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Kids Who Vomit on Airplanes — and the Parents Who Travel with Them

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I am sad to say that my youngest daughter is a Kid Who Vomits on Airplanes. This means my husband and I have become the Parents Who Travel With Them. Our older two kids don’t do this, or haven’t, since 2004 when one of them vomited twice on a tiny safari airplane in the Masai Mara in Kenya. Once going up and once coming down. But our youngest seems to have trouble with long, international flights. (Being an American family living in Djibouti, we take many of these.)  If you plan on traveling with your family this summer, it may not always be pretty — especially if your child is a Kid Who Vomits on Airplanes. Luckily for you, I’ve been there, done that many a time. Here’s what I’ve learned:

When a child barfs on an airplane, you don’t necessarily see it coming. He or she is most likely not sick, at least not with anything contagious — they are airsick. Our daughter hates the smell of airplanes — she plugs her nose as she boards — so maybe the smell is a trigger for her. But whatever the cause, one moment she is pleasant and feeling great and then suddenly … she is definitely not. Yup, she’s hurling.

The sudden onset of airsickness means you won’t have time to prepare. So as the parent, it’s important to prepare ahead of time.

So Here’s What You Need:

A barf bag. I have rarely seen actual vomit bags in the seat pocket in front of me. Bring your own or ask a flight attendant for one — and make sure it doesn’t have holes. Large Ziplock baggies work well, too if you’re in a pinch. Even if you do discover one in that seat pocket, it can’t hurt to ask for an extra.

A target. You don’t want to be the target, you don’t want your child’s Pillow Pet to be the target, you want the barf bag to be the target. Having the one in your possession (but not in your actual hand) renders it useless. A baggie in the carry-on roller bag over your head will do nothing for you when the kid blows chunks during takeoff. Hold the bag, make sure the opening is easily widened, remind your child that you have it, just in case.

Extra clothes. Extra clothes for your kid won’t help you if there is projectile vomiting involved or if you failed to follow the suggestion of having a target.

Baby wipes. Even families without babies can benefit from carrying baby wipes. They clean up well and smell, if not great, at least better than vomit.

Paper towels or Kleenex. Baby wipes are great but they can’t always handle the whole job. Especially if your child had a large breakfast. You’ll want a little extra for wiping up your kid’s face and any spillage. You probably can’t rely on the flight attendants to help, they are busy and I’m not sure vomit clean-up is in their job description. But it is definitely in the parenting job description. (Though they will probably provide extra cleaning supplies if you ask nicely.)

The airplane bathroom. There is water and a sink in there. I know it is small, (I have had the unique experience of being in one with twin toddlers) but you can use it. Use the soap, use the paper towels, use the sink. Give your kid a sink bath, and rinse out the clothes. Your seat mates would rather have you damp than stinky. While you and the kid will dry, the smell will only grow worse over the course of the flight. Trust me on this.

Kindness and gratitude. You will need people to be kind to you, though that will be challenging for them. You stink. Your kid stinks. The sounds she was making made them feel sick. If someone offers a ridiculously small moist hand towelette, accept it with gratitude and not with a snarky, “That’s hardly big enough for this disaster.” Apologize for the smell if someone says something rude but you don’t have to apologize for your kid, they have done nothing wrong, it could happen to anyone.

Here’s What Your Child Needs:

First of all, your kid might simply benefit from Dramamine, ginger chews, or motion sickness wristbands. For many, these do the trick as preventative measures. But if not, or if you choose not to use any or all of the above, here’s what you’ll need:

An extra pair of clothing. Make sure you pack a shirt, pants, socks and underwear in their carry-on.

Ponytail holder: If you have a child with long hair, you’ll want to make sure you have this on-hand to tie back their hair.

Toothbrush: Because they won’t be able to feel comfortable without freshening up, no matter how much they normally fight you on brushing their teeth.

Distraction:  You’ll want to comfort them with a toy or stuffed animal from home that they love. It’s also great to have a game or movie to distract them, and to remind them of the exciting destination you’ll be reaching soon enough.

And most of all — they need a hug. They need to know that next time you travel together, you are still willing to sit next to them, that you aren’t angry or embarrassed. Maybe, depending on the strength of your own stomach (channeling Chunk in The Goonies here), she might need to have a barf bag on hand for you, the intrepid parent.

I’m happy to say that on my daughter’s most recent flight from Djibouti to Minneapolis, which included a five-hour delay and a missed connection, she landed successfully without vomiting. Her first words upon landing, accompanied by a triumphant fist pump?

“I made it!”

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