Helping you navigate from airport to destination travelling with a baby
One of the most common queries we get in the Globetrotters inbox is from first-time mums wanting to know if they will be OK flying with their baby; not just the flight but the airport and transfers process can be an ordeal in itself.
Rest assured, you’re going to be ok! Just like every mum seems to have an innate desire to tell you their labour story in graphic detail, I am sure you have some enthusiastic friends that are bursting with excitement to tell you all about the time they flew with wee Jonny and he vomited all over the lady next to them before screaming like a banshee for three hours; this is not the norm!
In this article we will cover
Is it safe to fly with a newborn?
For safety reasons, airlines do not let you fly in the first seven days after giving birth. There are numerous health reasons for this but the primary concern is around lung development in the pressurised cabin. Besides, let’s be honest, I wouldn’t want to fly with stitches in any part of my body until they’ve had a chance to heal either so take at least that first week for both of you to rest.
In my view, the younger you start travelling with them the better though – all of ours flew before they were three months old and I must say (knock on wood) they have all become pretty exceptional flyers. Before they can crawl, or even sit upright is a perfect time to fly before the hard work begins, I really wish we had travelled more when our first was little.
If there is an option to fly or drive – I would personally choose flying every time; you will clearly cover the distance required in far less time, but you also have the ability to walk around more, as well as hold, comfort and feed whenever needed without needing to pull over.
RELATED READING: For restrictions and rules by airline, hop over to our FLYING WITH KIDS homepage
International flights with a baby
Flying internationally obviously brings with it the added complexities of passports and visas as well. If your child is born out of your country of citizenship, these documents may take several weeks – if not months – to process.
Remember you may also need your citizenship confirmed before the passport can be issued, allow time for this when booking flights. Most airlines will not allow the infant ticket to be booked until you have a name, they’ll ask you to add this to the parent’s ticket after they are born (making requesting a bassinet seat early, challenging).
You may also need to fly with a child’s birth certificate, check the rules and regulations of any transit country as well as your final destination. South Africa is a good example of a country that has introduced rules regarding birth certificates being required, in addition to passports. If one parent is travelling solo you may also need a permission letter from the other parent. Reduce your stress levels by thoroughly researching these matters beforehand so there are no nasty surprises on arrival.
There are many ways you can look to minimise the stress of flying before you even hit the airport. Once you become a travel family you need to give far more thought to strategising your flight plan and being organised than when you travelled alone.
For long-haul, most travel mums will swear by the night flight for infants, and if there is a choice to fly direct, take it. Flying off-peak and avoiding school holidays will also maximise your chance of having a less crowded and more enjoyable flight. (You are bound to come across parents who disagree on these basics; years of experience, flying all different combinations and directions, I can assure you these are tried and tested long-haul strategies!)
If you are sitting on a stack of frequent flyer points, now might also be the perfect chance to upgrade yourself before you need to start paying for a full child’s ticket! Even in Premium Economy you will have more room for a wriggly baby on your lap and make for a more comfortable journey.
Airline baby bassinets and seating
Most long-haul flights will be equipped with baby bassinets. These are baskets that can be hung off the bulkhead wall and baby can sleep in them after take-off (but must be removed during turbulence and landing). These can be an absolute savior for parents and it certainly pays to call your airline in advance and try to book these limited bulkhead seats (don’t assume because you have booked an infant ticket you will automatically be allocated one – this is not the case!).
RELATED READING: The Ultimate Guide to Airline Baby Bassinets
If you miss out on a bassinet seat, ask if there is space towards the rear of the plane where you might get an empty seat to spread out – note you will still need to hold your infant and put a special seat belt attachment on but when the seat belt sign is off you may be able to lay baby across the seats. Don’t be afraid to also sit apart if you are a couple, this way you can take turns one holding the baby while the other takes a rest.
If you have booked an infant ticket, you will be required to hold your baby on your lap. Usually you will be charged 10% of the adult seat price and be afforded some additional carry on and checked luggage allowance.
If you are travelling with more than one child under 2, airlines will require you to book a child’s ticket as well and have one child seated in a child restraint (an airline compliant car seat).
RELATED READING: Flying with 2 (or more) Kids
Some parents actually prefer from the outset to book infants in a child’s seat so they can comfortably sit in the car seat they are familiar with. You can do this from six months up to the age of 3 on most airlines, but do check your seat is complaint with international aviation standards before bringing it on board, otherwise it will need to be stowed.
Another question I have been asked, can I book an infant ticket without a name? Yes! You should be able to book just the ticket initially before a child is born then add the child’s name later, prior to the flight.
What can you bring on the plane?
Each airline has different allowances for baggage on an infant ticket, ranging from an extra 10kg to a full 23kg bag of checked luggage. You will also be allowed additional equipment allowances for strollers and car seats – check with each individual airline though before bringing your infant items and understand what stroller facilities might be available at your origin and destination.
If you are checking your equipment all the way through, I strongly suggest using proper protective bags, or getting items shrink-wrapped at the airport to minimise the chance of damage in transit. I like to photograph items too in case of damage – strollers and car seats are unfortunately susceptible to damage by poor handling.
If you’d like more advice on what you should be packing, come check out our what to pack page.
Moving around the airport
OK, I’ll be honest; ditch your gorgeous three-piece travel system with the cute little mobile and parasol. It’s just not practical for air travel and transit. The easiest way of transporting a small infant around an airport is with some sort of sling or baby wrap; check your strollers and bassinets. The big plus of this method is it leaves your hands free still and you can go through security checks without needing to collapse strollers or wake a sleeping child. As long as there’s no metal, you shouldn’t need to remove baby from a sling during the security screening.
If you prefer a stroller, perhaps so baby can continue to lie flat and sleep while you’re at the airport, you can check if the airport offers a free stroller service – as many now do – or check yours at the gate (check if luggage tags are issued at check-in or by the ground staff at the gate).
Update January 2017: There are several brands now that cater for the ultra-compact travel market and WILL fit in the overhead storage locker of most planes. Check out our review of the Mountain Buggy Nano which includes a comparison chart and pros and cons of its ultra-compact competitors.
FURTHER READING: How to select the best stroller for travel
Boarding with a baby
On international flights and some domestic, airlines will call for families to come forward early for pre-boarding. If your child is at the pre-moving stage and it’s your first flight, definitely take advantage of this (don’t worry if you miss the boarding call, just walk up to the gate as soon as you’re ready, all travellers with young children are entitled to do this).
I suggest doing a full nappy change before you board too, particularly if you have taken the night flight option this is a perfect opportunity to get them freshly changed and ready for bed with a bit more elbow room. Cabin lights are dimmed during take-off and the hum of the engines is a perfect chance to get baby off to sleep with a nice milky feed.
A slightly older baby who has started crawling or walking might need to be given as long a chance as possible to move about at the gate before you enter a confined space. If you are travelling with two adults, consider sending one ahead to get things set up on the plane, put grab items in seat pockets and nab that coveted overhead locker space (the down side to the bulkhead row is that the overhead lockers are invariably filled with cabin supplies like blankets and headsets).
During the flight
Assuming your baby is still less than 12 months, entertainment options are relatively limited. Your best form of stimulation is to give them a change in scenery. Once you are able to, take regular walks around the plane, let them look out the windows from the galley, gurgle at the cabin crew. In your chair, a paper cup with some ice cubes or a barf bag alone could do the job, otherwise, soft books are great (see more advice on our Surviving flights with Children page). Please, for your fellow passengers sake, avoid rattle toys or things that bleep, sing nursery rhymes or generally annoy the shit out of other people – not cool and against our 10 Commandments of Family Air Travel!
As for feeding, here is where breast can be best as it eliminates a lot of concerns around fluid regulations!
If you are on bottles though, I would always bring your own gear with you and as much pre-prepared formula or expressed milk as regulations will allow. The cabin crew can help you with boiling water and bottle cleaning – though sometimes with reluctance – insist. (A special post on feeding babies on the move is coming soon). If your baby has started weaning, long haul flights will carry jarred/packet baby food options, but you are always best bringing your own. Mid-air is not the time to start experimenting with any new foods, especially that bag of peanuts!
Landing with a baby
Ok, here’s the one to be really prepared for. If all has gone relatively well up to now, it could all start coming apart during the descent. It’s wise to try and save a feed for the descent stage of the flight. As soon as the captain makes the announcement you’ll be landing soon, that’s your cue. Ear pressure on descent troubles infants particularly and can cause them to howl in pain. They don’t know how to pop their ears like adults do so giving them something to suck on helps this process.
Feeding them now can also help with any delays you might have getting through customs and security and on to your destination, hopefully before your next feed is due!
Getting through arrivals with a baby
Here’s where your bubba sling will really pay itself off; not many airlines these days will return your stroller to the aircraft door if you checked it at the gate. If you are landing on tarmac and transiting to the terminal you may get lucky, but the vast majority of international flights I have taken I’ve had to collect my stroller from over-sized luggage in the terminal.
If you are landing at a large airport it can take a long time to be reunited with your luggage, and I never rely on airports that claim to have free strollers available – it’s always sods law there are none left – few airports have impressed me so far in regard to this ‘perk’. If there is a golf cart service, be brash and request a seat.
As for immigration checks on your way through, it is perfectly OK to keep your baby in their sling through this process. The immigration official may want to see the babies face only with any pacifiers removed.
Ready for the next stage?
Hop over to our Best Toddler Travel advice section including 10 Toddler Flying Mistakes to avoid and what to pack in their carry-on bag
There you go – from booking seats to landing at your destination with your new baby, I hope you have found this guide useful and it’s given you some confidence to take to the air. Please do leave me any comments on your first flight experience, were there any super handy tricks you learnt? Are you feeling prepared enough to fly again?
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