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By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 10/22/2009 10:05:03 AM ET 2009-10-22T14:05:03

Small children and airplane flights: The mere mention of those two concepts in the same sentence is enough to make many parents — and many airline passengers — cringe. It’s common for moms and dads of babies and toddlers to approach flights with extreme humility and trepidation. After all, so many things can go wrong while trapped way up there in the sky with absolutely no escape.

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Want to have some tools in your arsenal to help you steer small children away from major meltdowns in confined public places? We’re talking flights, slow-moving store checkout lines, waiting rooms at doctors’ offices — places that simply don’t provide easy escape routes.

Here are several ideas shared by veteran moms and by Dr. Harvey Karp, the guru pediatrician who gave us “The Happiest Baby on the Block” and “The Happiest Toddler on the Block” books and DVDs. If you have additional ideas, please — please! — share them here. Armed with this information, may none of us be at an utter loss for how to kill time with a small child in a 17-by-30-inch space for one to eight hours ever again!

1. Get thee to the dollar store. If you’ve got a flight in your future, the dollar store can be your salvation. Take a childless spin through the store with the mission of spending $9 to $12 on silly little toys and books that your child will like and — this is key — that your child HAS NEVER, EVER SEEN BEFORE. Wait until you’re on the airplane to do the “reveal.” “Don’t have them all in one bag, or they’ll want ALL of them at same time,” Dr. Karp advised. “Hide them in different places. This will make it a little more interesting and exciting for your child.” Depending on what you pick up, each $1 toy or book can buy you anywhere from five to 20 minutes of engrossed playing and fiddling time. Priceless!

2. Plan other unexpected surprises. Mind-blowing options abound and can be pulled together on the cheap, often with odds and ends you already have at home. Some ideas:

  • Fill little plastic Easter eggs with random nuggets of distraction. Balled-up, colorful paper can do the trick. So can cut-out pictures from magazines and coloring books. (Depending on your child’s age, beware of filling eggs with items that could become choking hazards.)
  • Flipbooks or coloring books can keep older toddlers happily occupied for quite a while.
  • Slinkies are always fun — and quiet!
  • Stickers and sticker books are exciting — especially if your little one is being introduced to the wonders of stickers for the very first time.
  • Got some construction paper? Got a glue stick? Try cutting up a whole bunch of strips of colorful construction paper before your trip and storing them away in a top-secret plastic baggie. On the plane, whip out the baggie and use the glue stick to string the strips of paper together in a long paper chain. A good mom friend of mine shared this idea with me, and she swears this activity can be hypnotic.

Image: Child on plane
Getty Images stock
She's happy now, but she could blow her stack at any moment. That's why it's so important for parents to travel with oodles of smart snacks, beverages and distraction-aiding devices.

3. Be a master storyteller. Don’t forget that one of the ways to mystify a small child is to tell stories in an animated way. You can craft tales about where you’re going, whom you’ll see and what you’ll do when you get there. You can make up stories about the adventures your luggage is having in the belly of the aircraft. And if you’re too fried to think of anything along these lines, remember that new picture books are usually quite exciting. Try bringing a mix of new, never-seen-before books along with favorite standbys. Hand puppets also could be used to dazzle your child with stories and running commentary about the flight. (Heck, in a pinch you could even turn the little air-sickness bag in the seat flap in front of you into a puppet who spins yarns about the wonders of air travel. And those diagrams showing how to exit the plane in the event of an emergency always mystify my son for several minutes.)

4. Don’t blow your arsenal all at once. Yes, flying with all of this stuff can make you look like a bona-fide bag lady — or bag man — and yes, it can get heavy. But it’s worth it. If you’re flying with your partner or another loved one or friend, spread your ammunition out between you in the biggest carry-on bags you can stand to haul. “Try not to pull out all your weapons right at the beginning of the trip,” Dr. Karp said. “Pace yourself a little bit. ... Remember, you’re putting them under very unusual circumstances. You have to give to get.”

5. Speak their language. Dr. Karp is a huge advocate of empathizing with where little ones are coming from and seeing things from their perspective. In his “Happiest Toddler on the Block” book and DVD, for example, he teaches parents how to nip tantrums in the bud by acknowledging how kids are feeling and speaking “toddlerese” to them in just the right way. (Brilliant stuff!) He also recommends “gossiping” with others nearby — your travel partners, friendly passengers — about what a GOOD JOB your child is doing with different aspects of the flight. (Apparently kids, just like adults, love to overhear someone genuinely praising them.) All of these smart tactics can be strategically employed throughout the course of a flight, no matter how long or short.

6. Time feedings correctly. A hungry baby, toddler or child is almost by definition a cranky child. To keep kids happy, you have to keep them fed and watered. World-traveled moms I know have recommended delaying feedings for two to three hours or so before the flight takes off, if feasible. Once you’re situated in your airplane seat, pull out a minifeast of foods your child loves so much that they’re bound to keep him or her occupied for at least a little while. (Avoid anything too sugary, even if it falls into the “favorite” category, simply because your kid may unavoidably start bouncing off the walls. Caffeinated colas and iced teas also are big no-no’s, Dr. Karp said.) If you suspect that your child will turn up his or her nose at airport or airplane food, make and bring favorite items from home. Do whatever you have to do to avoid having a battle of wills with your child over eating an undesired food item. 

7. Go a little crazy with the foods you bring. This is one time when it might make sense to blow money on gimmicky foods and drinks that you don’t usually buy — again, just so long as the stuff isn’t too sugary or caffeine-laden. Your child may be astonished and thrilled when you whip out fruit snack packs or fruit roll-ups emblazoned with his or her favorite cartoon characters. It’s a party!

8. Hydrate at the right time. Let your child have a drink whenever he or she needs it, of course, but try to reserve at least some precious liquids — breast milk, bottled milk or what have you, served up in a favorite cup or other beverage-delivery device — for takeoffs and landings, when kids’ ears really can bother them. Many moms have pointed out that landings tend to be more uncomfortable than takeoffs, but get to know your child’s quirks so you can be prepared for ear pain and can swoop in and provide some relief via swallowing.

9. Book the right seat. If you have a tiny baby and you’re a breast-feeding mom, you may enjoy the privacy and the built-in leaning wall that you get with a window seat. If you have a toddler who loves to walk, run, climb, jump and explore, then an aisle seat is probably your best bet. This way you can get up and roam the aisles whenever the seatbelt light isn’t on and the drink cart isn’t in the way.

10. Time the flight with sleep in mind. Try to time things so your child won’t be expected to be an angel during his or her most challenging times of day. Don’t attempt to tackle airport security smack in the middle of naptime, for instance. Do try to fly when your child is most likely to sleep. In extreme cases, consider a red-eye flight; most kids simply CANNOT fight sleep beyond a certain point. To help them drift off to dreamland amid the white noise of the airplane engines, you might find it helpful to keep them awake for at least two to three hours before boarding the plane. Bring a pillow and a favorite blanket with you so they can sprawl out on your lap, or across your lap and your partner’s lap. (Your shoulder will thank you.) 

11.Let them play with your phone. People may shoot you strange looks when you hand your child a $200 rattle — but who cares? This is the time to do whatever works. If you have an iPhone, you can load it up with fun kids’ applications before the flight — applications that can keep your child entranced for long stretches of time. Stored photos and videos also can be fun diversions on a wide variety of cell phones and smartphones.

12. Let them watch TV. Are you a parent who avoids letting your child watch very much TV at home? That’s great — seriously! — but your fellow airline passengers will fall at your feet in gratitude if you’d be willing to throw out your usual rule book just this once. “Movies, cartoons, absolutely!” Dr. Karp recommended. “Whatever’s going to keep them entranced is what you want.” If your airline doesn’t offer TV programming or portable TV players, bring a portable DVD player with you along with a stash of programming that meets with your approval. (Many airports have places that allow you to rent portable DVD players.)

Image: 2-year-old boy with phone
Winda Benedetti
See how adept this 2-year-old is with an iPhone? He's occupied and content because his mom loaded up her phone with toddler-friendly applications before a trip.

13. Show them the wonders of the airplane bathroom. Let’s face it: Airplane bathrooms are just plain interesting. The light comes on in an exciting flash as soon as you lock the door, the tiny sink is adorable and, look! That little flap over there leads to the TRASH CAN! As an added bonus, the loud flushing toilet will blow most kids’ minds. (Of course, the toilet also could scare a jumpy child to death, so also keep that in mind!)

14. Consider Benadryl. Some parents sheepishly — and more than a little guiltily — confess that they’ve given their kids Benadryl to help them sleep on long flights. If this strikes you as a controversial option, you might want to give it a bit more consideration, Dr. Karp said. “I think Benadryl is fine,” he said. “You have to be a survivor. You’re taking them out of their comfort zone, and sometimes sleep really is the best thing for them. But test the Benadryl out some afternoon before your trip, because some kids get wired with Benadryl, and you don’t want to discover that on the plane.” Speaking of medicines, if you know your child is experiencing teething pain or is gas-prone, don’t fly without Infants’ Tylenol or gas drops. 

15. Enlist help from allies. This writer can become misty-eyed thinking of the wonderful flight attendants and passengers who have helped me with my infant son on long, cross-country flights. One flight attendant handed me a portable DVD player — without making me pay the $10 rental fee — just in case I needed it. (I did need it, it turned out — even though I somehow never imagined I actually would! Talk about a rookie move on my part.)

Another time I sat in an aisle seat next to nice grandparents who held my son for me while I hauled items I needed out of the overhead bin. Another time a mom of small children two rows behind me organized an impromptu toy-and-book swap so all of our kids could play with new stuff. (Genius!) When flying with small children, be extremely open to making new friends all over the aircraft. Walk up and down the aisle at appropriate moments and do “meet and greet” sessions with friendly fliers. And heck, if the people in front of you and behind you are exceptionally friendly, you could conspire to hand them puppets and toys so they can help keep your kiddo laughing. One last note: If you can tell you’re sitting next to someone who is not at all happy about your little one’s presence, offer (kindly and sympathetically) to help that person switch seats with the assistance of a flight attendant. That way everybody can be happier and more relaxed.

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