Airports are giant vessels for stress and anxiety, even for full-grown adults. Climbing into a compact, metal bird with dozens of other people certainly doesn’t ease any of that tension. Thus, it is reasonable to ascertain that young children often do not take well to this set-up either. How many parents are limited in their travels because their children do not tolerate airplane rides? How many parents absolutely refuse to bring their child on a plane because their special needs far outweigh the benefits of a trip through the skies? It should come as no shock that there is a significant number of families who will choose ground travel or no travel at all.
However, a time will come where walking aboard a plane with a young child (or several) becomes inevitable for some families. You are weeks out from your trip and you are sweating about all of the possible scenarios in which this trip can go terribly wrong because of your child’s behaviors. There are some things you can do several days or weeks before your trip begins in order to prepare your child for the long haul:
- Call the airport regarding special needs and accommodations: If your child has a clear history of behavioral issues or developmental concerns that will impede travel, call the airline ahead of time to arrange for accommodations. By law, airlines in the U.S. must make reasonable efforts to accommodate for a passenger’s special needs. This includes wheelchair and other durable medical equipment accessibility, shortening wait times at security, etc. If you are lucky, you might be able to arrange a tour of the aircraft where your child can check out the plane and get comfortable with the seating arrangements.
- Warn and mentally prepare your child: If this is the first time that your child has flown on an airplane, you will want to inform them of the trip (especially if they are old enough to grasp the concept). Give them a daily countdown until the trip using a visual calendar. If you think it will help, show them Youtube videos of airplanes (interior and exterior) taking off and landing at airports. Let them participate in packing their own luggage.
- If you can, spring for first class seats: If you are financially able, spring for the first class seats. First class has a ton of leg room, less people, recliner seats, and faster flight attendant services.
- Consider sensory triggers that may aggravate your child: Before you trip, organize and assess all of the triggers that set your child off: noises, lighting, foods, medications, touch and proximity to others, lack of sleep, hunger, dehydration, bodily pains or discomforts, certain activities, etc.
- Bring items that will alleviate or stall behavioral problems: Account for and bring any toys, games, books, blankets, snacks, or other items that you frequently use at home to calm your child. Call and confirm with the airport that said items are appropriate and will be allowed in carry-on luggage.
- Practice long waiting periods at home or in other community settings: Find opportunities to practice and to work up to long waiting periods in sitting. Practice according to how your child will be seated on the plan (i.e. parent’s lap or an individual seat). Using a public transit bus is effective because you can increase waiting periods per stop or you can get off of the bus at any stop if your child is having trouble. Some children struggle with wearing a seatbelt on the plane, which can be difficult for flight attendants to work around. If that’s the case, find time to go on long car rides with the child wearing their seatbelt and incrementally work your way up.
- Have a plan when something does go wrong: If you are going on a long flight, face the fact that your child will most likely have a melt-down despite your best efforts. Have a game plan for how you will handle it and whether or not you will be recruiting flight attendants for help. Let the airline know ahead of time what these meltdowns look like for your child and what kind of space and accommodations will help ease the problem.
Not all parents with children have to be limited to ground travel, but it’s also safe to assume that airline travel will not always go smoothly. Prepare now, well in advance so that you and your child can manage a waiting period in the sky.