YOU ARE READY!!! You’ve planned the perfect trip. Your bags are packed to the brim. You’ve managed to get everything and everyone safely to the airport, checked-in, through security, and now… the REAL work begins.
There’s something about the “hurry up and wait” conditions of airline travel that can be particularly frustrating with small children. You couple that with being contained in a metal tube (and additionally to a small and uncomfortable seat) suspended in the air for several hours with pressure changes and dozens of strangers, and I think it’s fair to say that fuses may be running short (for adults and children alike).
Just as with any other endeavor with small children, a little bit of forethought can go a long way. Here are some tips and tricks that we’ve found have worked for us and our kids. Hopefully they will work for you and yours or, in the very least, spark some ideas for how you can try to “plane-tertain” your munchkins.
Pre-crawlers (0-6 months)
This age might be the most stressful for travel and, ultimately, the easiest. The combination of the all the things that COULD go wrong with the fact that you’re still getting to know your baby make for an incredibly daunting travel companion.
First off, understand the rules of airline travel. So long as you have a basic grasp of what you are and are not allowed to do, you can prepare yourself (and any other adults in your travel party) accordingly.
It was a large and unpleasant surprise to me, when on our second flight with Jenna, I was informed (and rightly so) that it was not permitted to have my baby in a carrier for taxi, takeoff, and landing. After spending one rather long and loud hour getting her to sleep in the first place, I did not receive this news graciously. A little bit of knowledge would have saved me a lot of angst in the moment.
Second, don’t stress too much! We’ve traveled fairly early in our kids’ lives (Jenna–6 weeks, John Jr.–5 weeks, Jenevieve–5 weeks), and they were, by far, the most pleasant travelers they have EVER been on those early flights. It may have had something to do with the fact that they spent the entire flight snuggled against my half-naked body, under their receiving blanket, on their nursing boppy, and surrounded by the oddly soothing “shushing” sound of an airplane (that’s John Jr. under the black nursing cover in the L picture). Whether it was their environment or my preparation (it was definitely not their temperaments as has borne out on subsequently attempted flights), flights with infants were some of the most precious for us.
Incidentally, I definitely agree with the droves of experts out there that nursing/bottling for take-off and landing are key. By this, I don’t mean when the plane physically takes off (that’s just too stressful to time-up). Instead, try to feed little one sometime within the first 30 minutes-1 hour of ascent and descent.
Also, try to be in a window seat so you can lean up against the outside of the plane to help support some of the weight of a listless baby. I’ve also found that this seat accommodates the twitching baby legs better than the middle or aisle (you may still be thinking that the aisle would be best, but in my experience, (1) almost ANYONE will move to allow a new parent + baby out to get to a bathroom; (2) you won’t be going to the bathroom unless you have a diaper malfunction (you can fairly easily change a baby on the floor of the plane while sitting in your seat); and (3) no matter how careful they are, flight attendants cannot always control that drink cart, and it HURTS when it hits your elbow, which will be in the aisle due to the listless baby in your arms).
While this all sounds good, there are plenty of things that CAN go wrong and for which you may want to prepare. Because your little one is still very young, you may want to be prepared with phone numbers of emergency medical facilities (in a pinch, check out this post on medical emergencies abroad) or even ask your hotel/host if they know of a recommended pediatrician in the area in case of an unexpected fever, cold, etc. Also, be sure to check with your doctor and your pediatrician to make sure that you are cleared for travel. Finally, it’s always a good idea to take a quick peak at the CDC website to see if any of your destinations are on their travel advisories.
Aside from these potential health concerns, the most common (and non-medical) travel derail-er at this age is the infamous blowout. I’m not talking about a little poo on the zipper of a sleeper (a quick, localized rinse with a wet napkin, and you’re good to go). I’m talking up the back, in the sock, on mom/dad’s shirt, pants, hair blow-OUT.
We lived this particular agony on a trip just as the “fasten seatbelt sign” illuminated on descent. The sound of that poop that never ends and the knowledge that the diaper isn’t going to cut it accompanied by the warm sensation and the smell, oh the smell…yah, that’s where I don’t care if you might miss your connection as you try to push by me in the aisle. Me and this atomic bomb of ick are getting off this plane post haste. So yes, be prepared with an extra change of clothes for the baby, but don’t forget an extra shirt for you too.
Crawlers (6 months-15 months)
By far my least favorite traveling age (and this is where John Jr. was for our last flight, so it has held true for two completely different babies). These kids (or maybe just mine) refuse to be contained quietly but are unable to explore the traveling world safely either because of their mom’s revulsion to germs (airplane floors + crawling hands + teething induced hands in mouth = mom’s nerves on the fritz) or because crawling babies can quickly wedge themselves into every nook and cranny of a plane, making it very difficult to extract them safely or quietly. That being said, there are some tools in my arsenal of crawler appeasement.
This seems to be the beginning of the age of destruction. Both of my kids LOVED ripping, tearing, and breaking anything they could get their teething-mauled hands on. Enter, free airline magazines. We would intentionally bring an extra grocery/produce “garbage bag” to collect the remnants of the seat back magazines that our children would gleefully demolish. This relieved my guilt associated with scrambling to hand pieces of destroyed magazine to the flight attendant and gave me something “productive” to do while trying to stay awake after umpteen hours of uninterrupted “mommy-ing.”
We also started entertaining from the floor. For in-flight entertainment, I would squeeze myself between our seat and the seat in front of us (John Jr. and Jenna both flew as lap-infants at this developmental age) so my baby could have a bit of freedom without me bathing them in Purell. From this position, I could pull out our books and toys. As for actual books/toys, I would recommend bringing novel items that are either new from a store or merely new to your child (i.e. a favorite one that got “misplaced” a few weeks before your trip).
This position also works for engaging in finger games/songs (peek-a-boo, itsy-bitsy spider, etc). It is possible to play with your baby without being too loud. While I would absolutely recommend encouraging “inside voices,” the ambient noise of the airplane blocks a lot, and I would think other passengers would infinitely prefer to get a slight suspicion of “Wheels on the Bus” than an earful of 10-month-old tantrum.
Most crawlers have been introduced to solids by now, and I would recommend taking FULL advantage of this new source of entertainment and exploration. We load our bags with puffs, mum-mums, pouches (allowed over the liquid allowance if traveling with baby), and anything else we know that our munchkin enjoys eating with minimal mess (i.e. prepackaged and self-contained). Also, make sure you are prepared with a boob or milk/water bottle for sucking power within 30 minutes-1 hour of ascent and descent. If your little one is a thumb or pacifier sucker, this works wonders as well.
As for sleep…just pray your kid will sleep. Life is so much better for everyone if they sleep! If you have a fighter, here’s what worked for us: Ergo bouncing. I spent many hours in the aisle or the galley bouncing, lunging, and coaxing my daughter to sleep. It sucked, but it was worth it (including the entirety of a red-eye to Punta Cana, which is pictured above).
Another trick, and I’m not too proud to admit it, was that we used Benedryl (we asked our pediatrician first and dosed by weight). Make sure you try it in the week before your flight as it can have the opposite reaction of inducing hyperactivity (we’ve had both experiences with the same kid but at different developmental stages, and I can tell you that you DEFINITELY want to test this out before you’re trapped on a plane with an overtired baby).
One last note here, I prefer to travel with our pre-walkers in an aisle seat (just be very careful about monitoring your baby’s extremities for the food cart and passing passengers). Their inability to sit still coupled with their relative difficulty staying quiet means that I spend a LOT of my time bouncing the little one in the carrier in the aisle or in the galley (this issue is source for some debate but flight attendants might allow you to be there for a bit if you ask).
Walkers (15 months-2 years)
(pre-pseudo-independent technology usage)
So long as it’s not explicitly disallowed, you are free to take your walker on a tour of the plane. In my experience, new walkers or hand walkers (where they basically walk in the air while supported by your index fingers) LOVE the novel concept of walking in such a tight space while being observed by countless strange faces. They seem to feed off of the myriad stares ranging from judgmental to doting. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of human expression.
We’ve also had a lot of success employing our tricks from the crawler stage in terms of “entertaining from the floor” and games/songs. When in need of additional distraction, we’ll still pull out the airline magazine for tearing pleasure or head on a walk through the plane. As for anything we brought along with us (toys or books), we would try and bring the “favorite” toy-de-jour along with “something new” (even if it was just a toy that had been taken out of rotation for a month or so). This principle kept our packing light and our stress level down.
As for new developments, books are a bigger hit now! Features like flaps, textures, and recognizable images/animals make for good choices. Also, coloring. Our son really started enjoying coloring right around 1 year, and we love these self-contained Color Wonder sets or these Water Wow sets.
This age is also where I started introducing technology, if not for any other reason beyond my own amusement to spice things up. Basic and free apps were simple enough to navigate and amusing enough to buy me 5-30 minutes. Also, the toddler-equivalent of music videos: Disney songs on YouTube. We invested in a set of headphones at this age to avoid annoying our neighboring passengers and also to get Jenna and John Jr. used to the concept.
Many of the same ideas apply here as well as for the crawlers (see Benedryl above). My kids LOVE food. They will eat whenever, wherever, whatever, and we take full advantage of it! They still seem to love puffs, mum-mums, pouches, and any other packaged, easy-to-use product especially those that we don’t eat often (they seem more like a “treat”).
While kids are considered “lap-infants” until the age of 2 and, therefore, do not need their own seat, we try very hard to start buying a ticket for them around 15 months. We managed to luck into an extra seat flying with our daughter around then and realized how much easier it was for all of us to allow her to have her own space. While this can become cost prohibitive, it is a luxury that we have found worthwhile where possible (we do not have a seat for our 13 month old on our next flight to Japan due to cost, and I am already wondering whether that was a serious mistake…UPDATE: while it would have been nice for him to have his own seat, we did survive our Japan flights with John Jr. on my lap, in a carrier, or sprawled over my husband while I crouched on the floor).
Toddlers-Preschoolers (2 years+)
This is where our oldest is now, and is by far, my favorite age of traveler. I bring child-sized headphones and compile shows, games, and books on an iPad and give Jenna the gift of virtually unhindered technology usage, which is a HUGE treat (for all of us). When she begins to get restless, an adult will take her on a walking tour of the airplane to stretch our legs and explore a bit.
We also love self-contained coloring books (like Color Wonder sets), Water Wow sets, sticker mosaics, dollar store books, or quiet books (the little felt book she’s playing with in the L picture) for flights. Another thing we’ve thoroughly enjoyed using is games. Not like the “games” for babies but real, honest-to-goodness card games. We’ve started out with the basics (War, Slap Jack, and Go Fish), but this advancement in our in-flight entertainment arsenal has been hugely beneficial to me feeling like a “real person” instead of a mommy zombie during airline travel.
The other tool I embraced is to provide “gifts” in transit for my kids (I got this idea from a family I met on our travels, and it is genius). I will wrap dollar store gifts: sticker pages, self-contained coloring books, early reader books, etc and give them to Jenna throughout the trip (typically in conjunction with a compliment to her about her remarkable patience or ability to set a good example for her brother, etc). Don’t forget your plastic bag (or other gathering article) for easy clean-up and disposal in case you are trapped in your seat for an extended time.
In addition to all the food mentioned above, we have loved starting to introduce lollipops to our travel bag. Since our preschooler is now done with her pacifier, and we do not want her loading her bladder during the flight with her water bottle, we wanted to come up with a fool-proof way to get her to suck during ascent/descent. Lollipops are perfect for this purpose and, we have found, by limiting her to 2 per flight, we haven’t seen any change in her energy due to sugar intake.
The most difficult wrench in traveling with a toddler-preschooler is the advent of potty training. Whether you are beginning the process or think you have it down, kids have a funny way of having “accidents” at the least convenient times possible. At the very least, I would encourage you to convince your potty training child to wear a pull-up (we did this by allowing Jenna to wear her “big girl undies” over her pull-up and then under her pull-up when she’d had more practice).
Also, be warned that the airplane toilets can be frightening for little people. Between the blue water and the loud, sucking noises, my daughter is petrified of them. We’ve finally reached an armistice whereby she won’t scream so long as I wait until she leaves the lavatory before flushing the toilet. If you’re still in the throws of potty training, I would absolutely recommend having easy access to the aisle in case of the dreaded announcement of “POOPY!!!!”
If you’re worried about an accident when you’re stuck in significant turbulence (flight attendants may take pity on your little one in situations of light turbulence) or any other time with the seat belt sign illuminated, think about bringing a portable potty with plastic bags to use in the seat with you. We had to do this once, and it was a lifesaver (no mess and no accident, we just walked the “used” bag to the trashcan once the fasten-seat-belt light went off, and no one was the wiser).
If you’re flying a red-eye or otherwise NEED your child to sleep, and they can’t/won’t/don’t, we’ve had tremendous luck with Melatonin. Our daughter fits well within the weight guidelines for the dosage of these pills, and (at the time of this posting) they have not been known to have any adverse reactions. After using them to help our daughter recover from jet lag, get extra sleep while sick, and settle down after a high-energy day (oh, and I’ve dosed myself with terrific success), I can safely say that I am thrilled to be able to add this to our in-flight arsenal for our upcoming trip to Japan. UPDATE: Melatonin for the win! Our 3 year old suffered little to no jet lag on the way to Japan and was over jet lag after 2 or so days at home (her parents were less fortunate).
This is somewhat of a misnomer as you may want to get on a plane with the same attitude reserved for haunted mansions (“abandon all hope, ye you enter here” and all that), BUT, if you do get some “alone time” (child is sleeping or entertained by something other than you), force yourself to emotionally and physically prepare for the next onslaught.
If you are lucky enough to be traveling with another adult, try to give each other 15 minutes of every hour “off.” My husband and I tried a variety of labor divisions, but one of the best was the 15 minutes mom, 15 minutes dad, 30 minutes together plan. The best advice I can give is two-fold: (1) communicate your needs to your partner clearly and fairly; and (2) guard your given free time selfishly. I could swear that in-flight self-entertainment is where earplugs and noise canceling headphones are at their most valuable.
Basically, use the time to recharge for the next challenge in whatever way you can.
And that is where any experience I may claim to have ends! Parents of school-aged children, you’re on notice that when I’m not frantically trying to keep my children corralled, safe, and remotely quiet, I am watching y’all to get some ideas for what to do next because I have no clue!
For more travel tips/tricks/tales, check this out: Traveling with Pre-School Children