We drove from LA to Houston for Christmas, when Xander was a little over 2 months old, and he handled 3 long days of driving like a champ. He slept for stretches, but was content to be in his car seat for hours at a time even when he was awake. We smiled smugly when peopled marveled that he was such a laid back baby. This is him contentedly passed out in the middle of the hotel bed after we drove 630 miles in one day:
We thought we had started him early enough with long drives that he was used to it, and we could continue going on our regular road trips to fun places. Then Xander decided to teach us a critical lesson in parenthood: The baby makes the rules, and will change said rules as soon as you start to get comfortable with them.
He woke up one day when he was around 4 months old and decided he hated his car seat with the fire of a thousand suns. We tried everything we could safely try to distract him or make him more comfortable, but nothing helped even a little bit. We concluded that he just hated being restrained, which was consistent with his personality.
I walk almost everywhere, so thankfully most days I don’t have to drive anywhere with him. I knew things had gotten bad when walking the 7 miles each way to my doctor’s appointment seemed like a better idea than spending 20 minutes in the car with Xander screaming. His crying escalates until he makes himself sick and struggles to breathe. I had to stop a total of 5 times during that 14 mile round trip to the doc to calm him down. Any parent knows how brutal it is to listen to your little one cry and not be able to fix it.
We hoped (are still hoping!) it would be a relatively brief phase, but our trip to Park City was beginning to loom close with no improvement in his attitude towards the car seat. We made a pact before becoming parents that we would find a way to keep traveling and not give up going on adventures. It didn’t sound that hard back then, but now we would do anything to keep him happy. We decided that flying instead of the long drive would be a good compromise. We would have to give up our road trip and the night we had booked at the Lodge in Zion National Park (one of my favorite places in the world), but a flight seemed much more reasonable than 10+ hours of driving each way. Even if he hated it, it would be out of the way in just over an hour. With two of us, navigating the airport didn’t sound that hard. It was definitely the right choice.
I used to travel a lot for work–around 100 flights per year–so airports didn’t used to be a big deal for me. It was just part of my commute to work. Once we had Xander, it admittedly seemed a little more daunting to fly, but if you’re prepared, I think it minimizes the risk of it being a miserable experience. And even if it’s terrible, with the right mindset, you’ll get through it fine and be able to laugh about it later.
Here are some suggestions for surviving the airport and flight with a tiny human based on things that stood out on this short trip from LAX to Salt Lake City:
Get there Early:
This is common sense, but it will set the tone for your airport experience, so it bears repeating. Being at the airport with plenty of time, is the difference between laughing because your baby has a poo explosion as soon as you get in the security line…and crying because you don’t have time to stop and deal with it. Shit rarely goes to plan with a baby, so leave time to deal with whatever happens slowly. Hurrying is the enemy and leads to frustration and bickering. We arrived at LAX two hours before our flight. We’re extremely seasoned travelers, and would never usually have given ourselves more than an hour of time before having a baby, so this was plenty for us to be relaxed. It was also a really early flight, so we were already having to leave the house at 5:15 am, so any earlier and it would have been a case of diminishing returns. Take whatever time you usually need at the airport and double it. Add 30 minutes for additional kids or if there’s any kind of parking or shuttle involved. If you are running late (because parenthood), try not to freak too badly. It’s not ideal, but probably isn’t going to be the end of the world. I’ve missed a few flights, and it seems like a disaster, but always works out. If things aren’t going well, remind yourself that it will be a good story later. If everything goes swimmingly, that’s great, but you’ll have nothing to laugh about when the kids are older and you tell them the stories of their early travel.
Visualization is the key with security. No, I’m not kidding. Visualize every step of the process, and if you’re traveling with someone, discuss who is going to be handling what before you get to the airport. Think about everything that has to come off or out of a bag and go through the scanner. Accept that you’re going to be that person with 14 bins lined up. People will be impressed if you have a plan and push it all through together…or pissed if you hold up the whole line trying to get your shit together once you get to the bins. When are you going to take your shoes off? Are they easy to slip on and off? Are your liquids easy to pull out of a bag, or are you going to be pulling a pile of baby clothes out to find them? Keeping mind that you can take as much water, formula, milk, or juice as you want through security for the baby. It just has to be screened separately. Is your laptop easy to pull out? Remember, it has to go in its own bin. Are you taking your stroller to the gate? It will need to be hand checked, but they will ask you to put the carseat through the scanner face down on the belt. Who is carrying the baby? We strategically have Kris carry the baby through. As a 6′ 5″ bearded man, he isn’t the most approachable or sympathetic character, but with the baby in his arms all of the agents joke with him and do as much to help as they can, and people behind him in line think it’s adorable that Daddy has the baby. Whichever one of you is holding the baby goes through the metal detector. The other person usually has to go through the regular scanner. The baby can stay in their carrier if you’re wearing them as long as it doesn’t set the detector off. Lots of people recommend baby wearing through security, and it looks nice, but our guy goes ballistic, so it isn’t a good plan for us. They are going to swipe the hands of whomever is holding the baby, so be prepared to pause and wait for that once you go through the scanner.
We were organized with a plan and ready to go, but we got PreCheck, which simplified things substantially. With PreCheck, you don’t have to take your shoes off or take liquids/laptops out of your bag, so it’s ideal with a baby. You can’t ever guarantee you will have it, though, so best to plan for having to take everything out and feel like a rockstar if you don’t have to. If you’re on your own with the baby, do your best, but take whatever help anyone offers you because you only have two hands. I find security one of the more stressful parts of flying with a baby because there’s so much to juggle, so once you’re through and headed to the gate, take a deep breath because a big hurdle is out of the way.
Reorganize at the Gate:
Go to the bathroom, fill up water bottles, get food/snacks if you didn’t bring them, and squeeze in a final diaper change if necessary to minimize on-plane diaper changes. Get to the gate and reassess your mountain of stuff for the flight. What is going under the seat where you can access it versus in the overhead bin? If you are gate checking your stroller or carseat, get them bagged and ready. You will need to get a green Gate Check tag from the gate agent, which is a great opportunity to ask if there are any empty seats available before you part with your carseat. Our carseat (Nuna Pipa) and stroller (Nuna Mixx) fit together in a nifty travel bag that Nuna makes. It’s super sturdy, so we don’t stress about them getting thrown around. Assume they are going to be bashed, chucked, stacked, and generally treated terribly while not in your possession, and prepare accordingly. Are there straps or buckles you need to remove or secure? Are you worried about cosmetic damage? We think that gate checking them seems to put them through less than checking them in, but it’s debatable. Our bag is already banged up, so they would’ve taken a pounding if they hadn’t been in it. You will pick up gate checked items on the jet bridge when you get off the plane, not with checked baggage.
Most people say to board first when they call for families. My preference would be to board last to minimize unnecessary time on the plane with a squirming tiny human, but Kris prefers to get on first. If you’re trying to put bags in the overhead bins, it’s best to get on first so that you ensure a space in the bin by your seat. We meant to bring alcohol wipes to clean our space since everything goes in Xander’s mouth at the moment, but we forgot. When all of the people were boarding and there were lots of announcements happening, there were all kinds of things for Xander to look at, so we let him take it all in instead of trying to settle him down or distract him. Once the plane started taxiing, I laid him down and fed him. The safety announcements didn’t distract him, and he nursed the whole time we were ascending. Nurse or use a pacifier/bottle during take off and landing is the common advice that every. single. person. gives when you say you’re flying with a baby. As long as their ears are clear, I don’t think it’s too big a deal for most babies. Cabin pressurization is much more sophisticated than it was a few decades ago, and I don’t think it’s as big a deal for babies as everyone seems to think. The initial descent seems to be a bigger adjustment than the ascent. If your baby is already asleep, I wouldn’t wake them up to try to get them to suck on something unless they have struggled with the pressure change in the past. I stressed over this terribly on Xander’s first flight because he was sound asleep during takeoff, but so many people had told me how important it was. I let him sleep, and it didn’t bother him in the least. Waking him up probably would have just resulted in a cranky baby who was suddenly much more aware of the pressure change. For this flight, I managed to time it right and he fell asleep and stopped nursing right around the time we reached cruising altitude.
Bring Your Nursing Pillow:
We experimented with bringing the nursing pillow on the plane this time. I thought it was overkill for such a short flight, but we may be making some long haul flights in the coming months, so it seemed like a good opportunity to experiment and see if it would be worth bringing on longer flights. It was amazing! I attached a bag strap to it to make it easier to carry through the airport, and I was so glad we had it. Even feeding him at the gate was much easier with it. Instead of having to support him the whole flight and just hope that my hands didn’t go numb, I was able to snuggle him against me and still have my hands free. We were both comfortable, and he felt secure even during turbulence. He was snuggled in his comfort zone and slept pretty much the whole flight. I have the Mombo Nursing Pillow, and it was a really good fit in an Economy seat. Anytime he started to stir, I just popped a boob in his mouth and he settled back down. This set up would be a little less comfortable with a stranger next to you because you have to put part of the pillow up on the arm rest. If you’re flying alone, I suggest the window so you can tuck to that side. I find nursing covers to be a pain in the ass, so I don’t use one and had no issues. I think the horror stories we hear about shaming breastfeeding mothers are the rare exceptions, but they get all the attention.
Stay Calm During the Flight:
It helped me to think through the worst case scenario…well, not the plane crashing, so not the worst!…but what would happen if it was a 12 hour flight, and he wouldn’t settle and screamed for hours. Well, it would suck. And I would feel bad for my little guy. And I might not make friends with the other passengers. And I would be exhausted by the time we got there. But that’s really about it. Try not to focus on the other passengers. They won’t be as bothered as you think they are, and they really don’t matter. Stay focused on the fact that it’s only for a set amount of time, and it’s going to be okay.
Use Things on the Plane to Entertain:
iPads, toys, books…whatever your kid is into, bring it along and be prepared to distract. Just don’t forget that the plane itself is new and interesting and can be useful. There might be cool things out the window. The window shade slides up and down. The light above you turns on and off. Go for a walk around the plane if it’s big enough. Get an extra plastic cup from the flight attendant and let the little guy bang it, chew it, and probably throw it on the floor. Speaking of, have a big freezer bag to throw quarantined objects which have landed on the filthy floor so you can keep them separate to clean later. Try to break the flight up into segments in your mind if it’s longer than a few hours and get through a bit at a time.
Exit the Plane Last:
Let the herd go about their business, and stay in your seat until they have cleared out (obviously this doesn’t apply if you have a tight connection–in that case, speak up to get help and have people let you through). There is no point in competing with the crammed masses when you probably have to wait for your gate checked car seat/stroller anyway or for the bags to come out at baggage claim.
Divide and Conquer:
We’re pretty minimalist, but now that we have a baby, we still end up traveling with a ridiculous amount of shite. If there is an option to leave one person sitting with the shite and the baby and let the other person deal with whatever else you have to do–do it! Kris left us sitting at the arrivals terminal while he rode the shuttle to the rental car place, dealt with picking the car up, and drove back over. Xander happily chewed on Nelly the Elephant while we waited…
And then passed out for the drive to the condo in Park City. LAX to SLC was a breeze!