Of our friends and family, we were not the first to have a child, but it is a safe bet that we were the first to attempt any significant travel with our little one.  Living in Maine has been a great experience, but when our closest relatives are in New Jersey and most distant in San Diego, we realized early on that we would have to get back in the air quickly.

For those that have children and will admit to remembering the pre-birth experience, you may recall all of the planning that went into having a child.  Especially as a dad-to-be, I was very concerned with everything from preparing the nursery to the optimal route to the hospital.  Sure enough, those plans went into action and nine months plus three days later, the hospital sent us home with a newborn.  And then reality really sets in:  The emphasis was in planning for the birth, not in preparing for the day that you walk back through the front door with 8 pounds of additional family.

That moment where you look at each other and pause, until one of you dares to say, “So.  What do we do now?” applies to getting on the airplane with a baby as well.  We book tickets, reserve “the best” seats, make sure that our car seat has the right stickers, practice installing it quickly without using the snap-in base, pack half the house into suitcases, show up early to the airport, and eventually board that plane.  Mom knows she’s holding the baby while Dad deploys the car seat in 12 seconds flat.  Taxi, takeoff, and we’re in the air, leaving Boston for San Diego.  And then it hits us.  This is a six-hour flight.  The sleepy child in my arms will nap for about ninety minutes.  “So.  What do we do for the other four and a half hours?”

My wife deserves all the credit in the world for knowing the answer to that question prior to that first non-child-free flight.  “The bag.”  You need the bag.

The kid screaming 10 rows back?  His parents probably forgot the bag.  The bag is a carry on containing many wonders of distraction.  We’re not talking diapers and bottles, those are in your bag, but your bag is not the bag.  A distracted baby is a happy baby.  For us, the bag has evolved over time, but you will want to customize to your child’s age, interests and current developmental milestones.

At six months, our daughter was not yet mobile, but she loved to smile at people and objects, enjoyed books, and would chew on just about anything.  The six month bag had her favorite stuffed animal, a couple of books, lots of teething toys that doubled as rings to grab and a stack of small paper cups.  Of any of that, do not forget the cups.  They are great for grabbing, crushing and stacking.  To this day, we still get a great deal of mileage out of a stack of cups.

At a year and beyond, our child started to have opinions.  Very serious opinions, and lots of them.  From week to week, she would have a favorite toy, and it was imperative that it be in the bag.  In addition, we still had the teethers, and always the cups.  At this age, though, we started introducing small “gifts” that she would enjoy.  For each hour of flight, we wrapped up an object and let her open it as long as she was “being good.”  It’s amazing, but your children will know exactly what that means if there’s a prize involved.  These gifts weren’t elaborate – a pad of paper, crayons, stickers.  All fun to open, and all provide a distraction.  As the flight goes on, they distract together – the crayons and stickers go on the paper.  Your bag may be different, but the principles are the same – mix familiarity with surprise.

Today we are approaching the two-year mark.  We still have the bag and there is a lot more stuff in it now.  The stuffed animals are mostly staying home, but we do bring a blanket and pillow – camping in her seat is really exciting.  We don’t wrap the crayons and stickers any more, we just hand them over.  The cups are still here and they tend to get counted, stacked and occasionally thrown at me.  And yes, mybag has a Kindle Fire in it with Frozen on it, because sometimes the bag isn’t exciting after the first couple of hours.

There is certainly a lot to plan and do when traveling with an infant or toddler, but a well stocked bag has been critical to our happy little flyer.

Where are you going and what’s in your bag?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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