So one thing I’ve already learned about traveling with my son is that every flight is different.
On his first flight age three months, it was easy (I now realize). He was completely immobile and I was his entire world. For the duration of the flight, he just wanted to be held by me and breastfeed. As long as I had an emergency bag prepared, we were fine. Today at age 3 plus, he’s back to being easy again provided there is entertainment on the flight and that he isn’t confined to his seat for the entire trip. Over the past few years there have been some ups and downs.
Due to living abroad and my husband’s job, our toddler has clocked over 30 flights (my count includes every leg of a trip so every take off and landing). I’ve received a lot of excellent advice and wanted to catalogue some of what I’ve learned. Meanwhile, I am still processing the fact that I didn’t have my passport until my late teens/early 20s and my son had and used his by three months.
You should have an emergency bag of baby clothes with multiple changes depending on the accessibility of your suitcase. This is where the slipper socks come in handy. Weighing less than 5 ounces a pair, these are awesome to pack. (I have him wear some and take some when I dress him before getting on the plane.) Bring lots of diapers or pull-ups, wipes (lots and lots of wipes), creams, blanket, hand sanitizer (if you are against sanitizers use a small bottle with soapy water), Baby Tylenol or Advil, drinking vessels and food options. (Note: make sure you pack medicine, food and drink options in a separate ziplock to present to Homeland Security). Take at least one extra shirt for you and if you have room a pair of pants.
As far as toys to bring and things to keep them occupied, think about their developmental level and give them a few surprises. For a long time, I could just bring soft tactile toys that he could play with and throw around ― now it is small books, cars, toy figures, train engines, regular stickers, drawing stuff and reusable stickers (Melissa and Doug have some great ones that kept our son busy while we hung out for seven hours in an airport in St. Thomas). There are tons of magnetic toys like @tegu where you don’t need to worry as much about losing things. We also use an iPad with tons of apps and videos, which I know some people will not want to do. Before a trip I generally download new age appropriate shows or apps and order (or grab from the excess toy stash) a few new toys and books.
I would empty and pack away my diaper bag because it wasn’t enough space to bring everything I needed and instead used a soft bag like a Longchamp bag. I liked to take dog poop bags or ziplock bags to dispose of dirty diapers and the unending stream of trash we seem to create. I included a diaper changing pad and possibly a larger baby blanket as airplane bathrooms are often hideous places to change a child. (One flight attendant informed me that I had to change my six month old only in the airplane bathroom, which I readily agreed to only to discover that there was no diaper changing area. He thought I could just throw the kid on top of the toilet seat or do it on the bathroom floor. Note to self: Never agree to anything when it comes to baby.) When he was breastfeeding, I figured people would prefer to catch sight of my breasts rather than hear a baby scream for two to eight hours so I always had a breastfeed as much as he wanted rule on planes. (Happily, I never had to use the just in case response I had for potential hecklers: “This is actually what breasts are for, they are not just for motor boating.”) Obviously you want your child breastfeeding or doing something that requires swallowing so his/her ears don’t hurt on take offs and landings. We also make a game of yawning during take offs and landings so his ears will pop.
We also set things up for potential sleep by putting him in his pajamas or leaving him in his pajamas for most flights even in the mornings. People seem much more open to us and amused by him when he is in footy pajamas.
It’s an Adventure
Flying can be stressful but we try to cut down on that message and instead present the flight and trip as an adventure. He’s always been interested in people so he really enjoys public spaces. We try to get as much energy out in the airport before boarding the flight.
I’ve read where parents bring little candy packets to hand out to people on planes with an explanation that your little one doesn’t really fly and please be kind. These packets often include offers of earplugs. I kept meaning to do this but I never did and I guess I figure at this age we are past the phase. Of course, each trip could prove me wrong. Instead, we try to engage the people around us with the little guy and let them all talk and chat. I try to give off a “we’re all in this together, so we can make it” vibe, which with a few exceptions has worked well. People have offered to carry our bags, get our things from the overhead, hold my son, help with the stroller and they have stepped in at other various points along the way.
One thing we learned to do is if we are traveling together as a family, we book the aisle and window seat and let someone else sit in between us. If there are empty seats somewhere else on the plane, your middle seater is more likely to move to an empty seat even if it is another middle seat. If there aren’t empty seats, we wait until the plane is completely full and offer to change seats. (If you offer to switch before, most likely they won’t move from their new aisle or window seat to a middle seat elsewhere on the plane.) If I am traveling alone with the kiddo, I ask the stewardess to move whomever sits next to me, which they usually try to do. I always try to book the window seat so that he is trapped. Some people prefer the opposite so that they have easy access to the aisles or bathrooms but my son sees the aisle as an invitation, which doesn’t always work.
And finally when booking your flight remember children usually are happiest and therefore fly better in the morning. We’ve had to fly overnight multiple times and discovered that our son rarely sleeps much or at all. He is just too excited. That means I don’t get that precious sleep I desperately need. Imagine how well it went being alone with a child on three hours of sleep and in a foreign country that is eight hours ahead!
If you’ve got some travel tips that you think I should add, please comment on Facebook, Instagram or contact me through www.hugbugshoes.com. A version of this post was originally published on the Baltimore Post Examiner website.
Sarah Abruzzese is a former journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications. She currently lives in California where she runs children’s shoe company Hug Bug Shoes. She writes in her spare time.