“Travel while she’s young.”
That’s what everyone said when Sam was born. It’s not just because of the free flights for kids under two either. What we learned is that the younger babies are, the less mobile and therefore less squirmy they are. They’re also easier to feed, and they fall sleep more easily. It’s still intimidating though, taking them out in the world for the first time, especially if it’s your first kid.
Jordan was mentally ready before I was. Before we even left the hospital we had a telling exchange. We were looking down at her 5-pound, 9-ounce frame getting swallowed by the car seat when I turned to Jordan and said, “Don’t you just want to protect her from the world?”
“No,” he said without hesitation. “I want to take her on adventures and show her the world.”
I wanted that too, of course, but it would take some easing in for me.
When she was a week old, we took her to the store for baby supplies. Sam screamed the whole way there and I spent the entire ride on the verge of a panic attack.
When she was five weeks old, we drove to the Finger Lakes to visit Jordan’s family. She slept the entire six-hour drive and then cried the whole first night.
When she was two months old she took her first flight to Michigan for a wedding near Mackinac Island.
At four months old, Sam and I flew to California for work. That was a big one because we didn’t have Jordan for back up.
Once we got past that initial hump of uncertainty (mostly on my part), she eased right into a steady travel schedule.
Admittedly, we have a pretty chill kid. I’m not sure I would have been so bold as to travel across the county alone with her had she been a fussy baby. But even with her good demeanor, there are a few things I learned along the way to help make flying with a baby a little less stressful.
1. Don’t Book the Baby
When we reserved our first flight with Sam online, we accidentally added her as a third person and had to get a refund. What we learned is that you don’t actually have to mention that you’re flying with a baby until you check in at the airport. They might prefer it if you call a day or two ahead of your flight but the last couple of trips we’ve just shown up at the counter. They’ll print a boarding pass for baby when they check you in. They also make sure you’re sitting in an infant-approved row, which is basically a row with an extra oxygen max and an infant life vest.
Bottom line: It doesn’t hurt to call ahead but they won’t turn you away when you check in at the counter.
2. Know When to Check the Car Seat and Stroller
Up to two baby items, such as a car seat and stroller, are exempt from the checked-baggage fee. That means you can check these items for free, even if you’re checking other baggage too. The trick is knowing when to check these items through to your destination and when to keep them with you in the terminal and check them at the gate.
When I flew to California alone with Sam, we had tight connections. I didn’t want to get held up waiting for my items at the gate so I opted to check them through to San Diego. If we had experienced delays or cancellations, it would have been nice to have the stroller but we took our chances and got lucky.
Bottom line: You don’t want the stroller to be the reason you miss your connection. Check the items through to your final destination if you have tight connections. If you have longer layovers and time to tool around the terminal, it’s nice to have the stroller on hand.
3. Break the Ice
Waiting to find out who your seatmate is on an airplane is like waiting for the final image to click into place on a slot machine. And when you’re flying with a baby it feels like you’re the dreaded lemon that people hope won’t land with them.
What I found, though, is that it helps to break the ice. Make a joke about getting stuck sitting next to a baby. You don’t have to apologize but you can poke fun at the situation by saying something like, “Looks like it’s your lucky day.” Most of the time, people will surprise you with a kind smile.
On the way to California and back, Sam and I took four different flights and every single person was a pleasure to sit next to—both men and women. One man told me the story about bringing his newly adopted daughter to a board meeting. One woman was a nurse and offered to hold the baby for me. Another couple celebrating their 10-year wedding anniversary told me I had nothing to worry about. “You have all the grace you need,” she said when I mentioned the fact that she was stuck with us for the next five hours.
Bottom line: If you can help break down defenses, people will probably surprise you.
4. Feed on Takeoff and Landing
There’s mixed feedback about whether or not it helps to feed a baby while ascending and descending— sucking supposedly helps relieve pressure in their ears—but I thought it was worth a try. I’m not sure if this is what keeps Sam from crying, but she’s been on 10 flights in seven months and she hasn’t cried yet. It’s possible that pressure changes in a plane simply don’t bother her but I’m not about to change a method that’s served me well so far. Now that she’s older, and more easily distracted, the trick is to time the feeding so that she’ll want to eat when we take off and land.
Bottom line: It doesn’t hurt to try it.
5. Pack a Pacifier Lanyard
I normally don’t use a pacifier lanyard because I’m hyper sensitive to all the warnings about having strings or choking devices near a baby’s neck. On a plane, however, it’s a different story. It saves me from having to wrestle my body around and fish a pacifier out from under the airplane seat every five minutes.
Bottom line: I don’t travel without it.
6. Prepare for Dirty Diapers
The first time I changed Sam’s diaper on a plane I couldn’t stomach the thought of doing it in the airplane bathroom. I wasn’t sure if they had changing stations and I certainly didn’t want to do it on top of the toilet. I was tempted to change her on my lap but thought it might be rude to my seatmate. My strategy was to ask the woman sitting next to me—a mom of four older kids—what she used to do. She told me what I wanted to hear. That it’s easiest to change babies right there on your lap. That was my green light.
Then, Sam was still small enough that it was easy to manage. Now that she’s getting bigger—and eating solid foods that result in a stench much more potent than the sweet smell of newborn poop—I will likely do the dirty work in the bathroom. Besides, flight attendants won’t let you toss a dirty diaper into their trash bags because it’s against the rules to mix baby waste with food waste.
Bottom line: Most new airplanes have a changing table in the bathroom, but if you do change the diaper in your seat, it helps to warn the person sitting next to you.
I’ve come a long way since that first day in the hospital. I’m still more worried than Jordan about, well, everything, but there’s something sweet about having your kid take to travel like her parents. When we walk through airports with Sam in the Bjorn, she kicks her legs, smiles at all the people passing, and soaks in every new and delicious sight in her surroundings.