Flying with Babies (under a year)

A reader asked me to write about the logistics of traveling with a new baby.

Rhiannon was 11 weeks when we flew to the US and 13 when we flew back.  Comparitively, Elanor was around 4, 4 1/2 months old the first time we flew with her.

Some tips and tricks to making it run smoothly…this is stuff to consider on top of the stuff you typically travel with.

Booking

Whether you are booking an individual seat for the baby or an “infant in lap” seat for them, every airline I’ve used has required a phone call to complete the booking.  While this can be time consuming, it does have a few benefits…the phone agent can advise you where the “bassinet” seats are (if the flight has any) and help you find the optimal seats.

Personally, I prefer the window seat for breastfeeding because you get a few extra inches of elbow room to better help position the baby without bumping a seat mate.  If your partner can have the seat next to you, so much the better.  I have not encountered any issue with breastfeeding on a plane, but it might make you feel less likely to run into an issue (or at least I felt more secure that way).

If the flight looks empty, you can try the gambit of booking a window and aisle seat, leaving the middle seat empty.  If the flight still has that seat empty the day you fly, gate agents will let you use it for the baby (including bringing a car seat onto the plane and using it in the empty seat).  This is a risky gambit, though…I would only advise doing so if you’re booking very close to your flight date and feel at least 80% sure that the seat will stay empty.

Packing (checked luggage)

Several valuable details worth knowing

  • Depending on the airline, an infant in lap may be entitled to their own bag.
  • MOST airlines charge no fee for checking a stroller or a pack n play, and they do not count toward your luggage allowance

What you’ll need to pack in checked luggage

  • For a young baby (let’s say young enough to not be eating solids) you’ll want enough clothes to cover the length of time you’ll go without laundry, plus 4 or 5 outfits (in case of poop explosions, barfing, etc).
  • For you–a few extra tops than you normally would (see poop explosions, barfing, etc).
  • Young babies don’t need toys, books, play mats, etc.  I have packed all of these and lived to regret it.  The likelihood is that you’re going to buy them at least a toy and a book (or again, this could be just me) so you don’t need to haul your toys all over the world.  Also…to a 3 month old…a toilet paper roll is a fascinating toy.  A six month old will sell their soul for your keys.  Just don’t waste the space in your luggage.
  • Pack an extra packet of diapers in your luggage if you have any concerns about being able to find your brand (if you’re picky about such thing).  This applies more to less developed locations (Phuket…I found diapers, but no swim diapers and sizing was impossible to figure out at the local store).
  • Whatever you need in terms of excess feeding supplies…take your pump in hand if you’re breastfeeding and pumping, but toss spare bottles and such in the checked luggage.  If you’re formula feeding, toss a spare can of formula and some extra bottles/drop ins/whatever in the checked luggage.

Packing (for the carry on)

The baby

  • Under 3-4 months, a new baby doesn’t need toys or distractions for the plane.  They need a mess of spare outfits (I went through 4 on just one of the flights this last trip–a poop explosion, my husband spilling water over Rhi and I, a spit up, and I forget the last one, except I remember it happening).  You also want about twice as many diapers as you need.  The first time someone loses your luggage or you get stranded for extra hours in an airport, you’ll thank me.  Yes, some airport stores have diapers, but they’re going to be the wrong size for your little one.  And do you really want to take that risk?
  • 4-6 months–bring one or two toys that they can enjoy.  The best sort of toy is the ones that hang off a car seat and have multiple types of distractions/textures/etc on them.  If they have a lovey, this is when they’ll likely miss it.  See previous comments about clothes and diapers.
  • 6-12 months–Bring 3 or 4 toys if it’s a long journey, but 1-2 is still likely enough–YOU will be the best toy.  Bring food that you might need if they’re eating solids.  Bibs, etc.  See previous notes about clothes and diapers.

You

  • Bring 1-2 extra tops minimum (if not 2 full outfit changes) in case of barf, poop explosions, etc.  I say this as someone who got puked on about an hour out of San Francisco and then spent 5 hours in a wet smelly shirt with a baby wrapped in a United blanket because I didn’t have a spare outfit.  I learned that lesson the hard way–please don’t feel the need to learn it yourself.  Also, note that on the most recent trip, I had to do a shirt change because Ravi spilled water on me.
  • Your breast pump.  This is not something you want to get lost with your luggage and then have to replace away from home.  Just keep it on you.

Stroller of some kind

Car seat.  Many people want to leave it behind…I’d argue that unless you are 1000% sure that you won’t need it to bring it.  I’ve seen the nasty car seats in rental cars and will never use one again.  Also, with younger babies, if there’s an empty seat, you’ll want to have some way of putting them in the seat safely.

CARES–if your baby is over 20lbs, you can use this 5 point restraint system instead of a car seat.  I don’t recommend using it with kids under 1, but it is an option for some older babies.

Day of flight….

Checking in

Get to the airport early.

We spent an hour checking in both ways on this most recent trip because although I had booked an infant in lap, United had not issued an e-ticket for her, and there was MUCH drama over it that took (frustratingly) an hour on each side to clear up.  This is the first infant in lap screw-up from them after over 20 flights with infants in laps, but you never know when it will be you.

Check your bags, pack n play (I don’t recommend traveling with it, but if you feel you must, you must) and your stroller if you want to.  Depending on your stroller, I strongly encourage you to just gate check it at the airplane.  Strollers are not only great for containing the baby, but sometimes are better at holding your carry-ons while you have baby in a sling.  Just saying.

Security

If you are flying internationally, your baby will need a passport, no matter how young. I don’t recall what you use when flying domestically…I want to say it was either nothing or just a copy of the birth certificate as it names us as parents and WE have photo IDs.

If you are taking a minor child on an international flight by yourself, do yourself a favor and get a notarized note of permission from the other parent.  Some countries (theoretically) require it, and it’s just handy to have in case you encounter an obstreperous TSA agent (particularly if you are leaving the child’s country of citizenship without the other parent).

In the US, the TSA no longer requires that you remove a baby’s shoes.  Outside the US, it was never an issue.

In the US, expect to need to take the baby out of the sling.  Other countries, it will depend.  Japan and Singapore did not make me do so, but I think I had to in Scotland with Ellie.

In every country, expect to need to put your stroller/car seat through the security scanner.  Make sure everyone flying with you is an expert in folding and unfolding the stroller.  It’s worth trying to do with a baby in your arms/the sling in practice.

Most airports have a family friendly line, and people will be understanding and we’re all struggling with strollers and toddler and such.  If not, go with whatever line you want, and don’t stress yourself out over however long you need to get through security.  It takes however long it takes, and if you’ve given yourself the extra time, you won’t be worrying about whether or not you’ll make the flight.

One thing we need to discuss here–stroller travel bags, particularly the ginormous one by Bugaboo.  If you travel with a Bugaboo stroller and intend to use the stroller bag, be prepared to constantly have to tell security/everyone, that it is a STROLLER BAG as it is much larger than any allowed carry on.  Make sure your airline will let you use it at the plane’s side (some airlines have begun banning “large” strollers…never had an issue with United on this).  A secondary option, if you want your fancy schmancy stroller with you is to check it with your luggage and toss the kid in an umbrella stroller for airport transit, or to use a sling in the airport.  Unless you’re going to check the bag, it’s really not worth using the travel bag.  They’re mostly a pain in the butt.

At the gate

If you went with the aisle/window/empty middle seat, check to see if it’s still open.  If it is, score!  Take your car seat onto the plane and enjoy having your arms free for some portion of the flight.  If not, be ready to give up which ever seat the middle person wants more.

It’s always worth asking if there’s an empty set of seats that your assigned seats can be changed to, giving you an empty seat.  But don’t expect it…it’s fairly uncommon unless it’s a low-traffic route.

Get your stroller/car seat tags.  If you use a stroller frame and a car seat, each piece will need a tag.

Some people say kids should board last for a variety of reasons.  I’ve always said you should board as early as you can (ask if you can board early…even within an airline it’s inconsistent…United lets us pre-board about 50% of the time) because carry-on space disappears FAST.  If you have spare outfits in a carry-on that don’t fit under the seat, you NEED to ensure that you have overhead space.  The most likely outcome is that you’ll have to gate check the carry-on and you won’t see it until your final destination.  Not an issue if you’re on a 1-2 hour flight, but a HUGE issue if it’s the first leg of a 30 hour journey.

Boarding early also lets you settle in.

On the plane

A flight attendant will bring you an infant life vest to store under your seat.  Leave it there when you get off the flight.

The whole feeding during take off thing?  If they’re under 9 months, don’t stress about it, according to my favorite Lactation Consultant/Baby Guru Nancy Holtzman from Isis Parenting (link is her tips for flying with a baby).

Young babies will be lulled to sleep by the engine noise.  In many ways, the younger they are, the easier they are to fly with.  You might actually need to make a point of waking them to feed!

Do make a point of ensuring they’re eating.  They can dehydrate faster than you.

If you’re lucky enough to score a bassinet, enjoy!  That was the only way I was able to eat when I flew to London from Boston with E when she was 9 months old (she’s super small for her size…many babies will max out the weight allowance before then–check with your airline).

Large aircraft will have at least one bathroom with a changing table.  It will be a slightly larger than normal bathroom (don’t get excited…it’s still microscopic) with a flat table over the toilet that snaps up when not in use.  You may want to make sure you have a portable changing pad to use on top of it, or on the fly in airports.  Find out where it is when the flight attendant brings by your infant life vest.

Around 4-6 months, you’ll start having some awake periods on planes.  Keys, putting something into and out of the plastic drink cup from the airline, and YOU are free toys.  Other good airplane toys are the winkel ball for younger babies, and any of those toys that hang from a car seat and have multiple things to do/textures to chew on for older babies. Before that, they’ll sleep and eat and poop…and that’s about it.

The older the baby, the more you will be entertaining them.  E was 14+ months old the first time I was able to use other distractions for longer periods of times (cough *Elmo* cough).  But as with a car, motion and the white noise will likely provide you with longer than average naps. Think twice before letting them bang on the seat tray table…it’s a great distraction for them, but is irritating as hell to the person in front of you.

With older babies, you may want to empty the seat pocket of anything you don’t want them touching (or tearing).

For the most part, people are nice…don’t expect to encounter a child hater.  They’re not as prevalent in real life as they are online (or if they are, they tend to keep it to themselves).  Most people will smile or wave at your kid.  Dressing them adorably can help sell the notion of “cute baby” instead of “noise maker”.

Deplaning

Don’t be in a hurry to get off the plane.  It takes a while for the strollers to come up and you’re either going to wait in your seat on the plane for things to clear out a bit or on the breezeway.  Leave in a timely fashion, but there’s no call to be first off.

Expect to get a lot “your baby was so GOOD” from strangers.  They mean well.  Suppress your urge to say “SEE…Babies on planes aren’t TEH DEVIL!!!!”  Again, maybe it’s just me who wants to say that, but still….

Pick up your stroller just outside the door of the plane, or on the breezeway.  The flight attendant will tell you.

Miscellaneous

Don’t stress about time zone changes.  The baby is going to do whatever the baby is going to do.  You can exert a ton of effort to try to fix their sleep schedule in advance, and anecdotally it often doesn’t work.  Give them anywhere from 1-5 days (depending on the severity of the time change) to work it out on their own, and accept that you will suffer their jet lag.  However, jet lag isn’t really a huge issue until they’re older (as in 8-12 months and older) and insist on being awake and playing.

Questions?  Additional advice? Want to tell me I’m full of crap?  Comment away…

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7 Responses to Flying with Babies (under a year)

  1. Was already loving the article and ready to share it and then I saw a nice mention, too!
    Great tips, Crystal!

    • Crystal says:

      Thanks Nancy. I only learned the ear thing because of you and your timely tweeting on the topic. I LOVE your stream of consciousness tweets on various baby topics lately…please keep doing them.

  2. Kate says:

    I obvs don’t have kids right now but I’m bookmarking this for when I do! What a thorough and well thought-out list of tips. Of course, this is why I don’t have kids because I can barely get *myself* organized to fly.

    • Crystal says:

      Trust me…we suck at getting ready to fly which is why 36 hours of travel is really closer to 60 hours with only the sleep I manage on the plane(s). Have I mentioned I suck at sleeping on planes?

  3. notabilia says:

    We’re flying for the first time on Wednesday. I’ve printed this and put it into my bag. Thanks for the awesomeness.

  4. Pingback: Tempting Fate « Expat Bostonians

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