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Air Travel with Small, Nervous Children

Last night we returned from a nearly two-week visit to my in-laws.  I love spending the holidays with family.  However, since we live in different cities, we first have to get there, and that usually means a trip to the airport.

Travel makes me edgy in general, but add two small children who are invariably off-schedule to the mix?  The potential for disaster is mind-bogglingly great.  My solution to this is to plan, plan, and plan some more.  And then to be flexible, because it’s likely that very little will go according to plan.

Our oldest has been flying since he was a wee babe.  He’d been to my in-laws, my parents, and Israel all before he was a year old.  He’s an old pro.  Imagine my surprise when, on the trip to my in-laws last Pesach, he freaked out on the plane.  FREAKED OUT.  Like, a toddler panic attack, poor thing.  Screaming, crying, squirming to get out of his seat.  I think everyone on the plane was traumatized.

So, I had a gun-shy kiddo on this trip, as well as a new perambulator (the baby is walking, everyone) to contend with.  This would, indeed, require some planning.

Please, please, please let this trip be okay!

The Planning

For every trip with kids, we always pack certain staples, such as diapers, wipes, sippy cups/bottles, pacifiers, loveys, snacks, change of outfit, what have you.  For this trip, I also brought a wide array of entertainment and bribery, including:

·        New! coloring books

·        crayons

·        New! stickers

·        New! toy trucks

·        New! books

·        even more snacks

·        lollipops (the current bribe of choice in our household)

Notice a trend?  I ransacked Target’s dollar bins, as I wasn’t about to shell out a lot, yet I wanted the edge of novelty.  Even though I rotate their toys, I sensed that any old toy wasn’t going to cut through that thick layer of toddler fear.

We didn’t really have a game plan for the littlest one.  Because he’s only a year old, it’s basically up to us to occupy him, which, due to the confined area, is done by 1) holding him, 2) feeding him or 3) holding him while feeding him.

Regarding the panicky kiddo, in addition to preparing treats and bribes, I did an experimental thing.  Children (okay, people), crave routine, right?  They like to know what’s coming next, what to expect.  It makes them feel safe.  This is one reason we read the same book nineteen times, and why pajamas always come before reading books at bedtime.

So I created a whole story, about a little girl, “Shoshana,” who was going to visit her Bubby.  Since her Bubby lived far away, she had to go on an airplane to get there.  The story included taking a taxi to the airport, security, potential turbulence, overhead announcements, and, of course, take-off and landing.  Whenever the plane went Shake Shake Shake (my representation of taking off, poor choice of wording, I know), “Shoshana” told her mother that she didn’t like it, and “Shoshana’s mother” held her hand and suggested that they daven to Hashem.  I told him this story nearly every night for what seemed like a month.

I also did my own davening to Hashem that my child have an easier time this trip.

The Outcome

The trip to the airport unfolded just like in the story, complete with a commentary from my toddler.

“I in airport!  I go on airplane!  Whoa!  Airplane!”

Everything was hunky dory until we actually started boarding the plane.  Perhaps it was a combination of the noises, the small space, or some unpleasant memory.  Whatever the reason, as we made our way to our seats, he was whimpering and making a Very Sad Face.  This was met with looks of both sympathy and terror from the other passengers.

At our seats, he didn’t want to sit in his own seat, much less buckle up.  He was firmly planted on my lap.  I made a lot of encouraging noises to him, about how he was Such A Big Boy, and remember how “Shoshana” buckled herself in, and how she sat by the window, too!  Somehow he agreed to sit in his seat, but was still very uneasy.  His uneasiness escalated as the plane began to taxi and then to take off.

While continuing to speak calmly and reassuringly, I whipped out the New! trucks from the bribery stash and started playing with them on his lap.  This was a hit, and he slowly calmed down and proceeded to drive the trucks, complete with sound effects.  After a few minutes he turned to me and said,

“I happy.  I not scared anymore.  I happy.”

I’m not gonna lie, I kind of felt like a parenting genius at that point.

My husband and I basically spent the rest of the flight taking turns holding and feeding the baby.  Important note:  Constantly feeding your child on a trip is not always the best idea, especially when the child is young and prone to spitting up.  I speak from unfortunate experience. However, this time it was a pretty solid plan.  Little skinny pretzels and a small box of raisins kept him happy most of the time.  Especially the box for the raisins.  That was the best toy ever.

When the two brothers were together (i.e., when I was holding the baby), it was smooth sailing.  They entertained each other sweetly, with big brother feeding little brother pretzels, and nary a quarrel in sight.  Aside from being slightly annoyed that my husband was able to sit by himself and read (the nerve!), I was content.  Well, except for…

The X Factor

This leads me to the other necessary items anyone should travel with:

·        a sense of humor

·        spunk

·        the ability to ignore rude people

·        a deep abiding belief in karma

Because there will occasionally be That Guy on the plane.  He was sitting behind us this time.  Initially, I was so intensely focused on assuaging my son’s anxiety that I didn’t notice the attitude coming from behind me.  After we got through the rocky patch, my toddler was super happy, and, as happy toddlers are wont to do, was making all sorts of plane/car/pterodactyl noises, singing various nursery songs, etc.  I was SO RELIEVED that he wasn’t a basket case that I seriously didn’t care what kind of noise he was making.  He was happy, I was happy.  Finished.

However, I started to notice that whenever my son’s volume reached a certain decibel, That Guy would groan, mumble, or go “shhhh.”

Seriously.  He was shushing us.  Who does that?

Then, when he got up to the restroom, he leaned over and said,

“So you’re the one who’s making all that noise.”

I calmly remarked,

“This is nothing compared to the last trip.”

That Guy didn’t respond.

His little snarky noises continued throughout the rest of the flight, but I wasn’t about to start shushing my toddler for that.  The amount of noise my child was making was not outrageous or offensive.  Plane travel carries the risk of unpleasant peripheral noise.  I myself was subjected to That Guy’s conversation with his seatmate about how the stewardesses these days aren’t young and attractive like the ones on Pan Am (I’m not making this up).  I begin to ruminate on how if That Guy was so sensitive to noise on the plane, he should just buy those noise-cancelling headphones they sell in SkyMall.

Even though I strongly disliked how That Guy conveyed his opinion of my child’s noisiness (he could have just asked nicely, after all), it’s not a bad idea to teach my kids how to be quiet in small, crowded places.  I made a mental note to work on teaching my son about volume levels in an airplane, but mainly because it’s good manners, and I just hadn’t thought of it for this trip.  I was too busy warding off a toddler panic attack, thank you very much.

You’re welcome, Mr. Curmudgeon.  And thank you.  May you be surrounded by happy toddlers wherever you go.

What are your travel strategies with youngsters in tow?


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Rivki Silver

loves to create and connect. A classically trained musician, she enjoys performing a wide range of events, from playing piano for siddur parties to playing clarinet in orchestras or chamber ensembles. She is also an accomplished writer, with pieces found on many popular Jewish websites. When she is not busy with music or writing, she can be found volunteering in her community, and, mostly, taking care of her family. She lives in Cleveland. 


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