With Thanksgiving days away, ’tis the season for screaming infants and squirming toddlers packed onto planes, right? Flying with a baby doesn’t have to be a nightmare, even during the very busy holiday travel season. Whether you are flying home to introduce your baby to the grandparents, or taking a much-needed island vacation with your newly-expanded family, here are some tips to help you (and your seatmates) cope with flying with a baby:
Don’t scrimp on the extras and factor them into your travel budget. Pre-baby, you might have been able to deal with a red-eye flight with multiple connections on a bare-bones budget airline in order to save on ticket airfare. When you are flying with a small child on your lap, there are certain upgrades you may wish to make that will pay off in spades. Check your luggage (though pack light anyway), so you have as little to carry on the plane as possible (and while we’re on the subject, always have a carrier/wrap/sling as you can’t always take your stroller to the gate). Add on extra legroom or the airline’s “economy plus” so you have a little more room to maneuver. These days, only some long-haul or international flights have baby bassinets, and even then, they will only fit up until one year or so. Do your homework: depending on the airline and route, it might make sense to purchase a seat for your infant (often with additional baggage allowance), especially if they are happy to sit in a car seat for the flight. Trust me, these things will be worth the extra $50 or so, but factor it into your ticket cost and budget accordingly.Be resourceful and creative about in-flight entertainment. Many new parents feel they have to pack a separate suitcase full of toys to entertain a child on a plane, but you want to keep your carry-on items to a minimum. You’d also be surprised with what you already have in your purse or diaper bag can be endlessly interesting to a baby: your keys, your bag of small toiletries, even your wallet. At one year, my daughter became fascinated with pulling things out of my wallet, so I now carry a cheap card wallet for her to play with containing all of our old hotel key cards. She’s also spent hours packing and unpacking my make-up bag, and since we’re in a small space, I can make sure she’s not eating my lipstick or stashing my Amex card between the seats. Even the seat has fun buttons to press (as long as they aren’t controlling your neighbor’s seat); magazines to leaf through; and plastic straws, ice and cups from drink service. Carry some actual toys too, but keep them pocket-sized: a small pouch full of IKEA finger puppets is one of the best investments I’ve ever made and has often appeased other kids on the plane too. Anything that won’t make a mess or an annoyance to other passengers is fair game to me. There’s always the failsafe cellphone, or tablet computer if you have one (check out Best Apps for Kids for recommendations); once it’s safe to use approved electronics, of course.
Don’t be afraid of the back of the plane. I used to dread the back of the plane, especially as I was loathe to check luggage and therefore wanted early access to the precious amount of overhead bin space. Now since I’m usually checking anyway, I don’t mind being in the back; it’s close to the bathroom and the flight attendants, often less crowded than the premium seats in the front, and when we land, I have more time to collect all the things the baby has pulled out of my purse. Most airlines have discontinued early boarding for families, but even if it’s offered, you may want more time in the relative comfort and space of the gate area before boarding. The only drawback to the back of the plane is other children, especially if yours tends to be influenced by the cries and sounds of other babies. In case of another child’s meltdown, it might be the time to distract yours with a video, and hand your finger puppets over to the other parents.
Dress naturally and for comfort. A few years ago, I read that because of breathability, it’s more comfortable to fly in a wool dress suit than a polyester track suit. This especially makes sense in winter when you are going from cold runways to overheated airports and erratic cabin temperatures, often rushing to make a plane and laden with baggage. Babies will sleep more comfortably in a cotton or other natural fabric one-piece pajama and it’s also easy to change diapers, and light to pack a spare in your diaper bag. Dressing baby in pajamas can also help feel it’s time for a sleep rather than running around the cabin. I’ve seen many small children traveling in fleece outfits (fleece is essentially code for polyester), and those same children are often sweaty and restless once the airplane’s heater kicks on. For me, I tend to feel much warmer trekking through an airport with a 20-pound person strapped to me, so I try to ditch my coat as soon as possible. My favorite is a lightweight down jacket from Uniqlo that packs down into a tiny bag that I can stash under the stroller or in a suitcase until I’ve reached my final destination. Finally, while baby might look cute and comfy in PJs, you are better off in two pieces with a spare shirt, in case you need to change mid-flight after an accident.
Go with baby’s schedule. No one really has the definitive answer on how to fight jetlag but when it comes to traveling with a baby, you may have to just give in to their schedule demands rather than force them to conform. In the early months, they’ll adjust to time changes easily since they sleep constantly, but older babies might just force you to stay on your usual time zone and adjust slowly. Look for flights that suit your schedule best: my baby does best on early morning or overnight flights when she tends to sleep, even if it means less rest for me. You might be off your game for the first few days when you arrive, but isn’t sleeping late and taking mid-day naps what vacations and time home with family are for? Letting the baby sleep when she wants can also help her stay healthy: you are more prone to illness if your body is exhausted. I also let her eat on demand and find breastfeeding ideal for travel, especially to keep her ears from getting clogged on take off and landing, and provide immunities to ward off sickness. Older or non-breastfed babies can have a pacifier, bottle, or sippy cup for takeoff. I’m personally not a big fan of anti-bacterials, but wash hands and anything baby touches frequently with soap and water.
We’ve survived over three dozen flights and twelve countries with no tantrums or crying, read more tips and advice in the “Knocked Up Abroad” series.