Family Travel: Flying with a baby or toddler

Women and Baby on an airplane

Woman holding a baby in-flight

Many of you are probably flying somewhere for the holidays. And some of you might be doing it with a very demanding little companion for the first time. It can be dread-inducing, right?

We’ve actually been pretty lucky as far as flights with Hudson have gone. No hostage situations on icy tarmacs. No solo sojourns. No vomit. (Yet.) Sure there were poop-explosions and a couple of crying bouts: he had a tooth literally break through the gum as we took our seats to fly home from St. Lucia. They paused the safety announcement because passengers probably couldn’t hear how to fasten their seat-belts over the wailing 10-month-old in the back.

Still, we’ve logged many hours in the air these first 16 months, including a cross-country flight at 8-weeks and a trip to (and from) Bali with three legs that added up to 40-hours of travel each way this past summer.

We talked before about favorite travel gear. Now, here are a few of my best travel tips for flying with a baby or toddler. Buckle-up… it’s a long one…

Before the you get to the airport:
Schedule your flight for when the baby sleeps. Whether or not this means flying on a red-eye is a bit more complicated. I never wanted to fly red-eye when Hudson was a tiny infant because I felt like, if he didn’t sleep, it could be so much worse (everyone else quiet and trying to sleep and terribly angry at our colicky baby). But we still tried to time every flight to naps or at least push a nap so that he’d sleep through as much of the flight as possible. That’s the goal. Now, with his predictable sleep-through-the -night routine, I’d choose a red-eye, no question.

Decide whether or not to purchase the baby a seat. They don’t have to have their own until they’re two–but it might be worth it to have one if you’re flying long-haul. There’s no way we would have survived those flights to Bali without Hudson having a seat. It meant we had a whole row to stretch out in, make a mess in, etc. We brought his carseat and could sleep well knowing he was strapped in and not in danger of rolling onto the floor in the middle of the night. Having a carseat will also leave their hands free and allow you to lower your tray table as well as theirs.

Choose an aisle seat for one or both of you (if you’re lucky enough to be traveling with your partner). We always have sat beside each other, but others have suggested having aisle seats across from each other–and that could work out really well, too.

Confirm your airline’s policies for luggage allowances. Make sure that your baby is on the ticket as a lap infant if he or she doesn’t have a seat. If you’re bringing on a carseat, will it fit? Check before you get to the airport.

Get your baby a passport, if traveling internationally, well in advance.

Pack strategically. Imagine yourself at the airport and going through security. Can you manage it all? Pack your carry-on with a change of clothes for the baby and more diapers than you think you’ll need. Put a small bag within the bag that can stay at your feet with those things you think you might be accessing often: blanket, distractions, snacks or bottles.

Dress strategically, too: For using the bathroom with one hand. And nursing–if you still are–comfortably. I didn’t buy too many nursing-specific clothes, but I really liked wearing one on flights where Hudson was likely to fall asleep on me (something like this


Have a sleep routine in place that both you and your partner know. In stressful moments, it’s easy to snap at each other. We found that the more we’re in sync about what happens next, what to try when the baby seems overtired, etc., the better. Moreover, getting the baby to sleep in an unfamiliar setting is easier if you can pull out familiar sleep cues–like a song or a book.

Stock up on distractions (for an older baby or toddler). Depending on his or her age, this might mean toys from the dollar store to unwrap one by one, an iPad with videos loaded, board books, crayons, stickers, finger foods, etc. If you’re planning on watching videos, bring kid-appropriate headphones and a splitter so you can listen along.

Baby in a car seat on a flight

At the airport:
Don’t let the people behind you intimidate you when you’re going through security. You’re doing the best you can and you have a whole extra person to account for. Here are the TSA policies for screening children and carrying on liquids required for babies. Note that you do have to take your child out of the carrier or stroller to go through, so we usually used the stroller as a luggage cart and started out with me carrying Hudson when he was a super sleepy infant. (And if you’re still worried about being quickly through, check out these tips.)


Otherwise, keep them up and moving in the terminal. If you have a really little one, try to save the sleep for the flight. With the walkers and crawlers, get them moving around before they’re confined!


Stay off the plane as long as you can. (This is perhaps my number one tip .) When Aron and I fly together–which luckily has been every time so far–he gets on the plane with the pre-boarding families and gets us all set up. He grabs the necessary overhead space and puts only what we need at our feet. If we’re traveling with a carseat, he’ll set that up; or he’ll gatecheck the stroller. I’ll stay behind with Hudson–and usually with a babycarrier like the Ergo or a sling, and a diaper case. (This is a great time to do a pre-flight diaper change.) The flight attendants sometimes see me with the baby and will double-check: “would you like to pre-board?” Don’t be tempted! Stay off until the last possible minute–just be sure to stay close to the gate. Even once you’re in the gangway, bounce or play until they really need you to board. There’s no reason to spend any more time entertaining the baby in your tiny little row (or trying to keep him asleep over the overhead announcements) than necessary.

On board:
Say hello to the flight attendant and introduce him or her to your child–especially if you’re traveling alone. They just may end up being your best ally. Our flight attendant on our Frankfurt-to-Bangkok leg brought Hudson a toy and then offered to let him crawl up and down on the stairs between economy and business class!

Double check that you have everything you’d need for the baby at your feet. (What if, say, turbulence were to force you to stay seated? This has happened to us a surprising number of times.)

And get set up. If they are in a carseat (and on a flight that still gives out blankets), tuck a blanket underneath the seat and connect it to the seat pocket in front of them. It can save you from fishing too deep for every toy that gets tossed overboard.

Try to have your child sucking on something or chewing something at take-off and landing. Most moms with infants use this time to nurse. Just don’t start too early: planes can taxi for what feels like an eternity.

Break all your rules! Snacks! Movies! Photobooth with your iPhone!

If there are two adults on a meal-service flight, see if you can stagger your meals. Some attendants are willing (others are not) to hold one meal until their next trip down the aisle.

Enjoy it when they sleep: Either sleep yourself (a must if it’s a red-eye), or finally watch a movie and have a glass of wine with your partner. (That splitter comes in handy again!) I think one of my favorite “dates” with Aron was that flight with 8-week-old Hudson; I was worried we’d never see a new(ish)-release movie together again and voila!

And finally:
Relax! It usually goes better than you’d think. And when it doesn’t, you at least will have a good survival story (and often some wonderful vacation memories, to boot.)

holding a baby on a flight

What am I missing?

P.S. Note that these are all based on what has worked for us. You know your baby best! Also, my favorite gear for traveling with small kids.

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