We flew with our little one (LO) right around her first birthday and then again, a few months later. The difference was vast. The first time, the flights were long international flights, with very little movement in the cabin and lights switched off. She slept like an angel through most of each flight and was content to sit on our laps for the rest of the time. The next time, the flights were domestic. The cabin lights were switched off, but there was enough daylight sneaking in through a few open windows to tell a toddler that it wasn’t sleepy time. The cabin crew were constantly moving up and down the cabin and oh… the LO was learning to walk. It was a nightmare.
Prepare yourself mentally – for the worst. Flights get delayed. Toddlers get cranky. Your co-passengers may not be baby-friendly. You forgot the baby’s medicines or checked them in. You “forgot” the baby. Crazy airline regulations. Your baby hates the cabin crew. The cabin crew hates you. It is near impossible to drink with a baby in your arms and almost as hard to eat or watch in-flight entertainment. The list is long, but you get it, don’t you. Prepare for the worst. Be flexible and have backups to backups.
Book a bassinet. Confirm it a day prior to travel. The leg room and extra bag space you get with it is well worth the trouble.Do not for even an instant believe that your baby will sleep blissfully through the flight in that contraption. Just about when the child is sound asleep enough for you to put them down in the bassinet and stretch your arms out, the plane will hit some turbulence and a steward will ask you to please take the baby out of the bassinet. The bassinet is meant for storage.
Arrange for transport to the airport and back in advance. There are taxi services that provide car seats or let you bring your car seat and store it for either free or a small fee. Confirm pick up times with them the day before you are scheduled to fly.
Dress in layers. Remember you are taking a flight, not moving to the Antarctic. One layer more than you should be sufficient. Opt for clothes that are easy to change and convenient for diaper change. Opt for a t-shirt and pants or a two piece pajama set over a full onsie. Avoid snap ties. Socks will keep those little toes warm. Remember to carry extras in the diaper bag.
Reach the airport early. You may not be the only ones with an infant on board. If there is more demand than supply, bassinets are allocated on a first come first serve basis. Letting the baby crawl around the gate area is way better than being cramped in the middle of a back row. Bonus – it might tire them enough to not want to crawl around the airplane. Also assume that TSA will view your precious angel as a decoy and test every bottle of water, milk and baby food. They will also inspect each one of those ten boxes of chocolates in each of the three bags that the two passengers ahead of you are carrying. They do that. Make time for it.
Ever questioned the sanity of letting children board first and get off last? Take advantage of this if you are flying with another adult. One of you can go in, stow away your hand luggage and get things set up, while the other waits in the passenger boarding bridge with the child and boards last. Ideally you want them cooped up on the plane for as little time as possible. Dealing with a toddler exploring the boarding bridge is easier than dealing with one squirming in their seat. Reverse the technique while getting out. Every minute counts.
Invest in a light weight stroller. Buy something you won’t mind getting manhandled by the airlines. Gate check it. Airports are large busy places that you sometimes need to navigate really fast. Running with a baby in your arms may not be the best idea. Additionally, baby wearing saved my life. I used a baby carrier to secure the little one to myself while sitting and to walk her around the cabin when she was awake. Baby wearing is also the most reliable way to keep babies off the baggage carousel.
Keep all diapering items, meals + snacks, water, medication, extra clothes and a toy or two in the diaper bag. As soon as the seat belt sign is switched off after takeoff, take the bag from the overhead compartment and stow it under your seat. You are going to need it often. You cannot access the overhead compartments during takeoff and landing. Prior to take off, keep the bottle or whatever you intend to give the baby to suck on to help with the ear popping handy. If you intend to breastfeed and are modest about it,keep your cover-up handy. Do not show the bottle to the child on the taxiway. They will demand it be given, will finish up before the plane even reaches the runway and you won’t know what to do. Give it just when you feel the plane start to lift off. Same goes for landing.
Be mindful of what food/snacks you pack and how much. You don’t want to deal with a sticky mess on an airplane. Plus, it takes bag space. Most airlines have some toddler friendly food. Flights always have milk for tea and coffee.My toddler happily munched on free airline snacks all the way back from San Diego to New York, preferring it over the healthy food her aunt had so lovingly packed.
Pull up diapers. Much easier to use in tight spaces.
Do not be afraid to ask the cabin crew for help.They have dealt with more infants on more flights than you ever want to. While they won’t walk your baby up and down the aisle or change them in that tiny toilet, they can provide you with warm milk, baby food and medications. They can assist you with getting what you need from the overhead compartments, even when the seat belt signs are on. I secretly suspect, they might even be able to provide some crayons and paper to keep the child entertained.
If your toddler walks or is learning to walk, put shoes on. Given a choice, everyone prefers them running quietly up and down the aisle to them shouting in their seats.
Carry a towel (broad wink at Douglas Adams). A towel is about the most massively useful thing a person travelling with a toddler can carry. Partly because it has great practical value. You can wrap it around your toddler as a backup blanket; you can use it as a sheet to put them down on airport floors and airplane bassinets; you can use it to wipe little hands and faces; you can use it to cover up while breastfeeding; you can use it to block light and help your little one up sleep better; you can use it to play peek-a-boo; you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough. More importantly though, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, any person who can travel with a toddler, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where their towel is, is clearly a person to be reckoned with.