Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on Rebecca Hopkins’ blog, Borneo Wife, when she and her husband served in Indonesia. Her pieces have appeared in Christianity Today and A Life Overseas. She currently blogs from her new American home at rebeccahopkins.org.
I now measure my worst nights of sleep against nights flying with kids.
As in, “I’ve been up off and on all night with my sick baby, but at least I’m not on a 12-hour flight across the Pacific, followed by a brief layover in Tokyo and then another 6-hour flight and then a 3-hour and then 1-hour flight, holding one or two of my tired, thrashing, crying kids in a tiny airplane seat wondering if we’ve crossed the international dateline yet so I can forever forget that day.”
Since moving to Indonesia nine years ago, I’ve crossed the globe several times from the States to Indonesia with some combination of my now three kids. Not to mention flying with kids within the States (including from the mainland to Alaska and the mainland to Hawaii), or throughout Indonesia, or with my newborns from Singapore to Indonesia.
But I’ve developed my growing list of tips from friends and from hard-learned experience to help me make the trip from the States back to Indonesia.
FLYING WITH KIDS: THE TIPS
- Bring new toys and maybe even wrap them. Pull them out at regular intervals along the way for fun surprises.
- Let the older kids carry or roll their own small backpacks.
- Pack enough for the trip (enough diapers, changes of clothes, a couple extra blankets, some new toys and few snacks) but try not to overdo it. You’ll have to carry and keep track of all of it on every flight and layover (…along with your kids).
- Bring a few options to carry your kids, especially for the little one–like a sling (light and very packable) for that sleeping baby that you don’t want to wake as you walk through customs. Or a front carrier for the baby for hands-free handing over of passports. That very light umbrella stroller can give that exhausted, melting-down toddler a place to doze during layovers.
- Double-check with the airline to make sure your family is seated as close together as possible. You don’t want your three-year-old sitting all by himself several rows back, or you with the baby while hubby and your older child are on the other side of the plane.
- On those long journeys flying with kids, put them in their pajamas when it’s an appropriate time to “go to bed,” give them their favorite stuffed animal or blanket, adapt a few of your bedtime routines from home, and get them set up in a sleep spot. Then sleep when they sleep, even if you’re really excited about the movie you’re trying to watch. You don’t know how long they’ll sleep or what is ahead. Get your rest when you can.
- Consider asking the airline for bulkhead seating to allow your children a little more area to play.
- Walk the aisles with the crying baby or the restless toddler.
- Pick your battles. I find my kids don’t like to eat much on those long airplane rides. They’re usually more tired than hungry. I don’t force them to eat at the expense of them feeling content or rested.
Bring a few favorite, familiar snacks for the kids, but focus on more of the packaged kinds—crackers, goldfish, etc. You usually can’t bring fresh fruits, cheeses and meats through customs. You might be able to bring unopened, packaged pureed baby food (applesauce, etc.) through customs if you ask nicely (but it might still end up in the trash).
- Bring their favorite sippy cups, ready to be filled with water. It’s nice to have a drink all ready to go for them when the plane takes off and ears start hurting with the pressure. (Editor’s note: Consider bringing a pacifier for babies to help with this, and something chewy for the toddlers.)
- Bring a few extra changes of clothes for yourself, just in case there are accidents or sick kids. (Editor’s note: It’s not uncommon for kids to get sick as the plane descends, so be prepared with the plane’s sick bag, a vinyl bib, a baby blanket you could stuff in a ziploc if soiled, etc.).
- A week or so before your trip, avoid interactions with sick people or big groups of people (like nurseries or play groups). Bouts of sickness on those long flights makes the trip much more grueling.
- Give your kids vitamin C drinks (or eat more Vitamin C-rich foods) every day for several days before flying with kids. This boosts your immune systems and helps prevent sicknesses on the flight.
- Let your kids (and you) have the time to recover from jet lag. Don’t plan much for those days before and after your trip to allow for some extra rest time. You might not plan dinners with friends, etc. during that week when your kids may be melting down or falling asleep in the mashed potatoes. And be patient with your kids! It will likely take several days for them to make the switch to their new time zone.
- Know that whatever you bring on the airplane could get lost under a seat. So if your kid needs his special blanket or stuffed animal, make sure you don’t leave it behind on the last airplane. Alternatively, have a replacement on hand.
- Book a room in the airport hotel for those layovers lasting more than four or five hours. Consider routing your layovers through airports that have hotels right in the airport. Many of those airport hotels allow you to rent a simple room for short periods, like for six hours, which could give your family a chance to catch up on precious sleep. Request a crib or extra beds ahead of time if you need them.
- Use your technology. There are no extra points for your kids avoiding screens on the flight. Whether it’s the in-flight movies on bigger airplanes or your tablet or computer or portable DVD player, let your children watch movies, listen to audiobooks, or play games. (Editor’s note: Consider downloading new apps for kids to maintain some novelty. You might look up “best educational apps for kids in [THIS YEAR]” for ideas, and/or ask friends for apps their kids love.)
- Consider bringing along a helper, even if you’re also traveling with your spouse. Have a friend or niece or sibling or parent who could join you for the trip? The more adults to help when flying with kids, the better.
- Talk with your spouse or traveling helper ahead of time about responsibilities. Consider dividing children or tasks. Perhaps you primarily care for the baby, while your spouse takes the 3- and 5-year-old. But also include the option of switching it up to give your other kids some time with another adult and give yourself a break from the baby.
- Check baggage allowances for each of the airlines you take. Even if your international flight gives you two checked 50-pound bags a person, the domestic airline you take once you arrive in a country may only allow you one free 20-kilogram bag.
- Keep all important papers, documents, passports, etc. in a sealable plastic folder of some sort for easy access. (Editor’s note: Carry photocopies in various places on your person, in case of theft or forgetting your documents somewhere.)
- Don’t let your kids see your fear. Ahead of time, play up the trip as the adventure that it is. Make every part of the journey sound special and fun—airplane movies, special foods on their own tray, a new airport with fun moving sidewalks, etc.
- Ignore the looks. When flying with kids, as you’re walking your crying baby up and down the aisles, don’t worry what the other passengers are thinking. I’ve found most other travelers are gracious—either they’ve been where you are, or they’re just glad that they aren’t. But even if they give you a dirty look or make a comment, your primary job isn’t to please them. It’s to honor God and get your kids and yourself through the flight.
- Once you have your trip planned and your bags packed, try not to think about the journey ahead no matter how worried you are about it. Get your rest. Enjoy the place you are. Say your goodbyes as well as you can.