By Cecilia Matson, MA, Child Development and Parenting Specialist
Let’s start with the worst case scenario: when my first child was 18 months old she cried for almost an entire plane trip across the Atlantic. Our desperate seat mates suggested everything they could think of, from Benadryl to walking her up and down the aisle. I definitely wished I had planned things out a little bit more!
Since then, I’ve gathered some helpful tips that will make it easier for you and your child to get through long flights, which will be a big help in your upcoming travels to visit family over the holidays.
Off to a good start: give yourself plenty of extra time to get to the airport. Getting there early has two benefits: you avoid unnecessary stress, and if your child is crawling or walking, you can give him time to move around in between a car ride and airplane ride.
What to bring in your carry on: The diapers you think you’ll need and then three extra ones; plenty of wipes; two changes of clothes for your child; one clean top for you (she may spit up on you or spill a beverage); bags to place dirty items; and toys (more on that later).
Take off and landing: I am sure you already heard that the pressure on the ears is worse at both these times and I am sure you have also heard it is helpful to nurse or bottle feed at those times to relieve the pressure. Another tip that works miracles is to place inverted plastic cups on each ear — it relieves the pressure immediately. And if you have any control of the timing, a nap towards the end of the plane ride is always a good idea (you are already tired, the break is nice, and your baby will not feel the ear pressure while sleeping).
During the airplane ride: Whenever seat belts are not required, walk up and down the aisle with your child. Younger babies like the change of scenery, and older children will appreciate moving their bodies for a bit.
TV: yes or no? If you don’t want to have your child watch the TV screen in the seat in front of them you can consider bringing a blanket or a piece of cardboard to cover the screen (toddlers figure out how to turn the TV on and off very fast).
Car seat: yes or no? Most parents find that bringing the carseat inside the airplane is very helpful if you have a separate seat for your child. Children generally sleep longer while in their car seat. An added bonus: you can create a “tent” with blue painter’s tape and breathable blankets to preserve their sleep for as long as possible. It is also safer for your child to fly in her car seat, if it’s flight-approved (see the AAP recommendations here). Finally, car seats can get damaged if you check them as luggage. If you have to check them, it is best to place them in a car seat travel bag, in their original box, or in another box with padding inside to protect from damage.
Helpful toys/activities: Here is a great list for babies and young children, and many can be found at Magic Beans!
- Books: Board books can be heavy, but you can also try fabric books and touch-and-feel books. It may be worth bringing a couple of books you know that they love.
- A plastic slinky: It offers endless entertainment.
- Small toys or pieces of fabric inside an empty tissue box: If the box takes up too much space in your carry-on, bring it flat and build it again while in the airplane.
- Blue painters tape: Again, endless entertainment and useful for taping blanket, tissue box, etc.
- Play dough: A small container goes a long way.
- Stickers or a removable sticker book.
- Plenty of healthy snacks and, if you’d like, a special treat you know your child enjoys.
- A “paint with water” pad: When it dries, you can reuse it! If you like this idea, bring two so one can dry while your child paints on the other (this is also a great activity for restaurants).
- A Doodle Sketch: Young children love this doodling toy that lets them draw, erase, and draw again. Very light, portable, and mess free.
- Pictures: Bring some snapshots of relatives you are about to visit and/or the place you are going to (or have them available on your tablet or smartphone).
If you’d like to make these toys and activities even more exciting, wrap them in wrapping paper and have you child unwrap them one by one. Everyone loves a present!
Also, if you are not shy in front of others, consider singing, particularly songs that use hand movements (itsy bitsy spider, where is thumbkin, open/shut them, if you’re happy and you know it, wheels on the bus, etc).
Finally, many unplanned things from the airplane will entertain your toddler: seat belts, empty plastic bottles and cups, catalogs and safety cards, velcro straps in shoes – you name it!
Of course, I can’t guarantee that your child will sleep or that there will no meltdowns, but I am hoping these tips will help make your trip more enjoyable. I’ve had many flights since that trip to France that were stress free so it is possible!