Flying with young kids

When our family arrives at the airport, everyone looks at us.  A few people smile at our kids, ages 1, 3, 6, and 8, but most people start to look nervous once they realize they are about to spend several hours on an airplane with us.  The bolder ones ask me, “Are you done yet?”  My husband usually pulls me away before I can reply, “there’s something special in the air.”

We fly with our young children every few months.  Our crowning achievement was surviving a 22 hour trip to Malawi, East Africa with a 20-month-old.  So I’ve learned a few tricks to keep my sanity and ease the fears of our fellow travelers.

Buying tickets and reserving seats

We’ve always taken advantage of the fact that lap babies under age two fly for free in the domestic United States.  You can buy tickets for infants and guarantee them a seat, but we prefer to hedge our bets and hope to get a free empty seat for our baby.  Here’s how: request the bulkhead or find an undesirable row towards the back or pick the row just ahead of the emergency exit row that has seats that don’t recline.  Then reserve a window seat and an aisle seat, leaving open the seat in the middle.  If someone actually picks the seat between you and your child, they’ll be happy to switch once they see their seating arrangement, and the middle seat will be yours.  Your infant can now sit in her own free seat instead of on your lap.  Install your infant’s own familiar car seat, strap your baby in, and get ready to enjoy a quiet flight with a sleeping baby.  Occasionally we get stuck on a full flight and then we have to gate check the car seat and hold the baby on our lap.  Think of it as quality snuggle time and be ready to read books, tell stories, do finger play games, or sing songs.

Don’t forget to sign all kids up for frequent flyer accounts!  Your child can start earning miles at any age.  My father signed me up for a frequent flyer account in 1983 and soon I’ll be reaping the benefits of a million lifetime miles.

Packing and getting to the airport

Our first rule of traveling is to dress our kids up.  The cuter the better—I prefer matching clothes.  No one likes misbehaving, shabby looking kids.  But if you dress them up, people are more likely to laugh than cry when your kids are naughty.  Our second rule is to time naps so that little ones sleep on the plane.

Nothing escalates travel stress like a whining or disobedient child.  On the way to the airport, remind your kids about all the ways you can do time-out in the airport.  Don’t be afraid to give time out by strapping a child into a car seat or making them sit in a corner.  We assign written essays to older kids who misbehave.  Never spank a child in an airport or you may be asked to leave or arrested.
Just getting to the airport with all the right stuff is the hardest part of traveling with kids.  Here’s our don’t-leave-without-it packing list:

  • Car seats for each child who weighs less than 40 pounds.  The FAA and the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly suggests that children use FAA certified child restraint systems (“car seats”).  Not only is this the safest way to fly with kids, it’s also the easiest for parents.  Once your kids are buckled into their familiar car seats your flight will be just like a car ride—the kids have to stay in their seat the whole time.  If your kids aren’t in car seats, they’ll be crawling all over you, trying to run in the aisles, and turning on and off lights, air conditioning, and the flight-attendant call button.  Make sure your car seat is marked “FAA approved,” or you may be asked to gate check it.  Note that booster seats are not FAA approved for use during air travel, but they can be checked and are exempt from baggage fees.  We use Sunshine Radian car seats that fold up and have backpack straps for easy transport through the airport.  Also popular is the Brica roll-and-go car seat transporter than turns your car seat into a stroller for an easy trip to the gate.
  • Baby sling: Forget the stroller, carry your baby in a sling or backpack so that you can be hands-free.  Several major US airlines, including American Airlines, recently stopped permitting gate checking of strollers weighing more than 20 pounds.  Double strollers and anything weighing more than 20 pounds has to be checked at the ticket counter.  So you can’t even use your stroller to get your baby to the gate anymore, unless you are using an umbrella stroller.  If you are pushing a stroller with both hands, it’s hard to tote the rest of your stuff, too.  So check your stroller at the ticket counter and use a sling in the airport.  Your stroller is exempt from baggage charges, too. 
  • Proof of age for all kids under 2:  You may be asked to purchase a ticket if you can’t prove that your lap child is under age two.  If your flight is full and you can’t prove your toddler’s age, you may not be permitted to fly.  Bring a birth certificate or passport. 
  • Sippy cup: Bring sippy cups for all kids that might spill their in-flight beverage all over themselves (and you).  Even if your child no longer uses sippy cups at home, consider using them on the airplane so that everyone still looks spiffy when you get to your destination.  If your child gets thirsty while waiting at the gate, you can also fill up your sippy cup at the water fountain and avoid buying over-priced bottled water. 
  • Snacks: Non-messy finger foods are a must.  Many airlines don’t sevre any free snacks in coach these days.  We usually pack sandwiches and little boxes of raisins in a disposable grocery bag.   You can bring whatever food you want through security, as long as you don’t pack liquids.  A homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwich is somehow very exciting when served on the airplane. 
  • Novel toys, books, and electronics: For years we brought DVD players, iPads, Leapsters and other electronics to keep kids occupied while traveling.  But I’ve finally come to the conclusion that they are more trouble than they are worth.  They always seemed to be out of batteries or in need of charging, or a game or DVD would be not working.  I would spend the entire flight fixing various scratched DVDs or quirky game cartridges.  The headphones were always tangled.  By the time I had everything working it was time to turn off all electronics for landing.  I like to go to the Dollar Store before we leave and pick up a novel toy for each toddler for each leg of the flight.  Older kids can pack their own book in their carry-on.  I do still use my iPhone as an emergency intervention for a crying, over-tired toddler. 
  • Luggage: We let kids pull their own roll-aboard suitcase once they are about 3.  They love it!And other passengers always find it very cute to see a dressed up toddler pulling his own bag.  Since we have the car seats, the baby, and our own luggage, we just can’t carry anything else.  If you must check bags, we recommend the duffle bag system.  A standard US army surplus duffle bag exactly meets the maximum permitted bag size for most domestic US flights.  We sort kids clothes by the day they will be wearing them, and then put each day’s clothes in a trash bag.  Then all the trash bags go in duffle bags.  When it comes time to get dressed, just pull out that day’s trash bag and you’ve got everything you need to have your kids well dressed. 
  • Coats: Pack coats and winter gear instead of wearing it on the plane.  Coats have to be removed to get through security and take up overhead space on the plane.  They are easily lost in the commotion of travel.

Navigating the airport with kids

Request the family-assist line when getting through security.  Kids under 12 no longer have to take their shoes off at most US airports, and they are exempt from the new “backscatter” screening that uses radiation.  You will have to take little-ones out of slings and strollers, though, so expect to take extra time.

When you get to the gate, request advanced boarding, especially if you need to install car seats on the plane.  Otherwise you will hold up the entire boarding line while you install them.  Most airlines no longer routinely advance-board families with young children, but you can still request advance boarding.

Plan games to play while waiting at the gate.  I always bring a bag of tiny candies like M&Ms and play rapid-fire trivia, rewarding each correct answer with one M&M.  This is a great game because kids and parents of all ages join in together.  You just have to adjust each child’s question to their knowledge level.  We quiz geography of our travel plans, drill math problems, ask history questions, quiz family birthdays and middle names, etc.  If kids get antsy, play charades or freeze-dance or a game that requires them to get up and move.

Don’t expect to have any time to yourself to check email, make phone calls, read, or use your smart phone.  Both parents need to agree about this.  The moment your kids lose your attention is the moment they start to misbehave or wander off.  Also avoid VIP lounges and first class, where people are likely to find your kids annoying no matter how well dressed and well behaved.

Surviving the flight

Once you’re on the plane, you’ve made it!  The hardest part is over.  Now it’s time to strap kids into car seats and break out the sandwiches and novel toys.  If you’ve timed naps well, your little ones will soon be snoozing.

Don’t hesitate to breastfeed infants in-flight.  Breastfeeding during take-off and landing will help equalize pressure changes in your baby’s ears and keep her more comfortable.  If anyone complains, remind them that a breastfeeding infant is better than a crying infant.

Some common questions:

  • When is my baby old enough to fly?

There is no age limit for infant air travel, and I’ve known many newborns that have flown when just a few days old.  In general, however, it is important to avoid exposing your newborn to crowds and germs until their immune system is better developed, usually around two months of age.  If your infant gets a fever when under 1-2 months, she may have to be hospitalized.  So, it is wise to avoid flying with infants less than 1-2 months of age.  If you do need to fly with a newborn, discuss this with your pediatrician.  Bring disposable changing mats for diapering.  Bring a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer and use it frequently.  I keep my newborn in the sling and use hand sanitizer before I have to touch her.

  • Can my child fly with an ear infection?  Probably not.  Flying with an active middle ear infection can cause severe pain during the rapid pressure changes of take-off and landing.  If your child has an ear infection and you know you will be flying soon, your pediatrician can treat him with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen.  Hopefully the ear infection will clear up before flight.
  • Can my child fly with a perforated ear drum or with tubes in his ears? 

It is okay to fly with a perforated ear drum or if your child has PE tubes in his ears (the small tubes that are placed in children’s ear drums to prevent frequent ear infections).  In fact, flying with a perforated ear drum or with tubes in ears equalizes ear pressure during take-off and landing.  You child will probably be more comfortable than if he or she did not have a perforated ear drum or tubes in his ears.

  • Can I give my child Benadryl or another medicine to put them to sleep while flying? 

Although it might sound convenient to knock-out your child with medication while flying, remember that all sedating drugs have risks and side effects that are hard to deal with while in-flight.  For example, Benadryl can have a paradoxical effect of causing kids to become hyperactive, angry, or aggressive.

What are your tricks for flying with kids?  We’d love you to share them in our comments!

Kathleen Berchelmann, M.D. About Kathleen Berchelmann, M.D.

Kathleen M. Berchelmann, M.D., is a pediatrician at St. Louis Children's Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, director of the St. Louis Children's Hospital Social Media Team, and co-founder of the ChildrensMD hospital physician blog. Her work has been featured in print and online publications including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Chicago Tribune, and TIME magazine. She is a frequent contributor to Fox2 News STL Moms. Kathleen and her husband are raising five children.

Follow Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann on Facebook: ChildrensMomDocs Twitter: @MomDocKathleen and connect with her on .

Comments

  1. Great suggestion from Twitter: give kids lollipops during take-off and landing to help equalize ear pressure.

  2. Great advice! Earlier this year, I wrote about airport and flying strategies for parents of children with special needs – an often unique and difficult challenge. I hope it might be helpful to some of your readers as well. http://www.savingcase.com/index.php/2012/02/07/newly-diagnosed-families-airport-advice/#sthash.nDLJYqPJ.dpbs

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