Saturday, July 9, 2011

How to entertain a toddler on a flight

People often ask what to bring on a flight with small children to keep them entertained. When Littles was an infant, I used to pack a ton of toys in the diaper bag, but I found that the amount of time that they entertained her for was not worth the hassle of bringing them.

So now, I take a pretty minimalist approach. Littles is easy. She'll quietly watch DVDs the entire flight, so we make sure to pack the DVD player, the car adapter (we usually fly American Airlines, which has DC power outlets at many seats), and a couple of DVDs. We have an extra Zune at home and I keep saying I'm going to set one up for her with her music and movies, since that would be even more compact, but I keep forgetting until minutes before it's time to leave for a trip. One of these days.

Noob is much more of a challenge. Here's how I kept him entertained on our flight from Dallas to Miami on Thursday.

1:32 PM - After a one-hour delay -- prior to boarding, thankfully (I should do another post on "how to entertain a toddler and a preschooler during a flight delay") -- we settled into our seats. Noob and Littles both started checking out one of their favorite "plane toys," the safety instructions card:


1:39 PM - Noob started playing with his shoes. He loves taking the insoles out. That's his shoe in his left hand and the insole in his right hand:


Note the pacifier. We rarely give him one at home, and when we do, it's strictly limited to times when he's in bed. But it was pretty much a permanent fixture during this flight. You do what you gotta do.

1:50 PM - Takeoff. Noob spent a few minutes just looking out the window in amazement:


He started closing his eyes a bit. It was naptime, so I knew he was tired, but he has a really hard time falling asleep when there is stuff going on around him. I hoped he would fall asleep anyway, but no such luck.

1:55 PM - I packed three board books in my bag for him. He read through two of them:


2:03 PM - He was done with the books. Note how little happy-baby time I got out of what I brought. I don't think it's physically possible to carry on enough toys, books, etc. to amuse a child of this age for a reasonably long flight -- say, anything longer than an hour or so. Their attention span just isn't that long.

So we moved on to more "plane toys." We opened and closed the window shade:


This was his favorite game. (It was Littles' favorite, too, when she was his age.) I just turned on/off the overhead lights. Over and over and over. Whenever he pointed at one:


This game is really fun when you're on a plane (mostly one of the the larger ones that does international fights) that has the light control in the armrest. When we flew to England when Littles was 2 years old, I think she was fully convinced that she could actually turn the light on and off just by pointing up.

2:19 PM - The light on/light off game lasted longer than the books did, with no additional stuff to drag along in our bags. Score! Next, Noob moved on to playing with my phone. He's learned to slide his finger up to get to the keypad where I enter my password to unlock it. He hasn't learned the password yet, though. I'll give him some time. He's only 17 months old, after all.

2:31 PM  Hubby handed back a bottle of water (he and Littles were sitting in the seats directly in front of us), so I gave a little to Noob. Most of the water itself ended up down his shirt and in his car seat, but screwing and unscrewing the top gave him a few minutes of amusement.WP_000458

2:44 PM - The water bottle started to create more frustration than amusement, so I decided it was time to stretch our legs a little and change Noob's diaper. This ended up taking quite a while, because I quickly discovered that the lavs at the back of the plane (near our seats) didn't have a changing table. So I had to wait for the beverage cart to clear out of the way so that I could access the middle lavs. Once I was done, I came out to find the trash cart blocking the aisle, so I had to wait for that cart to make it past our seats before I could sit down. That meant standing at the very front of coach/back of first class, with Noob wiggling and crying in my arms, for close to 10 minutes. Fun times. I'm sure the passengers in first class, in particular, were really thrilled with me. Or not.

3:05 PM - We finally got back to our seats. I could tell Noob was exhausted, so I tried to get him to sleep in his car seat, but he was having none of it. Hubby got up and took him to the back of the plane to see if he could bounce him to sleep. A nice thought, but Noob really just wants Mommy these days, so it wasn't working too well.

About a minute after they got up, Littles had to go potty, and when we came out, Hubby handed Noob back to me and said, "Here. He wants you." Being back with me seemed to calm Noob down, and pretty quickly, he started closing his eyes and laying his head on my shoulder. After a little more bouncing in the back of the plane, he was out. I returned to our seats and put him down in his car seat:


4:16 PM - Noob woke up as we were on our final approach into Miami. He was content climbing between his seat and my lap for a few minutes until it was time to fasten seatbelts for the final approach. Then, he looked out the window and played the overhead light game some more. That kept him reasonably calm and content until we were at the gate.

4:23 PM (5:23 PM local time) - We made it! Definitely not the most fun flight I've had, but I doubt a bag full of toys would have helped much, given that two books lasted all of eight minutes! Heck, even the shoes lasted longer.

Friday, July 8, 2011

How NOT to get a child's passport

Getting Littles' passport four years ago was a breeze, so when it came time to get Noob's, we thought it would be the same. Instead, we ended up doing so many things wrong that I realized I could write a post detailing what not to do when it's time to get a passport for your child.

1. Wait till the very last minute.
This page gives the current processing times for passports. As of this writing, it can take up to 6 weeks. If you wait till 6 weeks before your trip and then start the process... Murphy's Law will inevitably kick in, you'll hit a bump in the process, and you'll end up having to pay an extra $60 to expedite.

We started the process about 8 weeks before our trip. Plenty of time, right? Riiiiiiiiiiiiiight.

2. Lose (or forget to request) the child's birth certificate
You need to provide proof of citizenship to get a passport, and by far the easiest proof to provide is a copy of the applicant's birth certificate. So, if you've misplaced your child's birth certificate, or if you never requested a copy, you'll need to do so.

If you still live in or near the county where your child was born, check with the county clerk's office first, as they may have a copy there that you can quickly request in person. Otherwise, you'll need to go through the state capitol.

Noob's birth certificate had not been sent to our local county clerk's office, so we had to go through Austin. We opted to have it mailed to us, rather than doing a road trip to pick it up in person. They said it would take 10-15 business days. It took 15 business days on the nose.

That put us at 5 weeks before our trip, so we knew we'd need to expedite the passport.

3. Lose (or forget to request) the child's Social Security card
You don't need the actual card to apply for a passport, but you do need to provide the application's Social Security number. So if you haven't memorized your child's SSN and you can't find the card, you'll need to get that straightened out before applying for the passport.

We have Noob's (and Littles') Social Security card tucked away in a safe spot in our house, so this wasn't a problem. Yay!

4. Just show up to your local post office to apply for the passport.
Not all post offices have passport facilities, and those that do may require an appointment. Check this page to identify a post office or other nearby facility that accepts passport applications. It states whether or not the facility requires an appointment and also gives the hours, but you should call to confirm both.

We knew our local post office did have passport facilities, and when I checked the page above, it stated that appointments weren't required. So we just showed up... and found out that they had started requiring appointments about two weeks before. When I pointed out that the website said no appointment was required, the lady told us, "Oh yeah, they haven't updated that website yet." Great.

She gave us the option of scheduling an appointment for mid to late June (for a July 7th departure!) or going to our city's main post office, which did not require appointments for passport applications. We chose the latter.

In retrospect, it would have been a better idea to call other nearby passport acceptance facilities, to see if any of them had appointments sooner... but we didn't.

5. If you don't have an appointment, expect to be in and out in an hour.
We arrived at the main post office at 9:30 AM. We didn't leave until after 1 PM. We packed the diaper bag and snacks for Noob, but left them at home -- oops. Luckily, I had plenty of time to run home midmorning to pick them up, because we definitely needed them.

6. Send just one parent to apply for the passport.
When applying for a child's passport, unless one parent has sole legal custody, the child and both parents need to appear in person, or one parent must appear with a notarized Statement of Consent. (Full parental consent requirements are here.)

Thankfully, we knew this, but woman directly in front of us in line did not. And so when she finally got to the front of the line after waiting for nearly 4 hours with her two kids, she was told to go home and get her husband. Ouch.

7. Wait till you get to the passport acceptance facility to fill out the application.
It's faster to fill it out online and print it at home. That also gives you the chance to gather all the required information ahead of time.

We were almost ready to leave for the passport office when I thought, "Hey, why don't I take a minute to fill out that application online?" Good thing, because we don't have Noob's Social Security number memorized, and as I mentioned earlier, it's required on the passport application. Filling out the application ahead of time saved us another trip home to get the card.

8. Wait till you get to the passport acceptance facility to take your child's passport photo.
Again, not all facilities have photo capabilities, and even if yours does, it might be hard to get a good photo with your young child. I explained how to make your own passport photos at home in a separate post.

After all that, we finally managed to get Noob's darn passport... so now we can forget about this whole process and just renew it by mail in 10 years, right? Wrong.

9. Forget that kids must renew their passports every 5 years, in person.
Adult passports expire after 10 years and can be renewed by mail. But kids' passports expire after only 5 years, and must be renewed in person -- essentially using the same process as first-time applicants. That means that we'll be going through this entire process again for Littles next year. I plan to not follow the advice in this post :)

Monday, July 4, 2011

Making a child's passport photo

UPDATED January 2012: We recently needed passport photos for our Chinese visa applications, and I discovered that you can use ePassportPhoto's free service to easily create passport photos. This replaces steps 6 and 7 in the instructions below. I've left them in here for reference, but I highly recommend ePassportPhoto now. See more details below.


We are leaving today for Noob's first international trip! Preparations started weeks ago, because we needed to get him a passport. The first hurdle was getting a good passport photo for him. He is in a serious separation anxiety phase right now, so I knew that taking him to a passport photo place would be a no-go, because this type of expression is probably not acceptable in a passport photo:

"Hey! That's Mommy over there! Mommy! Come saaaaaaaave me!"

Instead, I did his passport photos at home -- just as I did for Littles when she got her passport. It's really quite easy!

Step 1: Review passport photo requirements
This State Department page explains the requirements for passport photos, so you'll want to start off by reviewing it carefully and ensuring that you understand all the requirements. Don't worry too much about the exact sizing requirements right now; focus on things like avoiding background shadows, eyes must be open, etc.

The Photo Examples page is also very useful, showing examples of correct and incorrect passport photos.

Step 2: Find a white (or off-white) sheet to use as a background
We use white sheets on our bed, so finding a white sheet is easy. The hard part is getting all the wrinkles out, since the background needs to be non-textured :) This was my first attempt at Noob's pictures. See all those wrinkles? Ugh.


Step 3: Set up the picture
Littles was about a month old when I took her passport pictures, so I just laid the sheet down on the floor and then laid her down on the sheet. Super easy!

Passport 026

Noob is much older and more mobile, so I had to figure out a way to restrain him for the pictures. I ended up draping the sheet over the fence in our backyard, then putting Noob in his booster seat on a chair in front of the sheet:


Step 4: Take the picture. And then take another. And another. And another...
Seriously, this is the great thing about doing pictures at home. I took over 20 pictures for Littles and over 70 pictures for Noob, all in the space of less than 5 minutes! Just keep shooting, because a lot of them will look like the pictures above, i.e. super cute but totally unusable for a passport photo.

Remember that your child needs to be directly facing the camera, so you'll need to get directly over a child who is laying on the floor, or crouch down to the level of a child sitting in a chair.

If you feel comfortable using the links above and the information on this page to get the sizing right on the pictures you've taken, you can skip the rest of this post. If you don't, read on...

Step 5: Download the pictures to your computer and sort through them, looking for one that meets the photo content requirements
You still don't need to worry about the sizing requirements in this step. Just for a photo where your child is looking at the camera, has a neutral facial expression, etc. If you can't find any, go back to step 4.

Here are the pictures I chose for my kids:

Passport 031


UPDATED January 2012: You can skip steps 6 and 7 below, and instead use ePassportPhoto to easily create passport photos with the right dimensions. All you have to do is upload your raw photo (like the ones shown above) to the site. It provides a photo editor with a box that shows lines denoting where the top and bottom of the head should be. You get the head in the photo properly positioned in the box, and voila! Perfect passport photo! ePassportPhoto then creates a 4"x6" image with four copies of your passport photo, suitable for printing (see step 8).

This saves a ton of time! I recently had to do photos for all of our Chinese visas, and it took me less than five minutes per photograph.

Best of all, it's completely free! The trickiest part of the whole process is finding the link to download the free copy of your passport photos. ePassportPhoto also provides a couple of paid services (which are a rip-off, in my opinion, as they cost the same as getting passport photos done locally), so you have to look closely for the "No thank you" link that allows you to bypass those and just get the downloadable image of your photos.

I've left the old steps for doing this in here for future reference, but I highly recommend using ePassportPhoto instead, if at all possible.

Step 6: Crop and size the photo
OK, this is where you need to start worrying about the photo sizing requirements.
This page explains the precise sizing requirements.

For Noob's picture, I just used the good ol' Paint program that comes with Windows 7. And a little bit of basic math :)

Paint comes with a handy option to show picture sizes in inches, rather than the default of pixels. This is the Properties page under the File menu:


And it has another handy option to show gridlines on the picture:image

I counted the number of "boxes" between the top of Noob's hair and the bottom of his chin. It was a little over 8 boxes. I knew from the photo composition page that in the final picture, this measurement needed to be between 1" and 1 3/8". I shot for the middle and tried to make it 1 1/4". That meant that each "box" in Paint represented 1.25" / 8 boxes = .15625 inches per box.

Going back to the photo composition page, the eye height must be between 1 1/8" and 1 3/8" from the bottom of the photo. Again, I shot for the middle and tried to make it 1 1/4", or about eight boxes. I counted down 8 boxes from the row containing Noob's eyes, and that gave me where the bottom of my photo needed to be. I've put a red line in the picture below to show this:


The cropped picture needs to be a 2" square, so 2 inches / .15625 inches per box = a total of 12.8 boxes. I rounded it off to be an even 13 boxes.

Of course, I knew where the bottom of that box was (the red line shown above), so I knew where the top needed to be, too. For the sides, I counted how many boxes wide Noob's head is (about 7 boxes), and then "padded" appropriately on each side of his head to get to a total width of 13 boxes (so, 3 additional boxes to each side).

Then I used the select tool to draw my square. My calculations were a little off and I had to add another box to the width to make things look right. That's fine, as long as the final square really is a square :)


Then I used the crop tool to crop out the rest of the picture:


Now I had a picture that should be the right proportions, but I needed to resize it to actually be 2" by 2". It would be really nice if Paint allowed you to resize to a specific size in inches, but unfortunately, it only lets you resize by pixels or percentage. So, I choose a percentage that I knew would get me close to 2" by 2", but would still be a little larger. Then I started resizing one pixel at a time until I get to exactly 2" by 2":


The final pictures for my kids:

Passport2 IMG_4393_edited

Step 7 (optional): Create two copies of the photo
You'll need to have two copies of the same photo, so to save paper when printing, you may want to create an image that has the two copies side-by-side. To do this in Paint:

  1. Press Ctrl-A to select the entire picture.
  2. Press Ctrl-C to copy it to the clipboard.
  3. Go to File | New to create a new blank image.
  4. Go to File | Properties and enter the size that you want the new image to be. I knew I'd be printing on 4" x 6" photo paper, so I used that as the size for the new image.
  5. Press Ctrl-V to paste the picture into the new image.
  6. Press Ctrl-V again. This will paste another copy of the picture. It will be directly over the first copy at first, but you can drag and drop it to somewhere else in the new image.
  7. Save the new image.

Step 8: Print
I printed a low-resolution copy on regular printer paper first, then got out a measuring tape and made sure that all the sizing was accurate.

Then I printed the final version on photo paper. You can find this at just about any store that sells printer paper. I even saw some in the check-out aisle at Dollar Tree a few days ago!

UPDATED January 2012: For Noob's passport photo, I printed myself, and it was accepted just fine. For our Chinese visas, our visa processing service recommended not using printed-at-home photos. Since we were in a bit of a time crunch to get the visas, I didn't want to do anything that might put us at risk of rejection. So I "splurged," and sent the images to Walgreens for printing. Normal price for this is about 20 cents a print, but there are always coupon codes floating around online that will give you a significant discount. I ended up paying a whopping 38 cents total, to print all four of our passport photos. Not bad at all.

And that's it! It does take some time fiddling around to get the sizing right [UPDATED January 2012: a lot less time if you use ePassportPhoto!], but for my kids, at this age, it was worth it to avoid the trauma of attempting to get a professional picture done.