Air Travel with Small, Nervous Children

Last night we returned from a nearly two-week visit to my in-laws.  I love spending the holidays with family.  However, since we live in different cities, we first have to get there, and that usually means a trip to the airport.

Travel makes me edgy in general, but add two small children who are invariably off-schedule to the mix?  The potential for disaster is mind-bogglingly great.  My solution to this is to plan, plan, and plan some more.  And then to be flexible, because it’s likely that very little will go according to plan.

Our oldest has been flying since he was a wee babe.  He’d been to my in-laws, my parents, and Israel all before he was a year old.  He’s an old pro.  Imagine my surprise when, on the trip to my in-laws last Pesach, he freaked out on the plane.  FREAKED OUT.  Like, a toddler panic attack, poor thing.  Screaming, crying, squirming to get out of his seat.  I think everyone on the plane was traumatized.

So, I had a gun-shy kiddo on this trip, as well as a new perambulator (the baby is walking, everyone) to contend with.  This would, indeed, require some planning.

please, please, please let this trip be okay!

The planning

For every trip with kids, we always pack certain staples, such as diapers, wipes, sippy cups/bottles, pacifiers, loveys, snacks, change of outfit, what have you.  For this trip, I also brought a wide array of entertainment and bribery, including:

  • New! coloring books
  • crayons
  • New! stickers
  • New! toy trucks
  • New! books
  • even more snacks
  • Lollypops (the current bribe of choice in our household)

Notice a trend?  I ransacked Target’s dollar bins, as I wasn’t about to shell out a lot, yet I wanted the edge of novelty.  Even though I rotate their toys, I sensed that any old toy wasn’t going to cut through that thick layer of toddler fear.

We didn’t really have a game plan for the littlest one.  Because he’s only a year old, it’s basically up to us to occupy him, which, due to the confined area, is done by 1) holding him,  2) feeding him or 3) holding him while feeding him.

Regarding the panicky kiddo, in addition to preparing treats and bribes, I did an experimental thing.  Children (okay, people), crave routine, right?  They like to know what’s coming next, what to expect.  It makes them feel safe.  This is one reason we read the same book nineteen times, and why pajamas always come before reading books at bedtime.

So I created a whole story, about a little girl, “Shoshana,” who was going to visit her Bubby.  Since her Bubby lived far away, she had to go on an airplane to get there.  The story included taking a taxi to the airport, security, potential turbulence, overhead announcements, and, of course, take-off and landing.  Whenever the plane went Shake Shake Shake (my representation of taking off, poor choice of wording, I know), “Shoshana” told her mother that she didn’t like it, and “Shoshana’s mother” held her hand and suggested that they daven to Hashem.  I told him this story nearly every night for what seemed like a month.

I also did my own davening to Hashem that my child have an easier time this trip.

The outcome

The trip to the airport unfolded just like in the story, complete with a commentary from my toddler.

“I in airport!  I go on airplane!  Whoa!  Airplane!”

Everything was hunky dory until we actually started boarding the plane.  Perhaps it was a combination of the noises, the small space, or some unpleasant memory.  Whatever the reason, as we made our way to our seats, he was whimpering and making a Very Sad Face.  This was met with looks of both sympathy and terror from the other passengers.

At our seats, he didn’t want to sit in his own seat, much less buckle up.  He was firmly planted on my lap.  I made a lot of encouraging noises to him, about how he was Such A Big Boy, and remember how “Shoshana” buckled herself in, and how she sat by the window, too!  Somehow he agreed to sit in his seat, but was still very uneasy.  His uneasiness escalated as the plane began to taxi and then to take off.

While continuing to speak calmly and reassuringly, I whipped out the New! trucks from the bribery stash and started playing with them on his lap.  This was a hit, and he slowly calmed down and proceeded to drive the trucks, complete with sound effects.  After a few minutes he turned to me and said,

“I happy.  I not scared anymore.  I happy”

I’m not gonna lie, I kind of felt like a parenting genius at that point.

My husband and I basically spent the rest of the flight taking turns holding and feeding the baby.  Important note:  Constantly feeding your child on a trip is not always the best idea, especially when the child is young and prone to spitting up.  I speak from unfortunate experience.  However, this time it was a pretty solid plan.  Little skinny pretzels and a small box of raisins kept him happy most of the time.  Especially the box for the raisins.  That was the best toy ever.

When the two brothers were together (i.e., when I was holding the baby), it was smooth sailing.  They entertained each other sweetly, with big brother feeding little brother pretzels, and nary a quarrel in sight.  Aside from being slightly annoyed that my husband was able to sit by himself and read (the nerve!), I was content.  Well, except for…

The X factor

This leads me to the other necessary items anyone should travel with:

  • a sense of humor
  • spunk
  • the ability to ignore rude people
  • a deep abiding belief in karma

Because there will occasionally be That Guy on the plane.  He was sitting behind us this time.  Initially, I was so intensely focused on assuaging my son’s anxiety that I didn’t notice the attitude coming from behind me.  After we got through the rocky patch, my toddler was super happy, and, as happy toddlers are wont to do, was making all sorts of plane/car/pterodactyl noises, singing various nursery songs, etc.  I was SO RELIEVED that he wasn’t a basket case that I seriously didn’t care what kind of noise he was making.  He was happy, I was happy.  Finished.

However,  I started to notice that whenever my son’s volume reached a certain decibel, That Guy would groan, mumble, or go “shhhh.”

Seriously.  He was shushing us.  Who does that?

Then, when he got up to to the restroom, he leaned over and said,

“So you’re the one who’s making all that noise.”

I calmly remarked,

“This is nothing compared to the last trip.”

That Guy didn’t respond.

His little snarky noises continued throughout the rest of the flight, but I wasn’t about to start shushing my toddler for that.  The amount of noise my child was making was not outrageous or offensive.  Plane travel carries the risk of unpleasant peripheral noise.  I myself was subjected to That Guy’s conversation with his seatmate about how the stewardesses these days aren’t young and attractive like the ones on Pan Am (I’m not making this up).  I begin to ruminate on how if That Guy was so sensitive to noise on the plane, he should just buy those noise-cancelling headphones they sell in SkyMall.

Even though I strongly disliked how That Guy conveyed his opinion of my child’s noisiness (he could have just asked nicely, after all), it’s not a bad idea to teach my kids how to be quiet in small, crowded places.  I made a mental note to work on teaching my son about volume levels in an airplane, but mainly because it’s good manners, and I just hadn’t thought of it for this trip.  I was too busy warding off a toddler panic attack, thank you very much.

You’re welcome, Mr. Curmudgeon.  And thank you.  May you be surrounded by happy toddlers wherever you go.

What are your travel strategies with youngsters in tow?


Image by shyb via Flickr

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25 thoughts on “Air Travel with Small, Nervous Children

  1. My daughter is easily startled by loud noises, so she always does SO much better when I tell her what’s coming. It doesn’t matter if I’m about to flush a loud toilet in a public restroom, or my husband is about to start the car when she’s standing in the garage, (something really loud that never fails to scare the pants off of her.) When I think about it, she does better in most situations when she knows what’s going on. So I just tell her. Today, we’re going here and there, then we’re doing this and that when we get home. I love to plan things out ahead of time, so she must get it from me!

    I’ll never forget when Sophie was about 9 months old, I flew with her by myself from FL to NJ, and on the return flight, I was next to an unflappable man who had already flown 9 hours from Scotland, and was on the last couple of hours of his flight from NJ to FL. He must have been so tired, but he was so nice. He picked up nearly everything Sophie threw or dropped on the floor, and put up with her touching his arm and lunging at him as I held her. Finally, she knocked a little container FULL of baby fruit puffs ALL over him. After I apologized profusely for the nineteenth time, he just looked and me and said, “well, it could have been worse, it could have been a full bottle of milk.”

    Wouldn’t it be awesome if all travelers were so nice? I know it’s practically like asking for world peace, but you know, wouldn’t it?

    1. Thanks, Batya! I was wondering if that was the problem, or perhaps some motion sickness. I need to research ways to alleviate those discomforts before we take another trip.

  2. I think I must be a toddler, too, because I also crave structure, routine, and I love to know what’s coming next. I flew only with my oldest kid when he was a wee one. I remember it being a real challenge, and feeling like I was schlepping tons of stuff for him. And just feeling like I was covered in spit-up, crumbs, etc. by the time we exited the plane. Ah, sweet memories…. Love your Shoshana story–Brilliant!

    1. I have my suspicions that many of us are toddlers at heart. I get very cranky when out of routine, tired, or hungry. That Shoshana story was my masterpiece; all my other bedtime stories pale in comparison.

  3. This is really helpful! I’m taking Sophie on her first airplane ride to the Bay Area (so not a long ride) Thanksgiving weekend. I’m not sure what to expect even if she’s 4. I’ll definitely be bringing candy and new books/coloring stuff.

    1. I’m so glad you found it helpful, Leah! Good luck on Sophie’s first airplane trip. May you have wonderful flight attendants and good fellow travelers. :)

  4. I empathize with you. I am not good on airplanes. I find it difficult to travel with my kids because I know that I can’t zone out like I want to, I have to be in full ‘mommy’ mode and I don’t want to pass my fears on to them. Most of all I am afraid that one day I will be that child having the melt down only I’ll be escorted off the plane. So to anyone who is annoyed by distraught kids on a plane, suck it up, have some empathy and just be glad that it’s not the woman sitting next to you freaking out and getting air sick.
    Good job. Offhand I can’t think of anything that feels better than giving your kids a sense of security when they’re scared.

    1. I had forgotten that relaxing on a plane was even a thing to do, until I had the opportunity to fly, kidless, a month or so ago. That was amazing. I read a book, prepared for a performance, stared blankly. Amazing. Full mommy mode is definitely a lot of work, but I agree wholeheartedly that the rewards are astounding.

  5. The “Shoshana” story is such a good idea! I can’t tell you how many made up children I’ve used over the years to either acclimate children in my class (or while babysitting) to a concept about the future, or as examples of Bad Ideas (like little “Reuven” who climbed backwards on his chair…). It’s one of the best tools I’ve found, and I’m so glad it worked for you!

    I was once on a plane with my husband and 1year old daughter and a woman boarded carrying her screeching 7 month old. She smiled the whole time and offered the two others in her row to buy them (alcoholic) beverages during the flight. They were more than happy to oblige her upset baby with such compensation. It was hilarious to watch, but such a great idea. I just remember she was really relaxed. Nothing she could do but hold him, feed him, entertain him. Sometimes children just make noise.

    Thanks for another great post! I’ve really missed these during my month-long internet hiatus!

    1. that is brilliant – offering seatmates liquor. Brilliant. I will put that in my bag of tricks. I love the story tool. A post on that is definitely in the works.

  6. wow i just discorve your blog and i’m hooked.
    I love your adivice!!! even though I have no children of myself -yet, TTC for 3 years- I have 12 nieces and nephews so i have the idea pretty much. I have a situation here: every time I travel I found some worry mothers and active children of all ages, and i want to do the mother a little morfe comfortable -or the kid- like start a funny conversation, offer a candy, or distract the kid in the middle of crying, but i restrain myself because maybe the mom gets ofended thinking i’m doing this or that because her child is bothering me, but…. i dont know what do you suggest???

    1. I think offering to help, if needed, is almost always welcome. And generally, if you’re offering help with a smile, the mom will probably get the friendly vibe, so I would say “go for it!”

  7. Wow, what a jerk! Especially considering he was TALKING for the flight and not SLEEPING! People are so rude. And you are right, karma will come back to get him. He’s going to end up on an eight hour flight somewhere with a kid kicking his chair for the duration and then he’ll wish he was still on the plane with your youngsters. Stay strong! And good luck with future travel!

  8. Hey Rivki, I hope you won’t mind, I threw a link this post into a recent post I did on HubPages on my tips for parents traveling with kids. It’s called Flying the Not-So-Friendly Skies. It looks like our heads were in similar places. Traveling with children is hard but you are clearly a good parent!!!

  9. While I’ve had lots of adventures traveling with my children, my worst experience with a fellow passenger was when I was traveling from LA to NY with my over-85-year-old grandmother. She was very anxious and I needed to do a lot of talking (and singing with her) to help her stay calm. Not to mention that her walker didn’t fit in the aisle, so I had to practically carry her to the restroom and back, blocking the whole aisle. The young woman sitting next to us moaned and groaned and sighed through the whole trip. At the end, I turned to her and said, “I hope we didn’t disturb you too much. My grandmother was really nervous about this trip.” She fell all over herself apologizing when she realized I had noticed her ungraciousness. It was a lesson to me — address it with the neighbors up front and see if it’s possible to get a good will buy-in. And the trick mentioned above of buying them a drink is good, too!

    One more thing… Somebody loaned us noise-canceling headphones for a trip to Eretz Yisrael, along with a relaxation tape. In a desperate moment we put them on the child who was having a breakdown, and he fell asleep literally INSTANTLY. It was like magic. I will definitely get some for any future long trips.

    1. Wow, that does sound like a taxing experience. You’re a great granddaughter for doing so much for your grandmother. The noise-cancelling headphones for a child is something I wouldn’t have thought of – but will keep in mind for future trips!

  10. I think most good parents did exactly what you did (save the bedtime story, which was pure genius) to prepare for a flight.

    Hm, noise-canceling headphones – sounds like it could have solved our problem with the annoying family opposite us (whose parents were oblivious). I think that parents who do not put effort into keeping their kids well-behaved should be kicked off the flight, Travel is about effort and sacrifice – on the parents’ part, too, not just the other travelers’.

    1. That bedtime story was the result of some serious siyatta d’shmaya! Since then, I’ve found that bedtime is a great time to impart the values that I want my kids to learn, and to review any behavior that we want to work on (like if there was a major tantrum that day, for instance, we’ll tell a “story” about it with different characters, and talk about what the characters could have done differently). I’m finding it a very effective method of chinuch.

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