Flying with a Baby | Expert Packing, Airport & Airplane Tips For Parents

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I remember those sleepless nights worrying about our first few trips flying with a baby as vividly as if it was just last night.  Those first few trips we took with a baby were accompanied by a plethora of questions, frantic shopping, restless nights, and late night strategic planning. I am now a pro and have plenty of tips for flying with a baby.

This is for all you new moms who are sitting awake freaking out about your first flight with a baby.

First, take a deep breath…

I’m going to walk you through all the steps of a typical first flight with a baby, sharing the details on what to expect and sharing what I’ve learned over the years that will help smooth out your first flight together.

Most moms with toddlers will tell you that flying with baby is so much easier…but just because flying with a toddler is harder, it doesn’t mean that flying for the first time with baby is a breeze.

Don’t be too hard on yourself, your anxiety is very normal. I’m here to explain what you can expect with tips on how to sail through (or at least cope with) the road bumps you’re like to face. Baby still on board? Check out this guide to traveling during pregnancy.

Expert Tips on Flying With a Baby

Flying with a Baby Step 1: Book Your Flight

airplane seats are an important consideration when flying with a baby
Photo via Pixbay

Your first experience flying with a baby can vary dramatically based on the time of day you fly, the timing of layovers, and the seat selection you get. So, what matters most in stacking the odds for a good flight in your favor?

Timing

For most domestic flights, you’ll have the luxury to choose the time of departure. I’ve found that the ideal time to depart is between 10am and 1pm. Departing during this window allows you to get up and have some time to gather your things and close up the house properly before heading off to the airport.

When you’re on the flight, you are still fairly well rested and if you end up having to entertain like a clown the whole trip, at least you have the energy to do that without feeling resentful.

You’ll also arrive at most domestic destinations before mom and dad’s bedtime. When flying during daylight hours, other passengers also tend to be more patient with a noisy child.

Direct flights are worth just about any price, because each time you take off and land getting on and off the plane and dealing with air pressure in baby’s ear on the way up or down is a pill. For older kids on long flights over eight hours, a layover might be a good idea, but with baby, minimize traveling time as much as possible.

When flying internationally, you have to clear customs in the first city you land in even if you are transferring immediately to a domestic flight. Be sure to give yourself adequate time to clear immigration, get your bags and clear customs when booking your flights. Anticipate that you’ll move at half the speed with a child to care for.

Seat Assignment

Booking a seat for your baby makes a huge difference! Do it if you can afford it.

Otherwise, try to get an aisle seat far from slamming bathrooms doors. If you plan on breastfeeding on the plane and need lots of elbow room, an aisle seat will give you the most flexibility.

The only downside of an aisle seat is having less privacy and sometimes other might passengers accidentally sideswipe you. Considering booking a seat with a baby bassinet? Check out this airline bassinet seat information and comparison chart.

 Flying with a Baby Step 2: Figuring Out What to Pack

what to pack when flying with a baby
What to Pack When Flying with a Baby | Photo by Liling Pang

The weeks before baby’s first flight, most moms stress out about what to bring along and what to leave at home. It is hard to imagine surviving without all the baby gear you’ve gotten used to having at home.

Believe it or not, I have sat awake thinking about how I could bring a humidifier with us on the plane. After countless trips, I’ve realized that jet lag is a beast no matter which way you try to spin it.

Many babies will take about 3-7 days to adjust and that’s just a fact of life. Having or not having the same blanket, pack and play, and what not doesn’t make much difference.

So in case you are about to pick up the phone to call grandma to buy the exact brand of crib and sheets to match what baby has at home, talk yourself down because your baby can adapt.

Packing as light as possible will make your trip a lot more enjoyable. Read more on packing light for baby to get started.

If you are anything like me, during the weeks leading up to my trip, I am often pouring through reviews on baby travel gear online. So, what are some travel gear items that have been worth every penny? 

  • A lightweight umbrella stroller or car seat carrier for infants
  • Ergo Baby Carrier
  • Kidco Peapod Tent

Trekaroo Tip: Make sure that all your bags and carry-ons, including your stroller and car seat, are labeled with the phone number they can reach you at your destination. In case they get lost in transit, you’ll hear from the airport right away.

Hand Carry – What Can’t I live Without?

I remember obsessing over whether to bring an inflatable My Breast Friend along (I had such a hard time with breastfeeding), a sling, the Moby wrap, or the ergo in my hand carry. What toys should I bring? How many changes of clothes? What kind of baby food or snacks…before I knew it, my carry on was already 50lbs.

What I can’t live without in my carry on:

  • Sanitizing wipes
  • Baby’s lovie
  • Change of clothes for yourself and baby
  • Ziplock bag for accidents
  • Baby Tylenol
  • Extra diapers and wipes
  • Nasal saline
  • Blanket for baby
  • A burp cloth
  • A light weight and compact baby carrier is really helpful for long flights so that you don’t have to cradle baby for hours. 

You can leave these behind:

  • books or magazines for yourself to read (those days are behind you)
  • assortments of toys. Under one-year-old, you can create toys from all sorts of things on the plane.

Wondering what kind of bag to use for your hand carry? I have found that a large backpack works the best because it leaves me with two hands free to push a stroller or luggage cart.

Do not bring one of those rolling cabin bags. They are bulky to carry and you can only push one thing at a time. Be sure to have quick access to your tickets, reservation info for car and hotel, your ID, credit cards, and a pen.

Preparing for Breastfeeding on the Plane

There is lots of controversy over the idea of breastfeeding on an airplane, but know that it is perfectly legal for you to nurse in an airplane. It’s obviously a little uncomfortable to breastfeed with a stranger on your shoulder.

Having a bottle for baby makes it a lot easier, but wearing a loose button down cardigan that can drape over you and baby over a nursing top is a convenient way to provide some privacy without having more items to pack in your bag. Some moms love utilizing a lightweight, functional scarf for this same purpose.

Flying with a Baby Step 3: Getting Through the Airport with Baby

Getting Ready to Leave for the Airport

Take a deep breath when you get out of bed. Tell yourself, Today, I will go with the flow. Nothing will be normal, there is no such things as “baby should be sleeping now” or “baby should be eating now.” Not today.

As a new mom, I was a total stickler for naps and a daily routine. I worried over how I was going to get all those naps in while we were flying. But after a few flights, I realized that if I made sure that baby was well rested prior to a big day of flying, this one day of interrupted sleep and routine is totally fine.

What you can expect, is that instead of sleeping for an hour and a half, naps will be more like 30 to 40 minutes.

Depending on how many hours your baby is going between feedings, it is a good idea to feed your baby just before leaving for the airport. That way, baby is well fed and happy when you arrive.

It also means that by the time you’re taking off, baby will likely be ready for another feeding and the swallowing will help neutralize the pressure in baby’s ears.

Try to arrive about two hours before your flight, so that if you have a poopy diaper to change or are having a hard time getting through security, you won’t have to rush through in a panic. Panicked mommy often leads to a fussy child; all that anxiety seems to rub off.

It’s a good idea to make sure you have quick access to your ID, boarding passes, and a credit card. I find it best to travel in a pair of pants with pockets so I can slip all these important items into my pockets and reach for them easily then put them away quickly to free up my hands again.

Of course the easiest way to get to the airport with a baby is to have a friend drop you off. There are airport shuttles and limo services that will provide a car seat if you ask ahead of time when calling in the reservation. If you plan on taking Uber or Lift, plan on having to use your own car seat.

The most stressful part of flying with a baby is getting through a busy airport terminal
Photo via Pixbay

Arriving at the Airport

Curbside check-in is a mom’s best friend at the airport. Fork out a extra few dollars and get those big bags off your hands as soon as possible. Do not check your stroller until you reach the departure gate. The ground crew will put a special tag on it and give it back to you at the gate, so you can use it in the airport.

When you check in, if your baby is flying as a lap child, you can ask if they will put a temporary block on the seats next to you so that those seats will be assigned last. Not all airlines will do it, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

If you’re bringing along a car seat, hold on to it until you get to the gate. If you get an empty seat next to you, you’ll be glad you kept that car seat with you.

Printing your boarding pass at home or use your phone as an electronic boarding pass.

If you are parking your car at the airport or dropping off a rental car, it is helpful to arrive a little earlier so everyone including kids can be dropped off at the curbside while one person parks or returns the car. Sometimes the ground crew will check in the missing person and hand them the boarding pass when they arrive with their ID.

airport security line while flying with a baby
Airport Security Line | Photo by oddharmonic Flying with a Baby | Expert Packing, Airport & Airplane Tips For Parents 2

Getting Through Security

Some airports now have a family line at the security checkpoint. Check your local airport website to find out if they do. Most of the time, the family line is significantly shorter than the regular line.

TSA Precheck makes life much more easy for parents traveling with children. Apply for TSA Precheck to avoid having to go through the more extensive security line. You won’t have to take off shoes, pull out electronics, etc in this line. 

At regular airport security checkpoints in the US, they will ask you to take your child out of the stroller, fold up the stroller, and send it through the x-ray machine. If your child is in a sling, they will ask you to take the child out of the baby carrier as well. Fortunately, TSA now does not require anyone under the age of 12 to take off their shoes to clear security.

Before sending your bags, shoes, belt, and everything else through the x-ray machine, it is always a good idea to put your passport and boarding passes away so that you don’t inadvertently put it down somewhere while you are struggling to care for baby while gathering up all your belongings again.

Don’t be frantic even if other passengers give you that impatient stare down. As a simple courtesy, you might want to ask a few people behind you if anyone is in a big rush to catch their flight to go ahead of you because it will take you twice as long to make it through this process.

If you’re flying with formula, frozen breastmilk, or baby food, be sure to pack off these items in a separate ziplock bag and put it at the top of your bag for easy access. Depending on the security check-in process, the TSA folks might ask to do a quick bomb scan on your baby’s liquids.

As long as the liquids are for a baby, you can basically bring as much as you’d like. However, they’ll often open up each container and either put a piece of paper over it to test for bomb fumes or dip a piece of paper into the liquid.

Don’t be freaked out. Make sure they have gloves on and don’t be shy if you’re not comfortable with what they’re doing. They should be explaining what they’re doing every step of the way.

 

baby waiting for plane

Waiting to Board the Plane

If baby is already crawling, take this time to give baby the opportunity to get all that energy expended. Have some sanitizing wipes handy so you can give baby’s hand a good wipe before boarding the plane.

If baby is not crawling, spread out a small sheet or blanket on the floor for tummy time. If you bring toys, be conscious of other passengers. Do not bring noisy toys.

At the gate, ask the flight attendants to provide you with the appropriate tags for your stroller and car seat. Check in with them about the status of the seats next to you so you know whether you should check the car seat at the gate.

Ask flight attendants if the plane has changing tables in the bathrooms. If not, you might want to do a quick change. You might be able to avoid changing baby on the plane altogether.

Now, you are ready to board. Read on for tips on the actual flight. 

Flying with a Baby Step 4: Travel Tips for Inside the Airplane

 

waiting for take off

Getting Settled and Waiting for Take Off

Most airlines will invite families to board first. Take advantage of pre-boarding for families.

Be sure to wipe down all surfaces as soon as you sit down because babies have a tendency to touch everything and then put their hands in their mouths. So many kids fall ill from being in the airplane and airlines do not do a good job of sanitizing between flights. Having extra time for baby to explore and touch before having to be strapped in is sometimes helpful.

Other moms prefer to send one parent ahead to set up and then having baby be the last to board. If you’re leaving your stroller at the gate, on most US domestic flights, you can take it all the way to the door of the plane. Fold up the stroller and leave it just outside of the plane door.

On international flights, check with the flight stewardess (not the ground crew) at the gate to confirm what the procedure is on the other end.

If you need water for your baby’s bottle, this is a good time to ask for it. If your baby needs expressed milk in a bottle to be warmed up, I have found the fastest way to warm a bottle is to soak it in hot water inside a thermos jar.

Ask the flight stewardess for some hot water before things get too busy. Starbucks and other airport restaurants and cafes are usually pretty helpful in providing hot water as well.

It’s also good to introduce your baby to your neighbors and show them how cute your baby is when he’s happy. A quick game of peek-a-boo will usually win you at least a couple minutes of crying later in the flight and potentially a helpful hand.

baby eating on plane

Take Off when Flying with a Baby

I never noticed how long it takes to taxi to the runway until I had a baby and was trying to time the start of a feeding to the take off. Given all the delays with airlines these days, be ready to wait 30 minutes before you even take off.

You want to distract baby for a long as possible so that you only start to nurse as you are taking off. This really helps to neutralize the air pressure that can be intensely painful for a small ear canal.

If you’re baby’s totally losing it from hunger, try doing a half feed to hold him over, and finish it off during the take off. If it doesn’t work, you can try giving baby some Tylenol, so I always have that handy.

As my kids started eating finger foods, I started putting a bag of a dry snack hidden in my seat pocket that I whip out as soon as we start to take off.  It helps kids to sit still, but it also keeps them swallowing. I also make sure they have something drink.

If you don’t have a car seat that you can strap baby into, you will be asked to hold your child. On some airlines, the flight stewardess will bring you a seat belt that attaches to your seat belt and then goes around baby’s waist. Most domestic airlines don’t bother.

During turbulence, they will ask you to put that on baby as well. You can’t substitute a sling for the baby seat belt or holding a baby in your lap. I’ve tried to plead the case for it when I had a sleeping baby in the sling, but alas I had to cave to the smiling but firm flight stewardess.

distracting-a-crying-baby-on-plane

Entertaining Baby While Flying

So, if baby doesn’t sleep from the hum of the engine and nursing, what can you do to entertain your child on the flight? Taking little strolls up and down the plane is a best fall back.

Babies love to see all the interesting objects and faces. A bottle of water can also entertain a baby for 10-15 minutes at a time, so can a clean puke bag with a few objects in it. Playing peek-a-boo with friendly passengers is also always lots of fun.

Read about Travel Toy Recommendations for Babies and Toddlers

Be careful to not let baby pull the hair of passengers in front of you, or kick the chair. We’ve all sat in front of a child pushing our seat all flight long and it’s positively miserable.

If your child is crying, try going to the bathroom for a few minutes or stand by the galley. Sometimes a simple change of scenery can provide just the right amount of distraction to wipe those tears away.

Diaper Changes When Flying with a Baby

Depending on the size of your airplane, there will be at least one bathroom with a changing tabl,e but I honestly don’t know how often these tables are cleaned. Bring along a changing pad and sanitizing wipes with you.

As tempting as it is to change a wet diaper at your seat, other passengers and the airline stewardesses won’t be too happy about it. Believe me, this is something I learned the hard way.

Don’t even think about changing a poopy diaper at your seat. Luckily, most of the smaller planes are for shorter distances, so if you can change the diaper beforehand, you should be okay. However, be mentally prepared to change a diaper on the fly on the toilet seat or sink if a special package arrives in a diaper near you.

If you run out of diapers for some reason, the flight attendants usually have some in their emergency supplies. Always make sure to have an extra change of clothes for baby. Some babies tend to be especially “explosive” when they fly. A Ziploc bag is also handy if you need seal up soiled clothes.

What to do When Mommy Needs to go Potty Too

When I’ve flown on my own with my baby, it is awkward when you need to go to the bathroom. If baby is awake, I usually try to wait. You can always ask the flight attendants if they’d be willing to hold your baby for a few minutes while you use the restroom.

However, some US carriers have a policy that flight attendants cannot hold babies for a passenger for liability reasons. On international flights, there are always one or two flight attendants who are dying for an opportunity to play with your child for a few minutes.

If baby is sleeping, I’ve never run into any issues leaving a sleeping baby in a car seat and getting up to use the bathroom for a few minutes. If baby is not in a car seat, don’t just leave baby on the seat even when fast asleep. If there were to be sudden turbulence, your baby will be thrown to the floor. Instead, enlist the help of your friendly neighbors or flight attendant.

baby food on plane

Feeding Solids on the Plane

Rather than worrying about what purees to pack for baby, if you have a relatively short flight, just bring some finger foods for baby – crackers, cheerios, cooked carrots, bananas, and cheese seem to work really well.

On longer flights, bring foods that mash easily or a few jars of baby food. If you don’t have a car seat or someone to act as baby’s highchair, sit baby on your lap facing away from you.

Place the jar of baby food as far out baby’s reach as possible. If baby starts to play with the food, stop feeding until baby’s really hungry. A hungry baby is much more focused and less messy when eating.

Getting Baby to Sleep

If I’ve learned anything in all my flights with baby, it is that babies can go on surprisingly little sleep when they are in a new and exciting environment. Don’t count on baby sleeping just because it’s time to sleep.

Instead of following strictly to your normal schedule, it is better to just observe signs that baby is sleepy (rubbing of eyes, yawning, starting to get squirmy and cranky), then do what you need to soothe baby to sleep. If you are using a sling, walk around or sway baby to sleep.

This is one instance where you should feel free to break all the rules. The airplane is not place to let baby cry to sleep. This does not mean that a little whimpering when settling down is not acceptable as most passengers can tolerate a little fussing from a baby.

But do as much as you can to soothe baby to sleep so that you don’t end up having to deal with full blown crying. baby sleeping

Preparing for Landing When Flying with a Baby

The captain announces that he is preparing for landing and your heart leaps for joy….it’s almost over! Take the time to pack up your bags and make sure that anything that dropped on the ground is back in your bag. Locate baby’s lovie and make sure it’s safe and sound.

If you will be clearing customs on landing, clear your bag of food items that might be troublesome at customs.

If baby is sleeping, good for you! I haven’t found it all that more beneficial to wake baby up for a feeding. Especially small babies might just be too sleepy to drink. Somehow, if they can sleep through the landing, their ears seem to do just fine.

Flying with a Baby Step 5: Airport Layovers & Transfers

Airport transfers

Transfers

Sometimes direct flights just aren’t available. When you have to transfer planes on domestic flights within the US, the flight crew will bring baby’s stroller up to the gate.

But on international flights, different countries have different procedures about whether they will give you the stroller. I highly recommend having a baby carrier of some sort with you.

When I flew into Heathrow alone with my 15-month-old, they wouldn’t give me the stroller at the gate because they said it had to clear customs and I didn’t have enough time before my flight out to Edinburgh. I had to lug two bulky carry-ons and a sleeping baby from the international terminal to the domestic terminal. Thankfully I had a baby sling, but by the time I got to the other terminal, I was pouring sweat.

If you are flying alone and need some assistance, don’t feel shy about asking the ground crew for some help. They will either pick you up with one of those golf carts or have someone walk over with you pushing a luggage cart.

Trekaroo Tip: When you are checking in for your flight, make sure that you specifically request to have your bags checked all the way through so that you don’t have to retrieve it at baggage claim between flights.

Getting off the Plane

If someone is picking you up, call them as soon as you land while you’re on the plane. Once you’re moving with all those bags, it’s hard to reach for your cell phone to make that call.

If you’re counting on them to have a car seat, make sure to ask if it’s in the car. If you’re into texting, you can actually have your message saved in your drafts section ready to be sent when you have a live connection.

If you’ve been given a customs form to fill out, make sure that you place this along with your ID in an easily accessible pocket in your carry on or jacket.

baggage claim

At Baggage Claim

First things first – get a luggage cart. It’s totally worth it.

Be careful not to leave baby unattended. If you’re flying alone, find a big friendly dude to help you with your suitcases. Most I’ve encountered feel quite sorry for moms and are willingly to do a good deed for the day and lift a few bags.

If you’ve flown domestically, hopefully your pick-up person will be there to help as well because it’s hard to push both a stroller and luggage cart.

If you’re heading to an international destination and are solo, then hopefully, you can be helped out by one of your neighbors on the flight. There is also the option of hiring a porter to help you with your bags. It is customary to tip a port at least US$1 per bag.

What if you checked a car seat and it is lost?  In the US as in most European countries, it is totally illegal to drive a baby in a car without a car seat.

If you are in the unfortunate position where the airline has lost your car seat, you can ask the airline to loan you a car seat. When they deliver yours later, they will pick up the one on loan. Another option would be to try to rent one from a car rental agency. This is another good reason not to check in a car seat until you reach the gate.

Clearing Immigration and Customs

Immigration procedures in all the countries I’ve been to are pretty much the same. You stand in line until it is your turn to step up to the immigration officer. As a family you can step up together and fill out one customs form.

The officers might ask some questions, stamp your passport and you’re on your way. After you claim your bags, you will have to clear customs. If fruit and meat products need to be declared, be sure to check your bags and discard of leftover produce and meat products.

Most of the time, customs forms are given out on the plane and you only have to fill out one per family.

Layovers

With a baby, try to minimize overnight layovers. Checking in and checking out, and going to and fro from the airport to the hotel is very cumbersome. Unless you have a 3-4 day layover, try to avoid the trouble.

Can we do it?  Yes we can!

About the author

LiLing Pang is Co-founder and CEO of Trekaroo . She is a mom to two boys and a girl and recently traveled through Central America. Together with her husband, Brennan Pang, they hatched the idea of Trekaroo one summer day along the California coast while searching for the best kid-friendly tide pool near La Jolla with their curious 2 and a half year old.

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