So you have decided it, you will book that family vacation and take your toddler on a flight. If you are a seasoned traveler you are probably not nervous and simply waiting for the day of your trip to arrive, but if your toddler has never been on an airplane before you may be nervous and wondering how you will survive. After all it can’t be easy to be in a confined place, with lack of movement and fresh air for a small child. And maybe it is not easy for them but after many flights with Julia I have a few tips to share with you to make sure your baby is a happy trooper and you don’t have to worry about upsetting the entire plane with a child that won’t stop crying. Here are six things that you can do to avoid temper tantrums on a flight (and pretty much anywhere too)
1. Give your child lots of playtime before the flight
This should be a given, but children can’t plan ahead and they are unable to tell what they should do in order to feel better in the future. Children need to be able to move freely and run around. Research the airport that you will be departing from and most times there is some sort of play spot for children somewhere, go there, and stay there for as long as you can! A child that has the possibility to move freely is less likely to be stressed out and more likely to cooperate with their parents.
If there is no playground in the airport you can still avoid temper tantrums on the flight by letting them play and move around in a safe space. I normally find a spot where I won’t annoy other people but where there’s something that can be attractive to my daughter, like for example a line of free seats, or a ramp she can run up and down from. You can also play hide and seek or play racing each other setting the limits of where it is okay to go and where it is okay to run. Normally it is not that hard to find somewhere like that where you child can play a bit more freely and still not bother other passengers.
2. Make sure to keep your child entertained.
Now that Julia is a little bit older I let her pack her own little backpack where she can pack her own little toys. She likes to bring some play doh and cut out shapes to play with, or her small plastic kitchen to play with us. We also pack one or two books that we can read together and little plastic dolls. There’s plenty of things that you can do to keep your child entertained while on a plane (this is what works best for us). If you’re okay with your child having access to an iPad or phone download some movies that they can watch during the flight.
I am a firm believer that it is really important to let children get bored so that they can come up with ideas of what to do on their own but I beg you, don’t let your child get bored on a flight, especially on a day flight. A bored child that can’t move freely and that doesn’t have access to their regular toys or things that they are used to is a recipe for disaster. There are plenty of games that you can play together as well, you know your child better so I am sure that you will be able to come up with a dozen ways to keep your child entertained which can help avoid temper tantrums in a flight.
3. Don’t travel with a hungry baby
This should be obvious but hunger and happiness don’t go hand in hand, especially in children. I always pack my own snacks even if Julia is likely to eat what she gets on the plane. First of all you will have to wait a little bit until the food or snacks are served on the plane, and secondly you’re not even sure that your child will like the food (I mean I don’t always like airplane food, so I can’t guarantee my toddler will like it either!) My secret recipe is making sure everybody has something to eat before getting on the plane, like this at least we travel on full tummies. But then I also always carry simple snacks that Julia likes in case she gets hungry.
The limitations from TSA on liquids don’t apply to breastmilk or formula, but you may run into trouble with other types of liquid foods. Bring solid foods like a sliced apple, crackers, dry cereal or other things that you know your child will like and if you are on a long flight bring what could do as a meal for your child in case they don’t like the food on the airplane. Imagine flying for 10 hours with a child that won’t eat what is served, poor baby and poor parents! With regards to food there is no such thing as too much and always go by the premise of better safe than sorry. In Spanish we have a saying that says “Barriga llena, corazón contento” which translates literally into “full tummy, happy heart”.
4. Give your child a chance to move around.
Most of the times if there is no turbulence the captain will turn off the seatbelt sign, make it a game with your toddler. I have shown Julia that while the seatbelt sign is lit up we must sit and stay fastened and we play a game where whoever sees the sign go off first wins, of course she always wins but then she is fully aware of when she is allowed to get up. I always think it is a good idea to let kids walk around the cabin a little bit. They tend to find interesting people to say hello to and more easily stop thinking about how long they have been in the plane.
For this my recommendation is to always choose an aisle seat, this way you are more free to move around the cabin and get up as many times as you need. If you prefer windows seats you can always ask your neighbour to get up so you can exit the plane, it is up to you. If you are traveling alone with your child and have a three seater I usually try to put myself in between the child and the neighbour so as to spare the neighbour from being kicked and stepped on (I know what I have)
5. Prepare your child for the trip
Kids understand much more than we give them credit for, for this we need to talk to them and anticipate everything you will go through. Tell them you’re going on vacation and talk to them about the place you will visit. If you can show them pictures of where you’re going even better so they can visualize themselves what they’ll do. Then of course talk about the plane, are you taking one or two planes, how will you get to the airport? We always told Julia that to get to mexico we had to take one car, the planes and then one car. I’d have a small paper with boxes an she could cross off a box every time one plane or car was done. You have no idea how this helped. Well in advance she knew that in a week’s time we would take a plane to the beach or to grandma and grandpa.
When you talk about the plane tell them a plane is a place that takes you to pretty places faster, but it is also a plane where they’ll have to sit for longer than they probably like. Tell them they can take their favorite toy and you can buy or make their favorite snack, this will make it easy on them to understand what they’re doing and what to expect from this experience. Talk to them no matter how verbal they are or how old they are. The first time Julia got in a plane she was one month old, even then I talked to her about what was about to happen and how we were going to get there. I truly believe it helped.
6. Stay calm and don’t stress
I left the best and most important for last. This is not your struggle, it is your child’s struggle. I once read a quote that said that our job as adults is not to bring more chaos into our child’s mind when they are having a tantrum but rather provide them peace. This is so true in about 100% of the cases and it will help you so much if you’re flying with your child. Traveling can be very stressful and children can definitely pick up on our cues, so first and foremost you need to make sure that you are calm and not stressed.
Make sure you allow enough time before leaving home to go to the airport, like this you will not have to rush through security or deny a hungry baby a snack because you need to get to the gate. If you’ve left with enough time to spare make sure you’re not stressing about the trip, or about getting on the plane with you child. If they see you calm they are more likely to be able to stay calm themselves, because they will know, from you, that this is not a situation that they need to worry about.
Now if the worst happens and you find yourself on a plane with an hysterical child, fear not! First of all, your child is not the first child to cry on an airplane, second of all, you and your child have as much right as anyone else to be on that plane. With that being said, remain calm. There is nothing more upsetting or confusing for an already stressed child than to have a parent that starts screaming at them to be quiet or stop crying. Of course it is annoying as a passenger to hear a screaming toddler but honestly, what are the odds of helping your toddler to be calm by screaming at them our telling them to shush? Probably zero. On the other hand if you stay cool and respond to their needs and try to help them through their tantrum in a calm and relaxed manner you are more likely to be able to help them calm down.
I am talking about this with regards to traveling on a plane but this applies to pretty much anytime or occasion. Children’s brains have an underdeveloped frontal lobe, which is why they are all emotions and not at all rational and many times you just can’t avoid temper tantrums. By helping them identify their feelings, naming them and accepting whatever it is they feel we are setting them up to grow to be emotionally balanced adults. Let’s just not expect a 3 year old to be emotionally balanced, by biology it’s just not possible.
We are not used to accepting all these big emotions because most of us grew up in societies and families where big negative feelings were not okay to have. This of course calls for a whole other blog post but the reason I mention this here is because it may feel counterintuitive at first to acknowledge the sadness or frustration your kid is feeling and not ask them to stop (This helped me understand why). Know that this is normal, but after a few times of being with your child and helping them navigate their emotions it will become a bit more natural. That, and preparation are key. If your child has all their needs met, and by needs I don’t just mean hygiene and food needs, I mean also their emotional needs and their need to move and play, they are more likely to be okay with all these new places and experiences.
What’s the longest time you’ve spent on a flight with your toddlers? How did it go? Were you prepared? Let me know in the comments.