If your toddler is always on the move, sitting still for hours on an airplane will be a challenge. Walking up and down the aisle can help. Just be sure to time it before and after the service carts make an appearance, and not when the seatbelt light is turned on.
To break up the monotony, bring along some small, inexpensive toys to distribute throughout the trip. You can purchase a stash of these at a dollar store or a drug store or use toys from the bottom of the toy bin that the child has forgotten about. Some parents reserve extra birthday or holiday gifts from over-zealous grandparents and use these as travel treats. If you wrap them ahead of time, even the most mundane box of crayons or little car will seem like a special treasure.
If you don't want the extra expense or stuff to carry around, improvise and use the things you find on the plane. Plastic drinking cups from the drink cart or paper cups from the bathroom can be used for stacking and counting games. Toddlers like pouring water, so use the cups to pour a little water back and forth. Use the airplane blanket to protect against spills. The paper cups can be used to play a “guess where the penny is” game by putting a penny or other small object under one, shifting it around and getting the child to guess which cup it is under. Keep your eyes on the penny at all times, though, since a younger child might be tempted to taste it and it would likely be a choking hazard.
Airsickness bags can be used as handpuppets if you draw a face on them, or tear photos from the inflight magazine and glue them on to decorate it. Bring along some stickers to use to decorate paper, your clothes, or whatever surface will keep your toddler entertained. Some airlines offer kids packs, with crayons, coloring books, stickers, and plastic wings that the child can wear. We've found this to be the case on foreign airlines more than on US carriers, but it never hurts to ask the flight attendant if you are in need of soomething to distract your child on a long flight.
High Tech Distractions
Many parents (including us) swear by portable DVD players or playing DVDs on your laptop computer. You can choose the movies or TV shows that the child watches, and keep him quiet during a long flight. You can purchase an adaptor that will allow you to plug in the DVD player/computer to an electrical socket in your seat to conserve battery life on long flights. Ask the flight attendant whether the seat has an outlet for this purpose, since some older-model aircraft do not have this feature. We purchased our adaptor kit from the duty-free catalog on-board the airplane on a flight to Asia.
In some airports, you can rent a DVD player and return it at your destination airport for around $12.00. Some larger planes have small TVs at each seat, but the programming may not suitable for very young children. Remember that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 2 not watch television. I am not suggesting that you stick your child in front of a video screen for a full 17 hour flight to Hong Kong, but if TV is a novelty for him, use it in small doses to your advantage.
If your child likes music, a portable CD player or iPod with his favorite Barney music on it might also serve as a distraction. Just be sure that your child is comfortable wearing earphones so that you don't have to listen to "The Lion King" soundtrack 47,000 time while you're on the road.
Dealing with Kicking, Tantrums and Other Delightful Toddler Behavior
One of the favorite pastimes of toddlers on airplanes seems to be kicking the seat in front of them. Having been on both sides of the seat, I can attest that it is no fun for the parent or the person being kicked. After trial and much error, we hit upon a solution that works for us: use the carry-on bag as a footrest. Just imagine what it must be like to sit for hours strapped in a car seat with your legs dangling two feet off the ground—your feet and legs would be numb in a fairly short time. We realized that our son was kicking to get the circulation going in his legs, not to be a pest to the person in front of him. As soon as you are at cruising altitude, take a carry-on bag and set it under the child’s feet. If nothing else, the child can stomp on the bag when his legs hurt.
If that doesn’t work, be sure to remove the child’s shoes to lessen the impact, take frequent walks up and down the aisle, and introduce him to the person in front of him. Say, “Look, Junior, there is a nice man sitting in front of you. When you kick the seat, it gives him an owie in his back and makes him sad.” Often, children do not understand the consequence of what they are doing, and do not realize that a person is sitting there, getting a kidney massage every time their little feet hit the seat. If he persists, gently hold his legs and repeat “no kicking” firmly and consistently. If you have a large family, book two rows and have a family member sit in front of your future soccer star, or ask for a bulkhead row where there is no seat in front of you.
Sometimes, no matter how prepared we are or how much we plan, the child becomes overwrought and lets his emotions fly, screeching like a banshee trapped in a tin can. On a plane, the ear-piercing wails seem magnified and it might seem as if everyone is staring at you and judging your poor parenting skills. It will also seem as though every other child on the plane is the model of the Victorian notion that “children should be seen and not heard.” The best thing you can do in this situation is to remain calm, speak in low, soothing tones, and remember the parenting mantra: “This too shall pass.”
At 18 months, a child is easily distracted; it often amazed me how quickly my son could go from full-on meltdown mode to “oooh, look at that shiny thing!” and be happy and smiling in no time at all. Sometimes, a tactile toy, such as play-doh or something they can manually manipulate will do the trick to get them to focus on something other than the emotional turmoil raging inside. Sylvia Ford, a child development expert, suggests having a squishy, colorful bag to squeeze when this happens. To make one, take a small reasealable plastic bag, fill it with Elmer’s glue and a few squirts of tempura paint, then seal the baggie with packing tape to make sure it doesn’t leak. When the child is upset, hand her the baggie and tell her to squish the pretty colors together. She will become distracted by the colors blending with the glue and having something tactile to play with and will calm down in short order.
One clever mom I know suggested this when all else fails: “Buy a jar of disposable earplugs (a couple of bucks and you’ll probably use them eventually). If [the] child has a full-out tantrum that you just need to let run its course, stand up and offer earplugs to anyone who wants them. You’ll at least get a laugh out of your neighbors, which is better than hostility.”
Be sure to change the child right before boarding the plane. Most airport restrooms are equipped with changing tables (even in many men’s rooms, so Dad and Grandpa have no excuse for not helping). Many airplane bathrooms are now equipped with changing tables, but some are not.
Before you trek down to the rear of the plane, ask the flight attendant if there is a changing table in the restroom. If one is not available on the plane, you can use the toilet area with the seat down. Some people like to just change the child in the seat, but a smelly diaper change will not win friends in rows nearby. As a courtesy, try to use the restroom at least for changing the poopy diapers. Wet Pull-ups are fairly easy to change while the child is standing, so some parents opt for these instead of diapers when traveling with a toddler. My Twitter pal Her Bad Mother recommends overnight diapers for long flights, since they are extra-absorbent and don't need to be changed as often.
If your child is potty training, be sure to take him to the bathroom
before boarding. There are foldable potty seats for kids that you can
use in the airport and airplane restrooms if the big seat is too scary
for your little one. We tried one of these, and were not particularly fond of it, since my son claimed it pinched his bottom.
The most important thing to take with you when traveling with small children is your sense of humor. Taking it all in stride and laughing as often as you can is by far the best way to go. We were in Beijing in 2004, and we met a young Chinese woman in Tiananmen Square who asked me, “When you look upon your son’s face, does it fill your heart with joy?” When you feel the stress rising while traveling, just take a long, calming look at that precious little face and let it fill your heart with joy.
Photos: Taken by me in Key West, Florida, 2001