Parenting at 38,000 Feet

Fasten your seatbelt as I take you on a practical guide to navigating a long haul flight with a little one in tow. I actually started writing this latest blog on my long flight back to the UK having spent two months down under in Australia.

I am currently sat here on an airplane on my way back from Australia. I have exactly 1 hour 34 minutes left of a 9-hour flight until we land in Hong Kong; stretch our legs and board again for another 13 hours back to London Gatwick.

For many people with children traveling to Australia would seem like an excruciating punishment. 22 hours (maybe less or more depending on where you are staying), trapped, frantically trying to entertain a little one.

With a brother living in Australia I knew that one day we would take the plunge, but in mid-November after getting a definite date for my husband’s kidney donor operation …(yes he is a bit of a hero donating a kidney to my brother) …we were booked to fly just a few weeks later on 6th December, Louis just over 22 months old. We had already done a few long-haul flights — Phuket, Thailand when he was 11 months and San Francisco, America when he was 16 ½ months, but this was going to be epic!

As I look around the airplane I see an array of people; the formal type who seem to sit elegantly throughout the flight, everything neatly positioned; the comfort type — spread out, blankets and pillows everywhere, fast asleep and dribbling and then, like a beacon I am drawn to those traveling with children — they either look utterly exhausted and on the edge of a meltdown or are clutching onto every second of peace when their child is napping, watching a movie or matching their sleep. I was the one watching a movie; Bohemian Rhapsody, it was amazing by the way …like being at a concert for one!

Just in front of me to the right there is a lady being spoon fed her meal by her husband whilst she tightly holds her 18-month old baby who has not slept until the 7th hour of a 9-hour flight and refused to go in his bassinet, just a few centimetres in front.

There is a man walking a small toddler up and down the airplane, back and forth, back and forth, trying to steer clear of the stewardesses.

On the far right is a quiet toddler; she is happily sat up in her bassinet, being fed by her mum making literally no noise at all. These are the children that make every other parent uncomfortable; they set the bar way too high for expected behaviour.

Then behind me there is a small boy, probably about 6 months old, sat in a car seat making loud noises and keeping Mum and dad on their toes. He screams a lot with excitement and has a weird rattle toy that sounds like a turkey being strangled…all the parents looking around thinking; “don’t wake my fucking baby!!”

Our section of the airplane looks like a kindergarten after a day of messy play.

But, joking aside, having travelled a lot with Louis from a young age — I wanted to write this blog to give faith that actually — flying with children, is not all that bad.

Don’t get me wrong, we have had many a moment when Louis was younger where I wished I’d never boarded the damn flight, but overall — with a few key essentials — I have found that flying with a little one should be explored and enjoyed. There’s a great big world out there. Hopefully my experience can help you on your future travels.

BOOKING YOUR FLIGHT

Flight Times

When we travelled to Australia from the UK, we decided to go with flights that coincided with Louis current sleep times. Some people put their watches straight into the time zone of the destination they are arriving at, but we decided to stick with what we knew and worry about time zones when we got there. Our first flight was late evening so Louis was going into his night-time sleep. This meant for almost the entire first leg of our 13-hour journey he slept. We then had a 3-hour stop over in Hong Kong, so when we boarded our second flight, after Louis had some food and watched some programmes he went into his long afternoon nap. We landed in Australia in the morning at 10am and just kept Louis awake until he reached his normal nap times. It took him a few days to get into the new time zone. I would definitely recommend coinciding flights with your little ones bed and nap times as it can really help kill some hours on the airplane. Jetlag happens, but I have always been amazed at just how quickly Louis adapts. In both Thailand and America where the time zone difference actually feels harder to cope with then Australia, after some mega naps and forcing ourselves to eat at normal mealtimes (i.e. breakfast when you think it’s the middle of the night), it really did only take a few days, probably 2 when on holiday and 3–4 when back home.

Paying for a seat for your little one

Children under 2 travel for free and are not allocated their own seat. On long-haul flights there are bulkhead seats normally found where economy meets business class, that offer bassinets for your baby to sleep in. Bassinets are also available in Business and First Class.

When we travelled to Thailand, we actually paid for Louis to have his own seat. We travelled with his car seat (more info below) and we wanted to be more comfortable. Obviously we had to pay a supplement for the privilege, but for us the extra costs was worth it. A bit of advice when you do this, because they are unable to book a seat for an infant, when they booked a seat they used an alternate date of birth for Louis. Both times when checking in at the airport we had issues with them identifying the seat as it didn’t match Louis’ passport. Luckily we had made a note of the seat number that he had been assigned and they were eventually able to locate the seat. This is just something to be aware of.

As a side note, even if you do pay for an additional seat, your little one when under 2 has to sit on your lap for take-off and landing and whenever the ‘fasten your seatbelt’ sign is switched on. When we flew to America, Louis was having a lovely deep sleep, then bing, the seatbelt sign appeared. I looked at the Stewardess, telepathically begging her to let him stay where he was, but no, I had to drag him onto my lap, navigate the strap around both our waists; it was like having a ventriloquist dummy!

Picking the right seats

We have travelled in quite a few different seats around the airplane; some have worked really well and would definitely be our preferred seats. We had 4 flights to and fro in Australia. We sat at the front bulkhead seats, middle row of 4. These are normally reserved for people travelling with babies but there were no requests on our flight so we were fine. What was also good was that we had a spare seat in our row of 4, so Louis ended up sleeping across two seats. The dream you may think… not so much. What we hadn’t thought about was him turning over. James and I got woken up with a thud, when Louis tumbled to the airplane floor. Ouch! The other downside was that many passengers used it as a walk-way to get to the bathroom so we constantly had people stepping over us — a bit annoying. Another time we sat in a standard row of 3 on the left side of the airplane. We put Louis next to the window to barricade him in, it worked so much better then I thought. With all his bits and bobs to entertain him (more below) he was really comfy and cosy. The best seats we found however were bulk head seats but were on the side of the plane in a row of 3. It meant that we had extra legroom, but with Louis sat by the window we could barricade him in but also give him space to play. It was perfect. It was not an emergency exit seat so we were able to seat Louis there (emergency seats normally ask for passengers to be over 12 years old) and because we were on the side, no one tried to walk in front of us. These really were the perfect seats for our long haul flight, so make sure you look out for these when selecting seats.

Economy, Business, First Class

I have had this debate with people before as to whether business and first class should be restricted for adults only. I disagree. As far as I am concerned, children should be welcomed everywhere. If you are in the financial position to fly upper class, then why should your children not be allowed to travel with you. Air travel is not just a luxury, it is a necessary form of transport and if I could afford to travel in first my children would too.

When we flew to San Francisco, Louis didn’t have his own seat however, our friend (who travels extensively and should have shares in British Airways!) used his points to upgrade us to Business Class. It worked really well because he secured us the two middle seats. This meant that James and I could sit next to each other, facing the same way and with the sides up, and footrests down, we essentially had our own little area. We would often put the footrest up and sit in the gaps to let Louis have a little square to play in. I must admit that when travelling in Business I did feel a lot more conscious of other passengers. Either side of James and I were seats facing the opposite direction, so in theory you can both look at each other if you had the partition down. I had a mature older lady sit down next to me. I think she could see the fear and apprehension in my eyes. I just looked at her and said “I am so sorry, you pulled the short straw!” She laughed, thank god, and actually starting interacting with Louis. Phew. I also did feel slightly guilty when sat in the boarding lounge chatting to a family of 4, Mum, Dad and 2 kids. There were dreading their upcoming flight, not knowing how their little ones would behave. I nodded in agreement, sharing the same worries, but didn’t tell them that I would have the luxury of laying fully flat and probably getting quite a few ZZZZZZ’s.

AT THE AIRPORT

Transport at the airport

It may be good to know that sometimes airports take your prams off you at the check-in desk and do not give you the option to take it right up to the airplane. When we travelled to Thailand, our airline did not let us take the pram. For this journey we were taking a car seat on board, but this was not that easy to carry around the airport with Louis. It may be a good option to check with your airline before flying and maybe pack a wrap or baby carrier. We have noticed on our travels that a lot of airports have temporary prams, like mini trollies that have a baby seat and space for luggage. However in saying this, I have only ever seen them in the departure lounges once you have gone through customs.

For our latest trip to Australia, we invested in a Trunki as we were not taking a pram with us. I have to say, it was a 50/50 toss up as to whether it would end up as something we lugged around unused or a godsend, and lucky for us it was the latter. He rode it, pulled it and it made us move around the airport a little bit quicker …which was handy when we almost missed boarding our connection flight as they changed our gate without us realising! Hong Kong airport is pretty big so there was me — the panicking mum — and James pulling Louis at the speed of lightning on his Gruffalo Trunki!

Taking a car seat on board

When we were travelling to Thailand, Louis was 11 months old. We paid for an extra seat so that we could be more comfortable and take his car seat on board with us. It is worth checking with your airline before you do this, as I have been informed that some may not be as accommodating. But for us it was great. Louis had his own seat and was securely fastened. Plus we then had our own car seat for travelling around Thailand, which made us feel much happier and safer.

Airport facilities

Most airports have a family area with some form of children’s play. We flew to Australia from London Heathrow Terminal 3, which unfortunately — at the time — had no kids area as it was undergoing a full refurb. They did have a temporary area, which consisted of two touchscreen TV’s and some dilapidated stools. Still it kept Louis occupied for half an hour. There are also obviously many eateries at the airport so again a good wait to kill some time is to find somewhere to grab a bite. It does often mean that by the time you arrive at your destination you have eaten enough food for a week but hey, one of the best thing about holidays is enjoying the cuisine right?!

Ordering Baby Supplies to the Airport

This is a huge tip that someone gave to me when travelling with a baby. You can pre-order items to be delivered to the Boots store on the departure side of the airport. That means you can order your baby formula or ready-made milk and nappies to collect once you have checked your baggage in. When we went to Thailand Louis was drinking ready-made Aptamil, but as usual, because we were not organised, we left it too late to order for collection. So I had to pack it all in our suitcase. At this point Louis was having around 3 bottles per day, which as you can imagine on a 2 week holiday meant we had a lot of ready made milk to take! I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad if he was on powder, but he suffered a lot from Colic when little so we didn’t want to change it. Most of our luggage weight allowance went towards the milk.

Any milk you take through security with you will likely be tested. Don’t panic. It is normal. If you have made up a bottle to take through they will likely get you to drink it too I have heard.

Family Express Lanes at the Airport

Many airports have express lanes for families so look out for this as it makes navigation so much easier and quicker. If you all have newer UK passports with chip ID, kids under 12 cannot use the express lanes so you have to queue and go to a border control person/desk. We learnt this the hard way after queuing for 20 minutes with an aggravated toddler!

When flights start to board, normally those with children get to board first so try and hang around near the check-in counter. Boarding a flight can bring out the worst in people, don’t expect special treatment from those without kids …often they don’t care. Just listen for the announcement and push your way through if you have to! When boarding for San Francisco, I was stood holding a sleeping baby and still everyone pushed in front of me.

Keeping little ones on a leash

Airports are busy places. It may be stating the obvious but you have to keep your eye on your little ones very closely. Don’t get distracted sniffing your favourite perfumes in Duty Free… what me? So if you have no pram or Trunki, you may find airport prams that you can use as mentioned above. Alternatively you could use reins or a backpack bag that has a lead, it’s a bit like reins but more subtle!

Delays

We all hate delays, and heaven forbid cancellations, but although they are rare they do happen. When we were flying back from Thailand we got delayed 5 hours. Well as it turns out our flight was rescheduled, but the majority of the passengers were not informed about it …don’t get me started. Luckily I had packed enough food and supplies to cover this extra time. Make sure you take more nappies and food then you think you need in case of delays. Also if you or your children have any special dietary requirements take some snacks. I am gluten intolerant and found I was quite limited as to what I could eat at some airports.

UP IN THE AIR

Stay calm at all times

This is one of the biggest pieces of advice I can give to anyone travelling with a child. Do not over-worry about other passengers on the flight. If you are lucky enough to board a flight with lots of other children, you will instantly sense the solidarity between you all. It’s like a gentle nod to say ‘I’ve got your back’. Of course we all want our little ones to behave, for our own relaxation and enjoyment of the flight but should they get upset, or become distressed, stay calm. Focus on them and their needs and not the grumpy person sat next to you. Not everyone will be sympathetic but hey, you have just as much right to be on that flight as they do. I have witnessed people in the past get so uptight because of the looks and glares they are getting and it makes the whole experience miserable. Being that high up with no escape adds an extra subconscious pressure. In basic terms, yes there may be arseholes who moan at being near a child, but don’t let them stress you out.

Take Off and Landing

This can be the worst part of flying in particular due to the pressure it puts on your ears. It is a good idea to give something to your little one; if they have a dummy then let them have it or perhaps give them a bottle to drink. For slightly older children, like many adults do, you could give them a sweet to suck on.

On Board Entertainment

On most long-haul flights, well at least every one I have ever been on, you get your own TV screen with a selection of entertainment. They have a special selection of children’s TV shows, films and games. From about 18 months Louis was more engaged with TV shows, we used to let him watch a few CBeebies programmes in the morning. When we flew to San Francisco he enjoyed watching some TV shows that we had found on board. It definitely kept him occupied for a few short periods. But when we flew to Australia we bought Louis his own Amazon Fire HD8 Kids Edition and headphones— this enabled us to download lots of his favourite films and programmes, which at that point included Thomas the Tank Engine, The Gruffalo, Bing and In The Night Garden. Although I am conscious of becoming a parent that just lets their child have a tablet all the time, I have to say that for flying it was absolutely brilliant, our knight in shining armour. I thought we would be constantly be walking Louis around the airplane to keep him occupied but when he was awake, he just loved watching his favourite shows. I mixed that with some films on the on-board screen and it killed hours of time! I would highly recommend this specific tablet too as it is modified for children and comes in a great child protective case. I got a tablet holder as well so that I could rest it on the tray table. The one I ordered was pretty huge, but worth investing in one as it meant I didn’t need to rely on resting it on the seat in front or getting Louis to hold it.

What Toys and Activities to take

I was mindful of selecting toys that were not too noisy. I had also read somewhere that taking a new toy is a good idea. Something that is unfamiliar for them to explore and engage with. So I filled his Trunki with his favourite teddy and then a mixture of colouring books, crayons, sticker books and some new story books; I found a miniature set of Thomas the Tank Engine stories which were perfect! I did also pack some mini cars and trains when we went to Australia, which Louis always plays with. He played with them for a bit on the airplane, a few times they fell under the seat which was a little annoying but they came in really useful when killing time at the airports in between our connecting flights.

Baby Milk & Food

On the airplane we found the staff to be pretty helpful when we needed to heat milk. They do not allow you to use their microwaves as they have some super duper strong ones, but they will put some hot water in a jug for you to use in the kitchen area. Just be a bit more organised in case it takes you a while to track a stewardess down. ‘H-angry’ children are no fun, especially on an airplane!

Before Louis was old enough to enjoy a children’s meal on the airplane, we actually took some of our own food as well as his milk. Ella’s Kitchen was one of my favourite brands — they do food pouches that you can easily heat in a jug of water but also mini-meals for older toddlers that come in a plastic pots. They can be eaten hot or cold.

On-board Children’s Food for Toddlers

When we travelled to Australia Louis had his own seat and we ordered him his own kids meal. At this stage he was pretty good with food, eating most things. The food was actually pretty decent and appealing and came with lots of snacks. There were pasta dishes, chicken and wedges, breakfasts with egg, tomato and sausages, yoghurts and organic snacks like oat biscuits and popcorn. I also took some of my own snacks on board just as back ups. It is well worth doing this as with the time difference, I found that sometimes Louis was asleep when they served the food up but I didn’t worry as I knew I had some supplied for when he was awake.

Comfort for your little one

I took one of Louis blankets and his favourite teddy onto the flight. He doesn’t have comforters as such but I just took them for familiarity.

Another item you MUST get for young children is an inflatable leg rest. My friend told me about it as her cousin swears by them for flying. There is a company called Fly Legs Up however I found a similar version on Amazon called Docazoo for a quarter of the price. Basically it is an inflatable rectangle that when inflated is the same height as the seat, allowing your little one to stretch their legs out and also lie down. It was INCREDIBLE!!!! It worked best when sat in the standard economy seats as I could wedge it in behind the row in front of us. It inflates and deflates in seconds and doesn’t take up that much room in your hand luggage. The only potential downside is that I have read that some airlines restrict them; I assume this would be for safety reasons to other passengers, in particular in an emergency if they were obstructing a walk way. However for the small price, I took the risk, and for us it paid off massively!

Tackling the changing of bum

There is no denying it; the baby changing facilities on an airplane are pretty awful. They are small, confined toilets which just about accommodates the length of very young baby. When we went to Thailand, Louis just 11 months old, it was a struggle but doable. However Louis did have a very messy poo that burst out of his nappy, so getting the back-up assistance of James in a toilet cubical barely big enough for one person was tricky.

When he was 5 months older and travelling to America, Louis suddenly built a phobia of the toilet. He didn’t like laying back on a flat surface that was crammed and uncomfortable. I had to try and change him whilst he was doing stretch sit ups, grabbing my neck as if he was about to fall down the flush! It was stressful. I admit, a few times, because we had the room in front of our seat I changed him on the floor…. I was kind enough to make sure no one was eating.

With Australia it wasn’t so much the phobia; that had subsided. It was his size. He just did not fit on the changing area. So again, where we could, we laid our mat down and changed him on the seats. Not very glamorous but sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.

Spare clothes

I can’t stress enough the importance of spare clothes, not just for your little ones but for you too! We have had poo disasters and projectile vomit incidents leaving both James and I in a bit of a mess. We were able to quickly get Louis changed and store his messy clothes in some nappy sacks. Generally I take 2 spare outfits. Havibg experienced spending a journey smelling like a sewer, I now also throw in a spare top and if space, bottoms for James and I.

Quick Checklist of what to take on the flight in hand luggage:

  • Medicine — (you can get handy sachets of Ibuprofen and Calpol instead of buying it in bottle form)
  • Nappies — (take more then you think, your little one’s bowels may change with the air pressure)
  • Changing mat — (in case of emergency lap or chair changing!)
  • Baby Wipes
  • Antibacterial wipes
  • Spare clothes (for little ones and you!)
  • Dummies — (make sure you take a few in case one gets lost; it could be a fatal mistake!)
  • Baby bottle/drink cups
  • Baby Milk & food — (pack a little extra then what you need in case of delays)
  • Snacks
  • Toys & Activities (maybe include a favourite toy as well as something new!)

So there it is my top tips and advice for travelling on a long haul flight with a child in tow. I am sure every time I travel I will learn something different, have new challenges and also experience a few moments of smug parent elation. For example our flight to and from Australia were SOOOO much easier then when we travelled to Thailand and America. I slept more; I managed to watch 3 films and generally was more relaxed as Louis was content. It probably helped that James and I donated all our pillows to Louis so that he was extra comfy …the things we do for our little ones hey!

I really do hope that this blog helps all you budding travellers and gives you the confidence to tackle something that may seem daunting. Happy exploring everyone!

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