Tips for Traveling with Your Sensory-Challenged Child

Recently, I flew back home from my husband’s family’s Montana trip. In the wee hours of a 3 a.m. wake-up call to catch the plane zero dark hours, I noticed a groggy little boy in his PJs around the age of four years. I leaned over to my husband and motioned to him to look at his adorable Sponge Bob PJs. The child was relatively quiet except for the occasional crying, probably because of lack of sleep. When we started to get ready to descend all of a sudden he began crying and yelling like something was seriously wrong. The plane crew and other passengers begin fuss about the crying child. I even heard one fellow passenger say angrily: “Why can’t the parents keep this child quiet?!”

I fully expected either a flight attendant or another passenger to snap at the parents.

I watched the parents desperately trying numerous methods to calm their child but to no avail. I could see on their faces the embarrassment, nervousness and frustration. Finally, I got up from my seat, which I must say my husband was not happy about, and asked “What can I do to help?”

I’m sure the mother thought I was coming over to “snap.” She explained that her child has sensory issues. I informed her that I was therapist and familiar with sensory issues. She looked relieved. I said that sometimes kids do not know how to pop their ears when the cabin changes pressure and that sucking on candy or chewing gum helps.

The flight attendant came with a Blow Pop, and the child was immediately soothed.

If you are the parent of a child who has a sensory challenges, or even if you travel with children and have experienced a fussy child on an airplane, these tips for traveling with your sensory-challenged child might help you (or another harried parent in a similar situation).

Tip 1: Prepare your child and yourself in advance about what to expect.

What an incredible adventure for you and your child will have on a plane. They will learn so much and their little brains will grow. There are numerous books you can purchase on Amazon that can help prepare yourself when traveling with children of all ages. Check out your local library, too. They can look at the book, color and ask questions prior to take off, and take it with them on their trip.

Also, let your child know what they can expect from flying and what is expected of them. “We will need to have our seat belts on for safety.” “Cannot kick the seat in front of you.” “No screaming or yelling.”

If the other parent or another adult is flying with you then prepare a plan ahead of time as to which of you will respond to the child when the child begins to become agitated. Too many instructions from too many people will only complicate your child and frustrate you and those around you.

If flying alone, make sure you check in all bags except for a carryon and a collapsible stroller so you aren’t worried about carrying luggage along with handling your child. The extra money you spend now will help you in the long run.

You can bring food through security! So pack healthy snacks for you and your child to enjoy while on the plane. Have your child participate in picking out which foods they would want on their trip and packing it in their backpack. Have them pack their toys, too, in the back pack. Any metal toys like cars you can place into a Ziploc bag so that you can take out during security.

Tip 2: Have alternatives for calming.

Sucking thumb, rocking or giving your child a soft cuddy object such as a blanket or stuffed animal can calm your child. Flying is a new experience for your child and filled with multiple stimuli. Different people, noises and routines can disturb your child’s familiar structure. Have earbuds or better yet headphones for your youngster to either listen to music or video is extremely helpful. Take another earbud or headphone for you to watch a movie, too.

Tip 3: What to say to the airline crew and other passengers.

Let the check-in desk at the gate, flight crew and other passengers around you know that you have a child with sensory issues and what that looks like. This piece of information is important. Letting the aircrew, and those around you that you have a child with sensory issues invokes empathy rather than glares of judgement. Informing them you will do the best you can to help your child remain calm allows you to stay in parental power and avoid judgment.

Tip 4: What to do when your child starts to become overstimulated.

As a parent you try so hard to get them to stop their outbursts that sometimes intervening just continues to increase their frustration. Take a moment to breathe, remain calm and know that your child is expressing a need. This is a great time to remind aircrew and those around you of your child’s sensory needs.

Speak in short, clear, direct and firm statements. For example: “Johnny sit in your seat and fastened your seatbelt” or “Sheila do not kick the seat in front of you.”
Although embarrassing, excusing yourself to the bathroom to sit and comfort you child can be helpful. Trust me the airline stewardess will allow you to do so even if the seat belt sign is on especially if this is an emergency (which this qualifies).
Offer your child a lollipop, piece of candy or gum (if age appropriate). This will help with popping of ears and stop the crying and screaming immediately.
Great time for them to play a video game, watch a movie or listen to music with headphones to eliminate the noise surrounding your child.

Tip 5: Give yourself grace.

Mentally preparing yourself that some things are just going to happen and letting go of high expectations of being super parent is helpful. Most of your time will be corralling, entertaining, correcting and instructing your child. Giving in to things that you wouldn’t normally do to keep yourself and them calm is okay. Also, knowing ahead of time what other parents have done to prepare for a trip helps tremendously so don’t be afraid to ask other parents.

Flying with your sensory sensitive child does not need to be dreaded. We hope these tips will be helpful. If you know of any tips please share with us.

If we can help, please contact Breaking the Cycle Consulting today to schedule a private consultation or visit our programs page to check out other services we offer. And, as always, with Breaking the Cycle, we invite you to #staysafe.

Laurie Reid
Laurie Reid

Founder, Breaking the Cycle Consulting, Inc.

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