Monday, January 10, 2011

Flying Baby: Don't Sweat It.

I got an e-mail this morning from a friend who is getting ready to take her seven-month-old baby girl on her first flight. It's a two and a half hour trip to Texas followed by a road trip to Arizona and the poor love is in a bit of a dither. My baby (lovingly known to Facebook friends as "Butters") has flown about ten flight segments over three plane trips in six months. The longest segment was from DCA Reagan to LAX, about five hours. Butters and I have flown from Fairbanks, Alaska to Washington, D.C. in a four-segment flight that took so long that by the time we boarded our last plane in Houston, the gate scanner would not accept my boarding pass because it had yesterday's date on it.

Suffice it to say, I have some thoughts.

First: The smaller the better. Some parents delay taking that first flight because they feel their fragile, newborn baby won't be able to handle the stress of a plane trip. While I think concerns about germs may be valid - all that recycled air and in-flight magazines are absolutely rife with bacteria - good old handwashing and hand sanitizer should protect both you and baby from plane bugs.

As for the stress of being inside the strange space that is the aircraft, remember that for a tiny baby everything is strange. Going to the supermarket could be stressful with it's bright lights, strangers, and aisle after aisle of different colorful objects to look at. Also remember that newborns sleep almost all the time and sleeping is a great way for a baby to get through a flight. When Butters took her first flight at three months old, I got (unwarranted)compliments from people who appreciated how quiet she had been. "There was a baby on this flight?" a few people said and laughed when we got up to debark.

Super tip: If possible, let baby nurse during take-off and landing. The sucking should help to relieve pressure on his tiny ear drums.

Second: Nurse, nurse, nurse. If you're breastfeeding, you're in luck. Flying will be a lot easier for you. Babies love to suckle to reduce stress, and if you've a handy nipple to pop into your baby's mouth, that child is far less likely to bother you or anyone else. If you're not breastfeeding, don't worry. The TSA has changed its rules (AGAIN) regarding expressed breast milk and formula. These fluids are now treated like liquid medications.
  • You can carry them in quantities greater than 3 oz (unlike other liquids).
  • You do NOT have to freeze them.
  • You do NOT have to carry them in a quart-sized bag.
  • You DO have to separate your milk and/or formula from your other gels and liquids, (your other gels and liquids being in the quart-sized bag of course) and you DO have to declare them to the TSA agents before they begin inspecting your carry-on luggage.
  • You will NOT be asked to drink anything. (Thank God that drama is behind us.)
You can also bring on baby food, gel-filled teething rings and juice.

How much can you bring? According to the TSA website, you can bring as much as you want in "reasonable quantities". What's that really mean? Who knows. Just pack as much as you know you will need given the length of your trip, and add one, maybe two, bottles for potential delays. Odds are however much you bring, the TSA agents won't hassle you about it. Just don't tempt them by trying to bring on say, a case of Similac.

Third: Fill that diaper bag. I'll talk more about packing for baby, what to check and how to check it, in my next post, but I did want to say here that you can't carry too many diapers or wipes on a flight. Ever heard of traveler's diarrhea? Babies get that too. Once on a United flight to San Francisco (this was on the plane that had no changing tables, not even in first class) Butters dirtied three diapers in one trip to the lavatory. Seriously. It was like a lame slapstick scene from a Hollywood rom com.

Here's me: bent over at the waist, my butt pressed against the door of the restroom as I balance my baby on the toilet seat lid, clean diaper clenched in my mouth, wiping baby poop with one hand and holding up her legs with the other. I get her in a clean diaper and clean pants (she had leaked of course) and then try to balance her on my raised knee while I wash my hands in the tiny sink. As soon as my hands are dry: "THHHRRRPPPT!" A heavy, wet and muffled sound escapes from my darling baby that sounded to me like, "Back to work, shmuck." This process repeated itself no less than three times. In the end, I ran out of wipes and had to use moistened paper towels.

Not fun. In general, you should pack light, but when it comes to the diaper bag, go heavy.

Fourth: Drinks and snacks. So baby's got her lunch, what about yours? Unless you bought a ticket for baby, she's riding on your lap the whole way. That means that she's blocking your drinks tray. If you're travelling with someone, then you don't got a problem, Jules. Just switch off who's holding her so you can both eat your turkey club sandwiches.

(Side note: if you are travelling in separated seats, this may not prove workable. On that same United flight, my DH was upgraded to the vaunted Economy Plus section and got trapped holding Butters for an hour because the seatbelt light was on. This wouldn't have been so bad, except that there was no baby formula in the diaper bag and Butters got hungry. Oy.)

If you're travelling alone, just ask the person next to you if you can share his tray to balance your drink. People are pretty accomodating I've found, especially if your baby is behaving herself, or even if she isn't, as long as you are making a visible effort to quiet her down, your fellow passengers are likely to cut you a lot of slack. Beyond that, just use your best judgment. You might want to skip the salad on this flight and just have some chips. You can always eat before you leave or after you get to where you're going.

Finally: Boarding the plane: don't be a jerk, wait your turn. I know you're nervous about flying with your precious bundle of joy. I've been there. I'll be there again. In your head, there is a clock ticking away the number of seconds that you have before junior decides that he is hungry right NOW, and the screaming starts.

Relax. Maybe your baby will fuss, and maybe he won't. It doesn't really matter. You still can't board until the gate agent says it's your turn.

Different airlines have different rules about when "passengers with special needs" like you with your baby, and the elderly and handicapped can get on. Generally, you won't be allowed to board before the first-class passengers or the frequent flyers. (Now, if you ARE a frequent flyer or flying first class, none of this applies to you, and frankly I'm surprised that you're reading this.) For everyone else, WAIT UNTIL THE GATE AGENT CALLS SPECIFICALLY FOR PARENTS TRAVELLING WITH INFANTS AND SMALL CHILDREN. Why? Because you don't want to add to your stress levels by getting into an argument that you should and will lose with people who paid more far more money for their tickets than you did for yours. 'Nuff said.

Remember, all babies are different and yours may just not like flying, but in general the sensation of being held close to you, the hum of the engines, and the general stillness of the cabin are all things that baby like. So, relax. Watch the in-flight movie. Order a bacardi and diet and feel secure knowing that people do this flying with the baby thing all the time, every day. Don't believe me? Do you know anyone who's ever flown who DOESN'T have a story about being seated on a flight near a crying baby? Exactly.

Welcome aboard.


Michelle Mitchell said...

What a great blog! If you want to hear a story about flying with two newly adopted Russian two year olds, let me know. Vladivostok to DC never seemed so far away! LOL! The advice you've given is great. I especially like the advice about waiting your turn to board the plane. Simple curtesy goes so far to making others more accommodating.

Gwen said...

@ Michelle: I'd love to hear that story. That's the kind of story that would make light-weight travelers think, "Well, if they did that, flying to Des Moines for Thanksgiving can't be that hard."

Courtney said...

Thanks so much for posting this. Seems as though traveling with small children, like parenting, has its good moments and bad moments. I do feel a bit better knowing that I can bring along some baby snacks on my trip!

Adrienna said...

And hopefully you can be so lucky as to sit near people who like your baby. Our first flight with our bundle had us sitting near people (one person behind, and 2 next to him on the other side of the aisle) who enjoyed making the baby giggle and laugh!

Michelle Mitchell said...

@ Gwen - Let's just say that two year olds DON'T want to sit on a stranger's lap, which was pretty much what WE were at the time. Everyone on board wanted to "help" us which meant taking the child to their part of the plane. We were so shell shocked by being new parents, we didn't know how to say no. There was a diaper incident that I don't believe Paul will ever forgive me for as he ended up throwing away an entire outfit of Nick's in Korea while I walk Liza around the airport unaware of his lack of diaper. I had them of course. Said outfit coming from his sister for the trip home (Think home from the hospital outfit). In Chicago, Paul wanted the children to experience America and bought them french fries. Neither child was too impressed and Nick bit my finger instead of the fry. There was a lot of blood involved and crying (me). On the plane from Chicago to Dulles we were one of the only passengers and Liza FINALLY fell asleep on me after fighting it the entire 24 hour experience. It's so funny on this side, but I thought we'd never get home. On the positive side, Paul's Mom and Dad were waiting at the gate when we walked off the plane (remember when you could do that?). My sister's and their husbands met us at luggage pick up with my Aunt Margaret and Uncle Dan. I was so happy.

Gwen said...

@ Michelle: wow. What an ordeal. I would definitely have gotten two tickets for the kids in that case, but of course that would have made the flight twice as expensive.