide to airline installed baby bassinets
Which plane sleep products for kids are best?
We have now flown with several brands of leg cushion and can give you a comparison based on our experience and those we have gathered from our readers.
Kids Leg Pillows for Planes
We have excluded from this list any leg hammock style products that attach to the back of the share in front. The airlines that were explicit in allowing sleep aide products all specifically disallowed these items so we cannot recommend you purchase them.
Important things to consider before buying a leg pillow / flying mattress
- How easy is the item to transport? Can you easily slip it in your existing carry-on (size and weight) or use it as an alternate kids carry on item?
- How quick and easy are they to inflate (and will they stay inflated) – or is a hard box with mattress better?
- If it needs a pump, is this battery operated (possibly noisy); needs a foot pump (possibly blocking the aisle), or can you get there with good old puff power?
- Will your airline allow the item to be used? Whilst the manufacturer’s websites for these products might claim they are safe for use, some individual airlines have now banned their use.
- Note for most children, once they reach over approximately 120cm, they are unlikely to be able to sleep with their legs fully stretched out anyway. They may still find some comfort in being able to sleep in a semi-reclined position. If doing this, make sure their head is also supported, either with an airline provided cushion, or take a look at these specific kids travel pillow brands that are ideal for little heads.
Related Reading: Best toddler beds and infant cots for travel
Other tips to help toddlers & kids sleep on planes
Besides the child’s actual comfort and sleeping position, there are a few tried and tested things that most parents will try to aid their children in falling asleep:
- Fly overnight. If they are naturally tired anyway they are more likely to sleep. Overnight flights they tend to dim the cabin and close the blinds too to prolong the period of darkness.
- Think carefully about snack times and what sort of foods they eat before flying. Giving them anything sugary pre-boarding will likely to give them an energy burst and the excitement of a TV screen and everything else going on around the plane, sleep might be the last thing on their mind.
- Keep the routine. If they normally have milk and get in their PJ’s before feeling sleepy, try to keep up this routine to give all the right sleep cues. Ditto, any favourite sleeping teddies.
- Create a cave! It’s normally the light and noise that create the biggest distraction getting kids to sleep on a plane, so minimise this by placing a blanket over the child’s seat (normally available from the airline on premium long-haul flights)
- Dare we even say it…. medicines? If you’d like to learn more on the what’s, why’s how’s of administering a medicine that can aid children in feeling drowsy, pop over to this article where we present the information in much more detail to help you decide if it’s a method worth trying.
You can learn more on Sleep Advisor’s official blog about sleep and travel basics.
Related Reading: 10 Toddler Flying Mistakes to avoid (plenty we have made, and I bet you have too!)
Kids leg pillows on planes – Are they really worth the investment?
My best assessment – having flown 400,000 odd miles with my kids – the jury is still out.
Undoubtedly they make it easier for a small child to get cosy. But the effort required in carrying the products, inflating or attaching them, especially as a mum frequently travelling solo with three kids; I am not completely convinced that they are worth the investment.
They have undoubtedly helped instead of playing Toddler Tetris at 36,000 feet; However, with uncertainty over their ongoing acceptance by major airlines; and then requiring you to actually score the right seat on the plane where it’s allowed to be installed; and having an attentive flight crew who understand the rules and will let you inflate said product without complaining your blocking the aisle….
There are still just too many variables for my liking to suggest it’s absolutely the right thing to do.
It’s all relative to the flights you’re taking, aircraft, kids age, length of the flight. If you were, for example weighing up between getting a budget long-haul flight with no entertainment but adding on the cost of a sleep device to make it bearable, you could absolutely do the maths and justify the purchase.
However, with three kids, already paying for premium airlines and following the other methods mentioned above to get the kids sleepy – I would no longer justify the cost of buying an extra sleep aid. I’d put my money now on a comfier sleep pillow for their necks that easily attaches to their bags.
BUTTTTTTT….. one last closing thought. We’ve talked all about using these products on a plane, don’t forget they could also be used on a train, a long car ride, any mode of transport really where the journey could be made more comfortable by having legs elevated.
Over to you now!
Have they revolutionised long-haul travel for you? Are you still on the fence and need some extra advice? We’d love to hear your thoughts and help you decide if an aeroplane sleep product is the right thing for your circumstances.
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