5 Steps to Navigating Airport Security with Children

You’ve booked your family vacation, you’ve managed to get all of your stuff packed, and the day has come to travel.  The only thing standing between you and your much-anticipated family vacation is airport security (and the flight).  Besides packing, traversing airport security, with children, is one of the most daunting things about traveling with children. Is airport security a nuisance? Sure. But, it’s a necessary evil, that doesn’t have to throw you off your game.

Let’s start with the rules. I like to think that knowledge is power; the more you understand the rules, the less nerve wracking it will be to get through airport security with your kiddos!

TSA stands for the Transportation Security Administration, and they are responsible for screening all of the people moving to and fro throughout American airports.

Below, is an overview of the TSA rules and regulations, along with tips for getting through airport security with children smoothly. 

1. Know What Identification Your Children Need to Get Through Airport Security

What Kind of Identification or Documents does My Child Need to Fly?

One of the most commonly asked questions, relating to airport security, is whether children need an ID.  The answer is it depends.

Domestic Flights

For a domestic flight, according to TSA rules, if your child is under 18, they do not need any form of identification to fly.  The caveat to that is if your child is flying as a lap infant the airline may require ID to prove that they are in fact under two.  Additionally, your airline may require some form of ID, in other instances, so check with them before flying.  I always carry my son’s passport, when flying; however, TSA never asks for identification.

International Flights

To travel internationally, you will need a passport for every person traveling, including children.

2. Know the Screening Rules for Getting Through Airport Security with Children

Screening of Carry-On Items

Everything must go through the X-ray machine. This includes your stroller, car seat, Kindle, diaper bag, food and beverages, and your kid’s favorite stuffy.  The exception to this is your baby carrier.  Whether you can wear your child through security will depend on the age of your child, and the airport.

Tell your child in advance that s/he will be temporarily separated from their toys and stuffies. The hardest age for this, for my son, was from 18 months-2 years old.  My son didn’t understand why I was taking his toys away or that he’d get them right back.

If your stroller or car seat doesn’t fit through the machine, then a TSA officer will manually inspect them.  It’s crucial that you know how to collapse your stroller, preferably with one hand.  The airport is not the place to figure this out.

Screening of Adults vs. Screening of Children

There are slightly different screening rules for adults and for children who appear to be under 13.  Children 12 and under can leave on their shoes and light jackets, whereas adults have to place those items through the X-ray machine.

A Note on Baby Carriers

For baby carriers, the TSA website says to remove your child from the baby carrier and walk them through the metal detector.  Before my son turned three we took seven international trips and six domestic trips (27 flights total), and I’ve only been asked to take him out of the baby carrier once. That was on my most recent trip to New Orleans, and I think that was because he’s getting too big for me to carry him through (he’s almost three).  In this case, I took him out of the carrier and carried him through the metal detector.

The last thing to know is that if you are carrying your kid, then you should be sent through the metal detector.  Also, the imaging scanner is voluntary, so if they ask you or your child to go through the scanner, you can decline and opt for a pat-down.

Screening of Food & Beverages

You can bring almost any food or snacks through security, so long as it’s not liquid.  Liquids are another story.  The three most questionable food items that I have brought through security are hummus, pouches, and yogurt because they are pushing the boundaries into ‘liquids.’    The TSA maintains a list of acceptable and prohibited food items for airport security.

Liquids & Small Children

The general rule is that each passenger can bring a quart sized bag of ‘liquids’ through security, which may exceed 3.4 ounces.  When tackling airport security with small children, the most important thing to know is that this rule does not apply to liquids brought for the benefit of infants and toddlers.   “Formula, breast milk and juice for infants or toddlers are permitted in reasonable quantities through the security checkpoint.”

According to the TSA website, “an infant is defined as a child who must be physically carried by an adult throughout the screening process.  A toddler is defined as a child who receives assistance in walking by an adult throughout the screening process.”

The website specifically mentions formula, breast milk, and juice as being exempt from the ounce limitations; however, I have also brought water, pouches and other squishy foods, that were larger than 3.4 ounces. Note that you can bring your sippy-cup (with liquid) through Security. These items will be subject to additional screening.

When you get up to the X-ray machine, you should inform the TSA officer of what items you have in your bag.  Also, have all your foods and liquids in one bag.  You can tell the TSA officer if you do not want your formula, breast milk or juice x-rayed or opened.

I’ve only been questioned one time about my food bag.  A TSA officer told me that I couldn’t bring my tub of hummus through. I explained that it was for my son (2 yrs. old at the time), but she was unpersuaded. I politely asked to speak with a supervisor, and he let me bring it through. Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself because the rules are on your side!

3. Be Prepared (Literally & Mentally)

Keep things simple. The two most important things to channel are to keep things organized and to be prepared.  I keep all of my snacks in one bag (I have a small Whole Foods cloth bag for this).  Then I keep all of the electronics in one spot.  When I get up to security, I plunk the food bag in one tray and the electronics in the other.

Be on Time. The other thing to remember is to be on time.  Lines can be long, kids can be cranky, and you don’t want to add to any anxiety by being rushed. Also, watch your layover times, when booking flights.  During your layover, if you have to switch terminals, you could have to go through security again.

4. Frequently Asked Questions & An Overview of Items Frequently Found at Airport Security with Children

* Do children twelve and under need to remove their shoes when going through airport security?

No, they do not. However, if the TSA officer things that the child is over twelve (even if s/he isn’t) they may request the child remove their shoes.

*Can I bring breast milk through airport security?

YES-And you do not need to be with your child to do so.  You can pack it in ice packs, freezer packs, or gel packs.  If you are concerned about the ice/gel packs liquefying, print out the TSA’s guidelines, so that you can present it to the officer if you are questioned.  You can also pack your breast milk with frozen vegetables, as those will not melt.

*Can I bring baby formula and powder through airport security?

YES- you can bring baby formula and powder through airport security.  You can also bring water in a bottle to mix the formula when you are through security.

*Can I bring baby food or snacks for my baby or toddler?

YES- the TSA website explicitly states that “gel or liquid-filled teethers, canned, jarred and processed baby food” may be brought through airport security.  Not only can these items be brought through security but they are also exempt from the 3.4-ounce rule.

*Can I bring liquids through airport security for my baby or toddler? If so, how much?

YES-You can bring what’s ‘reasonably necessary.’ Juice and water for your baby and toddler are exempt from the 3.4-ounce rule.  (Sorry mamma, you’ll still have to buy water on the other side of security).

*Can I bring my car seat through airport security?

YES-you can bring car seats through airport security, but they’ll be subject to additional screening if they don’t fit through the X-ray scanner. Check out the FAA site for rules regarding car seats on planes.

*Can I bring my stroller through airport security?

YES-you can bring your stroller through airport security, but they’ll be subject to additional screening if they don’t fit through the X-ray scanner.  You should also know how to collapse your stroller, before arriving at the airport.

* Can I wear my baby through airport security?

YES- you can bring your baby carrier through airport security, and I’d recommend wearing the baby through security, if possible. You then have your hands free to deal with baggage and the stroller.

TSA rules state that you should remove infants from their carrier. However, the rules also say that you can carry an infant through the metal detector in a sling. I use a soft-structured carrier (like Lillebaby or Ergo), and an officer has only asked me to take my kid out one time. I’d go ahead and wear the kiddo through and wait to see if they ask you to take the kid out.

5. Consider Pre-check or Global Entry

TSA Pre-check

TSA Pre-check is essentially a pre-screening service, which if approved allows for faster screening at airports.  (You can apply here.)  Pre-check is valid for five years and enables you to use Pre-check screening lines in which can keep on your coat, belt, and shoes. You can also leave your baggie of liquids and your computer in your bag.

Another benefit to Pre-check is that your children 12 and under may also use the Pre-check screening lane, while traveling with you.

Pre-check is available for US citizens, nationals, and lawful permanent residents.

Global Entry

Global Entry is available to U.S. citizens, U.S. lawful permanent residents, and citizens of specific countries. The program is similar to Pre-check but it is run by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. You’ll use Global Entry when entering the Untied States from abroad.  Everyone will need their own Global Entry, including children (no matter their age). If you are approved for Global Entry you will automatically be enrolled in the TSA Pre-check program.  Global Entry is valid for five years.

Takeaway

Getting through airport security with children doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience. I used to dread it and be a sweaty, nervous mess going through. Now it’s like going to get gas; it’s just one more thing you’ve gotta do.

Keep it simple, be organized, be prepared, and know where your things are.  Also, don’t worry about the person behind you; if you take a bit longer than usual that’s ok, you’ve got a kid strapped to your back.

Do you have any other tips or advice for tackling airport security with kids?  If so, please drop them in the comments below, I’d love to hear them!

Navigating Airport Security with Children

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One thought on “5 Steps to Navigating Airport Security with Children

  1. So much good info Catherine! I find that just knowing the rules and what to expect is half the battle when flying with little ones. Thanks for putting it all out there in one spot.

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