Flight Madrid-Miami, about 1 hour into the flight my 23 month-old asks: “Are we there yet? OK Mommy, let’s get out of this plane now.” My husband stares at me with a panic face. How will we survive the next 9 hours with a hyper-active toddler? When I thought another hour had passed, I realized it had only been 10 minutes. 10 hours felt like eternity.
Traveling with a baby can be challenging. Traveling with a child can be overwhelming, tiring. Traveling with a baby and a child can be challenging, overwhelming, tiring, a COMPLETE NIGHTMARE.
A lot of parents avoid traveling with babies during the first couple of years of their lives. In my case, traveling with my babies was more of a necessity than a choice. My entire family lives in Brazil and my husband’s family is spread all over Europe and South America. We live in Orlando, FL. Getting our families together always involves traveling, not 3-hour flights, more like 8 to 10-hour flights, connections, and long car rides from airport to final destinations.
When my son Lucas was only two months old, I had to travel to Brazil (my mom had to undergo surgery). Trips to the grocery store were overwhelming with my super colicky fussy baby, so the idea of a 10-hour overnight flight was terrifying. Lucas did pretty well on the way there, but the return was horrible. He cried non-stop for 4 straight hours and kept the entire plane awake. This was the beginning of Lucas’ travel adventures. By age 2, Lucas had been to 8 countries in North and South America, Europe, and even Africa, including multiple trips to Brazil and Venezuela. When he started to become an “expert traveler,” we had our baby girl. Traveling with a baby and a toddler was even harder, but the international trips didn’t stop for us.
I have a few tips to share as I continue to learn what “NOT” to do when traveling with kids.
THE PACKING STAGE
When you pack well, your overall travel experience is more pleasant. Packing for yourself is easy. Packing for yourself, a child, and a baby, can be stressful. I have procrastinated and packed the night before (what I call “pack-cramming”) and I have packed over the course of a couple of days (what I call “staged-packing”). The results were as expected. My last pack-cramming experience was a disaster. I focused on the kids’ stuff and ended up forgetting travel essentials for myself like shoes and toiletries (at least the kids looked impeccable!). I definitely recommend “staged-packing” and make sure to start with the priority items such as baby formula, baby food, diapers, medicine, and a toy/blanket that your kids cannot live without. Take more baby formula and baby food than you think you will need. I have run out of baby formula in a foreign country and it was very difficult to match my baby’s formula.
When choosing your kids’ travel clothes, pick comfortable clothes that are easy to be changed. Also, dress your kids in layers. You never know the plane’s temperature!
Probably the most important part of your packing stage is packing your carry-on bag. Make sure to include new and different toys that create excitement and keep your kids entertained. DVDs and tablets are very helpful. We usually download new movies and games. We don’t let our son play with the iPad in the house, so when we travel, playing with the iPad is a huge treat. Also, make sure to pack their favorite snacks, which is a great way to end a meltdown. For babies, don’t forget to pack enough diapers (I usually plan one diaper per hour of flight), formula (a formula dispenser with pre-measured formula for multiple feedings is a must), bottles, a blanket, teethers, a couple of changes of clothes, and several pacifiers (so you don’t have to clean a pacifier every time it’s dropped). Oh, don’t forget disinfecting wipes!
I still remember when packing was all about me. I used to spend hours choosing cute outfits, several unnecessary pairs of shoes for every single outfit, and lots of accessories. Now I think of the most comfortable flats (forget heels), one pair of neutral earrings that will go with all the outfits (forget necklaces because my 1-year old loves pulling them), and a lot of concealer to hide my dark circles. Oh, there is no space for my things in the carry on… magazines and books – forget them – you will not have time to do any fun reading in the plane!
I really dislike airports – check-in lines, security lines, delayed flights, and germs – airports are dirty! Most airlines offer early online check in and all you have to do is check your bags at the airport. I definitely recommend it. It will help you spend less time in airport lines! Also, most airports have family security lanes. Use them! When going through security, avoid having loose items in your pockets and strollers. Also, try to avoid metals (like bulky jewelry and belts) that will most likely beep. We try to have everything in one carry-on and usually bring the lightest stroller we have, and we check it at the gate. I am usually in charge of the kids and my husband focuses on folding the strollers and carry-ons. We know our roles very well when going through security!
So how do you keep your kids entertained and calm in airports? I usually have different snacks and toys for the airport and for the plane ride. You don’t want your kids to get bored playing with the same toys. Also, don’t let your kids sleep in the airport. You need them tired, very tired, to nap during the flight! I usually take them for a stroll around the airport when I notice they are becoming impatient and tired. It is all about change of scenery.
Make sure to change your baby and take your kids to the restroom before boarding the plane. Airport restrooms are definitely more spacious than the airplane’s. I still remember changing Lucas’ explosive poop that managed to get all the way to his neck minutes before boarding when he was 2 months old. I was thankful it happened at the airport and not in the plane and we got to use the family restroom. We needed 4 hands to change that one!
THE PLANE RIDE
Try to get seats in the back of the plane. My husband has this theory that when you are in the back, it is faster to get to the back kitchen and restrooms with a crying baby, and less passengers are disturbed. Plus the engine noise is louder in the back (which can be soothing) and the crying and screaming becomes less noticeable. The more I travel, the more I like his theory. If you are traveling with a newborn, ask if they have bassinets available. American Airlines put me in the first row of coach and attached a bassinet to the wall. It was very convenient but it goes against my husband’s theory. When your baby cries, you need to cross the entire plane to get to the back! If you can afford it, get an extra seat for your baby. It will give you more space and you can take the baby’s car seat on the plane. It will allow you to be “hands-free” when your baby naps, and it is also safer to have your baby secured with a seat-belt. If you don’t get an extra seat for your baby, I recommend bringing a sling, which will also help you be “hands-free” in the plane.
Try not to feed your baby right before boarding the plane.“Sucking” will help relieve the baby’s ear pressure during takeoff and landing. Time your feedings (breastfeeding or bottle) for takeoff and landing. If you can’t time it, a pacifier is also helpful. For the older kids, you might want to try a juice box or a lollipop. Your wise packing will come in handy during the flight. Hopefully your kids will take a nap, watch a movie, play with their new toys, and enjoy their favorite snacks.
I would also recommend wiping your seats, windows and trays with disinfecting wipes but the truth is I don’t do that anymore. After seeing my son licking the airport’s floor and my daughter putting every single plane magazine in her mouth, I came to the realization that my cleaning ritual was pointless. Hopefully they are building their immune system!
If your baby starts crying, take her/him for a walk in the aisles. People-watching may help distract your baby and go to the back of the plane for more space. It is more difficult to calm a baby during a night flight. The plane can get very cold and dark and the last thing you want is to wake up the passengers. Lucas had a panic attack once in the middle of a night flight when he was 20 months old. He woke up completely disoriented. His loud and desperate crying woke up the entire plane and the flight attendants were not friendly. My husband spent several minutes with him in the bathroom with the light on until he realized he was safe and calmed down. Then it was my husband’s turn to calm down.
Remember: (1) babies can feel your anxiety and will probably cry more if you are not calm; (2) most likely you will never see those passengers again. Focus on comforting your baby and don’t worry about the people around you; (3) the crying probably sounds louder to you holding the baby than to the people surrounding you (planes are very loud!); and (4) the plane will eventually land and the crying will stop.
Traveling is part of exposing your kids to new experiences that will help them become well-rounded and interesting individuals. It is worth the effort and your kids will thank you some day.