safe airplane travel

Safe Airplane Travel With Your Child

It’s finally spring and the vacation-planning season has officially begun. I just booked our summer trip, and after 15 hours of pure torture in the car last summer, this year we decided to fly. My oldest was six weeks old the first time I flew with him, and it was a long flight – Seattle to Columbus. Needless to say, I was a bit nervous. It was actually a lot easier than I thought, and since that time I have figured a few things out.

Getting through security is the first adventure of airline travel. The good news is that children under 12 no longer have to take off their shoes. This may not seem like a big deal to the casual observer, but getting three kids and all their gear through the metal detector one at a time and then having to locate and put on three pairs of shoes is not easy. Allow yourself lots of time to get through security and have all of your liquid items and medications in one large, easy to access ziplock bag. . Check out the TSA webpage before you travel to get the most updated recommendations and restrictions.

When babies are very young, they are pretty easy to travel with. They sleep most of the time and don’t make much of a fuss. As they become more independent and mobile, things start to get a little tricky. They don’t understand why they can’t wander up and down the airplane aisle picking up small choking hazards and putting them in their mouth, or why they can’t climb on the back of the seat that was clearly placed there for acrobatic enjoyment. And then there is the safety piece. Why is it that children less than 2 are not held to the same safety requirements as the rest of us? I must admit, it is nice not having to purchase a plane ticket for the kids less than 2, but it does raise some food for thought.

While airplane travel is far safer than travel by car, there are both fatal and non-fatal injuries related to turbulence, with one study showing that the mortality risk of an unrestrained infant is 9.6 times that of a restrained adult. In fact, the FAA has said that a “safety seat can be the most important carry-on item of all.” So, what’s a mom to do?

You have 3 options when it comes to child passenger safety on the airplane:

1. Carry your child under 2 on and hold them in your lap.

2. Bring an FAA approved car seat (look on the side of your car seat for the FAA statement)on the plane with you and see if there is enough seat availability that you can use a seat for your child, without actually purchasing another ticket. It is important to remember that the car seat must sit in the window seat and you cannot have it in an exit row. If you go for this plan of attack, you must recognize the possibility that it is a full flight and be prepared to check your car seat on to your next destination.

3. Purchase a ticket for your child under 2 and bring on the car seat. Many airlines offer a discounted rate to passengers younger than 2.

There is absolutely nothing more fun than trying to wrestle the airplane seat belt through the inner workings of a car seat in the narrowest of rows while your children run and climb around the aircraft.Take advantage of pre-boarding if available!

I suggest using a car seat. My theory is that children know that when they are in their car seat in the car, they sit there until you arrive at your destination. They don’t get down mid trip and climb around the car while you are driving. Similar principle applies on the plane. The FAA website has a lot of helpful information regarding car seats on airplanes.

In-flight entertainment has a whole new meaning when traveling with kids. Put your magazines away because now you are snack provider, DVD changer, book reader, crayon holder, song singer, peek-a-boo player, and nothing short of a circus clown to keep your child happy and entertained on the flight. It is a great idea to get some new books and/or toys for the flight that you don’t bring out until you are on the plane – nothing big and bulky, maybe some new cars, diggers or trains, small toy animals, coloring /activity books, etc to keep them occupied for a little while. A trip to discount bookstore to pick up some new books is an affordable, but worthwhile investment of your time.

As for snacks, try to bring a variety of foods that includes some healthy options. Your child will already be off schedule, filling their tummies full of junk food may not be the greatest idea, not to say that a few treats along the way can’t make the day a little more fun. I carry empty sippy cups through security and then during the in-flight drink service, have the flight attendant put their drinks in the sippy cups, avoiding cranberry juice dripping all over the tray, seat and then into your carry-on.

What about the ears? Most children do absolutely fine with the pressure changes while flying. The times that your child is most likely to feel the pressure changes are at take off and initial decent. Sucking on something usually relieves the discomfort, so offering a pacifier, the breast or bottle during take-off and initial decent can really help. Children who have colds and congestion may have increased ear discomfort when flying, so if your child is sick, it is probably a good idea to have a discussion with your pediatrician about options to keep your child comfortable.

Air travel is an adventure, for parents and kids alike. Try to relax and enjoy the journey from a kid’s perspective, and share with us your creative ideas for keeping kids occupied while you travel.

Sarah A. Denny, MD
Sarah Denny, MD, FAAP, works as an attending physician in the Section of Emergency Department at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University School of Medicine. She is Co-Chair of the Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention for the Ohio Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and serves on the Executive Committee for the Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Sarah is the mom of three energetic little boys (ages 3, 5 and 7). In her free time, Dr. Denny runs half marathons, loves to travel and is learning to garden.

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