Got babies, must travel

We were out over the Atlantic Ocean with two hours left before landing in Amsterdam and three other women within four rows of me were, like me, dealing with a pair of young children alone without any adult assistance. I had overheard other passengers bemoaning their bad luck in being seated with so many small children nearby. My children were both asleep but they were the only toddlers sleeping. All eight of the others were screaming or howling to one degree or another and I don’t even know what children further away on the flight were doing because I couldn’t hear anything over our local uproar.

The man in front of me stood up to get his bag out of the overhead compartment and looked at me and said, “It’s amazing that your children have slept a good part of the flight.”

To be fair to the other harried mothers, my children had screeched, fought and demanded for the first three hours of the flight (not to mention the two preceding hours at the airport). But at the moment in question, Shaye had been asleep for nearly four hours and Marik had slept for two and been up for two and just gone back to sleep. And I had reasonable hope that it would last awhile yet. “Well, I did give them a little dose of Benadril,” I told the man in front of me.

“Oh, I get it, “ he scoffed and waved his hand dismissively at me.

I felt a pinch of anger. I had asked for it with that comment about the Benadril but still. Benadril is not a sleeping drug and it takes so much more than that to get toddlers to sleep a long stretch on an airplane. Before I left for this year’s trans-Atlantic trip I did some research online for toddler-travelling tips. What I got was pretty basic: bring food and toys, spread out the goodies and don’t give them to the kids all at once, try to get bulkhead seats. (Yeah, right. Dream on. I’ve flown dozens of times and never been near a bulkhead seat.) The advice seemed woefully inadequate for the task of a 16-hour airline trip. So, I figured out my own ways to cope and found them to be effective.

And here is my more comprehensive prescription for how to do long-haul flights with toddlers, while preserving parent-sanity, flight attendant friendliness and the good-will of fellow passengers.

– Bedtime routines: Have a well-established going-to-sleep routine. My children have the same bedtime routine on 99 percent of days. Yes, there are exceptions but they are truly rare. Before naptime, we put on music and dance around for 15 minutes, sit on the potty, read stories, sing a song and wind up the little mechanical toy that plays music. In the evening before bed, we watch a 15 minute video, brush teeth, sit on the potty, take a bath, read stories, sing a song, say a prayer, say goodnight, wind up the mechanical toy. These routines have to be followed as closely as possible when traveling. (Okay, no bath on the airplane but I did wash their faces and hands with wipes.) Keeping these routines is probably the single most important part of encouraging sleep during travel. I have read that the key to a successful bedtime routine with small children is to keep the order the same. You can leave out parts or lengthen or shorten parts but changing the order is apparently a bad idea.

– Sleep props: My second key is sleep props. The more you can create the surroundings the children normally sleep with the better. Putting a loud fan near where the child sleeps for at least a week or two before the flight may help because the airplane noise is intense. Beyond that, creating a homelike space on the flight means using up every last inch of allowed carry-on luggage. My kids have blankets, stuffed animals, binkies, the mechanical music toy and scarves to block out light. I strapped their quilts and scarves to my carry-on pack in a roll and dared airline personnel to call it oversized (which taken together it certainly was but most of them are not dumb enough to deny bedding for toddlers). Then, I had to bring at least one stuffed animal for each child, their binkies and the wind-up toy.

– Break the sleep schedule strategically: Okay, it is helpful to have a schedule in the first place. Normally, my kids get up at around 7:00 or 7:30, take a nap between 1:30 and 4:30 and go to bed at around 8:30. This schedule primes them not only to sleep at certain times of the day but to want to sleep after a certain number of hours of wakefulness. So, if I break the schedule carefully, I can maximize sleep at the right times of the trip. On a trans-ocean flight, your ideal goal is to have the child really tired and ready to sleep about two to three hours after the flight takes off. This is because these long haul flights begin with food service around 1.5 to 2 hours after take-off. If your toddler goes to sleep immediately after take-off, the hubbub of food service and the smells will probably wake her up and getting her to go back to sleep before another five or six hours have passed could be a challenge. Also, you actually want your child to eat the airline food, so you have to carry as little as possible. Eating right before sleep also ensures that she will be full and ready to sleep for a long time. That said, timing this change of schedule is easier said than done. If you have another flight before your trans-ocean flight that can really complicate planning, as can flights at various times of the day. You want your child to be a bit late for nap or bedtime to encourage longer sleep but not too late. If you break the routine too much your toddler will either fall asleep in a most inconvenient place (like the security line) or be too tired and stressed to go to sleep at all. On our flight from Europe to the US, we had to be at the airport at 5:00 a.m. That meant that my break in routine started the day before. I made sure the kids had an early nap and woke up early. Then, I put them to bed at 7:00 p.m. instead of 9:00 p.m. Then, I got them up at 4:00, when they normally get up at 7:00 and I hoped that they would last at least seven hours until naptime. That meant 3 hours until take off, 2 hours on a short flight, an hour and a half layover and just enough time to get up in the air with the seatbelt sign off. Then, I put them to bed. No food that time, but I knew I couldn’t keep them awake any longer or get them to sleep on the first (very exciting) flight. I managed it, although they were very cranky and almost fell asleep in the Amsterdam airport. Fortunately, the meal service didn’t wake them after only an hour of sleep. That time, they slept five hours and then were awake for the full remaining five hours of the ten-hour flight, which was grueling. On the return trip, I could plan better because my first flight was the trans-ocean flight and it was in the middle of the day. I put the kids on a late schedule, instead of an early schedule, getting them up at 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning if possible, so that when our trans-Atlantic flight took off at 1:30 p.m., they were not yet ready to sleep and they held out until 4:00 p.m. instead of their usual naptime at 2:00. This resulted in 6.5 hours of sleep from one kid and 5 from the other and it was scheduled to have them good and rested before the harrowing transfer in Amsterdam.

– Infant-in-arms MEANS infant on long flights: I never did do the “lap baby” thing. By the time I was bureaucratically able to travel with my adopted children, they were too old. My first was only 16 months old on the initial flight but she was 18 months by the time we returned and I was afraid to have only the one seat. I saw a woman with a baby about that old on her lap on my last flight and she even had another seat occupied by her six-year-old son to work with. It looked miserable. The toddler could not sleep and it was very uncomfortable for the woman to sit with the heavy toddler on her lap hour after hour. When I had to hold my two-year-old on my lap for two hours on that flight (because the other child was using both seats to sleep) my legs fell asleep and it was very uncomfortable after the first 45 minutes. While it is very tempting to go with the airline’s rule of two years as the cut-off for “lap babies”, keep in mind that the rule is primarily made with short one or two-hour flights in mind. I would gladly hold an almost two-year-old for two hours to avoid hundreds of dollars of extra expense. But for ten or more hours? Get another seat. It allows your toddler a full-sized carry-on and checked luggage as well, which you’ll need to cart all of his 50,000 necessary objects.

– Make homey nests: The scarves I mentioned earlier were crucial. I’m talking about filmy scarves in dark colors or a dark-colored bed-spread, which can be used to cover a crib normally, so that the child is used to the color and will sleep better even at home. On the flight, I used a bedspread to make a tent for the children to sleep under. This blocked out the glaring lights and toned down the overly interesting sights AND made the space almost like home. I pinched one side of the cloth in the top of the raised tray tables and the other side I tucked behind the headrest pillows. I carried clothes pins in case I ended up on a flight where the seat tops were smooth. (You can’t drape the cloth over the back of the seat because other passengers have video monitors and tables there.) Then, because I had two seats to work with I made two beds, one across the two seats and one on the floor. (As soon as I got on the flight, I asked the flight attendants to give me any extra blankets and pillows and I used these to make a mattress on the floor and to pad against the metal legs of the seats.) Technically, the flight attendants told me that I would have to get wake the children up, if the seat-belt sign went on during the flight, which of course it did with every little bump of turbulence. But with my tent, the kids were out-of-sight and out-of-mind and I suspect that most flight attendants will look the other way when there are already eight toddlers screaming in that section and your toddlers aren’t. They will probably insist on waking up a child sleeping on the floor for take-off or landing. And one true safety issue: Be careful of toes or fingers or hair creeping out into the aisle. I once had a finger smashed by one of those carts and you cannot really imagine how heavy they are. If a child is sleeping on the floor, be careful that they don’t fling out an arm or foot to be stepped on or driven over by carts!

– Bring food: Mealtimes are odd and not always predictable on planes. Trying to get a toddler to wait an extra hour for food can be a huge problem. And if you have any domestic US flights on your itinerary or much of a layover, the airline food won’t be enough. Most airport food in inappropriate for healthy-eating kids at hyper-inflated prices. On the bright side, the only people who can bring liquid and gel type things on airplanes anymore are parents with children under 2. So, you can bring sealed baby food and yogurts. I think technically, you are supposed to have them in your little liquids baggie, but I have sometimes forgotten that step and never had trouble over it. I was even waived through with a thermos full of water that I had forgotten to pour out. In addition, bring pre-cut cheese, fruit, carrots, cucumbers, sweet red peppers, bread, little cream cheese or butter packets, dried fruit and non-sweet crackers. A lot of energy and granola bar type things are not great because of the sugar content. Airline meals have plenty of treats and too much sugar will lead to hyper kids, which you don’t want in confined spaces. One interesting tip is that cut pears in a plastic bag do not go brown like pre-cut apples or squash as easily as bananas, making them an excellent fruit for travel. That said, I always seem to bring too much food. Better too much than too little but do keep in mind that you don’t need more than about as much as each person would eat in one meal. If you plan reasonably, you should still be able to eat airline meals. Today airlines are offering a wide array of dietary options. I don’t recommend ordering an infant or child-meal though. Infant meals are generally a jar of baby food, which you could order in order to avoid carrying it I suppose, but you’ll have little choice about what you get. Child-meals are reported on consumer websites as being very unhealthy and greasy, basically a fast-food-plus-junk-food type meal. If you want your child to have more kid-friendly food, consider ordering a “bland meal” or “low-sodium” or even vegetarian. All of these options tone down the meal. Sometimes they are fresher than the regular but sometimes they are not very delicious. That is, unfortunately, the luck of the draw. One thing I learned on my last flight is that ALL “special meals” are brought out far earlier than the regular meals. So, if you are worried that your children will be hungry or won’t be able to stay awake for the meal time, you could order some sort of special meal just to get it early. This especially applies if you are seated at the back of the plane. On large planes the meal service can take an hour to get to the back of the plane.

– Drinkie!: Need I remind anyone not to forget to bring water bottles or sippy cups? Even if you can’t bring them on full, you can fill them onboard. Even toddlers who can generally drink from cups at home will find it difficult not to spill the light plastic airline cups during turbulence. And the consequences of spills are so much more daunting on an airplane. If older toddlers or preschoolers won’t drink from a sippy cup because its “for babies”, try a water bottle with a squirt top or even just a plastic cup with a lid and a straw.

– Bring fun: Okay, it is pretty obvious that you need to bring entertainment for kids on airplanes but here are some more specifics to keep in mind. It is best to have different types of entertainment. Very few toddlers can watch videos for more than an hour straight. I generally don’t let my kids watch a lot of videos or TV, partly because that increases the time they’ll spend watching them when I really need a quiet activity, but it is limited even so. The same goes for books or any other type of entertainment. So, it is best to have a range of activities – a few books, a video player or computer with good batteries (free videos onboard are generally for older kids and won’t hold toddler attention), a few small toys (but not so small they’ll easily drop between seats), activity books, coloring books, magnetic scenes (but you should be resigned that some magnets will be lost) and anything that takes up a lot of time for your child lately (doll clothes have been one recently for us). Be wary of toys with many parts that are useless when one part is lost and be wary of round objects like balls or cylinders, which will get away down the aisle. Disposable things are good or things you don’t care a lot about. I brought a couple of plain duplo legos for my 21-month-old with great success. He could practice putting them together and taking them apart and yet if one got lost, it was no big deal. Finally, older toddlers and preschoolers can be entertained for awhile by an electronic toy. I have tried it with children under two and the distractions of the plane are too much. But my three-year-old was happy to play with one of those six-in-one learning systems for even two hours.

– For heaven’s sake, use the fun strategically: Even more important than what sort of fun you bring is how you use it. First, capitalize on the fun the airplane offers. Don’t pull out your toys right away and keep them a secret if possible at first. Most toddlers will be happy for about an hour, looking out the window, watching the take-off, looking at people, flipping through in-flight magazines. After they get restless, pull out one fun item. Choose a video or something passive, if you are hoping for them to sleep soon. Choose something with active participation if you don’t want them to sleep. When there is no food service in progress and the flight is reasonably stable, take advantage of the moment to walk up and down the aisles. If you get seats near the back, which I actually recommend in some circumstances, some flight attendants will let you play for awhile near the back galley where there is a small open space by the back emergency exit. Most importantly, if you do have a new toy that you expect to be very exciting for your child (particularly a new electronic toy) save it for after the major sleeping portion of the trip. For instance, in the example I started with, my children were quite difficult in the airport and for the first three hours of the flight. I was tempted to give them the new six-in-one “learning systems” I had got them, but I resisted the temptation and got them to go to sleep instead. Then, they slept most of the rest of the flight, were refreshed for our transfer when we reached Europe. But by the time we got onto our next flight to cross Europe, they were tired and frustrated with traveling. That last two-hour flight could have been miserable. But I pulled out my “secret weapon” – the electronic toys – and they were happy for two more hours because the new toys were interesting enough to combat their accumulated exhaustion. We arrived in Vienna with a four-hour drive still ahead of us but with kids primed for sleeping in carseats.

– Choose seats: As I said before, I have never had a bulkhead seat. Certainly, if you can get one, do so. You probably won’t be allowed to sit in one of the “emergency exit” rows with children, so if you do ask for those seats you will end up being moved and you may be moved to a very bad seat, so it is better not to ask for them. Given that most of the better seats are now classed as “economy comfort” on many airlines and come at a steeper price, you may not have many choices, but there are still a few choices. If you are traveling with one child, buy your tickets early enough to get a window and an aisle seat if at all possible. Opt for two seats together by the window, even if you are travelling with more than one adult. It is far better to be able to trade off with another rested adult than to have both adults right next to the child the whole time. If you are traveling with two small children and one adult, which was my situation and the situation of two other mothers nearby, there are two reasonable options. If the plane has three seats between the window and the aisle, choose this. If the plane has only two, still choose the window seat and then two aisle seats across from each other. This is a surprisingly good arrangement. When the children are sleeping, you have a place to sit away from them, so that your movements will not waken them. And the seat across the aisle gives you a “time-out” option for an older toddler or child who can’t stop fighting with a sibling. This is the best option I have found all around. If you can’t get this, which I couldn’t on my first trans-Atlantic flight, look toward the back of the plane. On planes with four seats together in the middle, there are several rows at the back that have only three seats in the middle. These are considered undesirable because they are at the back (greater turbulence), near the bathroom (lots of traffic in the aisles) and in the center of the plane, so they are often filled last. Unless you are worried about the turbulence at the back of the plane, consider that being near the bathroom is really an advantage with toddlers and these three-seat arrangements offer a pretty good scenario for dealing with two children. I tried out both the three seats in the middle and the window-aisle-aisle arrangement on my last trip and both were much better than the alternatives, with the latter being somewhat preferable. The other families whose children cried more generally either were seated in two seats with one child always on the adult’s lap or they were sitting in the middle four seats with a stranger seated at one end.

– Use preboarding: I have actually read in texts espousing tips for traveling with babies that you should wait to get on at the last minute. While the idea of a few more moments to move around in the airport seems tempting, I advise against it unless your carry-on is very small and you have one child that you can carry. The problem is that people with small children really do need more time to get on and it is not fun to be rushed by the flight attendants or to be in a crush of people with small children. But the most important issue is your stuff. Caring for toddlers takes A LOT of objects to be accessed often and quickly. That is why your carry-on will generally be far too large to fit under the seat and you will be standing in the aisle getting into it constantly when your children are awake. I don’t know any way to avoid this. So, it becomes paramount to gain overhead space right above your seat and this alone would be enough to induce me to take advantage of the airline’s offer of pre-boarding for people with small children.

– Pack a toddler first-aid and spill kit: Okay, just to cover the basics, do bring at least one change of clothes for your children and at least one spare shirt for yourself. Children spill and on airplanes they often throw-up. This is simply life. Beyond that, make sure you bring any medicines your child needs regularly or when she has a cold or flu or stomach trouble. Even a minor cold can blow up into a major viral illness with the changes and stress of air travel. Bring any relief for ear infections that you can. I suggest bringing a small amount of honey to put in a child’s ear at the earliest sign of an ear infection. Honey absorbs moisture and has disinfectant properties. It will absorb into the skin and will not harm the ear. Moisture in the ear can cause serious infections with the changes in air pressure that occur with air travel. Be sure to bring a thermometer and whatever you use to combat high fevers. Infections tend to move fast in this environment and it is not uncommon for infants and toddlers to develop dangerously high fevers on airplanes. Bandaids are always a good idea. And, of course, bring a large package of wet wipes, whether your child is still in diapers or not.

– Be prepared to be a modern Girl Scout: Despite the best laid plans things often do go wrong. Flights are delayed and cancelled. Weather can turn bad. A difficult flight attendant may interfere with routines. And real illness may strike. I have heard stories of parents who constructed makeshift tents out of bedding in the corners of airports to weather long delays with children. The most harrowing air-travel experience I endured was when my husband and I took our first child (age 16 months) across the Atlantic for the first time. As soon as we got on the 10-hour trans-Atlantic flight, my daughter developed a fever of 104 F and became listless. I gave her infant Ibuprofen and infant Tylenol and alternated them every two hours but six hours later the fever had not abated. We had asked for medical help and the flight attendants had produced a passenger who was some sort of medic. He had looked at the baby from ten feet away and declared that he did not believe she was sick and returned to his seat. My husband and I, as fairly new parents, were panicked. Fears of ruptured ear drums and meningitis zipping through my thoughts. Finally, we decided to try a method routinely prescribed by Czech doctors for emergency reduction of high fevers which involves wrapping the child in a luck-warm wet towel or sheet and then layering that with warm dry blankets to limit the loss of heat. We wetted down our baby’s bedding and used heaps of scavenged airline blankets to wrap around as a second layer. Then, we switched between the wet bedding and fresh, dry airplane blankets every 15 minutes, as per the instructions we had been given by a doctor during our mandatory parenting training for our adoption application. It was a grueling routine. Within an hour and a half we were surrounded by piles of soggy blankets and had surely made enemies of every passenger and flight attendant near us, but our daughter’s temperature was down to 99 F and it stayed down just long enough for us to get off the flight and into an urgent care doctor in Portland, Oregon. There it was discovered that our daughter had a massive and dangerous ear infection. The doctor asked how in the world we had managed to bring the fever down on in flight and, although she had never heard of the Czech method, she had no argument with it. The moral of that story is simply use whatever you have or can acquire from others or from the flight crew. Don’t be afraid to ask (politely) for things. They might say no but it is worth a try.

– Bring anxiety and nausea reducer: Now, at last, we come to the issue of medication. It is in reality the least of what one can do to ensure a reasonable trip and I have heard that, without all the other measures, it doesn’t work well on its own. Still, I do carry antihistamine and anti-nausea medications for children. Anti-nausea medication is good to have for obvious reasons but many anti-nausea and antihistamine medications also have the (in this case) handy side-effect of causing drowsiness in many people. It is advisable to try this out on your child before the flight, in a somewhat less dire situation, because a some children react to Benadril and similar medications by becoming hyperactive instead of drowsy. Another issue to consider is that the drowsy side-effect reportedly stops working, if the drug is used too often. So, you might want to only use it in extreme situations, such as trans-ocean trips. Other than our two trans-ocean trips with children, I have only used it in on one other occasion and that was for our first toddler’s nausea brought on by the overexcitement and stress of going to meet our second child for the first time. Now, because I am an amateur herbalist, I would like to add that there are some herbal alternatives. Ginger has anti-nausea effects for some people. Candied or fresh ginger can be helpful to chew but young children often don’t like it. Ginger tea, if sweetened, may work better but I have found it’s anti-nausea effects to be sporadic. Lemon balm is helpful for anxiety and it helps some people go to sleep. It does not have any tendency to make some people hyperactive but the dose required to truly bring sleep to an overwrought child would be difficult to induce such a child to ingest. You could try lemon balm tea in the sippy cup as a preventative or, in a pinch, a teaspoon of lemon balm tincture scalded with a bit of boiling water from the galley (to evaporate the alcohol in the tincture) may do the trick. When traveling with two toddlers alone, I found that I couldn’t handle brewing special teas on the flight, when I couldn’t bring them through security from home. So, after five hours of dealing with out-of-control children, I resorted to Benadril, which calmed their nerves enough that they slept. The primary effect of the Benadril was probably to calm nerves to make falling asleep a bit easier and then it supported sleep, so that they may have slept longer than they would have otherwise. However, I doubt that it would have worked nearly so well without the other strategies I followed. The reason that I blurted this out when a stranger mentioned how well my children were sleeping was because I still feel a bit guilty for voluntarily exposing my children to pharmaceutical chemicals. So, it was really my guilty conscience speaking.

As you can see the effort and preparation involved in achieving a trans-ocean flight with two toddlers and one adult is enormous and, even with all that effort, I had to resort to chemical medication. The point of the story is probably: don’t try this unless there is a desperate need to travel.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Julie
    Oct 17, 2012 @ 01:37:28

    You should make this into a pamphlet. 🙂


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