Flying with kids is widely considered to be one of the worst ordeals we can experience in this life. When my friends who are new moms are facing their first flight with their baby, they start making comments like “Oh, this will be such a nightmare.” They haven’t even tried it, but they assume the worst.
I have now taken 14 flights (a total of 78 hours in the air) with my daughter as a lap infant. And my conclusion is that I would always rather fly with her than by myself. Flying is better with kids.
First of all, let me be clear that my daughter is not some kind of angelic super-toddler. She has had her fair share of meltdowns. Can I blame her? Crying and throwing yourself on the ground is a perfectly natural reaction to standing in line 30 minutes waiting for some Transportation Security Agency agent to grope you. Sure, getting a stroller, baby bottles, and such through security is a pain. But is it a much bigger pain than the normal security screening? Not really.
We shouldn’t blame the kids. The true “nightmare” is modern air travel—shrinking seats, delays, the TSA. Bringing my daughter along helps me cope with the misery.
My Daughter Makes Travel Worth the Suffering
The family is the cornerstone of civilization. My daughter reminds me that I’m involved in something that is so much bigger than the TSA, government regulations, airlines, and all the other forces that help make air travel so miserable.
Focusing on serving my daughter and meeting her needs is a wonderful distraction from all the discomfort. A toddler on a flight needs constant attention. There are no shortcuts. I feed her a snack for a few minutes. We walk in the aisle for a few minutes. We look at a book for a few minutes. Eventually—very, very slowly—all those minutes add up to a 10-hour flight from Sao Paulo to Washington DC.
It’s hard work, but what would I be doing otherwise that’s so much better? I’d be watching a movie I’d never watch under normal circumstances and consuming food I’d never touch under normal circumstances.
Flying is also more fun with my daughter because it forces me to get creative inventing new games. I try to travel as lightly as possible, so I only bring a few select toys and books. For the rest, I have to scrounge whatever I can find on the airplane. On a recent flight, my daughter spent a full 10 minutes trying to put a lid on a pen. Right now, she enjoys cleaning. So I give her a tissue and she goes to work very industriously wiping down the food tray and the back of the seat in front of us. I doubt they’ve been cleaned so thoroughly in years.
Toddlers need movement, so I end up walking around with her a lot. I don’t have a problem with her walking around by herself. We’re on an airplane. Where is she going to go? But I’ve noticed that as soon as she gets more than two rows ahead of me, passengers start looking around anxiously for a parent. Do they seriously think an unaccompanied toddler might have boarded their flight? However, I don’t want to find Child Protective Services waiting for me in the arrivals area, so I walk with her, and that’s healthy for both of us.
Kids Help People Feel Comfortable Together
One of the best things about flying with my daughter is that she brings me into positive contact with other passengers. On a recent flight from Amsterdam to Washington DC, I was suffering from morning sickness due to my current, second pregnancy. The man in the seat next to me was very kind to my daughter and amused her extensively with little games. His help was invaluable. If she hadn’t been there, I doubt we would have spoken a word to each other the whole flight.
I’ve had dozens of conversations with fellow passengers who admired my daughter and told me about their own children or grandchilden. It’s heartwarming. And when do you need the milk of human kindness more than when you’re enduring the misery of modern air travel?
Every so often, a photo goes viral of a goody bag that parents flying with a baby hand out to their fellow passengers. It’s a sweet gesture, and I understand why they do it. But I would never copy them. It seems too much like apologizing for the fact that I have a child. I love being a mother. I believe raising children is an important contribution to society. And I won’t do anything to suggest that I feel otherwise.
Changing the narrative that flying with kids is a “nightmare” has to start with parents. Let’s place the blame where it belongs. The nightmare is modern air travel itself. Bringing your kids along makes flying better.
Tips for Traveling With Kids
These are the three most important things I’ve learned during my 14 flights that made them easier. You can find more comprehensive lists of tips on most parenting and travel websites.
Avoid night flights like the plague. Children are tiny human beings, and like most human beings, they have a hard time sleeping on planes. But they’re still exhausted, because it’s their bedtime. What’s worse, parents are exhausted because it’s also their bedtime. This greatly diminishes their capacity to distract and soothe their child. Cue the meltdown.
Even if your child sleeps on the flight, there’s a good chance another child nearby doesn’t, and starts to cry. This will wake up your child, who will also start to cry, launching a baby-crying domino effect. So always fly during the day.
Snack attack. Pack a huge amount of your child’s favorite snacks and dispense them liberally. Air travel is not the time to teach principles of healthy eating. Your child is intelligent enough to grasp that what’s allowed on an airplane isn’t necessarily what’s allowed in the rest of life.
Board the plane near the end of the line. It’s tempting to seize the opportunity to pre-board, but think about it: pre-boarding just means more time that your child spends trapped on that plane—as if your flight wasn’t long enough already. You should wait, and encourage your child to run around and burn off energy. My private theory is that pre-boarding has more to do with getting all those strollers into the cargo hold in a timely fashion than with a genuine desire to help traveling families.
In Brazil, my husband’s home country, airports have special security and passport lines for the elderly, the disabled, pregnant women, and families with young children. These lines are government-mandated, so I can’t support them. This type of initiative should be voluntary. But if the powers-that-be actually wanted to make life more comfortable for traveling families, this would be a much better option than pre-boarding.