The first time I traveled with my 5 weeks-old baby I was terrified. I'm sure you know that feeling: you don't know what to pack, what to expect. Or you fear the worse: that your baby will cry and cry and the whole plane will stare at you. Or that you will forget something you absolutely need.
When I traveled the very first time with my baby we took a long-distance flight (12 hours) with a stop in one of the world’s biggest airports (and not the most convenient one): Charles de Gaulle in Paris. A 24 hours trip door to door. Actually it was not just a trip, we were moving from Austria where I gave birth to China where my husband was working at that time. We had 6 huge pieces of luggage and some 8 pieces of cabin luggage as well. Plus the baby.
Since then I took 28 flights with my daughter in her first 18 months of life. Out of my own experience and discussions with other parents, here is all you need to know about traveling with a baby:
1/ The younger they are, the easier it is
Traveling with a newborn or a baby is much easier than with a toddler who has just started walking and wants to put her new skill into action
My positive experience: That first flight with my daughter was actually the first (and only?) time she slept an 8 hours stretch. The noise in the airplane did miracles.
2/ Beyond doubt everybody in the airplane was once a baby. And probably cried from time to time
This is actually what one passenger told me when I apologized because my baby cried just before taking off. She said: « Don’t you worry about other people might think. Just focus on your baby »
Babies cry to communicate what they need. They are not crying on purpose to annoy the whole airplane.
My positive experience: We made friends during our flights and met many lovely people who were happy to travel next to a baby. My daughter was always so excited about all the new things she saw and the new people she met that she rarely cried.
3/ You will be off the plane eventually
No matter how bad it gets (cries, dirty diapers, food everywhere…) it will be over, the flight won’t last forever (even if you feel like it does).
My tip: If your baby is screaming like there is no tomorrow, let daddy handle it. People seem to smile more when a man is comforting a crying baby and flight attendants seem to be more helpful.
4/ Preparation is the key
What you need to pack
You will need your hands to hold and comfort your baby, present the documents to the officials so don’t over pack for the carry on. I always tried to have a backpack where everything fitted in. I wore my baby in a sling or a baby carrier so I had my both hands free.
Inside a highly organized « mommy and me » cabin luggage you will need a dozen of small bags, one for each « emergency situation »:
- A small "changing bag": a super thin foldable changing mat, wet wipes (or washable wipes if this is what you usually use), diapers, diaper cream, and used diaper disposal bag. The idea of the small bag is that you can grab it anytime and go to the tiny (and sometimes dirty) lavatory without needing to carry the whole changing bag. In this small bag I also have a miracle product called liniment in French (a mix of almond oil and coconut oil)- perfect for a baby's fragile skin.
- A small bag with one change of clothes for your baby and one for yourself - also easy to grab and carry. Just in case of a « diaper accident » or other unpredictable events :)
- Some warm clothes and some light clothes so that you can adjust your baby outfit according to the temperature in the cabin. On the long-distance flights, the air-con can be extremely cold or it can get really hot depending on the flight, the airline or the destination. You will need:
- A warm onesie and a light one. Those made of silk and wool are extremely useful as they can regulate the body temperature so you will need only one that will fit perfectly for high or low temperature in the cabin.
- A blanket
- A jacket
- A wooly hat
- A small "pharmacy bag": thermometer, paracetamol and/or ibuprofen for babies, homeopathy (I always took homeopathy for fever, cold, teething,…), physiological saline for babies, baby moisturizer (the aircon can dry the skin)
- Food and water if you have started to give solids to your baby. Some airlines offer baby food but each time I tasted I hated it. Plus we did a baby led weaning approach so my daughter didn't eat mashed food. We usually brought things like avocado, cooked pasta, cooked vegetables and some fruits. I have noticed that my daughter didn’t eat much solids on those days but nursed much much more than usually.
- A small "hygiene and care bag": sanitizer, hand cream, wet tissues, dry tissues
- A small "entertainment bag" that you can store in your pocket or the seat bag in front of your seat. If you have asked for a baby coat you will travel on the first seats so you won’t be able to keep any piece of luggage under your sear during takeoff and landing. Sometimes you will find yourself stuck in your seat with your baby if the takeoff is delayed and the airplane is waiting in a queue on the tarmac. Your bag will be stored in the luggage compartment, out of reach. So pack carefully in this extra small bag:
- what you might need to entertain your baby during the waiting time: a small toy, a small book,…
- an « emergency diaper »
- a pacifier if you use one
- a bottle of milk (if you use formula), water (if your baby is drinking water already) or a breastfeeding cloth (if you use one when breastfeeding)
- a small pack of baby wipes
- A reduced version of your accessories for the bedtime ritual: a book if you are reading stories as a part of the bedtime ritual, a music box if you use one, pajamas if this is a signal for your baby that it's time to go to bed, her favorite blanket or the teddy bear... You will find more details about this on the "on board" section.
To minimize space and weight, we took the Baby Pixi books when traveling: they are very light, indestructible, washable and easy to pack.
Baby carrier or stroller?
You will either meet parents who only swear by baby carriers (or baby wraps and slings) when travelling or parents who will tell you they don’t imagine traveling without a stroller. You will have to try to see what works best for you and your family.
I love wearing my baby so I naturally took my sling and my baby wrap when she was less than 6 months old and the baby carrier when she was able to sit by herself. The sling was very convenient for the security check (see bellow) and the wrap was perfect for her to sleep on board.
I have also tried the stroller twice. I think that my baby was such an enthusiastic and peaceful traveler because she felt secured in the sling or the carrier. Moreover, she was in control of when and how much she wanted to engage with the environment around her. Airports and airplanes can be overwhelming even for adults.
Documents you need to prepare and take with you
Besides your passport and your baby’s passport you will also need your baby’s birth certificate and your family record book if you and your baby don’t have the same family name. If you travel alone, take also a travel consent letter from the other parent (examples can be found on Internet).
Prepare your baby for the journey: describe the journey and how it’s going to be
Before you start packing take some time to explain what is going to happen: « today we will pack our luggage. We will be travelling at the end of the week. » Before the trip sit down with your baby, hold her/him in your arms and describe the sequence of events and the journey: « tomorrow after breakfast we will take our luggage and go to the airport. We will do the check-in then we will have to wait a bit. I will hold you and we can have a walk in the airport. Then we will go into the plane… » Believe me, this is not a waste of time. Babies understand much more that what we think they do. They will anyway pick up on your excitement or stress. Explaining things and articulating what is going on helps them to better cope with the change. You can also tell them which behavior will help the whole family to have an easier journey. « I might need to put you down during the security check. Please wait patiently and I will hold you again as soon as I will finish to put away all our belongings ». « We will be traveling today. Please be calm and patient and listen to me carefully »
Think about your self too
Wear comfortable and breastfeeding friendly clothes. A cardigan with lots of pockets can be useful to store all the things you need during taking off and if you have to wait on the tarmac before taking off. Take with you something you might enjoy having on board (like a favorite playlist that might help you relax while your baby sleeps)
5/ Before boarding - minimize the stress
Make sure you have enough time
to arrive to the gate in advance and plan carefully so that you have enough time between the flights if you are in transit. It’s very stressful to have to run with a baby and all the luggage.
Some airports, like Incheon in Seoul, South Korea have special lines for families and pregnant women. In many airports you can bypass lines if you are traveling with a baby but you might need to ask.
Liquid restrictions don’t apply to baby food and baby care products so I always took as much liquids and baby products I needed with no issues in all the airports I have been. You just need to present them to the security check. Sometimes they will make some extra tests or you might need to taste them.
Before leaving home, I put all the food and water for our baby in one see-through bag and all the baby care liquids in another one so that the security guys can check it quickly and that we don't need to search for everything in all our small bags with the risk of forgetting something in the rush at the security check counter. After we finished, I placed everything in the right bag (one for each situation) I have described above. I truly believe in Maria Montessori's philosophy: "a place for everything and everything in its place" when it comes to traveling too ;)
If you are wearing your baby, avoid the long baby wraps with knots. Slings and baby carriers are much easier at the security checks. In many airports they will ask you to take off the wrap/ sling/ baby carrier and hold your baby when walking through the security check door. Doing the knot again while holding your baby in one hand and having to put away all your belongings at the same time won’t be easy.
Change the baby before boarding
It’s more comfortable and easier to change your baby in the toilets in airports than in the tiny lavatories on board so you might want to change your baby before boarding or you can board first and use this time to get comfortable in the plain, organize your stuff and change the diapers while the lavatory are still clean and no queue.
Usually families with babies and children can board first.
6/ On board- all the tips to have a peaceful flight with your little one
Just keep in mind that not all the airlines have a « baby belt », an attachment to the parent’s seat belt to strap the baby in. Actually none of the Asian companies I have traveled with had baby belts. When traveling on those flights I have put my baby in my carrier or baby wrap.
Baby cot or not?
We always hesitated. If you decide to ask for one, know that you will automatically be placed on the first raw. There is more space but in some airplanes these sits are next to the lavatories and the door opening and closing constantly might wake up your baby. Also there will probably be other families with babies around which is fun but if you have a reluctant sleeper like I have she might not be able to sleep if other babies wake up and cry.
The good thing with the baby cot is that even if your baby is not keen on sleeping inside (mine slept 99% of the flights on me or on her daddy) you can use it as storage :) And some babies like to play inside which is better than on the floor where everybody leaves shoes, food and all kind of objects (not really safe for a crawling baby)
Anyway, during take off and landing the baby coat will be stored by the crew and your baby will be on your lap.
Nurse, nurse, nurse
If you are breastfeeding, breastfeed on demand and during take off and landing. It helps to reduce the ear pressure. I have to say I rarely did it because my baby felt asleep very often during take off and landing. She was sleeping peacefully, her face was completely relaxed and I saw no sign of pain so I just let her sleep. But we nursed each time she was awake.
If you are not breastfeeding, you can offer a bottle of milk, water or a pacifier.
Change your baby in the baby cot
My daughter hated to be changed in the lavatory so I had no other choice. I didn't like that tiny and sometimes dirty space either. Later on I found out that many parents prefer to change their babies in the coat because it’s faster, easier and more clean.
There is plenty to see on board so your little one will probably be already excited about the new experience but you can also prepare some new objects to present to her/him. It doesn’t have to be toys and you can also find them on board. My daughter loved playing with spoons, cups or tea bags.
Some action will also help you to have a smoother flight: walk with the baby, meet the neighbors and the crew. We were lucky to meet so many awesome crews (especially on Asian airlines). They interacted a lot with our baby and were extremely helpful when I travelled alone with her. On one of the flights I know she got to meet the pilot while one of the crew members was babysitting.
Sleeping- Bedtime ritual
No matter where we were, when it was time for our baby to go to sleep we did a mini version of the bedtime ritual we did at home: putting pajamas on, reading a book while listening to the music box, saying good night and nursing. This brings consistency and security to a baby. Everything is new, the whole environment is different, but the points of reference are there (mom and dad are doing the same thing as at home so there is nothing to worry about).
Soothing the baby on board
The baby carrier or the baby wrap can do miracles and the sound of the jet engine reminds them of the sounds they heard in the womb. If nothing else helps, put your baby in the carrier or wrap and go at the back at the airplane where it’s louder and the vibrations are more intense.
Special requirements about food
Don’t forget to throw away the food if your final destination is a country that does not allow you to bring fruits, vegetables or seeds (Australia for example) or to declare the food you have with you, including the food you have for your baby (like the US).
I hope you will have a good and safe flight. And here is the good news: everything is new for a baby during traveling. So if you have a curious little one (like mine) she will be over the moon because there is so much to see and experience. For us it was actually much easier during the flights and on the day of the trip because she was so excited about everything than when we got home and had to deal with the transition into a new environment.
Note: I have no link to the brands quoted in this article other than being a satisfied customer
Do you think traveling with a baby is a hard thing to do? For me it was much easier to travel than spend up to 10 days locked in our flat in Beijing during the highly polluted days. You can read my story "Baby Pollution Jail" in the book "Knocked Up Abroad Again: Baby bumps, twists, and turns around the globe" along with other extraordinary tales of 25 mothers around the globe