Flying With Kids Under the New TSA Security Regulations

E flying comfortably with his CARES harness
E flying comfortably with his CARES harness

There is lots of speculation and uncertainty about the specifics of the new TSA rules for international flights landing in the United States. There is one thing that seems to be consistent between first-hand passenger reports and TSA document leaks: for the last 60 minutes of flight passengers must remain seated are not allowed to hold any personal items. For parents traveling with kids, that's going to make the final 60 even more tricky than usual, and I hope the rules will be relaxed soon. Still, for anyone flying into the US in the next few weeks, here are my best tips to help you through the last hour of your long-haul flight.

Before Your Trip

  • Learn some new Finger Rhymes before you go
  • Pack pullups even if your child is fully potty trained
  • Pack a marker - you'll see why later

Just Before the "Final 60"

  • Explain to your child that once the fasten seatbelt light is on they won't be able to get up or play with toys
  • Give your child a chance to stretch their legs
  • Offer a final snack. A protein rich snack will help your child feel full
  • Take a restroom break and put on a pullup - remember the final descent may take more than 60 minutes if there are air traffic or weather delays
  • If your child wears a diaper, this is the time for one last diaper change in order to avoid a diaper leak
  • If you are worried your child won't want to put their seatbelt on, do it before stowing toys so that you have a way to distract your child
  • If possible, try to put your child to sleep, but remember that all loveys, blankets and pillows will need to be stowed for the final 60 minutes of flight.
  • If your child uses a pacifier to help clear his or her ears in flight, clip it onto their clothing. With any luck, your flight attendant will consider it to be part of the clothing (but never argue with a flight attendant who insists that it is not)
  • Ask a flight attendant whether a bottle will be allowed, and if so, prepare it in advance so that you do not have to reach into your diaper bag during the "final 60."
  • Draw "finger puppets" on your fingers

During the "Final 60"

  • Sing some songs. Even if your neighbors don't love your signing voice, they'll prefer it to the sounds of a fussy child
  • Finger rhymes and other hand games will help keep your child and their hands occupied
  • Tell stories or take turns acting out the "parts" in a well loved story
  • If your child has trouble clearing their ears (bottles and sippies are no longer allowed) let them suck on your (hopefully clean) knuckle or teach them to pretend they are chewing.
  • Use your drawn on "Finger Puppets" to act out stories and plays

Readers: What suggestions do you have for keeping a child entertained without any books, toys, or electronic devices?

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  1. Colleen Lanin at Travel Mamas on December 27, 2009 at 11:15 p.m.

    All I can say is...I'm glad I don't have any flights with the kiddos planned in the near future! Thanks for the tips - I hope the rules relax so I don't ever have to use them!

  2. Corinne @ Have Baby Will Travel on December 28, 2009 at 9:14 a.m.

    LOVE the finger puppet idea.

    I still question how they will be able to enforce these regulations - especially with babies and young children.

  3. Debbie on December 28, 2009 at 10:02 a.m.

    I flew through Heathrow with E a few days after the liquid bomb scare. Between the specific limits on food (nobody was sure whether they applied to baby food) and the general limit on carryon baggage which stated that you could carry "essential items only" it was a tricky trip. Not to mention the fact that everyone had their own interpretation of the rules.

    I'm glad that we're not flying internationally in the next few weeks - hopefully things will stabilize by the time we head to Turkey this spring.

  4. Debbie on December 28, 2009 at 10:03 a.m.

    One more note. I'm reading some passenger accounts that say they weren't allowed to use electronics on their flight at all - so if you normally rely on a DVD player, you'll want to bring along more books, toys and other entertainment this time (just in case)

  5. Julie Feinstein Adams on December 28, 2009 at 10:29 a.m.

    OMG. I am so upset about these new rules I can't stand it. Your tips are great. But the idea that my child cannot use a bottle or sippy during descent to clear his ears just makes me want to bash my head against something. ARGH! I hope the rules change before we have to fly again.

    Love the finger puppets idea. Genius.

  6. PuntaCana Mom on December 28, 2009 at 11:28 a.m.

    Hope you'll continue to post on this topic, Debbie, and that others will continue to share their experiences here. No one seems to be addressing this issue for parents. We have a trip planned for months now and can't "undo" it, but certainly will be thinking hard about other family air travel if these restrictions persist. In the meantime, our little one will continue to get bigger, and that can only help...

    Wonder if they'd allow origami (without use of the tray)? What about a pen and a tiny flip notepad (the type that fits in Dad's shirt pocket)? I'm just having trouble envisioning small children doing nothing for 1+ hrs while landing... Thanks much for the finger puppet tips!!!!

    Also, as an aside - have done and will continue to do pull-ups, but also met on one bad occasion with a very, very, very unhappy child who did not want to GO in the pull-up during a steep descent (we *did* go in the lav with "enough" time but then there were delays and we spent time flying around in circles). :( Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) our neighbors thought that our child was having ear trouble.

  7. Lorraine on December 28, 2009 at 1:40 p.m.

    Thanks for the update on these rules. If strictly regulated, they could really be a game changer for options of entertaining kids on planes. Your tips are fantastic - definitely worth reading again in advance of a flight.

  8. Jessica Bern on December 28, 2009 at 1:47 p.m.

    I can't imagine me not doing anything for 1+ hours, never mind a little kid. Serioulsy, I wouldn't fly internationlly if you paid me right now. It's a joke

  9. Mary Jo on December 28, 2009 at 6:53 p.m.

    I'm not sure where some of your info is coming from, Debbie, but I've read nothing that says your child couldn't have a bottle or pacifier.

    The restrictions, which are for international flights inbound to the US only, have to do with not having a bunch of stuff on your lap that could cover up illegal activity. That's why coats, blankets, carryons, etc., are prohibited. (Yeah, I know, it doesn't make sense, but that's the way it is.)
    My instructions as a Flight Attendant have been that a book (non-electronic), small toy, magazine, etc., is just fine.

    I think much is being blown out of proportion by people who aren't really living these restrictions every single day. Sure, there were some major reactions (over-reactions perhaps) immediately following the incident. And yes, there were (and may be again) some inconsistent application. But now that the TSA has issued its directive and the airlines have had time for interpretation and clarification, I think you'll find that things aren't as egregious as we've been led to believe. Most Flight Attendants that I've talked with are getting the same information and feel the same way.

    While I didn't fly international this past trip, I did fly into a major NY-area airport. All was calm, lines moved quickly, and there didn't seem to be much of a back up at all. Hopefully problems now will be situational rather than systemic.

  10. Punta Cana Mom on December 29, 2009 at 3:47 a.m.

    see parent/child anecdotes in today's NYTimes:

    "The slowdown appeared to be particularly intense on flights coming from Canada. Dianne Duncan’s trip to Los Angeles from Toronto, for one, involved a 10-hour security wait... and a full-body pat-down of her and her 5-year-old daughter.

    "Amanda Cain, 41, flew on China Eastern from Beijing to Los Angeles with her 5-year-old daughter, Emily. The security line was a relative breeze. “They let me through easily, I think because they saw I had a small child with me,” Ms. Cain said. “I appreciated that.”

    But on the plane, restricted movement and confiscated comforts took a toll.

    “The last hour and a half, they said we can’t move at all,” Ms. Cain said. “That was very hard for her. The flight attendant came by and took the pillow from her head. I didn’t like that. Why did they have to wake her up? It would be better for her to sleep.”

  11. emily on December 29, 2009 at 11:18 a.m.

    Great travel tips, as usual. This is such a tricky subject - of course we want the rules which keep us and our children safe, but we don't want to suffer super-unhappy children either. Thankfully it is only an hour and not (usually) more than that!

  12. WanderMom on December 29, 2009 at 12:45 p.m.

    My 2c: if you have travel plans but haven't booked your flight, book with a non-US carrier if at all possible. US carriers will be obliged to follow the letter of the law, airlines based in other countries will not.
    And if the public outcry against this means anything, the TSA will recant soon. As I say, utterly unenforceable.

  13. Lauren on December 29, 2009 at 6:53 p.m.

    Great article - I am so hoping this is different soon - yet another set of rules that won't truly make us safer. I am traveling with a 2 1/2 year old and a 6 1/2 month old in about 6 weeks, while we are pretty experienced fliers, these new rules are daunting. I am also hoping they will let me keep move my 6 1/2 month old in/out of my lap even though we have bought him a seat! I can't bear to let him cry while I am sitting there staring at him!

  14. Heather on her travels on December 30, 2009 at 7:43 a.m.

    I just can't believe this 60 min ban will last too long as it's so impractical & difficult to enforce, causing un-necessary stress for individuals, family & crew.

    I find the idea of not being able to have a loo break for 60 min + who knows how long after that, rather frightening. What it might be like for older children or toddlers being potty trained is not very pleasant to think about.

    Let's hope common sense will prevail!

  15. RookieMom Heather on December 30, 2009 at 2:53 p.m.

    Love these tips, but holy crap! We have a trip planned for Europe (our first overseas, yay!) in a couple months. I pray that the regulations ease up so we can let the kids watch a video on the iPhone and I don't have to perform the entirety of the movie Cars with my markered-on fingers.

  16. Debbie on December 30, 2009 at 11:07 p.m.

    Mary Jo,

    My information is coming from numerous NY times articles interviewing international travelers, as well as the full text of the directive posted here:

    which states "Passengers may not have any blankets, pillows, or personal belongings on the lap beginning 1 hour prior to arrival at destination."


    "Passengers must remain in seats beginning 1 hour prior to arrival at destination."


    "Passenger access to carry-on baggage is prohibited beginning 1 hour prior to arrival at destination."

    You are absolutely right that this is subject to each individual flight attendant's interpretation - and I'm so glad to hear that you don't think most flight attendants would prohibit a pacifier, a bottle, a book and a small toy from being held on the lap.

    Still, you can never be sure - in fact, on a flight about a year ago I was prohibited from giving sippy cups to my children to clear their ears because of a flight attendant's interpretation of a rule that "service items must be stowed before landing."

    On another flight, about a week after after the liquid bombing threat at Heathrow, another airline employee tried to prohibit me from bringing more than 2 diapers and most of my (solid) babyfood along on a flight from paris to london because those items did not fit her definition of essential items. Individual interpretations of the rules can really vary, and with so many different flight attendants on so many different airlines (many of whom might not have English as their first language), I think parents have to assume that some will take the strictest possible interpretation of the rules.

    For parents traveling with young kids the rule of thumb is to prepare for the worst and hope for the best, and I hope these tips give parents some useful tactics for flying into the US under the new restrictions.

  17. Debbie on December 30, 2009 at 11:11 p.m.

    Punta Cana Mom,

    Thanks for that update - a helpful article.

    I was so sad to see the note at the end stating that the child had thrown up during the last 60 minutes of flight and the parents were not allowed to take her to the bathroom to clean up. Can you imagine sitting in your own vomit for 60 minutes? Unsanitary and humiliating - hopefully things will ease up soon.

  18. PuntaCana Mom on December 31, 2009 at 8:13 a.m.

    As someone who through about age 9 was frequently airsick (I think due to stress about planes as I got older - we fly quite a bit), I also felt *terrible* about the child who was airsick. I always look for the "barf bags", even if just to see them and be glad I don't get sick anymore, and I've noticed that sometimes there is only one bag per 3 seats, or in some cases none at all, so I hope they at least did find a bag (since no blankets, ha). It's a terrible experience - so humiliating.

    Mary Jo's comments were very interesting - and yours about the variation of interpretation as well (esp. the bit about carry-on diapers AND sippies, gads). You try to prepare for most scenarios, but...

    We just got a dr's note to bring our child's nebullizer [for asthma] with us. This is a new health development, have not traveled with one before. It's a medical device, so should technically be ok, but really hope it is.

  19. Mike on January 8, 2010 at 4:07 p.m.

    I can't believe what people have to go through now. I can't imagine doing it with kids! I practically got strip-searched and the old lady in front of me had her wheelchair almost taken apart.

  20. Mom to G and C on January 12, 2010 at 11:55 a.m.

    I flew recently (January 3rd) from the Bahamas into Washington National Airport on a US carrier with my 2 boys (2 and 4), and while the 60 minutes was enforced regarding getting out of your seat etc... nothing was ever said about personal items or electronics. My boys watched their dvd and played with toys up until the normal time when they say to put things away. Maybe because they items didn't cover their laps it was okay? I'm not sure- no announcements were made about it at all.

  21. Debbie on January 13, 2010 at 9 a.m.

    After Jan 1 TSA relaxed the restrictions and is leaving it up to the pilot to decide what level of restriction to enforce.

    According to TSA, part of the goal is to have different rules on different flights so that someone plotting a terror attack wouldn't know exactly what to expect.

    Hopefully most people are experiencing a reduced level of restrictions just like you did!

  22. Whozat on January 17, 2010 at 12:10 a.m.

    I flew from Baltimore to Houston on 12/31/09 and returned 1/10/10 (on Continental) and there were no special restrictions for the "final 60" nor any new rules that I noticed.

  23. Debbie on January 17, 2010 at 8:47 a.m.


    The restrictions apply only to US-bound international flights.