Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time there was a small prince and his heroic Daddy travelling on a long haul flight to America. The boy was finally asleep.
He had been sleeping soundly for an hour. Still at the age where he could curl himself into the limited space of a seat in economy. They were at 32,000ft at 500mph, 60 minutes from their destination. They were relaxed.
Then the crying started.
It began as he slowly woke up, then got louder as the pain intensified. My 4 year old gave me that “make it stop Dad” look and then began to scream.
I had no idea what to do, I didn’t even know what was wrong with him. He had sustained no apparent external injury and it clearly wasn’t some sort of bad dream. He was grasping at his hips and torso telling me it all hurt.
The last time I’d seen him like this it was trapped wind. It had immobilised him on the living room floor for a good 30 mins before he finally passed gas and the situation immediately, and literally, deflated.
So I got him out of his chair, into the aisle, to hurry him to the airplane toilets. But as I set him down in the passageway his legs gave out beneath him. More shouts of pain. Placing his abdomen on my shoulder I carried him all the way to the toilets in the rear, squeezed us in, locked the door and sat him down, no deflation.
He was now rubbing his leg and telling me it was specifically his calf that hurt. It did seem a bit hard to the touch, although that might be the hypochondriac in me. Can 4 year olds get DVT? That was definitely the hypochondriac talking. “How sore is it Buddy?” “Worse pain ever in my life Dad.” It’s hard to get a kid to give you an accurate pain scale if they have only ever experienced up to a 4 before. He may well have been correct.
10 mins of cuddles and my attempts to massage his calf and distract him from the situation led to a considerable climb down in volume. Not long and he was swinging his legs on the toilet and giving me his usual excited running commentary of his bowel movements.
We walked perfectly normally back to our seats and it occurred to me: His leg had fallen asleep. The poor chap had never had the nerves in a limb go AWOL before and was justifiably terrified by this inaugural experience of Pins and Needles!
What is the moral of this story? When travelling with kids there will always be something unexpected and uncontrollable. Take charge of everything you can control before you board the plane then, game faces on, it’s time to roll with anything and everything children and flying can throw at you.
Here’s how I prepare for long haul flights:
MadDadSkill One: Make personal contact with your airline when booking
Often airlines have mini bassinet or chair that they will attach to the bulkheads. To access these you need to be sitting in the front rows of your section. These cribs are perfect for an infant to sleep and give your arms a break. Contacting ahead of time can help to ensure that you are 1) in the right seats; and 2) there will be a mini bassinet/chair for your child to use.
Each airline varies in what they can provide and it’s not always obvious on their website. Worth making your case on the phone or with a follow-up email to customer services. Whilst you’ve got them on the line, ask if they have meals specifically for children. Some airlines offer this service, but you need to book in advance.
MadDadSkill Two: Research your airport
Many airports have free children’s areas where you can keep the kids amused while you wait. London Heathrow Terminal 3 has a decent soft play area where they can knacker themselves out away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the terminal. Do your research beforehand because they aren’t always signposted well. Also worth knowing a bit about the airport layout if you want to avoid an experience like the one I had recently in Copenhagen with regards to the marathon walk from arrival gate to buggy collection.
MadDadSkill Three: Shoulder restraint seat belt
Once they are old enough to have their own seat the IATA (International Air Transport Association) encourage children to wear a shoulder restraint that supplements the normal seat belt. These aren’t provided by the airlines so you need to get one off the internet before you travel. It’s not cheap but it’s a good safety device and we use it on all flights now. It gives children more support so if they do fall asleep they remain more upright and less bent in half at the waist!
MadDadSkill Four: Teddy responsibility
My son came with us when we bought a new luggage set. We got “Mummy” and “Daddy” large red solid wheeled suitcases, he got a “little boy” purple wheeled suitcase.
From two years old onward he could be seen pushing this suitcase all the way through British and American terminals. Aside from being absolutely adorable and garnering much attention from every traveler he passed, it also gave him something to focus on. It was something that was his and he was intent on delivering this bag to the other side.
In short, it kept him from getting bored.
We’ve also tried this trick with a teddy bear; shifting his attention from himself to making sure the teddy bear was comfortable and enjoying itself.
MadDadSkill Five: The great toy cull
You don’t need half the amount of toys you think you do. I’ve seen so many families travelling with carry on bags FULL of different toy options. It’s weighty and cumbersome and if your child decides to kick off it doesn’t matter how many toys you have, you are in for a long flight!
We have always brought a few different books and a handful of small toy cars. Swiftly he learns he has no other option and accepts it. I often say a child’s desire for toys expands to include however many toys are available. I’ve always found that snacks are a much more effective and long lasting distraction. Bags of pre-cut carrot or cucumber sticks, string cheese, simple small sandwiches, anything the kids can graze on throughout the flight all serve to distract for awhile.
MadDadSkill Six: Shameless screen time.
I know we all fret about how much screen time the kids have. Yes I’d love to be the family that spend a 9hr flight playing I-Spy out the window (is it C for Cloud again?!). But long flights are all about survival and that means throw the normal rules out the window and survive at all cost. No parent is going to judge you for plugging them into the IPad or hitting repeat on the in-flight movie for the third time. My son watched Frozen, twice, back-to-back with no headphones. We are now in a bizarre situation where he loves Olaf the Snowman and Elsa but has no idea what that Let It Go song is from!
MadDadSkill Seven: Mindset and acceptance
I have extensive professional experience in extreme survival situations and they are not dissimilar to flying with children. You just have to accept that you may well spend the next 12 hours walking the aisles. I don’t feel guilty for pacing with baby or for playing with my son. Anyone who glares at you is welcome to try to do it better! You have to get into a mindset where you won’t begrudge the kids your attention, even when you’ve been up 24hrs.
All I can say is: The plane will eventually land, the sun will rise and you will make it through the night. Just bear down and push through it.
Anyone else have any good tips I haven’t included? I’d love to hear them.