The Essential Guide to Flying with Young Children

We are approaching conference season. Having children can make this time just that little bit more stressful - do you leave them at home or take them with you? Who is going to care for the kids at home or away? If you are able to take your children, then the thought of flying with them can be very overwhelming. This month we give you practical tips on flying with young children from the founder of the MotherScholar Project Anna CohenMiller. 

Traveling through the airport with a long double stroller that could easily hold a car seat and allowed for both kids to sleep while on long international layovers.

Traveling through the airport with a long double stroller that could easily hold a car seat and allowed for both kids to sleep while on long international layovers.

With a little forethought, flying with children can be straightforward, simple, and even fun! (Yup, I did say fun J). For the past four years, we’ve been flying around the country to conferences and to visit family about four or five times a year. We’ve flown with a nursling, a “terrible two,” a “three-nager,” and now with two kids multiple times each year for long-distance, international trips.

Decisions before getting to the airport

Car seat decisions

While it is not required that you buy a seat for your infant, it is recommended that all children under the age of two ride in a car seat on the airplane. The price of this can definitely be cost prohibitive. If you don’t plan to use the car seat on the airplane, you can check it before you go through security (for free) or you can check it at the gate. From what I’ve seen, checking at the gate can cause less damage to the car seat when being handled than putting it through the typical baggage. Plus, if there are extra seats, the flight attendants may allow you to bring the seat on board with your child.

Lugging a car seat through the airport can be a bit cumbersome but we’ve found that you can (fairly easily with practice) attach it to a rolling bag (using bungee cords or with just a simple metal ring). If you are traveling by yourself, I’d definitely recommend having someone help you carry the car seat through the aisle of the airplane as it often has to be lifted above your head (which if you’re also carrying your child can be incredibly difficult).

Stroller decisions

I have found that the decision of whether to bring a stroller comes down to whether I need it on the other end of the trip. If you don’t need one at your destination, it isn’t a necessity for the airport (unless you have a child that doesn’t like to walk). But if you plan to use the stroller at your destination, then we’ve found that using it in the airport and gate checking it is a very simple process.

The key thing to know is that you will want to go to the check-in desk at your gate to get a tag attached to your stroller. One additional consideration is that if you happen to have a short connection between flights (I recommend at least an hour if you are traveling with kids) that the amount of time it takes for the gate checked stroller to be returned to you when you leave the flight can vary. At times it comes out before the passengers get to the jet way. At other times, it comes out last and you will have to wait on the side of the jet way as everyone else walks off.

Different types of strollers and their utility. To carry kids together and also luggage. At times though the children preferred just being carried, such as when we brought the double stroller with us on trip.

I have loved using our City Mini stroller, it folds easily and is lightweight yet can fairly easily pushed over bumpy sidewalks when we get to our destination. However, I have seen many international traveling families with strollers that fold small enough to take on board as luggage. The benefits of carrying the stroller on board and folding to put above your seat are that you don’t have to wait for when you land or be concerned about it being handled improperly. However, the downside is occasionally the flight crew might not allow the stroller to be kept on board, the strollers don’t tend to push as smoothly over bumps or carry as much as larger strollers.

Either way, the stroller is useful to either have your child quickly sit somewhere (ex. waiting in line at customs), or even when the kiddo doesn’t want to sit anymore, it is very useful to have a place to throw all of our things in quickly and move to the next location.

 The trip

1.      Prepare kids for what to expect

Discuss what happens, when. Our favorite book to show the steps in the process is My Plane Trip, plus for those kids that like to draw/color, this one is also a coloring book. It shows each step in the process from arriving at the airport, checking in, going through security, finding your seat, waiting for your bag, and going on your next adventure. It follows a family of four, a mother and father, a preschool age child and an infant.

Part of the discussion of what to expect can also be helped by following suggestions from AHA! Parenting, such as letting kids know the type of behavior that is expected. So if you expect your child to stay with you by your side and use a quiet voice, these are things to discuss and practice. We have also found that some of the hardest times to wait are in line before going through security. The best methods for distraction at this point (where we are already a bit anxious ourselves) is to talk about all the different things we see – the colors, the suitcases, the people moving around, the structures around us in the airport. (If flying internationally, here is some useful advice about helping little ones understand the authority figures in the airport.)

2.      Wearing your child—Nice way to keep your child close, while keeping your hands free

A great way to easily move through a busy airport is by wearing your child. Although I love a ring sling for my smallest one, you will have to take the child out to go through security as most ring slings have a metal ring that will set the metal detector off. Even though this is a bit annoying, I still find it worth it to bring the ring sling for the littlest one because it’s the easiest to adjust for nursing and resting with the baby. For the older child, I found an Ergo was a great option as it was simple to put on and take off, could be worn on the front or back, and perhaps best of all, doesn’t have to come off to go through the metal detector (which means the wandering little one doesn’t have to come down off of you at all while going through security!).

(Note to the babywearing parent, when you are on the airplane, you will be most likely be asked to remove your child from the carrier when taking off and landing. I have talked with some people who will show the flight attendant that they are following these demands and then choose to put their child back in the carrier to help with turbulence. Use your best judgment.)

3. Going through security—patience, playing games, and wearing easy on/off shoes

If you are wearing your child through security, you will be pulled aside and checked by a security officer in addition to walking through the regular metal detector (not the big crazy looking naked one). They will get a little wand and put a pad on it, rubbing it lightly over the palms of your hands to check for any residue of explosives. The security officer will then take this pad and put it in a little machine, where you/they wait for the green light to go off. For my older child, I talk through this process with them in an excited voice which is interesting for them and helps reduce the adults’ anxiety. Until this whole process has taken place, you won’t be allowed to pick up your luggage.

4. Waiting in the airport

Once you’re through security, you can relax…at least a bit! Now the next step is prepping yourself for waiting for the airplane to arrive. We try to move around a lot in the airport, running together if possible to wear the child out, but often all ours want to do is sit and watch things out of the window (and we’re often a bit tired too). So this is a great time to discuss everything – the airplane, the people, the trucks, the jetway (you get the drift J).

While you wait, this is a good time to fill up your water bottles and go to the bathroom. Recently we’ve noticed that airports are even adding water fountains that have a special spot for water bottles, or if you prefer, there tend to be a Starbucks or other coffee shop that is happy to fill up your bottles for you, especially if you are buying something.

4. Boarding

You will get some extra time to get yourself settled by being seated during family boarding. (We did recently learn however that some airlines, United, Lufthansa, and Air Astana, do not have family boarding.) Even if you would normally have to board towards the end of boarding, you are allowed to board during family boarding (which is generally after they board first class). If you are on Southwest, you will have a chance to choose your seat as you board. I find that sitting towards the back on a long flight (as long as I don’t have short layover) is great as there tends to be more ambient noise to ease any anxiety I have about my kids making noise and to provide some extra white noise to help them sleep.

Boarding early gives you some extra time to settle in your things and properly attach the car seat in a window seat. If you do not already have a window seat, you will want to talk to a flight attendant to correct this. If your car seat allows, I have found that rear facing the seat for as long as possible keeps the little one from kicking the seat in front of them (they can only kick their own seat!). We have occasionally had to talk with a flight attendant about the car seat, where they ask or check the seat to make sure it is FDA approved for flying and they seem to be more used to children facing forward. So, we just take the time to talk it through with them explaining that it is okay. You can also download this information that shows that it is okay on airplanes.

5. On the airplane

Take the chance to get up when the seat belt light is off. Find which bathroom has a changing table, even though it will be a tiny space to change a diaper, if it’s an explosive one, it’s still nice to be in a bathroom instead of trying to change the diaper at the seat. At times this can include a walk down the aisle, sitting on the floor temporarily, or just standing and stretching.

Drinks and snacks– as we don’t like our child having too many sweets, we have discovered a way to have a special drink for our child that satisfies us all—an iced water with a splash of orange juice.

For the first three years, we didn’t use any type of electronics and instead found that having a set of activities and snacks ready worked to entertain our little one. In particular, it helped to individually wrap each of the items, which can even be toys you already own, Dollar Store finds, or toys borrowed from a friend. We especially like using tape and post-its as our tot likes to create things on the go. In the last year, we have also started including watching a favorite show saved onto an iPod, which can give us adults a bit of time without direct interaction.

A Parent’s Packing list

  • Two empty water bottles (while I like the ones with straws for day to day use, on the airplane, an unpressurized one without a straw works best so there’s less spills. Also one that can be used one handed is ideal so you can still have a hand free for a little one),

  • Baby carrier (I like a ring sling for our infant and a soft-sided carrier like an Ergo or Tula for our older one),

  • Baby wipes,

  • Extra diapers (whatever number of diapers you normally go through, add an extra two just in case. But remember that if you run out, there will likely be another family with kids in the airport that you can kindly ask for one.),

  • Change of clothes for all children (perhaps two pairs of pants for each),

  • Extra pants/shirt for adult if space allows (in case the kiddo spills, explodes something on your),

  • Toothbrush (for the adults to feel a bit more civilized),

  • Kids activities

    • Post-its of different sizes (for the little one to put wherever and play with),

    • Tape (we like a variety of types—scotch, duck, and masking—and plain paper so our little one can create with it),

    • Children’s book for them to read through and one for you to read to them,

    • Children’s headphones

    • Magnetic/sticker book

    • Wondercolor watercolor book

    • Small animals (potentially individually wrapped)

    • Crinkly book/chew toy for the little one

  • Meds – Bonine for adults, Hylands teething tablets, Rescue Remedy stress candies

  • Burts Bee’s/vaseline type cream to keep noses/nostrils moist (I’ve also read that this helps reduce catching a cold from someone else on the plane).

  • Snacks, snacks, and more snacks. We’ve found jerky (we get the organic beef jerky from Trader Joes), a crunchy cereal for the toddler to snack on during take-off and landing to help with his ears, apple slices with lemon juice (which helps them from turning brown and uninviting for little ones), chips put into small bags, trail mix for the adults, raisins, granola bars, and something super special (we like all natural m&m’s and yogurt covered raisins for the kids and dark chocolate for the adults).

  • Small blanket or jacket to layer you or the kids and can do double duty as a pillow,

  • Shoes that come over very easily, especially if you are wearing your child you want to be able to take them off and put them on without having to lean over,

  • Car seat or Cares,

  • Earplugs (even if just to put in one ear, if your child is crying I find this is helpful to make it a little easier for me to keep relaxed),

  • Specifically for those nursing mothers

    • Nursing cover if that’s what makes you feel comfortable

    • Your most comfortable nursing bra/tank top and shirt

    • Dress in layers for nursing and change of temperature in flight 

Little toes peaking out as we wait for the airplane

Little toes peaking out as we wait for the airplane

In the end, to have a good trip, keep these five tips in mind:

1.      Don’t worry what other people say or if they glance at you if/when your child is crying. Really it’s not as loud as you might think it is and you will likely never see them again.

2.      Don’t worry if you forgot something. Now is a time you can practice asking for help, doing without, or finding some sort of creative/fun solution as a family.

3.      Do expect to interact with your child, non-stop, throughout the trip,

4.      Do bring fun snacks for you and your child(ren),

5.      Do (try to) enjoy your trip (it will be over soon)!

For additional links to posts on the flying with children, check out: Sprouts en Route for flying with an newborn, with a two year old, tips for waiting at the airport, and more, as well as, my friend Aquila’s posts at Haute in Texas on flying solo with kids, traveling with a toddler, and flying internationally with kids.

Editor’s Note: If you want to find out the bassinet rules and sizes for a particular airline, check out the airline bassinet chart provided by flyingwithababy.com