Everything You Need to Know About Flying with a Baby and Young Kids
Baby’s first flight can be as momentous as the first birthday, the first photo op with Santa, the first steps—but not in the Hallmark kind of way. More like the cupcake-smashing-sugar-rage, screaming-at-Santa, faceplant-on-the-hardwood-floor kind of way. It’s a life moment that could leave you so obscenely frustrated you can do nothing but cry in the shower afterwards.
But with a little planning, some tips from our most seasoned Traveler parents, and a willingness to make lists (lists!), you’ll make it to your destination with energy to spare. We swear.
Before my first flight with my seven-month-old daughter, I downloaded Flying With Baby by Meg Collins, the sassy-smart blogger behind new mom survival guide Lucie’s List. (While you’re at it, sign up for her weekly emails—it’s like she’s reading your mind and can predict what new joy/trauma you’re facing postpartum.) Collins is the voice of reason about everything: “ticketing, check-in, car seats, feeding, napping and all the other stuff that makes your brain explode.” Happy to report that my brain remains intact.
How to prep kids for their first flight
If you're traveling with a toddler or an elementary school–aged kiddo, you may need to do a little incepting—i.e. plant the idea that flying is fun! and make a game of it at home first. Debbie Dubrow gave Traveler some excellent tips a few years ago that still hold true:
- Talk about your trip and your flight ahead of time, focusing on the aspects that are new to your child or might cause them some concern.
- Read stories about flying or about going on a trip, like Airplanes by Byron Barton for toddlers. Older kids will enjoy the detail in Richard Scarry's A Day at the Airport. If you’re headed to a new destination, make a trip to the library to pick up a few books set in that place.
- Line up some dining chairs to make airplane seats, and act out how you should sit down and buckle up on a plane. Build a security checkpoint using a doorway as the metal detector and a cardboard box and towel as the conveyor belt and X-ray. Practice putting your child’s lovey or blanket through the X-ray and getting it back on the other side.
- Let your children help pack their busy bags (but secret away a few new toys in your own bag). That way they’ll get to choose which items they just can’t live without, and you’ll get to set expectations about which toys are okay on the plane (leave the harmonica at home, please!).
The Packing List
When my husband and I came back in January 2018 from our first international trip with our daughter, we wrangled a baby, two check bags, six carry-on items—and almost left for home without her stroller. I’m not kidding: that’s how tired we were after eight hours of her squirming and crying across the Atlantic.
The easiest way to avoid this is to make an itemized list of the major items you pack (i.e. the things you don’t want to replace when you arrive); the bags you’re checking; and the bags you’re carrying on. Do a count of your bags like they’re children on a field trip when you get to the airport, get through security, and get off the plane. Keep a written list handy, be it on your phone or in your pocket. If it sounds like overkill, think about what your trip would be like if you forgot the bag with the baby’s favorite stuffed toy. Yeah.
As for what to bring? Everyone has their go-to items. On our staff and across our network, we swear by:
- The Doona Infant Car Seat/Stroller (for infants up to 35 pounds), which means you just gate check the stroller and get to leave the car seat at home. Hooray!
- The Dohm sound machine: “I bring my son’s Dohm everywhere with us. Hotels, my parents house. It’s essential,” says deputy editor Lauren DeCarlo. You can also download white noise apps on your phone if packing is tight.
- The Baby Bjorn (or your favorite equivalent baby carrier) to get through the airport. Former Traveler product director Amy Liebster says she’s had luck wearing her baby through the metal detector. Sometimes the TSA makes you carry the baby in your arms; sometimes not!
- A well-stocked diaper bag (consider a slightly larger one by Lands End that doubles as your carry-on), with enough wipes, diapers, and formula/breast milk/food to get you through the flight and an hours-long delay, minimum; (very) frequent flier, Skift aviation reporter, and father Brian Sumers recommends three days' worth of food for the baby to account for any mishaps. Plus: Make sure you have little basics like hand-sanitizer (whether you're changing a diaper on the fly or just, you know, touching your seatback tray table), scented diaper trash bags, a pacifier clip ("this will save you the horror of watching a pacifier drop to the airplane floor," says Traveler contributor and mom of three Juliana Shallcross), and one new baby toy. "I still swear by the one-new-toy trick," Shallcross says. "Buy the baby one new toy specifically to open on the airplane. It will keep their attention for a little bit longer than if you brought an older toy. However, for young babies, you don't need much. All they really need is their bottle, maybe a pacifier, and a nice seatmate who makes funny faces."
- The Cares Airplane Safety Harness: Some parents keep their kids under the age of two in their laps during flights, but Sumers and super-traveler Samantha Brown both swear by the Cares harness. (They say as much in this Travelogue podcast.) It's the only FAA-approved harness for kids over the age of one, for when they're big enough for their own seat but too small for the seatbelt to do any good.
- A different outfit...for you. "A change of clothes is a no-brainer for the baby who may have a diaper situation at some point during the flight," says Shallcross, "but if you can manage it, pack a T-shirt or leggings for yourself in your carry-on." You don't want to be stuck wearing a formula-stained shirt (or worse) for the rest of the flight.
As for what to leave at home? Things you can get where you’re going! Jars of baby food, diapers, wipes—just make a beeline for a local grocery store once you arrive. It’s kind of fun seeing how other cultures and countries do the basics. Fun fact: French diapers aren’t quite as absorbent as American ones. Who knew?
Does your baby need an ID?
The short answer: Babies from the U.S. flying domestically don’t need an ID, says the TSA. But they do need a passport if they fly internationally. (By the way: Do you need a new passport? You might, because of the Real ID Act—read this quickly.)
To apply for a passport for your infant, both parents need to be there in person—“there” is a USPS post office or a passport agency near you; if you’re the sole custodian of a child, you need to bring proof of that as well. You also need (take a deep breath): the child’s birth certificate (original and copies), your relevant IDs like passports and U.S. drivers’ licenses (and photo copies), a completed DS-11 form, money for the fees (credit is usually accepted for the $80 and $25, but bring a checkbook just in case), and—the best part—two identical 2x2 inch passport photos of your baby. There are websites dedicated to how you get your infant to sit upright and still against a plain white backdrop for long enough to get a photo; in our experience, the easiest thing was to have the picture taken at the post office. Here’s the full list of what you need to get the baby’s passport.
What about TSA PreCheck or Global Entry?
If you have TSA PreCheck, children 12 and under can get in line with you and breeze on through. But if you have Global Entry, the baby needs it, too, in order to get through customs quickly. We learned that the hard way—here’s what it takes to apply.
Does your baby need an airplane ticket?
It depends. On most airlines, babies under the age of two can sit in your lap on a flight, sometimes with a special lap belt that you attach to your seatbelt. You may have to pay a fee—like, ten percent of your ticket—for the baby and get a special boarding pass. It helps to call (yes, call) the airline you plan to fly to confirm and book. Once the child turns two, they need their own seat.
Still, Sumers says you shouldn't skimp on the baby's travel options. "Buy a seat for your baby and use a car seat," he says. "You wouldn't hold your baby in your lap in a car, even if you were only going a mile away at ten mph. So why would you hold your baby on an airplane racing on a runway at 150 mph? It makes no sense, and it's not safe. In severe turbulence, or in a survivable crash, you may not be not able to hold onto your baby. There have been some pushes in the past to make car seats required, but there's never much appetite for it. That's a shame, because it's the right thing to do. You'll have have to buy a seat for your child at age two, anyways. You might as well start early."
Getting through airport security—be prepared for TSA pat-downs
"TSA checkpoints are wildly inconsistent across different airports" in the U.S., says Shallcross. "If you're traveling with breast milk or formula important note: you can carry-on in [excess of the 3.4 oz liquid rule], you will most likely be on the receiving end of a pat-down." Having TSA PreCheck makes the process go a bit faster, and in lanes at LAX, SFO, and FLL airports on recent trips, Shallcross says she didn't need an extra screen; they just tested to-go bottles of formula and sent her on her way. Not the case at EWR, even in the TSA PreCheck lane, where we were given a pat-down because of formula bottles (so was the mom with breast milk behind us). International checkpoints also vary widely, but in our experience, every parent in line was pulled aside and had jars of food or bottles checked. Budget extra time.
What about your stroller that you plan to gate check? It may have to go on the belt through the X-ray like the rest of your bags, or it may be pulled aside and tested/swabbed by a TSA agent. Regardless, you have to pull the baby out.
Getting to the gate
Speaking of gate-checking: "As soon as you make it through security, head to your gate and get the gate tags for your stroller," says Shallcross. "If you wait until you board, the gate attendants may ask you to step aside and wait until they finish boarding the group before they give you the tags."
And then there's the age-old question: Should you board in the first wave with your baby and toddlers? Most gate agents give you the option of early boarding—and with a newborn or infant, that's the way to go so you can get settled with bags stowed and essentials out for takeoff. But with an active toddler? That means you're on the plane for an extra 30-45 minutes, trying to contain their wild energy in a small space. No thanks. Sam Brown recommends diving and conquering with your partner. One of you board early with the bags; the other stay behind with the kids, letting them burn off energy at the gate until the last possible (or comfortable) minute you can board.
Nursing and pumping
If you need a quiet space to breastfeed before boarding, look for a Mamava Pod, she adds. "These capsules allow mom to nurse baby in private. It's totally free to use and there's even room for a toddler to hang out. You can download the Mamava app to find out the pod locations."
And then there's...the flight!
The easiest way to keep a baby from crying on the flight is to feed them on takeoff and landing—the go-to move of parents for decades, as it helps babies adjust to the change in cabin pressure. Admittedly, if the baby is strapped in, nursing is harder than giving a bottle, so consider the latter. Even if you have a bassinet or the baby in a Bjorn for most of the flight, they'll need to come out and be strapped in on takeoff and landing. But that sounds like your baby isn't squirmy. Lucky you. Get to know your flight attendants well, right away, because you may see them a lot as you toddle up and down the aisles, ask for warm water for a bottle, and bounce a crying kid behind the curtains.
Which brings us to our favorite controversy: apologizing in advance to your fellow seatmates because they're sitting near a baby. Sumers says, emphatically, "don't bring treats for other passengers" (even if the Clooneys do). "I fly a lot for work, and I'm often on an airplane with at least one baby. I get it. Babies cry. It's not a surprise, and I know parents can't do much about it. There's no reason parents should bring treats for other passengers, or apologize for their baby's behavior. We were all babies once, and many of us are parents. Everyone knows it's hard to control any situation on an airplane. The other passengers likely aren't judging you nearly as much as you think."
What if your kid is a seat kicker?
I love this tip: Sam Brown and her husband would book seats in two separate rows, one right in front of the next, and each sit with one of their twins. If one of the kids got fussy—or kicked the seat in front of them—at least it would be a family member they were harassing.
The curse of jet lag—or is it?
If you're taking a transatlantic flight (say, New York to Paris), the red-eye is a godsend and the easiest way to ward off jet lag. To start: Your baby will be more inclined to sleep through the flight. Once you land, consider not getting on local time. Yes, you'll all sleep in later and start your day later, but you can keep the baby out later, rather than having to commit to your hotel room by 6:30 p.m. every night, and the re-entry back home goes a bit smoother because you never really got off your schedule. There's also something special about being able to take your baby to the Louvre at 8 p.m. on a Friday.