When Kids Need “To Go” on the Airplane

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This morning I read a post on View From the Wing about whether coach customers should be able to use the first class lavatory on the plane.  My thought is that most of the time you should use the restroom in your ticketed cabin as you are usually instructed to do during the announcements, but like with almost anything, there should be some exceptions to the rule.  Here’s what I think to be a good exception, when kids need “to go” and there will be a delay in being able to access the lav in their cabin.  Here’s a recent example of when this happened and how it was (in my view poorly) handled….

My four year old daughter and I were flying back from Paris recently and she needed to use the restroom (naturally during meal service).  We managed to get the trays and drinks out of our way enough to climb out of our seats when we realized that the aisles were blocked to the business class restrooms that were behind us with the flight attendants and ice cream carts that they were prepping.  We waited maybe 15 seconds to see if they would be cleared soon, and it quickly became evident that this wasn’t going to be a quick move.  Fifteen seconds may not sound long, but when your young child is doing the “potty dance” and saying “I need to gooooooo, Mommy!” each second feels more dangerous than the one before.  I view kids that need to go to the restroom as live explosives that may detonate at any moment. 

I then made the executive decision to turn around and head to the first class lav.  I think there was only one person in the entire first class cabin, so I highly doubted that lav was going to be hard to access.  Normally I am mostly a rule follower and pretty respectful of not disturbing other cabins, but I didn’t think it to be wise to tell my four year old to hold it for an undetermined period of time, and the flight attendants didn’t seem interested in stopping their process for us to pass to the business class lavs.

We quietly walked through the first class cabin to the lav and the flight attendant working that cabin stopped us and quite firmly said we weren’t allowed to use that restroom.  I quietly and politely explained it was for my daughter who has to go now and the business class lavs were blocked with carts.  He firmly said it didn’t matter and that we couldn’t use that lav as it was only for first class customer(s).  I gotta admit as a mom I was not impressed with this answer at all (or how it was delivered, but that’s a matter of personal taste).  My daughter thankfully hasn’t had an accident in a long time, but young kids can have accidents if they can’t access the restroom in time, and was that really something the flight attendant wanted to risk for the sake of guarding that lav from business class invaders?  I guess so.  This was a time when I think a reasonable exception should have been made, but it wasn’t.

The first class flight attendant then pointed out the cart had moved some in business and we could probably squeeze by.  Great.  Thanks.  Let me use my Go-Go-Gadget suck-it-in-manuever and take my daughter who is now really emphatic about “needing to go” back through business class, past the partially moved cart, and to the lav that hopefully isn’t occupied.  That didn’t seem to me to be less intrusive and less bothersome to folks than just quickly using the lav we are already standing right next to, but again I wasn’t making the rules on this one.

Since there wasn’t another choice, we did what he said, and I had a very hard time squeezing past the cart (especially since my knee is still crummy and doesn’t maneuver like it used to pre-ACL injury).  The flight attendants in business didn’t seem thrilled to have their meal preparation process interrupted by us, but we did make it to the lav in time.  Woohoo!

The whole process was way more stressful than it needed to be in my view.  If there is a barrier to using the lav in your ticketed cabin, and you are traveling with (or are) someone who is elderly or young, has mobility issues, or otherwise can’t easily wait a reasonable amount of time to use the restroom, then I think flight attendants should have the common sense to make an exception to the “lav in your cabin rule”.  I sometimes travel in a premium cabin thanks to miles or upgrades, and I would be mortified if I saw a flight attendant turn away a young kid who walked up from coach to use the lav in the first class cabin.  Fortunately, I can’t think of a situation where I have knowingly watched that happen, as it usually seems to work without incident.  However, I have certainly lived through it not working, so I know that it does happen.

I’m really curious on your thoughts about only using the lavatory in your cabin when it’s blocked and it’s your young kid that needs to go?

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  1. Agreed! Flight attendants should really be trained and willing to make reasonable exceptions to rules like this in the case of children, elderly, disabled, etc. I live in fear of a kid bathroom emergency during meal and drink service, so I always try to make a trip to the bathroom with my daughter before the carts come out.

  2. Leslie, same here! Though as luck would have it….another trip had to be made before the meal service ended. I honestly think we spend half the flight going back and forth to the lav sometimes!

  3. Just happened to us on the way back from Thailand.

    We were in coach (the horror) and my son had to go at the worst possible moment. Every lav was occupied and there was a line for each one and they were just starting the coach meal service. When I stood up, I could see past the iron curtain into business and saw nobody standing there and the lav unoccupied. As my son is now informing me that he is going to pee in his pants, I made the bold move past the curtain and into Business class. We made it all the way up to the lav before the FA got to us. I shoved my son in and said “go!”. The Korean flight attendant , always polite, informed me that we were not allowed to use these restrooms and must go back to steerage immediately. I just said “I know, he’ll be done in a minute” Fortunately, he didn’t dawdle and she didn’t push so we exited without incident. Most Business passengers were asleep or watching movies and nobody even looked at us.
    It is absurd that a FA would deny a child to use the bathroom. And I would not hesitate to do it again if necessary. I understand you can’t have coach riffraff traipsing through business class all the time, but exceptions can and should be made for children.

    • Have Child Still Travel, good for you in preventing an accident…and that really is the point! If the kid has an accident everyone’s experience is made worse.

  4. I find it really annoying, especially for children who have to go – but I fear this will just add fuel to the fire of people who think children should be neither seen nor heard on planes, sadly. With only one person in first class they really couldn’t let her use the bathroom? I would be so irritated too, especially since you were sitting in business!

    • Andrea, I’m sure you are right that people who think children shouldn’t travel and/or be on planes will also think no exceptions should be made for them in the lavs, but then again they think children shouldn’t be there regardless. 😉 My view is that everyone is worse off if they don’t get to the lav in time, whether they think they should be on the plane in the first place or not. And yes, there was just one person in first at the time.

  5. Flight attendants should be reminded that their primary job is passenger safety*, not as gatekeepers to protect the upper classes from us cattle car riff-raff. Sure, some kid peeing in his or her pants isn’t going to make the plane drop out of the sky, but I guarantee it’ll make the remainder of the flight really unpleasant for everyone else on the plane, no matter the class.

    *So should passengers. The FA’s job descriptions is not “person who fetches you drinks.” Yeesh.

  6. I also think exceptions should be made for pregnant women…

    We recently took a huge trip just my husband and I. I was still in my first trimester and wasn’t really showing yet but the constant bathroom trips had already started up. Luckily we were in first for this trip but unluckily we were going through a bumpy area. I waited as long as I possibly could and the bumps had evened out for awhile but the pilot still hadn’t turned off the seatbelt sign. I decided to make a run for it because I just couldn’t wait any longer.

    I’ve been in this situation before both while pregnant and with a young child who just had a blow out and usually when I come upon flight attendants they just remind me that the seatbelt sign is still on and that I should hurry. This time, the flight attendant was really pushing me to go back to my seat. I explained it was an emergency and luckily she let me go after I promised I would hurry.

    I get that there was a chance that I could have gotten hurt due to turbulance but isn’t that chance always there?

    Ugh… In the end, I just think bathrooms on the airplane are the worst. My last flight was with both kids alone and one needed a diaper change just as we were boarding. I ended up in the lav with both kids… I could barely move in there.

  7. @SteveDT: Good point about passenger safety.
    And, what happens if the kid has an accident while sitting in the seat? Would any passenger want to sit in that seat on the next flight if it was soiled?
    I’m sure the target audience for this blog is family people, but even a bitter anti-family person wouldn’t want to sit in or next to a yucky mess.

  8. I understand that each passenger should use its own designated bathroom but exceptions should be made and in your case the FA attitude was really bad. You were not in “cattle class” trying to take advantage by moving into business class bathroom. You were already in an premium class which the FA could make an exception. What would he say if your kid could not hold anymore and made a mess on the plane floor?
    I actually have a situation that happened to me when my older boy was 4 years old. We were returning from a vacation trip and he had slept most of the flight. By the time the plane was in its final preparation for landing when all FA’s are seated and there is no way you can go to the bathroom he wakes up, looks at me and says the magic word: ”Dad, I have to pee!!!!?” My wife looked at me terrified and we told him to hold since we could not go to the bathroom. It only got worse since he started the “potty dance” on his seat and said he could not hold anymore. I was in the aisle seat, wife on the window and the boy in the middle seat and not many passengers around us. I was quick enough to find an empty bottle of ice tea we forgot to throw away and it was the time to take the lid out and he stood up and almost filled the entire bottle. I am glad nobody saw him doing that but it was way better than having him wet his entire clothes, seat, floor, etc…

  9. Oh no, that’s terrible!

    On a somewhat related note, when we were flying back from Florida a few months ago, the pilot turned on the seat belt sign for turbulence, and then kept it on for our descent. It was on for the last hour of our flight. My daughter (3) had to go to the bathroom, but I explained that she couldn’t. She did wet her pants and got the seat wet. Fortunately, the seat was leather so it didn’t soak through. I rang the call button and the flight attendant brought me some paper towels to clean up. Not fun!

    • Just as an FYI for anyone, in my experience the seatbelt sign being on during flight usually just means the flight attendant will give you a verbal warning that it is on if you head to the lav, but typically let you proceed to the bathroom anyway. Final approach is a different situation.

  10. That’s just insane. I can’t believe they wouldn’t let you use the lav. It’s one thing if you were from economy trying to squeeze in, but Business Class passangers?!?!?

    I’m a united elite as well, and while not surprised by their behavior, and appalled that this happened on an international flight.

  11. We were on a Delta flight a few years ago and observed an obviously pregnant woman being told she could not use the first class restroom even though the others were occupied. I’ll admit I don’t know all the details, only what we saw and overheard. But I thought it was wonderfully ironic when a little while latter they wished all mothers on board a Happy Mother’s Day, etc.

    As a side note, we used pull-ups on flights long after my son was actually potty trained. (But we waited until past the point where it might cause him potty-training confusion.) We just explained that yes, he was a big boy, but you can’t always go when you need to when you’re on a plane. He didn’t seem to mind. He was probably well into Kindergarten before he flew without pull-ups.

    But I still think there should be an exception for got-to-go moments with certain age groups and/or situations.

    • Sam, I like that approach and we used it as well for a while past potty training age, but we are over two years passed that age now so have stopped. Def a helpful strategy for those in-between times though!

  12. One might tell the snooty flight attendant that your daughter is going to do *something* in the next 60 seconds and the choices are the 1st-class lavatory or a first class seat, and you’re prefer the lavatory.

    If there’s one thing we all share as human beings it’s the occasional need to “go” *RIGHT NOW*. All of us, parents or not, know that children don’t necessarily plan as well as adults and need to be cut a little slack. I can’t imagine this was anything but a United flight, given the attitude. One might imagine the 1st class flight attendants at least remember what it was like when their grandchildren were four years old.

  13. I’m sure the FA was thinking “WELL! If I let Little C. use the lav then a whole bunch of other kids may want to come up here also” UGH. Having a young child needing to use the lav and there being barriers i.e. carts, long lines, seatbelt sign, etc. is the absolute pits. Been there. Like Sam, we used Pull-ups long after our DD was potty trained just in case we couldn’t make it to the lav in time.

  14. Also, not unrelated, I always look very carefully at the seat before I sit down. Cleaners don’t always notice wet spots. I’ve had to call flight attendants and have wet seats swapped out after boarding has started.

    Look before you sit is an important habit on airplanes as elsewhere.

  15. While I agree passengers should use the lav in their cabin, there should be exceptions for kids and handicapped especially if the other lavs are blocked by the cart.

  16. @SteveDT: Good point about passenger safety.

    @Stephen: there should be exceptions for kids and handicapped

    I think there should be exceptions for the elderly too. Also for those in military uniform.

  17. @L: As to Exceptions, Yes for Kids, handicapped, elderly, pregnant, but absolutely NO to military uniforms. They deserve all our respect, but lav usage? they can definitely hold it longer than others.

  18. On a recent flight to Denver, the pilot informed us they were “preparing for final descent” 45 minutes early due to expected turbulence. As soon as the flight attendants sat down and buckled up my 7yo son has to “go”. My husband and I debated whether to rush him to the bathroom anyway since no turbulence was occurring yet, but decided against it. Wouldn’t you know it, when we finally landed, our gate was occupied by another plane and we had to hang out on the tarmac with the seatbelt signs still enforced and the FAs still buckled up for another 30 minutes! Thankfully and unbelievably my son was able to hold it, but it made me wonder how frequently bathroom “accidents” do happen. Would it have been reasonable to take him to the bathroom while waiting on the tarmac or is using the lav on the ground a no-no? Btw, I think FAs should be reasonable about the class lavs. I’m happy for those that can afford 1st class – but being unwilling to share the lav in a pinch is ridiculous IMO.

  19. Even more mortifying is when I had to go and made it to the business restroom but had the flight attendant pounding on the door screaming that I had to come out. I thought that was absolutely unacceptable. I realize it was against the rules to use the restroom in the other cabin but the response was absolutely inappropriate.

  20. Usually on domestic flights if you are seated in EC, it’s a LOOONG way back to the rear lavs. There may be people in each lav, and more in the aisles waiting. Oh, and the carts block the aisle for like an hour if it’s service time. In which case we always head forward with child and to hell with protocols. Never had a problem with this, but then again just heading up to domestic first not international first.

    We did have one case where URGENT GOTTA GO ran into dragons who were about to close off the lavs with a cart so the pilots could go. They saw us coming and stopped us. In this case I made a brief remark about how there was about to a big mess, and they told the pilots to hold and we went ahead.

    Odds are your jerk FA was childless, in addition to being thoughtless.

  21. To add to the issue of using the lav during turbulence… Once, when I was on a flight with the seatbelt sign on due to turbulence, I asked the FA when she thought the seatbelt sign might be turned off, because I needed to go to the bathroom, she said she didn’t know and I asked if it would be ok if I went to the bathroom (she was doing a bit of walking around doing things). She gave me an answer like, “I can’t tell you that it’s ok to go, because if you got hurt due to turbulence, it would then be my fault”, but without remembering her exact words, she also made it clear that she wouldn’t try to stop me, and that I would be fine to get up, but it was at my own risk. In the end I waited a bit and the seatbelt sign was turned off. But I was left with the impression that the seat belt sign being on during those mild turbulence times is a strong suggestion, but that it can be ignored if necessary, without getting you in trouble.

  22. On a somewhat related note, I was once on a long shuttle bus ride in an unfamiliar city to meet my husband when my son told me he had to go, even though I had taken him to the toilet before we boarded the bus. I was never so happy to see rubbish left by the previous passenger. When we alighted, I handed my husband a full grande Starbucks cup with the warning, “it isn’t coffee.” 😉

  23. This must have been an American airliner? I would write to the airline and complain. Somestimes airlines will give you some miles for your inconvenience.

    I would’ve cussed out the Flight attendant just because…What an $#@$@$@.

  24. Expecting FAs to employ common sense. That’s funny.

    I would have told the FA that this kid is urinating in about a minute, you can move or clean up whatever mess is left. Your call.

  25. the passive-aggressive part of me might would have told her to just go ahead and piss the seat just to make my point. Then when the other FAs came to clean it up, I would point out what their buddy in F said.

  26. Why not tell your daughter to pee on the floor so the flight attendant will have clean it up. I bet that would make the attendant change her mind quickly.

    • I think everyone would lose in the event my daughter actually had the “accident” so we didn’t go that route. Might have helped him give a different answer next time though!

  27. Someone with more experience can correct me, but as one commenter noted above, flight attendants will not bar you from getting up to use the can, except during the “final approach” and the first 2-3 minutes after takeoff. If the seatbelt sign is on and the kid needs to go, I make the calculation whether there’s an actual danger. I mean, if I’m in there in severe turbulence, I can probably brace myself; my toddler is liable to get tossed around, even with me trying to hold onto her!

  28. We absolutely would use the FC lav with our three-year-old. We have never had an FA tell us not to – in fact, some of them will direct us that way!

    We have also had an accident on an airplane on the first flight post-potty training. We heard the dreaded “I need to go potty” during literally the last part of final descent. Then we had taxiing on an active runway. Didn’t make it. Had to wash the car seat padding at the hotel coin laundry…

  29. What airline was this? Did you follow up and complain with their customer service afterwards? The on-board purser? At the arrival gate? There is no reason for you (and your daughter) to have been treated this way given the circumstances which you identified, which were all justifiable. I hope that I may never have to encounter this situation with my toddler son but if I did I would most certainly voice my displeasure when/where appropriate.

  30. Um, ask your child to go prior to bev/meal service? It seems like this should be predictable but noooo, everyone bringing their kid to first class lav. There is a reason we pay more – to not have to share a restroom with a dirty kid.

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