Four plane rides under our belts and we’re still no veterans at traveling with Baby. How can we still be so flustered at something we have done several times before? I try not to think about that too hard and, instead, focus on what we learned on this trip to London.
Lesson #1: Do not plan plane travel with a toddler over a holiday weekend
This should be obvious. It should be one of those things that you think about regardless of whether you are flying with a toddler, or by yourself. But somehow, when you focus intently on scenario-planning all of your different possible flight times in a noble effort to schedule a flight that will coordinate with a toddler’s normal sleeping time and, simultaneously, offer the easiest time-zone transition, you tend to skip over the obvious.
We arrived at the airport 3 hours before our flight was due to take off. We intended to use the extra time to figure out how to get Baby through the airport’s new security screening without exposing her to a crazy amount of radiation or an inappropriate ‘enhanced pat-down.’ Instead, we spent that time waiting in line to check our bags. We had checked in at home, like we always do. We had expected to quickly move to the ‘online check-in’ line to quickly check our bags and move on, like we always do. Instead, we spent nearly an hour waiting in line with the hundreds of other people traveling via United airlines that day. This was STUPID. The security line was equally long but Baby and I were ushered through the old-school metal detector with little more than a passing glance from the TSA agent. Perhaps in the grand scheme of things, this should have made me nervous. It didn’t. It made me happy because I thought that the ‘tough part’ was over. It wasn’t.
Finally through security, we joined about 300 people who had also planned their travel poorly and had jammed themselves into the same airport terminal to depart for the holiday. This brings me to…
Lesson #2: do not plan to feed your toddler at the airport
At first, family dinner at the airport seems like a brilliant idea. You’re going to be in the airport anyway, presumably with time on your hands. A well-fed toddler is typically a happier one, and you want a happy kid when you are preparing to be confined for multiple hours. You will need some form of entertainment before boarding and a child who is stuffing chicken tenders into his or her face is less likely to irritate fellow passengers. (Ultimately, felow-passenger-irritation is likely unavoidable but it is always best to delay the onset at least until you are on the plane).
For all of these reasons, M and I decided that Baby’s afternoon milk/snack and dinner would be purchased and offered at the airport. Maybe if we had followed tip #1, this would have worked out just fine. But we didn’t. Instead, we pushed our way through massive mobs of people to get to Starbucks for afternoon milk. Baby sat and drank for the 10 minutes it took M to get the gate-check tag for the stroller. Then she got antsy and wanted to move. Since the whole bag-check and security process had taken longer than planned, we also needed to get moving on dinner. So we pushed back through the massive mob to get to the only place that could offer us a peanut-free meal that Baby would consider eating: Wendy’s. Then we pushed back through the crowd to find three seats together so that Baby could sit peacefully in the middle of the airport and eat her dinner out of a paper bag. This is a dark moment in my plight to serve Baby only wholesome, healthy food. But somedays are more about survival than others.
This pushing through mobs of people would not have been so bad if Baby had stayed happily sitting in her stroller. But the excitement of the packed terminal was too much for her and she insisted on being out and about. Which brings me to…
Lesson #3: find a safe place in the airport where you and your toddler can hang out
For us, it was one of those Hudson News stores – the kinds that sell magazines and books alongside generic souvenirs and travel supplies. She was happy to browse the toys and play with the magnets at her eye-level. Nearly 20 minutes of relative peace. Ahhh.
Finally on the plane, we settled in. We set up our CARES harness and arranged our carry-ons for easy access to key materials. Of course, Baby was happy in her own set until the ‘fasten-seatbelt’ sign was illuminated for takeoff, at which point she wanted to get up. No lesson to be learned here, as far as I can tell. This is simply murphy’s law of traveling with a toddler: baby will be happily confined until confinement is mandatory.
The flight itself, I have to say, was smooth. It didn’t feel that way at the time. We wanted Baby to sleep starting at her normal US sleep time but dinner and our close proximity to the bathroom prevented this from happening. She. Just. Could. Not. Sit. Still.
Exasperated by my unsuccessful sleep attempts, I took her for a walk to the back of the plane to give all of us a break. There I met a mother of a few older children. She was ushering each child to the bathroom individually, helping them squeeze into the small space and properly lock the door. The rhythm of it all made me feel that M and I weren’t so alone when it came to airborne parenting.
In the middle of the bathroom relay, a couple arrived at the back of the plane with us, waiting for a turn in the bathroom. The woman of the couple smiled at Baby before turning to me and saying ‘She’s being so good!’ I smiled back and at that moment, despite my frustration that she was still wide awake, I realized that Baby really was being quite good. She was not screaming or yelling. She had not thrown a major tantrum. She was happily resting in my arms in the back of the plane and not insisting on running frantically up and down the aisles. This was success.
Shortly thereafter, we headed back to our seats. Less than an hour later, Baby was sound asleep, her head on my lap, her feet pushing up against M’s legs. She stayed that way until about 30 minutes before landing.
And then I learned lesson #4: in the air, the same basic rules apply.
I’ve done my fair share of struggling to get Baby to sleep, in her own crib, at home. Just like on the plane, I used to get all worked up and frustrated when I didn’t succeed. I’ve since learned that once I calm down, Baby does too. And then she sleeps. The plane is just a different setting. Not an alternate reality. What works (or doesn’t work) on the ground will work (or not work) on the plane.
All of these lessons are not to say that we did everything wrong. Here are the things we did and planned for that went right:
Leaving in the evening, shortly before Baby’s normal bedtime, will help sleep come
Though not as quickly as I had hoped, the exhaustion of the day did eventually take over, as planned.
Getting Baby her own seat is the only way to travel
I think we are nearing the point now where we have no choice and Baby will require a seat for all plane travel. But the toddler two rows back spent his 7 hours sitting on his mother’s lap and, judging from his cries and her evident frustration, that is no way to fly.
Snacks, TV,and familiar faces from home can make all the difference
Two bags full of food and toys seems excessive in hour 3 of packing. In hour 1 of flying, we wish we had packed more.
Four lessons learned, just getting to our destination. That is the excitement that is traveling with a toddler.