Travel Like a Pro: Your Child's First Time Flying

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Prepare for a Smooth Trip Across the Friendly Skies

Your child's first flight, like so many other firsts, is a milestone that warrants both celebration and trepidation. But while many adults are afraid of flying, there's no reason your child needs to be. Prepare yourself to comfort your infant throughout the journey, and prepare older kids for all the challenges and joys of air travel.

First: Lay the Groundwork

If your child is old enough to understand instructions, he's probably old enough to benefit from some advance preparation. The older the child, the sooner you can start talking about the flight. You may want to start talking to a preschooler about the flight a week or more in advance. Toddlers have less understanding of time, so talking about the trip too soon may be confusing. Start the prep a day or two beforehand.

Get some age-appropriate books about the process of going to the airport and riding in an airplane. Lucy Cousins' Maisy Goes on a Plane and Patricia Hubbell's My First Airplane Ride are both great choices, but your local library should have a selection of books about flying. Read a few books with your child and talk about how he will experience the same thing that the characters did: He'll have to wait in a few lines, go through security, wait in some chairs, walk onto the airplane and so forth.

You may want to stage a pretend airplane ride, too. Act out the entire process, using one room of your house as the airport and setting up chairs to mimic airplane seats in another room. Walk through the whole process, using stuffed animals or other family members to help, and narrating everything for your child: "Now we're going to put our bags up on the conveyor belt so the security person can check to make sure they're safe." "We might want to move around, but we have to keep our seat belts on right now until the light shows us it's safe to take them off."

Next: Pack Strategically

The key to keeping your child happy and comfortable lies in your carry-on bag, and his too. If he doesn't already have a backpack or other suitable carry-on, let him help pick one out. Fill it with his favorite comfort item, a few favorite books and quiet toys, a small blanket or pillow and any other essential comfort items he might need, like extra pacifiers.

Stash a few surprises in your bag, like new coloring books, magnetic blocks, travel games and other age-appropriate toys. Pack plenty of snacks like cut-up fruit, cheese, crackers and freeze-dried yogurt snacks. If your child is young enough to need your help to walk through security, you can also bring juice, breast milk or formula in quantities greater than 3.4 ounces, the usual cutoff for liquids in carry-on bags.

If you're flying with a baby, he'll still need plenty of snacks, if he's eating solid foods yet. You may want to pack a scarf or small blanket to drape over yourself if you want to nurse in your seat. A variety of colorful, textured toys and some durable board books should help keep him occupied during the journey.

And if your kiddo is in diapers, bring more supplies than you think you'll need, including a portable changing pad and a few plastic bags for disposing of dirty diapers.

Finally: Manage the Big Day

Allow yourselves extra time to maneuver through the airport with a first-time flyer. If he's a toddler or older, he'll probably want to wander a little bit and dawdle at spots along the way. Getting through security may also take a little bit longer than you're used to, especially if you're traveling with bulky things like a stroller and car seat.

Once you get through security, buy water for your child or fill up your own bottle. If he's walking, find an uncrowded corner of the terminal and let him run and climb to get out some energy while he can. Do a diaper change right before boarding, and talk in an excited voice about what an adventure he's going to have on the plane. If the gate agents offer to let families with young children board first, take advantage of the opportunity to get your child's CRS set up and get yourselves settled before the plane gets crowded.

Encourage your child to nurse, drink from a bottle or chew something during takeoff and landing to minimize ear pain from changing air pressure. If he's not willing or able to nap during the flight, occupy his time with new toys, walks up and down the aisle and talking about the fun things you're going to do once you arrive at your destination.