Sian Leigh, distributor of WeSC in NZ and wife to TV presenter Ed Leigh, is possibly the most qualified person on the planet when it comes to flying with young kids and how to survive it. She’s done 50 flights (many of those long-haul and sans husband) with her two young, high-octane children in the past five years, and is still standing to tell the tale. Here are her pearls of wisdom:

How come you’ve done so many long haul flights with your kids?

When we had our first child Suki we were still living in Brighton, England. My husband’s work is mainly in the UK but I had set up a business importing WeSC into New Zealand two years earlier so we had done three months in each country for the previous two years. I really wanted to have Suki in New Zealand so I flew home at 36 weeks and had her at just over 41 weeks. We then flew back to Brighton when she was 4 weeks old….and so it began. Ed’s work was still taking him all over the world so I followed, with baby in tow, until I fell pregnant with our second child Oscar and then we dropped the long hauls down to once a year.

How many have you done?

Suki did 22 international flights in her first year.  I would not recommend it. Since we’ve had the kids we’ve been back and forth to the UK every year, and have thrown in a trip to France or Spain or Sweden whilst there. Then I took them with me on all my sales trips around NZ, down to Queenstown, Christchurch and Wellington.  Then a few sneaky trips to Australia. I honestly don’t know how many but I reckon I must be up to 50 now.

What were your worst and best flights?

Is there ever a best flight? Seriously, I don’t sleep a wink on them because I am on red alert the whole time for them waking up. My husband has narcolepsy (well I think he has) and he pretty much zones out after the first leg so it’s like having three kids for that final 14 hours when you are really starting to lose your marbles.  The last flight home we did was probably the best as Suki (5) watched a lot of films and Oscar (3.5) slept for four hours on each leg. It’s still exhausting and not fun. I once said I’d prefer to go through labour again than do a long haul flight whilst pregnant and with a toddler.
Worst flights: First one I was 6 months pregnant with Oscar and was flying back from the UK with Suki on my own. She didn’t sleep at all on the London- LA leg, and then we were delayed by 14 hours at the airport. By the time we got back on the flight she was over-exhausted and went INSANE. I had her in a sling on my chest and she was screaming and I couldn’t settle her at all and everyone was looking at me. Finally in desperation I took off all Suki’s clothes and she just conked it for a few hours. She must have just over heated as well as being exhausted. I just sat with her on my lap, chin on my big chest, and sobbed for about an hour. Pretty humiliating and no-one came to help me as I was trying to get stuff from the overhead compartment whilst holding a screaming kid.
The second horrible flight was a drawn out process across Canada. We’d flown to Vancouver when Oscar was one and Suki was three. Ed then went to work and I flew across the country to Montreal. We were on one of those tiny planes and I had Oscar on my lap. I asked the man in the aisle seat if he would swap as I would be up and down, but he wouldn’t so I had to keep pushing past him to get nappies and bottles and ‘craft’ (see piece on tips). There was also no food offered on the flight and I had no cash so couldn’t by food.  At that stage Oscar was still allergic to EVERYTHING except rice so I had some emergency rice crackers and rice milk which Suki & I dug into too. It was really hard traveling so much with a super allergic kid, I had to research ahead of time to find health food stores where I could head straight to to get supplies as soon as we landed.

Obviously how you handle your kids on a flight differs with age. Which ages are the trickiest for flying?

The hardest age is when they are crawling as they just do not want to sit still. At that age they don’t have their own seat, are too big really for the bassinet, and are just fascinated by all the passengers. Suki used to go up to people who were asleep and poke them and go into fits of laughter when they jerked awake. Seriously I think I was cursed with two of the ‘worst’ travelers in the world. Neither were ever interested in TV, neither were very good sleepers at the best of times and could just keep going until they cracked. They are also incredibly active so don’t sit still for long periods of time.

Tips for getting through the airport and security with babies and kids?

Look harried.  The worse you look, the quicker you get pushed to the front. Pop all those little bottles and tubes into plastic bags before the flight as your hands are so full at that stage there’s nothing worse than rummaging through trying to find the tube of toothpaste that has brought you to the attention of the anal security guard. Have a bag where you can have your liquids in outside pockets so that you can just whip them out without unzipping your bag. Have a backpack so you have your hands free. Ask to go through to the front at any opportunity. Take advantage of the fact that you are doing the most torturous thing in the world by traveling with kids and use the small perks to your advantage. Pray you don’t get an old hag for a stewardess or an upight gay one, those are the two worst types. I once heard a steward say ‘YOU are taking the solo mum with two kids’. Try to get into the lounges as they have good play areas where you can consolidate, get the kids into their PJ’s, fill your pockets with little snacks and water, and it’s calm and quiet in there so you can all get some zen. Also, have a trunkie for the older one to ride on and a sling to put the younger one in on your front. I once had a flight at the furthest end of Heathrow and was sprinting with Oscar on my front and Suki on the trunkie. And a backpack on my back.
Which seats are best to go for?

Bulkhead all the way. Fight for it. Or right at the very back.vI think that there should be a kids section at the back so you are all in it together and can empathise as one.

Is it best to try and keep your kids awake before the flight so they sleep during it?

That’s such a tricky one, I’ve done that a few times and it’s backfired badly.  I think it depends on their age and temperament. Last year I had a night flight from Heathrow and had to spend the day wandering around London with them. I thought they’d be physically exhausted and just crash, but for mine, the excitement of being on a plane always over rides the tiredness. If you can get a night flight, try to make sure it’s about 6pm take off, then they get a meal and if they are wired from the excitement worst case they will crash by 9pm. But if they are any later you are entering the danger zone of over-tiredness. My friend swears by having 24 hours in Singapore at a hotel so they can all recoup. I just want to get it over with as soon as possible so I never stop. It drags the torture out if you stop over.

What entertainment do you take for them?

This is the question I’ve been waiting for! I feel I now qualify as an expert in children’s activities on a flight (what a qualification). Bring three little books. Bring a new toy wrapped up. Bring a roll of tape for them to unwrap and tape things up with (Suki always used to wrap her Barbie in tape on a flight). Bring a sewing kit, needle and thread and some already cut out material into the shape of a dress so you can make a dress for Barbie or some trousers for Ken on the flight. Bring a little box and a couple of cars for a boy. You always get pencils and a colouring book on the flight so save the space for the afore mentioned. Activity books are good once they are five and can sit for hours (Suki sat for eight hours and did one recently so I have high hopes for the next flight!).  Also snacks that take a long time to unwrap and eat.

What do you do if you have an unsympathetic neighbour?

The worst thing to do is use your points to upgrade. My husband always had his flights in business class so we frequently used our points to upgrade beside him. Within seconds of sitting you’d hear people whisper “Excuse me, can you possibly move me?”.   I didn’t ever blame them but I used to feel so self conscious if the kids even farted loudly, so it’s actually better to just be in cattle class with other people who are in the same boat as you. It’s hard to not glare at them and feel cross but the reality is they have probably saved a life-time to sit in business class, or have a meeting the next day so the last thing they need is a screaming child next to them. I bet I do it one day, although I hope not, I hope I am sympathetic.

How do you handle a meltdown/tantrum?

We had this one flight when Oscar was one and Suki was three where we were all in business class and we’d kept the kids up late as it was an 11pm departure. Then they bought the trays out and there was a massive Kit-Kat on it that both the kids ate (bearing in mind neither of them could handle sugar at the best of times). Suki fell asleep and all was going so well that Ed and I both toasted each other with a glass of champage. Then, for our sins, Oscar started crying with tiredness and woke Suki and she went mental. So Ed put his hand over her mouth and rushed her downstairs to the back toilets where they stayed for about 20 minutes until she calmed down. No matter how tired you are, distraction is the best technique at all times ‘ooh look at that cloud out the window, oooh look at that flappy thing on the tray, oooh look at that manky bit of gum on the floor’. With Suki I’d read and read and read to her for hours until the hypnosis effect of my voice used to wind her down into a sleep coma. Walking them up and down the isle is also the best way to pass time/stop them crying/distract them, but it’s just so hard to do that when you are on your own and you have two of them, one who wants to stay seated and one that is losing it.

Any legal drugs or remedies you can give them to calm them down?

Best combination is Rescue Remedy Sleep, Arnica tablets & Kalpol night. Phenergan just makes them wake up mental, like a crack addict coming down off a massive hit.

How do you deal with jet-lagged kids?

There is a formula I find.  It takes three nights to re-program them, so that was the hardest bit, we’d get to the UK, THEN drive two hours to Gloucester with two exhausted kids who did not want to be strapped back into car seats. Then, you’d have to keep them going as long as you could until bed time.

SO, plan is, immediately switch your routine to the time you are now on, if they normally have a  nap at 2pm, put them down at 2pm, or at least attempt to, put them in the buggy and go for a walk to try and get them down, give them a boob or a bottle at the usual time, feed them, bath them (when they are losing it with tiredness a bath is brilliant to break it I find), then do dinner. Expect them to wake for a 3 or 4 hour period around 11 or 12 and be super hungry, run with it, get up but make them aware it’s night time and that they should be just lying in bed, give them food though as they are so arse about face. Then the next night that awake period will be shorter, and they’ll sleep later in the morning and the next etc etc.  The only thing is, if you haven’t slept on the flight, AND if by the time you go to bed they are waking, you hit EXHAUSTION. In an ideal world your mum or dad or mother-in law or whoever you have gone to stay with will get up with them and let you sleep.

Any last pearls of wisdom?

Best piece of advice I reckon is:

1/ It’s only 26 hours, it’s only 26 hours, it’s only 26 hours…

2/ You will never see those people on that flight ever again so don’t feel self conscious (that said I’ve had stewardesses remember me!)

3/ Try to always travel with someone.  My mum and dad have been on heaps of flights with me and are brilliant.  Funnily enough though they’re on holiday now and didn’t invite us to come!

The Leigh family