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The Plane Truth about Flying with Toddlers

By Catherine | | No Comments

Air travel tests kids’ patience and curiosity

If you thought babies made finicky flyers, toddlers in the sky can be even more challenging – but you’re up for the challenge, right? It’s the mobility factor coupled with a short attention span, defiant behavior and a limited capacity for self-amusement that make it a lot of work. Here are a few tips and strategies to help keep the mayhem to a minimum.

Direct flight or milk run?
There are two schools of thought on this subject. Most parents instinctively opt for a direct nonstop flight whenever possible, as it saves them the hassles of deplaning, juggling bags, rechecking in, additional wait time and more potential ear problems with added take-offs and landings. It’s the best choice for families who just want to get there as quickly and conveniently as possible.

However, some parents of toddlers actually seek out flights with a stop or two as it gives their little tornado of energy a chance to blow off some steam along the way. A pit-stop to stretch and play can help junior through some of the more tedious legs of the journey. Plus, the adventure of the airport/airplane experience is part and parcel of the travel thrill for some kids. Your call.

To buy or not to buy a seat
Children under two years old can fly for free on most airlines, making this an attractive time to travel some distance. This means you’ll have your squirmy toddler on your lap throughout the duration of the flight, restrained by a lap belt that attaches to your own seat belt (you might have to ask a flight attendant for this). If your flight is not full you may be lucky enough to spread out to a vacant seat.

Try booking a window and an aisle seat to increase your chances of getting that middle seat bonus. If your budget allows and your flight is more than an hour or two long, consider buying a seat for your child, which is usually at a 50% price reduction for two years and under. It’ll make for a more comfortable, less stressed flight for everyone. Children weighing less than 40 lbs should ideally sit in a forward facing FAA approved car seat, but it’s not mandatory.

Many families recommend pre-booking a bulkhead seat as it provides a little extra leg room and privacy for floor play, cat naps and stealth diaper changes. The drawback is you’ll have to stow your cabin baggage in the overhead bins during takeoff and landing, and you won’t have handy access to your toddler’s essentials. Furthermore, as bulkhead tray tables are stored there, you can’t raise the armrests and have your child stretch out between seats for sleep. It can also be difficult to view the movie from these seats, if that’s a concern.

Try not to book a seat right near the kitchen or bathroom if you’re hoping your toddler will nap at some point – there’s lots of commotion around those seats, and avoid the back row as they don’t recline. Check out www.seatguru.com for other seat recommendations on your aircraft.

Talk about it
Prepare your child ahead of time by talking about the chaos and commotion to expect at the airport. Long line ups, crowded escalators, rolling suitcases, beeping x-ray machines and the like may be somewhat exciting for your child but rather overwhelming too. Seeing a new backpack or favorite teddie disappear into the black abyss on the conveyor belt can be alarming if your toddler doesn’t know what to expect.

Regulations state that mobile children have to walk through the security checkpoint by themselves so brief him or her of this procedure ahead of the time as best you can. Have your child wear easy slip-on shoes in case you’re required to remove them. Read some books about airports and airplanes to help build positive anticipation and expectations in your child.

To help you navigate the airport and endure all those tedious line-ups with a toddler (not to mention cart some of your hand luggage), a stroller is recommended. Your little energy bundle may be too tempted to wander off while you’re dealing with the check-in counter or distracted by customs officers. It’s best to shackle your tyke in for safety and convenience’s sake (a harness or backpack would work as well).

Many airlines will let you tag and take a stroller right to the gate and retrieve it for you at the door when you deplane (you may have to wait a bit, so you might as well stay in your seat until the other passengers have exited). You will have to take the stroller through the security checkpoint x-ray, so be prepared to take your child and any pocket contents out at that point. You’ll also have to fold it up when you leave it at the gate otherwise the baggage handlers may find a creative way to compact it for you.

Check with your airline for the latest information, as the rules keep changing. Some only accept umbrella strollers at the gate. Some airlines count a stroller and car seat towards your baggage allotment while others give you a free pass on these necessities. Read the fine print.

The latest on liquids
Current regulations are that you are allowed to pack liquids, gels or aerosols in your cabin baggage provided they are in containers of 3 ounces maximum, that they are stored in a single quart sized zip-lock bag and are presented to the Security Officers for inspection. There are certain exceptions for medications and special circumstances (see The Transportation Security Administration for up to date information).

Of particular relevance to traveling parents, you are now permitted to carry breast milk, formula, water, juice, liquid/gel-filled teethers and commercial baby food in quantities greater than 3 ounces, providing it is a reasonable amount for the flight and you declare it to the Security Officers for inspection. You can also purchase beverages and other items in the airport shops once you’re through security and take them on the plane.

Run while you can
Once you’ve found your boarding gate, take junior out of the stroller and have a good run around. Expend some of that energy that will soon be pent up by default on the aircraft. Some airports even have playgrounds at the gate – halleluiah if you find one of these as it can make the air travel experience with a toddler more tolerable.

Not all airlines offer a pre-boarding courtesy for people with small children anymore, but if you have a toddler you probably don’t want to board the plane any sooner than necessary. Run around in the spacious airport for as long as possible and be the last to board.

When the fasten seatbelt sign is off and meal service is not in process, take your restless toddler on a controlled stroll up and down the cabin aisle. It’ll be good for both of you to stretch the legs and get the blood flowing a bit, plus the galley, the bathroom and your fellow passengers are bound to fascinate.

Ear trouble
Some toddlers experience ear discomfort, especially during take-off and landing. Offer a lollipop or something to drink or suck on (watch out for choking hazards) as the repeated swallowing action can help relieve pressure in the Eustachian tubes.

Settle in
Organize your carry-on baggage so you can keep small essentials at your feet or in the seat pocket in front of you. If you store everything in the overhead bins and the captain has the “fasten your seatbelts” sign on, it may be a while before you can access your supplies. Keep a drink, some non-perishable snacks, a mini-diaper/potty kit, and a pen handy (for filling out forms). You’ll also need your supply of toys, books and distractions to entertain your alert toddler throughout the flight (see entertainment section for suggestions).

Note, for long flights, a portable CD and DVD player can be worth its weight in gold. If you’re really optimistic, add a book or magazine for yourself to the list but don’t count on having a leisurely read.

Special meals
When you book a seat for your toddler, most airlines will allow you to pre-order a special children’s meal. Food service depends on the airline and how long the flight is, but these meals often consist of hot dogs, chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, pizza, cookies and other kid favorites (not necessarily the most nutritious offerings). As an added bonus for your impatient toddler, these special meals are often served first. Reconfirm your meal booking at least 48 hours before the flight to increase the odds of it actually being there.

Like all airplane food, the quality and presentation might not be pleasing to your child’s picky palate. You might want to cart your own food supplies (see liquids section) – enough to get your hungry one through the flight and an unexpected delay. Don’t forget the bibs, spoons wipes and a change of clothes.

Keep your toddler drinking throughout the flight. Offer water and juice beyond the meal service to stave off dehydration in the dry cabin air.

When nature calls
One of the more memorable moments on board for your toddler will no doubt be the multiple visits to the itty-bitty toilet closet. Larger airplanes are usually equipped with a changing table shelf which flips down over the commode, but it’s not ideal for a squirmy toddler. Easier said than done, but try to time your potty breaks for off times such as the middle of the movie rather than just after a meal when the masses are queuing up to use the facilities. You can’t rely on the kindness of strangers to let you ahead in the line, especially if your little darling has been rather vocal and energetic on the flight.


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