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Flying with Children

By Sarah Kaddour·August 16, 2019

“I remember the first time we flew with our oldest. She was about a year and a half old and we were headed to Florida. We packed her favorite snacks, chose an evening flight, and did our best to let her run off every ounce of toddler energy she had before heading to the airport. She was amused by the take off and ate her snack in peace,” said NightLight pediatrician, Dr. Avian Tisdale, MD, MBA, FAAP. (Feature photo courtesy of Dr. Avian Tisdale)

“Okay, time to go night night,” Dr. Tisdale said to her young daughter positioning her to rest in her lap.

Much to Dr. Tisdale’s efforts, her daughter spent the next 2 hours running across her lap, clapping plastic cups together, and singing every song she knew, every single song.

As soon as Dr. Tisdale and her family arrived at the gate, her daughter climbed into her husband’s lap and went to sleep.

“True story. Did I mention how exhausted we were from working long hours in the operating room and hospital that week, and I was 4 months pregnant?”

That experience reminded her of two things she always stays transparent about with parents.

“Being a pediatrician does not make me a better parent and, no parent truly knows what they are doing. We are all doing our best to figure it out,” Dr. Tisdale said. “I need you to trust me when I say in my line of work, I meet all kinds of parents from every background and profession you can imagine. When it comes to children, we are all sitting in the same corner of cluelessness with a deep relentless fear that we are getting it wrong. That includes pediatricians.”

So, how do you fly the friendly skies with children without losing your mind, especially if they are sick?

Here’s what Dr. Tisdale needs you to know:

  • Medication – Don’t leave home without it!

“If your child takes medicines daily for any condition be sure to fly with plenty of it in your carry-on bag. If you typically use a nebulizer, discuss inhalers with your pediatrician. When used properly with a mask and chamber, they are just as effective and easier to bring along. Other life-saving medicines like Epi-pens and as-needed seizure drugs are important to have in your airline approved personal item bag, such as a baby bag or purse. At least one fever reducer, anti-itch cream, and allergy medication always travel with our family. I vote for chewable tablets whenever possible. All these items in the right size (3.4 ounces of liquid or 1-quart size clear plastic bag) are just fine with the TSA.”

  • Sleep tight

“Travel is exciting for everyone and can easily throw off a child who’s finally settled into a sleep routine. This is especially tricky with changing time zones and international travel. Talk to your pediatrician about the appropriate use of over-the-counter sleep aids that are safe for children.”

  • Vaccines

“In addition to standard vaccines used to protect us from communicable illness, there are vaccines recommended for folks travelling to specific international destinations. Your pediatrician is the best source for information regarding the risks and benefits.”

  • Germs love to fly too

“Wherever you find people, you will find germs. Every airport has them and you can safely assume at least 30% of travelers are sick with something you and your children can catch. Take advantage of the travel size section at the store and stock up on Lysol, hand sanitizer, and wipes. These products aren’t fool proof but poor hand washing is still a leading cause of illness around the world. When she was little, my oldest enjoyed being in charge of dispensing hand sanitizer when we travelled. She also shared it with a few strangers from time to time.”

  • Do your research

“Whether traveling about the U.S. or overseas, take a few minutes to look up places to go if your child gets sick. Snap a screen shot and save it just in case. It’s a small effort that can save a lot of time, worry, and money if you need care away from home.”

  • Pack light

“Resist the urge to pack the entire nursery or playroom for your trip. Working in the emergency room, I’ve seen parents lug in everything from air purifiers to rocking chairs and balloons. Yes, balloons in the emergency room. I’m always fascinated by how they fit all that stuff in the car. Think about it this way, whatever you bring with you will bring all kinds of germs back home with it. Try your local dollar store for cool kid and TSA friendly games.”

  • The only thing to fear is being taught to fear everything!

“Children are humanity in its purest form, and that is the reason I love pediatrics! In many cases, they aren’t afraid until we teach them to be. Of course, our biggest responsibility is keeping children safe and that means making sure they avoid things that may harm them. Air travel remains the safest in the world. Young babies and children can become familiar with photos, videos, and creative play about airplanes to minimize fear ahead of your trip. Talk up the trip with excitement for older children. Airports are busy and can easily overstimulate small children. Sitting at an inactive gate for a moment or a quick trip to the restroom onboard may help a child who is just a bit overwhelmed.”

Summer is the busiest vacation season and NightLight treats families who are headed out of town or visiting every day.

“When parents find out what I do for a living, they always have a few ‘since you’re a doctor and you’re here’ questions,” said Dr. Tisdale.

Here are her top 3 with answers:

  • If my child has _______; can they still fly?

“If a child is unstable or severely ill, they should be in the care of a professional and should not travel. Any child with a fever is contagious and you should always consider the risk of getting yourself and others sick, in addition to potential complications from their illness, with your pediatrician. Otherwise, there are no concrete ‘do not fly’ restrictions, including the age for children.”

“Ear infections are the most common concern and their timing with vacations is impeccable. Ear drums commonly rupture from infection and the same risk is present if a child boards a plane while being treated. Children without ear infections can also experience discomfort after take off. While flying with an ear infection isn’t likely to affect their treatment, it’s difficult to predict how they will respond to discomfort. I recommend giving an over-the-counter pain reliever at least 30 minutes prior to boarding. Keep a plastic straw handy for older kids to blow in or try feeding babies to relieve pressure. Give your pediatrician a heads up about your travel plans so that if possible, they can prescribe something that doesn’t require refrigeration. If your child is inconsolable at home from pain or the ear drum is already ruptured, it’s likely best to delay your trip until they are feeling better.”

  • What if my child gets sick on the plane?

“Mild symptoms like runny nose, congestion, cough, and stomach upset are common and they happen on airplanes every day. Soothe your child as best you can with what you have and consider professional evaluation once you land. Flight crews are expertly trained to manage in- flight medical emergencies of all kinds. Re-assure yourself that emergencies are unlikely however, the crew is prepared if they do.

  • What’s the best way to entertain children?

“Like most children, ours enjoy movies and games on electronic devices when we travel. My daughter was the official photographer on our first overseas trip. I let her use an old phone and she photographed everything she saw. Pro-tip: Make sure the Wi-Fi is off.”

“When we got back, I discovered she messaged several photos of the baggage claim belt to my boss! We would go on scavenger hunts around the terminal looking for all sorts of things and find a great spot to watch planes take off and land. Good old-fashioned crayons, stickers, and coloring books are great! Ask them to make something special as a thank you to the flight crew. I met a mom who brought squares of velcro and small cotton pom poms from the craft store on the plane. Her toddler stuck them on and off for 2 hours and went straight to sleep. Pure genius! It was inexpensive and TSA approved.”

Despite your best efforts you may still find yourself facing a meltdown with your mini-me or remember you left an important item at home after take off. Know that you aren’t the only parent in that situation and it likely won’t be the last time.

Take it easy on yourself and use your experience to show empathy toward other parents during your travels. Doctors’ orders!

This was an adaptation of Dr. Avian Tisdale’s story. Her blogs can be found here.