Sunday, February 12, 2012

Flying with small children: my experiences and advice

We have travelled by airplane quite a bit with our kids (Annika was 9.5 months old when she first went on a plane and Emmett was only 2 months old for his first flight), and I've learned a lot over the years, so I thought I'd share some of our experiences and advice. 

  • Be prepared for the unexpected.  I can't stress this enough. 
    • I learned this one the hard way when we were travelling home from Florida last year and got stranded for a night in Minneapolis.  We only had our carry-ons with us, not our checked bags, and I wasn't sure if I'd have enough formula and diapers to get Emmett through till the next day when we got home.  At the time I was weaning him off nursing, so I still did have a little milk, but not much.  So Carey made an early morning run to a local drugstore to buy more formula and we ended up buying diapers in the airport (2 diapers and 5 wipes for $5!! And they weren't even the right size).  So the lesson I learned is this - always be prepared for an extra night/day.  Make sure you have more than enough of essential things (like diapers and formula, or in my case - my contact lens case and glasses) in your carry-ons. 
    • Pack jammies and a change of underwear in your carry-on bags. 
    • Most toiletries can be obtained from a hotel, or from your airline (we were flying with Delta, and they gave us these handy toiletry bags that had toothbrushes, combs, toothpaste, deodorant, laundry detergent, etc and even an extra t-shirt), so don't worry too much about bringing along that stuff in your carry-on.
  • To help kids with their ears:
    • for babies, try to time a feeding with take offs/landings.  The sucking will help clear their ears.  A soother can also help.
    • for older kids (but not quite old enough for gum), we like to use lollipops.  These are a huge treat for Annika, and she's never once complained about her ears hurting.  Emmett was a bit more of a challenge this year, as he doesn't take a soother or bottle but he's a bit too young for a lollipop.  So we gave him water in a sippy cup and some Cheerios.  He seemed to be fine.
  • To keep kids entertained:
    • Bring along a combination of old, favorite toys and new, exciting toys.  Bring toys that are small, so they don't take up too much space, but not so small that you have to worry about losing little pieces.  Little People are a good size, in my opinion, and they appeal to a wide range of kids.  Annika likes to act out little stories with them, and Emmett likes to chew on them and bang them on things.  Win-win.  This year I bought a bunch of little finger puppets that were also a hit with both kids.
    • Movies are great for older kids, if you have a portable DVD player or laptop computer.
    • Coloring/activity books or sticker books are also great for older kids.  Lately Annika has really been into "picture searches" (like in Highlights magazine, where you find the little items in the big pictures), so we found a bunch of those online and printed them off for her to do.
    • One year olds are the hardest to entertain.  At least our one year old is.  We had one flight coming home that was 3 hours and 17 minutes and Emmett did not sleep at all during it (except finally when we landed he dozed off).  So how did we entertain him?  Little toys, snacks, walks up and down the aisle, snacks, peeking over the seat at all the people, snacks, looking out the window, snacks, letting him stand by my feet (not much room for that, but he could still do it briefly) - oh, and did I mention snacks?  Good thing he didn't suffer from motion sickness! 
    • Do not underestimate the value of "found" toys.  Our kids got great entertainment from playing with the barf bag (Emmett would put all his toys in it, shake it, dump them out and then start the process all over again), looking at the plane safety card (Annika must have studied it for 10 minutes) and playing with the lid from Carey's coffee cup (thanks for the idea Wes!).  Kids find the weirdest things entertaining - just go with it.
    • If all else fails - drug 'em.  Just a little bit of Tylenol to make them a bit drowsy.  Even my doctor recommended this, and I wish we had done it with Emmett for the long flight.  We considered giving him some when there was about an hour left in the flight, but by then we figured we'd almost be landing by the time it kicked in so it wasn't worth it.
    • Consider shorter flights, if possible.  On the way down to Florida we had 3 flights, the longest being about 2.5 hours.  Even though it's more ups and downs, and it might take longer to get there, it might be worth it.  Both Carey and I thought that the kids did better on the way down (with the shorter flights), than on the way home (with the longer flight). 
  • To keep yourself entertained:
    • Don't worry about this.  You won't have any time to read a book or do whatever you'd normally do when travelling without kids.  I don't even bother packing anything for myself other than maybe a magazine or my iPod.  And I don't think I even touched those while travelling this time.  When the kids did finally fall asleep, I think I quickly perused the SkyMall magazine (I love seeing the crazy stuff that people come up with and try to sell) and then closed my eyes and tried to sleep a bit myself.  When travelling with kids, it's a bit like having a newborn - sleep when they're sleeping!
  • Other bits of advice:
    • Check with your airline about bringing along baby-related stuff.  We were able to check a car seat for free (we had to pay for our other checked bags), as well as gate-check our stroller for free.
    • If you're not happy with your seating arrangement, ask at the gate if they can make changes (e.g. change where you're sitting, or get an empty seat next to you, if you're travelling with a baby-in-arms).  It never hurts to ask - the worst they can say is no, and most likely they'll do whatever they can to accomodate you.
    • Helpful items to bring - stroller (good for loading up with all your carry-on bags), baby carrier (this is great for when your baby sleeps on the plane, so your arms don't get tired from holding them), kiddie leash (to make sure that toddlers don't run away in the airport).  Dress in layers to accomodate changing temperatures in airports/airplanes/your destination and have shoes that are easy to get on and off (for at security).  It's also handy to bring along an empty water bottle, so you can fill it up once you're past security, instead of buying expensive airport water bottles.  Also bring along lots of snacks.  LOTS (unless your kids are prone to motion sickness, then you may want to limit what they eat).
    • Don't worry about it if your kids cry during the flight.  Well, I mean, do whatever you can for your child, but don't worry about what the people around you think.  Most likely they don't even notice over the noise of the plane or with their earphones in.  And even if they do notice and are bothered, it's not your problem to make them more comfortable.  Just focus on your child and know that you're doing the best you can in a less-than-ideal situation.
    • Stay calm.  This one is hard for me, since I tend to get a bit stressed when travelling, and especially when things start changing at the last minute (which seems to happen to us on almost every trip).  However, it's important that you don't freak out in front of your kids, since they will take their behavioral cues from you.  Like I said, this is still something I need to work on (I freaked out a little bit on our way down), but I think it's very important for the kids to know that the parents are still in control, even if you feel like you're not.

So, there you have it.  Most of this is probably common sense, but I just thought I'd share it anyways, in case it comes in helpful to someone else out there.

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