A little while ago I wrote a blog about the joys of traveling sans baby. Only now will I openly admit that when I wrote that blog I had never tried traveling, at least not by plane, with my kiddo. At the time, I could only imagine the trials involved in carting an uncooperative, screaming toddler through the airport. In my head, it seemed pretty dreadful. Since I wrote that post, I have indeed gone on a plane with my 16-month-old, and I hate to break it to you, but the reality is worse. Much, much worse.
For Thanksgiving this year, my husband, Oliver and I headed out to the Las Vegas area to visit the in-laws. The flight to Vegas is an anxiety-inducing 4 ½ hours. That means potentially 4 ½ hours of dealing with a wailing, thrashing, whining, get-me-off-this-plane toddler. Being the master planner that I am (read: I would normally forget everything except the baby), I headed to the internet for some advice on making the flight less stressful. Armed with my bag of tricks and my list of dos and don’ts we hit the road.
When we landed in Vegas later that day, frazzled and near tears, I ripped up my list and swore to hunt down every last person who said “traveling with a baby won’t be bad as long as you’re prepared.” Allow me to elaborate.
The first mistake I made was in thinking that because I could entertain Oliver all day long while we were at home that I would be able to entertain him just as easily on the plane. Wrong! It turns out his favorite forms of entertainment– running, throwing balls, and going outside, are neither feasible nor safe on a plane. His luxurious 18’ x 16’ playroom at home (read: the living and dining room that have begrudgingly morphed into a playroom) is not the same as a tiny 1’ x 1’ seat. That didn’t stop Oliver from trying to treat it like it was his personal play space though.
He climbed up my body like he was scaling a jungle gym at the park. He bounced and jumped and swung his arms like he was splayed out across our bed, testing the resiliency of the springs. He flung napkins and in-flight magazines across the aisle as if he were trying our for the major leagues. And he screeched and wailed with a renewed gusto I haven’t heard in awhile. A level of volume much more suitable for children who have fallen to the bottom of a well and need rescuing than are sitting amidst snoozing adults in an encapsulated area.
Clearly, I needed different tactics for an airplane seat than our home. Strike one.
The next mistake I made was thinking Oliver would peacefully doze off the second the clock struck eight, his normal bed time at home. If anything, by the time eight rolled around he was more wired than ever, frantically making grabs at the lady’s hair in front of us who made the mistake of letting it fall over the back of her chair.
“No Oliver, put your hands in your lap.” A hint of desperation crept into my voice. “Here want to play with mommy’s hair?” I asked, waving my own locks in front of his face. This was the moment I learned it was a bad idea to try and bargain with a wired, yet insanely tired toddler.
Oliver swatted the strand away and let out a squeal I can only compare to a sick and dying cat. The lady in the seat ahead peaked over her shoulder to investigate the source of her disturbance. She glared at Oliver then at me, her eyes speaking almost as loud as Oliver’s cries, then leaned back in her seat to continue reading an article about steakhouses in Brazil, clearly an important read. I breathed a sigh of relief when I noticed that her disapproving turn around also pulled her hair back over the seat, safely tucked away from grabbing hands.
Nine o’clock rolled around and there was still no sign of Oliver falling asleep. His body was fighting him, eyelids becoming heavy, trying to pull him into dreamland, but he was fighting back. Have you ever seen those videos of the cute puppy, slumped over on the floor, its head bobbing as it tries to stay awake? Now picture that, except instead of a soft whimper the puppy breaks into hysterical barking every time its eyes flutter open again. Not so cute anymore, right? That was Oliver.
For almost two hours, Brad I took turns trying to will an exhausted but headstrong baby to sleep. We bounced. We paced. We rocked. We danced. We alternated between standing statue-still and gyrating around the aisle to a silent rendition of the Macarena. Nothing worked. That narrow airplane cabin suddenly felt even smaller—claustrophobic-inducing, I’m trapped inside a coffin small. And I was itching to get out. Only 2 ½ hours to go.
The solo dance recital might not have been quite so bad if it weren’t for my less than adoring audience. Every now and then a fellow passenger from a few rows up would crane her neck around to assess the situation. She’d stare at me disapprovingly, angry that I disturbed her Sudoku, or Ann Rice vampire novel, or celebrity gossip rag. I’d put on my best pity face, willing her to look on me with kindness and understanding and not like I was trying to exorcise a demon from my baby. The stare down ultimately ended when the passenger, realizing her abrasive stare wouldn’t do anything to stop the shrieking, turned around in her seat, arms crossed over chest, and mumbled incoherently to the person next to her. My closed-captioning would insert the sentence, ‘she’s such a good, patient mom.’ Thank goodness I can’t lip read. Strike two.
My last mistake was thinking that Oliver could easily be distracted by novel toys and snacks, per the advice of every mommy blog online. Preflight I loaded the diaper bag with dollar-store trinkets, books that we’ve never read, and enough Dum Dum suckers to supply a pediatrician’s office for the entire year. All the advice said to reveal each toy, one-by-one, throughout the flight to entertain and distract your child.
Just before take-off I grab a small coloring pad and crayon and place it in Oliver’s lap. “Look, Oliver, you can color!” I announce with the same excitement you would muster to tell a blind person he could now see or a deaf person he could now hear. Oliver looks at the crayon, picks it up, gingerly pressing it through his fingers as my excitement over this success builds. He brings the crayon down to the pad of paper, but instead of creating a refrigerator worthy masterpiece, he flings it on the floor.
Next I pull out a squeezable fruit pouch for him to eat. I twist off the cap as he watches; I can tell he’s curious, and I hand him the pouch. He arches his back, attempting to do a 180 in Brad’s lap and refuses it. I try to hand it to him again. “Yummy, this is so good.” I pretend to take a sip. Again Oliver looks intrigued. I extend the snack, hoping that this time he will just grab it and sit there quietly eating for at least two minutes. The moment it gets within six inches of his face he’s back to twisting and screaming. I screw the cap back on, feeling defeated, and tuck the now sticky pouch back into the diaper bag.
On and on it goes. A new flavor of puff? Nope. A fuzzy, purple finger puppet? Nothing. Tiny barnyard animal figurines. Tossed to the floor with all the rest, an island of misfit toys accumulating under the airplane seat. Strike three.
Mercifully, Oliver did finally fall asleep, and we landed in Vegas with only a few new gray hairs sprouting up along my hair line. Sitting in the comforts of my in-laws apartment a couple days later, the trauma of the flight becoming a distant memory, I came up with this fancy-schmancy table* to enlighten those who are about to embark on their first journey with a toddler. To say I have a newfound appreciation for traveling sans baby would be a gross understatement.
* a pre-formated table in PowerPoint