How To Fly With a Baby

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I know this is a departure from my usual posts about sewing and cutting paper, but I feel like I spend most of my life either planning for or recovering from a flight with Allie, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it, if I do say so myself. I get a fair number of questions from friends about flying with the little one, and the process changes so much based on age, that I thought I’d write all my tips and tricks down so as not to forget them later.

We took our first flight with Allie when she was 11 weeks old, and just got back from our latest trip at 16 months. She’s now taken 6 trips to the east coast and one to South Dakota. We typically fly United, but have done a few trips with Southwest as well, so all of the advice below pertains best to those ages and those airlines.

So here we go. A comprehensive list of everything you need to know about flying with an infant.

1. The extra seat is everything. Everything, I say. 

Allie Flies at 16 Months |

Children under 2 can travel for free on an adult’s lap. This is the economical choice, but for any flight over, say, 2 hours, it’s uncomfortable for everyone. Hands down our best/easiest flights have been the ones where Allie has had a seat to herself. And of course, according to the FAA, this way is much safer.

But let’s be honest. Who wants to drop $500 for an infant to fly? Nobody, that’s who. However, if the airline can accommodate it, they will always provide an empty seat to a child in a carseat. And it just so happens that there are a few things you can do to help the airline make that accommodation.

  • If you’re flying with 2 adults and 1 child, book a window and aisle seat in an empty row toward the back of the plane. As people book tickets, they tend to select windows and aisles first, then the middle seats fill up from front to back. If a flight isn’t fully sold, the empty seats are going to be in the middle, in the back of the plane. It’s much easier for an airline to move someone from one middle seat to another than it is to ask someone with an aisle seat to move to the middle so that your kid can fly for free. If you’re flying alone with your baby, DON’T GO. I kid. Select the window seat in an empty row toward the back of the plane. Carseats must be placed in the window seat, so you’ll get that empty middle seat and your baby will get the great view. 
  • Always carry your carseat to the gate. Ticket agents are always sympathetic to the frazzled-looking parents lugging their weight in baby gear. Also, the extra seat doesn’t do you much good if the baby is too young to sit still on her own.
  • Ask. They can’t read your mind. The first thing we do when we get to the gate is go to the counter to have them tag our stroller and carseat. While they do that, I politely ask if the flight is fully booked. If it is, I cry on the inside and start mentally preparing myself for 5+ hours of aching knees and sore back. If it’s not, they will move you to a row with an empty seat. Easy peasy.

This has worked for us over 50% of the time, and it makes such a huge difference in our comfort and sanity level. If you have the cash and really need the peace of mind, you can always shell out for the baby’s seat, but at this point we’re pretty comfortable risking it.

2. Get through security as quickly and calmly as possible.

TSA now allows you to wear your baby through security, which is key. You’ll go through the metal detector instead of the body scanner, and they’ll swab your hands. Even though we bring our stroller/carseat combo to the gate with us, I always strap Allie to myself before we go through the security line. If there’s anywhere in the world you want to have your hands free while you’re holding a baby, the airport security line is it.

Beco Gemini |

This picture is of Allie in the Beco Gemini, which I love. However, my favorite carrier for air travel is the Moby Wrap, because I can quickly roll it up into my diaper bag when I’m not using it, and because it can double (triple?) as a nursing cover or a blanket.

I try to keep everything that has to come out of our bags (liquids, laptops, etc) in one bag so it’s easily accessible. Then I give that bag to Jesse to take care of. Ha.

We have (well, had. It made it’s last trip last weekend) the Chicco Keyfit and Keyfit Caddy, which together are in my top 3 baby items of all time. Basically, if you have an infant bucket/stroller frame combo–and you really really should–use it for as long as possible. (I am not looking forward to navigating security with the tiny-basketed City Mini and giant heavy Britax convertible car seat next time around.)

Generally I throw our hoodies and any bags that don’t need to be opened in the basket of the stroller, and if I’m flying solo, the bag with our liquids and laptops sits in the carseat. When I get to the conveyer belt I take care of that bag first, then put the carseat on, then the bags in the bottom, then fold up the base and throw that on. I pride myself on getting all my stuff on the belt in 2 minutes or less, and I guarantee that wouldn’t be possible without the Moby.

But listen, it’s not a race, and God knows there are plenty of seasoned business travelers who should know better that still wait until the last minute before they meticulously untie and remove their shoes. So if you need to take your time, do it. The only people who will judge you for it are jerks. You know what’s worse than being behind a slow-poke in the security line? Forgetting your laptop because you’re too worried about what the people behind you think.

3. To Pack or Not To Pack

I am an outlier on this one. Most of the traveling-with-babies advice that I’ve heard has centered around lots of toys, the logic being that keeping your child distracted will keep them quiet. In my experience, if Allie wants to scream, there is not a toy on earth that will stop her. Also, airplanes are already full of distractions. The audio buttons on the armrest can keep Allie busy for at least an hour (just make sure the flight attendant call button isn’t also on the armrest), and SkyMall satisfies her fascination with turning pages. If I bring any toys at all, it’s just the little dudes who are already clipped to her carseat.

Food, on the other hand? I am of a mind that you cannot bring too much food. When she was still exclusively breastfed, this was easy. I did always pack at least one bottle of pumped milk so that Jesse could take over when I needed a break. Once we started introducing solids I discovered the true beauty of the baby food squeeze pack. Normally, I find these a little bit gross and too expensive for daily use, but on a plane I will gladly shell out the extra dollar per serving to not have to deal with spoons and tiny jars.

I also pack at least one type of dry finger food, like puffs, Goldfish, or Teddy Grahams. Similar to the philosophy that many people have with toys, I tend to go with a sweeter treat that she doesn’t normally get. That way she’s more likely to be excited about it and not push it away when I offer.

Baby's First Flight |

Other essentials include:

  • A Diaper Clutch. Not all planes have changing tables in the bathrooms (which is the worst). Sometimes your only option is the floor in the back of the plane, so a good changing pad is a must. This one is great for both the airport and the plane. Instead of having to dig through your stuffed diaper bag for everything you need, this keeps your diapers, wipes and changing pad in one little pack. 
  • A pacifier. This is a no-brainer, but easy to forget.
  • A sippy cup. Once the age of breast/bottles/pacis has passed, this is your best bet for getting them to suck on something during takeoff and landing. Plus it’s good to keep them hydrated.
  • Bib, burp rag, and a change of clothes. If you have the space you may even want to have a change for yourself.
  • Medical Records/Immunization form. United has never asked us for proof of age when we fly with Allie. Southwest does, but the Immunization card is sufficient. This is a lot easier than having a copy of the birth certificate, and it’s good to have on hand in case something does happen while you’re away.

And other things to leave at home (or check):

  • Nursing cover. I was never really into these anyway, but they just take up valuable space in your bag, and if your travel wardrobe is anything like mine, you can use the Moby or a hoodie to cover up if you really need it. 
  • A purse. Don’t waste your one carry-on and one personal item on a diaper bag and purse. Shove your keyswalletcellphone in the side pocket of the diaper bag and call it a day.
  • Toys. I know I already said it, but I’m saying it again.

 4. Sleep, Glorious Sleep. 

Sleeping in an airplane seat |

The best thing a baby can do on a plane is sleep, so I always try to make that as easy as possible. Before she was mobile, this was extremely easy. On our first few flights she slept almost the whole way. It was glorious, but also hell on the arms when we didn’t have that coveted spare seat. This is another time the Moby comes in extremely handy. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to wear a baby through takeoff or landing. When she was very little, once I put the Moby on at security, I typically left it on through the flight and just slipped Allie in and out of it as needed. I would wear her through boarding, then take her out and nurse through take-off. Before she fell asleep I’d put her back in the Moby and then keep nursing until she drifted off. Then she’d be all snuggly and peaceful and I’d have my hands free to read or eat.

Once crawling and, oh God, walking entered the equation things got significantly harder on this front. A baby who is just learning to explore and is surrounded by new and fascinating things is obviously not going to be satisfied with being strapped to mommy’s chest for 5 hours. So at around 9 months I had to change my strategy (and develop a lot more patience). First, I try to keep her awake as long as possible before we board the plane, and schedule flights as close to regular sleep times as I can.

Another good trick is to feed her well, and feed her early in the flight. A full tummy is a sleepy tummy, so I still try to keep her eating through take-off. Usually within the first hour of the flight she’ll start showing clear signs of sleepiness. Whether she wants to listen to them is a different story, which brings me to possibly my most important–and hardest to remember–tip.

Don’t fight. Sometimes the stimulation is just too much, and no amount of eye rubbing and finger sucking will convince her that she wants to sleep as much as I want her to sleep. But getting frustrated just ends with us both in tears. Instead, Jesse and I take turns rocking her, reading SkyMall to her, or walking up and down the aisle with her. She always falls asleep eventually, and it happens fastest when we don’t try to force it.

Other Helpful (or Not-So-Helpful) Hints.

These items didn’t really fit into any category, but they’re worth mentioning.

  • Premium cabins don’t make this any easier. Once, when flying alone, I made the mistake of assuming that upgrading to First Class would be more comfortable. The truth is, sitting for 5 hours with a sack of potatoes on your lap sucks no matter how big your seat is. I’d have been much better off with 2 seats in coach.
  • If an aunt, uncle or grandparent offers to fly with you, TAKE THEM UP ON IT. Those are the best trips ever. People that love your child but don’t see them often will gladly endure the sore knees and aching back that comes with flying with a lap child. I don’t know why this is, but I’m also not going to argue with anyone who wants to hold my kid through a whole flight.
  • Drink a lot. Many a flight attendant has given us a free round simply because we’re flying with a baby. It really does help.

I hope this helps make your next flight with your kiddo a little bit easier. If you have any tips that I may have missed, please add them in comments!

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