I returned from a round-trip, transcontinental airline trip with a 9-month-old baby this week. The key is that I returned, because, quite frankly, after the painful two legs it took me to get from Virginia to California, I seriously considered staying there until my son turned two. Was it worse that my first flight was delayed, which led to running in flip-flops with a stroller that is too short to catch my next flight (which they kindly held for me), and going seven straight hours without a bathroom break? Or, that my baby cried for about 20 minutes straight on both flights, trying to squirm out of my arms and flailing around knocking into the oh-so-close man next to me?
If only I could have ordered a stiff drink, but of course that would mean risking the lack of bathroom breaks and dry clothes since, no doubt, the baby would have spilled my drink on me and the surrounding passengers (see “Drinks” below). I followed all the travel rules from every list ever written on traveling with a baby and booked travel during sleepy times, packed extra pacifiers, diapers for every hour in transit, snacks for me and baby, drinks, bottles and sippy cups, bibs, wipes, blanket, extra clothes, plastic bags, and plenty of toys and books to keep him entertained. While absolutely useful and necessary, I am here to enlighten you to the Crap No One Tells You about airplane travel with a baby.
It doesn’t matter how many toys and books you bring to distract your baby. You are lucky if each toy keeps his attention for more than 90 seconds. I saw the diagram for the maximum size of a carry-on, and I can assure you it won’t hold enough toys to get through five hours of in-flight travel. Here’s what worked for me—on my return flight after I threw the “rules” out the window:
SkyMall shopping magazine. Give him the magazine and let him tear it to shreds. It’s a lot to pick up when you land (the flight attendant will GLADLY provide you with a trash bag), but will give you a good 30 minutes. Take a break, then possibly another 15 minutes. The ripping of pages may sound annoying to some, but I guarantee they’d rather hear that than a screaming baby.
Plastic Water bottle. As long as it makes noise when you crush it, this item is hugely more entertaining than the shaker/squeaker/colorful thingy you brought. It will give you at least 10 minutes off and on. Oh, and if there is water in the bottle, use it on the airplane’s descent when baby’s ears need to pop and he is screaming so much that he won’t even take his pacifier or bottle. This will catch his attention long enough to put something in his mouth to swallow. This is where the handy “extra clothes” come into play.
Other passengers. It’s true, some people are annoyed if they are stuck in earshot of a baby, but hopefully you will find, as I did, that many people love gawking at a baby, and this is highly entertaining for baby. A great introduction to other passengers is to offer earplugs to those surrounding you, according to one of my mom sources. She said it breaks the ice and adds a little humor. Love it! Games of peek-a-boo are popular with other passengers. And, throw some compliments their way with comments about how your baby is flirting. Flattery carries a lot of weight and usually buys you another 10 minutes from said passenger. While you might be tempted to book seats in the back of the plane, seats in front of, and behind you, keep baby entertained from multiple angles. Plus, if your baby falls asleep, the door to the bathroom can be quite noisy, and can startle a sleeping baby. It’s best to be at least a couple rows from a bathroom.
Going to the bathroom. If you’ve been lucky enough to have met a passenger, who made friends with your baby, you may be able to ask that person to hold him in case you didn’t wear your “Depends” and need a potty break of your own. I wouldn’t hesitate, especially since there is nowhere to go with your baby. Maybe I can do this because it’s kid number three. If you’re a first-time parent, too paranoid about a stranger holding your baby, or your baby won’t go to others, then you might want to go with the “Depends.” Worst case, take your baby to the bathroom with you and hold him on your lap—or, if he can stand, even better. Just beware of turbulence … okay, that’s gross … not that kind of turbulence.
The back of the seat in front of you and the tray table. I would advise you to bring a pack of disinfectant wipes to clean these areas, because no doubt your baby will lick them, bite them, and slobber all over them. I did not have this item, but rather went with the thought that I am building his immune system. Sorry, little guy.
Bags of pretzels. Not to eat. Need I say more? Oh, and sorry to the woman in front of us. I didn’t realize the power of his arm. She seemed not to mind.
Smart phone. Loading some kids videos on your phone prior to traveling is also a great distraction. My 9-month-old wasn’t interested in the episode of “Sesame Street” I loaded, but he did enjoy playing with my phone for a while. If you set the phone to vibrate when keys are pressed, that’s fun for them, too.
Talk to the Gate Agent. Prior to boarding, ask the gate agent if it is a full flight and that you are concerned about being able to get your baby to sleep. I was lucky on two of my flights to get moved to a row with an extra seat. The fact is, if money was no issue, I would have purchased an extra seat and put him in his car seat. In his car seat, he knows he can’t squirm around and makes due with what he has. But, many of us appreciate being able to save some money by going the lap child route. The gate agent and flight attendants are usually sympathetic to a parent traveling alone with a baby.
Get an aisle seat. Easy access to the bathroom for a stinky diaper is important. With Wi-Fi available on planes now, there are laptops up everywhere, and God forbid you ask them to pack up. I don’t blame them, it’s just an inconvenience for them, and you feel like a jerk asking. Also, if your baby is fussy, this allows you access to get up and walk with baby and chat with the flight attendants at the back of the plane (when they are not busy, of course—thanks, mom source). This same mom source—who travels a lot more than I do with her little one—likes the window seat better, because her baby likes to look out the window and play with the shade. Again, this is where you just have to know your baby and decide which way best suits you.
Drinks. Don’t order one. Bring a bottled beverage with you (doubles as a toy). Thank goodness the nice gentleman next to us wasn’t bothered by flying ice cubes. Oops. Rookie move! In my defense, he was sleeping when I ordered.
Layovers. If you have enough time between flights, throw your germ-phobic ways out the window and let baby crawl all over the terminal. It will help wear him out for the next flight. Part two of this is to book a flight with more than 45 minutes between flights. So many flights I’ve been on in the last couple of years have arrived late, and you just never know how far apart your connecting gate will be. Direct flights are also a great way to go, if you have that option. Where I live and where I travel to doesn’t usually allow for that without a 2-hour commute to another airport. That still may be something to consider for you, though. The extra time in the car may be worth not having to worry about the layover.
Don’t count on TSA agents or gate agents to help you. Give your extreme appreciation to the ones who help you fold up your stroller and place it on the belt at security or to gate check it while you have baby in your arms. While it’s hard to believe someone could be so insensitive, some of them will just stare at you while you juggle your 24 lb. baby in one arm and your stroller that refuses to fold in the other. Oh, and when you get your stroller on the other side, remember you don’t have shoes on when you step on the folded part of the stroller. Ouch.
To wear your baby or use a stroller. One of my well-traveled mom sources wears her baby through the airport instead of bothering with a stroller. This makes it much easier to get through security, no doubt. And, if he falls asleep in the carrier, there’s no transferring when it is time to board the plane. However, before and after boarding, I like the relief of being able to put the baby in the stroller—despite some of the complications that can come with it. If a layover is involved, the freedom to use the restroom or eat is much easier without “joey” in the pouch. Plus, if I’m traveling with my somewhat large camera bag plus a diaper bag, it’s nice to be able to use the storage in the stroller for those carry-ons. Again, you have to decide what works best for you and your specific travel situation.
Cherish when your baby falls asleep. I say this, but I know I don’t need to. Once your baby is sleeping, and you are holding him in your arms, you realize that all the crap that got you to this point was worth it. I haven’t held my baby while he slept since he was a couple months old. This moment—his chest rising and falling, his lips making the sucking motion with nothing in them, his flawless baby skin, the smell of his youthful head as I bring him ever so carefully to my face, the softness of his chubby hands, his plump little piggies peeking through the footless jammies that are just a little too long—this moment was the best of my vacation. It reminded me how sad I was when I realized I would never see my twins, as babies, falling asleep in my arms again—a catalyst for having a third, by the way. It reminded me to slow down. I was forced in this 20” space with no laundry and no dishes … just time … time to stare at one of my three biggest accomplishments of my life. Thank, God, for those 20 minutes. And, then someone opened the bathroom door.
All in all, I found that most people—agents, flight attendants, and passengers—were extremely accepting and helpful. Don’t be too proud to accept their generosity, especially if you are traveling alone with your baby. I hope you find these tips helpful. If not, you may want to heed my sister-in-law’s advice on traveling with a 9-month-old, which she told me AFTER we arrived at her house in California … “Don’t!”
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