Babes on a Plane
Special airline rules apply for infant fliers
Remember life before kids, when you would see a parent coming down the airplane aisle with a babe in arms and you would chant to yourself “don’t sit by me, don’t sit by me”? Flash forward and now it’s your turn to accept the dirty looks, rolled eyes and veiled smiles from your cabin mates.
Never mind the strangers. Your job is to get through the flight with your child content and your sanity intact. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Depending on the airline, a newborn must be at least 7 to 14 days old and may require a doctor’s note before being allowed to fly so fresh from the womb.
Most airlines allow babies under 2 to travel without purchasing a seat. The baby will have to sit on your lap and be restrained by a lap belt that attaches to your own seat belt (you might have to ask a flight attendant for this). Some airlines even have a few seats with bassinettes on board, which is ideal for long haul flights.
Check your airline for availability plus age and weight restrictions. Prearrange this ahead of time, and reconfirm just to be safe. If your budget allows and the flight is more than an hour or two long, you might want to consider buying a seat for your baby anyways. These are often 50% discounted fares and will make for a more comfortable flight for the both of you. You’ll have to bring an FAA-approved car seat to secure in with the seatbelts, and note you won’t be able to sit in an emergency exit row.
Many airlines will let you tag and take a stroller right to the gate and retrieve it for you at the door when you deplane (you may have to wait a bit, so you might as well stay in your seat until the other passengers have exited). This can be helpful if you have cabin baggage, a diaper bag and a squirmy or sleeping baby to contend with.
You will have to take the stroller through the security checkpoint, which means unloading your baby (yes, even if asleep) and all the stroller compartments and side-pockets of all contents. This can make for a bit of a one-handed juggling act if you’re not prepared and organized ahead of time. You’ll also have to fold it up when you leave it at the gate otherwise the baggage handlers will find a creative way to compact it for you.
Check with your airline for the latest information, as the rules keep changing. Some only accept umbrella strollers at the gate, which aren’t suitable for small babies. Some airlines count a stroller and car seat towards your baggage allotment while others give you a free pass on these necessities. Read the fine print.
Speaking of fine print, are you savvy to the 3-1-1 rule? The latest regulations are that you are allowed to pack liquids, gels or aerosols in your cabin baggage provided they are in containers of three ounces maximum, that they are stored in one single quart sized zip-lock bag and are presented to the Security Officers for inspection, one per person. There are certain exceptions for medications and special circumstances (see The Transportation Security Administration for up to date information). Of particular relevance to traveling parents, you are now permitted to carry breast milk, formula, water, juice, liquid/gel-filled teethers and commercial baby food in quantities greater than 3 ounces, providing it is a reasonable amount for the flight and you declare it to the Security Officers for inspection. You can also purchase beverages and other items in the airport shops once you’re through security and take them on the plane.
Not all airlines offer a pre-boarding courtesy for people with small children anymore. If you have to fold up a stroller, wrestle with a car seat plus juggle a diaper bag, hand luggage and a squirmy cherub, it can be a bit of a hassle to wait in line with your crowd of fellow travelers. If you feel you need the extra time and space to get settled in, assert yourself at the gate and ask to board first. The airline staff will usually take pity on you. On the flip side, if you have a older, active baby who has discovered the joys of rolling, crawling, toddling, running and climbing, you might want to hang out in the spacious airport for as long as possible and be the last to board. Why coop up your kid any longer than necessary?
Some babies experience ear discomfort, especially at take-off and landing. Offer something to suck on (bottle, breast, pacifier/soother) as the repeated swallowing action can help relieve pressure in the Eustachian tubes.
Organize your carry-on baggage so you can keep small essentials at your feet or in the seat pocket in front of you. If you store everything in the overhead bins and the captain has the “fasten your seatbelts” sign on, it may be a while before you can access your supplies. Keep a bottle (if bottle feeding), a pacifier/soother/dummy (if using), a blanket/cloth, snacks, water bottle for breastfeeding mom, a mini-diaper kit and a pen handy (for filling out forms). If you’re really optimistic, add a book or magazine to the list but don’t count on having a leisurely read.
When you book a seat for your solid-food-eating baby, you may be able to pre-order a special infant meal (meal service depends on the airline and how long the flight is). Like all airplane food, the quality and presentation might not be pleasing to your baby’s palate. It might be best to cart your own supplies of nourishment – enough to get your hungry one through the flight and an unexpected delay. Don’t forget the bibs, spoons and wipes.
Larger airplanes are usually equipped with a changing table shelf which flips down over the toilet. As you can imagine, it’s a bit cramped in there with no room for your mega-diaper bag, so be organized with a handy mini-kit of essential supplies – change pad, diaper, wipes, ointments, zip-lock bag for dirty diapers and/or clothes.
There probably won’t be any means to secure the baby down there, so you’ll have to master the art of the one-handed change while you hold junior down with the other hand. Easier said than done, but try to time your changes for off times such as the middle of the movie rather than just after a meal when the masses are queuing up to use the facilities. You can’t rely on the kindness of strangers to let you ahead of the line, especially if your little cherub has been rather “vocal” on the flight.