I must say, we have done a lot of international travel given we have a child under two. She went to Australia twice in her first year, and we also took our belated honeymoon to Italy with her in tow when she was 11 months old. We also flew to Washington DC for a conference when she had just turned one. Traveling with a baby or toddler can have its moments, but here are six tips for surviving airline travel with little ones that might make it easier:
Tip #1: Get them their own seat.
I realize there are times when finances prevail and a seat of their own may not be possible, but I think without Valentina having her own seat I might have gone insane, especially on long flights. When she was a baby, we also took her car seat on board, and not only did that give her a snuggly, familiar place to sleep, it also kept her much safer. Now she’s too big for her car seat, so we don’t do that any more, but having that extra seat in between Dave and I for her to stretch out and go to sleep is priceless to us. That brings me to tip #2:
Tip #2: Don’t take the front row.
Often airlines will give families the front row of the cabin, to give them more room. That works well on long haul flights where there are bassinets that fold down from the front wall. Those bassinets are amazing and with infants, provide them with a safe, cosy place to sleep. We would put Valentina in there along with her white noise machine that she was familiar with at the time (mini-tip – bring spare batteries!), and put a muslin blanket over it to provide darkness. The bassinets have a harness that goes over the top to keep them secure so it’s safe and that keeps the blanket from falling on her. If your baby is too big for the bassinet, or on a plane that does not have those, the front row can be limiting in that the arm rests usually don’t go up. So picture two parents with a toddler in between who wants to lie down and go to sleep, but can’t. We request a block of three seats on the side so that the whole row is just us (as opposed to being put in a block of four in the middle section), and then we can put the armrests up between us and Valentina can stretch out and sleep, still with her seatbelt on.
Tip #3: Bring a new toy or activity for each hour/ two hours.
Depending on the length of the flight and how much sleeping gets done, you might space new things out by an hour, or two – but I wouldn’t do it any less frequently than that. We went shopping before we left home and got a bunch of new toys or activities, so that every hour or so she’d have something new and novel to experience. It might have been as simple as a new notebook to scribble in, a finger puppet, or a lightweight book. They don’t have to be expensive or heavy, just something different that they haven’t seen before that will keep them entertained for a little while. When I was little and living in England, Mum used to take my sister and I to Australia every summer to visit her parents. Dad would be working so not able to come over with us, so it was Mum and us two girls ages newborn up to six. She used to adopt the “new toy every two hours” strategy for those (24 hour) flights, and I still remember to this day the excitement and anticipation we’d have as the time came up for the next thing to be given to us.
Tip #4: Baby wear in the airport.
Most airlines won’t let you baby wear on the plane itself, but wearing Valentina through the airport was a Godsend. They let me through security with her still in her carrier, and it allowed me to move quickly and with agility through the airport. You know how much hustle and bustle there is with people rushing to their gates and pushing through customs lines – it just gave her a comfortable place to be where we weren’t having to navigate the stroller (we could then check the stroller at the main check and be done with it), and it wasn’t overwhelming for her with all the lights/ noise/ people. Having a calm baby getting on the plane is one of the keys to having a good travel experience overall.
Tip #5: Nursing, or giving a bottle or pacifier during take off and landing.
This one is pretty well-known, but it bears repeating. The important thing in helping infants and young children clear their ears is to have them suck on something. Whether they’re being nursed, or given a bottle, we tried to make sure we timed our feeds so that she could last until takeoff, but was hungry and ready to drink. You also want to wait until the plane is literally pulling off the ground – one time we pulled the bottle out and she saw it and wanted it, so we ended up giving it to her while the plane was still taxi-ing. Of course, that was the longest plane taxi ever so the bottle was gone by the time the wheels were up. Oops!! Second choice would be a pacifier, which does help, but they normally don’t suck as forcefully as a boob or bottle. Landing is harder because the descent takes longer than the ascent on take off, so waiting a little while is better – but remember, if you’re starting to feel your own ears pop, then your little one is probably already uncomfortable.
Tip #6: Try to mimic their bedtime routine as much as possible.
Getting kids to sleep on planes can be tough. We know that with Valentina – she’s very social and happy – even during long flights, which is lovely until we want her to sleep and she’d rather pop up and wave hello and giggle at the person sitting behind us. One thing we do is to try to create as much of her bedtime ritual as possible – changing her into pajamas, giving her her lovie, reading her a story etc. We also use essential oils that are calming such as lavender and cedar wood to try to promote sleep, and we play either white noise or baby lullabies softly to be calming.
One of the questions that comes up with travel is about giving children Benadryl to make them groggy and help them sleep. We actually tried that once and had a horrible experience. We gave it to Valentina in a syringe directly into her mouth – she hated it so much she resisted it, first choking on it, the projectile vomiting it all over her and us. I seriously felt like The Worst Mother Ever, so I personally will never do that again. I also hear of many people who’s children respond the opposite way than expected with Benadryl, so they have a hyperactive kiddo on their hands. After what happened with us, I’m not a fan, so I can’t say I would recommend that – but when she’s a bit older I’ll probably try melatonin and see how that goes.
We love traveling with Valentina. My family is in Australia, so it’s great to get her over there to see them, and our trip to Italy was the best. We flew to Milan and rented a car, drove to Lake Como and stayed on the lake for six days, then had three days in Venice and three days in Verona. She was a great traveler and a fun companion.
My encouragement would be to not be scared of traveling with little ones. Granted we have two parents and just one little one, so that’s more manageable in every way than families with more kiddos, but with some forward planning and a positive outlook on it, I believe it can be a great experience for everyone.