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32 Flights in 18 Months: Flying Solo with a Baby – Part 1

I flew on 32 flights in my daughter's first 18 months of life. Here are all my travel tips and tricks.

I’m a photographer, but I’m also a mom and a military spouse, and I do a lot of travelling solo with my kids.

For me, the first year of motherhood was quite a whirlwind. Along with lost sleep, adjusted schedules and priorities, and everything else that comes with having your first baby, I also had an unusually high number of opportunities to travel. Because I’m from the West coast, and currently living on the East coast, most of the travelling I did was cross-country flying. I was curious one day and started counting the number of flights my daughter had been on since she was born, and it totaled to 32! That’s 32 flights in just 18 months! I traveled with her first when she was 4 months, but most of the travelling was 10+ months (read: the hard, wiggly age). With 32 times to practice (23 of those flying solo), I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks for how to travel via plane with a baby, and I thought I’d take a brief pause on sharing portraits so I can share my tried and true knowledge with anyone prepping to fly with a baby this summer. I really hope this gives you the confidence you’re looking for. First things first, YOU GOT THIS!

“Wait… why are you sharing this?” No one has asked me to make this blog post. I didn’t receive any discounts on tickets or products as a result or precursor to this. Ultimately I just wanted to create a realistic and honest resource for anyone flying with a baby to use to get ideas. Every parenting style is different, and every child is different. So what works for me may not work for you and that is OK! We’re all trying to do our best in our own circumstances, so take whatever I say with a grain of salt (or sugar if you have a sweet tooth like I do) and do what works best for you.

As a brief recap for anyone interested in the flying “stats,” here they are:

  • Total number of flights with lap infant: 32 (23 were just me and baby)
  • Destinations (some were visited multiple times): Oregon, Utah, Spain, Brussels, Toronto, Alaska, and North Carolina.

Alright let’s get right in to the good stuff. I’ve divided the posts into 4 parts. This is Part 1, which is all about packing. But before we even dive into that, I have a few general tips…

General Tips:

1. Expectation Management. Weird term that basically means if your expectations are realistic, you’re less likely to be overwhelmed/disappointed when plans change. For example, if a spouse says they might be home from work at 3pm, but then they’re late and get home at 4pm, you’re most likely going to be disappointed with the situation even though 4pm is still earlier than they normally get home. Whereas, if you weren’t expecting them to be home until 7pm but they get home at 6pm, it may still be fairly late, but it’s earlier than you expected, making you happy with the situation. Before you even begin planning for your trip, set realistic and appropriate expectations for yourself and your baby.

Some travel expectations I’ve set for myself are:

  • Do not expect to sleep on any flight, or at any point of the travel process. Not even on a red eye.
  • Expect your baby to cry. They’re babies, that’s how they communicate their needs.
  • Expect to go through 2x the number of diapers than you normally do.

My expectation list is quite a bit longer, but they all correlate with my tips and tricks so I’ll get on with the list…

2. Asking never hurts. With the frequency that I’ve flown, and the fact that I did a fair amount of travelling in the winter months, I experienced a lot of delays and cancellations. One instance, I received a call 5 hours before my flight was supposed to leave saying it had been cancelled and I would miss my connection unless I could make it to the airport in 2 hours. Right before hanging up, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to ask if I could be upgraded to the “extra leg room”/”economy plus”/etc. seating for my flight. The agent I spoke with was more than happy to grant me this seat change, and I was ELATED to have a whole row (lucky!) of extra leg room to myself for a 5 hour flight. So if something happens, it never hurts to ask (usually I just ask for a complimentary seat with extra leg room, that’s my favorite way to “upgrade” a flight, and it’s easy for the airline to accommodate) – the worst thing that could happen is they say no.

3. When you’re relaxed, baby will be more relaxed. Being around someone that’s stressed or anxious makes us feel more anxious, and babies are no different. The more you prepare yourself and your baby (mentally as well as physically) for travel, the less stressed you will feel, and the more calm baby will feel. Before one trip we took, I was in a mad dash the morning of the flight to finish packing and completing last minute chores around the house. I realized I hadn’t even told my baby what was about to happen! Some may roll their eyes and say babies don’t talk so it doesn’t matter, but my daughter could definitely sense something was off with our normal routine, and I felt I owed it to her to at least take a second and explain why.

4. Don’t fix what isn’t broken. As a general rule, I don’t try to distract or entertain my baby if she is currently content. I’ll have a whole backpack full of toys and books and a whole head full of stories and songs, but if my baby is happy to open and close the safety brochure 100 times, then that’s what we will do. (Side tip, use unexpected entertainment when available. Not only is the safety brochure the first thing my baby wants to look at when we get to our seat, but it holds her attention way longer than I expect it to – she once looked at it for a half hour straight.)

 

Today’s Post will be all about PACKING:

5. Pay for the checked bag. It may add more time at the airport, but it helps keep my hands free and give me peace of mind to just pack one big bag full of both mine and baby’s things, and then to drop it with baggage and forget about it until I’m finished. Then I don’t have to lug it around or limit what I pack. I have taken a carry-on bag a few times before while solo with my baby, and it’s doable, but I definitely prefer just checking my bag over bringing a roller case along.

6. Bring as little as possible. Is there a car seat, stroller or pack’n play where you are going? It never hurts to ask whomever you are visiting if they have friends or know anyone with a car seat or stroller they wouldn’t mind lending to you while you’re visiting. (Please be careful and make sure the car seat is up to all codes and regulations, hasn’t been in an accident, isn’t expired or recalled, etc. I only do this when I trust the person and have proof that the car seat is safe.)

7. What I check vs. what I carry-on:

In my checked bag I bring:

  • all my clothes and baby’s clothes
  • toiletries (including things for baby like diaper cream, ointments, etc.)
  • an extra blanket for baby
  • extra diapers and wipes from your stash at home if you have room (saves you from buying more diapers while there and leaves you with extra room on the way back)
  • Additionally I check any extra baby item I need with the airlines, such as a car seat or stroller. I bought a nylon bag to hold a car seat on Amazon but never used it because it didn’t arrive on time. The airlines usually have big plastic bags to hold the car seats and strollers (some airlines give it to you for free, some require a small fee), but if you’d prefer your own, I’ve heard good reviews about this bag. It’s a bit pricey compared to other bags, and there are other well rated bags, so you can weigh the pros and cons for yourself and decide. That being said, I’ve now checked a car seat 6 times and I used the airlines’ big clear trash sack each time (#lazy), and the car seat has not been damaged in any way, although 4/6 times the bags had small rips in them, but were still in tact and covering the car seat.

What I carry on the plane with me: I just bring a backpack to carry all I need, and a baby carrier to hold my baby (for younger babies, I also like this carrier).

Inside the backpack I bring:

  • YOUR ID! This is obvious, I know, but if I didn’t put it down, someone could blame me when they do forget their ID and I just don’t want that kind of guilt on my hands… I will also note that SOME airlines require you to have a copy of a birth certificate for your little one. I’m not entirely sure which ones do, and how strict they are… Flying with United, Delta, and Jet Blue, I never had to bring it (international flights are different, you definitely still need a passport for your little one. More about that in Part 3.) I was however asked once with Jet Blue (98% sure it was Jet Blue…) if I had a birth certificate for my daughter when I was checking in for my RETURN flight, and I simply explained that I flew out there with them without it, and that I had no way to get it. The lady let it slide and I had no further issue. This may be an airport/person specific thing, so I’m not entirely sure. That being said, I didn’t have an issue on any flight except one. (I also flew from 2016-2017. Policies may have changed.)
  • Reusable water bottle. You can leave it empty while going through security, or fill it up if it’s for the baby.
  • Milk for baby: I use this nursing cover when I breastfed, and these formula packets when my daughter was weening. With formula, I also bring a full water bottle, and once my daughter was on dairy milk, I brought two large baby bottles of cold milk – one for the car/airport, and one for the airplane. Usually she finished both before they would go bad (if they got warm I dumped them). After the milk is gone, I buy more in an airport during a layover, ask the flight attendant for boxed milk (only some airlines/flights offer this), or just give her water. I haven’t used a thermos (something like this or this) to keep milk cold, but really think it’d be a much better alternative than what I’ve done in the past. (NOTE: if filling up a water bottle on a plane PLEASE ask a flight attendant to get you bottled water, as the airplane faucet water isn’t filtered.)
  • Snacks: Make sure to pack snacks for yourself, especially if you’re nursing. I usually bring a few high-calorie granola/protein/energy bars and some crackers for myself. I use the “airplane calories don’t count” rule and allow my daughter to munch on her favorite snacks without question. She usually eats the crackers along with me, munches on airplane pretzels, eats a PB+J, etc. and I always bring some sort of fruit snack/fruit leather for her. She LOVES them, and they help keep her calm/happy if she’s getting restless.
  • Diapers: Millions of diapers. My very first trip with my daughter was cross-country and delayed overnight. All I had was what was in my backpack, and I am SO thankful I decided to bring 20 diapers because I used the last one on the last flight to my destination (and had to text my ride to grab some more diapers for me and bring them to the airport). Since that experience, I’ve learned my lesson: Bring 3-4x the number of diapers you normally need. As my daughter has gotten older, I’ve changed the number from 20 diapers to 15, but I still bring more than enough.
  • Wipes: Along those same lines, I always bring two packs of wipes (total I think it equals ~500 wipes?) I’ve never used all of them, but I never want to find out what happens when I do.
  • Anti-bacterial Wipes/Hand-sanitizer: Call me a germophobe, but planes are dirty, and so are people. Don’t freak out too much otherwise you’ll just become anxious with the invisible bacteria all around you… but make a point to clean your hands and baby’s hands at least before you put anything in your mouth.
  • Extra clothes: Bring an extra outfit for baby. Or Two… My daughter never had TERRIBLE blow outs, so I was fine with just bringing one extra outfit (usually a pajama onesie). Also bring an extra shirt for yourself (and pants if your little one is extra expressive…) You CAN go rogue and ditch an extra outfit for yourself, you’ll just run the risk of maybe smelling like sour milk, poop, or spit for a few hours. (I’ve done it, not the worst thing…)
  • Comfort Items For Baby: a blanket, pacifier, stuffed animal, whatever you baby uses to sleep or calm down. Make sure you have something that can help them with their ears popping if that’s an issue. My daughter never seems to mind, but I also always make sure she is sucking on a pacifier or nursing/drinking/chewing during take off and landing.
  • Toys. (More details in Part 2.) I typically pack everything else in my bag and then stuff the rest of the extra space with toys.
  • Books. (More details in Part 2.) I bring about 3-5, whichever are my daughter’s favorites at the time. Babies love repetition.
  • Comfort Items For You: When I fly, I need gum. It helps with my ears, helps me when there’s bad turbulence, when the plane feels stuffy, etc. I bring headphones and download kindle books and music onto my phone to read/listen to IF baby falls asleep. Also, I bring a sweatshirt or jacket that I can fold up and stuff it under my arm so it doesn’t get tired or numb from holding baby for 5 hours straight. (If you forget a sweatshirt or are super cold, you can also use the blanket you packed.)

Aside from putting my baby in my carrier… That’s also where I place my wallet, phone, and boarding passes. I really like my carrier because it has a zipper pocket (And an open pocket… Pocket-mania!) where I can place my personal belongings without worrying about unstrapping everything, taking off the backpack, or getting pick-pocketed. It’s also really easy to put on and off during security/take off/landing. More on all that later. I promise.

For now, I’ll stop so you can get up and go pee, but thank you for reading! As I mentioned, in the next few days I’ll be posting parts 2-4 which covers everything else you need to know!

Part 2: Entertaining Baby, Sleeping Baby

Part 3: Tips and Tricks on Planes and in Airports

Part 4: What If…

 

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