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What to pack for a flight with kids

Hai Anh Vu

what to pack when traveling with kids, traveling with a toddler, quiet books, toys for the flight

Pictured, clockwise from top: quiet book My First PlaybookSay Cheese! wooden chalkboard camera doubling as imaginative toys and chalkboard to doodle, recycled drawstring organza gift bag and little animal toys, Post-it notes and small crayons, Buddyphones headphone by OnandOff 

It's that time of the year again, when moms' forums are peppered with Q&As about what to do with a tot (read: monkey or monster or both) on that dreary ten-hour flight back home. The anxiety is palpable especially for first-timers who imagines you can control every moment of your mommy life with the aid of Google, Hong Kong Moms and the likes. Right? :) I can relate! On my first trips with Bean, I had an one-page list of things to pack which I printed out from the Jetlag and Mayhem blog, and filled my backpack with maybe fifty things that I thought to pack "just in case" - only to find that the backpack was so full I couldn't find where anything was! lolz. And I never used half of them anyway, so instead I carried a heavy load AND a baby around wishing that I hadn't brought so much.  

These days I am more relaxed about flying, first of all because there are many things we can't control about how kids react to a flight (especially if it's her first time, like my new baby will be next week). She can be as cool as a cucumber, or irritable and crazy as a kid with an ear infection (OK i just made that up my kids have never had an ear infection ... but you get the idea :)).Knowing that alone makes me feel more calm: hope for the best, expect the worst and you are never disappointed (is that a Buddhist saying or did I make that up?? lolz) 

Second, I try to be prepared but not go overboard.  For the toddler, I pack only a few essentials but make sure each toy/game can be played with for a long time: e.g. they are open-ended, she can create something by herself (playdough, crayons and paper), I can make up stories with them (small animals, doodling), or something she can play with by herself, like stickers and a quiet book. So, here are my list and tips, abridged from my very lengthy blog I wrote around this time last year just after our trip to the US!  

  • A drawstring bag which doubles as a “mystery bag” that they can dig in for goodies (so many games can be created with these bags!)
  • Stickers and/or Post-it notes 
  • Crayons and a small notebook
  • A couple of small play-doh tubs
  • A quiet book
  • Her favorite little animals 
  • Colorful tape rolls

All these are small and easily packable. Pop them in a small backpack that the tot can carry and be responsible for if they are old enough (see, that's the beauty of packing light too!) :) 

Here are some lessons and tips that I hope will be helpful to other moms:

  • Pack a variety of toys, especially for longer trips: Obviously, I did not have to pack all of the above. But having more than one favorite toys would help with the kid’ short attention span (I would not have survived with just crayons and stickers!)
  • Post-it notes are a life saver (also very convenient if you already have it in the house!). It is much easier to peel from chairs and tables than stickers without leaving a trace or chipping your fingernail polish, and can double up as canvas for some drawing masterpiece when you have a couple crayons on hand ;)
  • Pick games and quizzes within, or below their current level: the keywords are “easy” and “mind-candy” (or “eye-candy” works too)  Kids are like just like us when tired and trapped in the air. The last thing they'd want is a new challenge to her brain like reading a real book or completing a quiz (would you like to solve the New York Times crosswords or read an Elle magazine on the plane? I would always choose the latter :)) Quiet books are fun because they are colorful and tactile, and there are a variety of things to touch, feel and do on every page (almost no brain needed!)
  • Use the airplane’s screen whenever possible: Each mom has her own opinion on this, but if you allow them to use the screen a bit it could be your lifesaver (doh! you said. Everyone knows that!) Well one thing we accidentally discovered on our last long flight was that using the airplane screen made my monkey tired more easily than an iPad, hence a shorter route to sleep time! Bean, as many other kids I supposed, couldn’t figure out how to maneuver the new screen’s buttons yet, so she had to just focus on what was there (her fifteen-minute kids’ music show, over and over and over again). The airline screen was also placed farther from her eyes than a handheld device, and the backlight could be dimmed, so her eyes were not as stimulated as having an iPad held close to her face. We just popped the earphones into her ears and lowered the volume to almost inaudible level so as to avoid any sudden loud noise that may damage her eardrum **

The result? She sat slouching on her chair watching her show from a dim screen, half-listening to the video sounds as the earphone buds kept falling off her tiny little ears. Next thing we saw, her head flopped aside and she had fallen asleep!

traveling with kids, flying with kids

Plonk! after less than an hour staring at the airplane screen

** We used the normal earphone supplied by the airplane crew but this year I'm actually a bit more organized and got her the toddler's earphone from OnanOff (pictured). Haven't used it so can't attest to how effective it is, but it least there's the peace of mind that we won't accidentally explode her eardrum explode sudden airplane announcements in the midst of her show! 

    • Aversion to buckling up? Prep it. I found it helpful during pretend play at home (our favorite game when she was very young was lifting her high on my legs while I lay on my back, pretending she’s on the airplane) to always ask her to "buckle up" before she could “fly”. It instilled the idea that buckling up is a non-negotiable part of flying. Though I can’t act out the threat ("you’ll fall off the plane and hurt yourself!”) on the real airplane, I could rely on this approximate understanding to make her fasten her seatbelt voluntarily ... most of the time… :) For older kids? A quiet book page about buckling up (pictured above) would help ;)  as do some threats about immediate consequences ("The Auntie (i.e. stewardess) will take you out of the airplane if you don't buckle up! has done the trick for us) 
  • Finally, First Class Kids cushion and melatonin are our best friends. Many praises have been given to the First Class Kids (don’t be fooled by the name, FCK works for the economy seat too) and its twin Fly-tots. Suffice to say it lived up to the expectation, giving us a much more pleasant time and space on the plane so that the thirteen hours was much more pleasant for us all.

Melatonin (and other drugs to make kids sleep) is to be used with deliberation. Some says it make their kids sick so I guess it’s not for everyone. For us though, we were able to induce a six-hour sleep (in one stretch!), so that by the morning arrival Bean had been well-rested and was ready to go. So you can give it a try and please do consult with your pediatrician beforehand on usage and dosage even as it’s an OTC drug.

Wow that’s still a super lengthy note. I hope it helps many of you. What are your favorite toys and packing tips when traveling with kids? 

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