For me, learning how to fly with a baby started years ago when I was trapped between two screaming children on a cross country flight.
I could tell you then what I’d tell you now: wait until the baby is 18. Done! Best advice yet, right?
Yeah, yeah. I know. Not a realistic option these days. I swore to myself I’d never fly with young children…and then…we had a baby. The grandparents don’t live close, and friends are getting married, and yada yada yada. It’s inevitable. Anna is nine months old and she’s already been on six trips / twelve flights. For the most part, she’s been a very agreeable travel companion thanks to some planning, some scheming, some sweat, and (a few times) some onmyknees prayer.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
If you have a newborn who doesn’t suffer from a condition like colic, the first three months are probably the easiest time to travel. “Easiest” is a relative term, okay? Let’s not get our expectations too high here…you’re still traveling with a baby.
In the first three months, babies still sleep a lot. In my experience, the movement and jet sounds provide a lovely rush of white noise that keep them sleeping and generally happy. In the event they are not happy, milk almost always does the trick. Boom. Done.
After the first three months, planning to fly with baby starts long before you board the plane. If you have the luxury of planning your flight(s) around nap times, I’d recommend doing so. Once we had a flight that departed right at that time we usually put Anna to sleep for the night. She was already tired and fussy by the end of the day, and it took more coaxing (and some crying) before she fell asleep on my chest. Since then I’ve tried to book mid-day flights. I make sure she gets a good morning nap right before we depart for the airport. By the time we’ve made it onto the plane, she’s usually ready to sleep again and does so somewhat easily as we taxi for takeoff.
Additionally, I usually try to book an aisle seat near the back of the airplane. It seems like people don’t like the seats nearest to the bathrooms, which gives us a greater chance of scoring an open seat nearby. I also figure that if she’s crying in the middle of the plane, she disturbs more people than she might in the back. An aisle seat allows me to easily hop up if she’s fussy, and hang out (and bounce) near the restrooms.
What to bring
All airlines are different in terms of the documentation needed for babies. JetBlue has never asked me for Anna’s birth certificate. Southwest does every time. Prepare to bring a birth certificate. When I forgot, her Kaiser ID card also worked. (It has her birthdate on it, which is what seems to matter.)
One of my good friends, Jenny, has two young children and she’s flown cross country with them multiple times. Before I started flying with Anna I asked for advice. It’s been invaluable. She said to avoid bringing our heavy (and expensive) stroller. Who wants to worry about it getting lost or broken? Instead, we bring our Snap ‘n Go stroller frame and car seat. I always take both to the gate. Why? In the event the flight has extra seats, you may be able to bring the car seat on board for free. (More about that in a second.)
If you have a carrier such as an Ergo or Moby Wrap, I’d highly recommend bringing it on the plane for multiple reasons. If you’re traveling without a partner, which I’ve done several times, you’ll need your hands free in the security line. Additionally, once the baby gets a little older, and heavier, the carrier helps limit the baby’s movement on the plane.
As for your diaper bag? Keep it strategic, folks. You might consider using a backpack if your normal diaper bag isn’t big, or isn’t easy to carry. Pack just what you’d normally need on any given day plus a few distraction items such as baby’s favorite book, Cheerios, and a toy. Cheerios bought us a good 30 minutes on our most recent flight. If I’m traveling alone, I slip everything I need (wallet, phone, magazine, etc.) into that one bag which then stays at my feet rather than the overhead bin. (If you’re lucky enough to get baby to sleep, who wants to risk waking him/her to get up?)
What not to bring
Don’t be stupid and travel with your laptop. Just take it from me. The last time I travelled with my laptop it ended up in New York City, and someone else’s laptop ended up in Southern California with me because I was so distracted at security. Oops. Laptops are one more thing to take out, fold up, put back, and worry about.
When you check-in, make sure to remind the attendant that you’re traveling with a lap infant. In the rare case your ticket does not include the baby, they can fix it there rather than discovering the error at security.
Additionally, ask if the flight is full. If not, put on your best doe eyed smile and ask if they’d consider giving you an extra seat for the baby. You’d be surprised–it’s worked for us whenever the flight has room. Then we’re able to take Anna’s car seat on and let her sleep in her seat rather than being held. Score!
Remember when you didn’t travel with kids, you’d scan ahead in line and make sure you were never behind people traveling with kids? Yeah. Forget that strategy. Now, find the slowest moving people possible and follow them. The elderly, people in wheelchairs, and families are your best bet. They will buy you extra time without feeling guilty you’re holding up Mr. Businessman behind you.
So, here’s what else you need to do if you’re traveling alone. Before entering the line, strap baby on your body. Remember, I told you to also have your stroller. Make sure the stroller is empty. Once your IDs have been checked, let nothing distract you. It’s game time. Shoes off! Jacket off! You know the drill! Everything off but the baby! (And if TSA tells you to take off the baby, tell them they’re wrong. New rules let you keep baby on.) Fold up the stroller and put it on the conveyer belt too. Once you’ve gone through, you’ll need your hands swiped to make sure you’re not hiding a bomb with the baby. This part is annoying, but, honestly, it’s better than asking a stranger to hold your child while you fold up all your crap. (If you are traveling with a spouse or friend, I’d recommend carrying baby through rather than in the carrier.)
Once you’ve made it through security, go straight to the gate. Trust me. Once I stopped for a burger, and then arrived to the gate late only to be yelled at by a gate attendant. It was awful, and she was really in the wrong, but I learned my lesson. Go to the gate first, get tags for your stroller, then (if you have time) look for food and a bathroom.
I try to avoid bringing a warm meal onto a flight if I’m traveling alone. It’s one more thing to juggle. The one time I did buy a burger I didn’t eat it until landing several hours later. Now I pack snacks or I eat right before boarding. I also make sure to visit the bathroom and change baby’s diaper even if it’s barely dirty. Airplane bathrooms are tight and smelly.
Once on board
I mentioned that I like to travel during nap times, and this means that as soon as I board the plane I start working on getting the baby to sleep.
When Anna was still a newborn I would wait until the plane was taxing for takeoff, and then I’d make her nurse. Nursing is said to help sensitive ear drums, and in our case, it usually would also make her drowsy. As she’s gotten older, and I’ve traveled more alone, I try to avoid feeding her on the plane. This is mostly because I feel awkward nursing when I’m sitting so close to a stranger, and the pressure does not seem to affect her ears.
As soon as my seat mates have arrived and buckled in, I sit down too. Here’s where I get sneaky. Federal regulations don’t allow mothers to wear their carriers during takeoff and landing. I have mixed feelings about this rule. Part of me feels like the airline peeps probably know best. Another part of me feels that, in the event of an emergency, I want my baby strapped on my body where I can hug her and kiss her and not see her flying down the aisle. Morbid, I know. I also know it’s much easier to get Anna to sleep (and to stay sleeping) if she’s in her carrier. So, I put the straps over my shoulders but I don’t latch the back. Then, I put a blanket over the entire carrier. My strategy serves a few purposes. First, everyone assumes I’m nursing, and no one asks to see if she’s strapped or not. This way I get to break the law and do what works best for us. I know, I know. Some of you think a rules a rule. Whatever. I figure, if an emergency happened and someone did need to grab her from me, the fact the carrier is unlatched will actually make it somewhat easy to do. Second, the blanket over us helps make a nice dark space for the baby to fall asleep. I do a little bouncing and shushing in my seat, and she’s out! Victory!
How long she stays sleeping is completely at the mercy of loud noises and seat neighbors needing to use the restroom. If she gets 30 minutes in, she’s often happy the rest of the flight.
What I’m still learning
I haven’t yet taken a flight since Anna started crawling. Our Colorado flight, a month ago, was a few hours long. It was the hardest flight yet because Anna is at a grabby, squirmy stage. It helped to have a kind grandmother type sitting next to us who wanted to play and hold. I’m still learning how to entertain Anna when we’re surrounded by people who aren’t as kind or helpful. I can only say–the early toddler years will require a lot of imagination and hard work to keep her entertained on flights. This brings me to my final point:
What do you find works? What have I forgotten? I’d also love to know about your ideas for traveling with toddlers. We’re going to Hawaii this summer when Anna is 13 months. I’m already gearing up. Please, do help!
update: This post, written by a flight attendant, has several great ideas for flying with a baby and/or toddler. Check it out! I am definitely buying the seat harness she mentions when Anna turns 2.