Your first flight with your child will likely be a lot different from your previous flights. Instead of worrying about whether you have enough reading material, you may now be worried about entertaining your baby or toddler. While there’s no telling how your baby will react to his or her first time on an airplane, careful planning can go a long way toward calming you and your child’s nerves.
For domestic travel, consider bringing a copy of your child’s birth certificate with you. If leaving the country, your child will need a passport. If you know you’ll be traveling outside of the country with your child in the future, consider applying as soon as possible. The application process can typically be expedited for a fee.
Although airlines typically allow infants to ride on a caregiver’s lap during flight, the Federal Aviation Administration recommends that infants ride in properly secured safety seats. Most infant car seats are certified for air travel.
In order for your little one to travel in a car seat on the plane, your child will need his or her own seat. Though airlines typically will let you use an empty seat if available, the only way to guarantee a seat for your child is to purchase a ticket. When booking your flights, check if there are any discounts for infant children.
Keep in mind that car seats must be secured in a window seat so other passengers will be able to exit the row. If you purchase a seat for your child, FAA strongly encourages that your child remains in the seat with the seatbelt firmly fastened during the duration of the flight. This can be a challenge if your child is crying and you want to hold him or her, especially during takeoff and landing. Airlines typically allow a child under 2 to be held on your lap, but the policy varies by airline.
If you don’t bring a car seat for your child on the plane, ask the flight attendant for instructions on how to hold your child during takeoff and landing. If you sit in an aisle seat with your child, be sure to protect your child’s head, hands and feet from getting bumped by service carts or other passengers.
Many traveling families seek out the bulkhead of the plane, which offers extra space. Others prefer the back of the plane, which is typically noisy enough to drown out crying and may even lull a baby to sleep. Do what makes the most sense to you.
Getting through the airport
If you plan to bring a car seat on the plane, a stroller that allows you to attach the car seat to it is a smart investment. You’ll be able to wheel your child in his or her car seat until you board the plane, at which point you can collapse the stroller base and check it at the gate. You will, however, have to take your child out of a car seat and carry him or her through security while the stroller is screened.
While the Transportation Security Administration limits the amount of fluids you can bring on a plane, exceptions are made for baby-related items, such as medications, formula, baby food and breast milk. Be sure to notify security officials about what you’re carrying and expect it to be inspected. Also, let security officials know if your child is using or has any special medical devices.
Many airlines offer families priority boarding. However, some families prefer to board last to minimize the amount of time spent on the plane.
Keeping baby happy
Dress your child in comfortable, easy-to-remove layers. This will help you keep him or her warm or cool enough and make diaper and clothing changes easy. Bring extra clothing in a plastic, sealable bag for accidents that might occur or if your child becomes sick and vomits on the plane. Consider bringing an extra change of clothing accessible for yourself, too, in case you’re part of the accident.
Nursing or sucking on a pacifier or bottle might ease discomfort during takeoff and landing, since babies can’t intentionally “pop” their ears by swallowing or yawning to relieve ear pain caused by air pressure changes. Having extra pacifiers on hand will be helpful in case the pacifiers fall or get lost. A sippy cup of water can help a toddler with the same issue.
If your child is restless, consider taking an occasional break to walk up and down the aisle — as long as the crew approves moving throughout the cabin.
If your child is old enough to snack, have different types of snacks available and bring them out at different times during the flight. Also, consider bringing several little toys to keep your child occupied, introducing a new toy as your baby’s interest in the current toy wanes.
Although parents often joke about giving a child a sedating over-the-counter medication to induce sleep during the flight, this isn’t recommended. In some cases, the medication could end up producing the opposite effect and make your child agitated.
If your child does cry during the flight, do your best to figure out what’s wrong — just as you would at home — and try to stay calm. Chances are that many passengers on the plane have been in your situation before and likely sympathize.
Dr. Klaas and Dr. Cook are co-editors of Mayo Clinic Guide to Your Baby’s First Years.