I have a goal to avoid international flights with my toddler again until he is old enough to operate an entertainment system.
To me, this should be achievable once he hits the two year mark. Then I shall prop him up with his teddy, a blanket, a bottle of milk and a colourful screen containing hours of magical entertainment.
If you are contemplating flying with a child under two, my best advice would be wait until they are old enough to do the same. If you are like me though and have family in faraway places, then the long-haul flights might become unavoidable. After all, there is only so long you can keep grandparents waiting to get their hands on that chubby little cherub.
So if you really, really must fly – here are some tips from my unofficial guide to flying with toddlers that you won’t find elsewhere:
1. Do not fly alone
I did this during my maternity leave, thinking it didn’t matter if I sat on my couch or my parent-in-law’s couch except that they would get extra time with their grandson before my husband arrived for our holiday. As touching as this gesture was, it didn’t factor in the tiny matter of getting from Australia to Germany solo with a baby.
Three words sum up the experience nicely: Hell. On. Wheels.
I had to buzz for a stewardess to hold the baby while I went to the toilet. I ate whatever I could pick at with one hand while my son threw whatever he could on the floor (which I then ate anyways cause I was hungry…three second rule!). Most other memories have been repressed into a part of my mind labelled “never to repeat again”.
2. Practice origami beforehand
Planes do have baby change tables – they are located in the toilets. You know, those claustrophobic boxes where you have to bend the door outwards with your backside to get enough angle to turn and flush.
The change table is located perilously above the toilet bowl and on most planes is designed so the baby lies sideways. I assume the normal configuration of the baby facing the parent would not fit.
When I used the change table, I always first closed the toilet lid to ward off visions of my baby being sucked into a blue frozen mass in the undercarriage. I then somehow managed to clean and put a new nappy on but not without mishap. I never did perfect the art of origami nappy folding though.
3. Know thy friend
Being a steward is probably one of the most undervalued jobs going. This is pretty sad since I came across some amazingly helpful and lovely air crew when travelling with my son. I learnt to spot them pretty early on, usually when boarding. They were the ones that made an extra fuss to see that the baby had everything he needed and snuck him an extra toy.
Make friends with this person, tell them your name and your baby’s name and use theirs in a sentence that also contains a phrase they don’t hear very often – thank you.
Be lovely and accommodating and they will hopefully be the same in return. Even if it is just a sympathetic smile when your toddler has lost the plot, it helps to feel like someone is on your team.
4. Know thy enemy
There are some people who believe children shouldn’t be allowed to fly or, if they must, they should be in some caged area at the back of the plane. The reality of living in a globalised society on the most remote continent on earth unfortunately dictates otherwise.
Nobody likes to be locked into a pressurised metal tube devoid of humidity for hours on end, not least of all children. But that’s life.
So if you are seated near a passenger that makes a cats bum face every time your children says boo, ignore them. Sure make every reasonable effort to keep your children quietly entertained and happy but don’t buy into their huffing and puffing. It will only stress you out.
5. Accept your place
Most people, if they were honest, internally die a little when they discover that a toddler is seated in the row in front of them on a Sydney-London flight. So no matter how cute your child is (and let’s face it, your child is the cutest thing to ever walk on two legs – right?), accept the fact that you will not win any popularity awards by stepping on a plane with them.
As the hours drag on, the chances rise exponentially that you will become that parent…the one passengers throw death stares at and other parents thank god that it isn’t them for once. Fairly or not, you and your child will come to embody the frustrations of everyone around you at being stuck on a plane.
After meals have been served and collected, the air crew usually have some time to relax and unwind before the next meal. Take a wander up to the galley and spot the friend you made when boarding and say hello. If your baby isn’t completely feral by then, chances are that someone will want to play or interact. On one flight, the crew took a Polaroid of my son lounging happily across their laps. On another, they fed him ice cream and gave him expensive chocolates from First Class (which mummy had to, err, confiscate for closer inspection).
Don’t outstay your welcome but remember that crew are people too and your child’s smiling face is probably a welcome relief from Mr Grumpy Pants in seat 54C.
7. Pack a change of clothes
You may have thought to do this for your baby but have you thought about yourself too? I can tell you with authority that there is nothing worse than being vomited on, except for being vomited on four hours into a seven hour flight with no spare clothes in sight.
8. Say no to night flights
There is something strange about planes that turn toddlers into psycho bunnies. Day or night, Phenergan or not, their little buttons will be firmly switched to ON ON ON(!!!).
Do not book a night flight on the misguided assumption that your baby will sleep because it is their normal bed time. It is a gamble, one that will more than likely leave you dealing with hyperactivity while your own body clock is crying out for sleep. Fly with a full night of rest behind you to avoid a quick descent into madness.
9. You are a bed
Those basinets on planes are about as spacious as the toilets. They claim to be for babies up to 10kg but the reality is they are not designed for babies who have learnt to roll over or generally over the age of 3 months.
But don’t forgo the fight for a front row seat just because your child is too big for a basinet. Those seats give you a few extra precious millimetres of leg room, enabling you to put your feet up and fashion yourself into a bed for your child.
They may not like it at first but that’s all you’ve got to work with.
10. Exercise restraint
If your child is still young enough for it, use a baby carrier as much as possible on the flight. Sure, you may feel like you are tethered to a whirlwind but at least your arms will get a break. And with your hands free you can tend to your own non-essential needs, like eating and drinking. If you do opt for a carrier, remember to ping pong child minding responsibilities. Spread the crazy; don’t concentrate it because you are too tired to readjust the carrier straps for your partner.
11. Screen time instead of scream time
I’m one of those mums who normally likes to keep an eye on the amount of tablet, phone, television or whatever other screen time my son wants. I try to balance his need for technology with an almost Amish-like fervour for drawing and reading with real crayons and books.
At 35,000 feet in the air though, this motherly guilt is suspended and anything goes. He can have as much screen time as he wants if it keeps him quiet. Whatever works! Well, that’s the theory I will be going with next time.
For now, I’m quite content for family to visit us. We’ve done our toddler tour of duty.