Joanne Roberts flew from Toronto to Hong Kong with her son Finn when he was just seven weeks old. That was his first international journey on an airplane, but far from his last. By the time he was a year old, Finn had been on 42 flights.
“It was just one of those things — my husband and I were both looking for new jobs, so we were travelling a lot for job interviews, and we went to Malaysia to visit relatives as well,” she says. “The first year is a great time to travel. A baby just wakes up and thinks: Where am I? Oh, I’m in my mother’s arms, so everything’s OK.”
Kim Ryan hasn’t logged nearly that many miles in the air with her children, but her daughter, Ellie, was also seven weeks old on her first flight. Flying for her was a positive solution for a baby who hated being in the car: “The rest of the family was driving to Montreal from Guelph, Ont., but Ellie was so horrible in the car that I figured flying would be easier. And it was. In a plane, you can have them on your lap and you can feed them, play with them, change them, whatever they need. I find it so much easier.”
How can you make your baby’s journeys more enjoyable, for you, your child and those around you? Try these tips from frequent flyers:
• Ryan and Roberts keep their infants in their laps, or use a sling or wrap to keep them secure. Ryan says: “With the baby sleeping in the sling, I can shut my eyes and relax too.” (You will be asked to take the baby out of the sling for takeoff and landing.)
• Consider whether purchasing an extra airline seat and bringing your baby’s car seat would work for you. Juliette Klein, mother of five-year-old Laurel and seven-month-old William, says: “Not only is it safer to have the baby in a car seat in case of turbulence or a bad landing, but we found that they were more likely to nap if they were strapped into a familiar car seat.”
• If you’d like to have your car seat on the flight, but can’t afford to buy the extra seat, Sarah Wren (mother of Lily and 10-month-old Sam) recommends bringing your car seat to the gate anyway. “If there is an empty seat on the flight, the flight attendants, in my experience, will do whatever they can to get you that seat,” she says. If there is no seat available, you can then gate-check it, which Wren says is preferable to having it stowed with luggage anyway. (If you’re flying with your partner or a friend, try booking the window seat and aisle seat, hoping that the middle seat will remain free so you can use that for the car seat.)
• Getting through the airport can be the most challenging aspect. A sling or carrier makes it easier to carry your baby while dragging a suitcase. If you are bringing a car seat, you may want one with a stroller attachment so you can push baby around the airport as well.
• Take advantage of the early-boarding option. “I try to get on early so I can organize myself,” says Roberts.
• Don’t hesitate to ask for help, especially if you are flying alone with your baby. Suzanne Kuperhause flew with her then nine-week-old son, Owen, from Toronto to Victoria, and says: “The flight attendants were very helpful. One even sat in my seat while Owen was sleeping so that I could use the washroom. There was never a shortage of willing arms to hold him. When we disembarked, a flight attendant carried all my carry-on stuff while I just carried my son.”
• Plan for takeoff and landing. Airlines usually ask for babies to be held in an upright position against an adult’s shoulder during these sections of the flight, if they not in a car seat.
• Keep the pressure in the baby’s ears equalized by encouraging sucking and swallowing during takeoff and landing. Ryan says: “I nurse until the flight attendants tell me I have to stop, and then have my baby suck on my finger.” A bottle, pacifier or sippy cup could also work for babies who are used to them.
• On long flights, try to sleep when the baby sleeps. Roberts says that on their first flight to Hong Kong, Finn slept happily for most of the first eight hours, and she and her husband watched movies and chatted. Unfortunately, Finn woke up and stayed awake for the second half of the trip and needed lots of walking and attention from his exhausted parents.
• Breastfeeding in flight can be a little challenging to manage discreetly. Wren suggests bringing a nursing cover, saying: “I normally nurse all over the place in public and never use a nursing cover. But on a plane, I use one because it’s such close quarters and I don’t have to not worry about who can see what.”
• Bring a change of clothes, not just for the baby, but for you! Recalls Wren: “On our way to St. John’s from Ottawa, my daughter had an explosive poop all over herself and my husband. She got a clean change of clothes, but my husband had to wear poopy pants for the rest of the day. We’ve never made that mistake again.”
• If your baby gets fussy, try to stay calm yourself. It probably isn’t bothering other people as much as it does you. “I think to myself that the other passengers are mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles and they’ve all heard a baby cry before,” says Roberts. “If I get frazzled, it will only make things worse.”
Roberts — who will soon embark on another trip to Asia with Finn (now 3½ years old) — says that flying with a baby can actually be pretty easy. “It’s the toddler years that are harder — when they want to run up and down the aisle.” There’s something to look forward to.