This weekend I traveled solo with my very mobile one year old from Johannesburg to Chicago via Abu Dhabi. We spent 4.5 hours in the car driving from Ladybrand, South Africa to the Johannesburg airport, 8 hours flying from Johannesburg to Abu Dhabi, where we spent about 11 hours (midnight to 10am) in the airport for a very long layover, and nearly 17 hours on the plane from Abu Dhabi to Chicago (including an unexpected refueling stop in Toronto- an extra ear-popping descent with baby- noooooo!!!!!). Not including time spent checking in and waiting for luggage, that’s about 40 hours of continuous contained traveling time I had to fill with activities to keep my toddler entertained.
Very young infants (under 6 months) are generally easy to fly with for long periods because they spend much of their time sleeping and eating and can’t get far on their own, but at one year, babies are inquisitive, constantly on the go, and have about a five minute attention span for any given activity. So, 40 hours divided by five minutes equals how many unique activities to keep baby engaged? Okay, so my baby did indeed spend time sleeping, but both long flights were unfortunately during the day time, which meant she slept in short napping bursts. The rest of the time she wanted to play, and it’s not practical to bring along an artillery chest of toys, so I stretched my creativity (and am now physically and mentally exhausted).
In fact, Veda much preferred just about anything else to her toys, because she’s naturally attracted to exploring the unfamiliar. If you’re traveling a long distance with a mobile baby/ toddler (let’s say 8 months to two years old), my best advice I can offer is to try and see everything on the plane through baby’s eyes: as a toy. Think of new things to keep baby engaged (safely, of course), and keep in mind that babies love practicing skills at this age (open/close, off/on, in/out, etc.). Here is my list of 20 fun things that can be done (20 x 5 minutes= 100 minutes of fun, to be recycled), compliments of the airplane, with a busy baby on long flights:
1) Buckling and unbuckling the seat belt (after the seat belt sign is off)
2) Opening and closing (or latching/ unlatching) the tray table (make sure this is done in bulkhead where the passenger in front won’t be disturbed or respect the passenger in front of you by moving to a seat with no one in it and/or not doing it when people are sleeping)
3) Reading the safety manual on the back of the seat and making up a story to go along with the pictures
4) Banging on paper coffee cups with plastic spoons/ wooden stirrers
5) Putting one plastic/ paper cup in another (and out again)
6) Using the barf bag as a puppet (that got lots of giggles)
7) Using socks provided in travel pouches as puppets (also lots of giggles, especially when sock puppet is a roaring lion playing peek-a-boo)
8) Using the video remote as a phone and making pretend phone calls
9) Playing peek-a-boo on baby and mommy/daddy with sleep mask provided in travel pouches
10) Pressing touch-screen video monitor buttons repeatedly to see the screen change
11) Playing peek-a-boo/ making silly faces in the bathroom mirror (as long as people are not waiting to use it)
12) Putting hands under the bathroom faucet to watch the water automatically turn on and play with the stream (also as long as people are not waiting to use it)
13) Looking outside the windows at the clouds and making up stories about flying, birds, or other fantasy stories about the sky
14) Putting smaller things (cups, spoons, etc.) inside the plastic bag that was used to wrap the blanket provided (and then taking them out)
15) Peek-a-boo with the blanket provided
16) Wiping the galley floor with a napkin as long as the flight attendants aren’t busy and don’t mind, child labor style (don’t worry, you can follow with activity #12)
17) Walk around and point to objects/ things (door, window, garbage, people, hat, painting, etc.) and tell baby the word/ ask baby what the word is
18) Use empty paper/ plastic cups or bottles as cars/ boats/ trucks to push around on the galley floor (as long as you’re not in the way of the flight attendants)
19) Guide baby/ toddler to walk/ crawl up and down the aisles to say hello to people and get some energy-burning exercise (keeping baby from bothering anyone sleeping)
20) Find other older babies and toddlers to say hello to, and practice communication and sharing (empty coffee cup?); other parents are also relieved for the 5 minute distraction two babies can provide to one another
**A note on playing with baby on the plane: make sure that you and baby are doing activities that are mindful and respectful of other passengers, families, and other sleeping babies around you!
Flying 14 weeks pregnant with a one year (in my lap) alone for the entire weekend was, I must say, a scary prospect, but it went surprisingly well with very few melt-downs. Thank you, airplanes, for providing my baby with such a fun environment that kept her happy and entertained for hours! Her own toys spent most of the time ignored on the floor.