Air Travel With Children: The Good, The Bad, And The Sticky

There’s a saying, most often seen on the refrigerator magnets of stressed-out middle aged women and in Alcoholics Anonymous material that is the key rule of traveling with babies and small children: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage I can to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This, my friends, is the mantra to keep in mind as your squirmy four year old wiggles from his seat belt for the third time in six hours. Patience, repetition, and a tiny pinch of good-old fashioned bribery is all that you need to get through flights with as little hassle as possible.
As much as we’d love to operate under the assumption that kids are just wee adults, that isn’t the case. Air travel can be confusing, frightening and even painful for children, many of whom lack the communicative or comprehensive skills to tell us what’s wrong.

Before you start spiking juice boxes with Nyquil to ensure a peaceful flight or resign yourself to a life comfortably within your state borders, consider the following travel tips to ensure an overall easier in-flight experience for you, your kids, and your fellow travelers.

1. Be realistic.
If you’ve stumbled on those viral images of the Pinterest-inspired packets of headphones, snacks and a twee note handed out to all fellow passengers and thought ‘wow, what a great idea!’ think again. While that idea is in theory adorable, it’s also way outside the realm of reasonability. The average cost of earplugs is $5 for 6 pair. Flying on a 747? Then this small gesture now can cost you anywhere in the range of $350-$550, and that’s just if you’re only buying headphones. People, while generally grumpy and terrible, have heard children before. Skip this one, and file it under the ‘things you can’t change’ column.

2. Consider a layover
While it seems entirely more preferable to get to your location as quickly as possible, taking a layover can actually make flying easier on parents of young children. The time off of the plane allows them to stretch, walk around, and generally makes flights more digestible. Kids aren’t known for their long attention spans- break things up a little.

3. Pressurization is the Problem
The majority of pain experienced by young children during flights has to do with pressure building up behind their ears during takeoff. While I wouldn’t recommend giving young children gum, juice boxes, water bottles, or for infants, breastfeeding, can alleviate the pain. If your child is peacefully sleeping or unaffected, however, let them be. The drinking serves double duty; it helps their ears pop and is also soothing if they’ve already begun to feel uncomfortable.
4. Don’t just pack snacks—pack the right snacks.
Anyone with young children will tell you that snacks are key for even short car rides with kids, let alone flights that stretch several hours. The era of the peanut baggies are over, and the in-flight fare usually isn’t enough to occupy or sustain young children. Make sure that instead of sugary or carb-heavy snacks, you’re bringing things that will keep their blood sugar level the entire flight. Dried fruit, cheese sticks, nuts, dry cereal and pretzels are all favorites that also won’t cause bad in-flight smells. A rule of thumb: pack as many snacks as you think you’d need for the same amount of time if you weren’t flying, then add about ¼ more. Have an arsenal of snacks and treats and don’t be afraid to use them.

5. Distraction is your best friend
While many planes today now feature entertainment systems with hundreds of choices, many of which are designed with children in mind. Do not rely solely on this. I REPEAT, DO NOT RELY SOLELY ON THIS. This is a great way to pass time, a lot of time, but it is not enough to keep busy toddlers or young children occupied. To ensure ease of packing and reduced size, bring at least one favorite toy or comfort object and then one or two new or rarely-used ones. The novelty helps heighten the entertainment value, and can extend the attention span.

6. There will be mess.
There will be a mess. Whether it’s from air sickness, spills or the ever-present toddler nose-drip, there will be some sort of mess. To keep everyone comfortable, pack way more baby wipes than you normally would, plus extra changes of clothes in your carry on. Anti-bacterial wipes are also a must-have. Use them to wipe off tray tables, armrests and other surfaces your child may encounter. The last thing you need for your return trip is a sick kid, which complicates the situation even further.