In the first 18 months of her life, Cora has traveled close to 60,000 miles by plane, and several thousand by car and plane. So, some of my friends have pegged me as a go-to person for traveling with baby advice. I don't know that there is any perfect way to travel with a baby or toddler, but since it's an intimidating prospect, I thought I'd offer a few posts (this being the first) on my "advice," such as it is. Keep in mind that every child's different. Every time you travel, you'll learn something you should do next time.
The biggest struggle for plane travel is baggage, in my opinion. You need to be able to get through security, boarding, and settling into your seat without too much baggage juggling. I usually pack a small rolling suitcase (my luggage), a small duffel (Cora's), a diaper back/purse, and a backpack. I carry Cora in a Baby Ergo carrier. I used a Baby Bjorn until she was about 18 pounds, then I went to the Ergo. A baby carrier is an absolute necessity, especially if you're traveling alone with the baby. I try to avoid taking a stroller or car seat, but if I'll need them at my destination, I check them at the check-in counter. I also check my rolling bag and duffel. (Being Gold status at American means my bags are free, so be informed of any checked bag fees. Stroller and car seat should generally be free, on any airline.)
While at the check-in counter, I ask if there are any other seats available that might give me some extra room, like two empty seats together. As long as you're nice, the airline employees will usually be nice to you! American often reserves a row for handicapped or baby travelers, so it's definitely worthwhile to ask.
I head to security with Cora in the Ergo, a diaper bag/purse, and backpack. Be aware that you'll need to take off baby's shoes and jackets, as well as your own. You'll also have to take the baby out of the carrier and run the carrier through the x-ray machine. You can take liquids, like milk and juice, but store them in a bottle or sippy cup. TSA will run a chemical test on them, but it's totally sanitary and saf. If you're flying international, most airports will also allow baby liquids, but the UK will require that you take a sip of any liquids you bring on, to show that they don't contain hazardous material. Don't ask me why the UK just doesn't do a chemical test!
Once at the gate, I make sure all both of my bags are ready for the plane. I know I'll put the diaper bag in the overhead bin and the backpack under the seat in front of me. I make sure the backpack has these items:
-full sippy cup
-bottle, ready to go
-small tupperware of snacks (strawberries or cereal)
-cheese stick, Cora's favorite filling snack
-several books for Cora, especially liftable flap books
-small spiral notebook and pencil, for Cora to draw
-stickers, for when the drawing gets boring
-other plane toys - I'll post separately on toy strategies
-my cell phone
The diaper bag has the other essentials that I want with me but that I won't need access to immediately on take off. If I have to change her diaper on the plane, I'll have to get up anyway, so I leave her diaper-changing things in the overhead compartment, along with:
-a dose of children's Benadryl - you never know!
-change of clothes
-my purse items, like wallet and camera
Once I make sure everything's in place, I'm ready to board the plane, with Cora in the Ergo. I find my seat, put the diaper bag above, put the sippy cup in the seat pocket, slide the backpack underneath, and plunk myself into the seat. Whew - we made it! I take Cora out of the Ergo, and set her on my lap.
If you get this far, you're as ready as ready can be, and now it's just a matter of surviving. Small babies will need to nurse or suck on a bottle at take off and landing to pop their ears, although I think take off is most important. Plan carefully, so that your baby will still be sucking 5 minutes after the wheels have lifted from the ground. If you're nursing, heaven help you, because it's hard in those narrow seats! But it can be done. I was never good at keeping the shawl on while nursing on the plane, so you might have to just do your best and be okay with showing a little boob. Other passengers will live, and no one will be obnoxious enough to complain about you nursing a baby. Older babies (8 months+) can do just fine with a sippy cup to pop their ears.
If baby falls asleep during take off or landing, I say leave him asleep! Even when Cora was small, 9 times out of 10, if she fell asleep during pressure change, she was totally fine when she woke up.
The time between take off and landing is the real challenge. All I can say is the difficulty depends on your child. If your child can walk and is used to going wherever she wants, whenever she wants, you're going to have the flight from hell. If you have training time before you leave on your trip, schedule time during the day for your child to sit in her high chair for 20-30 minutes. She must stay there, but you can sit next to her, giving her books to read or toys to play with. If she can't stay in a high chair for 20-30 minutes, well, you have a problem. Try to do this every day until your flight. If she can stay in the high chair for 20-30 minutes, you will probably be alright on the plane. All children have a short attention span, though, so you'll need to rotate toys every 10 minutes or so on the plane.
Once you can move about the cabin, you can take baby for a walk, but don't plan on being able to do that the whole flight, because flight attendants and other passengers need to use the aisle too, and there's rarely a place to stand that's out of the way.
Hopefully, you'll only have to entertain baby for up to an hour before it's nap time. Cora still takes 2 naps a day, so whether it's a morning or afternoon flight, she generally sleeps 60-90 minutes on the plane. If it's a long flight, and your kiddo can't calm down, I think it's totally okay to resort to children' Benadryl. If under 2, give a half dose. When Cora was little, we'd put a half dose in her take-off bottle. It makes them tired quickly, and cranky, so they'll probably cry as their settling down, but if the crying lasts fewer than 5 minutes, most passengers don't mind too much.
We'll talk plane toys strategy and packing strategy another day, but those are my first thoughts for traveling with baby by plane.