First flight: Child psychologist's top tips for parents flying with little ones

People often talk about being "stuck" near a crying child on a long-haul flight and the constant noise and anxiety can make a trip feel twice as long.

But what about being the parent of that child? The stress of having your little one screaming or upset in front of a tired cabin of strangers may be one of the most stressful situations a parent experiences.

So, what can you do both before and during a long flight if you're traveling with a young child?

Newshub Travel spoke to Dr Emma Woodward, the Director of the Child Psychology Service about steps that can be taken to potentially avoid an upset child when you next fly.

 It can be managed

"I think in the first instance, we've got to remember that we haven't travelled for a really long time, so any change can feel different and different can feel overwhelming. So I should imagine that people might be feeling a little bit reticent or apprehensive about things being different, and children can't articulate that," said Dr Woodward.

little cute sleepy baby is sitting in an airplane chair and yawning after a comfortable sleep on a long flight.
Photo credit: Getty Images

"So you might see that in some of their behaviours or the way they could be acting around that. You can definitely prepare your children through having good conversations with them. Lots of imaginary play, kind of trying to make it exciting. 

"Children tend to be OK if we're OK; if we feel anxious about something and it's completely normal to feel anxious about getting on a plane with a child because it is quite an immense, overwhelming experience. 

"But if we're OK, then our children tend to be OK. We can turn it into a fun experience and try and make it something to feel excited rather than apprehensive about. "


"Children do learn a lot through play. And obviously, you can't have a deep conversation, but things do stick in children's minds if you get down and play with them and you can act out what it might look like," said Dr Woodward.

Boy jumps on bed with superman pose towards camera, hovering above blankets.
Photo credit: Getty Images

"You can get books out of the library. You can talk about planes you might want to do a drive by and watch a plane taking off. 

"I think the best way and the most fun way would be to play with them. Children who are six and under love that real world imaginary play and you can really get involved in it and you can act out lots of different scenarios. 

"You can act out walking through passport control, sitting still for a long time, having your dinner on your lap, getting to watch a screen. You can make it exciting. You see intonation in your voice kind of in that setting way. And that way kind of demystifies it and it makes it feel less uncertain. And when we have certainty, we tend to feel less anxious." 

Make them a parent, too

"If a child does have a favourite toy or a favourite blankie, that would be really nice for them in terms of comfort, especially if it's a long-haul flight and they're going to have to sleep at some point on the plane that gives them that sense of security," said Dr Woodward.

First flight: Child psychologist's top tips for parents flying with little ones
Photo credit: Getty Images

"You can also suggest to them when they're taking their toy that it's their job to look after their toy and make their journey nice and fun too. That way they get a sense of responsibility and they don't feel so out of control. They've got something to do. They have a role that they can play throughout that whole journey. 

"Ultimately, airports and a plane, public transport and public spaces, you have a right to be there with your child to get from one location to another location. And yes, people may or may not judge you. But the biggest judgment is going to be the voices in your own head. 

"So I would face up to the things that you think you're going to find triggering ahead of time and then kind of have little mantras that you say to yourself to overcome the catastrophising kind of statements that might be going on around your head? 

"So rather than the whole kind of, oh my God, everyone's going to be staring at me, my child's going to spend all of this time crying, and they're going to really disturb all of those people's pace. They're all going to be staring at me, thinking of me as a terrible parent, kind of turning it around and kind of gone. We've done a lot of groundwork. We've prepared. I'm doing my best. I'm trying my hardest to keep myself much more calm at the moment. They're not my responsibility. They're grownups and they can occur to themselves"

Get in the rhythm 

"We know things that reregulate nervous systems are close contact and rhythmic movement. So if you have a baby that is upset and you know, it's not because they're overtired or they're they need changing or they're hungry, you've kind of covered off the basics," said Dr Woodward.

"Then if there's no turbulence undo your seat belt, take your baby and walk up and down the aisle or go and stand at the bulkhead and kind of jolt them around. Don't be scared to move around and put your child's needs first. 

"That's totally OK. Other people, that's their responsibility to take care of themselves. Your priority is caring for your child, so feel free to move around the plane if you can, and it's safe to do so. "

The flight will end

"You are the grownup, you set the tone for the experience, you explain the process, you provide as much certainty as you can before you go," said Dr Woodward.

Traveling man on an airplane, experiencing air ache

"You prepare yourself, give yourself some good mantras. Practice some distress tolerance skills because actually there's going to be times when you're not going to be able to control what's going on, your child is highly likely going to cry. People are highly likely going to stare at you. You're highly likely going to feel that judgment. And the only thing that you can do at that moment is regulate yourself so you can teach your child how to regulate themselves in that moment. 

"Children cry, the flight will end, and you never have to see those people again. And that's ultimately the mantra that you need to tell yourself you will be fine and you will reach your destination. You might be tired, you might be a bit frazzled, but there will be lessons you'll have learned the next time. "