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How to handle toddler tantrums when you're traveling

Flight delays are bad. Flight delays with toddlers can be a nightmare.
/ Source: TODAY

Small children and airplane flights: The mere mention of those two things in the same sentence is enough to make many parents — and many airline passengers — cringe.

Add in flight delays, especially around a holiday rush, and traveling with kids can squash your spirit fast. After all, so many things can go wrong while trapped in the sky with absolutely no escape.

Keep these tools in your arsenal to help you steer small children away from major meltdowns in public places — from flights to slow-moving store checkout lines, waiting rooms at doctors’ offices and anywhere there isn't an easy escape route.

Here are family travel tips from veteran parents and Dr. Harvey Karp, the pediatrician and author of “The Happiest Baby on the Block” and “The Happiest Toddler on the Block.”

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 toys and books that your child will like and has never 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 tells “Hide them in different places. This will make it a little more interesting and exciting for your child.”

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 can be pulled together on the cheap, often with odds and ends you already have at home. Some ideas:

  • Fill little plastic 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 choking hazards.)
  • Flipbooks or coloring books can keep older toddlers happily occupied.
  • Slinkies are always fun — and quiet!
  • Stickers and sticker books are exciting — especially if your little one is being introduced to them 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 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 chain.

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.

Try bringing a mix of new, never-seen-before books along with favorite standbys. Hand puppets can also dazzle your child with stories and running commentary about the flight. (In a pinch you could even turn an air-sickness bag into a puppet.)

4. Don’t blow your arsenal all at once.

Yes, flying with all of this stuff 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 haul.

“Try not to pull out all your weapons right at the beginning of the trip,” Dr. Karp says. “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 little ones. In “Happiest Toddler on the Block,” he teaches parents how to nip tantrums in the bud by acknowledging how kids are feeling and speaking “toddlerese” to them.

He also recommends “gossiping” with others nearby — your travel partners, friendly passengers — about what a good job your child is doing.

6. Time feedings correctly.

A hungry baby, toddler or child is almost by definition a cranky child. To keep kids happy, keep them fed and watered. Delay feedings for two to three hours or so before the flight takes off, if feasible.

Once you’re seated, pull out a mini-feast of foods your child loves. (Avoid anything too sugary, even if it's a “favorite," simply because your kid may start bouncing off the walls. Caffeinated colas and iced teas also are big no-no’s, Dr. Karp says.)

If you suspect that your child will turn up 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.

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 caffeinated. Your child may be astonished and thrilled at snack packs emblazoned with his favorite cartoon characters. It’s a party!

8. Hydrate at the right time.

Let your child have a drink whenever he needs it, of course, but try to reserve at least some high-value liquids, served up in a favorite cup, for takeoffs and landings, when kids’ ears really can bother them. 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 provide some relief via swallowing.

9. Book the right seat.

If you're a breast-feeding mom, you may enjoy the privacy and the 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 whenever you can.

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 looks when you hand your babbling child an $800 rattle — but who cares? This is the time to do whatever works. Load up your phone or tablet with fun kids’ apps before the flight — ones that can keep your child entranced for long stretches of time. Stored photos and videos also can be fun diversions.

12. Let them watch TV.

Are you a parent who avoids letting your child watch very much TV at home? That’s great, but your fellow airline passengers will appreciate if you’d be willing to throw out your usual rule book just this once. “Movies, cartoons, absolutely!” Dr. Karp recommends. “Whatever’s going to keep them entranced is what you want.”

If your airline doesn’t offer TV, bring a tablet with you packed with kid-friendly programming.

13. Show them the wonders of the airplane bathroom.

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.

14. Enlist help from allies.

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 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.

Follow TODAY writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, Twitter @ltcoff and Google+, and learn about her bestselling book "My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts" at

This story has been updated since its original publication date of Oct. 21, 2009.