In the short eight months my son has been around, we’ve gone on no less than four trips requiring flying. Flying there and back. With layovers. So that’s a grand total of 16 flights. And all but the last trip I did without my husband, just me and the kid. I’d say that I’m now officially a pro at flying with a baby. But when I was preparing for our first flight when my son was a mere five weeks old, I scanned the internet desperately trying to get as much information as I could to prepare myself. What should I bring? What could go on the plane, what would have to be checked, and what would I have to hope we could scrounge up at our destination? And, rather importantly, what would we have to pay extra for? I found a lot of information, but it wasn’t as much as I would have liked, and it was on all sorts of different websites. So I’ve decided to compile everything I’ve learned here for the benefit of anyone who could use it.
Much of this information will carry over into non-flying trips as well. I’m including links to some products. I’ve largely formula-fed for most of my experience, so there may be information about breastmilk and pumping supplies that I don’t know. Sorry.
Packing List #1: The Suitcase
You will probably share space in your own suitcase, but you will almost definitely check this suitcase if you are traveling alone with the baby. Because there is no way in hell you are going to wrangle a baby, a diaper bag, and a carry-on by yourself. You can try, but it will be very difficult, and you will end up needing to enlist the help of airport staff/flight attendants/helpful strangers.
- Clothes: Pack enough clothes for as many days as you will be at your destination plus backup clothes because your baby will inevitably spit up, blow-out, or leak pee on at least half of his clothes. This includes everyday shirts/onesies, pants, socks, sweaters, and jammies as well as special, impossible-to-put-on miniature-adult clothes for weddings or whatever. Depending on the season, pack cold-weather gear in the suitcase, because you really don’t want to deal with that shit on the plane.
- Sleeping paraphernalia: Do you use a sound machine? A sleep sack? A monitor? A special sleepy-time toy? A bedtime book? All of these things have to go with you.
- Bottles: Depending on how long you’ll be traveling, you might get away with only a couple of bottles in your diaper bag, but if you need extras, they go in the suitcase. And if you will need more formula than what you are packing in the diaper bag, pack extra in the suitcase. But remember, there are likely places to buy formula at your destination, so don’t go overboard.
- Diapers: Again, you’ll have some in your diaper bag, and stores at your destination will have some, but I always toss about half a pack of diapers in the suitcase. I use cloth diapers at home, but that WILL NOT WORK on a trip, so use disposables for the duration.
- Extra toys: You’ll want a few in the diaper bag, but anything beyond two or so will have to go in the suitcase. Don’t pack too many. Babies will survive with just a couple of toys.
- Your own stuff: Don’t forget to leave a bit of room for your own clothes, shoes, toiletries, and makeup. I pack a bit lighter these days, which helps.
Packing List #2: The Diaper Bag
This will be your carry-on, so put your stuff in it as well as the baby’s. But don’t make it too heavy, because that will be a pain in the ass to tote around.
- Diapers: I tend to pack one diaper for every hour we’re traveling. This is a precaution; I won’t use all of them, but I DO NOT want to run out. Again, disposable diapers are a must.
- Wipes: Absolutely. You’ll need these for many reasons, but you really don’t want to run out when there’s an emergency poop.
- Bottles: I always pack two empty bottles. You need to feed the baby upon ascent and descent to keep his ears clear. Depending on the length of the flight, the baby might not be hungry for both, so you’ve got to try to get him to drink water. I use one bottle for formula and one for water. These can be reasonably reused in the same day if you don’t get a chance for a decent cleaning. I usually just rinse out in the bathroom at a layover.
- Formula: I over-pack formula just in case, but I bring the smaller can, not the big tub. You’ll have to measure and mix on the plane, so make sure you do whatever is easiest for you. Some people portion out the powder into a different container with single-serving compartments, which works fine if you have one of those. I sometimes portion out dry powder into its bottle before leaving home.
- Other feeding gear: Bibs or cloths that double as bibs. Depending on the baby’s age, you might need crackers or a small portion of food. I’ve tended to skip feeding my baby food on trips and primarily relied on formula to get through, but there is something to be said for a cracker or teething biscuit to soothe a cranky baby.
- Toys: Bring at least one or two toys to distract the baby. Small items like interlocking rings or Sophie the Giraffe work well. Especially toys that can be washed off. If the baby uses a pacifier, bring a few in case you lose one or one drops on the disgusting airport bathroom floor. Get a pacifier clip that attaches the pacifier to his shirt to avoid such an eventuality.
- Medications: Teething gel, diaper crème, eye drops, whatever, make sure you don’t forget necessaries for the baby or yourself.
- Blanket: Have at least one blanket. I tend to have one that’s on the baby and one rolled up and stored in the bag.
- Extra baby clothes: be prepared for a disaster or two. I recommend at least two tops and one pair of pants in the diaper bag. You may want an extra shirt for yourself just in case, but I tend to skip that, knowing that I can live with a bit of grossness, and that airports ALWAYS have somewhere to buy a t-shirt in an emergency.
- Your stuff: Kindle, iPod, wallet, phone, lipstick, charging cable, etc. I’ve consolidated my iPod and Kindle onto my iPhone; hurray for apps. You will not be able to deal with a computer, so don’t even try. If you need your laptop at your final destination, put it in the checked bag.
- Snacks: Throw a couple of protein bars in your bag. Because you never know when you’ll be starving but not able to get to a food counter.
The Big Stuff
- Car seat and stroller: You have to have a car seat if you’re planning on being in a car. For infant carriers, you don’t need to bring the base. There are a few ways to do the car seat. Car seats and strollers can be checked at the counter for free. Or you can check them at the gate, also for free (as long as the stroller is compact; we only had a huge jogger for a long time). If you have a compact stroller that the infant carrier fits in, or one of those wheely things that the bigger car seat will fit into, then check at the gate. If you don’t have a stroller that will work, I recommend checking at the counter if you have another way to carry the baby. I’ve carried the infant carrier without a stroller, and it’s okay, but it gets really freakin’ heavy by the end of the trip. A baby carrier (Bjorn, Ergo, or the like) or sling works well if it isn’t too warm, and if you don’t mind being in constant contact with one another for several hours. An umbrella stroller is ideal if the baby is big enough. Starting around six months, whenever he’s stable enough to hold his head up and starting to sit, a compact stroller with a bit of back support will work. Make sure the straps will keep him from sliding out. I don’t recommend using the umbrella strollers that are just a fabric sling until the baby’s a little bit older; they’re just a little too floppy.
- A crib: If you have are driving, take along a pack ‘n play. Flying requires other options. You can always check a pack ‘n play, but there are ways to avoid the check fee. If you are staying at a hotel, ask if they have cribs available, most do. If you are staying with someone, see if they can borrow a portable crib from someone. When we went to visit my family in Oklahoma we always borrowed a crib from my aunt. We also borrowed a baby tub, which was nice, but those aren’t absolutely necessary. In some situations, I’ve heard of renting baby equipment like cribs, but I don’t know the details about what companies do this.
Some Things to Consider
- Babies under two fly free if you keep them in your lap. Make sure you inform the airline when buying your ticket if you have a baby, because they need to be able to track it. Certain airlines require documentation that your baby is under two, so you might want to carry a copy of the birth certificate with you. American doesn’t require documentation.
- There are ways to make flying easier that simply cost more money. You can check bags and other items, which generally costs $25 per bag. Southwest allows one free bag per person. You can buy a seat for the baby and strap the carseat to the seat.
- You will have to figure out how to wrangle your gear, the baby, and yourself in the bathroom. This can be done best when baby-wearing or with a small stroller.
- Feed during take-off and landing. This eases the pressure in babies’ ears.
- Unless you bought a seat for your baby (in which case sit back and relax a little), you will be in very close contact with the baby throughout the flight. You’ll want to put that child down to reclaim your bodily autonomy during any layovers. If you don’t have a carseat or stroller, you can make a temporary crib on a bench our of blankets and coats.
- Smaller babies are ideal because they can go right to sleep. Sleep-trained babies, teething babies, and toddlers will not go to sleep easily.
- Older babies and toddlers squirm. Be prepared to spend the whole flight distracting, entertaining, and feeding that baby while trying to keep him from kicking the seat in front of you. Be prepared for some frustration and try to keep as calm as possible.
- Airplane bathrooms have changing tables. You pull it down from above the toilet. Avoid taking the whole diaper bag into the minuscule bathroom by simply taking a diaper and wipes in with you.
- You can generally find diapers, wipes, and formula for purchase in the airport in an emergency. Ask if you need it. You cannot find bottles. Advice from personal experience: Try to avoid leaving your bottles drying in the hotel room, only to realize you’ve forgotten them when you’re about to board your flight home. We barely scraped by with a souvenir sippy cup (which the baby had to struggle to drink from) and some apple sauce from the extremely generous USO, but I don’t know what I would have done with a younger baby.
- Flight attendants and airport workers can be very helpful. Ask if you need help.
- Trips generally mean getting a baby out of his routine. This can be easy if the baby is young and will still sleep in the carseat wherever you are. It is hellish with an older, sleep-trained, and/or teething baby. Be prepared for some extra crankiness. Build some flexibility into your plans; you can’t stick around at a quiet event when your baby is screaming. Expect to carry, walk around with, and soothe a baby, especially if you’re out later than bedtime.
Okay, I hope this list is helpful. I really would have liked a comprehensive list when I was getting ready for my first trip. Travel can be stressful, especially with a baby. And the older babies get, the more they’re awake and the more they squirm and fuss. Try to travel with a partner (spouse, parent, friend), but you CAN do it solo. I promise. And have as much fun as you can at your destination. Babies add complications, but they don’t keep you from having a good time altogether. Have I left anything out? Got any questions? Let me know.