Air travel with a high maintenance one year old

(It’s not so bad!)

There some things about air travel which I’ve learned from our recent trip to Japan and Tahiti, which I thought I’d share.

First, the context: We did one 6 hour flight from Singapore to Japan (which took off at 1.30am), one 11 hour flight from Japan to Tahiti (taking off at 4pm), and then all of that again in reverse but they were day flights departing in the morning. This was our very first air travel experience with a one year old who typically does not sit still for more than half an hour in a car seat, and does not sit still at all on the public bus. He also tends to only go to sleep in his crib and his stroller, and likes to roll about to get comfortable. All in all, a flying parent’s nightmare.

Except, he wasn’t!

That’s right… it turns out Michael is easier to manage on an 11 hour flight as compared to a half an hour bus ride. I may be exaggerating but I don’t think I am. He did pretty good on the plane, mostly because…

1) There is a surprising amount of stuff on the plane to entertain your little one with. Before the flight, I took to heart the advice of other parents to stock up on little toys and maybe a book or two, which I did, all the while freaking out that there was no way even a bagful of toys would be enough to distract my short attention spanned kid for a whole day in a plane. Turns out I barely had to bring out anything, because… retractable controls with SO MANY BUTTONS! Animated penguins on the screen! Plastic cups! Little sugar packets! Little jam and butter and salt and pepper packets! Pieces of rubbish stuffed into the seat pockets! Kid activity packs with pointy coloured pencils which are totally age inappropriate but are fun to wave around dangerously! The toilet! The service area with the nice air stewardess who pretends to really enjoy kids even if she doesn’t! Crawling on the floor when nobody’s looking!

Soooo much easier than you think.

2) Especially if your kid loves to eat. You can count on almost one hour of contented entertainment during each in-flight meal. Also, take-off and landings are a breeze if you have a dinner roll (or two) in hand. That’s how I kept Michael buckled in quietly for 45 minutes each way. Everybody says to nurse or bottle feed during these times but that lasts all of ten minutes, which is only a fraction of the total buckle-in time. Instead, small pinches of bread strategically doled out worked really well for us, plus the chewing and swallowing action seemed to effectively prevent painful ear pressure.

3) Red-eyes or day flights are almost equally good/bad, with one exception.

The great thing about red-eyes is that your kid will sleep for most of it, if 1) he’s already sleeping through the night consistently, 2) there are empty seats and you can raise the arm rests and fashion a bed (more on that later), 3) OR he sleeps comfortably in the bassinet, on you or in a carrier (not in our case).

The bad thing about red-eyes is that any small or major freak-out is roughly one thousand times more stressful in a silent, dark plane. This becomes pertinent when you are doing a really bad short red-eye that takes off in the middle of a regular night of sleep (the one exception which I would avoid if possible), and it’s baby’s very first flight ever, because then you are definitely in for a bit of yelling. Michael dealt really well when we woke him up at 11pm to go to the airport, but by the time the plane actually took off and the seatbelt light turned off 3 hours later, we had a monstrous meltdown on our hands. Being awake at weird hours and exhausted and overstimulated by the all these people spookily lit up by their in-flight screens was way too much for my one year old to handle in a mature manner. It was the longest 20 minutes of our lives (although, on hindsight, just 20 minutes) before we figured out how to put him to sleep. He woke up disoriented two hours in, screamed again for 15 minutes, and then went back down.

By contrast, the 11 hour red-eye was a breeze. We fed him dinner on the plane, put him to sleep at his usual bedtime, and he was out without a peep for the next 8 hours till breakfast was served.

The good thing about day flights is that there is zero stress about your baby being a little noisy. Also, since it’s a day flight, your biological clock is in good shape and you just have more energy to deal with anything. The bad thing is…it’s a very long day. But it’s not necessarily much worse than if you were caring for your baby on the ground.

So on balance, I think I wouldn’t sweat it too much about taking a red-eye versus a day flight, except I would try to avoid the short red-eyes which take off in the middle of the night.

4) Sheets, blankets, clothes pegs and pillows are your best friends. If your baby is unlikely to sleep comfortably in the bassinet or anywhere else other than flat on your seats, then pseudo-crib construction is an absolute priority. I came armed with suitable material: one “black-out” sheet, one blanket with a thick, sturdy string attached to each corner (I sewed them on myself the day before in a fit of crazed inspiration), and a bunch of clothes pegs. With this, together with an assortment of blankets and pillows from the plane and creativity spurred on by panic, we managed to create crib-like contraptions on each red-eye flight which were almost safe for Michael to sleep in. It was as effective as it was ridiculous looking. The blanket with the strings formed the curved, bassinet-like bottom. I secured each back string to an arm rest, and then the front strings either got tied to the (unused) airplane bassinet or the foldable screens in front. This raised the front edge of the blanket, which caught any stray limbs which threatened to dangle off the seats and helped a lot in containing his rolling. The black-out sheet got draped over the top and pegged down, forming a cocoon-like tent. Pillows were good for padding. At some point we had blankets hanging down from the baggage compartments and our row resembled a shabbily built military fortress but trust me, when your kid needs a crib to sleep in, you will find some way to make it happen. Just come prepared with some usable material and adapt to the circumstances. Every plane we were on was different. Thankfully, the arm rests on both our red-eye flights could be raised up out of the way. This isn’t always the case for the bulkhead row, so be sure to check!

airplane crib

It was a lot more complicated than this, but Michael tore it all down in a rage before I could get a good shot.

I’m sure there are easier ways to construct a safe-ish sleeping fortress for your baby, such as…springing open a portable bassinet. But this is what we did. And it worked!

5) Speaking of the bulkhead… There are pros and cons. As mentioned, the bulkhead arm rests on half of our flights could not be raised. It wasn’t so much a problem on the day flights but would have been a definite no-no on the night flights. Another con is that it is typically the noisiest row in the plane, because you’re close to the toilets or the service area or both. Also – other babies. I found that the engine white noise did a pretty good job at drowning out everything except loud baby shrieks, so Michael and his 8 month old neighbour took turns waking each other up from their naps. Thankfully, it wasn’t in the middle of the night, but I can imagine how that could have been really annoying.

The best thing about the bulkhead though is the leg room. Which counts for a lot when you have a squirmy baby who needs to crawl it out. It’s also great to have that extra walk space to rock a distraught baby.

So… maybe, maybe not. Arm rests, people, arm rests.

6) Your crib-trained baby may learn how to sleep in your arms. This was a welcome surprise. Michael generally does not sleep in our arms, ever since we sleep trained him at 4 months. But the combined conditions of extreme fatigue, loud white noise, and determined rocking and singing took him down on the plane. For the day time flights, he slept two hours in my arms, which was a relief for everybody.

7) Bring as many diapers as you think you will need, and then bring more. Because, diarrhoea. You never know when it will strike.

8) Also, two full changes of clothes. For the same reason.

Remember… it’s all going to be worth it!


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