There are plenty of things you can do, and things you can bring, to make traveling with very young children go more smoothly. Some of those things work -- in theory. In practice, though? Well...
In theory: Taking an 8:10 p.m. flight -- right at bedtime -- would mean that my youngest kids would sleep on board and we'd tuck their sweetly slumbering selves into their beds at my in-law's home on the other end of the trip.
In practice: Not so much. I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that I would have loved to give a set of noise-canceling headphones to each and every passenger before we even took off.
Here are some of the things that actually work (for me, at any rate):
1.) Pack snacks. They don't have to be anything elaborate; in fact, it's better if they're not. Single-packets of instant oatmeal are great (filling, relatively nutritious, and you can get hot water on the plane). Sticks of string cheese are easy to find in the dark and still taste good if smushed in transit -- ditto for granola and cereal bars. Gum or lollipops will help your preschooler clear her ears and they also double as bribes. Nursing (or drinking from a bottle or a sippy cup) with help your baby's ears when the pressure changes. I usually scoff at "100-calorie" packs, but this is a great use for them (or simply fill small zip-top bags with cereal or tiny, trademarked, fish- or teddy bear-shaped crackers).
2.) Hit the drugstore. Personally, I'm not a member of the give-them-Benedryl-and-they-will-sleep school of parenting (though plenty of people are). There are a two things you can find at most drug stores, though, that can help. EarPlanes are small silicone ear plugs that help equalize pressure during takeoffs and landings (they cost about $5 a pair, and come in small and large sizes). And Sea-Bands apply pressure to an accupressure point in the wrist to help control nausea and vomiting.
3.) Use specialized transportation. I can't gush enough about our Sit 'n' Stroll. It's a stroller! It's a carseat! It's fantastic. Once you're at the airport, the distance between Point A and Point B seems to increase with every TSA announcement, and it is much, much easier to cart a tired toddler to the gate in one of these. Once there, you push the handle down, pull the wheel mechanism up, and put your kidlet -- still strapped in the five-point harness -- in his or her seat. We use it as a stroller when we travel by car, too, and leave the regular wheels at home.
4.) Improvise. Don't carry a stack of bibs for your baby; instead, use Bib Clips (or jerry-rig your own) to turn any scrap of napkin into a baby's bib, and you don't have to carry around a food-splattered cloth afterward. You don't have to bring the baby gates with you to your in-laws; barricade the stairs some other way.
5.) Pack a stash of quiet, reusable toys. Paint-with-water books or toys trump traditional crayon-and-coloring book combos. For one thing, the fewer pieces you have, the less chance you have of losing them. (Crayons roll. Enough said.) For another, anything reusable is fantastic because you can't run out of it mid-flight. Need another reason? If he's painting with water, it doesn't matter if junior decides to decorate the tray table -- or his baby sister.
6.) Embrace technology. If you have an iPod Touch or an iPhone, download free apps that will amuse the kids. My 10-year-old boy is partial to iFart (and what 10-year-old boy wouldn't be?), but iSteam, Whack 'Em All, and Whiteboard are big hits with my younger kids.
I'm always eager for more ideas... what do you have (or do) to make a trip go more smoothly?
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at email@example.com.