Traveling with a baby is a boogeyman. When you tell people you are planning on flying with a baby you are likely to hear “you’re so brave” and “that sounds impossible”. There is something about being on the road, at airports and on airplanes, with no privacy and no access to baby supplies, that can feel very scary. Perhaps it’s the exposure that is so frightening. Travel requires us to do in public what we are mostly used to do in private: feed our babies, put them to sleep, get through the witching hour, be tired and sometimes overwhelmed.
Flying with a baby may be a necessity for you, to see family or for work, or maybe you love traveling and want to explore the world with your little one. Don’t let the logistics of it scare you. You can do it! the worst travel experiences make the best party stories!
Both my children boarded their first flights at 2.5 months and have since logged thousands of miles worldwide. From quick one-hour flights to 16 hours on board, here are my top tips for not only surviving, but enjoying flying with a baby (and a toddler!).
(Packing list attached at the end!)
Flying with a baby is all about “prepare for all scenarios, and prepare to be surprised”. In practicality, this means you should come prepared physically. Pack all things you will reasonably and less reasonably need, and don’t rely on airports or airlines to provide much. It also means you should come prepared mentally. Things go wrong all the time when traveling with kids, from delayed flights to diaper blowouts. Being able to laugh it off makes a huge difference in the travel experience.
Don’t hesitate to ask for help. In most cases, people will help you if you just ask. Even superheroes need a helping hand every now and then.
Remember, the journey will end, in a few hours (or a little more).
Planning Your Trip
When booking a flight try to think what would work best for your children. For shorter flights, mid-morning is often a good choice because they don’t mess with bedtime as much. Also, if you can, flights scheduled for just before naptime can also prove helpful (although flights are often late these days). For longer hauls, red-eyes are considered a better choice, but that’s only true if you think your baby will sleep through at least some of the flight. If your baby doesn’t sleep well in public/in a carrier/in a car seat/anywhere but the crib, a day flight may be a better choice. While you may need more entertainment, you will be more awake, and so will the other passengers. And a happy playing baby is better than a screaming tired baby, for everyone involved.
If you’re traveling with a baby, consider asking the airline for a bulkhead seat. These days, airlines often sell those seats at extra cost, but sometimes they are given for free to babies. On long-haul flights, also make sure to ask for a bassinet (usually available for babies under one). The bulkhead is great because there’s room to play on the floor. However, the armrests do not come up, so babies and children cannot lay across seats to sleep. Another option for seating is booking a window and an aisle seat, if your flight is not full, that middle seat is most likely to remain unoccupied!
The separate seats nightmare. As airlines are charging a fee for seat selection more and more often these days, make sure you look at the airline’s policy. Many have a stated policy that children under a certain age must be seated with the adult they are traveling with. This means it is the airline’s responsibility, not yours, to ask other passengers to switch seats in case something goes wrong and you are seated away from your child.
What and How to Pack
Pack Light, Shop Upon Arrival
Traveling with a baby and packing light seems contradictory, and it is to a certain level. What you pack depends on your destination and the availability of gear and supplies there. Try to reduce the packing of pershibles and disposable items to those you need for the journey itself, plus enough for the first day or two at your destination. Pre-locate stores that carry the supplies you need (baby food, diapers etc.). If you formula-feed, make sure the type of formula you use is available at your destination, or carry your own. Changing formulas isn’t recommended on the go, as some tummies react differently to different kinds of formula.
If you are limited by how much luggage you can take (for example, because of airline regulations or if you are traveling solo), consider packing a capsule wardrobe for your baby (google for examples). Hard as it is to leave some cute outfits at home, try to pack items that match and can be worn in different ways. If you have access to laundry (machine or service) and are comfortable with it, pack enough clothes for 3-4 days and wash in between. For babies under one calculate 2 outfits per day and 1.5 outfits per day for those over one.
Toys: Less is More
Pack few toys, and place them in the carry-on luggage for the journey itself. Traveling provides enough entertainment for little ones, and toys rarely leave the suitcase.
What Gear Do You Really Need?
Try to arrange for sleeping solutions at your destination to avoid having to lug a portable crib or pack n’ play with you. Only rarely hotels will not be able to provide a crib and many cities also have airbnbs that come fully prepared for babies.
Traveling with a stroller and a carrier seems to be a perfect combo. It offers flexibility, and when you travel alone with little ones, the stroller will give your back a break through the journey.
Travel vs. full size stroller. There are pros and cons to each, which vary depending on your destination. You will need to do some research here. Think about whether you will you need to fold up the stroller during the day and how often (think about public transportation and taxis vs. walking, availability of elevators, size of restaurants, cobblestone streets that require bigger wheels). Other questions to consider include whether your baby can comfortably nap in the stroller? Will you want to put a diaper bag on the stroller/in the basket? (The days can be long when you travel, and bags can get heavy.) How comfortable is each stroller for you? And who will be pushing it all day?
Double trouble? Sometimes you have to travel with a double stroller (twins, babies close in age or children with limited mobility). However, if you don’t have to, consider alternatives to the double stroller, which can create headaches when traveling. In many places around the world double strollers are too big to fit in trunks, restaurants and sometimes in hotel rooms. If you’re traveling with a baby and an older child, consider the carrier/stroller combo, or attaching a free-rider board or seat to your stroller (some lightweight strollers also have such options).
To car seat or not to car seat? Whether to take a car seat with you or not can be a tricky question to answer. Here are some questions that may help you make the decision:
- Do you only need a car seat to get to/from the airport? If so, try to find a car service that provides car seats.
- If you’re renting a car, renting a car seat can get expensive, and we’ve had some annoying experiences with missing parts and seats that were not in the best shape. Depending on your destination and where you’ll be picking up your car, it may actually be cheaper to buy a basic seat and leave it behind compared to renting a seat.
- Urban trips can prove extra challenging if you plan on using taxis/services such as Lyft or Uber. To be frank, it isn’t generally practical to use a car seat on these drives, which is why we try to stay around public transportation.
For older children, consider taking an airplane approved restraint system (such as CARES) or a lightweight booster seat.
Note about checking gear
- Check your airline’s policies on checking gear. Each airline has different limits and allowances for baby gear.
- If you plan on checking your stroller, consider buying a cheap duffle bag to provide some extra protection for your stroller (think torn fabric) and make sure it stays dry. If you have an expensive stroller, consider a good carrying bag that provides more protection.
- Try not to check car seats because of the risk of damage resulting from rough-handling (remember that such damage may not always be visible). If you haven’t purchased a seat on the plane for you baby, ask at check-in and again at the gate if you can be seated next to an empty seat, and then install your car seat there. Make sure it has an “FAA approved” sticker and have the airline’s policy readily accessible, as crew the is sometimes confused by car seats on airplanes. Also remember that car seats can only be installed in window seats and sometimes in middle rows. If you check your car seat as luggage or at the gate mark it as “fragile” and try to have some padding in the bag for extra protection.
- You can also look into buying a roller for a car seat to help you carry yours around, or see if you can attach it to your stroller.
If you need to take a pump with you, consider a manual pump. If you need an electric pump, check the voltage at your destination and try to pack the pump in your carry on luggage to keep it safe. Pack storage bottles and other accessories, including a small dish soap and sponge. Some hotels will be able to provide a mini fridge for storing pumped milk and a microwave to allow for sterilization.
At the Airport
For short flights pack a large diaper bag (your back will thank you if you opt for a backpack!), and have a stroller and a carrier with you. For longer flights, pack a diaper backpack with the stuff you will need readily accessible throughout the journey, and a carry-on with all the extras (see packing spreadsheet for details).
I recommend carrying the baby in a carrier through the airport, as TSA generally requires strollers to be folded and passed through the x-ray machine. Be prepared for a quick pat down when carrying a baby (you can ask do this privately). You are allowed to carry supplies for your baby with you. These include breastmilk, water for formula and a reasonable amount of baby food. You and your supplies may be subject to additional screening, just make sure (insist if necessary!) that sealed containers remain closed. Check this link for more on TSA rules when flying with baby. https://www.tsa.gov/travel/special-procedures/traveling-children.
Some airports have nursing rooms (or family rooms) for extra privacy. If those aren’t available, or you want to stay in the terminal, seating in front of the windows provides some privacy and a view!
Changing stations are available at airports, sometimes in regular bathrooms, and sometimes in family/companion care bathrooms.
Help for pay is available at some airports, if you are traveling by yourself and are worried about getting through your domestic, transit or destination airport, look into those options.
Babies can become fussy during take-off and landing because of the noise, sensation and changing air pressure. Nursing or bottle feeding can help with all of those. If the baby is not hungry, a chewing toy can serve as a replacement.
Nursing on a crowded airplane can be uncomfortable. Wear clothes you are comfortable nursing in (nursing shirts and wearing two shirts so you can pull one up are good options). Another option is nursing while the baby is in the carrier. This requires some practice but can make life much easier when on the go. If you’re used to nursing with a pillow, you can use an inflatable neck pillow, bag or a jacket as a replacement. Putting a burp cloth on your lap can help you stay a little cleaner in case of a spit-up (which seems to happen more on planes).
Diaper changing on-board. Almost all airplanes are now equipped with a changing table in the bathroom. It can be a tight fit in those tiny bathrooms, so carry as little as possible with you when you go to change the baby. Carrying a portable changing kit is extremely helpful on-board. The (stinky) truth is that blowouts seem to happen more on airplanes. Two ways to help deal with that are double diapering (putting a larger diaper on a true-to-size one) and putting a cloth diaper cover on top of a disposable diaper. Don’t forget to pack a wet-bag or a couple of large zip-lock bags for dirty clothes. And dressing your baby in a cheap onesie you will be fine just tossing in case of a blowout isn’t the worst idea either.
Another word about bathrooms: if you will be flying by yourself, you may wonder how you get to go to the bathroom. Well, there are two options. First ask a friendly face to hold your baby (you may be surprised by how many people will offer help once you see you’re flying alone with a little one). Or, wear the baby in the carrier when you go. The latter option should probably be practiced at home before flying, but it has been successful for many in the past and is very helpful when you need to go but the baby is sleeping.
Soft, small toys are best. Soft books, finger puppets and chewing toys are great for very little ones. Babies also seem happy to play with straws and plastic cups which are readily available on flights. For older kids, a couple of paperback books and favorite toys, magic paper and markers (mess free!) and stickers can provide a lot of fun. Screens can be very helpful if and when you allow them (just don’t forget to pack age-appropriate headphones to protect those little ears). Walking up and down the aisle can relax a jumpy baby or toddler. If you need to burn some toddler energy, find an empty galley and do jumping jacks!
Airbnb and similar apartment/house rentals can be very comfortable and are often bigger than the average hotel room. However, they are not always available and you may want the hotel experience (because, vacation!). Think about the sleeping arrangements. A sleeping area separate from a seating area will allow you to put your baby to sleep and then have adult time without having to go on mute. If that’s not an option, think about a room with a balcony (when it’s warm), or even putting the crib in the bathroom.
Bathing babies in hotels. Baths are, of course, ideal and you can bring an inflatable bath for safety, or just take a bath together. Another option is bathing the baby in the sink. Just be careful and make sure the baby can’t open the hot water or bang her head on the faucet.
Hotels will often provide a mini fridge, a microwave and an electric kettle upon request, if you call ahead and ask.
Nursing in Public
Read a little about the local practices of nursing in public and come prepared. While in most of the world you can probably safely nurse with a cover, that may not be the case everywhere, or you may prefer to nurse without a cover. Remember, knowledge is power! Don’t hesitate to carry the local law (in the local language) with you in case of problems.
Jet-Lag and Sleep
Jet-lag can be very challenging. It can take babies days to adjust (expect up to a day for each one hour difference). Different things work for different babies, but generally, trying to keep a rhythm can be helpful for all babies. Like a newborn, see if you can track feedings and sleep and keep your baby on a cycle until she adjusts to the new time zone. This means you may find yourself taking late night walks in a foreign city, but you may also find yourself able to have dinner later and sleep in! If the time difference is 3 hours or less and your trip is short, consider just sticking to your regular schedule.