7 tips to make plane travel with a baby less scary

Starting with "Don't fear the crying"—because, yes, they will cry
By Elizabeth Xu  Published on 12/18/2018 at 9:00 AM EDT
Things are going amazingly well for this mom! Shutterstock

It might seem like a terrible idea to take an infant to Hawaii. I thought so, too, yet when the opportunity arose there were my husband and I, off to Maui with a baby and many bags. My son went on six flights before his first birthday. He’s by no means a perfect traveler. But for me, being able to travel with my family outweighs the hassle of getting to the destination. And really, there have been hassles—as there always will be when traveling with a baby.

Just ask Alyssa Hanada, of Portland, OR, who flew to Hawaii with her five-month-old son.

“He screamed the whole four and a half hours,” she says. “We ran into two different couples in Maui that were apparently on our flight who basically said, ‘Oh, he’s happy now.’”

Some baby flight issues are simply unavoidable, but you can still be prepared when they come up. Here’s how…

Don’t fear the crying

First fears first: Unless your flight is very short or you have an exceptionally go-with-the-flow baby, crying will happen at some point during the journey. As Alyssa found, sometimes babies are just inconsolable.

In a similar situation, my own five and a half month old cried for at least three hours of a five and a half hour flight. While unpleasant, it was unavoidable—he was in a phase where he simply cried before going to sleep.

Assuming your baby doesn’t have any similar fun quirks, easy entertainment might keep the tears at bay. On different flights my son has been amused by a light-up Mickey Mouse toy, a slinky, stickers, and a cup the flight attendant gave him during beverage service.

If all else fails, remember this advice I got before my son’s first flight: You’re never going to see those people again. (Well, unless you’re Alyssa!)

Have extra clothes—for everyone

Sure, you’ve likely thought about extra clothes for that cute spit-up maker. But don’t forget yourself and anyone you may be traveling with. Kelly Burch from New Hampshire learned this the hard way.

“I flew solo with my four-month old to Dubai, and she obviously had a blowout just before landing, which got all over me, too,” she says. “So, I was the woman going through customs in the UAE with spaghetti straps, which I deemed slightly more appropriate than doing so covered in poop.”

Rachel Reiff Ellis of Decatur, Georgia, has a similar bodily-fluids-all-over story. You’ve likely heard that getting a baby to suck can help relieve pressure in their ears. She heard that, too. So she breastfed her six-week-old son before takeoff. She fed him a lot, as she found out soon after they were in the air.

“He puked all over my shoulder and into my shirt, and then promptly fell asleep,” she says. “I sat motionless for the rest of the hour-long flight, spit-up rolling down my torso and seeping into my underwear.”

Know what to check and what to bring on board

Flying with a baby means you’ll have a lot of extra baggage, even if you’re normally a light packer. Check out your airline’s rules regarding what can be gate checked (meaning you can take it to the gate and pick it up on the jet bridge after the flight) and what you can bring on board.

Most airlines, for example, allow strollers and car seats to be gate checked. Even if you opt to not buy a seat for your little one, there’s still a chance there will be an empty seat available to them, but you shouldn’t count on it.

Sure, on most airlines kids don’t need their own ticket until they’re 2 years old, but research shows a car seat is much safer than your arms in case of rough turbulence. If you have paid for an extra seat and intend to bring your baby’s car seat on board, check to make sure it’s FAA approved and be prepared to show proof if requested (you’ll usually find it somewhere on the car seat itself). Make sure you know your rights, too. Some flight attendants think that all car seats should be forward-facing, but that’s not necessarily the case for infant seats. One flight attendant thought my 5-and-a-half-month old should forward-face and I was ready with these handy FAA guidelines, but she looked them up herself and realized it was OK.

Expect a blowout or two

Diapers supposedly hold all of your little one’s waste. Supposedly. Any parent knows that’s not always the case, especially during travel. In addition to extra clothes (which will likely end up with spit up, poop, or some combination of both on them), don’t forget plenty of diapers and wipes.

Don’t think it can happen to you? I thought I was fairly prepared for my son’s first flight. I use cloth diapers at home, so I employed a reusable, plastic-like cloth diaper cover over his disposable diaper. Of course, the poop still leaked out, his clothes ended up stained, and I called the diaper cover a loss and tossed it once we landed.

Bring backups of important items

OK, we’ve already discussed the importance of an abundance of diapers and clothes, but there are other things you might want spares of, too. Does your little one have a favorite pacifier? Blanket? Toy? And think about what will happen if it goes missing.

“My husband dropped my son’s Wubanub in the airplane toilet. The one thing the baby needs to fall asleep. In the grossest place imaginable,” says Melissa Petro of New York. “We just rinsed it off as best we could and kept going.”

Make sure you have the documents you need

If you’re flying with a baby under 2 who doesn’t have their own seat, they won’t need a ticket. Yours, however, should note that you’ll have a baby on your lap. If it doesn’t, ask at check-in or at the gate.

You likely won’t need ID for a baby for a domestic flight, but taking their birth certificate can be a good idea, just in case. If you’re flying internationally your little one will need a passport, no matter how young.

Know that not everyone’s against you

Chances are your fellow passengers have dealt with children at some point. Sure, they likely didn’t want to be stuck sitting next to one in an enclosed space, but don’t expect those stereotypical eyerolls and sighs. Know that some folks understand.

As I tried to soothe my crying child, a kind stranger offered to walk him up and down the aisle for me. I politely declined, as the seat belt sign was on (and had been for quite some time—of course), but I greatly appreciated her offer of help. It was nice to know not everyone in the vicinity was glaring at us.

As you’ve guessed, flights with babies are hardly ever peaceful and accident-free, but just like all the parents before you, you’ll get through it and have an interesting tale to tell later.

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