As a parent, four hours in a car with an unhappy child can make you reconsider the trip. Four hours on an airplane can make you consider jumping. It's not for the fainthearted, traveling with children, and it's often the hours of containment that can trigger the most vivid flashbacks.
Planes, trains and automobiles are not necessarily a parent's friends, but they don't have to be the stuff of nightmares, either. Armed with a bit of knowledge, the right equipment and some planning, keeping kids happy -- and quiet, which your fellow air travelers will thank you for -- en route to your destination can be a manageable task.
Here, 10 tips for keeping little ones quietly entertained in the car, on the plane and beyond. Most of them don't even require a large outpouring of cash.
We'll start with a tried-and-true but infinitely tricky operation: The bribe.
Offer a Preemptive Bribe
In the parenting world, bribery is a controversial child-control method. Some use it liberally, others not all. Certainly, offering rewards can be tricky, but bribery in and of itself is not a problem. It's mostly about timing.
And if ever there were a time to practice appropriate bribery, it's the road or air trip, when kids have an extra-hard time behaving the way you want them to.
The trick is to offer the bribe before any bad behavior starts. Rather than "if you stop screaming, we'll get ice cream as soon as we land," or "if you stop calling your sister names we'll pull over at the World's Largest Gerbil attraction," try setting up the agreement before you even board the plane or get in the car.
Offer the monster gerbil if your son sits quietly until the first rest stop, or if your daughter uses her inside voice the whole time in the plane. That way, you're rewarding the effort put toward good behavior rather than rewarding the cessation of bad behavior.
Up next: A sleeping child is a quiet child…
Children don't get much more silent than when they're asleep (and any noises they do make tend to be cute ones). Getting your kid to sleep on the plane or in the car isn't the easiest thing to do, though.
If you're cool with letting a dose of Benadryl do the dirty work, which some perfectly good parents are, you're going to have a much easier time of it. Otherwise, you'll need to make some scheduling adjustments so that nap time falls during travel time.
If your little traveler is an infant, that could just mean shifting naps up or back an hour the day you're travelling. With toddlers or older children, you don't have as many naps to work with, so you could be looking at planning your travel time around nap time. You'll likely find that a slightly higher ticket price or catching the end of rush hour is worth it if it means you'll have a sleeping angel in your lap or the back seat for a chunk of the trip.
Up next: Objects in motion tend to wear themselves out.
Run It Out
Kids are little balls of energy, and when that energy gets pent up, it can end up being released in the form of a whole lot of hollering, whining and crying. Getting some of that energy out of the way before you and your child are sealed into a moving vehicle can go a long way toward a quiet trip.
It's tough to make a fuss when you're all worn out, so arrange for a wear-out session. If you want to be on the road by 10 a.m., leave at 9 and stop at the park on your way to the highway. Run around, play catch, hang from the monkey bars -- anything to release all that wonderful childhood energy that can make containment so difficult for kids and so terrifying for parents.
If you can't manage a pre-trip trip to the playground, simply set aside some time to jump around in an out-of-the-way spot at the airport, or schedule some crawling, bouncing and walking time at home before getting in the car.
Up next: Food can work in your favor, in more ways than one.
Feed the Right Meal
You know that kid at the mall who's screaming her way through the department store at a full sprint? Chances are, she got her mom to make a stop at the candy store. A sugar high is rough no matter where you are, but in a car or on a plane, it's a relative disaster.
For your child's pre-travel and during-travel meals, minimize energy-inducing juice and carbohydrates (and for god's sake, withhold the caffeinated sugar-fest that is soda). Aim for sleepy-making, quieting foods like protein and milk. Both can have a calming effect that will increase the chances of beautiful silence.
Up next: While sugary food is a no-no, food in general can be a lifesaver.
In this age of eating disorders and childhood obesity, snacks can be scary. No one wants to teach their children to eat for entertainment. But the fact is, fun snacking can keep kids occupied, happily munching away or throwing pieces on the ground so mommy and daddy can pick them up.
The right kind of snacking can keep even the fussiest, highest-energy child entertained for long enough to convince your fellow passengers you really do care about their aggravation level. Be sure to keep snacks healthy and low in sugar. Cheerios and other multigrain snacks are good choices, as are veggies (with dip if your child is at the dipping stage), yogurt and string cheese.
Also, keep the snacking occasional. It'll work best as a healthy volume control if it's a treat to look forward to and savor, not a nonstop munching fest.
Pacify, Pacify, Pacify
Does it lead to overbite? Dependence? The nightmare of withdrawal? Who knows. What we do know is that the pacifier keeps little kids, well, pacified. And pacified child is a quiet one.
Keep multiple pacifiers handy for any trip and use them wisely -- perhaps not for the entire trip if you're not big on pacifiers, but at least during take off and landing during plane travel. The sucking can help avoid ear pain and the howling that results.
They're also great at encouraging car seat sleepiness, which could earn you a good hour or two of quiet driving.
Up next: Remember "punch buggy"?
Play a Game
Games. They're what childhood is all about, and they'll keep a kid happy and quiet even more reliably than branded superhero snack food.
You'll probably want to plan ahead here so you're not caught drawing a blank with all the stress of travel. Make a list of low-noise games you can play on the plane or in the car. There are tons of them -- get a point for spotting red cars or drivers wearing glasses; guess the names of other passengers; bring a deck of cards, a mini checker board, a Mad Libs book or some paper to play Pictionary.
There's also the classic Punch Buggy (aka Slug-a-Bug) for long car rides, but that does require some restraint on the part of the punchers, so use your discretion.
Up next: "Quiet" doesn't have to mean silence…
Sing (or Read) Along
There's something better, much better, than the sound of silence. It's the sound of a child singing, reading or laughing, and all of those things can pass for "quiet" when travelling. Who's going to object to a soft rendition of "Twinkle Twinkle"?
Whisper singing is a great way to pass the time on a plane without disturbing the people around you; in a car, volume is less of an issue. Parents can join in for a sing-along that can keep a child occupied (i.e., not yelling, crying or whining) for quite a while.
Reading a book together on a plane is another great quiet-time activity. In the car, reading can be problematic -- if you want to avoid the sound of vomiting you'd be better off listening to a kids' book on tape.
Up next: Novelty never fails…
Offer New Toys
It's tough to make much noise when your mouth is hanging open in surprise, awe, joy, and intrigue. What better silence-inducer than a brand new toy to explore?
One of the best ways to create a quiet traveler is to put together a bag of tricks -- somewhat literally. Before you get on the plane or hit the road, gather up some toys, as many as you can comfortably carry, and make sure you've got some new ones in there. A never-before-seen toy can keep a youngster silently fascinated for a good 15 minutes. That's a quiet take-off right there.
Up next: If you've got the cash, go high-tech.
Take Advantage of Technology
Sure, great parents don't often park their kids in front of the TV for hours on end. It's not the most active activity in the world. When a low-activity activity is exactly what you're looking for, though, it's hard to beat the old DVD player, iPod, or handheld gaming system.
High-tech entertainment works equally well in the car and on the plane, and it can possibly buy you more quiet time than any other approach. When travelling, there's no shame in a little high-tech parenting. The sound of a child entranced in Baby Einstein or Finding Nemo can be a very beautiful thing.
In all of this child travel management, perhaps the most important thing to remember is to be a responsible citizen. If you try every method out there to keep your little flier quiet and nothing works, stay off planes for a while. At least in the car, your screaming angel won't be running everyone else's trip.
For more information on traveling with kids and related topics, look over the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- Keeping an Active Child Calm on a Plane. Delicious Baby.http://www.deliciousbaby.com/journal/2009/feb/19/reader-questions-keeping-active-child-calm-plane/
- Elliott, Christopher. "Unruly kids on planes are getting out of hand." KansasCity.com. May 29, 2010.http://www.kansascity.com/2010/05/29/1974767/travel-troubleshooter-unruly-kids.html
- Plane Drain. Role Mommy.http://www.rolemommy.com/blog/role-mommy-confessions/plane-drain.php