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     Long Plane Travel With A Small Child

If you are like me, every time you are waiting at the gate to go on a long flight, you anxiously look around to see if there are small CHILDREN going on board, and wonder if they will be nice or if you will be treated to a screaming child for the whole trip. I have taken several 8-hour flights with my son since he was a baby, and, every time, fellow passengers commented on how nice or well-behaved he was. The truth is, he is no different from any other child, but I have learned how to ORGANIZE my trips so that I am ready for anything and I can keep him quiet.

The principles of organized travel with a baby or a toddler are fairly simple:
  • PREPARE the trip with care
  • pack MORE than you need for the plane
  • suspend some RULES during the flight
Keeping my son silent, and my fellow passengers happy, is my utmost priority, and I do everything I need to make it happen. It is work, but it pays off. When you plan your flight, think about the following:

Is your child young enough to fit into a plane-provided BASSINET? Check with your airline to know what are the limits in height and weight for a child to be able to use a bassinet. If yes, I recommend that you don’t take a separate seat for your child, but request a bassinet. As a result, you will be placed in the bulkhead row, where you have more leg room and your baby can play on the floor. Your baby will also sleep better than in a seat. On the downside, you will have to keep your baby on your LAP during take-off and landing, and any time the pilot lights the ‘fasten your seatbelts’ sign.

If your child is too big for the bassinet and under 2 years of age, do you want him or her to travel on your lap or to have their own seat? If you choose a separate seat, your child will have to be in his or her CAR SEAT when the seat belt signs are on, as per Federal Aviation Administration regulations. If you choose to have them travel on your lap, know that this will be the case for many hours, which can be taxing both to a parent and to a walking or crawling child who has no room to MOVE about. If your child is older than 2, you need to put them in their own seat.

The Federal Aviation Administration recommends the use of a car seat, but does not require it after 2. The choice becomes a matter of compromise between safety and convenience. The car seat will keep your child safe in case of strong TURBULENCE, when seatbelts may be too loose for their small bodies. However, the car seat severely RESTRAINS your child’s freedom of movement, and sitting directly on the plane seat will give your child room to move and play, as well as sleep more comfortably. If you choose the latter solution, you can buy a special harness that fastens on a plane seatbelt, which will provide added security in case of turbulence.

Finally, if you are traveling alone with your child or children, you may want to think about airport ASSISTANCE. Moving around in the airport with a stroller, a car seat, a carry-on and a restless toddler can be a harrowing experience. Check with your airport if they allow family members up to the gate. Some do, others won’t let anyone except checked-in passengers past security. If your airport doesn’t allow assistance past security, or if you would like assistance at your airport of arrival as well as departure, call your airline a few days before your trip, and ask them if they provide assistance (some unfortunately don’t anymore) and how much it COSTS, if they charge for it.

The second -- and maybe most important –- part of organized travel with a small child is to have a well-stocked CARRY-ON. Whatever you think you will need to keep your child clean, hydrated and fed, pack twice this amount. Beyond this, the following recommendations will help you pack a carry-on that will leave you prepared to face any situation:

Take at least a full CHANGE of clothes (if possible two) for your child –- and at least one for yourself -- in your carry-on luggage. My son always finds a way to dirty himself at some point during the trip, and even vomited on me once. Take twice the number of DIAPERS you think you’ll need, just in case your child develops a case of diarrhea or the flight is delayed. If your child is potty-trained, you may want to put him or her in training diapers for the duration of the trip, since the excitation of the trip may distract him or her from bodily functions.

Take plenty of your child’s DRINKS and FOODS. For a baby, formula (don’t forget to take enough water with you -- the attendants may be busy when your baby wants to eat, and he or she won’t want to wait for them to be available) or breast milk is enough. But for older children, it pays to have a stack of their favorite snacks beyond what the airline provides. Finally, plan for a way to heat your milk or formula if you child doesn’t like it cold, since some airlines now refuse to do it for you.

Get plenty of toys and other entertainment material, with a mixture of old favorites and one or two new toys. Children like to play with their old favorites, and a new toy is a great DISTRACTION when the going gets tough. I even take a portable DVD player so that my son can watch one or two of his favorite shows -– and I can rest a little. If you take an overnight flight, take your child’s blankey or favorite stuffed animal with you. It will make it easier for him or her to fall ASLEEP.

The third leg of organized travel is to be prepared for what can happen during the flight itself. In particular, if you are traveling with a baby, make sure that he or she is DRINKING during take-off and landing. They are still too young to know to swallow or yawn to equalize the PRESSURE in their ears, so those parts of the trip can become quite painful for them.

Try to find opportunities to let your child MOVE around. Once your child is mobile, he or she won’t accept to stay strapped in a seat for several hours. This said, however crowded the plane, there always is a way to do it. Almost all planes have an open space close to the bathrooms. Your child can play there, stretch and move a little bit. If you have bulkhead seats, the floor in front of you can also become a play area. If your child walks, letting him or her walk up and down the AISLE is a possibility, but only for brief periods of time, and making absolutely sure that the passengers or the flight attendants are not inconvenienced.

Also, I strongly recommend that you make the plane a no-eating-rules zone. Let your child have as much of his or her favorite drinks and foods as he or she wants; it can nip tantrums in the bud and make your trip much smoother. You can always REINSTATE the rules as soon as you have left the airport. In my experience, children understand that this is a SPECIAL circumstance and accept it very well when the rules are re-established. Have a safe and pleasant trip!


Karin Vibe-Rheymer-Stewart is the owner of Stewart Organizing Services, a professional organizer, and mother of a toddler. She is the author of several published articles and offers consulting and seminars in the areas of paper and time management. You may contact her at or visit her website at www.stewartorganizing.com.

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