News | Published November 29, 2012

Safe, healthy, and stress-free flying with young children

With the holiday season upon us, many families will be traveling with children. If you are thinking about going on a trip that will include young children and airline flights, it is crucial to plan ahead to make the trip as stress-free as possible. You may not have control over the weather and flight cancellations, but you do have control over when and how you fly.

Take some time and think about your children's schedules - are they early risers and happier in the morning or the opposite? Consider whether or not it's realistic to assume you and your family can be ready and to the airport in time for that 6:00 am flight. Will you be making connections? I recommend trying to give yourself at least two hours at any connecting airport so you have time to transition between what are often long-distance flights, and get to use the bathroom, change diapers and have something to eat.

Planning out your trip with these considerations in mind can definitely help things run more smoothly.

In packing for an airplane trip with kids, good planning is the key to success. Make a list ahead of time so you don't forget important items for your child. Age-appropriate essentials to remember for your carry-on include:

  1. Diapers, wipes (pack more than you think you'll need)
  2. Burp cloths
  3. Bottles for preparing formula (if formula feeding); remember that you can't take large amounts of liquid onto planes, so you will need to buy water at the airport if it's needed for mixing formula on a flight
  4. Changes of clothes
  5. Tylenol
  6. Benadryl
  7. Toys to occupy kids
  8. Age-appropriate snacks
  9. Lollipops, or anything your child can safely suck on while the plane is changing elevations (to help with ear pressure)

Getting to the Airport
Ideally, someone will take you to the airport so you don't have to worry about parking and moving your luggage and kids very far. This service can be provided either by a friend/relative or by a cab. Depending on how long you are planning to be gone, there's the option of long-term parking, which is usually a distance from the terminal and sometimes requires a bus ride. Arranging to be dropped at the curb with all your luggage is the best option.

I do worry about checking bags at curbside with small children in tow. I always feel more comfortable getting the kids inside the terminal and away from the hectic traffic at airports, unless there are two parents (one can get the kids inside the terminal and one can deal with the luggage outside).

Getting through security with little ones and all their stuff can be the most stressful 20 minutes of the trip. With everyone needing to get their shoes off (even young ones) and so many items to send through the scanner, planning for airport security procedures is key to keeping your sanity throughout the process. Make sure that everyone has easy off/on shoes and keep metal jewelry to a minimum to reduce the need for slipping it off and on. Have all boarding passes and identifications ready and together before starting through security. Some larger airports will have a family line and most TSA agents are understanding and try to ease the experience for children. Giving yourself plenty of time to get through security is the best advice; rushing leads to mistakes, which only prolong the process.

On the Plane
Boarding the plane can also be one of the more stressful times of the journey. Almost all flights have a pre-boarding period when those who need extra time can go first. This can be a blessing and a curse. It is great to get on board first and start working on getting carry-on bags stowed and children settled in their seats, but I often find it frustrating if they send in the regular boarding passengers right behind you. When my wife and I were traveling with young children, we had better luck waiting until the end of the boarding period. As the last ones on instead of the first, we felt less rushed and pressured. I would certainly suggested going first or last - whichever you prefer.

During the flight, changes in pressure as the plane ascends and descends can be painful for children. The best way to avoid troubles with ear pressure is to have kids sucking on/swallowing something during the flight's ascent and descent. Options to try are breastfeeding, bottle feeding, drinking from a sippy cup, or, for older kids, sucking on a lollipop.

Make sure you have plenty of quiet activities for kids to do in their seats. Electronics are good but can be tough to keep quiet and are not allowed during takeoff and landing. Play-Doh or Silly Putty can make good quiet diversions, and so can coloring for older kids. You can never have too many options here. Plan ahead and stock your carry-on.

In addition, it is always a good idea to have small (less than 3 oz.) bottles of Tylenol and Benadryl with you in case of an emergency on the plane. You never know when a fever will spike, so having Tylenol on hand can make a critical difference in such a situation. The Benadryl can be vital for any allergic reactions, as well as for signs of motion sickness. If your child is not doing well, bringing on drowsiness and sleep can be helpful in dealing with extreme fussiness.

Car Seats
Children who weigh less than 40 lbs. are safest in a car seat while on an airplane. Airlines will allow children under age two to be held on a parent's lap, but safety concerns during turbulence have led to the use of car seats on airplanes.

There is also a CRS (child restraint system) known as a CARES safety device that can accommodate children between 20 and 40 lbs. It has straps to restrain the child and is much less bulky to travel with. It doesn't work for vehicles on the ground and is only acceptable for airplane use.

If you need a car seat while you are at your destination, then take your child's along and use it on the airplane if it makes the most sense. Checking car seats can be concerning; however, as you don't know how well they will be treated. I would also worry that they would not work as well if they are banged around - it would be similar to a car seat going through a motor vehicle accident.

In preparation for travel, I recommend parents visit the TSA website on car seats.