Traveling long haul with a baby or toddler

Living in SF with all our family in Sweden means quite a lot of transatlantic flights per year. We just arrived in Sweden for the Christmas holidays and this was Adeline’s 5th long haul trip (and more than her 10th airplane trip, including Hawaii and Miami, approx 6hour flights each and a number of shorter flights within Europe). I’ve asked friends and read a lot online and wanted to share my gathered knowledge and experience for other parents looking for ways to make travel with kids easier.

As a disclaimer I must add that each age provides new challenges, hence the advice provided here might now apply as your child grows. When we travel back and forth to Sweden, me and Adeline always travel alone which is an added dimension of difficulty. So if you are two adults traveling together you might find these tips to be quite trivial (unless you have more than one child than I believe you will find some use of these). Mostly I hope parents traveling with their baby for the first time will find these tips useful.

1. The magic number of diapers

I read somewhere that you need one diaper per hour you’re away. I disagree with this and think this only adds to your already overpacked carry on. For ages 0-1years I would say 1diaper/2 hours and for 1-2 years you will need 1 diaper/3 hours of time you will be away (door to door). Infants can react to the air pressure and have blowouts and I have found this to be true only when Adeline was 0-9 months old.

I always bring a couple of extra diapers and also pack 3-4 diapers in my luggage for arrival and buy diapers when we land.

And one pack of wipes, some small plastic waste bags and hand sanitizer are also enough on the flight.

I know a lot of people fear delays and they do occur. Delays are aweful and stressful especially when traveling with kids. First of all, they almost always happen at an airport, where there usually are shops available to purchase diapers, wipes or food. Meaning you will most likely not end up without any access to modern world necessities. Secondly, the less layovers the less likely for you to be delayed. So if you have several stops of layovers, take this into account and calculate your need for things to bring. Traveling in the winter time usually means bad weather, more likely canceled flights and delays. Traveling in the summer on the other hand usually means vacation time and a lot of people traveling, meaning more lines.

2. The fear of the crying baby

Every parents nightmare, what if our baby cries for the duration of the flight? You don’t want to be “that family”. Yes, the baby might cry. But let me tell you what else the baby might do, that could take your mind of the crying (all by personal experience). It might have an enormous blow out just as the flight starts ascending/descending and the fasten seatbelt sign is on and you might be forced to sit there with a crying, pooped baby and the smell for 20 minutes. It might kick the table and throw down the food and all things to the floor. It might vomit on your last spare t-shirt and in your hair, and you will have to smell like vomit for the next 10 hours. The older baby might want to run around the isle an unreasonable number of times and hit her head on the seats one too many times, making people give you that “are you really a good parent” eye. Your baby might lick the walls, or anything inside the restroom when you’re forced to bring the baby to the restroom for just a quick pee (traveling alone with baby) and then you spend the duration of the flight worrying about possible germs a baby can catch in a public bathroom and the worst thing of all, no WiFi so you can’t even google it.

So yes the baby might cry, and yes it will be awful if she does but it will be most awful for you and not everyone else. A majority of people today have noice canceling headphones and the ones that don’t will just have to accept the fact that babies do fly on planes too. And that’s it. Out of all the things I worry about, the crying is the last one really!

3. Keep your hands free

You get the backpack, you minimize the number of items and yet somehow you will still find yourself holding something; a bottle, a doll, your passport or your phone. If your child is small the carrier is a must have. It will save you through security and make it easier for you to use the restroom. Its easy to run with if you’re almost missing your connecting flight (I’ve missed flights, it actually does happen). As your child grows I suggest a travel stroller, we love the Yo-Yo since we always have a connecting flight in Copenhagen. Any umbrella stroller will do the job, but you will need to check it in at the gate and also make sure the airline offers that option. The yo-yo is a carry on approved stroller and you will be able to bring it onto the plane.

pack baby food in plastic ziplock bags at home and have them ready to show the security. Pack also all other liquids in small ziplock bags at home.

– have your computer easily available since you will need to bring that out for security. Empty all water bottles before you reach the security line.

– wear shoes that go on and off easily and remove any heavy jewelry, your watch, belt and so on before you reach the line at the security and put them inside your bag.

4. Entertainment is Everything

For a older child, 1 year up, entertainment can save your flight. Bored toddlers are the worst toddlers. Here are some of my favorites (not including the iPad which I assume you already know about, personally I try to avoid it and save it for the worst situations).

– wrap a new toy into a present and let the kid see it for the first time on the flight

– get a new toy with many buttons and options (like a playphone or similar)

– print photos of things and people your child likes into little cards and play and talk about them on the plane

– get a new set of stickers, they can entertain for quite a while

– crayons and papers seam to work quite well for 1 year and up

For the younger babies, 1 year and under, a musical mobile worked quite well for putting baby to sleep. Books especially with music or with different animal noises have proven successful.

5. Now is the time to splurge

I’m sorry to say this but yes, this makes it easier. As if traveling wasn’t expensive already… If you can swing the cost for that extra seat, it will make traveling much more comfortable. I see parents who bring a car seat and have purchased a seat for their child and the child sleeps through the flight. Me on the other hand have often times been too cheep and mostly flown with Adeline in my lap. I mostly fly of season and I’ve been so lucky to be on flights where there are available seats. I ask to be seated where there are empty seats and the flight attendants on SAS are always very accommodating. My luck turned on our last flight, flying home ten days before Christmas the flight was fully booked. And I quickly realized that neither me nor my now (quite large) 20month old toddler would enjoy sitting in the same seat. I used my points for an upgrade and we both slept comfortably for a couple of hours (she slept 6h yeeey). If you’re traveling with a small baby (9months and under) you should try to get the bassinet. Airlines usually have a first come first serve policy for them meaning that if you get to the airport early you might get a seat there. If you are traveling together with another adult, one of you could buy the seat with extra leg room ( or both depending if they allow the one with infant in lap to select that seat), which on some planes are the same seats as the bassinet, then you know for sure that one of you will be able to have the baby in the bassinet.

Another way to make your traveling more comfortable by spending more money is booking the best flight. Minimize the number of lay overs and the waiting time. For long haul flights, I love night flights. I also avoid low cost airlines for long haul flights with small babies as I imagine they are more likely to have delays and less likely to accommodate you with things you might need on the plane and incase of delays. They also tend to have limited refund policies and rebooking options if the delays occur, but you could do the research and still find low cost airlines with great policies. I imagine this will be me once we have more children and need to buy more tickets.

6. You will not be bored, I promise

The days of gracious and delightful traveling are gone once you decide to have kids. Without referring to those lucky to be traveling with a nanny or an aupair of course, for the rest of us this seams to be quite true (seeing myself and other struggling parents on my flights). But once you realize that, it’s easier to take action. I’ve given up on bringing fashion magazines, my makeup, a moisturizing spray for my dry face and special hand cream for my hands on my flights. Somehow my body magically knows not get dry on those 12 hour flights anymore. Lesson to be learned: there is no time for the unnecessary luxuries and also no need, minimize your carry on.

– this is worth emphasizing so I’ll say it again: Minimize your carry on by only brining the things you really must. Be hard on your self here, it takes some training and a few flights to learn but I can assure you, you won’t have time to read a book on the plane I promise.

7. Choose your luggage wisely

Choose your carry on wisely. Give in for the backpack. I’ve refused until this last trip when I realized there is no other way. The roller bags are unpractical with kids (especially if you also have the yo-yo, could work with a small baby in carrier) and the large duffels/weekend bags are a nightmare to carry once you stuff them full. I’ve tried both, both fail! I usually bring an empty foldable longchamp bag in my carry on. I use this in case of overweight at check in but mostly I use this to put extra things in through the trip. Somehow once you take things out of your bag, they never seam to fit back in there, the toys, the baby bottles, the water you purchased and so on. I hate having loose items to carry, not only does it make you look like a mess but there’s a huge risk of loosing things along the way. Any foldable small bag that doesn’t take much space will do really.

– divide your carry on into two bags; the things most needed through the flight to have by your feet. The extra diapers, extra set of clothes and your documents and that magazine you decided to bring any way, to put in the overhead compartment.

– as for checking in strollers and car seats; make sure to have special bags to put them in for check in as it might save on the wear and tear especially if you travel frequently

8. Let kids be kids

Lastly, my advise for traveling with a toddler, if possible let them run around as much as possible before you’re on the plane. I let Adeline run around at the gate, climb chairs and look through the windows (and lick them a little). Play with her doll and just be a child. This usually means she has less energy on the plane and will be happier to be drawing or playing with stickers.

9. Extraordinary situations require extraordinary actions

I cannot finish this post without mentioning the family that practiced sleep training on their ~ 6 months old baby, on one of my flights. I’m all for parents choosing whatever method they find appropriate for their child, however if your child is screaming their lungs out and refusing to fall asleep in the airplane bassinet, please pick it up, offer it the boob/bottle again or take a walk. Do not practice your normal routine of waiting a certain amount of minutes before you pick your child up, like you might be doing at home. The lesson I learned from this is that, as a parent, sometimes you must bend the rules in order to make things flow. In my brief life as a mother I’ve learned that parenthood seams to be as much about being pragmatic as it is about sticking to your principles and the key is to know when to do which. This is also true on airplanes as much as anywhere else.

10. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Both the staff or a fellow passengers are often times very helpful and will gladly bring something down from the overhead compartment if your stuck with a sleeping baby or they will help carry your bags off the plane if you have all your hands full with the kids. I find this great when traveling alone with a baby. On my last flight, a gentleman offered help and he took my yo-yo stroller off the plane since I had to carry a sleeping toddler and my bags. He left it right outside the plane and had also opened it for me so I could just place her in it. I cannot tell you enough how much this meant to me after 15 hours of traveling.

Happy traveling and hope you enjoyed my post, please leave a comment below if you have any thoughts on this topic.

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