Parenting is like an ever evolving live symphony: Just when you start to sway and fall into a rhythm, the beat of the song changes, and you’ve entered an entirely new movement. It’s beautiful and fluid, but no matter how desperately we long for it, there is no pause button. Our kids just keep growing, often outgrowing systems (or coping mechanisms…) that we’ve developed to make every-day life more pleasant and efficient. Edith took four round-trip flights as a lap infant between the ages of 12-21 weeks. By the last flight, we were like a well-oiled machine. However, the next time we fly, she will be 10 months old; there will be–very literally–new movement. As we approach the holiday travel season, hopefully our systems will help someone out there, since they will no longer be relevant for us.
Airline: Most major airlines do not have family boarding! You can enjoy a series of “that-baby-better-be-quiet” and “oh-please-don’t-sit-by-me-with-that-baby” stares from passengers as you make your way to Seat 32A, or you can do what we do: book on Southwest Airlines. They check bags for free and offer family boarding between groups A & B which generally means that you’ll have an open seat next to you or someone who actually wanted to sit next to a baby. All Southwest planes are the same size and have changing tables in the front lavatory. That said, you’ve never lived until you have changed the diaper of a screaming infant on the toilet seat of a regional jet. No, United, Denver and New Orleans are NOT in the same region.
Timing: We always book morning flights. They are more likely to be on time, and if there are delays, the difference between arriving at 3:00pm vs. noon is preferable to 1:00am vs. 10:00pm.
Basics: Check everything that you can, especially if you’re traveling alone and/or have a layover. Plan to purchase extra diapers & wipes once you arrive at your final destination. We always gate-check our stroller and car seat because rental car companies are notoriously unreliable.
Carry On: I shove my cute I-swear-I’m-still-stylish diaper bag in my checked luggage for use on the trip, and opt for a backpack on the plane. Inside: small foldable quilt (so Edith can have some tummy time during a layover), toys/books, extra breast milk with an ice pack, bottles (1x flight), nursing cover, change of clothes for baby (x3), an extra shirt for myself, 2 burp cloths, plastic bags (#biohazard), a blanket, snacks & water bottle for me, changing pad, diaper cream, wipes, diapers, and hand sanitizer. Bring way more diapers than you think you will need. If you don’t, your flight will be delayed and your child will poop 4x more than normal. It’s just the way things are.
Baby ID: You may not need it, but bring a copy of your child’s birth certificate just in case. I took a photo of Edith’s on my phone and saved it in my favorites. This has always been sufficient.
Upgrades: It never hurts to ask. United once bumped us up to an empty row in Economy Plus. Southwest will let you bring your carseat if the flight isn’t full. If that doesn’t work out, it’s incredibly easy to gate-check the stroller & carseat.
Liquids: Though formula or breast-milk are allowed, if you have more than 3.4 ounces per container, you will have to wait for each bottle to be scanned individually. Beware, this is time consuming so allot extra time.
Stroller/Carseat: Unless you have an exceptionally small stroller (e.g. umbrella), it will not fit through the baggage x-ray. TSA agents will probably make you try, even if it’s quite obviously too large. Confidently tell them that it won’t fit, and they will push it through for you. Flip your carseat upside down and run it through the x-ray. That will fit.
You & Baby; Everything will be easier if you wear shoes that easily slip on and off. If you’re traveling alone, plan to wear your baby through security so you have the use of both hands. (I like to use the K’tan because it folds down for easy travel.) If you have a travel companion who is not an infant, have that person deal with bags, and you can carry the baby through.
Bathroom: Go pee before getting on the plane, especially if you are traveling alone. Do a last minute diaper change to try and avoid doing one on the plane.
Holding vs. Wearing vs. Carseat: If there is an extra seat for Edith, then I leave her in the carseat for boarding. This way she can fall asleep without being disturbed. If she’s going as a lap-infant, I wear her so I have my hands free. She will often fall asleep in the carrier, another big plus. If I’m traveling with someone else and Edith is wide awake, I’ll carry her, and let her smile at the people. (It never hurts to win over the crowd before a mid-flight meltdown.)
Seat Selection: For some, this will come in the booking phase. Since we only fly Southwest, we roll with open seating. When traveling alone, I pick a window seat ( so I won’t have to get up) on the left side of the plane (which allows me to have free use of my dominate hand without shoving my baby into a stranger’s lap) as close to the front as possible (because the changing table is in the front).
Set Up: As soon as I sit down, I wipe off anything that Edith might touch with a baby wipe, if only to make myself feel better. In the freshly cleaned seat pocket, I place my water bottle, her bottle, a toy or book, and a burp cloth. Pop the cap on the baby bottle, otherwise the air pressure at take off will cause the bottle to leak. (Note: After flashing at least 3 strangers on our first flight, I changed from nursing with a cover on the plane to bottles. If we have a layover, I’ll nurse her then, mainly for my own comfort.) Everything I need for diaper changing is conveniently located in the front pocket of my backpack.
Bonus: Let the flight attendants know if it’s baby’s first flight! They will often go out of their way to do something nice. On Edith’s first flight, we got a bottle of Prosecco for the parents and wings for the baby book!
Take Off & Landing: You’re not allowed to wear your baby during these times. I keep the K’tan wrapped around me and hold Edith so that I can easily stick her back in if she’s still sleeping after take off. I’ve heard that feeding during take off and landing helps to pop the baby’s ears. I’ve tried it with and without. So far, Edith hasn’t had an issue with the air pressure so I just let her sleep when she can.
Awake Time: Do what you need to do to keep your baby entertained. Toys, books, songs, funny faces, etc… Edith loves it when I hold her up so she can look at all of the people. Other passengers will often make faces at her too. Again, it’s good to win the people over with your baby’s cuteness before the inevitable meltdown. Speaking of which…
Meltdown: Hopefully, it won’t happen to you. By our third flight, we were virtually tear free! The first two, however, were rough. First, do not panic. I repeat, do not panic. 99% of the time you think it’s worse than it actually is. (My husband broke out into a sweat during Edith’s first in-flight breakdown. Then on the way out, everyone commented on how well-behaved she was.) When the tears start flowing, I move quickly through the repertoire in this order: new toy, new position, song, bottle, walk, diaper. Remember to breathe. The plane will eventually land. I promise.
Hopefully this helps you as you gear up for holiday travels. Remember, I’m no expert, just a compulsive planner! Please, leave your words of wisdom in the comments!