At 2 years old, my twin toddlers are now seasoned travellers and have been to London, Ireland, New York, Los Angeles and all over Australia – a few times. Our last big trip was to the States, where our 19-hour flight was delayed by four hours (for an hour we waited in the plane on the tarmac before being offloaded due to technical difficulties!) – YES I know it’s enough to have any parent break out in a sweat and that’s not even taking into consideration the 19 hour flight!
These days, babies and toddlers aren’t allowed to sit on the floor in front of you and play. You have to keep them on your lap the whole time and, when they get restless, walk with them up and down the plane a few times and wear out the carpet, until they get tired or the passengers and crew start getting annoyed with seeing you go up and down, up and down. You might think taking one baby on a long-haul flight is hard — imagine two! I won’t tell you it’s not hard, it IS definitely a little challenging – for sure! But with some strategic planning – it’s definitely not impossible!
The key to travelling with young children is to be prepared, make sure the children are prepared too and also be prepared mentally that some things will be out of your control. It helps if we know our children well, which I do. I know exactly how much activity they need, in order to have two hours’ sleep; when they eat and when they drink and when they do their number two’s! It helps to know your children well, so you can plan according to their normal routine.
I took Jaxson to London when he was three. It was a massive trip for a little fella, so I prepared him by making him a little book about him going on the trip. I made it on the computer using a word processing program and called it Jaxson’s Holiday. The cover had a picture of Jaxson with the title of the book. The story was all about Jaxson’s big trip and what he was going to be doing each step of the way. On the second page was a picture of him eating breakfast and on the third page was all the things Jaxson needed to take on his holiday, like books, water, snacks, a game and his bag. I used clip art pictures to illustrate it. The next page was Jaxson packing his bag with toothpaste, his toothbrush, shoes and a hat. Each page was about a different aspect of the trip, such as how he would get to the airport, what he would need at the airport, what would happen when we had to line up for customs and security, and what he needed to do once we were on the plane.
The book prepared him for each part of the journey and he loved it. He still has it to this day and still brings it out to read occasionally.
Jaxson is now a week shy of turning 8, so I prepare him differently. He takes his iPod, which I load up with inexpensive games from the Internet, most are actually free to download – happy days! I take age-appropriate snacks, like muesli bars, dried fruit, healthy protein balls, etc and always make sure he goes to the toilet before boarding the plane. DON’T take anything with preservatives in it or SUGAR! A travelling parent’s worst nightmare eeeek! I tell him he can watch one movie and then he has to have a sleep. Because he’s already been prepared, and I’ve walked through the process with him prior to the day, he knows what to expect and doesn’t argue with me.
With the twins though, it’s a little bit different. I have to take more care in understanding what their routine is and give them a lot of exercise before we get on the plane, so they’re happy to sit on my lap for take off, because they’re not big enough to have a seat on their own or to sit still on their own.
Travelling abroad with babies is exhausting, so my advice to parents out there is make sure you get LOTS of sleep during the two days preceding your flight. It can be very challenging and there’s always a lot to do. Start packing well before your trip. Make a list of everything you need to do in advance, so that all you have to pack on the morning you leave is your toothbrush and toiletries. The last thing you want to be doing before you leave for the airport is looking for your passport or your tickets.
I always make sure the twins are completely ready for their trip. If it’s a day flight, I put them to bed a bit later the night before, so they need a little bit more sleep the next day. For long haul flights, you ideally want babies to sleep, so you can also get some rest too.
When I travel with the twins, I don’t take a handbag. I take a backpack with three compartments. In the first compartment I have passports, schedules and tickets. In the second compartment I have a change of clothes for the babies, several bibs and plenty of nappies (allocate one nappy for every two hours if not toilet trained and a couple for overnight just in case) and lots of baby wipes. The third portion of my backpack contains the babies’ food — purees, breast milk, organic goats milk formula (if still feeding – in case you’re milk dries up which has happened to me for 24 hours before), snacks, nibbles, dried fruit and rice cakes. In the front of the pack are things like calming aromatherapy oils, dummies, bottles of water, socks and my toothpaste, toothbrush and other personal items.
As you can imagine, my backpack is usually chock-a-block! I don’t spend the whole flight getting up and down to access the overhead luggage compartment though (how annoying would that be?). I take along another bag and put everything I need for half the trip under the seat in front of me — half the nappies, half the wipes, half the food, etc.
Before going to the airport, make sure you and your children have a really good, healthy meal, like a sandwich and water or a vegetable juice. Don’t give kids anything that will hype them up, like sweets or sugary drinks. I always pre-prepare snacks like pancakes or vegetable quiches to take on long haul flights, in case the airline doesn’t offer enough food or the children are sleeping when the food cart comes around, which has happened to me a few times. On my last flight from LA to Brisbane, the hostie bought the babies’ food tray around and they had just gone off to sleep (as they would at 11.30 at night after a 4 hour delay!). I asked if we could get it later, when they woke up. She replied, ‘No, I can’t keep it hot.’ I said, ‘OK that’s fine, they’ll be OK then.’ She snapped at me and said, ‘Well, you’re not getting anything else for another 11 hours!’ SUCH good customer service! So I just took off all the things that weren’t hot and popped them into my bag, so they could eat them when they woke up. But it wasn’t very exciting: a little dish of fruit salad, a cookie, and a bun that was as hard a rock. Thank goodness I was prepared — I had heaps of food left over, which is generally the case. I can’t stand it when someone is hungry!
When we get to the airport, I ask if I can take my pram to the gate. A lot of airlines allow this for international flights, as long as you arrive at the gate early enough for them to load the pram onto the plane before boarding. Just be aware that when you take prams through security, you have to take your children and everything else out of the pram before you go through. To make sure your passage through security is smooth, don’t wear clothes or jewelry that you have to remove. You may also need to ask your airline to advise customs that you will be taking a pram through (this mostly happens in Los Angeles).
When you’re checking in, don’t be afraid to ask if they can block the seat out next to you, so you can put your baby there. They can stretch their legs, stand up and say hello to whoever is behind them, and you can put them to sleep there too sometimes. I’ve been on planes that are completely oversold and I’ve still managed to get a seat beside me. On my recent flight from Los Angeles to Brisbane, we not only had the bassinet row, we also had two extra seats between Mum and I, which was fantastic! Oooohhhhhh I can’t tell you how awesome that was!!!!!
While you’re waiting to board, use the opportunity to let toddlers run around. Chase them, play hide and seek, and let them go and visit people, say hello to all the other travelers and have a good time. They need a lot of activity and play before they get on a flight. Make sure they’ve got something to entertain them on the flight. I normally take a couple of books, a favourite toy and something soft like their fluffy squares ‘cuddlies’ (a soft, fluffy square that is a bit bigger than a face washer and has a bear on it) the smell of which reminds them of home and that I can put into their cots to help them settle faster.
I always take the babies’ fluffy blankets from home too. If you’re lucky enough to get a bassinet seat on a plane, you can put them into a bassinet. But they’re very hard and the blankets are scratchy, so I always put a soft blanket on top. You have to request the bassinet seat, and you never know if you’re going to get it until you’re on the plane. If you check in early though, you’ll stand a better chance. The bassinette will usually hold a child of up to 11 kilograms.
When the plane is taking off and landing, air pressure changes inside children’s ears, which can be painful and frightening for them too. To help them equalize the pressure, make sure they suck on something on the way up and on the way down. If you’re breastfeeding, put them on the breast, or give them a dummy or some dried fruit to suck on. Don’t formula-feed babies 15 minutes before ascending or descending though, because it can give them gas and make for a very unhappy little one.
It takes approximately 45 minutes to an hour from the time you board a plane until the time they feed you, so bear that in mind and make sure the babies have had enough food and rest.
If you have young babies, then breastmilk, formula or vegetable purees and some dried fruit like apple, pineapple, mango and apricots are all you’ll need for meals on the plane. (When I’m breastfeeding I take extra vitamins and a herb called milk thistle that helps keep my milk supply abundant. I also drink lots of water and avoid alcohol.) For babies over ten months, request a toddler meal, which will include food like sausages, scrambled eggs or muffins that kids can hold and enjoy.
The flight attendants bring out the baby or toddler food first, so you can feed them and put them to bed. I always eat after they’ve gone to sleep, so I’m not trying to juggle a baby or two, a food tray and whatever else! Ask the flight attendants to take food trays away swiftly, to free up your space. Most of them are really great and will be more than happy to help and then get some rest or sleep yourself!
No matter how well-prepared you are, there will be times when things don’t go to plan, and you just have to roll with it. On my last trip to the States, we were in the plane and on the tarmac for over an hour; and then they offloaded us, because there was a cooling problem on the plane. I had timed it perfectly, so the babies would be ready for their sleep when the flight was due to depart. Instead, we were delayed three hours and the babies were SO tired. They were just delirious. By the time we got back on the plane, they were starting to cry because they were so tired. This is where the little things you do as a parent (regularly) come in handy – they’re familiar to the child. When I settle the babies I say, ‘shh, shh, shh’ and stroke their faces. Wherever we are, it enables me to calm them down. Sometimes I’ll sing them a little song and they’ll start humming along and fall asleep.
If your kids are really making a lot of noise on a plane and you’re getting dirty looks from the other passengers, don’t worry! It’s life!!!! We were all kids once. People need to understand you’re doing your best. If they can’t, then too bad, they have to get over it!
Passengers with any commonsense will ask someone if they need help, rather than shoot daggers at them. One lady on my last flight said she had three children at home and understood what I was dealing with, and asked if she could give one of the babies a cuddle, while I got the things I needed out of my bag. That was really helpful; it’s what being part of a community is all about. It’s good karma to be helpful — what goes around, comes around, I always say. A screaming baby on a plane might annoy you, but it won’t do you any favours if you’re not able to be helpful or compassionate. When you’re a parent and your child is crying in a plane jam-packed full of 425 other people, five minutes feels like five hours. So what you need at that point is compassion and understanding, not criticism. Give the parents a hand, so that the child can settle quicker.
Having said that, if I had a child with colic or a condition that was making them feel very uncomfortable and sad, I wouldn’t get on a plane in the first place, unless it was an emergency. It’s about using your commonsense.
As a parent travelling with children on planes (especially younjg children), you can forget the movies and forget reading a book — just try and get your sleep. When the babies are sleeping, you’re sleeping. If you have one baby and are travelling with someone else, this won’t apply; but multi-mums will often need to multi-task. So when you go to change the baby’s nappy, make sure you go to the toilet too. Here’s a tip: when you’re sitting on the toilet with a baby on one hip, put them on the hip that is furthest away from the sink — you don’t want their hands touching anything — especially that feral sink, yuck, gross!!!!!
I fly internationally several times a year with my three sons, and this is the way I always do it. It takes a lot of planning, forethought and preparation, but it works for me, and it can work for you too.