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A Survival Guide for Flying with a Baby for the First Time

Whether it's for a family vacation or visiting relatives, air travel is a necessity for passengers of all ages. Infants and toddlers CAN travel well, so long as their travel companions are well-prepared.
09/10/2015 02:53pm ET | Updated September 10, 2016
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Thanks to reports of families being removed from airplanes, and the never-ending debate over "family sections" on flights, flying with a baby may seem like more trouble than it's worth. But don't put off your family travel dreams out of fear. Whether it's for a family vacation or visiting relatives, air travel is a necessity for passengers of all ages. Infants and toddlers CAN travel well, so long as their travel companions are well-prepared.

I joke that the bag I once lived out of for six weeks in Europe wouldn't hold all the diapers I brought for our first family vacation when my daughter was 11-months-old. Now there's no need to start pricing out pack mules just yet, but following a good carry-on packing list won't leave you pining for a forgotten item at 30,000 feet.

The main bases you need to cover when flying with a baby are eating, sleeping, and getting around. A well-fed, well-rested, and comfortable baby is usually a quiet and happy one, so your fellow passengers will thank you. No need to hand out treat bags to adult passengers who can take care of themselves. Save that space in your carry-on for stuff for your baby.

Eating
A hungry baby is usually a grumpy baby, so feeding is one way to keep baby happy on board. Plus, it's hard to cry or scream when there is a nipple or teething biscuit in your mouth. If your flight times are close to feeding times, try to hold off until you're on board, as eating on a plane has other benefits for tiny travelers.

Babies have narrower Eustachian tubes, and changes in cabin pressure during take-off and landing can cause extra pain for them. Swallowing helps relieve the pressure, and that can come in the form of nursing, a bottle, or a pacifier. If your baby is a lap infant, they are supposed to be held in the burping position during these times, but you can certainly breastfeed in this position.

When traveling with a baby under two, you are exempt from carry-on liquid restrictions. Keep all of baby's food and drink together in an insulated bag so it's easy to show for security inspections, and use frozen puree instead of ice packs to keep it all cool. In case of delays, bring at least two more meals than you think you will need. Before your trip, get baby used to room temperature food and bottles -- it will save you the hassle of heating while you're en route.

Sleeping
A tired baby is usually a grumpy baby, so maintaining naps and sleep routines is essential for your sanity. Try to book flights around nap times, as the drone and vibration of a plane often helps baby drift off. But my kids were too nosy to fall asleep, so I booked flights for the morning when they were typically most cheerful. For red eye flights, bring pajamas on board and follow your usual bedtime routine as best you can. Nutritionist Lianne Phillipson-Webb of Sprout Right recommends a snack of oatmeal and milk to help induce sleepiness. If you do decide to try tranquilizing with anti-histamine or an anti-nausea medication, be careful; it may have the opposite effect and make your child hyper and irritable instead of drowsy. Before using any medication, consult with your doctor.

Getting Around
Both the Federal Aviation Administration and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority strongly recommend purchasing a seat for your baby, which means you will also need to bring on board an FAA-approved car seat. Having a purchased ticket also means your baby will have the same luggage allotments as any other paying passenger. But for lap infants, each airline has its own policies regarding baggage and gear. Make sure you double check with your carrier about gate-checking strollers and car seats, and if you are allowed to bring an additional diaper bag on board. Choosing a family-friendly or baby-friendly airline can make your life easier.

Bringing a stroller is always a good idea, as it can also be a bed, a high chair, and--when you need one--a baby "jail". Including a soft carrier or sling means your stroller can also work as a trolley. You will not be allowed to wear your baby during take-off and landing, but a carrier or sling will keep your baby close and your hands free during your flight. Be careful when raising and lowering the armrests between seats, they can severely pinch or cut little fingers and toes.

So take a deep breath and take advantage of any family pre-boarding available to get organized before everyone else boards.

You got this.

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Corinne McDermott is the founder of Have Baby Will Travel, a website with a mission to inspire, motivate, and help families travel with babies, toddlers, and young children. Connect with her via Facebook or Twitter.

A version of this article first appeared on her site.