Flying with little ones? Here's how to make it a flying success!
As the world starts to open up again many families will be taking to the skies, often for the first time with kids. Seasoned family traveller, Robyn Dold shares how to make it a success.
London’s Heathrow airport – I was carrying my small son, a backpack, a nappy bag and had a fluffy dark blue elephant tucked into my clenched armpit, but I felt as light as air. A thrilling sense of freedom filled me like a helium balloon, and I turned to grin at my partner, similarly encumbered, and holding the little hand of our daughter. “We did it!” I yelped, “we can go anywhere!”. For our young family, this was the start of a year of travel, and that flight was the first of many. But I will never forget the utter delight I felt in that moment, realising that despite committing to years of bath and bedtime routines, the world was still out there, and we were still in it.
For the past two and a half years, it’s been almost impossible for New Zealanders to go anywhere. But now our borders are opening. In 2020 and 2021, 116,232 babies were born here, so there are tens of thousands of kiwi families who, when they next fly, will be facing their first trip with a baby or young child. We are and always have been a nation of travellers, given our distance from so many countries! And many of us are now craving the thrill of adventure.
GETTING YOUR HEAD IN THE GAME
As pilots get back to the job of navigating us around the globe, how can parents navigate the daunting task of managing a long-haul flight with young kids? Dr Emma Woodward, Director of The Child Psychology Service, says that first, you need to have a word to yourself. “Primarily, parents are worried about their children being in a small space for a long period of time and not being able to meet their needs in a way that is socially acceptable to other passengers.” But don’t worry, she says, “Your children have a right to be on a plane, it’s public transport. There’s going to be a point at which they’re going to cry, there’s going to be a point at which it’s stressful, so prepare yourself with some soothing emotional regulation scripts: ‘In 24 hours time I am never going to see these people again’, ‘We’re all going to land and we’re all going to be fine’, ‘I’m doing the best with the tools I have available to me at the moment’”.
Sometimes, you might just find that other passengers are allies in your plight. Richard and his husband John were among the few New Zealanders to leave the country in 2021. They travelled to Canada to pick up their daughter, Poppy, who was born through surrogacy. Richard says of the flight home with their newborn, “Actually, everyone was fantastic. That was when I really felt that sense of community amongst parents, which I had never experienced before. Everyone was like, ‘Oh, your baby is so cute. Don’t worry, we’ve all been there.’ And when she slept, the crew brought me a massive whisky”.
On top of the usual worries, Dr Woodward says that travelling parents are now dealing with an extra layer of anxiety. “In a Covid world, obviously logistics have become harder. There can be factors such as Covid tests pre-flying, extra restrictions on-board and in airports, whether your flight’s going to be cancelled – these add to the white noise of the experience. And people have got real fears about becoming infected with Covid, especially with their young children.”
That is one of the concerns Kerrie has about her upcoming flight to the UK with her husband Chris and their son Teddy, who just turned two. “The whole rigmarole of travelling during Covid put me off, because I don’t want to spend more time and money than we have to. And when Russia invaded Ukraine, I was back to the drawing board. At the moment, I’m trying to assume it will all be settled before we fly, but it’s so hard to know what to do. I’d never want to do anything that puts us at risk.”
BUILDING CHILDREN’S CONFIDENCE
Of course, we are all feeling more anxious in the world today, but when you carry stress into the airport with you, says Dr Woodward, “Children pick up on that vibe. And then their default anxiety communications come out, which might be getting more clingy, more demanding, or running off – whatever it is that kids do when they feel unsettled. Remember that they are your priority, and if it means you have to get down onto their level and say to somebody else ‘Hang on, wait a minute’ and just explain something to them, or pick them up, or let someone else go in the queue in front of you while you settle your child, that’s going to pay dividends”.
One way to build up travel confidence in your kids, says Dr Woodward, who is a mother of four, is to play. “One of my favourite ways is to play airports with my kids before we go. It feeds into the excitement of the trip too, but what you’re doing is preparing them for the things you’re going to do, so they know what’s coming next. Just make it fun and silly.”
Once you and your children are mentally prepared, what else can you do to make your flight go as smoothly as possible? If you can, schedule flights to align with your usual routine. Richard says, “We tried to get a night flight, tried to time it with the normal time Poppy would go to bed. So, before we boarded, we did a routine like we normally would. We got her into pyjamas, we fed her so she’d be sleepy.” Dr Woodward agrees, even when travelling with toddlers and older children. “Ideally, I try and book the first leg of the flight to coincide with bedtime. They get on the flight, there’s much excitement, we get settled in, and they fall asleep.” And, she adds, “I try and land back home for the evening, so we can all pile out and crawl into bed. Don’t underestimate how tired you will be”.
SPOIL YOURSELF WITH STOPOVERS
If time and budget allow, some parents choose to extend a layover into an overnight stay to give everyone a chance to recover. Kerrie says "We will stay in Singapore for three nights on the way to the UK, and another one night on the way home, to break it up”.
My partner and I have flown with our kids back and forth to Europe several times now, and always include one night in a hotel near the airport in Dubai. We enjoy a swim, a good sleep and a child’s fantasy buffet breakfast before the second leg. It’s meant that we have more control over flight timing, allowing us to align both legs with bedtime.
TIME FOR TAKE OFF
When you finally get to your seat, the hand luggage is stowed, and the kids are strapped in, how exactly do you keep young children occupied in a small, confined space, for hours on end? The simple answer is that sometimes you can’t, as Loretta discovered when she heroically flew on her own with her two-year-old twin boys, Hunter and River. “They were running around on the plane, up and down the aisles. You can’t really say ‘sit still’ to such little kids. The attendant was really nice and brought us colouring books, but they were like, ‘no! Let’s run and make friends with all these strangers!’”
BUILDING A TRAVEL TOY BOX
There are a few things you can pack to make the hours sitting down as much fun as possible. Before our first long flight, a friend suggested we gift wrap all the activities and toys we were packing, to add an extra element of fun and excitement. We wrapped 18 tiny presents for each of our kids, and they opened one for each hour of the flight. They were only little things like a stamp, a toy car, or a small sticker book, and each opening only lasted thirty seconds, but it marked the passing of time, and collectively the gifts created a mini toy box that sustained them through the flight and then through months of travel.
AVOID THE HANGRY
Sustenance of the edible kind is also important. The packaging of plane food might be enticing for little eyes and hands, but children often struggle to find food they want on their trays. A bread roll or a fruit salad might get gobbled up, but if your kids can be picky, as mine can, you might consider carrying enough snack food like muesli bars, cheese spread and crackers, and dried fruit to make up their meals during the flight. The only thing more trying than a tired, grumpy toddler is a tired, grumpy, hungry toddler.
LET THERE BE SCREENS
And then of course, there are screens. Dr Woodward advises “Planes are not the time to have screen restrictions. If they want to sit and watch Peppa Pig for hours on end, just let them. Give yourself a break. It’s absolutely fine”.
When we travel, we bring an iPad for our kids to share. They each have a pair of noise cancelling headphones and we have a dual headphone adaptor, so they can watch together.
At the end of the day, as Dr Woodward says, “You can’t prepare for everything”. Something will go wrong, and inevitably, everyone will get very tired. But, no matter what happens, a long-haul flight with children is often the start of an adventure. An adventure out in that wonderful world.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 58 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW