A trip to see the grandparents in England. At first it didn't seem like that big a deal, but soon reality hit: the summer crowds, the long lines at the airport, some extreme weather — and a little boy fast approaching 2 years of age. Suddenly the flight to England seemed like a major undertaking.
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Before my son was born, back in the days when my duties as a flight attendant were my biggest responsibility, I used to laugh silently at the fathers boarding the aircraft. With blankets and bags hanging from every limb, they looked like overburdened pack mules. There was determination in their eyes, but they also had a slight "Just shoot me" expression. As soon as I walked through the airplane door, I knew I had joined that fraternity. The glare from the flight attendant told me so.
My wife was carrying our son, but I had a car seat strapped to my back, two diaper bags draped over one arm and a tote bag on the other. I knew where every baby item was located, and I was ready at a second's notice to grab three different types of diapers with one hand and a small herd of stuffed animals with the other. I had no idea where my wallet or passport was, but so long as I knew the immediate whereabouts of the butt paste, I was good to go.
We made it to our seats and immediately got the "Oh no, we're sitting next to a family with kids" look from our neighbors, along with a chorus of "We'll never get any sleep" sighs. I was well familiar with them, but they were still unnerving, because this time they were directed at me. I had planned to do a column on this subject, offering tips to harried parents on long-distance flights, so I had done some research and was fairly well prepared for the flight. Some suggestions worked and others didn't.
Here are my top tips for managing a flight with a small child.
1. Bring the car seat. One of the smartest things we did was to buy our son a ticket and park him in his car seat. Because he was under 2, he was entitled to fly as a "lap child," but we are so glad he didn't. It was a full flight and the wriggle factor alone would have put us over the edge. Plus, a car seat comes in handy for use in rental cars and taxicabs at your destination. Some airlines offer a ticket discount for children under 2, so ask your airline, and be sure to check that your car seat meets the airline's specifications.
2. BYOD. Do not count on the airline to deliver any baby food, child meals, healthy snacks, blankets, pillows, apple juice, baby aspirin, crayons — or anything else you might need for your child — especially diapers. I have been berated many times by mothers who were stunned to learn that most airlines no longer carry diapers. Believe me, they don't.
3. Choose your seat carefully. On earlier flights, I had found that the best location for an infant is near the wing, where the engine noise usually soothes the baby to sleep. But this is not the best place for a 2-year-old. The engine noise will generally aggravate the youngster, who will then tend to talk or scream louder. The best place for a 2-year-old is in a bulkhead row with a wall or partition in front of the seat.
4. Provide entertainment. There is nothing worse than a bored little boy on a long flight. He will end up throwing a tantrum and kicking the seat in front of him. My advice is to take some of the child's favorite smaller, silent toys and hide them a few days before the trip and then reintroduce them on the flight.
5. Be nice to your neighbors. Don't take it personally if you get rolled eyes and disturbed looks from your seat neighbors. Chances are, you once felt like that, too. Instead, bring a jar of earplugs and offer them to all the passengers within earshot. This kind gesture will be seen as a humorous peace offering and might buy you some understanding.
6. Exercise crowd control. Do not let your children run around the airplane unattended. You are responsible for their safety and well-being — not the flight attendants.
7. Wipe, wipe, wipe. Don't leave home without sanitary wipes and wipe down everything you can — especially the fixtures in the airplane lavatory. Airplanes are a hotbed for germs, and the last thing you want is for Junior to come down with a cold on the first day of your vacation.
8. Don't just sit there. If your child can't stop yelling or crying, get up and walk to the back of the airplane. Nearby passengers will appreciate the break, and you owe it to them to remove the screams for a while. Even if there is no tantrum, it is probably a good idea to change the scenery from time to time.
9. Consider sedatives. Many parents swear by certain medications and sleep remedies for children. Because of legal liabilities I cannot suggest any, but ask your child's doctor for his opinion and recommendations.
10. Be ready for altitude changes. The air pressure on your child's eardrums is not only painful, but can also be frightening, especially at 2 years of age. It might not be easy to get your child to drink from a bottle to clear his ears, so I recommend giving him a lollipop when the plane first starts to descend for landing. One warning: Once children get hold of a lollipop, they will not let go. In fact, they use their special Lollipop Death Grip until it's gone.
If you can, travel with your spouse. As much as I poke fun at my new role, young children really do need a pack mule. I have seen mothers with three children under 3 years old traveling alone, and it is just stress unlimited.
Our trip to England went very well and my fears of a scream-filled flight did not materialize. I am not going to lie to you, it is tough work — and we had only one child. But because we were prepared, we were actually able to enjoy ourselves a bit. I even thought of starting a Pack Mule Frequent-Flyer Club, but thought I would wait until baby No. 2 shows up.
James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.