How To Fly (Far) With A Baby: Infant
You may have read my previous post about flying with a newborn, where I covered baby travel how to's like booking a ticket with an "infant on lap," getting your baby a passport, what to pack for the plane trip, and tips on stroller bags and carriers. This post builds on that foundation by offering tips for flying with a baby past the newborn stage.
You may have as much anxiety as I did about flying a long distance with an infant, worrying about all the things that could go wrong: What if I can't get them to sleep, what if they're teething during the trip, what if nothing entertains them, what if they cry the entire time?
I was dreading our flight(s) to Egypt because of all those worries. Safia is almost 11-months-old and just starting to teeth. Our trip was going to take 19 hours. Infants don't sleep as much as newborns. They're squirmy and need distractions. They may be crawling or even walking. But you can do it! And though it won't always be fun, it doesn't have to be horrible. The more prepared you are, the easier it is. I'm going to be sharing my top tips after having traveled with Safia for trips 5 to 19 hours long (including alone).
For this first loong trip I prepared myself for the worst – packing a carry-on with new toys and more clothes, diapers, food and formula than I knew I needed, just in case. It was our first time flying so far and I didn't want to be caught unprepared. But it wasn't too bad!
Here are my tips to survive a long flight with an infant:
1. Book a red-eye flight
For your departure to the destination. Your child is likely to sleep through much of the flight. Our takeoff was 8:30 p.m., around Safia's bedtime. There were two other 10-month-olds on either side of us, one a breast-feeding baby and the other formula-fed. Once we all got our babies to sleep, they slept for much of the flight! Safia normally stirs several times through the night for milk, but aside from us giving her a fresh bottle or rubbing her back, we were able to get a good chunk of sleep in. That was the case for all the other infants too. So that's my top recommendation...
2. Request a bassinet seat
...along with this one. The entire front row of our section was bassinets, four babies in all. This is something you should request while booking your ticket online. I take the extra step of calling to make sure they're actually giving me the bassinet seat rather than assuming.
You may run into the issue of initially only being assigned one seat with the bassinet. At first Lufthansa didn't seat Usef with us, claiming over the phone that they could only have one person assigned to a bassinet. But once on the plane we saw that every bassinet seat had two parents. Luckily we requested that Usef be moved next to us when checking in. Lesson: Advocate for yourself! You're the one who'll be suffering, or not, on the flight.
Each airline has different rules regarding bassinets, including the age, weight and length of the baby for proper fitting and safety. Check with your airline's website or just give them a call and chat with an agent. Lufthansa has a 30lb (14kg) limit, which Safia is just under. But she was almost too long for the EgyptAir bassinet provided on the same trip.
I searched online for covers to go on the bassinet to provide quiet and darkness but could only find items on the UK Amazon. We ended up draping the airline blanket over the bassinet, which worked fine, though sometimes the flight attendants were chatting too loudly and woke her up.
3. Book a return flight that gets you home by your baby's bedtime This is worth a try. The main reason I suggest this is because it's a similar strategy I use to beat jetlag: Timing my sleep on the plane to bedtime in my destination. This can mean drinking coffee or taking sleeping pills during the flight(s) to either keep myself awake or knock myself out. But once there your body will fall into the rhythm of the place sooner.
For babies, it seems similar. Safia suffered from 4-day long jetlag in Egypt – waking up around 12 a.m. and staying up until 4 a.m. This was partly because she was teething, but also likely because she slept on the plane at times coinciding with her bedtime at home and was kept awake for hours by excited relatives when arriving in Cairo at 2 a.m.
But our return flight got she and I home by 8:30 p.m. – her bedtime. She slept on both flights but was awake during the last 4 hours. She napped in the car and when we got home I transferred her to bed and jumped in with her. We got 8 hours of sleep and the next day she was mostly back on her regular nap schedule (though she napped much longer than usual and was clearly a bit jetlagged). Another key factor to beating jetlag is daylight – make sure you and your baby go outside and see sunlight during the day to set your internal clock.
4. Bring new toy(s) your baby will love
At this point you know your baby well enough to know what toys they like or dislike. I recommend buying several new toys you can pull out during the flight.
Safia is obsessed with electronics – laptops, phones, remotes, iPads. So I bought her two remotes (lol) along with more traditional toys. Some great wood ones include building blocks, a xylophone, stacking rings, teething rattle, a pull toy, or activity cube.
On the flight to Egypt she ended up playing with the remote the entire time she was awake. I thought all the toys I bought were a waste until our 4-hour layover in Munich, when she was bored. That's when I pulled a few out. I was saving the remainder for the flight home, but I had to use them during our stay in Cairo, so I bought new toys there for the plane trip home.
Ultimately it's not just for the plane, bring new toys for the entire trip!
5. Load up an iPad/tablet with your baby's favorite shows
This is so handy, unless you are a "no screen time" parent. I tried very hard in her early months to enforce no screen time, but it was unavoidable. Safia's been FaceTiming with her grandma in Egypt since she was weeks old (probably where her obsession with phones comes from) and wants to get involved whenever we're on our laptops.
The silver lining is allowing screen time means another saving grace during travel – playing your infant's favorite shows on an iPad or tablet when all else fails. This really helped us during the last hour of our first flight and during a large chunk of our 4-hour flight from Munich to Cairo. We'd downloaded her favorite "Super Simple Songs" episodes from Amazon Prime including Baby Shark, Humpty Dumpty and Mr. Monkey. Playing them stopped her from fussing and crying (likely out of boredom).
During our final leg Safia actually fell asleep watching her favorite episode, which was a surprising turn of events, along with the middle seat being empty so that she could lay down!
6. Should you bring a car seat?
In order to bring a car seat aboard you have to book your infant their own seat. It's 100% your preference as you aren't required by law to use a car seat. Safia isn't a fan of car seats in general so it's not likely we'll ever bring one on a plane.
If you do want to bring yours, first make sure it's FAA certified. Usually this is easy to check as the sticker on the side of the seat should say, “This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft.”
Secondly, make sure your car seat can even fit the plane seat, which can be from 16" to 22". Most are around 17 or 18".
You can check on Seat Guru to see what size your seat will be ahead of time.
Thirdly, when booking the seat make sure that you have a window seat so you don't block anyone's path. It might also be considerate to book one parent in front of the child seat (if you're traveling with both) because whoever is sitting in front of the car seat can't recline.
The FAA requires that if you do use a car seat you must secure your child (less than 40lbs) in the seat for the duration of the flight, most likely in the rear-facing position. If your baby is 22-44lbs, then you can use a car seat or secure them in the airplane seat with a CARES Child Safety Device. Again this is if you bought them a seat.
If your child is more than 40lbs, then they can use the airplane seat belt. Safia is less than 30lbs but during our flight with the surprise empty seat we sat her down and buckled her in, keeping an eye on her for safety. She sat quietly watching her show.
Lufthansa also provided red "infant on lap seat belts" that allowed us to strap her onto our seat belt for takeoff and landing, which was the first time we saw this.
Until now we've flown with Safia on United and Delta to places like New York City, Washington D.C., Mexico (Tulum) and Hawaii (Honolulu). It was our first time being provided this option, which feels safer than putting your seatbelt around the both of you. And easier, as it does hold them in place a bit and prevents them squirming out of your arms. Lufthansa is a United partner so I'm a bit surprised that United doesn't offer this option, but perhaps it's just something offered for lengthy overseas flights.
7. Get your infant their own seat
If you can. It's so helpful to provide an active infant their own space. Sometimes we give Safia our seat (and buckle her in) just to get her to stop squirming. We don't buy her a seat because it's almost free for her to fly as an "infant on lap" until 2-years-old vs. a $1600 plane ticket, which is how much it cost us to fly to Cairo. If you can afford it, I would recommend it.
If you can't, ask the agents at the gate or when checking in if they can seat you next to an empty seat. If you forget, just keep your eyes open for empty seats you can move next to on the plane. When booking you can also aim for the less full flights.
8. Gate check car seat & stroller
I recommend using your car seat and stroller (especially if you have a combined system) until the gate. It's really handy to be able to use the stroller like a cart – the storage space beneath and even atop if you're wearing your baby. You can throw both items in a bag at the gate (along with all the other extra loose stuff you don't need on the plane, toss it in the bag!).
This brings me to a lesson learned: Double-check that the gate agent is doing their job correctly. I'd flown 4 times doing just this and thought I was communicating myself properly when checking in for my return flight from Egypt. What I didn't notice was the agent had attached to my stroller bag a tag that would send it to my final destination – my stroller, my car seat and my carrier! That meant during our layover in Munich I had to carry a nearly 30lb Safia for a 30-minute walk to our next gate, along with our bags. Luckily I had a friend with me to help. But I will double-check next time.
9. Tap into solidarity
On our flight home from Egypt Safia and I were alone in the bassinet row (her dad stayed an extra week in Cairo with family). We were sitting next to a family of four – mom, dad, 10-month-old and 3-year-old (who had his own seat). During much of the flight I had Safia on my lap. She didn't sleep for long in the bassinet this time, so I had to hold her while she slept. When she was awake I couldn't eat because she would knock my tray over.
She was entirely too squirmy, tossing her bottles and toys in the aisle. So I strapped her into my seat and sat on the ground in front of her. The other mom took pity on me and offered me her son's seat while he was napping on the ground atop blankets, so that I could eat. She also turned her closed captioning on so I could read the subtitles of her movie while holding Safia, who kept yanking my earplugs out. "We're in this together," she told me.
That's thing thing about travel with kids – there's a certain solidarity with other parents. A weird club formed out of misery, or trying to find ways to avoid it. So my last tip – introduce yourself to the parents next to you, ask their kid's names and ages, smile and make small talk, and don't be afraid to ask for help when needed. Believe me, they understand.
Happy travels! 💫
P.S. Check out my previous blog for tips on what to pack for the plane and stroller bags and carrier information.