Invaluable advice on plane travel with baby

In the comments of the post on Tote-A-Tot, Caitlin mentioned that she had logged 12K miles traveling solo on with her less-than-year-old baby. I was intrigued and asked her if she had any of her own tips. Here’s her amazingly detailed answer…gold for parents traveling on an airplane with a baby.

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I’ve found that the most important thing to having a good flight is a good choice in seats, and knowing when to get your child his own seat. If your child is riding in your lap, you want to get a window seat. I’m a lefty and my son’s head usually is on the left side of my body when I hold him. I always sit on the side of the plane so that hand is next to the window. That way my son is not going to be elbowed in the head by a careless neighbor. Aisle seats can work for infants, but older babies and toddlers seem to have problems not grabbing at anyone who passes by. I also try to sit in the back, since the noise/vibrations calm my son. I usually try to schedule our flight time to coincide with Paul’s normal naptime. To help him get sleepy, I do laps around our gate area, and I let him walk around a bit.

Even if your older baby/toddler can ride in your lap, sometimes it is better to get them a seat if they are very active and/or it’s really long or full flight. You never know when the girl with pink hair or the woman who wears the sequined sweatshirt is going to sit next to you. I haven’t found an airline that lets you get the young child discount online (usually around half the price of your seat).You have to call and most airlines require that you purchase both tickets at the same time. If you do this, make sure they seat your child with you. I tried to book a flight on Delta once, and I couldn’t get the sales guy to understand why it was a bad idea for a 10 month-old to not sit with his mother when there were two seats together. I ended up just changing airlines because his supervisor backed him up.

What you stock your diaper bag with is pretty important too. I usually fly into a small regional airport to visit my parents, and it is not uncommon for us to be delayed 4-9 hours. Always pack 1.5 days worth of diapers and wipes. You probably want a couple of the simple two-piece outfits, and something for you in case of a midair accident. A favorite toy that isn’t loud or annoying to your neighbors is also a must. I’ve had the best luck with small mirrors and puzzle type toys. The important thing to remember is that if you get stranded at the airport or lose your luggage, you can make do with tourist clothes and fast food, but your baby can’t.

For nursing/bottle feeding babies: If you use a hospital grade pump, it’s easier to rent one at your destination than deal with it at the airport. My hospital gave us a manual pump in the mother kit, so that’s what I used in transit.

Bottle feeding can be done, although it is a little harder for pumping moms. I have found that the coffee shop will often give me a cup of boiling water to warm a bottle in, and the flight attendents will do that too. If you pump or have a teething baby, nested mini insulated bags with the gel ice packs is the way to go. (A layer of ice packs on each side of the outer bag, with the inner bag with ice packs in the same configuration, and you store milk, etc. in the inner one.) For expressed milk, I found the ice cube trick to work a little better than using the milk collection bottles. You can store more, and they thaw faster. For formula feeding, I usually bring 1.5 days worth of formula in the little dispensers and get the large bottled waters. I buy new ones as needed on my layover. I have a carabiner for water bottles that works great and I attach to my carry-on bag.

For older babies eating solids, try to give them a heavier meal before you leave for the airport (hot cereal/oatmeal and applesauce/ diced fruit works well). I have found it easier to feed solids in between flights, and leave most of the liquid for the flight. I usually keep a few of the Gerber single serving juices in my bag. Before we board, I mix 2oz of juice with 2oz of water. When we start to take off, I offer the bottle/sippy cup so Paul can relieve the pressure on his ears by swallowing. I also do the same thing for landing. I found out the hard way that you don’t really want to feed any more than necessary in the air before your child is able to tell you if they’re getting airsick.

If the baby’s on your lap: Slings are good for younger babies, since it’s easier to stow your luggage and sit down, especially if they’re sleeping. I’ve found that some flight attendants will make you take it off for takeoff or landing, and others won’t. You can usually use it during the rest of the flight, and I’ve found it makes naps easier. Some flight attendants will make you keep the windows up during take off/landing also, so bring a pair of sunglasses or something else to shield your baby’s eyes from sunlight.

You always want to take advantage of early boarding, and you need to leave yourself at least an hour and 15 minutes between flights. That way you’re not rushed getting off the plane and being jostled by everyone. It also helps if you need to change terminals if you have a layover in an airport that uses a subway type system (Atlanta, DFW), a people mover (Dulles- IAD), or just a really long walk (Detroit). I usually look up the airport I’m flying into online and check their terminal maps before I book a flight with a shorter layover. Sometimes planes do run late, and it’s better to have 15 minutes more than to be short 15 minutes.

Especially if you’re travelling alone, get familiar with your carseat and installing it only using the lap belt. If you do early boarding, you can sit your older baby in an empty seat while you install the carseat. Since I usually sit at the back of the plane, I set my son down in the backpack carrier in the aisle, and set his carseat up. It only takes me about 4-6 minutes to set up now. If you board early and are alone, the flight attendants will often offer to hold/watch your child while you fix the carseat and go to the bathroom during the flight, especially if you sit near the back.

You always want to bring your child’s birth certificate/passport with you (it seems to be required if your child has his own seat). If you don’t share a surname with your child and you’re traveling alone, a notarized document stating the other parent is aware of the travel plans can help you get through security with fewer problems. I understand this is a must if you are traveling to a country outside of the US.

This is a DC specific tip, and only applies to National (DCA). For the first 30 minutes of a flight out of DCA and the last 30 minutes of a flight to DCA, no one can get up for any reason, not even children who need to go to the bathroom. Doing so will get your plane diverted to another airport, and it’s part of the post 9/11 security measures. If you think this might be a problem because you are toilet training or your child has a medical problem, you can fly into Dulles (IAD), which is about 25 miles from DC proper, but closer to most NoVA destinations outside of the Beltway. They are supposed to be lifting it, but when my sister flew into DCA for Christmas, they were still doing it.


  1. says

    This may be obvious, but it took me 2 flights to figure out that the airlines would check carseats for you, for free. *Much* easier than figuring out how to buy/borrow/rent one when you get to your destination.

    I also really like the Baby Bjorn for truckin’ around airports — baby in carrier, diaper bad over shoulder, multiple hands free.

    There are certain situations in life where optimal charm is called for. Air travel is one of them. How does this translate for babies or kids? For my daughter, we always dress her in something comfortable, but bright and cute, and put her hair up in pigtails. The flight attendants love it, which counts for a lot when you need help.

    Finally, I’ve discovered that you don’t need the best behaved baby on the plane — if you’re the 2nd worst behaved, no one will complain because you still look good in comparison to the worst behaved one.

  2. liz says

    Great post by Caitlin on travel. Just a few points to clarify – the baby and carseat always needs to be in the window seat, with adults on the aisle. If you travel with two kids in carseats, you need to be in a plane configuration with 3 seats on the window, and not many planes have this so you have to ask when you book on the phone. If you don’t use a carseat your kids can sit almost anywhere, but it is the carseat the airlines track. Don’t be too confident that you will always be allowed to pre-board. United didn’t let me despite being really early at the gate, and flying alone with twins (and two carseats). In a pinch work on a backup plan or think about checking a carseat if needed.

  3. says

    “You never know when the girl with pink hair or the woman who wears the sequined sweatshirt is going to sit next to you.”

    You mean you wouldn’t want to sit next to the girl with the pink hair? I’m astonished!


  4. says

    Liz: I think the girl with pink hair would mind us sitting next to her than we mind her sitting next to us. All that brightly colored hair is a magnet for little grabby hands ;).

  5. Heather says

    We have flown four times with our 6 month old. I have yet to purchase a seat but have gotten lucky in asking to be seated in a row with an empty seat. If seats are available, the agent can block out the empty seat, making it available for baby in his carseat. Each time (US Air) my request was honored. Once I was told no at the counter but yes by the gate agent. I always asked with a smile.

    If you are planning on taking a car seat onto the plane, make sure it is approved. We witnessed a nasty situation when a family purchased a ticket for an infant but their carrier either lacking the information sticker or was not approved for airline use. The stewardesses would not allow the parents to use the carseat. It got so bad, the stewardess had to get the captain. The carseat was eventually removed and checked.

  6. says

    If you plan to ever travel out of the US anytime soon, get you kid a passport. Soon this will be necessary, but beat the rush now.

    Last week we got hasseled at Mexican immigration for only having a birth certificate and no photo id for our three year old.

    “Where is is photo id?”

    “Umm, he’s three.”

    “I didn’t ask how old he was, I asked where his photo id is.”

    We then had to endure a long diatribe about a massive problem with the exploitation of children and such. Our 15min in immigration with an impatient three year old who wanted to get to the beach would have been 15 seconds if we had his passport.

  7. dude says

    does anyone have advice for VERY long haul flights? we will be going to asia in the summer, baby will be 1yr old, and has never flown.

    i.e., get them their own seat? how does carrying a baby work if u dont have a separate seat?

  8. says

    To Dude above – for advice on travelling with littlies long distance – post the question on the Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree “Kids To Go” thread ( – and/or search their archives – lots of great advice!

    Some airlines have bassinets that flip down from the wall (usually in the front row) – talk to your airline to see if the flight you’re taking has them. If they do, you may not need to buy your baby a seat. Also, I’ve had better luck getting infant fares (sometimes only 10% of normal fare!) with international flights and carriers.

    Good luck with your trip!

  9. says

    Please note as there are some corrections.
    -No carrier can be worn for take-off and landing. The child must be loose in your lap. A carrier could result in crushing your child in forward impact. It’s not the decision of the F/A. It’s a safety rule and if Caitlyn managed to “get away” with it, she was risking her child.

    -The only way to fly safely with a child is in a carseat. Within the U.S., it must have a FAA sticker.

    -Carseats don’t always have to go by the window. They just can’t block another passenger. I ride often in bulkhead seats and put ours’ in the center.

    -Using a bassinet is no replacement for a carseat. It’s less safe but convenient. I’ve used both on the same flight.

    -It’s not totally necessary to suck during take-off and landing. It’s a good idea at the start of descent. When they start preparing the cabin for landing, that’s the time. No need to remove a baby from a carseat during the most dangerous moments of the flight if bfed.

    More info on the blog. Flying is safe, crazy but safe!

    Flight Attendant for 13 years, mom for 7, transaltantics every 6 months, usually alone with three

  10. missnell says

    Hoping someone can offer hints on how to work with a squirmy 11-mo-old who needs to fly x-country (with one stop). We had to change our plans abruptly as my mom is dying. I need to take the Kiddo alone. We don’t have a spare seat for her. I am so grateful for all the helpful hints, but she is at the crawly fussy clingy stage, only made worse by the past week’s family crisis. help!