8 things you need to know before flying with a baby or toddler

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The current trend in advice for parents flying with a baby or a toddler is to apologize for existing. Parents are bribing other adults on the airplane with free drinks, earplugs and candy to compensate for being there. There are well-documented horror stories wherein grown-ups slap other people’s children during a flight, and parents are booted off flights for perceived travesties such as tantrums, and disagreeing, even when complying, with flight attendants.

These days, flying brings out the primal eat-or-be-eaten, every-man-for-himself in us all.Why are tensions running so high? Why has flying with babies gotten to this sorry state?

People who go out of their way to open the door for parents with strollers in real life tend to lose their humanity on airplanes. In fact, the inhumanity often starts in airport security. We’ve had a 2-year-old patted down by a psychopath security agent in Amsterdam’s Schipol!

The more stringent the security and airline policies have become, charging for luggage and eliminating pre-boarding, for example, the more self-protecting passengers have become. Bums are getting bigger; seats are getting smaller. You get the idea. Add all these small irritations together and social behavioral norms fly out the window. Let’s not forget that flying was already challenging thanks to low oxygen levels and sudden swings in cabin pressure.

If you scroll to the bottom of a flying with babies advice column, you get lots of useful tips from vitriolic passengers (often parents themselves) which can be summarized as: don’t bring babies and toddlers on flights. They will tell you their kids rode in minivans for cross-country road trips until they were adult size.

But babies, toddlers and other young children travel. Sometimes for pleasure. Sometimes out of necessity. Our job as parents is to try to make it go as smoothly and peacefully as possible.

Here’s what you need to know for mental and practical prep before you get on the plane. Next up we’ll cover how to best handle flying with children.

6 things you need to know before flying with an infant or toddler

1. Right of way

Your children have every right to be there. Airplanes provide transportation. You bought a ticket. Even though some people think airplanes have the same age requirements as nightclubs.

2. One size does not fit all: plan your flight schedule to fit your kid

There’s a myth circulating that overnight flights are super easy because the kid sleeps through it. But this really depends on the age of your child, and how they, specifically, sleep and socialize. Many kids cannot sleep through the banging and dining service on late flights. Also, in instances of turbulence, you’ll be forced to wake your kid and hold him or her. When they wake up suddenly from deep sleep, they’re more fragile and prone to losing it than they would be otherwise.

If you think your child can sleep through the level of activity on a night flight, or if your child is only a month or two an already on an irregular sleeping schedule, book night flights. Otherwise, take into account your existing nap schedule, and schedule day flights and layovers according to your needs for downtime and activity.

3. Be select

For many flights, you get to pick your seat in advance. While they tend to put families with babies in the bulk head because that’s where the bassinets attach, this area has its downsides. The biggest downside is that there’s no under seat storage for carry-ons. That leaves you scrambling to unbuckle, rearrange, and stand up to open the overhead storage bin whenever your baby needs anything. And they always do.

You may prefer to sit near the loo with the changing table, or near a wing or the rear (wherever the engine is, check the airplane model) which has the loudest sleep-inducing white noise.

If mama and papa are traveling together with a little one, you can book window and aisle and hope no one takes the middle. If they do, they’ll be happy to swap when they see who’s already there. If you have frequent flier miles, it’s worth using them on booking an extra seat for toddler on a long flight.

3. Playing around

Travel days, with all the sitting and crunched spaces, make us all go a bit mad. You can help your small folk (and yourself) tolerate a day in confined quarters by getting your wiggles out the day before you fly. So spend the pre-travel day outdoors running and tumbling.

It’s also well worth  looking up the airport family lounge in advance. Airport family lounges and play spaces have playground equipment, gymnastics equipment and game zones,  so the kids can get rowdy and tuckered out (and make new friends) at the airport, both before the flight and during layovers.

4. Small talk

Never underestimate the importance of advance communication with your small folk. You are on the same team. They are a valuable member of Operation Up in the Air. Talk to your kid about what’s going to happen before it happens. Get airplane books from the library; look at maps together.

Discuss activities you will do when you arrive. Their involvement will help them feel prepared, comfortable, and important. It will also help them cultivate curiosity about the world around them. You’ll see a flicker (or more) of understanding after six months; you’ll get to have a cute conversation about flying together as early as one year.

5. Detox

Screens are your BFF on long haul flights. If you rely on them too often in daily life, however, they lose their magical power to vegetate, we mean captivate, your small folk. The week or so before you fly, detox! That way, when you bring the screen back on the flight, it will be all-powerful.

6. Make an effort

Your kids don’t have to be perfect to be on an airplane anymore than the adult sitting next to you needs to be Mother Theresa. We’re all working on character development. The point is to make an effort to be aware of others.

You can and probably already have started practicing awareness of others long before you fly. For example, if your kids roll around town in a double stroller, you talk about why we don’t kick the sibling seated next to them. When you’re in the library, you use inside voices. When unacceptable airplane behavior (like kicking the seat back, yelling) happens on board, you can nip it in the bud just like you always do!

7. Find small surprises

We’ve read articles about parents packing bribery bags for adults sitting near them, to make up for flying with baby. Instead, focus on you and yours. Invest in some small, shiny, new things for your baby and toddler.

You don’t have to spend a lot to make an exciting goody bag. Pipe cleaner wiggly worms. A new coloring book. A small glitter baton. A cool looking, tiny box in a box, in a box. Finger puppets. A stretchy dino. Monster stickers. You get the idea. Pick up three small, creative novelties.

Note: novelties and old toys are made infinitely more appealing to babies and toddlers by containerization. Wrap things. They will use time on and take joy in unwrapping stuff. Box things. Bag things. They can play peekabo or grown-up (depending on age) by putting things in and out of cloth pouches, small boxes, and zip bags.

8. Cool like Fonzie

Now it’s time for parental mental preparation. Your sense of calm about your travel matters. Your kids pick up on your vibes and will react. Help them by being cool like Fonzie. Do so from planning and packing to the travel day.  Worst case scenario – a full-on tantrum – is not the end of the world unless you lose it too.

Take a deep breath. Should a fellow passenger complain, remember it takes two to tango. Stick to courtesy. Congratulate yourself, smugly, on being the better person.

About author

Small Folk Travel

Small Folk Travel is a family travel site by mama and travel writer Taraneh Jerven. The Jerven family (two toddlers, one bun in the oven) travels incessantly. When researching our trips, we couldn't find the family travel coverage we were looking for. We did our own research. We wrote the family travel guides ourselves. Taraneh Jerven writes for international travel publishers including RoughGuides.com and DK Eyewitness Travel. We cover good stuff for discerning parents and their little ones. Often these overlap. If they don't, we take turns.

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