While the prospect of traveling with young children may bring an automatic groan and knot to your stomach, with the right attitude and the right tools the journey can be actually pleasant or at least bearable.
Preparing for the journey:
It is especially important to keep your kids aware of what is going on if they are old enough. Talk about where you are going, places you are going to visit, people you are going to meet, where you will be staying. At the same time, try not to overwhelm the kids with too many details. Only essential information will be enough to keep their excitement going.
Explain to your kids what will be expected of them. To be with you at all times, to allow you plenty of time to locate a rest room in case they need to go, never to roam away. To be responsible for carrying their own bags. To use "inside voice" in the airport and on the plane. My son shouted "all aboooooooooooooooooooooard" for about the first 20 minutes on the first plane we boarded; by then it was too late for me to try and educate him on airline etiquette. If your kids are picky eaters, consider purchasing a kids meal or even a personal pizza before boarding.
Snacks provide a good distraction. Baby carrots and celery sticks provide great nutrition and can fool empty tummies. Pretzel sticks are great and can also provide distraction: by either counting them or trying to form the alphabet with them you will be having fun as well as educating your child. And yes, the snack size junk food snacks are a nice break for you and your kids. The only trick is not overdoing them and giving them out as rewards for good behavior.
Sippy cups are a must!! The last thing you need is a juice-drenched kid screaming. Flight attendants are very supportive and generally nod with an approving look when you hand them the empty sippy cups.
Pack early!!!! Remember, lowering the most obvious sources of stress is vital to keep you on an even keel. Keep a list on your fridge for all the little things that pop in your head while cooking dinner or loading your dishwasher. Start doing that up to 2 weeks before the trip. It's easier to think of sunscreen while your mind is not busy worrying about all other details like making sure all tickets and passports are in order or whether your camera is charged. Packing early will also give you a restful night. You will need the energy!
If you are bringing your laptop, be sure to pack a couple of your kids' favorite DVDs. They will provide a great distraction during long layovers.
The most important pieces of luggage: carry-on bags! This will be your "survival" kit. Resist the temptation of having color-coordinated bags. Have a different color bag for each person in your party. That way you will know what is where simply by opening the overhead compartment and you won't need to search 5 different bags for diapers and wipes.
Some essential items to be in each kid's bag:
It is of tantamount importance to keep in mind your child's age when buying any toy, but this statement could not be truer when filling a goody bag for your traveling tot. Target is a wonderful place to get goodies for 1 or 2 dollars (at the very entrance of the store). It is a good idea to get stuff just to keep in stock; what if the week you are traveling there are not enough cool things for the kids? I got a great magnet fishing game for $2.50 and we all had a great time fishing and then putting the fish back in their slots.
A blanket is a great comfort for your kids and can give them the "brilliant" idea to take a nap during the flight. Again, I bought a blue and a pink blanket for my boy and my girl for $2.50 each (at Target) and they loved their new blankets. Conversely, you could just bring your kid's favorite blankie or stuffed toy (thus saving some $$).
Trains for boys, dolls for girls. You know your kids. Follow your instincts and their cues. Just remember to remove any batteries from noisy toys. The happiness of your kids should not trumpet 200 other passengers' peace.
Modeling clay is a fun, FUN toy for kids any age - not to mention inexpensive. My kids and I had a great time making "pizzas" and "cookies" and pretending to eat them (and gave dad a 30-minute break).
Headphones - Nowadays, airplanes have headphone jacks that are universal and can handle most headphones compatible with mp3 players. Fisher-Price (www.fisher-price.com) sells great child-sized headphones for relatively little money. That means your kids will be able to pick what they'll want to watch or listen to and will have fun figuring out the controls on their armrest.
Coloring books or a mini notebook (for older kids to draw or write a "journal"). I put together a pencil case with new goodies for each of my kids. Crayons for the younger, coloring pencils and markers for the older. The Color Wonder brand by Crayola is fabulous - especially the finger paint type.
Mini magnetic games.
Avoid games with many pieces, or with small pieces. They can easily fall off the little table and will be a major disruption if your kid is the anxious type.
Talking about Crayola, they have the most wonderful printable activities, from coloring pages to puzzles and games - a real gem worth checking out!! www.crayola.com
The "right" attitude.
Know, acknowledge and accept that you will not be as "agile" as if you were traveling on your own. Whether you are pushing a stroller with one hand while pulling a wheeled carry-on with the other, or if you are tagging along a toddler who insists on pulling his own rolling bag (at his own leisurely pace), allow yourself - and your kids- plenty of time for check-ins, security checks and walks to your gates. Kids have an amazing ability to completely ignore the urges of parents who are late for an appointment. Therefore, the more time you have, the more relaxed you'll be.
Take everything in stride.
When my 2 year-old was so bored while waiting in line to get on the plane, he simply went down on the floor and held his head with his hands. On the one hand, I was put off by his attitude, but I was still able to appreciate the amusing moment and I now have some fun pictures to look at. Have a camera ready (by that I mean easily within reach, like in your pants pocket instead of a purse full of knickknacks ). If you show your kids you are having fun, they will have fun, too.
If your child is in the middle of potty training, give the kid a break and let them wear pull-up type diapers. Airplane toilets are often busy and your child may not be able to wait until one becomes available.
Fabiola Larkin is a mom of two. In her free time, she makes dolls.
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