Flying with a baby made fun and easy!* Part three: be vigilant

After a thousand words on timing and another thousand on packing and preparation, you’d think I’d have said it all about flying with a baby. But I haven’t gotten through 20+ flights with nary a tantrum or crying jag without learning a thing or two about infant behavior and how to handle one on a plane.  It’s not always smooth sailing, but I’ve learned that flying with a screaming baby is not an inevitability. The bad news is that you can forget about finishing your book or catching up on your sleep, you’re going to have a full flight!

First off, the most important thing is to pay attention to your child. It may sound obvious, but the number one reason people complain about travelers with babies and small children is that they believe or assume you will ignore your baby’s cries, think their bad behavior is cute, or just not know what to do about it. While you might get some help from flight attendants or other passengers, it is your responsibility alone to keep your baby quiet and comfortable.

The best way to ensure you have a happy flier is to anticipate their needs and you may find they will need more feeding (and thus, diaper-changing) than usual. In the beginning, it was easy to fly with Vera as all I could do was hold and feed her, her two favorite activities. As she gets older and more active, it’s a bit more challenging, but not impossible. If you’ve chosen flight times that align with their schedules and packed well, it will help a lot, but you’ll still need to be vigilant. Now that V has a pattern of napping every 2-3 hours during the day, I feed her just before leaving for the airport so she sleeps in the taxi (and potentially all the way through security), change her before we board, and she’ll be ready for another feeding and nap as we take off, potentially through meal or beverage service.

It’s a personal choice and not everyone has the ability or the desire, but breastfeeding is the traveler’s best friend. It can be done anywhere, at any time, with no special equipment, it’s comforting to the baby, and will prevent dehydration. Ear pressure pain is a major cause of crying babies, but if you nurse on take-off and landing, your baby won’t even notice. If you don’t nurse, a bottle, pacifier, or sippy cup can help; anything that makes the baby swallow, but breastfeeding is the easiest way to control the pressure change (if they happen to be asleep, they also won’t notice the change in altitude). While some mothers might be hesitant about nursing in public, I’ve never been told I couldn’t do it during take-off, and with a scarf or nursing cover, no one will notice or care.

Aside from frequent feeding and diaper checks, one thing I do on every flight is befriend my neighbors. Just telling my seatmate that I’ll be doing whatever I can to ensure we all have a peaceful flight gets rid of most hostility; sometimes it creates any ally who can help us out if we need an extra hand. One great piece of advice I read in a comment on Gadling is to introduce your toddler to the person in front of you, and tell them that if the kid kicks their seat, they have your permission to kick back. This is a good icebreaker and (jokey) warning for your neighbor and your child, it’ll be harder for anyone to mishave when they “know” their neighbor.

So what if you’ve fed and changed the baby and he’s still upset? Do whatever works, even if it’s normally not allowed. A plane is not the time to test your child’s boundaries or teach a lesson about patience. At home, I might occasionally let V cry for a few minutes while I take a shower or pull her away from the computer cord before she puts it in her mouth, but a plane is a free pass. Even if you don’t normally allow TV, if putting on a video or letting her push all the buttons on your phone keeps her occupied, do it. Since you’re sitting in close view without distractions, you can keep the choking hazards at bay. I’ve started giving V dried fruit such as apricots and figs on the plane, sucking and chewing on them always provides some fun, though I’m left to pick up gross bits of gummed up fruit after (still no teeth at 11 months!). Older children might even be on their best plane behavior if they know it’s a time when they’ll get a treat normally limited at home. I’ve heard of kids who grew up believing that gummy candies only existed on airplanes so they were excited and happy to fly!

Every seat is lie-flat when you’re a lap child.

While being trapped in a confined space for hours with a small and unreasonable person may not seem like ideal circumstances for a pleasant flight, there are some advantages to flying with a baby, use them as needed:

  1. No distractions: While you’re on a flight, you don’t need to worry about doing laundry, making dinner, or returning emails (I realize some planes have wifi now but they can still wait until you land). Your sole job is being with the baby and all of everyday life’s distractions and responsibilities are on hold for a few hours.
  2. (Forced) closeness: Inevitably when I’m at the grocery store or trying to finish a blog post, that’s when V demands to be taken out of her stroller and held. On a plane, she’s in my lap for the duration of the journey and that goes a long way to keeping her content. While you might want one or two free hands when it comes to eating or using the bathroom, hopefully it’ll coincide with a nap time or you can trade off with your partner or your new friendly seatmate.
  3. White noise: Some people pay actual money for white noise machines or apps to help them sleep, but that’s one thing you can always count on on a plane. I often choose seats close to the engine as the sound helps V to sleep and drowns out small noises if she’s babbling or fussing.
  4. Other people: Even if they don’t engage with her, all of the new people on a plane are a great source of entertainment to a baby. Watching the boarding process is fascinating to her and she may spend time making faces at people even if they aren’t looking at her. And while you shouldn’t expect help, every flight will have at least one parent (or even better, grandparent) that might be willing to hold your baby when you go to the bathroom or play a little peek-a-boo.
  5. Novelty: Even for a frequent flier baby like V, each airplane is a new and interesting environment with lots of distractions. There’s a seat to explore, buttons to press, announcements to hear, and a fair amount of action to observe. You’ll still want some familiar amusements after the novelty subsides, but there’s a lot going on for a baby to be happy about.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably realized that there is not much room for relaxation or entertainment for you, the parent! While you may no longer be able to pass a long flight with a “Mad Men” marathon or pop a pill to sleep through it, it’s still important to stay relaxed: babies can sense tension. Give yourself plenty of time at the airport so you aren’t rushed, and find a few ways to stay calm while watching the baby on board. I always pack crossword puzzles, both paper and on my iPad, since I can work on them for a few minutes at a time without losing my place as I would with a book or magazine. Another discovery on international flights is watching foreign films with subtitles. That way, I can watch with one earphone in (in-flight audio usually sucks anyway), keeping an ear open to any baby noises. My other secret weapon? A glass of juice for during nursing, with a tiny bottle of wine for after (as evidenced here)!
Congrats on making it through the flight, now let’s go somewhere! Soon to come, some destination-specific info on our foreign travels with a baby.

*Okay, so every baby is different and I can’t guarantee that flying with a baby can be fun or easy, but the nightmare of spending hours trapped with a screaming, smelly infant on a flying hunk of tin isn’t an inevitability. With the right attitude and planning, you can survive it, and maybe even make all those nasty online commenters eat their words. Some of this has been adapted from articles on planning travel and flying with a baby on Gadling.