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September 8, 2010

The Flying Toddler

For anyone curious about flying with a toddler, I'm here to share my tips. What I can't share, however, is the horrifying-in-action-yet-hilarious-in-hindsight misfortunes of a woman flying with her toddler alone for the first time because...well...because the experience was smooth and simple and, honestly, in a dozen ways easier than it was to fly back home with an extra pair of arms, attached to Simon in the next seat. Which is not to imply that Simon makes travel difficult, only that the success of these endeavors usually has less to do with the main characters and more with the environment in which they operate. Meaning:

1. Pick an empty flight. Obviously this isn't something you can totally control, but if you have the opportunity to fly during non-peak hours or on non-peak days, DO IT. Or, if you have the budget for it, just book the entire plane for yourself; something tells me they let big spenders have a second helping of peanuts!

I was even more relieved to have narrowly missed accidentally boarding a full flight to Boise when I discovered that my correct flight--the one to SLC--was only about one-third full. Wombat and I had an entire row to ourselves--all six seats, from window to window--and there was only one person in front of us and one person in back of us. To give the kid room to wriggle while still being somewhat contained, I sat in the center seat and put him at the window. This arrangement provided entertainment ("Hi, moon! Hi! HIIII!"), it allowed me to keep a hand on him at all times, and it also kept him out of the center aisle. The empty seat next to me was the perfect place to store things he was no longer playing with (i.e., everything I'd brought for him to play with) and I could also use that tray table to hold my double shot of whiskey Diet Coke.


2. Stay close. Basically, don't live more than a two-hour flight from family and/or friends you visit most.

I was able to hold it together for the hour and forty-two minutes it took to get us from gate to gate, but any longer than that and things would've gotten hairy. I can pack two hours of distractions into a carryon, and we can both make it two hours without having to brave the airplane bathroom, but that's our limit. It's good to know and respect your limits.


3. Have a cute kid. If your kid is ugly and screaming on the plane, everyone will hate you; that's just science.

You are a clever and resourceful person, so chances are you'd already thought of this and are now in possession of the cutest kid in the world. Good thinking, you!


Seriously, though, having an entire row to ourselves was the saving grace for the solo flight. Wombat was just as good on the return flight with Simon as he was on the departing flight with just me, but the former one was completely full, and the fact that the poor kid had to stay on either of our laps the whole time, and that we had to keep him from kicking the seat in front and launching toys to the seat in back, made all of us unhappy. To a certain extent, you can't really control your toddler (that is, you can't keep him from acting like a toddler, which sounds obvious but is a truth frequently underrated), so the next best thing is to control his environment in whatever ways you can (see points 1, 2, and 3 above).

If you lack complete control over the entire world, however, here are some practical suggestions that might help:

a. Streamline the security process. Know the drill and dress/pack accordingly. Wear slip-on shoes and put the same on your kid. Don't wear metal accessories like belts and watches and genital piercings. If at all possible, use a carrier at the airport and leave the stroller at home.

We've flown with a stroller exactly once, and it was the biggest asspain of our airborne career. You have to unload it and fold it up for security, you have to check it at the gate and hope it's waiting for you when you get off the plane, and it gives you a false sense of the amount of stuff you can reasonably handle on your own. My rule is take only what you can carry, and that includes the toddler himself.

b. Fly light. You're going to be carrying everything through the airport (and you just know they'll fly you out of and into the farthest gates), so don't weigh yourself down with nonessentials. Specifically, don't let your own crap add to the problem. Take one carryon and throw a smaller purse inside it if you have to. You're a big kid; you can live without your iPod/book/magazine/Kindle/makeup/slippers/lavender eye pillow for the duration of the flight, and if, by chance, your kid actually falls asleep and you find yourself with a few hours to kill, just think of how thoroughly you'll get to read Skymall at last!

We were flying at Wombat's bedtime, so I fully expected him to sleep through most of the flight (which is something he's done on all previous flights no matter the time of day or night), so in anticipation of that "free time," I'd brought a book, two magazines, and a Nintendo DS for myself. Of course, instead of sleeping, Wombat barely even blinked while we were in the air (too many things to touch and exclaim about!), so then not only did I have to carry all that stuff I never used, it also taunted me every time I had to dig through my bag to locate the next distraction for my sleepless charge. Relatedly:

c. Don't fly at naptime/bedtime. Everything I've read about travelling with kids says to fly when they'll be sleepy, and while that makes sense in theory, in practice, it's a recipe for disaster. If your kid sleeps, great, but if he doesn't? Then you have a cranky, exhausted little person who will likely have no patience for you or your ass face.

The next time we fly, I'm going to avoid Wombat's naptime and bedtime entirely. If he happens to fall asleep while we're in the air, bonus! high-fives all around!, but if he doesn't, at least he won't spend the flight consumed by that magical exhausted-and-pissed-off mood that makes toddlers so beloved of parents and strangers alike.

d. A little bribe goes a long way. Food, new toys, Elmo on the portable DVD player--all of these things are here to help you.

Pack a variety of distractions, but be conscious about what you're bringing. Legos and fingerpaints and that thing with all the lights and sound effects are probably not smart choices. And save the big guns for desperate times; I kept Wombat's favorite stuffed monkey hidden until he was on the verge of Something Terrible, and when it appeared at last, it defused the situation immediately. (Also, if you can help it, don't show your kid that his seatback tray table does anything other than remain in the upright and locked position. Once Wombat discovered that it unfolded, he kept flipping it up and down, each time yelling "New diaper!" for its resemblance to a public restroom changing station. It was cute, but cute is different than good.)

e. Disarm your neighbors. As I mentioned when I first wrote about flying with an infant, offer earplugs or drink coupons to nearby passengers at the beginning of the flight. They will be pleasantly surprised to know that yes, you actually do care that your child is disruptive, and it will probably also put you at ease, since most people respond with "Oh, I have kids of my own at home; I know how it is, so don't worry about it."

f. Drink. Not you, your kid. Little ears have a hard time equalizing the change in air pressure, but if you can get your kid to swallow over and over, it will help.

When I hear other people's kids screaming during takeoff and landing, I'm torn between, on the one hand, extending my sympathy as a fellow parent and, on the other, wanting to march up to the intercom and present a lecture on ear anatomy and barometry.

g. Overprepare. This doesn't mean stuff the entire playroom and medicine cabinet into your carryon, it means mentally prepare. Stuff your brain with worst-case scenarios. Regale yourself with horror stories of toddlers on a plane. Convince yourself that nothing good comes of flying alone with a child. Psych yourself up for this to suck mightily. Then, when bad things happen (and they probably will), chances are they'll still be far better than all the scenes you dreamed up, and you'll still be able to high-five yourself in the bathroom mirror at the destination airport for surviving intact.

I devote a fair portion of my life to worrying about things that never come to pass, and although some might say it's a waste of time, not to mention a VIP pass to the crazyhouse, I say it puts things into perspective. If I expected Wombat to sit quietly on my lap and read a book during the flight, I might not react so well to anything less than that, but the fact that I forecasted diaper blowouts and stomach upheavals and epic turbulance and possibly also snakes? All of that made it easier to roll with what few punches were thrown at me.

Was he a perfect kid? Almost. Was it a perfect flight? Pretty close. Should you forget you ever heard me say those two things and instead turn to Google with "toddler sucks will to live during delayed cross-country red-eye in blizzard"? YES.



We're flying to Eastern Europe in March. Our daughter will be 9 months old. We will be, by definition, violating almost every rule you gave... Hold me.

Maybe you've read this already but a couple of weeks ago Julie at A Little Pregnant solicited flying with children horror stories from her readers. She was about to fly solo with both of her kids and wanted some worst case scenarios to feel better about. If that's the way you lean the comments are here:

I will warn you, though, that the long haul flight rotovirus story that leaves all members of the family naked under blankets for 10 hours in air might just keep you grounded until Wombat is 60.

That first picture=Greatest thing ever. How many takes exactly did you have to do in order to get the freeze frame? Or are you and Simon just THAT good by now?

I read (and re-read) this with great interest. I, too, am a fan of imagining the worst case scenario & keeping the ol' expectations low. We're flying with the Bug next June (a 4 hour flight). Honestly, as long as we all manage not to vomit all over ourselves/each other/the rest of the passengers and the plane doesn't fall out of the damn sky, I'll call it a success.

I came back just to look at that first picture of Wombat again. LOVE.

I think you need to get this published in something like American Airlines magazine. When I see a toddler flying behind me in an airplane I usually freeze in fear. Of course, that is still better than the guy next to you who never stops talking to you.

So......did you actually have the double whiskey? or the diet coke?

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