I hesitated a bit to write this post, because I don’t want to seem like I’m claiming to be some kind of expert on parenting or family travel. I’m not at all! I have one child and she’s barely a year old. But we did fly quite a bit with her as a baby – six plane trips in her first year, including a solo jaunt just me and her to Hawaii – and I wanted to share some lessons I learned along the way.
1. Don’t be afraid to go when they’re very young. So many people told me that travel is a breeze with young infants, and it’s really true. A lot of things change around 6 months that can make travel more complicated – babies start eating solid foods (so you have to pack food, unless you’re sure you can find suitable food at your destination), they get more mobile and want to be rolling or crawling instead of sitting still in a car seat, and they get on a more set nap schedule, which can mean meltdowns if they miss naps. Flying is by no means impossible later on, but I didn’t fully appreciate how easy it was during the immobile, sleep-around-the-clock months.
2. Consider buying a seat – even if your child can fly free. It’s pretty rare to buy a really young baby their own seat, since they fly free in a parents’ lap and most babies who aren’t yet crawling are very happy being held for extended periods of time (it’s more common – though still not universal – to buy squirmy crawlers and toddlers under 2 their own seats). But it’s safer to have a child of any age in their own seat. And I found that the time period before about 8 months was actually when we got the most bang for our buck from the separate seat, because when our daughter still fit comfortably in her bucket-style infant car seat, she fell asleep so easily in it – leaving us completely free to do whatever we wanted (I even read a book once!).
3. Put more thought into the itinerary. Before I had a baby, I didn’t worry much about the times of my flights. I just wanted to get to my destination as cheaply and efficiently as possible. Now, I do my absolute best to minimize the disruption to her schedule. I’ll do anything to avoid an overnight flight and we always try to book mid-morning or later departures for a good night of rest at home before we leave. We also prioritize non-stop flights much more than we did before, since every layover is a chance for a missed connection and a much longer journey.
4. Don’t overpack. I remember our first flight with our daughter, I filled my diaper bag with toys, books and teething rings. I even left my beloved DSLR at home so I could bring all that baby stuff! And it was totally unnecessary; she just wanted to play with us and random objects she found on the plane (the plastic safety briefing card has been a perennial favorite). Of course, there are some essentials you should make sure to have with you – diapers, wipes, a pacifier if your baby takes one, a change of clothes, snacks for older babies that are eating solid foods, maybe one favorite lovey. But don’t go crazy packing entertainment for the flight. As all parents know, babies are entertained by the most mundane objects and planes are filled with people who will want to smile and wave at your little one!
5. Have at least one adult board early. I’ve seen a lot of people suggest waiting until the last minute to get on the plane (so your baby doesn’t get fussy and bored on the airplane), but if you have a car seat to install I highly recommend taking advantage of early boarding if possible. Thankfully, installing a car seat on a plane is easier than installing one in a car, but it’s still not something you want to have to do under pressure when you feel like you’re holding up an entire plane full of people. If you’re traveling with two adults, and really want your baby to board at the last possible minute, you can send one adult ahead with the gear and have the other wait in the airport with the baby. But we’ve never had a problem just all getting on early. Watching all the people go by during boarding tends to be very interesting for little ones. (As an aside, not all airlines allow automatic early boarding for families with infants – it’s “discretionary” on American Airlines, and I’d say about a third of the AA gate agents I’ve encountered didn’t allow it. Definitely ask if they don’t immediately offer it.)
6. Know FAA rules & your airline’s rules and be prepared to politely stand your ground. Pretty much every parent I know who travels a lot has a story about a flight attendant giving them misinformation about something baby-related, especially car seat use. Thankfully, the worst I’ve encountered is a couple flight attendants who’ve told me car seats have to be installed forward-facing (in fact, they can be installed rear-facing if the child meets the rear-facing height & weight requirements for your car seat – yes, even if it prevents the passenger in front of you from reclining), and I was able to convince them otherwise without much drama. This page has a really helpful summary about your car seat “rights” (on US-based carriers) and is a good thing to review before flying with a child in a car seat.
7. Relieve ear pressure with nursing or a bottle. This is some of the most popular flying-with-a-baby advice out there, and is so ubiquitous that I’d heard about it even before becoming a parent. But what I didn’t fully understand until recently is that the worst of the pressure changes happen long before you land. I found that starting a feed 30-40 minutes before the scheduled landing time was most effective for minimizing ear pain. And this allows you to have your little one all fed and safely secured for landing by the time the plane begins its final approach.
8. Accept help from kind strangers. This is a hard one for me to embrace since the Midwesterner in me wants to do everything myself, but it’s an essential if you’re the only adult flying with your baby. Getting a baby and all the associated gear through the airport can be hard, even if you have a very light travel car seat like we do (the Cosco Scenera Next). Let people carry some of your gear for you. If someone offers to hold your baby so you can go to the bathroom (and you think your little one won’t freak out in a stranger’s arms), let them! Accept help from non-strangers too – having a friend or family member drop you off right at check-in and pick you up at baggage claim will be invaluable.
9. Just go with it. Embrace the unexpected. Accept that your baby may cry at some point, and you will probably get some dirty looks from some people. And know that no matter how many articles and blog posts you read about flying with a baby, you can’t perfectly prepare yourself in advance. Parenting is a learn-on-the-job kind of gig and family travel is no exception. Whatever happens on the flight, it’s a very short amount of time in the grand scheme of things, and you will all survive. And the memories you make at the destination will make any travel headaches worth it.
Seasoned family travelers, what would you add to my list? And what can you tell me about flying with toddlers, since (eep!) I have one now?