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Air Travel and Kids

I took a trip to Orlando in a couple years ago to visit family and friends.  I was traveling solo on that trip, so I had a chance to sit back and observe the many families who brave the whole process to get to the sunny land of Disney.

I observed a mother reassuring her little girl that security isn't scary, "It is just part of the trip. We just need to do it to get on the plane.” Once again, I was impressed by the wisdom of parents and their ability to explain things to their kids at their level.   I even found myself being soothed by this simple explanation (you are never too old to need a mom).  If parents can stay calm and cool, the kids have a better chance of remaining that way. 

Many times you can get through security quicker if the airport has a special line for families with young children.  You can usually board the plane earlier too.  Airlines know that little kids do not travel light!  However, if you are in Orlando, don't count on any kid friendly perks.  You are one of the masses there. On the return trip, I must have seen a couple dozen families rush the gate at the first announcement of boarding, only to be held back. 

I have some other tips for air travel with children, with help from fantastic Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, and mother of two, Megan Taylor:  

  • Buy your baby his or her own seat! See AAP Article. I feel pretty strongly about this one.  While airlines will still allow certain aged babies to sit on parent's laps, it is not only extremely uncomfortable, but not very safe.  For a smaller baby, you can bring his/her car seat on board so they can be safely belted in if there is turbulence or a hard landing.  Plus it gives the baby a place to sleep and you can relax  hands-free! You can check your older kid(s) car seat(s), or rent at your destination.
  • Offer a pacifier, bottle, or nurse during takeoff and landing to help with ear popping. Toddlers can try drinking from a sippy cup. Older kids can try the old standby of chewing gum. 
  • We do not routinely recommend Benadryl (diphenhydramine) on flights. While it may aid sleep, it may also cause the opposite reaction and kids can become extra fussy or hyperactive. Plus, it is easier to overdose medications on an airplane with all the distractions and crowded space.  If you are taking an overseas flight, we may be able to develop a "sleep plan" for your child on an individual basis.
  • Preparation is key.  Organize and pack well.  Use a checklist.  Let a child who can walk carry his/her own backpack. This can lighten your own load and also make things fun.  You can let your children pick out some of the books or toys they would like on the trip.  You also have the opportunity to teach them the art of packing light (always a good lifelong skill!)
  • If your baby is on any specialty formula (i.e. - soy based, hypoallergenic, etc.), take ample supply when traveling to resort locations. Many resort areas or rural areas have only regular Similac or Enfamil in the nearby stores.
  • Take a light stroller with you.  You can check and retrieve it right at the boarding point, and having it will allow you to put your baby down somewhere safe and clean in the airport.  This also gives you the option to be "hands free" while picking up luggage, getting your rental car, using the restroom, etc.
  • Airports and airplanes are full of germs, but most of them are spread through the "mouth/nose to hand to surface to hand to mouth/nose" mechanism rather than through the air.  If your baby is not crawling, you can keep him/her in the stroller and sanitize your own hands (which have just touch spots that 100 other people have touched in the last hour) before touching the baby. Sanitize before you touch your own mouth, nose or eyes as well.  This will keep you from getting infected by some of the airport germs and being sick on vacation!  If you have a crawler or toddler, you may be out of luck.  They touch everything and put whatever they can reach into their mouths.  Keep them in that handy stroller if you can, or find a small play area that you can wipe down first!
  • Plan ahead for delays, cancellations, lost luggage etc. In addition to the usual recommendations (medications, valuables, etc. ), carry on plenty of diapers, wipes, and changes of clothes. It is not easy to find these things in an airport terminal.
  • Plan ahead for possible illnesses. We see a fair number of kids for "pre-vacation, just in case they have an ear infection” checks  and are happy to do so.  We can also discuss some of the questions you may have about your specific travel plans.  Children can get sick (or sicker) in less than 24 hours, so even if they have a normal exam before your leave, they may still need seen by a doctor while you are at your destination.  If you are traveling in the U.S., there are pediatric hospitals in most large cities that have an urgent care clinic or pediatric emergency department.  If you are staying with friends, their own children's doctor may be able to see your child for an appointment.  If those options aren't available, I tell people to go to the biggest hospital they can get to, since larger hospitals usually have more pediatric emergency doctors and nurses.  We will help over the phone where we can, but most children have similar symptoms (fever, cough, runny nose, not sleeping) that have very different causes. That is why they will usually need an exam before they can be treated.   If you will be going out of the country, we recommend you call one of the international travel clinics for medial recommendations for that specific area. 

Finally, if your child has one of those all out 'fits' that cause everyone in the airplane to keep glancing (or glaring!) your way...smile sweetly, sadly, apologetically, and accept the fact that you have done your best.  I am one of those lucky people who is so used to kids screaming, that it doesn't bother me in the least on an airplane.  However, if your child is kicking the back of my seat, please, oh please....make him stop!

Check out our app NP PEDS MD for further information and home care advice.

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Vicki Roe, M.D. 6/9/12, revised 5/14/19
Dr. Vicki Roe received her  under graduate degree from Purdue, and her MD degree from IU School of Medicine. In her spare time she enjoys book collecting, genealogy, photography, Sc Fi and comic books.
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