Preparing Children for Airport Security

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Most parents know that the best thing you can do for your children when they are going into a new environment is to prepare them for it ahead of time, and support them while they are experiencing it.  This is true when starting a new school, starting a new gymnastics class, going to the doctor, having their first “play date”, and going through airport security.  In fact, the whole process of flying and travel requires preparation and support, but today I want to focus on the process of getting through security.

You may have already seen the video of a three-year-old girl who is very upset going through security on her way to Disney World.  She is in a wheelchair and the TSA wanted her to undergo a pat-down when going through security in St. Louis.  (this is not the first story of pat-downs and children)  Her parents wanted to record the pat-down and then were told by TSA agents that it was “illegal” to record what they were doing.  I think they worked it all out in the end, but the little girl was crying throughout much of this exchange.  It sounds like it was a stressful situation for all involved, and trust me when I say that getting through security with a kid can be stressful even on the best of days without any pat-down incidents.

The main point of this post is to help you avoid stressful incidents with the TSA when traveling with your children, whether they have special needs or not.

First, be informed yourself about what will happen when going through security with children under 12.  The TSA website does provide some information about traveling with children in general, screening children with special needs, pat-downs (children are not exempt, but they do go through extra lengths to try ato avoid child pat-downs),  and liquids like formula and baby food.  I can tell you first hand that how some of these things are carried out in real life varies dramatically from airport to airport, but here are some of my own general tips on what will happen.

  • You will need to take your child out of the stroller or carrier and send the stroller or carrier through the X-ray machine for screening.
  • All belongings including special blankets, toys, etc. also have to be screened via x-ray, so really prepare your kiddo ahead of time for this brief separation.  I usually tell my daughter her toys are getting a quick check-up to make sure they are safe and good to fly.  If they aren’t prepared for this then quickly taking away a beloved blanket will almost certainly bring chaos upon everyone within a 50 foot radius (at least if you are trying to take my daughter’s precious green blanket!)  There is also sometimes a delay with them getting those toys back if the adult has to go through a pat-down, so be prepared for that as well.  I have seen that handled different ways.
  • If you have an infant or young child you will walk through security holding them.  Children 12 and under can keep their shoes on (though they may want to take them off when they see everyone else doing it).  I was always told I had to take Little C out of her sling, but the TSA website says that they can stay in a sling, but may be subject to additional screening.  Now that my daughter is three, she usually walks through security first and then I follow right after.  If she was being tired or cranky I would just still carry her through.
  • I’m starting to not bring juice or milk through for her since she is older, but when I do, there is about a 50/50 chance that I will have to undergo a full pat-down.  This is hard when I am traveling alone with her.  Sometimes they also then inspect the contents of every single bag we brought as a result, so it is a significant delay at times.  This happens when we bring a juice or milk box through security instead of a sippy cup that they can open and test the liquid.  We prefer the juice boxes as we can have some extra on-hand and trust they won’t leak in our bags, but there is a price to pay for that convenience, so decide for yourself if it is worth it.

If you are familiar with those basic steps of security, and prepare your child for briefly being separated from their toys, and potentially having to wait while mommy and/or daddy get “checked to make sure we are safe”, then hopefully you can avoid most security meltdowns.  It is also important that you stay calm throughout the process even if you are unlucky and get a TSA agent who is making up his or her own rules.  If your kid sees you getting stressed they are more likely to get upset.  Also be aware that if you have Pre-Check that children 12 and under can go through with a Pre-Check eligible adult, so this can simplify some of the process for the adult.

Of course, getting your hands on this Playmobile set to practice with couldn’t hurt if you really wanted to be prepared (though you would probably have to get it via the re-sell market).

Even if you can’t get your hands on that set (or just generally find it creepy), there are also many books on airports and air travel that you can get for under $5.  I actually just ordered some myself so expect a review on some of those soon (reviewing kids’ books….who knew?!).   Here is a link to a few options that seem pretty good.

I’m so sorry that family had a bad experience going through security, and who knows if preparation could have prevented it from turning into a stressful ordeal, but for the most part extra prep can only help kids be ready.  Going through security is a weird enough experience for adults, so I am sure it is especially strange for children.  Our own daughter thankfully is now very familiar with security procedures and usually has no issue breezing through.

If you have any additional tips on how you prepare your kids for the airport security screening I would love to hear about them!

 

Comments

  1. TSA is always really nice to us when I travel with my kiddo! My last trip through SMF they even gave him a junior officer sticker. We made about 6 or 7 trips last year, so we’ve got the routine down. My little boy just turned 1, so I’m sure he has no clue what is going on, but he likes all the extra attention, smiles, and waves that everyone, including TSA personnel, always give him in the security line. Our car seat and stroller always have to be hand-screened and TSA is always curious about our liquids and want to test them, but for the most part airport security really has been a non-issue.

    BTW, if you want a good laugh check out some of the reviews for that playmobile set on Amazon!

  2. I think the worst part about it is that eventually, this level of security won’t be needed, but it’ll continue just because everyone is used to it.

  3. I have a child with severe food allergies that we need to carry along “safe” food for. A couple of years ago I read a great tip on how to keep perishable food cool without an icepack. Throw a bag of frozen grapes or frozen baby carrots in the lunchbag.

    I also bring a couple of single packets of Country Time Lemonade and empty, reuseable waterbottles along. After we pass through security, I invest in an absurdly expensive bottle of water, mix up a little lemonade, and fill up the empty water bottles from home.

  4. I remember when I was younger (a long time ago) that I would love going to the airport and would get so excited to experience everything. One thing that I noticed my sister has done when she travels is that she always makes her kids feel like it’s “cool” to go through security and experience everything.

    We just flew with our 2 month old for the first time and I think it’s more stressful on the parents than the kids. Who would’ve thought that a family of 3 could take up so many little grey bins 🙂

    Definitely some great info here and I’ll be using it for sure as our little guy gets older!

  5. My wife and I are both PreCheck eligible, so we were able to take both kids through the AA JFK PreCheck lane… can’t beat that.

    At the SJU checkpoint, we realized right before our bags went through the x-ray that we had a sealed water bottle in one of our bags. Rather than throwing it out, my wife said it was for our daughter’s bottle (100% true, but we had planned to just purchase a water bottle once airside). The TSA agent couldn’t have been nicer and allowed us to bring it through, only requiring a swab of the sealed bottle. I’ve brought liquid formula, liquid medicine, baby food, etc through security before, but have never brought a water bottle through!

  6. You do not have to remove babies from a carrier that you are wearing (ie, ergo, ring sling, etc). They will have you go through and then they will swab your hands. If you beep they will make you take them out.

    I was one of the unfortunate ones that beeped, and they wanted to pat down both me and my 13 month old. I fought them and got a manager involved and we ended up being able to get her to walk through on her own (luckily she could walk!) and when she didn’t beep they only gave me a pat down. I admit I cried when I was talking to them about it, and my 4 year old son was watching the whole thing, and I told them they were NOT allowed to touch my baby. It was not pretty.

    http://andreaythomas.blogspot.com/2012/06/toddler-patdown.html

  7. Andrea, aw, sorry to hear you had a rough time! Their website does say you can keep kids in slings – they just never let me. Maybe that rule came after I stopped trying, or maybe I had bad luck. Though I agree I wouldn’t really want the TSA giving my kid a pat-down.
    Chris, they will let you bring enough through for the flight, but how they deal with it will likely vary from airport to airport if they consider any of it a liquid/gel they can’t test. Worst case, you will get a pat-down and have your bags searched like I did with juice pouches.

  8. I live overseas but return to the US annually for the summer. Once I had quite a bit of pumped breast milk that I wanted to bring back as I wasn’t going to dump all that precious liquid gold. The TSA allowed me to carry all of it through – I must have had over a liter worth of frozen milk. I had separated it into its own cooler, and all of the milk stayed frozen through the trans-Pacific trip (as soon as I boarded the plane, I asked the flight attendants for ice to fill the cooler). I was stressed about potentially losing all that milk for my son beforehand but it worked out well!

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