Flying with a baby is one of parenting’s most daunting early challenges, particularly over the holidays. Not only do parents have to navigate the stresses of air travel ⏤ airport traffic, flight delays, long TSA lines ⏤ but they’re doing so with tiny human cargo (and not to mention more baggage). But with a few essential guidelines and insider tips, flying with a baby is surprisingly manageable. Sure, traveling with an infant can be a nightmare, but it doesn’t have to be — if you plan ahead, pack properly, and arrive at the airport (early and) with the proper mindset.
To help get you into that proper mindset, here are some well-worn tips for surviving a flight with a baby under 12-months-old.
1. Get to the Airport Early When Flying With a Baby
While some new parents argue against arriving at the airport too early ⏤ as it requires entertaining your baby for a longer stretch of time outside the comforts of home ⏤ the simple fact remains: airport stress is dictated by your departure time. And the less time you give yourself to go from the parking garage to the gate ⏤ especially with a baby and extra gear in tow ⏤ the more stress you will create. Flying with a baby takes significantly more time than traveling on your own. Arriving 90 minutes to two hours before your flight ensures no matter how long the check-in or TSA lines are, or how slowly they’re moving, you’ll never have to sweat missing your flight. Even better, it gives parents a chance to regroup ⏤ order lunch, feed the baby, buy a book they won’t be able to read ⏤ when they get inside the terminal.
2. Use Curbside Check-In
This could be the single-biggest, life-changing tip on the list. Traveling with a baby requires a lot of extra gear ⏤ stroller, car seat, diaper bag, bigger luggage, etc. ⏤ with which you traditionally wouldn’t fly. The sooner you can ditch your checked bags (and possibly the car seat and stroller) without having to wait in the long check-in line, the easier life will be. Seriously, do not walk by a curbside check-in counter and think life will be better on the inside. It won’t. The lines will be longer, slower, and noisier. Budget a few bucks for the porter’s tip and gladly pay them — it’s well worth the convenience.
3. Gate-Check Your Stroller and Car Seat
The beauty of flying with small children is that car seats and strollers fly free. Better still, you can walk them straight down the jetway and check them in before you board the plane, ensuring both will be there when you disembark. For a stroller, this is a no-brainer. Why carry a baby through the airport when you can push them? Even if you’re wearing a baby carrier, it’s nice to have at least an umbrella stroller should your flight be delayed or your baby gets fussy.
Whether to gate-check a car seat that’s not coming on the plane is a bigger debate. But the arguments are straightforward: Car seats are not cheap and those checked at the terminal often get the crap kicked out of them as they move through the bowels of the airport/airplane. There’s also a chance, albeit a small one, that the car seat doesn’t make the flight, and you’re left at your destination with no way to drive the baby to grandma’s house. Gate-checking the car seat may mean lugging it through the airport, which admittedly sucks, but ensures it will make it to your final destination and is less likely to be damaged along the way. No matter what you decide, buy a travel bag ⏤ and preferably one with backpack shoulder straps ⏤ to protect your investment and make carrying it easier. Also, consider buying a lighter travel car seat ⏤ many weigh under 10 pounds and cost less than $75.
4. Wear Your Baby and Your Diaper Bag
Hands are a hot commodity when traveling with kids and ⏤ between carry-on luggage, strollers, diaper bags, and your coffee, not to mention the actual baby, parents simply don’t have enough of them. Even pushing a stroller requires at least one hand be in use. The easiest solution is to invest in a child carrier and wear your baby through the airport; it’s especially helpful when going through security. Just be aware that most airlines won’t let you use the carrier on the plane. While you’re at it, wear your diaper bag too. Invest in a backpack diaper bag and let it double as one parent’s carry-on. Not only do you bring one less bag, but there’s no annoying tote sliding off your shoulder every two minutes.
5. Board the Plane Separately
While all airlines allow parents with babies to board first, it’s not always the smartest move. Remember, it usually takes a half-hour for everybody else to board and the plane to start moving ⏤ that’s a lot of time stuck in your seat with a newborn. If you’re traveling with a spouse, friend, or family member, the better strategy is to have one person board the flight early to stow the carry-ons and diaper bag, gate-check the stroller/car seat, and, if concerned about germs, disinfect the armrests and tray tables. Meanwhile, the other parent walks/entertains the child until everybody is on board and then boards last.
6. If You Can Afford It, Buy the Baby a Seat
Obviously, this decision depends on one’s finances, but if you’ve got the money to buy an extra seat ⏤ book it. Being able to secure the wiggly baby in a car seat, rather than bouncing them on your lap for three hours, is a game-changer. Plus, there’s a better chance they’ll actually sleep during the flight than if resting in your arms or on your shoulder ⏤ which, incidentally, isn’t always comfortable for a parent either. If that baby naps in your arms, you’re petty much stuck in that position for the duration.
7. Fly During Nap (or Happy) Time
We know: Given the hell that is air travel, this may not always work. Even if you do book your flight during this window of time and everything departs smoothly, your kid may be too distracted to sleep because, hey, everything is new and why can’t anyone get up? But booking flights that coincide with a child’s nap schedule at least give you better odds for a smoother trip. If you can’t fly when they usually sleep, try to plan the trip during periods of the day when you know they’re happiest ⏤ for most babies, the morning.
8. Book Two Aisle Seats Across From Each Other
While a lot of nursing moms prefer a window seat for privacy, booking two aisle seats across from one another can provide a much-needed change of scenery for an infant-in-arms. Funny as it might sound, each time the child is handed back and forth, they’re reintroduced to a new environment, new neighbors, etc. which can help recapture their attention. Not only that, but it’s much easier for either parent to get up and soothe the baby by walking up and down the aisle.
9. Nurse or Feed Them During Take-off and Landing
Hands down the number one tip for flying with a baby ⏤ and one aimed at keeping the entire plane from hating you ⏤ is to nurse or feed your baby during take-off and landing. Their ears are especially sensitive to the changes in air pressure during those phases of the flight and the result of the uncomfortable sensation is usually an Armageddon-like meltdown. By nursing or giving them a bottle, the swallowing keeps the ears from popping and the cabin quiet(er). Or, if they don’t want to eat, give them a pacifier.
10. Use Baby Food as an Activity
For toddlers and babies old enough to enjoy solid snacks, eating food on a plane is an all-consuming activity on par with watching an iPad. If a baby is tired of listening to books or playing games, break out the Cheerios and let them concentrate on eating ⏤ and on picking the Cheerios off the sanitized tray table ⏤ for a bit. Will the Cheerios get everywhere? Most definitely. But a little clean up sure beats a crying baby and a section full of angry passengers. In fact, the added bonus of eating as an activity is that the kids’ mouths are too full to yell or cry.
11. Bring Cheap Toys
Take a trip to the dollar store before your flight and stock up on cheap toys you don’t mind losing or accidentally leaving on the plane. And then wrap them individually in cheap wrapping paper like it was Christmas Eve. Whenever your child gets restless during the flight, break out a new toy and help them unwrap it. Let them play with the paper, then the actual toy, and when the child tires of both, well, there’s always Cheerios.
12. Stay Calm
Finally, keep a cool head about you. Easier said than done, we know. But a nervous parent breeds a nervous baby, and the calmer you stay, the more likely the child will mirror your emotions. Traveling with a baby can be stressful, but a lot of that stress is due to worrying about the (dis)comfort of other passengers. Babies cry on planes, that’s what babies do. And assuming you don’t throw on your Beats the minute your child starts melting down, people will understand that you’re trying to stop the crying ⏤ especially if they have kids of their own. And if they don’t, screw them and their judge-y glances. Your baby’s got places to go too.
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