Snakes On A Plane

It’s that time of year again — families are gearing up for their summer vacations and making all sorts of plans that may include a (dreaded) trip on an airplane.

The mere thought of leaving solid ground with a little one in tow can be enough to start the anxiety churning in the pit of your stomach and sweat beads breaking out on your forehead. I get it! I really do. I’ve been there myself many times. So I thought I’d pass along my own tried-and-true tricks to get you there in one piece without a pending lawsuit or splitting headache as souveniers of your journey in the sky.

  • Be prepared — make sure you have lots of diapers, pacifiers, her blankie and the stuffed animal or doll she sleeps with, food, wipes, extra clothing, books and any medicines that are being used. Expect delays and know you can cover the basics if you get stranded. I once had an unexpected 4 hour delay at O’Hare Airport with 3 little ones and almost ran out of diapers. They are HARD to find and you don’t want to end up in deep doo-doo.
  • Prepare her! Explain slowly and carefully (many times) well in advance of the flight how to behave on an airplane — “You have to stay in your seat; you can’t kick the seat in front of you; you have to use a quiet voice, etc.”
  • Help her get ready for the length of the flight by putting it into language she can understand — a day at nursery school, how long it takes to drive to the beach, 2 episodes of Sponge Bob plus 2 episodes of Sesame Street combined.
  • Mark the passage of time on the flight by making a chain out of colored paper clips with each clip representing a block of time (like 30 minutes). Have her take one clip off as each block of time disappears. Then she can see that you’re getting closer to your destination and it will help her be more patient.
  • Try to get bulkhead seats. No one is in front of you and there is more room for your child and your stuff.
  • Know your role: the teacher and the entertainer. Get in character and stay there until the flight is over. Doing so will help you stay calm and collected and she will follow suit.
  • Have her suck on something —  a pacifier, gum, bottle or your breast (depending on her age) to reduce pressure in ears during take-off and landing. You don’t want to start the ball rolling with a child who is screaming bloody murder as you taxi down the runway.
  • Clip a pacifier onto her clothes in case the other one drops and gets lost when the seat belt sign is on. You can’t have too many of those.
  • Play finger games (Where is Thumbkin?) during take-off and landing when toys must be stowed.
  • Buy a few new inexpensive toys and treats (gum, skittles, m&m’s, pretzels, juice box) that you wrap up as presents (secretly) and hide in your bag. The wrapping is important since the unwrapping takes time and kids love a surprise. The toys can be things like crayons, colored pens or pencils, cards, a coloring book, stickers — anything that will keep her occupied for a little while. Hand one out every 30 minutes or so, interspersed with you reading her a short book or letting her play a game on your laptop, or letting her listen to music or books on tape with headphones. Have enough activities planned to keep her busy for the entire flight.
  • Play games like I Spy, tic-tac-toe and cards — War is a good one, as is Go Fish and Old Maid.
  • Give her a job — tell her you are putting together an art collection for Grandma or a special friend who’s moved into a new place and needs art for her walls. Give her computer paper or a coloring book and crayons or (washable) markers and let her work. Make sure you collect her work and treat it importantly. Write her name and the title of the piece on each picture. And remember: Little ones will stay at the task a lot longer if you are doing the same thing, so get ready to color!
  • Make puppets out of the barf bags.
  • Consider using a pull-up if she is recently potty trained. If you can’t get out of your seat for an extended period of time you won’t have to worry about an accident.
  • If you have more than one child, sit between them to keep the peace and give each one plenty of attention.
  • Be VERY nice to the flight attendants. They can help you out or have you thrown off. Keep that in mind.
  • Pray for a smooth, quick flight with no surprises, keep your sense of humor, and remember that “This too, shall pass.”
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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.


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