Knocked up abroad: flying with a baby

flying with babyThis is the second in the Knocked Up Abroad series on travel with a baby. Read more here about planning a trip with baby, from choosing a baby-friendly destination to booking an apartment rental.

Before traveling with my baby for the first time, I was very nervous and apprehensive. Not about the baby, but about the other passengers. I’ve flown many times and know full well of The Look that comes when a baby boards the plane. The Look that says, “Oh here we go, a baby is on this flight. I hate crying babies on planes. Why did the parents have to bring the baby?!” And while I’ve been on many flights with crying babies and misbehaving toddlers, I’ve also been on many flights with adults who hogged the armrests, kicked the seatback, and all the other annoyances we love to complain about. Really, we’re all an asshole to someone else, so can’t we all just get along? There may be no justification for bringing a baby on a plane, but there are few non-baby trips we can justify either. Flying is a privilege, albeit an uncomfortable and expensive one, so let’s all do our best to get there without annoying each other too much. Fortunately our first trip was from Turkey, where babies are adored and worshipped. In Turkey, The Look is more like “Oh look, a baby! Maybe I’ll get to sit next to her!”

After a few flights both long- and short-haul, I’m happy to report my daughter Vera is a champion flier. All I can really do on a plane is feed her and hold her, which are currently her favorite activities. After our transatlantic flights, I had multiple passengers approach me and say they didn’t even know there was a baby near them since she was so quiet, a fact I consider a badge of honor. As she grows up, flying will become more difficult for all of us, but in the early months, it’s a bit like just carrying extra luggage (granted, luggage that needs to be fed and changed) and she rarely disturbs anyone on a plane.

To help ensure a smooth ride for you and your baby, here are a few guidelines I’ve found helpful to follow, from airport curbside to runway wheels down:-Upgrade if possible: Earlier this year, Malaysia Airlines made headlines by banning babies from first class. Before I even thought about having a child, I never had an issue with seeing babies up front: if the child and parents are more comfortable and thus quieter, doesn’t that make for a better flight for everyone? Now that I’ve flown both in coach and in business class with a baby, I can say it does make it easier, not just due to the extra space, but the shortcuts you get. Being able to skip long check-in and security lines makes a huge difference, and not every airline boards children first to the plane. If you can upgrade in any way, do it, but be aware that your seatmate may not be so happy to have a baby nearby when they paid extra for their seat (see also: making friends, below). If you can’t upgrade, find out if your plane has bassinets available and what the rules are to reserve them; stowing baby in a bassinet can be a great relief on a long flight.

-Use help when you can: Before Vera, I never checked bags and scoffed at other travelers laden with luggage carts and huge bags for short trips. When I returned from the US by myself with baby and extra bags full of stuff to bring back to Istanbul, I took advantage of the skycaps at JFK to help bring my bags to the check-in counter, and then rented a luggage cart to get out of the airport at Istanbul Ataturk. Even when packing light, you won’t regret the few bucks to tip someone to help with your gear when you also have a baby to contend with. Be nice to the gate agents checking you in too, as they may be able to find you an empty row or empty seat next to you if you need extra room (which you will).

-Be ready to go stroller-free: Having a hands-free baby carrier is a good idea to have on a trip in general, but start using it at the airport and have a back-up plan in case your stroller gets lost on your travels. Some airlines (now including American on domestic flights) require that anything bigger than a light umbrella-style stroller be checked before security, rather than gate-checked so be comfortable getting to the gate without wheels. Most airlines won’t count the stroller as part of your checked luggage as long as the baby is traveling with you. If you check it on arrival at the airport, you also won’t have to collapse the stroller through security, though some airports (such as Istanbul Ataturk) have additional security before you reach the check-in counter. On my flights between Istanbul and the US, I gate-checked the stroller on the first flight but found it had been checked through to my final destination, meaning that I had to navigate London Heathrow with just the carrier on the layover. Even with our Turkish evil eyes pinned to our car seat and stroller for protection, they were lost in both directions in the black hole that is Heathrow. Thanks to the helpful folks at American Airlines, we were quickly provided a loaner car seat in Chicago and the stroller was delivered to our door the next night, but it meant I had to scrap plans for the first day to go out with the stroller.

-Make friends on the plane: Especially when flying alone (well, alone with baby), the first thing I do on a plane is befriend my neighbors and let them know I’ll whatever I can to keep the baby happy and quiet on the flight. A lot of hostility from other passengers comes from fear that parents will simply let the baby cry, so I find this goes a long way towards making everyone comfortable, and find that most passengers will be happy to help if I need it. Ask nicely and a flight attendant can hold or watch your baby while you go to the bathroom or remove items from the overhead bin. If your baby does have a meltdown, buying your neighbor a drink can be a nice goodwill gesture.

-Feed, burp, and change the baby early and often: The primary reason babies cry on airplanes is that they are not able to equalize air pressure in their ears as easily as adults. I remember as a child that my mother would always give me a piece of (sugar-free) gum at the beginning of a flight to help pop my ears and soothe air sickness. Since you can’t give a baby gum, feeding them on take off and landing will help to distract and prevent blocked ears. The sucking motion of a pacifier may also help, though according to the CDC, breastfeeding is the best for equalizing pressure and can’t be replicated even with a bottle. Gas is another discomfort for babies, so be sure to burp often (a friend also swears by natural Colic Calm drops for gas). Finally, wet or dirty diapers can upset baby, so I try to get an aisle seat for easy access to the bathroom changing table. Anticipate so you can stop problems before they start.

-Make it bedtime: In my last article on travel with a baby, I emphasized trying to schedule flights around baby, but it’s not always possible to make nap time coincide with an airline schedule. You can try to fake it: dress the baby in pajamas, have a bath the last thing before you leave the house, do whatever you usually do before bedtime on or just before the flight. Airplanes dim the lights on overnight transcontinental flights for a reason: to help you adjust to the time at your destination and sleep at the right time. Do the same for baby to ease the transition. The internet is full of advice on coping with baby jetlag, but results are nearly as variable as for adults. After returning to Istanbul after two weeks in the US, it was me that took longer to adjust to the time change, though we tried to get her on local time immediately in both directions. Blogs Delicious Baby and Have Baby, Will Travel and the CDC have a lot of useful advice on dealing with jetlag.

-Start in-flight rituals: It may sound silly, but even at two months, I began telling my baby on each flight where we were going and who we would see, and how fortunate she is to be on a plane and going new places. She won’t understand or remember, but it begins a ritual that she will (hopefully) look forward to as she grows up. For older babies, you may want to take new toys (or wrap old ones) for them to open and enjoy on the flight. My cousin Anna flew frequently on the long haul between her home in Milan to her family in New Zealand with a baby and young son, who she allowed to watch as many movies as he wanted (something he doesn’t do at home) while she fed the baby anytime he made a peep. Make the flight a special experience to encourage good behavior.

Our resident flight attendent Heather Poole, compiled some more helpful tips based on her experience as a mother and a professional traveler great for babies and older children. Have any secret weapons of your own? Feel free to share in the comments.

Now that we’re back on the ground, I’ll be back with tips on what to do with your baby while traveling internationally. In case you missed it, you can read more on travel with a baby, pre- and post-natal, on Knocked Up Abroad.