How to survive a long flight with a baby or preschooler

When travelling with young children, board the plane early so you and your child have time to settle down before other passengers board.
When travelling with young children, board the plane early so you and your child have time to settle down before other passengers board.PHOTO: REUTERS

Get through challenging flights with these useful tips, from ditching the no-screen-time rule to ordering a special meal so that your child gets fed first

 (WASHINGTON POST) - Flying with babies and small children is an activity most of us would not wish on our worst enemies. Yet sometimes, it has to be done – especially if you consider the alternatives – the car ride from hell? A slow boat to China? Horse and buggy?

One dad admitted that on one plane trip, he let his kids drop items on the floor and then kick him in the head when he went to retrieve them. They got a big chuckle out of it and they were too little to do much harm. He thinks, anyway.

Tapping into the wisdom of expat parents, who almost always have loved ones situated on other continents and cannot always convince those dear folks to pop over to Nairobi, Tokyo or Helsinki, here are some tips for getting through even the most difficult flight.

One American mum living in Beijing says she thinks of her journeys “in stages – like a military operation”. Here, then, is a battle plan.

Staging the attack

  • Use a packing checklist: One new toy or book for every hour; an empty baby bottle for water; a change of clothes; plastic zipper bags; baby wipes; extra jackets; headphones; iPad; cups with lids; clothespins to fashion a tent over a baby’s bassinet; snacks; pacifiers; motion sickness medication. Don’t load up on too many diapers because you can buy them at your destination. A diaper bag does not count as a carry-on, so pack it with a few diapers and fill the rest with other stuff.
  • Dress smart. For infants, go for the onesie with magnets or a zipper instead of buttons. Mums, if you are nursing, wear a top that provides easy access, plus a change, and pants with lots of pockets. Think layers for everyone.
  • Order a special meal – vegetarian, kosher, halal – whatever is available. Those meals are usually brought first, which means kids get fed first.
  • Notify the airline that you are traveling with a child under the age of two. Reserve a bassinet for the baby, plus bulkhead seating for yourself.
  • If you will be in a car at your destination, find out what the car-seat regulations are. If you do bring your car seat, get a carrier bag, which you can pad with extra blankets and diapers.
  •  Put sturdy name tags on everything.
  • If you are planning to bring a breast pump, check whether the electric current is different at your destination. A converter will not necessarily solve the problem – and can be painful, one new mother reports.
  • Look for special lanes at security. Some airports allow parents with children younger than two or three years old to use a different lane. If there is no family-specific line, do not feel guilty about taking the process slowly and deliberately.

Front line: Infants

  • ​ Take advantage of the gate check for your car seat or stroller, so you will have them with you up until the minute you board.
  • Board early. Get settled so you do not find yourself hunting for a pacifier while a child is wailing and boarding passengers are looking your way with dread. It also gives you the chance, as one expat parent does, to hand around little gifts – snacks, hand lotion, pens – to the nearby travellers, with a note asking in advance for forgiveness.
  • Make friends with flight attendants and if you are travelling alone with a little one, make sure they know you are solo. It would not hurt to tell your neighbours also, although that can sometimes mean you will get lots of unsolicited advice. But that neighbour could come in handy when you need to use the restroom.
  • Sing songs, make funny noises, stand, walk or put sticky notes on your face if the baby cries. Embarrassment has no place here.
  • For more distraction, hang out in the galley and check out all those cool knobs and buckles or get your empty water bottle filled. (This is where your goodwill with flight attendants comes in handy.
  • Infants as young as 18 months can be distracted by an iPad or a children’s movie. Abandon your reservations about screen time. Yes, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all before 18 months; so let the academy handle a cranky toddler.
  • Ignore time zones. Let a sleeping baby sleep.
  • Wash your hands as much as possible. Airports and planes are crawling with germs.



Front line: Preschoolers

  • Ask them to drink water or give them a lollipop to suck on take-off and landing.
  • Remember the one-an-hour rule for toys and snacks. Good toys include crayons and paper, stickers, crafts, small tubs of Play-Doh, a toy phone, finger puppets and books. Bad toys include anything that rolls when dropped on the floor.
  • Embrace junk snacks – this is the time to loosen your healthy food rules. Face it: You want to get through the flight, not win Parent of the Year awards. Just as you abandoned your screen time rules above, if that translates to a gummy worm stuck to the teeth for a few hours, it is worth it.
  • For sibling issues, develop a reward system. When my children were little, they got a star for every 15 minutes free of squabbles on long car rides. When they accumulated eight stars, they got a treat. It was magic.
  • On iPads, download movies, television shows and games. Even scrolling through family photos has some entertainment value. And an iPad with a good cover makes a handy back-up for writing or eating when you cannot use the tray.

Guiding tactics

  • Do not stress about crying or disruption. You will never see these people again and the ones who judge have not been in your shoes. Your child has as much right to be on the flight as anyone.
  • Go ahead and have one glass of wine or beer at the beginning of the flight. It will relax you. Having more than one, though, and you may find yourself dozing while the little one plays Pat the Bunny with the hairdo of the lady in 17C.
  • Pay it forward. The next time you see a parent travelling with children on a long flight, offer to help, maybe by holding a baby while the parent goes to the bathroom, distracting an infant or just giving them a smile and a sense that you know what they are going through.

One final note: No one, on any continent or travelling in any direction, offered any advice on conquering a little one’s jet lag. Sorry. You are on your own.