Since most of us are pretty good at popping our ears automatically (opening the eustachian tubes wide enough to equalize the pressure on both sides of the ear drum), and since most of us didn’t fly as kids, we can forget how horribly uncomfortable flying can be for little ears. Remember how you felt when you first swam down to the drain in the deep end of a pool? Like someone was shoving chopsticks into your ears or perhaps like they were inflating earplugs in your head to the bursting point? Yeah, with that kind of pain, it’s not a question of disciplining, bribing or telling the kid to keep it down. You’ve got to help them.
1. De-congest. Try not to fly when your child is stuffed up. Congestion makes the airways that need to open even more constricted. If your child is old enough for decongestants, they may help. If they are congested, help them drink plenty of fluids. Hydration helps thin the mucus. If they have an ear infection, pressure changes can even rupture little ear drums, so be cautious.
2. Swallow. Have you tried to pop little ears by offering a pacifier? Yeah, how did that work out for you? Hard candy? Nothing, right? Lots of people recommend these sucking objects, but sucking does almost nothing to open the airways. Sipping isn’t very effective either. Big gulping swallows that make a noise like in cartoons, that’s the kind of swallowing that is likely to do the trick. Try to time the nursing or the bottle for the take off and landing, and offer kids a full water bottle and encourage them to take big gulps if they are having trouble.
3. Yawn. Dropping the jaw low and yawning like a big lazy (male) lion in the sun can go a long way. Yawning is contagious, so yawn with them to encourage a real yawn which works much better than a fake one.
4. Drop your jaw and wiggle it from side to side. This works especially well if you’re able to induce the yawn sensation at the same time.
5. Hold your nose and act like you’re blowing it. This is one of my go-to tricks for clearing my ears when scuba diving. Usually I can equalize without doing anything else other than what feels like “closing my ears on the inside”, but when that doesn’t work, I hold my nose and blow. If you’re congested, this move can force fluid into the ear tubes, so use with caution.
6. Tylenol or Ibuprofen. I’ve seen these recommended for ear pain, and I guess pain relief is better than nothing. You’re really better off tackling the clogged ears head on, though.
You know how I’m always encouraging people to play make believe? Dramatic play has many benefits, but practicing flying before you board that tube of terror will give you a chance to introduce these techniques to the kiddos. They will probably do better if they’ve practiced them before the air pressure starts shoving chopsticks in their ears.
The first time my Fluffy had major ear pain, we tried swallows, we tried yawning, we tried jaw jiggling, and finally we tried the blow your nose bit. Her ears immediately popped, but it was frightening for her. “My ears just broke!” she exclaimed. “How do they feel now?” “Just fine.” I should have explained to her ahead of time that it was going to feel like a pop or like a little balloon burst in her ears, but that it was perfectly normal and okay.
Do you have any other tips for opening little ears on a plane?