“Pass me the aspirin – I’m going to need it for this flight”, loudly proclaimed our row mate on a Paris to Toronto flight when she saw us with our 18-month old son seated adjacent to her. As it turned out, our son was a perfect passenger; much better behaved than the cat crying in his cage a few rows behind us. But there is something about young children, babies especially, on airplanes that immediately turns people off. Everyone has some sort of horror story about the baby that cried the ENTIRE flight, or the toddler that kicked the back of their seat for FOUR HOURS STRAIGHT. I have even read arguments in support of “child-free flights”, suggesting airlines reserve certain flight times for the over 18 crowd.

Tips for Flying with the Under 5 Crowd

I’m a strong believer in the importance of traveling with children and I adamantly disagree with any organized movement to make it even more difficult or inconvenient to take my kids on any flight of our choosing. It can be extremely stressful to be the parent of a child who will not or cannot stop crying during a flight, however I believe this is more often the exception than the rule when traveling with youngsters. Having flown both long and short distances with multiple children under the age of five, I challenge the bad reputation of children on flights and believe that the journey is a fun part of any vacation.

Based on my experiences, here are four “must-haves” when flying with babies and toddlers to create a more pleasant flying experience for everyone.

1. A Back-Up

This “must-have” is twofold and will help keep your children comfortable and quiet. The first back-up all parents must have is clothing. Most parents, myself included, bring back-up clothing for their children pretty much everywhere, so it should be a no-brainer to bring an outfit change for the kids in your carry-on. Food and drink spills are pretty much inevitable anywhere with toddlers, so throw in a bit of turbulence and you are almost guaranteed to have a wet and sticky child at some point. A particularly unpleasant experience involving an entire can of Coke made me realize in addition to extra clothes for the kids, always pack an extra shirt and pants for yourself.

The second back-up for airplane travel with children is with regards to technology. Recently our family was traveling from Toronto to Calgary and we had our four-year old psyched up for non-stop cartoons the entire way. Much to our, and more to his dismay, we were advised by the flight attendant 20 minutes after take-off that the airplane’s AV system was broken and there would be no television or movies for the entire trip. All of the sudden we were forced to change our entire flight plan. Having a tablet, laptop or cell phone with pre-loaded games, movies and television shows can be a lifesaver in the event of technology failure, dead batteries or spills. While some flights now have WIFI on board, I have had success borrowing movies and shows via HOOPLA. This app is available through many cities’ public libraries and it allows you to temporarily download books, music and shows to your device for up to three days. As a part of our pre-trip planning, my kids each select a few shows to have, just in-case.

2. Something old, something new, something borrowed…

This old wedding adage also holds true for packing the carry-ons of the preschool crowd. When we fly, we let each child bring their own back-pack on board, filled with activities and snacks to hopefully keep them busy and occupied for the duration of the flight and thus less likely to cause a disturbance. The goal of this process is to fill their bags with items not familiar to them; some old toys forgotten at the bottom of the bin, a selection of new toys recently purchased at the dollar store (hidden until flight day), something borrowed from a friend. For an extra surprise, and depending on how ambitious mom or dad is feeling before the vacation, try wrapping these toys individually and doling them out gradually throughout the flight; i.e. one “new” toy for every hour of the trip.

I use the same approach with planning in-flight snacks for our children. We have a few favourites we always bring, like little boxes of raisins (to be consumed during take-off and landing as the chewing gets their ears a poppin’!) I also allow them to pick something from the grocery store we would likely never buy at home (my children now immediately associate air travel with cheese Handi-snacks).

3. Set reasonable and attainable expectations

Perhaps the best way to address the reputation of preschoolers as terrible airline passengers is for parents to collectively accept a few “realities” of traveling with kids. First, accept the cost of advance seat selections as part of the vacation budget. My family was once in the awkward position of having an aisle and window seat with a stranger in the middle who refused to change seats. After a highly calculated, six-person game of musical seats, we were able to sit together for the flight; a highly stressful situation which could have been avoided if we had paid for our seats in advance instead of waiting until check-in.

Second, be reasonable about what you are bringing onto the airplane. On one of our first flights with children, my husband and I attempted to board the plane with a stroller, multiple carry-on items, a car seat, a cooler bag and two hot coffees. Needless to say, we were a cumbersome mess. We now attempt to consolidate as much as possible before even arriving at the gate, and have learned to get our caffeine fix before boarding time!

4. Take help when it is offered!

Swallow your instinct to get through it alone and take advantage when help is offered to you. I have asked numerous flight attendants to hold our baby while we get settled. I have also requested additional snacks and beverages for our children mid-flight and have never been turned down. Certain airlines offer kid-packs with colouring books, crayons, little toys, etc. so don’t be afraid to request additional supplies. In return, respect the instructions of the airline when it comes to boarding and disembarking from the airplane. We always load at the first possible family call as traveling with children does require additional time to get settled.

Finally, take a deep breath! Air travel is a stressful experience for many individuals, which is often reflected in their reactions to seeing small children on the plane. We have found our demeanor directly influences our children and the calmer we remain, the calmer our children become. While it can be difficult when you sense animosity from your fellow passengers, often if you put on a happy face, your children will follow suit. And few people can resist the charms of a happy, relaxed, adorable preschooler!

There will always be people that roll their eyes and sigh when they realize they are seated near a young family on an airplane. However, with a bit of extra preparation, reasonable expectations and a strategically stocked carry-on bag, flights can be enjoyable for individuals and families of all ages!