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How to help your little one join the friendly skies

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Lucinda Breeding

Airplanes can be tense. Adding a fussy baby to the mix can make matters worse. But with some planning and patience from parents, kids and airplanes can be a match made in the heavens. (Some understanding on the part of harried travelers who are traveling child-free wouldn't hurt, either.)

In February, a video of a child screaming during an eight-hour Lufthansa flight went viral. It was a worst-case scenario — a small boy, inconsolable and loud, perching on top of his seat and at times running down the aisles of the plane. Fingers pointed broadly — the mother was to blame for not correcting her son, the flight crew for not intervening and the airline for not removing the family before takeoff. 

Shortly after the video became the meltdown heard around the world,, a travel site that produces an annual "state of travel" survey, found that 52 percent of survey respondents think families with young children should be required to sit in a separate section of the plane. 

Parents take note: When you board that flight bound for Disney World, your fellow travelers expect you to be on your A-game and your kids to behave. 

If you're thinking of taking to the sky — to visit the grandparents or to see Elsa and Mickey — don't fret. Airlines and a local frequent flier have pointers to get babies and toddlers from gate to gate with few hiccups.

Your trip starts at home

Denton native and resident Meg Cochran has taken 92 flights with her four-year-old son, Francis Figgins, whose father works and lives in Nairobi, Africa. Cochran has both short and long flights down pat.The key, she says, is to prepare for every hour your child will be on the plane, and don't be too hard on yourself., Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Denton, Texas, Jeff Woo/DRCDRC
Denton native and resident Meg Cochran has taken 92 flights with her four-year-old son, Francis Figgins, whose father works and lives in Nairobi, Africa. Cochran has both short and long flights down pat.The key, she says, is to prepare for every hour your child will be on the plane, and don't be too hard on yourself., Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Denton, Texas, Jeff Woo/DRC

The airlines spell out their policies for families flying with children. Passengers should read up before they buy tickets. 

Denton native Meg Cochran has taken 92 flights with her 4-year-old son, Francis. They've spent many a flight en route to see Francis' father — and Cochran's fiance — Phil Figgins, who lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya. 

"I'm a former operations manager, so I'm always looking to make things more efficient," Cochran said. "So before I even leave, I'm making decisions. You have to figure out your snacks and activities for your child on the plane."

Cochran said she plans for each hour she will be on the plane. 

"You need to know how many changes of clothes to bring on the plane — especially for younger children," Cochran said. 

Amy Baugh, a flight attendant of 17 years with Southwest Airlines, agreed that parents should put at least one change of clothes in their carry-on bag for their kids.

"Bring a change of clothes, easily accessible during flight, in case someone tosses their cookies," Baugh said. "I recommend a change of clothes for all traveling with the baby. Wet wipes are your best friends."

Cochran said moms who are nursing or helping toddlers eat should think about their own clothes, too. 

"It’s great to have a change of clothes for yourself," she said. "I always found as well, that bringing extra gallon Ziploc bags for dirty clothes and diapers is a huge help."

At the airport

Airports can be big, but even small airports are busy and loud, Cochran said. Be ready to hurry up, and then be ready to wait. 

Once through security — Cochran said parents should take their cues from the TSA agents when it comes to the body scans — families can use the time before boarding to get wiggles and giggles out. 

"Letting them blow off some steam before they get on the plane can help,"
Cochran said. "Love Field has a lovely little children’s play area, and it's such a big help for a parent who is waiting. The airport is overwhelming for kids as much as it is for adults. People are walking quickly and everyone is busy."

Cochran said small things can help in a big way when parents are at busy airports that don't have play areas. 

"I got a small bottle of bubbles, like for a wedding, and I went to a quiet area, and started blowing bubbles. I ended up attracting several little kids," she said.

If you're running low on snacks or lost earbuds, you can pick up replacements along the concourse. Before you board, parents can give their diaper bag or tote a once-over to make sure they know where they've stowed everything they might need on the flight. 

"You need to know where you put things in the bag," Cochran said. "A lot of times, if you're on a long flight, you're going to be reaching into the bag over your child and it's pitch black. It helps to know where you've put everything."

Cochran said to take advantage of the call for "pre-boarding," which is for passengers who need more time to get settled.

"If you have a baby, I think a baby wrap or sling is really helpful," she said. "It keeps both of your hands free."

Airlines understand that families need some of their equipment to get children onto the plane, Baugh said.

"A car seat must be placed in the seat closest to the window so it doesn't impede the exiting of passengers from the row in an emergency," Baugh said of Southwest flights, "and you can only have the number of people in a row that equals the number of air masks available. So plan family seating accordingly."

Strollers, car seats and carriers also can be checked at the gate, so "if needed, so you will have them when you exit the aircraft in the jetway," Baugh said. "Make sure to get them tagged before coming down the jetway. Then they can be left for the ramp agents to grab and place in the cargo compartments."

On the plane

It's the flight itself that can get tricky, Baugh said. Passengers are in close quarters, and even a hungry baby's cries can seem louder. A toddler's tantrum? That can set teeth on edge. 

"For this generation raised by screens, bring them, use them and make sure they're charged. Bring an extra battery for long flights," Baugh said. "Bring headphones so you don't disturb others. I usually ask parents who have the device playing on the speaker to mute it or use headphones I can offer them, for the sake of those around them."

A note to parents: The flight crew isn't the janitorial crew.

"Clean up after your kids, please, and wipe down the tray table before you eat on it," Baugh said. "They're only cleaned once at night when the plane is cleaned by the cleaning crew."

In fact, Baugh said, parents probably don't know there are additional magic words aside from "please" and "thank you."

"Ask the flight attendant for a trash bag on your way in so you can collect all your trash for them and they will likely do anything for you in return," she said.

Cochran said, sometimes, in spite of all of your preparation, your child still has a meltdown in midair. The best thing to do, she said, is to find your zen. 

"One of the most important things to remember is that you need to stay calm," she said. "You need to meet your child’s needs. For the most part, when Francis cried for hours on a flight, people were wonderful. I have had some people who weren’t so patient, but I tried to think of it as well, maybe they’re having a bad time, too. You just have to be calm."

Baugh said she's heard of parents planning for a possible meltdown.

"My colleague told me a story about a mom who had business cards with a piece of candy attached. She passed them out to the adjacent passengers upon taking their seats next to her. The card said something like 'Hi, I'm Maddie and I'm 2 years old. I will try my best to be good on this flight, but sometimes I get loud or cry. I'm sorry if I do. I'm really sweet. And I'd like you to have something as sweet me,'" Baugh said. 

"That mom probably just met six people who will help her and understand if Maddie has a moment, and hold her baby if she needs to use the rest room," she said.

A word to the travelers flying without kids

Some passengers can't stand sharing the cabin with kids. And those are passengers Baugh has seen glower at parents struggling to settle antsy or cranky kids. 

 "Once I had a businessman make a nasty comment about a screaming child, and I said, in my sweetest voice, 'Oh sir, I would love to know what you think she should do, because I'm sure she would welcome any helpful recommendations.' He shut up and turned back to his paper," she said.

Cochran said she flew with Francis first class just once. 

"It was just the two of us and this businessman wearing a suit and I thought 'Oh, he's not going to like this.' But then he came up to us and said, 'I'm a grandfather, and I'm looking forward to us having a great flight.' And we did," she said. 

Baugh said passengers aren't complaining more about children on flights.

"It's about the same," she said. "But they are more likely to engage directly with the parents, and that's not usually pleasant. I always interject to moderate if I see that happening... Everyone paid for their ticket and deserves a peaceful, respectful flight, as much as possible. No one is better or more important than anyone else, in my opinion."

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.

FEATURED IMAGE: Children can be good airplane passengers. It takes preparation and patience. Getty Images/iStockphoto.