Anytime someone asked me how my travel was when we arrived in the United States my response would be "I'd rather go through labor again." Looking back on the experience I would like to say that statement was mostly a joke, but legitimately, traveling with an infant alone is tough.
My situation traveling with Baby B for the first time was a little unique. She was born in Italy, and spent the first few weeks of her life in the NICU over here. My parents were here for her birth, but didn't get the chance to spend any time with her due to Italian NICU visiting rules, so I traveled back to the states a bit earlier than my husband was able to, in order to maximize her time with family. I also was mostly exclusively pumping-I nursed at home, but since she preferred the bottle, trying to breastfeed would occasionally result in a very angry hungry baby- something I wasn't willing to deal with on an airplane.
Traveling with an infant alone is possible, and is possible to do with more enjoyment than my experience. I did an extensive amount of research before our flight, but still felt unprepared because a lot of the advice I found was fairly generic (I read "feed or give a paci on takeoff or landing" probably 102 times. Thank you Google, that piece of advice was solid, but I was looking for something a little meatier). I wanted something, anything with more specifics or more stories of what I could expect so that I would feel more confident about my plan. Below is the advice I wish I had received, to help me map out the nitty gritty of our trip.
Side note-this advice was based of the initial flights with just B and I, but also applied to our flights where we had extra help. If you are able to bring someone with you- partner, mom, best friend, person you met at Target on the way to the airport, I highly recommend doing so. If you can't swing that, hopefully my experience and learnings will help your trip be pain free!
1. Ask for/take help. All. The. Help.
The first time a lovely and kind Italian man took my suitcase and threw our stroller over his shoulder to help me walk up the stairs to our airplane when he noticed I was near tears when I saw there was no elevator, I was a little taken aback. I felt guilty and ashamed for not being able to do it all myself, but incredibly grateful for the help that I literally couldn't object to (win for the language barrier!). As the day went on, the generosity of others blew me away. From the flight attendants who found spots for everything I was carrying, and then brought everything off the plane for me so all I had to carry was Bella (and refused gratuity when I offered!), to the lovely older couple who constantly made an effort to consistently come up to me on the long flight to see if I needed anything (they got lots of baby snuggles while I got a bathroom break!), I learned something we tend to forget during our independent, busy lives: people inherently love helping other people. This is especially true when the person you are helping is navigating the world with an adorable 3 month old, and constantly looks like they are on the verge of tears (aka, my go to expression during our first trip). Even if you feel like you can do it on your own, say yes when someone offers assistance and be gracious to them for the help. It will ultimately make your trip easier, and you can pay it forward the next time you have a spare hand and witness someone who needs it!
2. Pack LESS. Way Less. Check as much as humanly possible.
This is probably counterintuitive to most advice you have read about traveling with babies. I got so nervous about having enough of everything, clothes, toys, bottles, etc., that I was sweating and dropping something pretty much the entire 24 hours of our trip. I thought it would be easiest to just carry everything on, so I could have my "just in case" items handy (fun fact-you do NOT need a blanket for your baby to play on in the airport during layovers). I quickly found that, even though the stroller has storage space, having bags was not only incredibly painful when navigating through the airport on layovers, but was nearly impossible to haul on and off a plane (carrying a carseat overhead with a backpack and purse on, while carrying a suitcase with the other hand explains a lot of the sweating...). I recommend bringing a diaper bag and backpack through the airport (or diaper bag and duffel if your diaper bag IS a backpack) through the airport, and check the rest, or plan on picking up some things at your final destination (other countries and states DO sell baby items- shocking, I know). The necessities to pack are the next few tips!
3. Throw some extra diapers in that carry on bag!
This is more for peace of mind than anything. I recommend one diaper for every hour you will be traveling. I don't know if it was my paranoia, or if Bella was stressed and therefore going to the bathroom more often, but as my diaper stash started dwindling, I started to stress. Her first change was a blowout, and then she peed all over the second diaper because the hand dryer in the bathroom scared her, I ripped the tab off the third diaper because I was in a hurry, and all of a sudden within an hour of traveling had gone through 4 diapers. The extra stash at the bottom of my bag made me feel like even if our travel was delayed, we would be okay on the diaper front and I wouldn't have to fashion something out of one of the two t-shirts I brought for myself.
4. Don't forget some snacks!
I used to love layovers. I would freshen up my makeup, find a delightful restaurant to order a snack and a glass of wine, go buy a few magazines and things to munch on during the flight, and arrive at the gate just in time to walk on the plane. Our first layover was 2 hours in Rome, which I thought would be more than enough time to change a diaper, get Bella to nap, pump, and get some food for myself because I was starving. Unfortunately, a 2 hour layover goes by in a flash with an infant. You will spend more time getting off the plane, then have to wait for your stroller, then use the restroom (which, if you have been paying attention up until now you will know I had way too much stuff with me, and apparently we had some diaper issues so using the restroom took WAY more time than anticipated). By the time I found the airport lounge to feed B in a cool quiet place, an hour had passed. I had just put her down for a nap, grabbed a snack and a quick glass of water (finally!), and pulled out my pump when I heard the announcement that my flight was boarding (30 minutes earlier than my boarding pass stated). Gate checking a stroller is easy, but it is much easier if you do it before boarding begins and there is a line of people waiting on you. Stressed about this, I missed my pumping session and ran to the plane, still hungry and thirsty. When I packed snacks the next time, I saved time and was much less hangry during the time period before the airline served food.
5. Bring your own water bottle!
Yes, this falls under the "pack snacks" category, but is so vitally important that it deserves a tip of it's own. I almost threw a water bottle in my backpack on our way out the door, but in the hopes of saving precious space, figured I would get one at the airport and just have them refill it on the plane. Between diaper changes, napping, and trying to pump, I never got the chance to buy one and was stuck with those shot glass-sized water glasses they offer on the flight. Any breastfeeding or pumping mother can tell you that just won't cut it when the milk starts flowing! The thirst struggle is real. You can always get an extra meal on a plane, but you are not allowed to buy a water bottle from the drink cart. Unless you want to hoard 6 cups of water on your tray (not super practical with an infant), or call the flight attendant over every three minutes, just save yourself the trouble and bring an empty container they can refill for you.
6. If you are pumping- bring bottles to pump in rather than bags, and pump every time you have an opportunity
See #4 for why you should always pump when you can, rather than trying to plan it out. Your plan may not go perfectly, and you don't want to end up engorged on an airplane, waiting for it to take off before you can get to your pump supplies. Also, pump bags may seem convenient because they take up less space on the front end, but those bags are much more fickle with leaks than bottles with screw tops. You know what makes you feel and smell awful? Spilt breastmilk you discover in the bottom of your insulated bag 23 hours later...
7. Boppy Boppy Boppy Boppy Boppy.
Remember earlier when I said bring a backpack? Other than the ease of it being a hands free bag, it has the added benefit of being able to transport a travel pillow seamlessly, without adding another bag to your mix (just hook it on the strap underneath your arm). You know what is way more delightful to have than a travel pillow? A Boppy. Not only will this save your shoulders during the inevitable 4 hour nap your child will have in your arms, it is the best neck pillow/between knees pillow/my hotel pillow stinks and I need something more comfortable pillow you could as for. It also gives your baby a place to lounge when you don't have much in a hotel room and need to dry your hair.
8. Use airport lounges, but this is best during a long layover
Lounge access is worth the investment when traveling with a child, but only if you have more than two-three hours in the airport as time in a layover goes at warp speed with a baby. It will pretty much guarantee you a place to sit, air conditioning, a clean quiet bathroom, and easy access to a much needed glass of wine. Check to see if you can add lounge access onto your trip through the airline you book your tickets with, or look into Priority Pass if you will be a frequent traveler. Most lounges allow children two and under for free, but double check before you commit to the purchase!
9. The Galley is an EXCELLENT spot for meltdowns
It makes me cringe when I read advice about packing goodie bags for your fellow passengers because you had the nerve to want to travel even though you had the audacity to have a baby before your trip. I understand and appreciate the sentiment, but feel encouraging the practice of apologizing in advance, especially with a cheesy gift, is incredibly awkward and unnecessary. Airplanes are loud. Oftentimes, loud enough to drown out a little baby fussiness. You know what most people bring on a plane? Headphones. You know what makes it difficult to hear a baby crying? Headphones. In the case that you do have a crying baby, obviously be polite and handle it with humility for your fellow passengers, but a simple apology along with a solid effort to stop the crying is enough (the airplane is not the time to experiment with crying it out). If the crying lasts more than a couple minutes, the galley is your best friend. It is relatively sound proof so the rest of the plane can get back to catching up on Game of Thrones, has a lot of fun distractions which can stop crying on their own, and is quiet but with enough white noise to help a baby get to sleep. Obviously connect with the flight attendants first to see if it is okay to hang back there for a big, you are in their workspace after all, but it is a resource that can be great to troubleshoot and stop the tears.
10. Allow time for jetlag/trip fatigue etc. Don't plan too much the first few days
This one should seem obvious, but I am guessing if you are making the effort to travel with an infant, you are pretty dang excited about where you are going and want to hit the ground running. Traveling is exhausting, and is even more so with a child. If you have events planned during their typical nap or sleep time, you may be dealing with an overtired baby during your whole trip, or miss out on precious sleep yourself (I managed to miss B's long stretch of sleep every day the first few days of our trip, and infant jetlag kept me up the rest of the night. One extra day of rest would have been a game changer). If possible, give yourself at least a day to adjust and rest before getting into the meat and potatoes of your trip. *Bonus tip-airports near hotels/overnight layovers are a great way to do this if you are traveling internationally
I hope our experiences will help make your travel with kids a joy! If you have specific questions, or want to share your experience/tips please don't hesitate to reach out to: