Are you flying somewhere with a child who has sensory needs? If so, you may be worried about how your child may feel and behave during the flight. Flying can be an overwhelming experience for any child, but add in sensory challenges, and flights can be downright terrifying. but fortunately, it doesn’t have to be, especially if you can manage to fly privately. Plus, the good news is that, with services like Jettly being readily available, flying on a private jet is easier than ever, which could be great news for a child with sensory needs.
There are several other effective strategies that can help your child feel more relaxed, comfortable, and prepared to tackle a potentially stressful flight experience.
Tip #1-Pack a Carry-on Bag
Whether you actually need a carry-on bag or not, PACK ONE! A carry-on bag like a bookbag is a perfect way to give your child some calming deep pressure and proprioceptive input before take-off. Put some heavy items in the bookbag such as books, magazines, or paper to weigh it down.
If your child is straining to carry it or if it is causing discomfort, then lighten the load. Have your child wear the bookbag (either while standing or walking, but not sitting) for 15-20 minutes prior to boarding the plane in order to give your child enough time for the deep pressure and proprioception to be effective and calming.
Deep pressure and proprioceptive input elicit a calming response in the body because they can lower stress levels, reassure the body of its position in space, and facilitate the release of dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters responsible for mood and behavior regulation (Buckley-Reen & Dickson, 2015 and research from Edelson, et al.).
Tip #2- Get active before boarding
Exercise and activity help to calm the body down because of the release of your body’s “feel good” chemicals, dopamine and norepinephrine. So, get your child moving before getting on the plane help them feel as good as possible before boarding. So, how can you get your child active in an airport? Here are some effective yet discrete ideas…
1.Carry or roll a suitcase- Having your child walk with or roll a suitcase will give your child extra proprioception which will increase the calming response.
2. Play walking games- Make a game out of walking by counting stores, playing eye-spy games, or doing scavenger hunts down busy corridors in the airport.
3. Take the steps- Airports are notorious for having escalators and moving walkways, but add some exercise in by taking the steps or racing the walkway!
4. Chair sits- Have your child sit down then stand up repetitively in a chair– Make it into a game by timing your child and seeing how many they can do!
5. Jump over the lines… Have your child look down on the ground to find lines on the floor in the airport (i.e. tile lines, carpet edges, colored tiles) and have them jump over the lines for 1 minute. Repeat as tolerated
Tip #3- Do a social story of the airport, plane, and destination city
Social stories are like a “game plan” for children prior to when they enter into a new or stressful situation. A social story is simply a visual or verbal description of what is expected to happen during the new situation or location. Fortunately, it is so easy to find pictures and videos of almost any place online, so look up the airport, plane, and destination place before going and show them the images. Also discuss the specifics of your flight such as where you are going, how long the flight should take, and what behaviors and social norms are expected. This preparation will really pay off during the flight as your child will already know what to expect, taking some of the anxiety out of a new situation.
Tip #4- Have some quick, space-saving calming strategies handy
Let’s face it, airplane seats are packed in very tightly, not leaving you much room for anything but sitting. So, have some quick calming strategies in reserve that don’t require much space to complete in case you need to use a strategy once you get on the plane. Try one of these simple strategies that don’t take up any space…
- Hand presses- This activity activates pressure points in your palm that help to decrease stress and calm down. You can do this by putting out one hand and pressing down in the middle of it with your opposite thumb.
- Hugs and Squeezes- Give your child a firm hug or squeeze several times to elicit propriceptive input to help your child calm down. (They can also hug themselves if you aren’t sitting together).
- Joint Compressions – These can be very helpful in calming down as well and can be done anywhere without needing much space and no equipment is needed.
- Noise Canceling Headphones- Great for canceling out sounds that may bother your child such as a baby crying, or loud talking
5. Oral Chewies- Chewing on something can be very calming and soothing for kids so pack some healthy snacks or try one of these oral chewies
Tip #5- Bring some distractions
1.Comforting toy, blanket, or stuffed animals- Since your child will be in a new environment and outside of their comfort zone, having a familiar item from home can make them feel more secure and less anxious. There’s weighted stuffed animals available to give comfort and deep pressure simultaneously.
2. Portable DVD/Tablet –I don’t normally advocate watching TV or videos, but having a portable dvd player with educational and age appropriate shows is a great visual distraction for children who are anxious when flying
3. Coloring books/paper- Having your child color, draw, or playing games like tic-tac-toe, pictionary, or connect the dots are great ways to visually distract your child
4. Books/ Magazines- Bring new books or magazines that still have the “wow factor”
Finally, try to relax and enjoy your travels as well. Your child will be able to sense your emotions regarding flying so do your best to remain calm as well. Maybe you and your child can both try out and hopefully benefit from the tips above! Happy trails to you!