Before my first-born was a year old, I flew with him alone on an airplane eight times to three different states while my husband was deployed to Afghanistan for nine months. Then, my baby became a toddler, I had another baby, and we did a lot more flying for a temp job in Vancouver, B.C.; a move from Washington, D.C., to Milwaukee; and more visits to family and friends. I’ll never forget one of those flights from the East Coast to the West Coast when we had a layover in San Francisco and my husband and I seriously contemplated renting a car and driving the rest of the way to Seattle. It was that bad.
But my message is not doom and gloom. Flying with kids can be done! Here’s how.
Know that every flight is different. Each time we fly, my kids are a bit older and in a different developmental stage. You can’t just assume that what worked last time will work again — you have to game-plan again. Keep the big picture in mind when planning with two words: safety and sanity.
Book flights during the day. You might think that a red-eye is a good idea because your children will sleep. The truth is that it’s much more likely they’ll stay awake, disturb the sleeping passengers and then be wired the next day.
Whenever possible, buy a seat for your child if they’re mobile. Babies can sleep great in baby wraps. When they’re older, it’s so much easier on everyone if you can strap them into car seats they’re already familiar with. And make sure any lap-sit child gets boarding passes upon check-in to avoid trouble at the gate.
Organize your checked bags. One of my favorite tips is to pack each child’s things in a small bag, and then pack those into a suitcase. I like an open-top bag with pockets on the outside. When we arrive at our destination, I just pull out that bag and set it somewhere for the length of our stay. I can always see and find what I need for each child.
Put great thought into your carry-ons. You want to pack every possible thing you can think of for your kids in your carry-on but still be able to fit the bag underneath the seat in front of you. I like Lo & Sons’ Catalina for this purpose. It’s a lightweight canvas tote with a bottom zippered compartment perfect for a diaper-changing kit and sets of extra clothes (you need a set, too). Secure a set for each child in a wet bag — Bum Genius’s is a great size. Older kids can carry or roll their own bag.
Pack old favorites and new toys in the carry-on. Bring comfort objects — we let our son have a Wubbanub pacifier with attached stuffed animal for longer than we wanted because we knew it would soothe him on a plane. For new toys, Melissa & Doug’s Water Wow is a favorite in our house. A travel magnetic doodler is also fun. Just don’t bring anything with 100 pieces that you’ll have to fish out from underneath the seat.
Bring more snacks than you think you’ll need. Pacify with individually wrapped snacks, doled out judiciously on the hour. Don’t bring any liquids that will be confiscated at security, but do bring water bottles (ones that won’t leak!) and ask flight attendants to help fill them with juice or water.
Choose wisely which strollers and car seats you check and which you carry through. Deciding which strollers and car seats to bring is the hardest part about flying because every trip is different. Some trips, you might be staying for months and it’s worth it to haul the monster double stroller. Other trips, you might be able to borrow or rent car seats and strollers at your destinations. Just make sure you can manage whatever you’re bringing. If you’re gate-checking a stroller, bring a bag to put it in to protect it from scratches. I heard the gate workers like them in bags, too.
Make sure you know how to use a car seat if you’re bringing it on a plane. Avoid the sweaty, stressful moment when your child is crawling all over your row and you realize you don’t know how to get your car seat secured in your seat. Double check that instruction manual and double check with the airline about their requirements. I once had to gate check my car seat because a Canadian flight attendant wouldn’t allow the use of anything without a National Safety Mark sticker.
Bring a baby carrier for a baby. A baby carrier often helps a baby sleep through a flight. It snuggles them close up against Mom or Dad and can block out light. I’ve used and like both an Ergobaby and a Sakura Bloom linen sling, though the sling gets points for taking up way less room in my carry on. Be prepared to take the carrier off for takeoff and landing — if there’s an accident, the carrier could suffocate or crush your child.
Get yourself a very large coffee. Get yourself a very large coffee, or whatever it is that will help you have the patience necessary to love your kids in the midst of so many demands on you. That coffee is, for me, my “me time,” even while I’m corralling little arms and legs and bag straps. It helps get me mentally ready to give my kids my undivided and fully engaged attention on the plane. Flights are no longer about reading good books or listening to a new album — save me the one luxury of good coffee, please. (Though, I have had rare moments on flights when the baby is asleep and the toddler is engrossed in back-of-seat TV and I could read a book on my Kindle app. I pray it happens for you, too!)
And bribe your kids with treats. You need to use every tool in your toolkit, so please do stop by Dunkin’ Donuts. Hold on to those doughnuts as prizes for kids who cheerfully obey and hand them out once your littles are strapped into their seats for takeoff.
Try to make it all a fun game. Have fun along the way and your kids will, too. Play Red Light, Green Light in the terminal and get the wiggles out. Play I Spy on the plane. Make fun things with disposable cups and utensils.
There’s always time for the potty. I have two rules for myself and kids in the airport. The first is: There’s always time to go to the bathroom. The last thing you want is to be stuck in line at the gate when a toddler needs to go. You also don’t want to have to use the facilities yourself when you baby is finally asleep on your chest en route. The second rule is …
Get thee to the gate first. With the exception of a bathroom stop, your first order of business after security is getting yourself to the gate. This is how you’ll know if there’s a gate change, in case you missed it on the flight information boards.
Ask for help. Flight attendants generally like cute babies and sweet toddlers and don’t mind helping. You can ask one to hold a baby while you go to the bathroom and ask another for new snacks for older kids. Ask neighboring passengers for help, too, if they’re nice, but I wouldn’t go so far as to bring thank-you treat bags for them. I know it’s trendy, but it seems like to me like pandering. Is it too strong to say that I think that helping moms with babies is a privileged responsibility of humanity?
Congratulate yourself! Did you make it to your destination? Are your children alive? Congratulations, now you can do anything. Now be sure to use your time at your destination to recoup for the flight home.
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