Traveling with a baby for the first time can be absolutely frightening…that is until you actually do it. I think traveling with children in general can be a scary thought but it can feel even more overwhelming as you prepare for that first flight with your little one.
In our daughter Isla’s first year of life she never went longer than 2 ½ months without being on a plane so we pretty much jumped on a plane smack dab in the middle of every developmental milestone you can think of! From sleepy newborn to first reaching for things, rolling over, starting to sit on her own, as a new crawler, teething, walking etc. We flew with Isla during months 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10 & 11 before her first birthday. Each flight in that first year was an international flight of approximately 4 hours of flying time so even after a few flights, every flight was still slightly different from the last!
Isla was 9 weeks old when she boarded her very first flight. I was nervous about everything you could imagine…were her ears going to be bothered by the change in altitude or pressure?, was she going to cry?, were passengers around us going to be annoyed there was a tiny baby sitting close by?, should I try & bribe passengers in advance with some kind of sweets, cute notes or gift cards?, what if we experienced turbulence & I couldn’t get up to change her diaper?…and the list goes on. In the end our 2-month-old Isla slept that ENTIRE flight and honestly she slept the majority of most flights after that as well…often thanks to a few tricks.
In my opinion the flight itself is only one part of the traveling with a baby logistics worry. I find getting from point A to B through a large busy airport can be just as challenging. Here’s how we traveled with a baby.
Booking the flight & seats
Here’s a little secret about us…we have literally never had a nap or sleep schedule whatsoever. Not as a baby or a toddler. Isla gradually fell into a great natural routine of her own but we’ve never looked at the clock and followed times once. So for us we also never worried about flight times. We’d look for the best price flight on the airline we wanted to fly and that was about it. We’ve flown morning, afternoon and evening with her and have always loved being flexible. However I know many little ones are on strict schedules so booking flights around sleep times could definitely help. Delays or changes are always a possibility but aiming for flights that might work to cash in on some inflight sleep is always best.
For Isla’s first flight we bought her a seat despite having the option of being a free lap infant. We secured her rear facing infant car seat into a middle seat and sat on either side of her. We kept her buckled in for safety and she cozily slept the whole time.
For all flights after that until she was 2 she sat with one of us as a free lap infant. We had a trick to get an extra “free” seat for Isla that worked 15 out of 16 flights. At the time we often flew with West Jet, which allowed for free online check-in & seat selection 24 hours before departure. I would always set a timer to check in exactly 24 hours before our flight to snag the best seats. I would look for 3 empty seats closest to the front of the plane. When traveling with a little one you want to be near the front just because it’s easier to not have to squeeze 35 rows back with a baby and diaper bag in your arms to get to your seats. I would book myself in the window seat and my husband in the aisle with the hopes that the middle seat will stay empty (let’s face it no one ever goes out of their way to choose the middle seat on a plane unless they have to & they especially don’t look for a seat between two strangers). That one time where we ended up with a passenger between us he gladly moved to the aisle seat so we could sit together and he could stretch out and not be in the middle. All other flights it meant we had some extra space to get comfortable & hold her while she napped but having 3 seats to do it.
First off if your diaper bag doesn’t already come with clips to attach to your stroller…you need to get The Mommy Hook (you’ll need two)! It was a lifesaver for us and used constantly. From there I’d say pack what you normally pack for a day out with your baby…with back-ups of course. Usually that consists of a change (or 2) of clothes, a sweater, a light blanket like a muslin blankie that folds up tiny, several extra diapers, baby wipes, pacifiers, a few small toys/activities/books and bottles/breastmilk/water/formula.
Depending on the age of your baby that list might also include snacks (lots of snacks) & we had a reusable wipe clean placemat that could suction to most surfaces. From the time she could start sitting up we also always carried a portable cloth high chair in our diaper bag (it had a permanent home in my diaper bag) that we regularly used in airports. It compactly fit in a small cloth bag it came with (not much bigger than a cell phone) and was also washable (ours went through the wash many, many times). We’re a family always on the go so we used that portable high chair very often in our every day lives but we also found while traveling that airport food courts don’t always supply high chairs so with the help of this device we could conveniently keep Isla in one place to have a little snack while we waited for our flight. That portable high chair & silicone reusable placemat became our best friends in airports.
To ease any fear of ever finding ourselves stuck in an airport because of delays without enough baby supplies…we used to always stash baby essential extras such as diapers & additional clothing in the hanging bag attached to the stroller. That way we’d have the items with us through the terminals if there were a delay but wouldn’t have to lug it onto the plane itself. I always hear other parents recommend carrying a change of clothes for moms & dads as well. We never did. Maybe we just got lucky but truthfully we didn’t really have a baby who spit up or who was known for explosive diapers so this just isn’t something we personally worried about during our on average 4 hour flights but it’s definitely something to consider knowing your own baby or for lengthier flights.
From the advice of close friends of mine who have children with quite serious anaphylactic food based allergies, I was told to always keep a bottle of liquid Children’s Benadryl in my diaper bag so it’s an important item to mention on its own. There are dosing charts found online that can be used as a guide to help lessen sudden allergic reactions (swelling, hives, redness etc.) in an emergency situation or until the child receives proper medical attention. I thankfully never had to use it with Isla but it’s always stayed in my diaper bag (and now my purse or backpack) just in case.
We brought our travel system stroller & infant car seat combo on that first flight, which made getting around the airport very easy since the car seat portion just clicked on top of the stroller. We used to just place the base for the bucket style infant seat in the bottom-hanging basket on the stroller and we had everything we needed all in one convenient mobile place. Really that’s what travel systems are made for…TRAVELLING! Our daughter was always very comfortable in her infant car seat so it became a familiar cozy place for her. Through airports the stroller has also always doubled as an extra set of hands. An essential couldn’t live without accessory we had was a handlebar stroller caddy sold separately by Britax that gave us a convenient place to put a bottle of water, a coffee & snacks. Again, I used to stash extra diapers & clothes for her in the hanging stroller bag and reload my diaper bag with essentials for the flight as needed. Along with all of that goodness a stroller provides through an airport I think my fave part was always that the stroller would carry my diaper bag so I wouldn’t have to. I should mention that we often used to travel not just with a baby but also often with our professional camera equipment, which was of course ALL carry-on, so you can imagine anything that freed up our hands was a huge help!
Once she grew out of her infant car seat we continued to use our Britax stroller (25 flights & counting now). As young babies a stroller gives you the perfect place to keep them while you maneuver other bags. It also means it’s a safe spot to keep baby with you while you go to the bathroom, eat, drink, etc. Especially if you’ll be holding your child most of the upcoming flight this gives you a small chance to rest your arms before boarding. We opted to always use our “main” stroller instead of investing or collecting additional strollers such as jogging strollers, an umbrella stroller or a special travel stroller. The reason being our stroller was very light, sturdy, was able to fully recline, had a great canopy for shade & had a great one hand fold mechanism. We’ve literally never owned or used another stroller other than our main Britax.
Most airlines will gate check your stroller for you at no additional cost and that’s exactly what we’ve always done. Right before boarding we’d usually put her in a baby carrier so we could quickly fold up the stroller at the gate (often right next to where you physically board the plane). Most airlines give priority boarding to anyone traveling with young children so we always have more than enough time to get organized at the gate as we board. We only ever placed our stroller in a stroller bag for the first few flights we did with Isla because we would put the stroller, car seat & infant car seat base in a giant bag together. After that the stroller just went as is gate checked and we have never had an issue. Not one scratch or dent!
We never mess around with time and always give ourselves the recommended 3 hours in the airport for international flights before departure. The thing is there’s always unknown factors and if you’re anxious about flying with your little one to start with, any further delays in the airport will make you feel even more panicked! Long lines to check in or dropping off your luggage can be unpredictable and then the next wildcard is going through airport security. Sometimes there are long lines for security but in general safety screenings can just take longer with babies. It’s not a huge deal but just something to factor in that you’ll need a few extra minutes than the average passenger. The screening agents require you to take everything out of your stroller (that includes everything out of the handy handlebar caddy, your diaper bag & the hanging pouch attached to your stroller…thankfully ours zipped right off which made it convenient) and sent through the x-ray machine. Baby also needs to come out of the stroller or car seat as the stroller will be pushed through the metal detector by itself and inspected closer. You will then be asked to walk through the metal detector holding your baby.
If you have any kind of liquids for your child (such as breast milk, water or formula) it will be permitted on board in excess of the usual 100mL normally allowed by passengers but again it may be pulled aside for closer inspection. In our experience we have only ever had agents place the unopened bottle of breast milk or water in a special machine that is somehow able to check the contents through the container.
Tiring out before the Flight
Once Isla could crawl we’d let her! While we’d wait at our gate to board our flight we’d let her crawl around to explore & it was one of the best things ever. We didn’t worry about her getting her hands or clothes dirty (both can easily be washed) because really it was doing a few other very important things. She’s an explorer by nature so it kept her occupied but it was also keeping her awake before the flight & tiring her out so she’d have a better chance to sleep most of the plane ride. Same thing once she started walking. We never wanted to hold her back and we’d take turns roaming around the gates to pass the time!
A great tip I was given and has always worked is to time nursing or a bottle with takeoff. This will help calm your little one and force them to drink & swallow to help keep their ears clear. Our Isla as a newborn & young baby almost always passed out immediately following that bottle at takeoff so it was perfect timing. I still try and keep a little water, juice or a snack on hand for takeoff.
I was an exclusive pumper that meant my daughter exclusively received breast milk but all from a bottle. It also meant I needed to be on top of pumping to keep my supply up & have new milk for my daughter even while traveling. Some planes are equipped with electrical outlets at the seats (often you can look up that kind of info on a site like www.seatguru.com). I used to discreetly pump mid flight and would slip the bottles (or bags) of milk into a small insulated cooler I carried with me that could clip onto my pump bag or diaper bag.
This is the fun part that grows & changes, as your little one gets older. It becomes a fine balance between being prepared and overdoing it. I’ve always kept things pretty simple but still find I’ll have things left in my bag that went untouched during a flight. Remember to keep things age appropriate and bring the type of items your child would actually play with at this stage at home right now. I’ve seen some anxious parents of babies bring activities my 3-year-old still wouldn’t fully grasp which means if it can’t hold their attention for more than a few minutes (or if it’s not safe) you’ll be left doing the 3-ring circus style of entertainment needing to jump from item to item. Lugging things around for just a few minutes of entertainment isn’t worth it. Babies also don’t need to be “surprised” by new items like older children. You just need to have things on hand that work!
Truthfully on Isla’s first flight at 2 months old we only brought this one soft plush pull rattle toy with various crinkle surface ears, arms & legs in our diaper bag. She was so young still that she just slept on those early flights so we didn’t have a ton of entertaining to do. Later on we started changing & adding items to our carry on bag as she developed. We’d aim to bring different sensory type toys that didn’t make too much noise like those soft cloth baby books.
One stand out travel toy we had was a colourful, stackable toy that had a permanent home in my diaper bag. It folded right down into itself almost flat & locked shut but when stacked created a huge tower. Each stackable tray is a different colour with a different shape in the middle. We used to even play with that toy in the sand while on the beach! It really did come with us everywhere & was one of the easiest toys to keep on hand because of the size and was just solid plastic so it washed up perfectly. Finding a small nesting type toy is a lifesaver while traveling with a baby!
It’s also important to note we’ve taken a low-tech approach with our daughter. At 3 years old she has still never watched or played with a handheld device (iPad, iPhone, cell phone etc.) at anytime anywhere…ever. That also means now as a toddler she has done 25 flights without ever watching or playing with an iPad or iPhone. All in flight entertaining has been done the old fashion way with small age appropriate figures (like Little People), cars, books, colouring, stickers & games of peek-a-boo.
A slightly less traditional go to item that helped us entertain for a good portion of our flights…the airsickness bag (of course I mean an unused air sickness bag that you’ll find in the back of the seat in front of you). With some crayons we used to decorate it, let Isla place a few stickers on it, turn it into a puppet, put crayons or other items into it and let her shake it around or just crumple it. There was something about those bags that are a hidden all-purpose fun activity surface!
Truthfully there were many times I had a ready to pull out of my bag and Isla would be content just looking out the window or people watching. Sometimes I found it was me trying to pull out all these fascinating play items when really she wasn’t looking to be entertained. Be mindful that just because your baby or toddler isn’t “playing” doesn’t mean they aren’t content!
We also made a decision early on to never resort to walking the aisles as a way of passing time or keeping her amused. I’m not sure why but I had this absolute fear even during that first flight with Isla that I’d one day have a toddler kicking & screaming to get out of her seat trying to run up and down the narrow aisle on the plane. I really don’t know why I had this irrational idea but my daughter has had a strong spicy personality since day 1 so I nervously was imagining the worst one day. I decided right from the first flight that she’d never come out of her seat unless going to the bathroom (back then to change her diaper & now to use the potty) and that was it. So far it’s worked. The same child who we have a hard time keeping in a chair at a table in a restaurant for an hour or two doesn’t move on a 4 hour flight. She happily stays in her seat the entire time! Every child is different but for us it’s something I’m glad I had the foresight to think about because with young children (especially ones with strong energetic personalities) once you give them an idea, it becomes near impossible to get that idea out of their head again.
I still remember feeling some tiny nerves each flight with Isla because every flight was so different than the last based on the new baby or toddler stage we just entered into. But I think being nervous or not knowing exactly what to expect is normal. With a little preparation & giving yourself lots (& LOTS) of time to physically stroll through each step of your travel journey in the airport & onboard the flight, you’ll be absolutely fine and the entire experience will be more enjoyable for everyone.
The following products were mentioned as items we personally used with our daughter. We are in no way affiliated with any of the manufacturers.