I just got back from a fairly whirl-windy visit to the states with my 14 month old and though it wasn't easy, I did find a few ways to to make it as low-key as possible (and made a few mistakes I won't be repeating). While it can be a challenge to navigate all the ups and downs of air travel with a little one, it can be a real joy and special bonding time, too. Here is a breakdown of some what-to-expects and how-to-prepares:
1. Notice the kindness of others
I've never been so impressed by how naturally kind most people are as when I've been traveling alone with my baby. Not only did I get a lot of big softy smiles and coos at my little one snugged up to me in our Boba Carrier, but I got offers left and right for help with everything from my carry on bags to opening my dinner entrée (international flights still serve dinner!) - no kidding. Also, airline staff may likely go out of their way to make it easy on you (like they always have me). When facing the daunting task of flying alone with a baby, knowing you'll get lots of help and people will be especially friendly. Watching for and focusing on the kindness also helps keep my mood high when stress mounts.
2. Move slowly
Take your time with everything, and give yourself extra time for the taking. We had eight legs on our international adventure, and had one near-miss and one missed flight. Both of those came down to leaving little extra wiggle room that ended up being needed for traffic issues. All our other flights went smoothly with ample time booked between (avoid booking flight with tight connections). When a direct flight wasn't available or convenient, I made sure to give us at least an hour between planes. If you fly through one of these several-concoursed mega ports like O'Hare, you'll be glad to no have to run through them when your flight lands just 15 minutes late. Also, it seems to take extra time for parents to get off planes (me included) so don't expect to be able to dash off. I always get to the gate early so I can do one last trip to the bathroom together for us both before boarding. Using airplane lavatories yourself with a baby strapped to you is only so-so in the comfort category, and their changing tables are usually a bit awkward, too. Walking slowly and taking the time to enjoy the surroundings (some airports are prettier than others), and your baby, is worth getting up
3. Pack light (no, really)
Well, duh, right? But come on ladies (and gents)! We tell ourselves this every time, and most of those times we're dreading putting our two-ton bags up on the scale, trying to figure out what we'll pull out if we have to lose some weight. Well, when traveling alone with a baby, any added burden is extra heavy. This is especially true with carry on luggage. I over did it a bit in the carry on department on my trip back to Chile and while on one hand I was pleasantly surprised how lenient airline staff were with me and baby, I regretted that extra tote bag. Opt for a roller bag with non-flight essentials and a well-stocked diaper bag with a few snacks and toys (for you and baby). Any number of nice people will help you with the roller bag, and many flights these days will take volunteers to gate check roller bags. Go for it if it's offered. Just like with our own clothes, we tend to over pack. You'd be surprised how far the "minimum" can go with a baby as well. Aside from a few extra cloth diapers in my big bag, I planned on my roller bag and diaper bag as my baby's luggage, and even that was more than we needed for our month-long trip.
4. Stay connected and playful
Using a good, ergonomically-designed baby carrier really is a must when traveling. Little ones can easily get overwhelmed with the sheer number of new faces, new noises and bustle of airports. Keeping them held close will help them stay stable, feel secure, and communicate with you even if that's a little extra emotion-steadying eye contact. If you nurse, a carrier like the Boba 3G will help you stay mobile while nursing. We used the Boba quick release shoulder strap adjustments A LOT while moving on and off planes - it makes it so easy to nurse anywhere. I was never asked to take my daughter out of the carrier while going through security, and instead of that big scanning puff-air machine, someone simply swiped my hands (I assume to check for explosive residue, right)? Children under 12 don't have to take their shoes off anymore at security checkpoints, so that was helpful.
Getting in a little play time between flights is good, too. I got right down on the airport floor with my freshly-toddling girl between a connecting and final overnight home after we'd been traveling all day by car and plane, and it made a huge difference. She got lots of energy released, we had some sweet fun together (even made a new friend), and she easily fell asleep after boarding.
5. Take advantage of airline and airport options
- Baby in seat
If you can afford to book a seat for your in-arms infant, do it. The extra room is a real joy. While I didn't book any extra seats for my daughter and I, there were a few of our flights that had a little room and we were able to get an open seat next to us which proved how valuable it really is.
- Seat assignment help
I always check in at the gate to get help with our seat. Though the check-in counter staff can do little to help, and often can only move you to an up-charged seat, gate attendants have more free power there. If it was nap time for my little, I asked for a window. If it wasn't, I chose an aisle so I could get up and walk around with her easily. When there was room on the flight, gate attendants were more than happy to place us next to an empty seat.
- Baby bassinet
If you're flying internationally - especially overnight - your plane may come equipped with bassinets that an attendant will set up for you after take off and stow away after landing. You must call the airline to check on the option and request this (it's a bulkhead seat) before your flight, and confirm/ask again at the counter. I did this and still couldn't get us assigned to the right seat, so a flight attendant talked the passenger in the bulkhead seat into switching with me. The restrictions on my flight were 75 centimeters in length and 9 kilos. My girl juuuuust fit, and slept through the night! The white noise of plane engines really lulls them to sleep well.
- Car seat check
Though many people don't recommend it because of possible damage to the seat, you can check a car seat for free (which we did on the way back). If you can book an extra seat for the baby, bringing an FAA approved seat and using it on the plane is the safest for your child.
- Board first
When your flight begins boarding, go first with the "extra assistance" group. You'll be happy for a little extra time to get your things stowed and your baby situated.
- Use your baby carrier liberally
FAA rules say you have to take your child out of any baby carrier during take off and landing, but this was only enforced on two of our flights. I think I left her in the carrier twice when she was sleeping. I never was asked to take her out of her carrier during security.
- Earning her wings
A lot of airlines still give out one of those little wing pins to children - great for your scrapbook.
- People movers
If you find yourself feeling just too exhausted to make the trek across the airport during plane changes, don't be shy. Ask to get some help. I longingly side-eyed those airport go-cart people bus things a few times along the way, I'll admit it. I never asked for a ride, but I came close!
- Family security
Keep an eye out for special family lines at security and customs.
6. Take good care of yourself
Like in every other area of our lives, it can be easy to forget our own needs when caring for our little ones in intensified situations (or um, every day ones). Remember to drink a lot of water to combat that airplane dryness and if you can, get up and walk a bit on your flight(s) to keep your circulation moving and reduce puffy ankles. Eat light. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. Take a few extra caring steps along the way and treat yourself a little. Pop a few of your favorite candies. Pack some uplifting essential oils in your purse (citrus and wood scents are helpful, and also help calm an agitated mind). Splurge on some crazy over-priced coffee drink in the airport. Self care always translates into better care-giving as well. I noticed the more I helped to keep myself calm and happy on our trip, the more relaxed and easy going my girl was.
7. Bring some toys, but don't sweat it
A couple weeks before we left, I stowed away a few of my daughter's more interesting toys so that they'd be new again to her on the trip. I had read that it is helpful to pack at least three never-before-seen toys to help keep your baby entertained. I don't use electronic toys or gadgets with my daughter (yet), so while many traveling-with-children sites talk about DVD players and iPad apps, I kept with some old fashioned nesting toys and dolls - nothing that makes a lot of noise (for the sake of the other passengers) and nothing with too many parts. My daughter enjoyed these a little, but preferred digging in the seat pockets and inquiring into the activities of the passengers next to and around us. Luckily, we mostly had some very engaging neighbors who were more than happy to help entertain.
8. Special considerations
One thing parents tend to worry a lot about is the baby's ears. If your baby is sleeping during take off or landing, no need to worry. If they are awake and show signs of ear distress (fussy, crying, rubbing ears), you can encourage them to swallow by nursing or offer other liquids. Be especially mindful and ready with fluids if your baby is congested, as it is harder for them to clear their ears (just like us).
- Changing facilities
Some smaller planes don't come with changing tables in the bathrooms and those that do often only have one per plane. Check with a flight attendant to know which one, and always do a fresh change just before boarding.
If your flight serves food, you will not get a meal for your lap child (and even if you do, you may not want your baby eating airplane food) so bring your own. Security allows extra liquids and food through checkpoints for baby.
- Lap child fees
The service charge for a lap child on international flights is about 10% of the price of the adult ticket, so not "free".