The immigration line snaked on endlessly in front of us. I could see the the visa counter at the far end of the giant entrance hall, but the line of people in front of us twisted and turned with none of the usually barricades or ropes as a guide. Still my kids, eager to stretch their legs, had found some free space and began chasing each other around a large column in the center of the room. My 4-month old, pressed snuggly against my chest in his carrier, babbled happily as he chewed on his fingers. My husband fidgeted with the stack of passports as he watched our kids growing increasingly wild. He looked over at me and we locked eyes. It was time. In my quietest loud American voice, I gently warned our kids to calm down. Our daughter—the oldest of our brood, tried to heed my warning. But her little brothers had pulled her back into their wild play in under a minute. This time it was my husband’s turn. His attempt at speaking softly with his strict dad voice was less successful. But the wild ones obediently returned to our side just as the baby lost interest in his fingers. I scanned the room for a roaming airport official. I could find only one other family in the gigantic hall that was traveling with little ones. This might just work. There. An Italian immigration officer was out of her booth and watching the crowds. As we made eye contact I stopped the gentle bouncing/rocking motion that had been keeping the infant from losing his cool. As if on cue, he began to fuss. But the sympathetic smile I was counting on from the passport lady never came. She looked away and disappeared. I sighed, resolving myself to the long wait ahead.
A moment later there was a commotion up ahead of us in line. The other family I’d spotted was moving to the front of the line with that same immigration officer. She escorted them to an empty booth and then headed our direction. A chorus of hallelujahs sounded in my head as we rounded up the kids and moved to the now open “family lane”. A new officer came to the booth and quickly helped the family with two elementary-aged boys ahead of us. She looked on in disbelief as she began matching passport photos to my brood of little ones. She stamped the final passport and muttered “quattro” as she handed them to my husband. “How?” she suddenly asked in perfect English. “How do you fly with four? I have one and we never travel.” The line behind us had now filled with regular travelers. So I smiled and responded quickly, “Practice, lots of practice.”
Practice, lots of practice.
Quattro. I can count to four in perfect Italian now. Turns out, it’s a lot like Spanish and we heard it constantly when we visited Florence and Milan. First they’d stop in their tracks, then the heads would turn, and then counting aloud began. I stopped caring long ago whether the looks we get are disapproving, shock, sympathetic, or complimentary in nature. I just accept that our family size is an anomaly in Europe. But now that we have four kids and we still travel frequently I get more questions about how we do it.
The answer is simple: practice. There’s no secret, there’s no special toy or device. It’s just lots of practice. The best analogy I can offer is the grocery store. The first time I went to the store (alone) with my toddler and an infant (over five years ago), it was a disaster. The first time I went with all four of my kids to the grocery store this past year it was interesting. We still had some kinks to work out. I learned I couldn’t pick up a huge bag of dog food while wearing a sleeping newborn. And shoving three kids into my shopping cart means I can’t buy half the stuff I need. But by our third or fourth trip, it’s gotten easier. Some days are still better than others. But we have a system and, most of the time, it works.
Traveling with kids is pretty much the same. Our first trip into London as a family of four was a disaster. Even their favorite part of our big city adventures—the cab ride—was plagued by tears and meltdowns. The infant wanted to be held, not worn in my nice, new wrap. And the stroller we brought would only work for the toddler. But fast forward a dozen or so trips and excursions since then and we at least looked like we had it together in Italy.
Flying with Kids 101
Since we get asked so frequently about how we do it, I thought I’d finally start a series with some basic tips. Flying with kids is our first installment.
For this post, I have only focused on a few tips for the actual flight. One of the first thing moms who travel frequently will tell you is that babies are probably the easiest age to travel with. The vibration of the plane and the humming of the aircraft lull babies to sleep. As long as you make sure they’re sucking during take-off and landing, infants typically are not the source of the screaming child on the plane.
Toddlers, on the other hand, are miserable air travel companions. They are incapable of sitting still. Their short attention spans mean watching a movie or playing on an iPad only works for a few minutes at a time. They are the ones most likely to kick seats and crawl all over strangers. Toddlers are difficult in general. Confine them to a plane and it’s a recipe for disaster. I have no miracle suggestions. Just patience. Stay calm. Sometimes a bunch of new McDonalds quality toys distracts him for half an hour. Sometimes we cover the tray table with stickers. Sometimes he insists on laying on the floor by my feet. And food is essential. I travel with chocolate even though it’s messy because I know my toddler will never turn down chocolate. (Just don’t forget the pack of wipes to clean up with afterwords!)
And know your kids. One of mine is prone to motion sickness. Another has the smallest bladder on the planet. And if my infant isn’t sleeping, he’s shooting poop out his diaper and up his back multiple times on the flight. I board each flight prepared for a whole array of unpleasant bodily functions.
This means my carry-on is never light. Diapers, wipes, pull-ups, food, iPads, and multiple changes of clothes are always in my bag and easily accessible.
This isn’t a complete or exhaustive list, just a practical starting place for parents who haven’t traveled as frequently or might be feeling overwhelmed at the prospect. I’d love to hear your tried and true travel suggestions as well, so don’t be afraid to leave me a comment! And do realize, that these are the things that are currently working for our kids. It’s not a one-size-fits-all. Know your kids, know their travel quirks, and adapt accordingly. It may not be a perfect system at first, but it does get easier.