Flying with Babies & Toddlers – In-Flight
This is Part Three in a series about flying with babies and toddlers. This post is about time spent at the gate, boarding and during the actual flight.
At the Gate
- If your baby will be flying on your lap, it never hurts to ask the gate agent if there will be an empty seat available for your little one.
- Take the opportunity to pre-board/family board when you can, especially if you are flying on Southwest Airlines. When flying with them, family boarding begins after the A Group has finished boarding. If you aren’t flying Southwest and have a toddler who loves to run around, then I don’t recommend pre-boarding. Let them run around as long as possible and then board the airplane near the end. This is one I have learned the hard way.
- If you are gate-checking your car seat, bring a large plastic bag, as well. That way you can put it the car seat the bag to avoid it getting dirty in the belly of the airplane. Sometimes airline employees will have one at the ticket counter when you check in or at the gate if you are gate-checking. But they don’t always have them, so it’s better to bring your own. Some car seat companies make zipper bags specifically for this reason, spending the money is up to you.
- If you are gate-checking a stroller, pick up a gate-check tag from the gate agent. I recommend picking up the tag right when you get to the gate, before boarding. The gate agent will appreciate it because then they won’t have to do it while everyone is boarding. It helps keep the boarding process running a little smoother. Also, fold down the stroller yourself and place it at the end of the jet bridge or the bottom of mobile stairs so a Ground Ops person can load it onto the plane. Don’t expect them to fold the stroller down for you— that’s a recipe for something getting broken.
- Not all babies are affected by the change in air pressure, but to avoid potential discomfort, I recommend nursing or bottle-feeding when the plane is landing. If you’re on a flight that shows your current altitude on a screen, start when the aircraft descends past 20,000 feet. This is especially helpful if your baby is suffering from a cold or allergies. If your baby is sick with either a cold, ear infection or allergies, it’s possible that they will have some discomfort while taking off too, but it’s rare. For some babies, a pacifier can work in place of a bottle or nursing.
- This will vary on the airline, but some flight attendants will tell you that you have to remove your baby from a sling, wrap or carrier for the flight. Some will say it’s only OK for take-off and landing. The reason behind this is that no baby carrier is FAA approved as an appropriate restraint when flying. It’s a head-scratcher for me, because if a baby is flying on your lap, the baby carrier would likely be safer than your arms in the event of severe turbulence or hard breaking on the runway, but I’m sure it has a lot to do with liability. Don’t fight with the flight attendant on this, they are just doing their job, they don’t make the rules.
- You have every legal right to breastfeed your baby on the plane. If you can get a window seat, you will probably be more comfortable. It is always possible that you’ll end up sitting next to someone who isn’t comfortable with it, and it’s made worse since they can’t get up and go somewhere else. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can take the opportunity to educate your seat mate on the benefits of breastfeeding for both mom and baby, and explain that their minor discomfort is much better than dealing with a screaming baby. I’ve never had anyone give me any trouble while nursing on the plane. We were pros at nursing discreetly, without a cover, by the time my son was eight months old. I would not recommend covering yourself with a blanket that the flight attendant provides— many times they are not clean.
- Does your little one use a pacifier? I recommend getting a pacifier strap to keep it secure and safe from falling on the floor. This can also work with a favorite teething toy. Most airlines don’t shampoo the carpets very often. For us, the five second rule does not apply to airplane floors. Yuck!
- Pack a few extra toys or whatever will keep your baby or toddler occupied on the plane. From my experience, flying with an infant was way easier than flying with a toddler, especially one who doesn’t want to remain seated. With our toddler, we have found that the items in the seat back pocket and a plastic cup from the flight attendant make excellent toys. My son currently loves to look at the “drink book” when there’s a drink/snack menu in the seat back pocket. If we’re going to be on a long-ish flight (longer than 2 or 3 hours), my husband and I will often bring a new toy that he doesn’t get to open until we’re in the air. Loading a couple of his favorite Muppet videos onto my husband’s iPod sometimes helps in extreme cases of fidgetiness or crankiness. When flying international, the iPad came in handy too. Just make sure that any electronic device is shut off during take-off and landing.
- Have a fidgety toddler or one who’s in dire need of a nap and on the verge of a meltdown? If your toddler has their own seat, do everything in your power to make sure they are seated, with their seat belt fastened, once the aircraft doors have closed. The FAA mandates that all passengers who have their own seat be seated with seat belts fastened when the airplane is taxiing, regardless of tantrum status. A family made the news this year because they were asked to deplane when their child wouldn’t stay in her seat with her seat belt fastened mid-tantrum. It’s a nightmare for every parent, so do your best to avoid the situation.
- Almost all commercial aircraft restrooms have changing tables. Sometimes only one of the restrooms will have one. Use them! Please don’t change your baby’s diaper on the tray table, we eat off of them. And do not, I repeat, DO NOT leave dirty diapers in the seat back pocket. It’s not a garbage can and it’s really gross.
- If your baby becomes that baby, and cries on the plane, try your best not to let it stress you out. (Easier said than done, I know!) Your baby will likely sense your heightened stress and it will be harder for them to calm down. It happens. Other passengers will get over it. Don’t let nasty looks and comments get to you. I once saw a mom with a colicky baby bring a dozen or so sets of earplugs and offer them to her neighboring passengers. She had to fly to a funeral and knew her son was going to be that baby. I thought it was a nice gesture.
- Is your toddler or young child fascinated with airplanes and flying? If you pre-board early enough, your child might be able to sneak a peak at the flight deck when the pilots are doing their pre-flight checks. Sometimes the pilots are too busy, but sometimes they’re friendly and will show your child what some of the buttons do. It will always vary on the pilots and the airline, but it never hurts to ask the flight attendant.
- Many airlines make plastic wings as a souvenir for kids. They usually have some adhesive on the back so your child can wear it on their shirt. Just ask a flight attendant if they have any. We’ve been able to get some wings from a couple of different airlines. Once my son was done playing with them, they went into his baby book.
In conclusion, I know these are a lot of tips for what is only a small portion of your trip. Like I said at the very beginning, many of these tips are what have worked best for us. You have to do what works best for you, your child and your family, all while adhering to the rules set forth by the FAA and the TSA. Hopefully, we can make air travel a fun adventure for our kids in our post 9-11 world.
By Alex T.
Alex is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area currently living in Utah with her hubby where she's a work-at-home-mom to her rambunctious son TJ (born Oct 09). She loves to travel, loves art and art history, soccer, photography, and is a little bit of a foodie. When she's not chasing after her son or working for Mama Say What?!, she's running her graphic design and illustration business. Check out her website (alextebow.com) and her Etsy shop (alextebowdesigns.etsy.com) to see the most recent projects she's done.