When we took four month old Baby Bird on his first flight, I was nervous. And anxious. And restless. And everything in between. As the day approached I repeatedly played through every nightmare scenario in my head - he screams non-stop for the duration of the flight, he poops himself so bad and so many times he ruins all of the clothes I have packed for him, he vomits all over the seat next to us including the passenger sitting in it - and I almost convinced myself it wasn't worth doing. (Have I mentioned I'm currently suffering from a bout of post-natal anxiety!?!) But then I looked at our future and the things I wanted to do and all the places we want to take you and I started telling all the crazy in my head where to go. I also spoke with a friend who had done a number of flights with her little one and spent a little time researching how best to fly with a baby under six months. So these are my tips based on my experience of flying with a young baby.
Tips for flying with a baby under six months
Before I continue, it's time to fess up that the flight was an easy one - a short hop from Amsterdam to London - but any flight involves the key things that I think most parents are most fearful of; getting around the airport (and through security), take-off and landing. While I've only got these two flights under my belt (and one I did solo) so I'm no means an expert, I do hope these tips will help other worried mums and dads prepare and possibly even enjoy their first flight with a baby under the age of six months.
Pack (well) ahead of time
This is one thing we didn't do and it cost us a whole load of calm. Because our flight was in the afternoon I naively thought a morning was enough time to pack bags for two people (NewMan can just about manage to pack his own suitcase these days) and to make sure I had everything I needed in hand luggage without being a ridiculous amount of stuff that I then wouldn't be able to carry (see below). It was enough time but that was only because I was running around three times as fast as I would have liked, often with baby in my arms or with him crying in the background. I should have known this wouldn't have worked out well as babies aren't predictable and you need a lot of "contingency" time whenever you try to do anything with one in tow. By the time we got to the airport I didn't care how Baby Bird was behaving, I was too busy trying to keep my eyes open and my arms down due to the stress-sweats I'd experienced that morning. (Of course, consider this an alternative tip for your first flight with a baby!). If only I'd packed one or both of our bags the night before, I would have avoided a lot of racing around.
Carry your baby in a sling or carrier
This really saved the day for us as it meant I had two hands free nearly all the time - to carry luggage, present boarding passes to airport staff, to unpack my laptop at security etc. - and it also kept Baby Bird calm and quiet, and often asleep. The best part was also finding out that airports are happy for you to keep the baby in the sling as you go through security; you may just have to go through an extra thorough body search where you try to hold the sling and baby away from your body - easier said than done!
Keep hand luggage to a minimum
I've long learnt to travel with minimal hand luggage, especially for short haul flights. If I have checked-in luggage then I rarely pack liquids in my hand luggage and always keep my laptop near the top of my case or bag to avoid taking a long time or throwing around my dirty underwear at security. I found the same principles were very helpful when travelling with a young baby. Because I'm breastfeeding, we were very lucky that we didn't have to worry about bottles or formula so the only liquids we had were my lip balm and Baby Bird's nappy rash cream at security. However, the minimal hand luggage comes into its own once you're on the plane with limited space and a baby on your lap taking up most of it. Essentially all I had in my hand luggage was mine and Baby Bird's passports, our boarding passes, my wallet, phone and what I would have in my usual nappy bag (i.e. fold-up changing mat, nappies, wipes, nappy bags/bags for dirty clothes, a couple of muslin cloths, a spare set of clothes for BB, spare top for me, two toys and a couple of dummies). But the bag we have also deserves a mention. It's one of these multi-purpose bags with several different straps/ways to carry it.
Don't bring what you can buy
Unless you're going somewhere completely off the grid - and good luck with that if you have a little baby! - there's no point packing any of your bags with stuff you can buy in your destination. As long as you have enough wipes, nappies, creams etc. for the first 24 hours, you can then pick up everything else you need. Too much luggage can slow down any traveller but when you have a baby to (literally) juggle, too many bags or too heavy bags could (again possibly literally) break your back.
It doesn't have to suck... but it may help if the baby does.
It being your baby, that is. My main panic was about BB's ears on take-off and landing and so I had breast, dummy and all my fingers ready for him to suck at those times. Of course, in true Baby Bird fashion he didn't want any of them. And... you know what? He was absolutely fine. Even as our ears popped he sat in my lap and seemed completely oblivious to any kind of discomfort and when I did the return flight on my own a week later, he was exactly the same although he did take the dummy as we started to descend, and then he was actually asleep by the time we landed - and he very rarely falls asleep on my lap these days.
My advice here then is try to get your baby to suck on something, but don't panic if he or she doesn't. If your little one is anything like ours he or she will naturally have a lot of dribble and saliva going on in their mouth so maybe they're just much better at swallowing than we give them credit for. And if you are planning on breastfeeding for your flight and any travels beyond, this post by Travel Mad Mum has some great breastfeeding while travelling tips.
Don't overstimulate and go slow...
I'm very guilty of forgetting how slow babies under six months are at, well, pretty much anything (apart from vomitting and pooing - that's like rapid fire!). So if your baby does show signs of getting cranky don't go into manic performing monkey mode - which I definitely did on that first flight. I started shaking BB's rattle, singing to him and tickling his belly all at once and of course, this did nothing to calm him down. Seeing the panic in my eyes NewMan took him and one toy and pulled his tray table down. Baby Bird then quietened down with this new platform to see and move his toy around on. Yet again, this was a reminder that keeping it simple and slow with a young baby is more likely to soothe than a full-on assault attacking all the senses, which furthermore uses up all your baby entertaining ideas in one go.
Oh, and if you're interested we travelled with a soft but noisy book (like this one), his reliable Sophie, and a string of toys that usually goes across his pram. And if you did want to have some suitable baby activities up your sleeve to keep your little one entertained, this post has some great tips on how to entertain a baby on a flight.
You are not the a**hole
Think about it. You're a baby-free passenger on a plane. You see a woman or man or family with a baby board and sit a few rows in front of you. You cringe and sigh inwardly as you fear the worst. You don't think how that family are on that plane to see grandparents who live in a different country. You don't consider how tired the parent/s could be before they've even sat down. You don't think about how worried they are that their bundle of joy could kick off at any moment. For a while the baby is quiet and you almost forget that you saw it get on the plane. Then it starts to make small whining noises which grow into louder moans and finally it's crying. You pull out your headphones and stop watching the movie you were only vaguely interested because how can you possibly concentrate if there is a baby crying? Now the cries are much louder. You see the mum stand up and walk around gently rocking and hushing the baby. 'Don't come this way, don't come this way,' you whisper to yourself. She doesn't. You see a few of the passengers near the family try to distract the baby and quieten it down. The cabin crew take a bottle to heat up and bring it back a few minutes later. Eventually the baby falls silent again and you can go back to your movie or maybe you'll go back to looking at the photos on your phone of the holiday you've just had, or maybe you'll just fall asleep... which you do, until four hours later the baby is crying again and you tell yourself you'll never travel with children...
Now how is the a**hole in this scenario? (And yes, that a**hole was me around two years ago!)
This serves to say that most people in the airport and on the plane are rooting for you because they've either been there themselves or because they can easily imagine how hard it is travelling with a young baby (and other children). On the flight when I was alone, I had two young male Chinese tourists behind me speak Mandarin to Baby Bird in hushed voices when I held him over my shoulder, and a suited business man offered to carry my bag off the plane for me. Which leads me to say...
Ask for help
Ask to get fast-tracked through security if you don't want to stand in a long queue carrying a heavy baby. Ask if the flight is full and if not if you can have a spare seat next to you. Ask if the cabin crew would mind holding your little one as you try to attach the infant seat belt to your own. Ask a fellow passenger if they would mind picking up the toy on the floor because if you tried picking it up you'd probably drop your baby. Ask, ask, ask.
The worst thing anyone can say is "No," and in which case I refer you again to the point above.
Ease over expense
Not everyone will agree with this, but when it came to travelling with Baby Bird, we decided to not go for the cheapest option or most cost-effective approach if it subsequently meant more leg work for us. For example, despite tickets costing an extra €20 each, we flew in to Heathrow rather than Gatwick because it's a quicker journey to my parents' house from there, also the flight times suited us better so we didn't have a super early morning or an arrival time later than BB's bedtime. In my mind, that's €40 well spent! We applied the same thinking to getting to the airport by getting a taxi rather than a tram and a train. Of course, we're very fortunate that we can choose (and afford) to make our life a little easier but we don't like spending money for the sake of it, however that's the thing you've got to remember here; you are getting something for that extra expense if it makes your journey easier in whatever way.
Enjoy the journey
At no point in my worst-case-scenario-ing (that should so be a verb!) did I think "Hey, travelling with Baby Bird is exciting!", but it was. It was so much more fun than I thought. I loved showing him his boarding pass, his passport and all the rows of planes from a window in the airport. We tried holding him up to the window on the plane to show him the clouds and the teeny tiny houses and fields below. Of course he yawned or turned his head away from most of this but it was unexpectedly nice for me to feel motivated and engaged on a journey I've done numerous times.
I have no doubt that as he gets older there will be more considerations and challenges for flights, but I won't waste as much time dreading these journeys. Or at least, I'll also spend some time thinking how maybe, just maybe, it could be fun too.
Frances M. Thompson
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