I am not a parent, but as someone who has a hard enough time feeding and clothing myself, I have a lot of respect for humans who take care of other humans. When I see parents travelling with their kids, it looks like so much fun. But travel is stressful enough when you’re alone — how do they pull it off with little ones?
Illustration: Angelica Alzona
Myths About Travelling With Kids
“Once you have kids, that’s it,” a friend who is also not a parent once told me. “You can forget about travelling because you’re rooted and you don’t want to disrupt their schedule.”
It sounded like an extreme opinion to me, but rather than come to my own conclusions about whether it’s true, I consulted someone who would know better: an actual parent.
“I don’t remember signing something saying that I had to give up having fun and travelling just because I had kids,” Lee Huffman, a travel blogger at SoloTravelDad.com told us. “In all seriousness, we feel that exposing our children to new worlds and different cultures will make them more tolerant of people who are different than they are.”
Huffman, an avid traveller himself, brought his son in on the adventure when he was just six weeks old, and says one of the biggest misconceptions about travelling with kids is that they won’t even remember the trip. Huffman said:
“Kids are more resilient than we often give them credit for. It is often our insecurities or worries than they reflect back to us. Ever notice that if your kid takes a fall and scrapes his knee if you don’t react, they go back to having fun? If you do react, they will start to cry and whimper. It is the same concept with travel. If you act like everything’s normal, and that travel is a way of life, the kids will accept it and move on. If you make a big deal about it, they tend to act up.”
Many people might assume that your travel plans are over once you have kids, but like Lee, plenty of parents make it work.
“That being said, babies and toddlers are going to cry no matter what,” he added.
Whether you’re a parent who has never travelled with your kids, or you’re a new parent thinking about your first family trip, or you’re just an avid traveller thinking about becoming a parent, we’ve got you covered.
If You Need a Passport, Apply Early
First, the practical stuff. If you’re travelling internationally or stopping in another country, your kid needs a passport — and that includes infants and newborns.
It can take up to eight weeks to process, so give yourself plenty of time. You don’t need a passport for domestic flights, of course.
Read the Rules Before You Fly
Speaking of rules, almost all airlines have a “lap policy”, which means kids under the age of two get to fly for free (pretty much, you may still have to pay taxes and fees) as long as they sit on your lap during the flight.
Policies might vary for international flights, as Parenting.com explains:
Also, be aware that most carriers only allow children under 2 to fly free on domestic flights. If you’re going somewhere more exotic on an international flight, you’ll need to ask the airline if your child needs a ticket, can ride on your lap for free or can get a ticket at a discounted rate.
But let’s say your little one is past the lap age. Or maybe you just want to book a seat for your toddler, anyway. In most cases, you’ll pay full adult price for a domestic ticket. Some airlines do offer infant discounts if you do want to book a seat for your baby, but you’ll have to call the airline directly for prices.
For kids sitting in their own seats, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority suggests using a child safety restraint device to keep them safe:
It is strongly recommended that infants be put into a child restraint system appropriate for their weight. Most Approved Australian Safety Standard child restraint seats designed for use in motor vehicles are suitable for use in an aircraft, if used in accordance with the seat manufacturer’s instructions.
For travellers from overseas, Canadian, European and USA standard motor vehicle child seats are acceptable. Additionally, dedicated aviation restraint systems approved by those Airworthiness Authorities are also acceptable. This includes a device from the USA marketed as the ‘Kidsflysafe CARES’.
Again, rules vary depending on the airline — some require medical records for infants under two weeks — so make sure to read before you book.
As a former professional travel writer, I'd like to think I speak with authority for both adult and, now, kid travel. Here, then, are my eight pro tips for travelling with your infant, baby, or toddler. (Baby jetlag, however, is another story, for another time.)Read more
Manage Their Ear Pressure Pain
I have a huge amount of sympathy for parents who have to wrangle not just unruly kids but also evil stares when they’re flying. If you toss out the evil stares, have a little sympathy for the parents and the kids.
Babies and children often scream because they can’t handle the change in air pressure the same way adults can, says Mollie Grow, M.D., a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital over at Conde Nast Traveller.
Beyond being simply freaked out, youngsters have a harder time tuning out stimulation like beeps and announcements … The screams usually stem from the fact that babies can’t neutralise their ears to the changes in air pressure that come with takeoff and landing … Learning to pop your ears, swallow, or yawn to open the Eustachian tube — a passage that links the middle ear to the back of the throat — and equalise pressure is not intuitive.
This means the pressure can actually be pretty painful for them, which explains the crying. Lee suggests feeding or nursing during takeoff and descent to help with ear discomfort.
“Young kids don’t know how to pressurise their ears, so bring along something for them to suck on, like a sucker, or a bottle for the babies,” Lee said. “The sucking and swallowing motion will help reduce the pressure on their eardrums.”
Tips for Keeping Kids Calm During Flights
Lee added that the most challenging thing he’s come across travelling with young children is working around their nap time.
“Trying to get off of a plane while carrying a sack of potatoes (aka a kid sleeping), plus your carry-on, is a bit of a struggle. I’m hell-bent against checking bags because I hate wasting time waiting for bags, but I recommend it for people who aren’t as masochistic as I am.”
If you can book your flight at the right time, a red eye or during your kid’s typical naptime, they might be able to sleep their way through the flight. During the trip, Aha! Parenting suggests walking around on the flight while you can:
Prevention is key. So, for instance, since you know that you will have to sit in your seats for the last forty minutes of the flight, be sure you do a lot of walking around on the plane during the time you’re able to move around. That way, she’ll be ready to sit and watch a movie for the final stretch.
You might even consider splitting up the flight. Our own Beth Skwarecki said that while she doesn’t fly with her kids, she does take long road trips and they’re so much easier when you split them up.
We used to do this long hellish drive to visit family, then realised we could split it in half and do 4 hours in the evening and 4 hours in the morning. They take it so much better, and it’s worth every penny of the extra hotel night.
For flying, this might mean a long layover, but it could be worth it.
Similarly, experts say you should encourage your child to get their energy out before you even board. If the airport has a play area for kids, you might want to make a pit stop. When your kid just gets massively bored or anxious, the solution seems to come down to distraction, as Aha! Parenting suggests:
The job of a toddler is to explore her world. If they can’t explore by walking around, you can count on them driving the passenger in front of you crazy by exploring the tray table. To give your child something to explore, why not bring a bunch of cheap, interesting objects that will fascinate her? That isn’t overkill. You really do need to plan activities in advance for a toddler on a plane. Screens are wonderful to keep your child entertained, but don’t count on that being enough.
Research the Food (and Nappy) Situation
Since so many flights have gotten bare-bones, don’t assume you’ll get a meal or even snacks. That makes me, a grown woman, want to cry, so I can only imagine how small kids must feel.
When it comes to snacks, you should probably err on the side of overpacking, whether it’s baby food, sandwiches, biscuits, or whatever else your kid likes to eat. Some flights have kids meals available for purchase, but again, research your options before you book. And then there’s the bathroom. Not all carriers having nappy-changing stations on every flight, so this is another amenity you want to research before you book.
Before I had kids of my own, I always felt awkward around youngsters at family gatherings. Sure, I wanted to play with somebody else's baby, or even know how to keep them busy if a friend needed me to watch their child, but I had no idea how. It turns out the job isn't hard if you know a few good icebreakers.Read more
The Benadryl Question
Finally, there’s the question of knocking your kid out with medicine. Should you give your kid Benadryl or other antihistamines so they will fall asleep?
Some parents swear by it, some say it only makes things worse and others swear they will never do it. The consensus seems to be it’s probably not harmful, but it might not be that effective either. And there is some reason to believe it can actually make things worse.
As Science of Mum points out, the active drug in antihistamines is diphenhydramine (DPH) and it can have different side effects for adults and children:
DPH is usually used to treat allergy symptoms, but a common side effect is drowsiness. Capitalising on this effect, DPH is used to treat insomnia in adults. However, according to the NIH, “DPH should not be used to cause sleepiness in children.” Notably, they warn that DPH may have a paradoxical effect, causing excitement rather than drowsiness, particularly in kids.
Despite these official warnings, several studies report that pediatricians commonly condone the use of DPH to help children sleep. In a survey of paediatricians practising primary care in the U.S. , 45% reported recommending nonprescription medications to help children sleep during travel, with antihistamines such as Benadryl being the most common.
Studies, like this one from the Journal of the American Medical Association, seem to suggest that DPH just isn’t very effective for helping kids sleep. As one paediatrician at Mount Sinai explained to ABC News:
Benadryl is “technically safe” for children older than six months and if a parent opts to do it, and that, apart from testing it out first, the dosage is 1.25mg per kilo and should not be given more often than once every six hours. Hammond urged parents considering Benadryl before a flight to consult with pediatricians first because “every medicine has a side effect.”
Whatever you decide to do, it’s probably a good idea to pack a first aid kit that includes Benadryl, paracetamol and all the other basics just in case. Again, a little preparation can go a long way.
There’s plenty that can go wrong when you travel and when you add kids to the mix, it can get complicated. So Lee offers one final bit of advice for dealing with the stress:
“The best advice is to recognise that, no matter how bad it sucks in the moment, it will be a funny memory in the future … The most rewarding feeling about travelling with children is watching the amazement on their face as they try something new.”