During a recent long flight with no food service and no personal TV screens, I sat next to a family of five and had plenty of time to be reminded of the challenges of flying with young children. For some families, flying is a breeze but for some it is an experience to be endured. Being well prepared and talking about the trip in advance, I found, helps to reduce stress. Be calm, reassure your child and expect to play for hours. Avoid over-stimulation and over-feeding, encourage quiet activities and naps and enjoy the flight as much as you can.
Some airports offer extra free assistance for parents traveling alone with young children (I have had a car pick me up and drive me all the way to the terminal building and porters collect my luggage off the conveyer belt). Make sure to ask for it in advance or at least at check in. You can take a foldable pushchair all the way to the gate where it will be sent to the hold. Remember to insist that they notify the staff at the other end that you will need it at the exit of the plane. Sometimes the request is acknowledged and the pushchair will be waiting for you and sometimes… well…sigh..
Check with the airline what services they offer for young children and pre-book the bulk-head seat in advance. Beware that if you choose the front seats most arm rests are fixed and you won’t be able to make a wider space. You will however have room in front of you for your child to stand and move about.
Ask for extra pillows and blankets at the beginning of the flight as they often run out. Do bring your child’s favourite traveling blanket to make him feel safe. You can even add a drop of lavender on it to give it a scent of home (or your parfume).
Pack comfortable clothes to change into if you are on an overnight flight, a change of clothes for your child and a spare top for you in case of ‘accidents’ (plus the usual necessities: special food, bottles, nappies, medicine kit, toys). Check with the airline about their rules on bringing liquids as policies tend to change frequently. If you are sitting in the front row of a cabin your bag has to be stored away during take off and landing, remember to take out the essentials (bottle, spare tissues for spit ups, toy).
Many children start crying during take off and landing because the changes in cabin air pressure can cause strong pains to small eardrums that can’t clear easily by themselves. Always give your child a bottle or a cup of water to suck on to relieve the pressure and help them pop their ears. Something to chew on can also do the trick.
DO NOT use any medication that you haven’t used before as they may have the reverse effect. Antihistamine has been known to make children hyper active instead of producing the sought after calming effect…! If your child has a cold, use sterile saline nose drops. It adds fluids to the nose which is less irritating than nose spray (it is good for adults too btw).
Bring your child’s favourite healthy snacks plus fun shaped crackers, sugarless cheerios and raisins. Young children love to pick them up with two fingers. Smarties are fun to play the ‘Guess the colour of the smarties in my hand’ game. Offer water instead of juice or milk, avoid too much candy if you don’t want a hyper child!
Pack a bag of small toys to hand out throughout the flight when distraction is needed. These little surprises can even be individually wrapped to make them more special. Bring books and colouring pens, erasable boards, card games and small puppets (good for making up stories). Clips to attach toys to the seat can come in handy too. Usable stickers work well on a window or an airplane table and don’t fall on the floor.
Before boarding let your child stretch her legs and run around, observe the planes through the window. Describe what you see outside the gate windows: explain what people are doing. “Can you see our plane? The flags? The cars and the luggage trolleys? Do we see our suitcases? How many airplanes…” Talk about the sequence of what will happen during this trip: the long time on the plane, the car drive to Grandpa’s house, the cousins who are waiting for you at the other end.
Board early (airlines invite families to board first) and once on board familiarise the child with the cabin environment: observe passengers, stewardesses, food trolleys, look for other children on the plane: “This little girl is wearing pink leggings just like you. And this little boy is looking at a book. He looks comfortable”.
Ask the crew if they have a child entertainment goodie bag, some airlines are well equipped. If not, you will be able to play with the items from the food trolley (cups, wrapper, spoons, napkins, bread..).
The (sometimes dreaded) seatbelt moment: “See this? It is Mummy’s seatbelt. Help Mummy do her seatbelt up. Listen to the click. Now let’s do yours up. Lift the flap, open, click! Look, this lady also has a seatbelt. In fact everybody has to use a seatbelt (!)”
S t a y C a l m – it will help your child calm down especially if he is frightened by the cabin noise and the dark. Your job will be to distract and anticipate the needs of your child. If you are travelling with more than one child, sit yourself in the middle if they start to annoy each other. We found that sitting in pairs worked well, each adult being able to give full attention to the child next to him.
Explore the seat area: The airplane safety card in the seat pocket is a good one to pick as it is usually laminated and therefore child resistant. Make up stories using words the child knows, name colours and shapes. Focus on the people in the pictures, how they might be feeling, what they are doing. “This little boy is sitting next to his Daddy, just like you. What are they doing? Do they look happy or sad? Shall we open the table and put the magazine on it?”
Be aware that the person sitting in front of you will feel every hit on their seat, so limit the kicks to the back of the seat as much as you can… The arm rest/TV remote control have buttons to press – avoid the call button for the stewardess!
Read books. Play counting games – Peekaboo games – Hide the toy game – Guess game (“I am thinking of something red.” “Is it the button of my jacket? My socks?”).
Sing songs: if you worry that you cannot sing, don’t worry. No one will hear you over the engine noise and everyone will be happy if it keeps your child happy! Action songs with hand games are a good distraction. Sometimes friendly fellow passengers will join in!
Make your child laugh. Do silly little games – blow bubbles with your lips, clack your tongue, snap your fingers. Give him/her kisses and cuddles.
Avoid tickling as it will only bring over excitement. Touch, count and massage their back, toes and fingers.
Go for a walk to change the scenery. Grab the moment before the food trolleys start occupying the isles and take the child for a wander. Find the other children on the plane, wave at them. Go to the toilet for a variation in the scenery. It is fun to watch yourselves in the mirror and make faces while sitting on the changing table!
If your child is over tired but can’t fall asleep, pick him up and stand up. It works wonders. Don’t worry about people watching you. They’ll be sending you grateful looks if your child stops fussing!
Flying with young children requires much patience. If you are lucky to be traveling with an adult companion and one of you is more talkative than the other, then let that person sit with the toddler and chat away. If Mummy’s hugs work miracles, let the child sit on her lap for a while. Take turns.
Engage with your child, ignoring doesn’t work in this situation. Your calm will pay off. The sound of your voice is soothing and reassuring.
R e l a x.
When you have exhausted your sense of humour and all of the above and your child is still not tired, there is always your iPhone or your preferred tablet with your child’s favourite games and movies ;-). Remember that too much screen time also has an overstimulating effect, not prone to encouraging children to nap.
Rest assured that you will one day again be able to peacefully enjoy a movie and a drink on a plane and savour the view like the one pictured above… Promise though, that when this happens, you won’t glare at the stressed parents flying with their children:-)
Click here for more on traveling with Babies on Airplanes.
And here for a useful video recap by parents who have done this before with a toddler.
HAVE A GOOD FLIGHT!