As a mother, the question I get asked the most often is, “How do you raise such an incredible daughter whilst maintaining a stellar wardrobe and flawless hair???”
HA! HAHAHAHAHA! My kid is incredible, but I regularly look like I got dressed in the dark whilst allowing small birds and rodents to nest in my hair.
In fact, the question I actually get asked most often is, “How the hell can you stand to fly so often with your kid?” I get hit up frequently for tips on traveling with kids and advice on what to pack / bring to maintain sanity for kids and parents alike.
So, since we’ve recently finished 3.5 months of round-the-world travel with our 3 year old girl, who has been on 40+ flights in her life, I feel like I’m in a place to offer a few gentle words of wisdom. This is a bit of a long post, so feel free to skim through and take away whatever might help you. What follows is what has worked (or NOT worked!) for us. Every kid is different, so, as I love to say, “You do you.”
My total least favourite part of traveling with a kid has to be the airports. The lines! The passports to hold on to when you’re also holding water bottles, straps from bags and sticky little hands. Security! It can be such a palaver. AND, airlines often won’t let you check in online if you’re flying with a baby in arms (so, any baby younger than 2) or if you’ve requested a bassinet seat, which is insane since travelers with kids need the online check in the MOST.
In order to minimise the hassle, I arrive as early as I can and I SHAMELESSLY play the Baby-Card. Long line for check-in? I will grab my adorable kid and smilingly ask the airline staff manning the line if there’s special check-in for families. Huge queue at Security? I’m happy to pull over a staff member and ask for an Express Pass since my little girl might need to go to the toilet. Basically, people in airports KNOW this is a pain for parents and I’ve been successful in moving us quickly forward about 90% of the time just by asking. Once, after flying from the east coast of the US to Australia alone with my 18 month old, I was sent to the wrong immigration line. She was screaming in a carrier on my chest, I was dragging huge carry-on bags, it was steaming hot and I had just waited for 35 minutes in the wrong line. I grabbed a staff member and promptly started sobbing in exhaustion. That worked VERY well. I was bumped to the front of the correct line.
Once through check-in, security and immigration, I never go straight to my gate. I like to find an empty gate, drop my stuff and play chase-chase, hide and seek, etc to get as MUCH energy out of my girl as possible. I also take this time to do several bathroom trips now that she’s potty-trained, to start getting her to drink extra water, to stretch my own legs and to find a plug to charge my iPhone / iPad. One thing I DO NOT do is give her snacks. I want her hungry when we board the plane. I’ll explain why in a minute.
Finally, when airplanes begin to board they always call “Families traveling with young children” to board first. Don’t fall for that! On a large flight, say, from the US to Australia or Australia to Europe, it can take over an hour for a flight to be fully boarded. You’re going to be controlling your little monkey inside that tin can for a loooong time, don’t add a minute more if you can help it. I usually wait and board with the final 1/3 of passengers.
On the plane
Here you go! Up, up, and away! Once you’re in your seat, you’ve stored your carry-ons in the overhead lockers or under the seat in front of you, you’ve gotten back up because you forgot your Kindle in the bag above, you’ve gotten up again because you forgot your lip balm, you’ve stopped your kid from chewing on the in-flight safety card, you’re on your way.
First tip, make sure your kid is ready for a snack upon take-off. If you’re breastfeeding a young kid, as I was during my first 2 years of traveling with our daughter, this can be tricky. You want them still drinking during the actual lift-off, but if your plane has a long taxi to the runway, as many huge, international flights do, then your bub might be done feeding before you lift off. This happened to me once and I felt terrible. If you have an older kid, I HIGHLY recommend cutting up juicy fruits (strawberries, grapes, etc) into tiny bites. I then give my girl a plastic container of the fruit to slowly munch on while the plane is taking off. This keeps her ears from hurting.
Second tip, please, please, give yourself a break and allow your kid as much screen time as they want. This is NOT the time to worry about the iPad. I always bring extra toys for when our girl is over the iPad (I’ll list which ones we’ve been successful with in a minute) but, I cannot imagine traveling without the iPad. Once, on a flight back to Australia, the USB charger at my seat wasn’t working and my iPad was slowly dying. I was in a PANIC. Just accept the screen time and move on.
Once you’ve embraced the iPad, you need to download some fun games for your kid. Here are a few of our very favourites:
Toca Boca Cars
Toca Boca Hair Salon
Toca Boca Kitchen
Any of the Peek-a-boo apps
Any of the LEGO apps (we especially love LEGO Duplo Ice Cream)
Dora the Explorer Playtime
As for things to watch, we prefer TV shows to movies as my girl has a shorter attention span. Also, I find that my girl isn’t interested in watching NEW shows / films on the plane. She wants to snuggle up with her old favourites (who can blame her?) so I gave up trying to find the newest thing.
I’d also suggest investing in a good pair of kids headphones. It will make a major difference if the headphones fit your kid properly, AND kids headphones come with volume controls so they can’t turn the sound up too high and damage their little ears. We have headphones from Panasonic. I bought them when my girl was 18 months old and they fit her perfectly then, and can be adjusted to fit her perfectly until she’s about 8 years old. Money well spent.
In addition to the iPad, I like to bring a selection of toys for my girl to play with. Now, in this area I know I’m VERY lucky. My child thinks that crayons and stickers are basically the gold standard of entertainment. She’d happily colour for ages. So, I never get on a plane without a few new colouring books, new crayons and about 1000 new stickers placed in her little Craft Pouch so she can access those things on her own. Also, so I’m not chasing crayons all over the plane, I love to bring one of those toddler bowls that has a suction cup on the bottom. I suction it to her tray table and then she can put the crayons back in there. These bowls are great for snacks as well!
We’ve also had great airplane success with a few mini pots and pans and Play-Doh (my girl would pretend to cook at her tray table and make the “food” I ordered out of Play-Doh), stringing wooden beads onto a teeny rope, and pop-up books. By far the best toy I’ve debuted on a flight is a new set of LEGO. I bought our girl a little space rocket set of LEGO and pulled it out in the middle of a flight. She had a blast with it and was so pleased to add to her collection of LEGO. For all toys, take them out of their plastic / cardboard packaging and pop them into ziplock baggies. This reduces space in your carry-on and makes it easy to pull toys in and out of your bags.
All of this depends on how old your kid is. For younger kids, be prepared to walk UP and DOWN the aisles endlessly. It’s a great way to get your cute kid to smile at fellow passengers and you get some exercise. It’s dull, but it keeps them quiet.
The other thing to pack a ton of is SNACKS. Oh, snacks. My girl is an amazing eater, but I can never be sure she’ll be happy to eat WHAT the airline gives her WHEN they choose to give it to her. So, I literally bring enough food for her so it won’t matter if she eats the airline food at all. Also, you should have no issues getting food onto flights no matter the safety standards. I’ve had a few Security staff ask me questions about my packs of hummus, but no one has ever taken them away once I’ve said it’s food for my daughter. Some of our favourite foods for flights are:
Cut up fruits like strawberries and grapes
Whole apples or mandarin oranges
Cut up veggies like capsicum, cucumber, tomatoes (these have the added benefit of being hydrating, which is hugely helpful on a flight)
2 sandwiches cut into quarters. I usually pack butter and Vegemite sandwiches.
Crackers and hummus
Dried cereal like plain Cheerios
I know I just told you to throw your parenting standards to the wind and allow as much screen time as your kid can handle, but I am going to say the opposite when it comes to food… maintain your standards. Feeding your kid plenty of fresh, healthy foods on the plane will help keep them full, hydrated, regular and they will feel 100% better upon landing. Good nutrition on the plane will even help your kid get over jet lag more quickly. I mean, feel free to pack a small pack of M&M’s to help you in emergency situations (I’ve done this!) but you do NOT want a kid on a sugar high on an airplane.
But, what if your kid spills hummus all over her shirt? Make sure you pack a few changes of clothes. When my girl was 3 months old and made her first international flight, I packed 5 changes of clothes for a 24 hour journey, and we needed them all. When we flew to Abu Dhabi when she was 11 months old she was so filthy from crawling in the airport before take-off that I had to change her before we even got on the plane! Now that she’s older, I dress her in a really comfy outfit (leggings and a long-sleeved shirt) when we leave home, I bring jammies to change her into during the flight, a fresh outfit to put on when we’re landing and at LEAST one extra outfit in case of spills / accidents. When she was still in nappies I packed as many nappies as she’d need in a typical day, plus 50%. Now that she’s potty trained I STILL bring pull-ups to put on her for when she’s trying to sleep on a plane. I also always bring a hoodie or sweatshirt as planes can get really cold for kids.
Now, you’ve eaten your food, your kid has played with LEGO and watched 13 episodes of Peppa Pig. It’s time to sleep. Ugh. This is so hard, you guys. My girl is NOT a good airplane sleeper. And that’s OK. I’ve learned a few tricks to help her, but mostly I’ve learned to ring the flight attendant, order myself a glass of red wine, and prepare myself to have a long night.
What does work for us:
Change your kid into her jammies. But, not at bedtime. Maybe, 45 minutes later than you usually would. Wait until she’s starting to feel tired.
Collect as many pillows as you can. We’ve never used a Jet Kid, or any other bed-creating-device on a plane, but we’ve found that if we recline her seat all the way and prop her up with pillows each side she’s ok.
Meditations for kids. These have proven especially useful as she’s gotten older. I’ve downloaded a few meditations from Dino-Snores and our girl LOVES to fall asleep listening to the Honey Bee or Mermaid meditation. Super useful on the plane.
Bring a blanket / lovey from home. I always travel with a small baby blanket from our home and one of her (37!) loveys for her to cuddle on the plane.
Melatonin. This is up to you as parents. Not everyone is on board with melatonin. I buy dissolvable Melatonin in the US and on a plane I give my daughter 1/4 of a pill (approx .75mg) when it’s time for her to sleep. I tested melatonin out on her before we flew so I knew how she’d respond.
Finally, don’t beat yourself up if NONE of this works for you. It only works slightly for us. My gorgeous friend Maja frequently travels abroad with her two kids and she once told me, “Just don’t worry so much. If they sleep, they sleep. Stop fighting it,” Maja is exactly right. Stop stressing. If your kid is up 4 hours past her bedtime, but she is quiet, comfy, well-fed and feeling ok… just go with it. It’s one day out of her life.
Finally, if it all goes pear-shaped, it’s ok. Seriously, it’s ok. When my girl was about 15 months old I was on my own with her on a 16 hour flight. And she would. not. sleep. She would, however, scream. And she did. She screamed for about 5 hours. I rocked her, I nursed her, I wore her in the Ergo carrier, I snuggled, I silently cried, I let a flight attendant hold her for a while so I could do a wee and sob in the bathroom. I came out of the bathroom and a magical, kind woman who was sitting near me was standing there and she just came over and hugged me. She said, “Flying with kids is so hard, but you’re giving your baby such a gift by showing her the world.” Well, that made me cry harder, but it also bolstered my spirit. We got through that flight.
And so will you. You’ll get through it. And you’ll be doing something AMAZING for yourself and for your kids. There’s nothing like travel to bring a family together and open our eyes to the big, wide world. Bon voyage!
If you have ANY questions about flying with a kid, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to help if I can. X