Flight Plan: Tips for Air Travel with a Baby

Posted by savannahkase on February 22, 2014 in Advice, Parenting |

*This is the longest gap (more than two weeks) I have ever had between blog posts. I blame hectic litigation deadlines at work and a long vacation in California, and resolve to write at least once a week going forward.

With my parents in southern California, my in-laws in South Africa, my sister in Ireland, my sister-in-law in England, and friends all over the country, my family travels a lot. While we frequently take the train to New York, most of our trips require planes. My son had flown more than 10,000 miles before he was three months old, and has been on nearly two dozen flights ranging from 50 minutes to 14 hours. Although for a few trips we left my husband at home, I have accompanied my son on all of these airborne adventures. Suffice it to say, I have a lot of experience flying with a baby.

Friends are often asking for advice on this subject, so – having taken two 6-hour cross-country flights in the past week – I thought I would share a few of the lessons I’ve learned about flying with a 2-13 month old. Of course, these are based on my personal experience with my son, so these tips will not appeal to or work for everyone.

Making Your Reservation

  • The best-case scenario is that your baby sleeps on the plane. I have found that, while the stakes are higher since folks are more likely to be annoyed by a crying baby, late night and red-eye flights increase the chance that your child will sleep all or most of the trip. Of course, you may have a hard time getting comfortable or relaxing with a baby on your lap, so you may arrive at your destination very tired. I figure I can sleep when I get where I’m going, so it’s more important to me that my son sleeps on the plane.

    Proof that these tips work!

    Proof that these tips work!

  • I like reserving window seats for me and my son, since he enjoys looking out the window. More importantly, although the aisle seat allows for easy access to the restroom, sitting there increases the chance that my son will get bumped by a food cart or passing passenger, as well as his ability to take off down the aisle on his own.
  • Make sure your baby is included in your reservation, or at least noted as an “infant in arms.” Some airlines will indicate the infant on the adult caregiver’s ticket, but many require the baby to have his or her own boarding pass.
  • For domestic flights, infants under two years old can travel for free as long as they are on your lap. Children under 12 can fly at a reduced fare on most airlines, even though they take up a full seat. If you want your child in a car seat on the flight (which is what the Federal Aviation Administration recommends, although I have only seen one child in a car seat on a flight ever), you will likely have to book a seat (and make sure your car seat is FAA approved). However, you can always ask, when checking in, whether there are any seats available next to an open seat, in the hopes of getting your child a seat of his or her own for free. It doesn’t hurt to ask!
  • For international flights, you must pay a percentage of the adult fare for an infant in arms, as well as the applicable taxes and fees. This can be several hundred dollars. However, most airlines give an infant in arms a baggage allowance, so you may be able to bring an extra checked bag and/or carry on and personal item for your baby (this was essential when my family went to South Africa for three weeks – we definitely needed all three checked bags!).
  • All airlines, as far as I know, allow you to check a stroller and/or car seat for free. Many airlines will allow you to check both, but others permit only one free checked item per paid passenger. A two-piece stroller (like the Snap n’ Go) counts as two items, so when we travel, I check one on my ticket and my husband checks the other piece on his.

    Frequent flyer

    Frequent flyer

At the Airport & Boarding

  • Plan to arrive at the airport at least 30 minutes earlier than you would without a baby. Getting through security can be tricky, and I recommend a pre-boarding diaper change to avoid (or at least limit) the need for using those cramped airport restrooms.
  • You can check your stroller and/or car seat with your other luggage (the airline will usually provide a bag to protect the equipment) to avoid having to take it through the security screening, but that means you will need to collect it from the “over-sized items” area in baggage claim. Alternatively, you can keep your stroller and car seat with you and check them at the gate. Going through security you will need to disassemble or fold your stroller so that it can go through the x-ray conveyer belt. It is convenient to keep you child in the stroller until you are at the door of the airplane, and to retrieve the stroller as soon as you disembark. When I travel by myself, I always gate check the stroller so that I can use it to transport the diaper bag and my carry-on bag as well as my son.
  • Taking an infant through security is easy – just walk through the metal detector with your baby in your arms (no need to stand in those scary radiation contraptions). Make sure to remove and identify any “liquids” you have for your baby (including baby food, milk, or water for formula). TSA has never given me a hard time about any of these things, and they do not need to be in a quart-sized ziplock bag like your other liquids.
  • Some smaller airports (for example, Albany, Fort Lauderdale, and Westchester, NY) will allow families with small children to jump the queue and go through “premium passenger” or crew security lines; it always makes me feel just a little bit guilty but I never decline the invitation.
  • Now that our son is mobile and very active, my husband and I plan to arrive at our gate with at least twenty minutes to spare so that we can let our son run around. I have found that people at the airport, in contrast to those on the plane, are very tolerant – and even welcoming – of a young child’s antics and interruptions. On balance, the slight embarrassment of having to return a magazine my son pulled from an old man’s hands is worth having a happy and tired baby when we board the plane.
  • If it’s a long flight (four hours or more), I change my son into an overnight diaper and pajamas just before getting on the plane.  That way, I know he will be cozy and dry the whole flight, and won’t lose a sock or hat along the way.
  • When gate-checking our stroller, I make sure to have my baby carrier on by the end of the jet way so that I can put my son in it before I fold up his stroller so that he won’t run off.

On the Plane

  • Bring disinfecting wipes to clean the tray table, arm rest, and other surfaces that your baby may lick, chew, suck, or eat off of.
  • Especially during cold and flu season, I try to give my son some saline spray in his nose before take-off to reduce the risk of him catching something during the flight. He has never gotten sick from traveling yet …
  • Also be sure to bring a sweater and/or blanket for your child – planes can get very drafty.  That said, even when it’s chilly, playing with the air vents above your seat can be lots of fun.  My son loves to feel the blowing air in his hair!
  • Changing cabin pressure during a flight causes temporary changes in middle ear pressure, which can trigger ear pain in babies unable to “pop” their ears to relieve the pressure. Especially during take-off and landing, encouraging your baby to suck (on a bottle or pacifier, or by nursing) can help equalize the pressure in your baby’s ears. I was fanatical about this the first few flights I took with my son, but soon realized that he was happier looking out the window than having something shoved in his mouth. His ears have never seemed to bother him.
  • I have been told (but cannot confirm) that it is FAA policy that babies may not be in carriers during take-off and landing; rather, they must be seated facing forward on your lap. A few times I have been able to get away with keeping my son strapped into the Ergo during take-off and landing, which, to me, seems much safer since he is more likely to scoot off my lap and run down the aisle if not confined.
  • When the beverage cart comes around, I ask for a can (no cup, no ice) and tuck it into the seat back pocket so that my son cannot spill it everywhere and I do not need to lower my tray table. That said, a cup of ice with no liquid can entertain my son for a long time if necessary.
  • To occupy my son during a flight, I find light-up toys to be the best (especially when cabin lights are dim). It’s okay if they make some sound, too – the noise of the plane will drown out most of it. My sister, who also travels a lot, has made a practice of buying her daughter a small “plane toy” before every flight and only producing it once they are airborne, so that my niece will be happy and engaged with her new toy for as long as possible.
  • I have found it virtually impossible to spoon-feed my son solid food
    My nursing necklace has irresistible appeal

    My nursing necklace has irresistible appeal

    during a flight. Instead, I bring purees in squeeze pouches and finger foods (cut up potatoes, chicken, veggies, boiled egg, bread …) that he can eat off the (wiped down) tray table while sitting in my lap. For myself, I pack meals and snacks that I can eat with one hand after my son falls asleep (sandwiches, burritos, apples, granola bars, etc.).

  • If my son is fussy or overtired on a flight, I strap him into the Ergo and put on my “nursing necklace.” He will play quietly with the wooden and knitted beads and then, almost without fail, fall asleep on my chest.

I know I will need to update these techniques as my son gets older, but for now, they work great for me so I hope they may be helpful for other mamas on the move. Bon voyage!

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