April 9, 2012

Flying Solo (With a Young Child)

Alice in the window (Tip 4), with stickers on her arms and a bag of Trix in her lap (Tip 5).

Over the weekend, Alice and I took a quick plane trip to Southern California where my parents and most of the rest of my family live. This time, my husband wasn’t able to join us.

I used to dread flying alone with a little one. Not because of any particularly bad experience – it’s just one of those things (like so many others) that are a lot easier to manage with extra arms and eyes.

But there isn’t always a choice, and after many attempts, I think I’ve worked out a pretty smooth system for traveling alone with a young child.

Rest assured, I’ll be kicking myself for that kind of smug over-confidence when Alice throws me for a loop the next time we travel together. But, for now, I thought I’d pass along a few of the things I’ve learned:

1. Hands-free: I’ve found the literal juggling act is a lot easier if you’re carrying as little as possible around the airport terminal, especially if one of the things you have to carry is your kiddo. Check what you can. Buy diapers when you get there. If there are things you can mail to your destination ahead of the trip, do it. I’m tempted every time, but I don’t even bring a stroller to the airport – one more thing to keep track of, and we’ve always gotten along fine without it. (When Alice was an infant, I did bring along a Baby Bjorn carrier, though)

2. Well-rested, well fed: There was a time when I thought it was a smart idea to schedule flights when Alice would typically be napping – she’d sleep through most of the trip! That was crazy. Taking an already tired child into an overwhelming environment only made her cranky and less likely to sleep when she really needed it. A disaster all around. I realize it can be a moving target, but what works for us is to fly about 1 ½ to 2 hours after she’s due to wake up. That way, she can eat a snack and get through the groggy, still-adjusting-to-being-awake phase before we leave. By the time we’re at the airport, she’s in her best mood.

3. Surviving the security line: Before getting into line, shove coats/sweaters into your carry-on, and make sure your boarding passes and ID are accessible. Then, try to relax. When you get to the conveyor belt, put your carry-on down first. Grab a bin, then take your shoes off, one-at-a-time. (One handed! With a baby on your hip! You are so amazing!) Children 12 and younger do not have to remove their shoes, so don’t sweat that. Also know that parents carrying children are not screened with advanced imaging technology, but anything you’re carrying besides the baby and his clothes – blankets, bags, stroller, sling, etc. – will have to go through the X-ray machine.  Formula, breast milk, juice and liquid medications are allowed – they’re subject to special screening, though.

4. Aisle or window: To me, it’s a lot easier to contain messes, noise and antsiness from the window seat. And if you can afford it, I think it’s worth paying for ticket upgrades that let you board first – that way passengers who hate traveling near children can just avoid you. Less stress for everyone.

5. Managing ear pain: If you're traveling with an infant, encourage her to breast feed or suck on a bottle to reduce ear pain during descent. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, for children 4 and older, you might try filling a cup with water and having them blow bubbles into it through a straw. (The AAP has lots of resources for traveling with kids. Find more here). 

6. Something different: I used to count on packing Alice’s favorite toys, books and snacks into our carry-on, thinking that what she most loved at home, would be most likely to keep her happy in the air. But kids can be fickle, especially really young ones, and I’ve had much better luck packing one old standby plus a couple of special treats – things that are new, or that she usually doesn’t get to have most of the time.  I also really try to be as flexible and fun as possible – I know it isn’t easy for her to sit still for so long or to wait in so many lines. So, if she wants to march around the terminal, singing “Jingle Bells” in the middle of April while we’re waiting for boarding to begin (Were you at ONT on Sunday? That was us!), well then, I’m singing “Jingle Bells.”
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