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10 Important Tips for Flying with Babies

Within five weeks of our daughter Maya’s birth, we were headed home for the holidays—a short flight from San Francisco to Santa Fe. The night before Maya’s maiden voyage, we realized that we had no idea what we were doing. We started frantically Googling: How do you get a baby to the airport? Can babies ride in taxis? What kind of identification does a baby need to fly?

Suffice to say, we made it to the airport, to Santa Fe and back. Those were the first of 45 flights and airport adventures in Maya’s first year of life. (Our work necessitates a lot of travel.) Our family and friends frequently remarked that we were crazy, and they might have been right. But, all in all, we had many more good flights than bad, and Maya seemed to enjoy the adventure of it.

Here are ten of the most important things we learned about flying with babies along the way. We hope they keep you and your fellow travelers sane.

Tip 1: Stay Calm

The most important thing we can possible relay is this: it’s your anxiety—not your baby’s—that’s going to really impact how the trip goes. Your baby doesn’t know to be anxious, because s/he has no idea what a shit show traveling can be. Your baby knows this: I like being close to my parents. I like breast milk or formula. I like weird, soothing vibrations. Guess what? That’s a plane in a nutshell. 

Tip 2: Book Your Baby

When booking for your flights, be sure to register your baby. This can be accomplished in the advanced options on most airlines’ websites, but also upon check-in with a bit more hassle, if you or your travel agent mistakenly neglected to make note of it. Babies under two years old fly free on a parent’s lap. If money is no object, an extra seat obviously makes life easier (we’ve never paid for an extra seat for Maya, but that means she also didn’t accrue any of those precious miles).

Tip 3: Pick Your Seats Wisely

When you’re booking, if two parents are flying, buy the window and the aisle of one row. Best case scenario: the middle seat doesn’t get purchased and you have extra room to maneuver and even have the option of bringing your car seat on and putting the babe to bed right in it. Worst case scenario: the poor schmuck who bought the middle seat shows up and you offer him or her the aisle and they breathe a deep sigh of relief that they’re not stuck between two parents. Particularly for nursing mothers, the window seat offers the most privacy and carries less risk of getting bumped by other passengers.

Tip 4: Bring Identification for Your Baby

Most airlines require parents to check-in their babies at the ticketing desk, so be sure to budget extra time for inevitable lines. A copy of our baby’s birth certificate and/or her passport have been checked the majority of the time. (The first time we flew, we didn’t have either, so the airline let us show a copy of the bill from the hospital with the date and her name on it—kid you not!) TSA agents seem to have little interest in the babe’s official documentation, so you can tuck those items away after you get through the airline check-in. 

Tip 5: Get Ready to Glide Through Security

As former road warriors, we remain determined to only carry-on (a set of tips for another time, perhaps). That’s still possible with the addition of a baby, car seat, and even a stroller. The most complicated part is removing the baby from its carrier or stroller, while also getting everything else through the scanner. If only one of us qualifies for TSA-Pre that day, the one that did carries the baby through.

Tip 6: Pray or Beg for Pre-Boarding

For some inexplicable reason, most airlines abandoned pre-board for families a couple of years ago. On rare occasion, an outdated or empathic boarding agent may issue a call for families. When they do, jump on it. Pretending not to understand this new status quo for families can also work. On the other hand, if you don’t have bags to fit in the overhead, the less time you’re on the plane, the better.

Tip 7: Gate Check Your Car Seat & Stroller

Car seats and strollers can be gate checked at no additional cost. That means you can roll them right up to the plane door and pick them up at the plane’s door on arrival. Both items need to be tagged or they will end up at the baggage claim, so grab those tags from the agent as soon as you arrive at the gate (most get annoyed if you do it as you’re boarding). If you know there’s an open seat next to you, bring the car seat onto the plane. They can only be strapped in at the window, to ensure exit in the case of an emergency.

Tip 8: Exercise Those Little Ears

Nurse or give your baby a bottle on takeoff and landing. This will help his or her ears adjust to the crazy altitude and air pressure and chances are that you’ll also get a good long nap out of it. If you’re getting resistance to the boob or bottle, have a pacifier around—any sucking motion will help.

Tip 9: Pack a Bag of Tricks and Be Prepared to Pace

If your baby is at that age where he or she needs to be entertained, make sure to stock your carry-on with weird, little stuff. Some surprisingly effective time-killers that you probably have lying around your house: pipe cleaners with Cheerios or puffs on it that the baby has to work off, sticky notes to put on the seat or tray table in front of you, toothbrush, and dominoes in plastic bottles. No joke: our kid is obsessed with the safety pamphlet. And, of course, snacks. Be sure to pinpoint the plane bathroom with the changing table, and otherwise prepare to log some laps walking up and down the aisle to keep things interesting.

Tip 10: Stay Calm

Did we mention the anxiety thing? It’s really about you, not the baby. So just take a deep breath and if anyone gives you a dirty look when your little one is freaking out, just kill them with kindness. (Some people also recommend bringing chocolate bars that you can hand out as a form of advance apology to those sitting around you; we’ve never done this, but may.) They were all babies once, too. And they probably weren’t nearly as cute as your little monster.

Courtney E. Martin and John Cary are partners in life and in work, consulting for clients such as TED, IDEO, and The Aspen Institute. They met at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center on Lake Como in northern Italy and now live in Oakland, Calif. 

Photo by John Cary