22 December 2013

Part 2: (While) Flying with Young Children

Even with all the preparation done for a flight with your young children (covered in the first post of this 3-part series), you can still face anxiety in the air. Here are in-flight strategies for you and your children as you work together toward a peaceful flight (or as close to one as we can get).

1. Make them comfortable.
If the kids are feeling cozy, they are more likely to stay calm. Common sense, right? Here are a few areas to which this principle applies:

  • clothing
  • shoes
  • familiar bedtime toy/blanket
  • in-flight seat
My son may look so cute in that denim outfit, but he would sleep more easily in his softest set of pajamas. Don't worry about impressing anyone with your child's clothes--including whoever is picking you up from the airport. The fact that you are flying with a young child is impressive enough.

Once settled in your seat, take off their shoes if the soles are hard. This helps them to feel less constricted and you to feel less jabs of pain when he or she kicks you.

Does you child sleep with a certain object each night? My toddler is attached to a little blanket, and I wrote a reminder in ALL CAPS to remember to bring it on the airplane. The familiarity soothes her.

When kids have their own seats,  there are options for keeping them in one place without hauling a car seat throughout the airport. 

If you must bring a regular car seat along, bring a rolling carry-on and put the car seat on top of it to help you lug it from here to there.

Lap children have some options for more comfort and safety too. Here are two:
Again, the goal here is comfort. Dress them in soft, loose-fitting clothes, remove their shoes, bring something familiar, and take a look at air travel products that are meant to improve your child's safety and comfort. 

2. Pack to nourish and to entertain.
What do you pack so you're ready for anything? Undoubtedly, if you ask any seasoned travel-mom this question, she will prioritize two things: snacks and engaging toys/books.

Bring snacks for your kids. You know what they like, and you don't know what the airline is going to offer. Because of your young accompanying passengers, you can bring almost anything edible on board (including liquids). 

Because we are leaving for a longer period of time whenever we take flights, I make sure to pack all the fresh items from my refrigerator (produce, cheese, milk) in the airplane snack bag. (This also cleans out my fridge.) During our most recent trek from Seoul to Narita to Honolulu, my bag had carrot sticks, green peppers, mini-muffins, sliced cheese, and granola bars. All of these were less likely to crumble in their hands and had the added bonus of taking longer to chew through than, say, chips. I also packed them in small, snack-sized Ziplocks so the kids had automatic portion-control. 

When breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, remember your gear: nursing cover, bottles, pre-measured formula, etc. Be ready, especially to feed your baby during take-off and landing to relieve the pressure on the ears.

Now for the toys: what do you bring? I've heard some great ideas of how to entertain your children (usually toddlers and preschoolers, ages 2-5) from friends and websites like this one, but you will need to experiment to see to what your son or daughter responds. 
  • Idea #1: Bring new toys. Raid the local equivalent of a dollar store and pick out toys that you think would interest your children. Stash them in a designated backpack (one for each kid), only to be opened in the airplane after take-off. 
  • Idea #2: Have your child help choose what to bring. This worked well with my 5-year-old daughter. She first overstuffed her pink backpack with knickknacks, blank paper, and dress-up clothes. I talked her through the various items she chose, weeded out ones I knew wouldn't succeed, and made suggestions that went along with what she had originally chosen. Below, you can see what she eventually decided on--and her involvement built up her excitement to play with everything she had picked herself. 
My daughter and I picked out what would occupy her best on board.
  • Idea #3: You pick out their toys strategically. Remember that what you choose should
    • take time,  
    • require involvement, 
    • and be lightweight and compact.
  • Idea #4: Bring the electronics as a back-up. Of course we don't want our kids staring at a screen for 6 hours straight, but having the iPad with you can reassure you. It's your white flag, and even if it's not a last option (but instead your third option, for example), remember this is a special occasion. Flying can warrant some privileges.
These are things on my toy list for my three kids.
  • 2 Preschoolers: paperback picture books (which I read to them), coloring pages, crayons, stickers, foil balls
  • 1 Toddler: cloth activity book, pacifier, silent toys with buttons, toys that twist or bend, crayons, blank notebook
And I (over)emphasize that your children are capable of carrying these things themselves!

3. Random Survival Tips
Lastly, here are a few pieces of wisdom I've picked up from friends or gathered from experiences. 
  • Bring a mini-medkit. You can pack it all in a single Ziplock bag. Include the following:
    • baby/child Tylenol and/or Motrin to lower unexpected fevers in flight
    • Neosporin pain relief spray
    • bandaids
    • hand sanitizer
    • a few doses of Tylenol for yourself (just in case)
  • Do not pack anything heavy or bulky for your own entertainment because you may not have time for it. It's more likely that you will spend the entire flight serving, so you will only begrudge your children for the extra weight in your bag. If anything, bring a magazine or something equally light and disposable.
  • Along the same lines, do not watch the in-flight movie unless your kids are asleep or fully occupied. Otherwise, their calls for help will sound like annoying interruptions...or worse: you might not hear them at all!
  • Before take-off, hand out small gifts to surrounding passengers (i.e. Starbucks cards).
  • Introduce yourself and your kids to a friendly-looking flight attendant and let them know you may need help during the plane ride.
  • If you have a layover, check the airport map for a children's play area. 
Three hours go by easier in an airport play area.
  • Definitely bring a change of clothes for your child, but if the first set gets soiled, do not throw it away. You may need it again before the flight is over, so wash it with soap in the lavatory and hang it up on your tray table. I'm not crazy. I've done this on two different 13-hour flights, and the clothes dried just in time for me to use them again on my baby. 
  • If you have the space, pack an extra shirt and pants for yourself. This is just in case your baby soils your clothes. However, since I can't seem to justify myself doing this, the sweater I bring along must be able to double as a shirt alone (a pullover or one with high buttons) and can also serve as a shield covering up a stain on my pants if my baby aimed in that direction with his vomit or poo. 
  • And last--assign duties to your travel partner (i.e. husband). If you don't do this, you run the risk of him or her falling asleep and leaving you to care for the kids alone.

4. Stay calm.
Your kids need you. Keep your temper and stress in check by being proactive and positive--and by praying through it all.

Do you have in-flight advice and/or questions to add? Please leave your comments below.
Up next (and last) in this series: we'll look at how to decompress after the long flight, battle jet lag, and prepare for outer influences on your kids. See you back then!

Other posts in this series:


  1. The medi - kit is very important! A few years back, I was traveling with my little preschool daughter, and I didn't bring meds for fear she might get into them and accidentally ingest them (we keep them locked up at home, and I was afraid she'd get into my bag & find something she shouldn't). Well, she got a high fever on the return flight, and I had to carry her (with my bad back) for more than 2 hours going thru security - no meds anywhere in sight. The airport sold no children's dose meds in the kiosks, and the one clinic in the airport was so far away that there was no way we could get to it without missing our flight. A real travel nightmare. So - great tip - always bring those meds.

    1. Anna, what a terrible experience! Thanks for sharing it, though, to emphasize how bringing the meds can really help during travel time. I hadn't thought about how the airports don't sell children's meds either. I hope your daughter is feeling well for Christmas today! Have a merry one. :)

  2. Do you put your potty trained children in pull-ups for flights for "just in case"?

    1. Great question. For my kids, I did put them in pull-ups if they still had semi-frequent accidents. And if one is just recently potty-trained (accident-free), he's on a one-strike-you're-out status. That's how it was on this last flight. My 3 year old had an accident at the departing airport and was then in a pull-up for the rest of the 24-hour journey.

      I do think it's a good idea to bring a diaper along if your potty-trained kids are young and can't hold it long. They may need to 'go' in the diaper if take-off, landing, or turbulence prevents them from going to the lavatory.

      Anyway, that's what's worked for us. :)


Note: Comments awaiting moderation may not appear for several hours or--if the kids and I fall asleep at the same time--at least a day. Thank you for your patience and please do not feel deterred; your feedback and insight are most welcomed!