Airplane Anxiety: toddlers, babies, and long-haul flights

4 days till take-off and, perhaps, torture…
Photo: Sean MacEntee / Creative Commons

I don’t know if I should be terrified or defensive. (Excitement has not yet entered into the equation.) Some people say we’re insane; others think it’s great. In four days’ time, I’ll be boarding a claustrophobic airplane with a three-year-old, nine-month-old, stroller, baby food, diapers, and toys in tow, for an eight-hour trans-Atlantic flight, followed by a layover and another two-hour flight to our final destination. This will be followed by a three-week-long holiday around Croatia, Italy, and Sardinia, and — of course — another torturously long flight home. I’m starting to think that maybe we were a little over-ambitious in our travel plans…

I’ve done a fair amount of flying over the years, and I’ve always been very solitary while doing so. I was that girl who finds her seat silently, minimizes conversation with her neighbour, and pops in headphones as soon as it’s not blatantly rude to do so. My carry-on luggage is always small, so it never requires a grand show of heaving and grunting to squeeze it into the overhead compartment. I eat meals quickly, fold up my tray, and sleep as quickly and long as possible. Sometimes I even skip airplane meals in favour of sleeping. I make one, maybe two, of those awkward, squeeze-by-the-knees trips to the WC. My travel documents are always in order and immediately available. I will never hold up a line (unless I’m smuggling cheese). I take metal objects out of my pockets, off comes the belt and shoes, laptop open. I move through the prolonged airport process fluidly and pride myself on it.

On Tuesday, however, I’m terrified — bordering on sincere horror — of becoming that family of chaos-wracked parents and wild children that I’ve seen so often before. You know what I’m talking about: toddler running away, parent giving chase with suitcase in tow, baby crying, four adult arms trying to juggle a kid, a baby in a stroller, three huge suitcases, a purse, carry-on diaper bag, clutching stuffed animals, special blankets, extra sweaters thrown over their arms, perpetually fumbling for the passports that should have been there…

My pre-travel anxiety is causing me to wonder why I didn’t heed my own family’s horror stories of flying with babies. (Why do independent-spirited kids ignore their parents’ tales of wisdom?!) My mom once lost a plastic breastmilk cup when it fell out of her nursing bra and rolled down the aisle. My dad flatly refused to go after it. On the same flight with my six-week-old sister, she squirted breastmilk all over the place while trying to get the baby latched. My aunt forgot to pack diapers for her new baby, and when she had a gigantic poo that ruined her whole outfit, my uncle gave up his shirt to wrap the baby in. He finished the flight in his undershirt, at least. So what lesson have I learned from these tales of familial experience? Clearly nothing, if I’m attempting something even more ambitious — two kids on a long-haul flight. At least we’re taking a babysitter, so there will be an extra set of hands, thank god.

I soothe my anxieties with thoughts of morning coffee on the cobbled streets of Zagreb, the taste of roast porcheddu in Sardinia, and laying eyes on the Colosseum once again. We could be that family who never goes anywhere for fifteen years because we fear that long flight with small kids. Or we can keep travelling, broadening our own adult horizons, while packing lightly, having plenty of patience, and trying to maintain a sense of humour. If the whole trip is a disaster, at least we’ll have some great stories to tell, and some great meals under our belt.

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11 thoughts on “Airplane Anxiety: toddlers, babies, and long-haul flights

  1. All of the aforementioned issues will be avoided for the following reason: we will be prepared. Diapers? Check. Books for the toddler? Check. Pressurized breast milk? Not an issue. And if all that fails, narcotics 😛

  2. We flew to California when Hugh was almost a year old. I packed tons of extra stuff for him for the flight, so when he vomitted all over me, he had a change of clothes, but I didn’t. On the other hand, we flew to Israel and Egypt when Emma was a year old and Hugh was four, and it was totally fine.

    1. Wow, Israel and Egypt would be a loooong trip with 2 kids. I’m glad to hear it went well; that’s encouraging! And I suppose it is a good idea to take an extra shirt for myself, just in case.

  3. Children are a great ice-breaker and can easily cross cultural boundaries and make connections far faster than adults. They may be a handful but they are your greatest asset to meeting people when travelling in foreign countries. You are right that there will be challenges, but that is parenting wherever you are. You’ll do just fine. Don’t forget to take your sense of humour.

    1. When my oldest (William) was 18 months we travelled to Germany and soon lost his bottle, he learned how to drink from a straw. As we were landing he pucked all over me and we had to go through customs like that, no problem. When Bryan, my second, was 6 months old we flew to Huston. From what I remember that trip it was uneventful. Most of the time when we went sight seeing,I had a sheet over his buggy to keep him from being burned. Good Luck, if you prepare for your oldest with paper and crayons and possibly a book for you to read, he should be fine. On the take offs be prepared to nurse, this will him keep him quiet. Take care and love to hear all about it when you come back.

      1. That reminds me, I should take the sun blanket along for the stroller! Direct sunlight can certainly make kids pretty unhappy. I probably should take some extra clothes for everyone, because you never know what will happen.

  4. I have a friend who travels with a few Starbucks gift cards to either buy off folks who had to endure more than their share of her children or as a thank you to an especially kind stranger. Not sure if that’s your style. You could always gift-wrap earplugs and narcotics like wedding favors for your airplane neighbors. 🙂

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