Kids Who Vomit on Airplanes and the Parents Who Travel With Them

(originally published in 2013)

just a little fun essay today

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, of which she takes many. Here are some of the lessons we have learned.

What happens.

What happens when a kid barfs on airplanes is that you don’t necessarily see it coming. The kid is most likely not sick, at least not with anything contagious. The kid is 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 she is pleasant and feeling great until suddenly she is hurling.

The sudden onset of airsickness means you won’t have time to prepare. You need to prepare ahead of time.

Here’s what you need.

A barf bag. I have rarely seen actual barf 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 Ziplocks baggies work well. 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 barf bag 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 barf.

Paper towels or Kleenex. Baby wipes are great but not sufficient. 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.

The airplane bathroom. There is water and a sink in there. I know it is small, I have been in them with twin toddlers. But you can use it. Use the soap, use the paper towels, use the sink. Give your kid a sink bath, rinse out the clothes. Your seatmates would rather have you damp than stinking. While you and the kid will dry, the smell will only grow worse over the course of the flight.

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.

What she needs.

Your kid needs an extra pair of clothing. Shirt and pants and socks and underwear. If you have a daughter, she needs her hair in a ponytail. She needs a toothbrush. She needs a comfort toy or stuffed animal or distraction game or movie or reminder of the exciting destination. She needs a hug. She needs to know that next time you travel together, you are still willing to sit next to her, 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 due to the near death of a fellow passenger, she landed successfully without vomiting. Her first words upon landing, accompanied by a triumphant fist pump?

“I made it!”

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Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel writes about life at the crossroads of faith and culture. Her work is influenced by living as a foreigner in the Horn of Africa, raising three Third Culture Kids, and adventurous exploration of the natural world. She has been published in the New York Times, Runners World, the Big Roundtable, and more. Check out her latest book, Stronger than Death: Get all her stories and updates in the Stories from the Horn newsletter

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