Long-haul flights with kids: words to strike terror into the heart of even the most hardy parent. Fear not – sage advice is at hand, courtesy of wise and lovely Pint Size Pilot founder, Tara Cannon.
The former fashion gadabout turned globetrotting mother of two helps parents survive (even enjoy) travel with babies, toddlers and kids of all ages with a website packed with helpful advice, product reviews, and even a baby-gear rental directory – a woman after our own hearts (and one we’d like on speed-dial).
Here are her top tips on surviving flights with children…
1 Minimize the time you spend on the plane
It sounds logical enough, but the problem with early boarding for families with small children is that it forces you to spend an extra half hour trapped on a plane. If you are traveling with a partner, have them take advantage of early boarding with all the gear, but no child. This parent can gate-check the stroller, claim the most convenient overhead bins, install a car seat (if applicable) and organize everything you will need handy for the first hour of flight with your little one. This allows you a few extra minutes of relative freedom, strolling on during final boarding. Also important to remember, and relevant even if you are traveling on your own with your child, is that the plane is not going anywhere until you hear (or see) that the flight attendants have secured the door (often announced over the PA). Until this has happened, there is no need have your child tightly held in your lap or secured in their seat.
These people are the gatekeepers to a better flight experience. Treat them kindly and they may surprise you with their helpfulness. Warming bottles, keeping baby food refrigerated, offering kids activities, holding meals until a convenient time, and sneaking a glass of wine to you after your child finally falls asleep, are all conveniences that may be offered to you… but then again, maybe not. A smile and a thank you can go a long way in making this a reality.
3 Arm yourself with the right distractions
Leading up to your trip, notice the kind of toys and activities that amuse your child for the longest period of time. Put together an activity kit for the plane full of similar items, making sure you keep it hidden away so you can pull out things only as necessary. Older children will catch on to this game quickly, so don’t let on where these fun new things are coming from, as they will want break into the whole stash at once. Be careful to pace yourself throughout the flight. There is no need to present anything to your child if they are happy pressing the buttons on the entertainment system (which you have ideally cleaned with antiseptic wipes). Don’t forget to keep a few surprises for the trip home.
4 Remember: eating is an activity
Eating should be considered a great time-killing activity that keeps most children happily distracted. There is no need to provide any other entertainment at this time (save that Thomas the Tank Engine flick until you really need it). Do not rush into it: wait for your child to indicate to you that they are hungry. Most airlines offer some kind of children’s meal or snack option (you may need to request this ahead of time), but for babies and toddlers I’d recommend bringing what you need with you, plus a little extra in case of delays. A stash of bite-size toddler snack foods is not only fun for your child but can also take a really long time to eat if presented one at a time.
For toddlers and small children, you may also want to bring along a sippy cup that can be filled with juice or water by the flight attendant (milk is usually not available), rather than having to make sure they don’t spill the airline’s plastic cup. Obviously, healthy snacks are the best choice, but for an all-out emergency, you may want to keep something they really love tucked away (in 60 flights, I’ve only had to use the Smarties once).
5 The entertainment system
The iPad, iTouch, Nintendo DS, or other personal entertainment system can be a lifesaver on a plane with a child. Even for parents who’d rather limit their little one’s exposure to this kind of media, this may be the time to be flexible, and there are thousands of educational apps and games available for your little baby Mensa.
While it’s true that many planes have built-in entertainment systems, performance can be unreliable and sound quality poor. It is simply better to know that you have this taken care of yourself. To protect devices from little hands there are a number of child-specific protective covers available for purchase in stores and online. Also important is to invest in a pair of kids’ headphones designed specifically for toddlers or small children. These work much better than ear buds (which fall out) and have special features as volume limiters and smaller ear cups.
6 Sleeping time
To help your child fall asleep on a long flight (the most desired time-killing activity), set the stage for success. Ideally you want to position them in the seat furthest from the aisle, as the aisle is where most of the activity happens. Make sure they are well fed and in dry and comfortable clothing (sleeper set or pyjamas). Close the window shade and if possible create even more darkness by putting up a blanket (bringing along a few clothes pegs helps with this). Settle them in with their favourite comfort toy or blanket and read them a book or quietly sing them a song. Essentially, you want to reduce the stimuli as much as possible.