Tips for flying with a baby or toddler

As outlined extensively in a previous post, I have flown a lot with our now 2 year old daughter.

The new total number of “flights” (2 flights to get to CA and 2 to get back) is now 48 and she is just 26 months old! That includes long hauls to Europe and Central America. She’s been busy. About half of those flights were on my own, and I shared a seat with her for 38 of them. Then she turned 2.

I’ve learned a lot by trial and error, and though there are plenty of articles online about flying with kids, I do have a few tips you might not find elsewhere. 🙂

Make sure your child looks good

I know, I know. This is shallow, but I can’t tell you what a difference this makes. It matters not if you yourself look put together. Everyone is looking at your child and if her nose is snotty, clothes mismatched and shirt stained, you won’t get the royal treatment. (The exception to this are middle-aged women who have raised their kids. They are more likely to help you when your child looks her worst.) Putting Mackenzie in piggy tails, having a few cute outfits (nice pajamas are fine), keeping her face clean, etc. has paid off big time. Cute kids get much more tolerance from fellow travelers, more offers to hold them while you use the airplane bathroom, and more people willing to make faces or dig in their purses for toys to distract your baby.

Time your flights well

This will likely vary by child, but for my toddler it’s actually better NOT to fly at naptime. There’s a strong likelihood the excitement of flying will keep her awake and lead to late-flight crankiness. Whereas if we fly when she’s normally awake, she’s much better behaved and I can relax more.

For babies, this is less of an issue.

If you need a layover, make it long enough that you can take a trip to the bathroom, change a diaper, let your toddler run around, etc. You’re already disrupting the flow by deplaning, so it’s best to give yourself time to regroup before embarking on phase II of the journey. Also, you never want to try rushing to make a connection while holding a baby with a full diaper, or a toddler begging for the bathroom.

Bathroom – for you and for them

On a long flight where I know I’ll need to use the bathroom, I make a special effort to be friendly and establish some rapport with my seatmate. Then when I excuse myself to use the bathroom, I climb out holding the baby and invariably they offer to hold her while I go. Score! If the seatmate is a no-go (50% of the time I can just tell they aren’t in the mood to be friendly, or they are uncomfortable with kids), I time the bathroom trip so that a flight attendant is loitering near the door. Catch her eye and most times they’ll offer as well. On a few occasions, making eye contact with friendly-looking people on the way down the aisle has resulted in an offer as well. I know, most people would just ASK someone but I’m fairly independent and hate to impose. So instead, I do it sneakily. 😉

In the airport, if I’m traveling alone with my baby, I just hold her up while I use the bathroom. If I have a stroller, I go to the handicapped stall and wheel the stroller right in with me.

Diaper changes are just plain tricky on airplanes. Very few airlines have changing tables in the bathrooms, but it’s a great thing to ask if you’re unsure when you board. The very best trick I have is to wait until my seatmate has stood up to use the bathroom, then I lay the baby out across two seats and change their diaper quickly right there. On a very few occasions, I’ve asked my seatmate if they’d mind stretching their legs a moment so I can change a diaper. I’ve heard of cases where people have changed the baby (and outfit) in the aisle, but I’ve never had it come to that.

Toddlers don’t like to go potty on airplanes, in my experience. It’s noisy. Turbulence comes at the worst times, and the toilets look funny and flush with super force. In addition, the bathrooms are really cramped which makes it hard to maneuver. Plan clothing carefully (easy on, easy off), talk up the bathroom before hand, and check it out “just to see” when you pre-board. Do your thing first, while they watch (do NOT flush when they can see). In other words, play your hand well and bring a change of clothes just in case. My girl has gone grudgingly on a few planes, and held her bladder for upwards of 6 hours to avoid doing so on one occasion.

Airport bathrooms have violent automatic flushers. I recommend a post-it note to cover the sensor so there’s no drama. Also, during Mackenzie’s “I’m choosy about potties phase,” bringing a Bjorn potty chair insert was a lifesaver. She peed anywhere in that thing and it fit in my carry-on bag. I dumped the pee, flushed, rinsed the insert thoroughly in the sink, dried it with paper towels and put it back in my bag. No one was the wiser and it got us through some tricky international flying days. (I taught her to balance on just the white part so that’s all I bring.)

Food and Drink

For babies, the take-off and landing are the most critical and I try to plan those around feeding times so their ears can pop. Wait until they are good and hungry and try to hold them off until the plane has actually started to ascend before feeding so that they eat vigorously. That always worked well for me, but as my pediatrician said, the worst case scenario is their ears hurt so they holler and hollering pops their ears. 🙂

I breastfed and never gave my daughter a bottle so I was a bit nervous on how to do it successfully on a plane without giving my seatmate a show. Here’s what works for me: I pick a window seat. I strike up a conversation with my seatmate before take off, deliberately, so I can excuse myself to “feed my daughter while we takeoff so her ears don’t bug her.” I’ve found that clears the air so that uncomfortable “what’s going on over there” shifty-shifty isn’t an issue.

You can’t judge a book by its cover when it comes to seatmates. I rejoiced when my first seatmate was a mid-40s woman because I thought surely she’d be cool with it. Wrong. She was totally thrown when I mentioned breastfeeding and sat there very stiffly while Mackenzie ate (I always use a cover and planes are so cramped there’s no way I was showing anything.) She avoided conversation the rest of the flight and left without saying another word. My next flight, I groaned inwardly when I had to sit next to a middle-aged man but he beamed at Mackenzie and subtly repositioned himself to face a bit away from me to give more privacy when I mentioned I was going to feed my baby. He struck up conversation later and proudly told me he had three children at home. Nice guy, no awkwardness at all.

My biggest tip for being a breastfeeding mama on the go: Take care of yourself! Air travel really tends to dehydrate you. I made a big mistake on my first flight by focusing on Mackenzie exclusively and I arrived totally weak on the Left Coast. I realized I hadn’t eaten or drunk much all day! Not good for her or for me. And if one more curve ball had come my way, I would have had a hard time coping because I was so drained (literally, too). Drink, drink, drink and pack food for yourself.

As far as finger foods and toddler foods go, I conscientiously try to keep mess contained (because I don’t want to be “that mom” who leaves a wake of crumbs and smooshed fruit everywhere). That doesn’t limit my options too much, actually, but it does mean I’m armed with bib, napkins, and baby wipes. I’ve packed oatmeal, a whole avocado, bell pepper slices, raisins, whole oranges and apples, nuts, dried fruit, sandwiches, plain whole wheat bread, leftover curry… pretty much whatever I have grabbed has worked fine. But I would definitely recommend packing more than you think you need. Layovers can go longer than you expect, naps might be missed, and you don’t want to run out of food. Especially if you are like me and the airport junk food doesn’t fly.

In the U.S., pretty much the ONLY healthy thing I’ve found at the airport are raw, unsalted nuts (usually almonds found at newsstands). A tolerable second choice would be chips and salsa & guac at a Mexican joint if you can find one.

A small plastic cup is always in my carry-on bag so my toddler can tank up without drenching themselves at any drinking fountain.

Entertainment

If you’re wondering about this aspect, I’m the wrong person to ask. I pack a few special toys for Mackenzie and a pen and paper, but really she’s good about entertaining herself. Figuring out the tray table, seat belts, perusing the in-flight magazines, flirting with nearby passengers, playing with Mama, learning letters or dictating what I should draw next, eating one piece of ice at a time, taking shoes and socks on and off, counting everything, looking out the window, napping, zoning out, munching, etc. The time just passes. Airplanes are exciting (even after being on 50 of them) and I am careful never to pull anything out of the bag unless the occasion demands it. In other words, I don’t bring out the big guns (a real toy) until she’s exhausted all the fun things the new environment has to offer. No toys in airports, either. There is more than enough to explore. People to watch, stores to go in, and I like to wear her out. 🙂

What to bring

I typically brought an umbrella stroller when my daughter was at that awkward age where she was crawling or unable to do a lot of consistent walking. Now I skip it so I can wear out her legs during layovers. When I have #2, a stroller will be a necessity.

I limit myself to one carry-on bag and it doubles as a laptop bag and diaper bag. I bring a few toys, pen and paper, plastic cup, plenty of food, more diapers and wipes than should ever be necessary (you don’t know fear until you’re down to your last diaper with hours of travel to go), potty chair insert (if she’s in that special phase of life), 2 changes of clothes for her, a bib. Also, comb and hair-ties so I can keep her looking cute. I make sure to wear two layers on top (a shirt and zip-up sweater or jacket) so I can lose a layer if vomit strikes. If I have to bring a separate carry-on bag, it’s just to transport stuff from point A to B. I don’t pack anything necessary in it, so I only have to dig through the one bag to find what I’m looking for.

Always take something with your child’s birthdate on it if she is less than 2. Some airlines will ask for proof. A shot record is fine, or birth certificate, passport, etc.

When you go through security, typically your child’s shoes will need to come off as well (even if she’s 1!). The stroller will need to fold up and go through the x-ray, so make sure it’s close to empty when you get to the front of the line. Baby food (including oatmeal, lentil soup, etc.) is totally fine but does need to be out in a plastic bag separate from everything else. Ditto diaper cream.

Perspective

Every. Single. Flight. Is. Different. You can read up on how to be prepared, and do it all and still have a horrendous experience. Delays, missed flights, screaming children behind you that set your child off, blow outs, rude fellow passengers, missed naps, forgotten special blanket… I’ve had them all. I’ve also had many, many perfectly uneventful flights where people exclaim on my angelic, great little traveler.

My best advice is to remember: The way air travel goes with young children is 1) You get on the plane. 2) Things happen. 3) You arrive at your destination.

What happens with #2 may or may not be in your control, and may or may not cause the people around you to swoon at your precious little one or throw dirty looks in your direction. But whatever happens, hang on, keep your cool, and #3 will come to pass. Remember, #3 is the goal, the rest is just gravy.

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About beanland

Scott is a family practice doctor and Anne is a full-time mother and teacher to three beautiful girls and one boy.
This entry was posted in Parenting & Household Hacks, Trips. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Tips for flying with a baby or toddler

  1. Laura says:

    Haha! I love your no-hassle, no-worries advice 🙂 Good stuff–thanks!

    Like

  2. Lonica says:

    Great post! Thanks!

    Like

  3. Kirsten says:

    Wow you sure have had the experience!!!! Mackenzie is a lucky traveler. Thanks for the good info!

    Our favorite thing to bring for the kids while flying are the Crayola Color Wonderbooks because the markers don’t work on anything besides the coloring book so no messy clothes or colored on seats. Anything like file folder games, etc like one would use in sacrament meeting works well too.

    Like

  4. Laura says:

    I like the dressing kids cute thing. I always feel like a cute kid is more tolerable too. I have traveled a lot with kids too. It is harder and easier at different stages. Newborns and infants are easy to fly with. 9 month to 18 month olds are hard because they always want to be exploring and moving. Once they get older they are entertained very easily. My biggest problem is that my kids are scared of the toilets in the plane. I also always take way too much stuff. Simple is better. Sometimes they only play with one or two of the things I take and I take a lot.

    Good post.

    Like

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