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Young and Restless

By Catherine | | No Comments

Tips for flying with fidgety preschoolers

Family flying gets a bit easier once your child reaches preschool age. As the high-maintenance work of the younger stages wanes, a more capable, eager flying companion emerges. Set it up right and your child is more apt to think of the airplane journey as a welcome adventure – maybe even a trip highlight – than a tedious drag to suffer through.

But let’s face it, there is a lot of tedium involved in long flights, so here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when taking your preschooler on a plane.

Window or aisle?
There are pros and cons to both window and aisle seats for preschoolers. Window seats provide the wonder of watching the world shrink at take off, the mesmerizing wow of cloud gazing, the dazzle of city lights at night and the spectacle of landing. Most kids don’t want to miss that, but then they have to crawl over two or three other seats whenever they need to stretch their legs.

The aisle seat provides quick and easy access to stroll the cabin and visit the lavatory without having to disturb anyone (it’s uncanny how there’s always an urgent need to get up right after lunch has been delivered). However, little hands and feet in the aisle can be easily clipped by the meal service cart. Ideally your family has an entire row to itself and your child can flip from window to aisle or stretch out in the middle at whim.

Many family travelers recommend pre-booking a bulkhead seat as it provides a little extra legroom and play space to spread out in. As a bonus, you won’t have to remind junior to refrain from kicking the seat in front all the time. 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 preschooler’s snacks and diversions. Furthermore, as the armrest stores the tray table your child won’t be able to flip it up and stretch out to snooze. It can also be difficult to view the movie from these seats, if that’s a concern.

Children aren’t permitted to sit in the more spacious emergency exit rows, so make sure you disclose your passengers’ ages when checking in.

Avoid booking the back row as those seats don’t recline. Check out www.seatguru.com for other seat recommendations on your aircraft.

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

Children have to walk through the security checkpoint by themselves so brief junior of this ahead of the time. Have your child wear easy slip-on shoes in case required to remove them. Read some books about airports and airplanes to help build positive anticipation and expectations in your child.

Young and restless
Once you’ve located your departure lounge, take your preschooler on a stroll around the area. Look out the window at the big airplanes (maybe even see some take off and land!). Grab a snack or drink, check out the gift shops, visit the restroom – anything but sit in a chair (you’ll be doing plenty of that soon enough). 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 young child all the more tolerable.

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

When the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign is off and meal service is not in progress, take your child 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. You might even meet another child on board to help pass the time.

Ask flight attendant if they have any special kids’ diversions. Airlines often have books, badges, toy airplanes and coloring books for children, free for the taking. There may be a children’s music station in the audio program, but note airline headphones can be uncomfortable for little preschooler’s ears. Ideally bring your own music player, as this is a great source of entertainment while confined in a plane. Just watch that your child’s speaking and singing volume doesn’t get too loud.

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 and a pen handy (for filling out forms). You’ll also need a supply of toys, books and distractions to entertain your alert preschooler 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 as your self-entertaining preschooler might just give you the opportunity for a leisurely read.

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

Special meals
Most airlines will allow you to pre-order a special kids 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 favorites (not necessarily the most nutritious offerings). As an added bonus for your impatient preschooler, 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 preschooler’s picky palate. You should always have a few food rations on hand to tide your hungry one over through the flight and an unexpected delay.

Keep your child drinking throughout the flight. Offer water, milk and juice (avoid soft drinks or colas) beyond the meal service to stave off dehydration in the dry cabin air.

When nature calls
Your preschooler will no doubt have multiple visits to the airplane lavatory. If your child is newly toilet trained, you might want to hedge your bet and use a pull-up on the flight, but he or she is probably too big to change on the drop-down shelf above the toilet.

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 and your child ahead in the line.


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