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How to make flying with your kids less turbulent

05/30/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/29/2016 05:59 EDT
Jetsetting is inherently exciting, but flying with small children can sometimes be a rather different kind of adventure.

Cute though they may be, the little gaffers can become squawking malcontents when confined in an aircraft.

Sometimes, this can lead to serious stress, as Burlington, Ont. musician Sarah Blackwood discovered this week, when the Walk Off the Earth singer was walked off a United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Vancouver because the carrier objected to her 23-month-old son's crying.

Travelling as a family is never without some turbulence, so here are some tips for making the voyage less bumpy.

Flying with a baby

1. Be smart about the travel time.

Babies are notoriously fussy and unpredictable, but you can help avoid a nightmare scenario by booking your flight for a time when your child is typically at her most content and compliant, says Ann Douglas, a mother of four and the author of Parenting Through the Storm: Handling the Highs, the Lows, and Everything In-Between.

"If you know that your baby is colicky at dinner time, it's probably not the best time to be boarding a flight," says Douglas.

2. Be strategic about feeding time.

Most children get an earache on takeoff and landing, so that's a good time to schedule a breast or bottle feeding, says Janice Biehn, editor of ParentsCanada magazine.

The act not only soothes and satiates them, but the sucking motion should relieve any potential pain in their ear canals from the change in cabin pressure.

(For older kids, gum or a juice box can help with the same problem.)

3. Be Zen … all the time.

If your baby becomes fussy during the flight, Douglas says your best bet is simply to employ the calming methods you use at home – whether that's feeding, rocking, using a soother or dangling a plaything.

Even then, your baby may still be squirrely. The guiding principle, says Douglas, is to remain calm — your child will likely pick up on it.

"Not everything is in your control. The one thing you can control is your reaction," she says.

"If you're feeling like a contortionist and you're feeling grumpy about the whole thing, your baby is going to pick up on your stress and respond accordingly."

Flying with a toddler or school-ager

1. Set expectations before the plane takes off.

Once they get older and learn how to walk and talk, children become more mobile and daring and may get the impression that an airplane is their personal playground.

The first step in heading off this possibility is explaining to them — in language they understand — how to behave on a plane, says Heather Greenwood Davis, founder of the blog Globetrotting Mama and a columnist for National Geographic Traveller.

That means making them aware that they are sharing the space with other passengers and that they can't run around with abandon.

2. Keep the activities coming.

Once he's gotten over the miracle of takeoff, your youngster is going to need to be entertained. Books, puzzles and crafts are the obvious go-to activities.

Some airlines, such as Air Transat, provide an activity kit for young children that includes colouring books, stickers and games such as Tic-Tac-Toe.

While it's worth checking beforehand to see if your air carrier supplies this type of stimulation, Biehn says you should stock up on the kids' favourite toys and diversions before takeoff.

Terry Carson, a certified parenting coach based in Toronto, says that novelty is vital to keeping young children occupied.

She suggests that rather than telling your children about all of the books and crafts you're bring on board, you should keep some of them secret.

"Save any new items until the flight so they are engrossed and engaged," she says.

3. Don't be ashamed to lean on technology.

Some people feel that having to resort to an electronic pacifier such as a smartphone or tablet to entertain their child is a sign of personal failure.

Parenting experts generally advise restricting screen time for children, but Biehn says all bets are off when you're at 30,000 feet and may need to head off a tantrum.

"If your iPad is going to work to distract them, I would never judge," she says.

4. Tire them out beforehand.

Airlines typically offer to let passengers with young children board first, but it's actually in a parent's interest to delay boarding, says Douglas.

She advises letting your rug rats exhaust themselves by running around in the airport lounge.

Greenwood Davis says that when her two sons were younger, she and her husband actually had a whole boarding procedure.

"We would send one adult onto the plane with the carry-on luggage, get everything settled up in our seats, and the other parent wouldn't board until the last possible moment so that the kids had a chance to burn off some of that energy in the airport," she says. "The best strategy is bringing them on tired."

Greenwood Davis says another way to hasten sleep is to mimic, as much as possible, their bedtime ritual at home.

"They can come onto the plane in their pyjamas, which sets the mood immediately," she says. "If they usually sleep with a stuffed animal, have that at the ready."

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