Flying with babies and small children is an activity most of us wouldn't 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 can't always convince those dear folks to pop over to Nairobi, Tokyo, or Helsinki, we offer tips for getting through even the most difficult flight. One American mom 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 and blankets; headphones; iPad; cups with lids; clothespins to fashion a tent over a baby's bassinet; snacks; pacifiers; Dramamine for kids who suffer from motion sickness. Don't load up on too many diapers, because you can buy them at your destination. A diaper bag doesn't 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're 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 2. Reserve a bassinet for the baby, plus bulkhead seating for yourself.
• At check-in, ask for a window seat with the bassinet, which provides privacy for breast-feeding.
If you're leaving the United States and will be in a car at the other end, 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're 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 2 or 3 to use a different lane. If there is no family-specific line, don't 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 don't 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 travelers, with a note asking in advance for forgiveness.
• Nurse or bottle-feed or offer a pacifier on takeoff and landing to protect small ears from pressure changes. But be careful not to start feeding too early or the baby will be finished before the flight takes off.
• Make friends with flight attendants, and if you are traveling alone with a little one, make sure they know you are solo. It wouldn't hurt to tell your neighbours also, although that can sometimes mean you'll 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 suck a lollipop on takeoff and landing.
• Remember the one-per-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 the junky snacks — this is the time to loosen your healthy food rules. Let's 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's 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, TV shows and games. Even scrolling through family photos has some entertainment value. And an iPad with a good cover makes a handy backup for writing or eating when you can't use the tray.
Don't stress about crying or disruption. You'll 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 toward 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 traveling 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're going through.
One final note: No one, on any continent or traveling in any direction, offered any advice on conquering a little one's jet lag. Sorry. You're on your own.