I wanted to write this post because, as a first time parent, it can be incredibly daunting to fly with a baby. But with some preparation, flexibility and a good sense of humor, you can keep stress to a minimum and enjoy yourself. Of course, what works for one family may not work for another, and I would love to hear what worked for you or other travel tricks in the comments section.
Our son Louis is now 14 months old, but has been traveling since he was four months old. His first vacation was a road trip to Martha’s Vineyard, which included a boat ride. Since then, he has become a fairly seasoned traveler. He has already crossed both the Atlantic Ocean twice and half of the Pacific Ocean. He has taken trains to the capital cities of London, Paris and Washington, DC., and he has been on several other trips in between. These days I feel very comfortable and, more importantly, relaxed when we travel.
First of all, everyone, including babies no matter how young, needs a passport for international travel. The US passport procedure is fairly straightforward and a quick search of the US Department of State website can give you all the information and forms you need to apply for your little one’s first passport. Once you have all of your paperwork in order, you can apply at most post offices, and some cities have specific passport offices too. One thing to keep in mind is that both parents need to be present with the child. If only one can be present, you will need to provide a notarized letter from the absent parent when you apply. You should allow 6-8 weeks for the passport to arrive, but that is very general. Louis had his passport within 2 weeks, so it really just depends on how busy the passport office is at the time.
In addition, if you are flying domestically, certain airlines may require proof of age if you have a lap baby. A copy of a birth certificate should suffice.
It is pretty much a universal fact that children under the age of two can fly for free as a lap baby. Occasionally the airline will charge a minimal fee – for example, I paid $12 for Louis to sit on my lap to fly Air Canada from New York to Toronto. Except for our most recent flight to France when we purchased a seat for Louis, he has always flown on our laps. This is not the most comfortable option, but it is certainly the most economical. It isn’t as bad as it sounds, and I have noticed that the airlines seem to be pretty generous in giving us economy plus seats or a bulkhead seat so that we have a little extra room.
What to take, what to check
Of course, what to take and what to check will depend on where you are going and what you need to get you there. From my experience, all airlines allow you to check “baby items” for free. This includes both a stroller and a car seat either when you check your other baggage at registration, or when you gate check items before boarding the plane. Gate checked items are to be picked up in the jetway at the destination. Check with your airline for details. We have done every combination of checked/gate checked/carry on items. Ask yourself, do you really need a stroller? Could you get by with just a baby carrier? Would you need a stroller for a layover? Did you buy a seat for baby on the plane?
My advice is less is best. If you have a flight with no connections, consider just taking the baby carrier and checking the rest. If you have a connection, you might want the stroller so that the baby can nap or you can put the baby somewhere while you wait for the next leg of your flight. The only time you really need to drag your car seat through the airport is when you have purchased a seat for your child and plan on using the seat in the plane.
Babies have to be screened like adults, and you should check the TSA website if you have specific concerns. You are allowed to wear the baby in a carrier and are not required to remove the baby. Children under 12 do not need to remove their shoes. I usually wear Louis in the Baby Bjorn or the Ergo and walk through the scanner (not the new crazy one that sees through your clothes though). When we traveled most recently through Newark, I requested to go through the older model scanner instead of the high-tech one and didn’t have any problems. If you wear your baby through security, they will swipe your hands with special paper to check for explosive residue (as if!).
Also to note, everything has to be scanned or checked by hand. Our Maclaren stroller fits through baggage scanner when folded, but our Britax car seat does not. They hand inspected the Britax.
Car seat on the plane
We have only brought our car seat on board a plane one time, but it was marvelous. Louis had a ticketed seat, so we were allowed to bring it on. Our car seat, a Britax Boulevard 70, is airplane approved. The car seat must be installed next to the window and we put it in the forward facing position. There is really no secret to it, you just install it the way you would in a car. Since it was a night flight, Louis slept nearly the entire time in his car seat leaving our laps baby free for the flight.
I have heard that if your baby doesn’t have a ticket, but there are extra seats on the plane, sometimes the airline will let you board with the car seat and let the baby have their own seat. I have never tried this myself. Definitely verify this with your airline and be prepared to have a lap baby if it doesn’t work out.
Once on board…the dreaded crying baby
Being trapped on an airplane with a young baby is probably one of the scariest scenarios a new parent can imagine. No one wants to be the person with the screaming baby on a packed, long haul flight. Worse yet, no one wants to be the person sitting next to the screaming baby on the long haul flight. First things first, babies cry. Accept it, but don’t panic. There’s not much to be done about it when the little one decides he is unhappy. As a parent, go through all of the usual tricks, soothe, feed, bring out a toy, change a diaper, walk up and down the aisles if possible, etc. One of these will probably work and the fire will be put out quickly. So far, we have been very lucky with Louis and haven’t had any horrific meltdowns. He has definitely cried on a plane, but it’s not the end of the world, and we were able to calm him within minutes. Most people are very understanding, and remember, a lot of the other passengers and flight attendants are probably parents too.
If you are lucky, the baby will just sleep. Our son is not a great sleeper, but an airplane seems to be a fairly cozy environment for a nap, even for our little guy. For babies who are nursing, nursing during takeoff is a good trick not only to keep those baby ears from hurting from the altitude change, but also to lull them off to sleep right away. This would probably work the same way for a bottle fed baby.
As for what to bring with you on board, I always pack a few quiet toys, a few extra diapers than I would normally carry, a change of clothes and extra snacks…fruit pouches, puffs, crackers, cheese, and a little straw cup for water and whatever else I would have in my regular diaper bag. So far, the TSA hasn’t given me many problems carrying these items on. I usually just throw everything into my carry on bag and don’t even bother to take it out when the bags are going through the scanner. I have only been asked one time to remove the items from my carry on and the TSA agent opened one fruit pouch to verify it. If your baby takes formula, I would consider having a few extra servings in case there are delays. Also, if you bring food that you would like to reheat, be warned. The flight attendants have no way of reheating baby food. You could probably request a cup of hot water to put a jar or a pouch in to warm up, but that seems messy/dangerous/inefficient. Unfortunately, I have no advice for heating formula/pumped milk.
Some flights on larger planes for longer flights have baby bassinets that hook into the wall of the bulkhead seats. These need to be requested in advance when making your reservations. We had one for our first trip to Europe when Louis had just turned 7 months old (about 18lbs and 27in). He was just small enough to fit inside, another month or two and he would have been too big. He didn’t sleep in it very much; I don’t think he was comfortable in it. My feeling is that the bassinet is good for much smaller babies, maybe up to 4 or 5 months. However, he did have fun just sitting in it playing and throwing his toys out at mom and dad.
Take off and landing
Airlines differ with their policy on how you must hold the baby during take off and landing. Most American companies don’t say much, you can just hold the baby any way that is comfortable. We flew from Brussels to Copenhagen this summer on SAS and they gave me a seatbelt attachment to put around the baby while he was on my lap. Flying to Toronto, the Air Canada flight attendant suggested that I hold Louis upright facing me with his head near my shoulder (imagine a burping position). He was quite wiggly at that age and I told the attendant that I didn’t think it was going to work, lest he start screaming. She said to just do whatever felt comfortable in that case and I ended up cradling/nursing him for take-off.
Traveling with only one parent
I have flown alone with Louis twice, once from New York to Toronto, and the other time from New York to St. Louis. I have heard of people needing notarized letters from the non-traveling parent authorizing the other parent to travel with the child or to take them out of the country. I have never been asked for one. Going through passport control in Toronto, the agent asked me where daddy was. I said he was waiting for us at the airport (which was entirely true, my husband arrived a few days earlier for business). The agent let us slide right through without further questions. No one asked any questions when I traveled to St. Louis. Use your best judgment. A notarized letter may be the safest option to avoid any trouble.
Air travel with babies can seem stressful and panic inducing, but it doesn’t have to be. With some organized preparation and the right attitude, it can be just fine. (I won’t say great, nothing about air travel is great). Bon voyage!