Travel

10 Tips for Surviving an International Flight with a Baby

After surviving two 13+ hour flights to and from Seoul this summer with my 14 month old baby, I have a much better handle on what I will and will not do when I board the plane to Shanghai with her three weeks from now. In hindsight, I realize that my prepping and planning before that first transpacific flight was nearly all useless and silly. I had no idea what the big hurdles were going to be. Here’s what I learned and hopefully you’ll find this little guide helpful. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, though. It’s not easy and there isn’t some magical trick to make it easy. It will not be easy. If anyone tells you that flying to Asia with a one-year-old can be easy, slap them in the face and run away.

Tip #1: Sleep is your top priority.

You need to take the biggest nap of your parenting career before taking your baby on a flight this long. Do not mess around with this. You know from the newborn days what sleep deprivation does to you. Taking my baby across 13 time zones wasn’t just tough because of the flight, but getting settled on the other end was murderous. Jet lag takes about 12 days to sort out according to the internet. That translates to about two weeks of your little one being off his or her carefully planned sleeping schedule that probably took you a year to perfect. This was my experience after arriving in Seoul. She WOULD NOT SLEEP the evening we arrived. I could not sleep on the plane because I flew without my husband. Then baby girl was wide awake all “night” in Seoul. I was going into 35 hours of no sleep. It was not pretty. It took me a week to get her sleeping a 6-hour chunk during the night. The second week she slept a little more each night until she was back to her normal schedule. The problem for me was that this all clicked into place two days before we had to fly back to the States.

Do what you can to sleep on the plane. If you are flying alone with your baby, there is zero chance of this, but if you’re with someone who can help you, then nap at every possible moment.

Tip #2: Bring your own food for yourself.

Airplanes aren’t really designed for humans in the first place (I don’t know what creature they had in mind when crafting those seats, those meals, those bathrooms, etc.), but they sure as hell are not designed for mothers with little babies. Whether your baby is in your lap or has her own seat, eating the plane food is going to be tough. You need to eat on a 13 hour flight, though, so you can’t just grit your teeth and wait to get McDonalds on the other end. The folding tray table is a wonderful toy that brings endless joy and amazement to a 14 month old baby. She will want to fold it up and down, endlessly checking on what could be underneath it. The trays that the airplane food comes on take up ALL the space on those little tray tables. You cannot have the food and a drink at the same time. If baby touches the tray of food, the drink goes on the floor. It’s also a rule that the food will come when your baby is having a flailing episode. Just bring some Pop-Tarts. They’re packed with calories, don’t take up space, can be eaten at any time, they’re not really messy, and it’s no loss if one falls on the ground. Forget your Keto diet. You’re in survival mode, and the flight attendants cannot save you. Also, buy some bottles of whatever you want to drink after you go through security. I was so frustrated at having a short plastic cup filled to the brim with ice cubes and Coke while trying to wrestle a baby. I needed a sippy cup for myself. Just imagine that you are going to be put inside a huge hamster ball and then rolled down a mountain for 13 hours with no stops. Plan your food and drink for this situation.

Tip #3: Pack baby’s milk correctly.

Ok, so I tried every method. There is a right way and wrong way to do bottles on a plane. I am some kind of nipple-less mutant, so I never got the breastfeeding thing down with my baby even though I felt that my life hinged on being able to breastfeed during that point in early motherhood. I do not have any tips for anyone who is breastfeeding and taking a trip like this.

My daughter had just turned one before the trip to Korea, so we were transitioning from formula to regular milk. It seemed as though regular milk was upsetting her stomach, so we switched to oat milk and her stomach distress went away. The problem with this was that we made this transition too close to the trip to Korea. I brought both oat milk and her formula on the plane along with little containers of her favorite solid foods and snacks. She would not eat anything solid on the plane. She did not want the oat milk. I think the flight was so distressing to her that she just defaulted back into little baby mode and only wanted to take bottles of formula. Sippy cups did not work. Freaking Cheerios weren’t even appetizing to her! So the moral of the story is, pack what your baby is most comfortable with. Your baby will be fine drinking bottles of milk for a day or so during the trip, and she will return to her normal eating habits quickly (although she’ll be ravenous at night and not hungry in the day at first because of the time change).

Now, how to pack the bottles is key to both your comfort and baby’s comfort. If you’re using powered formula you have two choices: mix the bottles ahead of time and deal with the liquids in security, or try mixing bottles on the plane with bottled water you bought after going through security. On the first flight I brought pre-prepared bottles through security. It took me nearly 45 minutes extra to get through security at Jacksonville International Airport. Each bottle was opened and placed in some kind of x-ray microwave thing that probably also created the spider that bit Peter Parker. It didn’t actually take more than 10-15 minutes for TSA to scan my bottles, but there was a lady in front of me with a baby who had cans of pear soda instead of bottles of milk. I do not know why a baby would ever need to drink pear soda, but I guess it’s not my business. This created a huge problem because cans cannot be scanned so they have to opened to be checked. Once opened, they can’t really go back in the carry on, so this mom had to make her husband go back out of security, buy some tumblers from a gift shop, and fill them all up with 15 hours worth of pear soda for this baby so they could move through security in front of me. It was this annoying experience that had me wanting to avoid the liquids the next time I flew. On the way back to Florida from Korea, I brought empty bottles and those handy Enfamil single serve packets. I just picked up a bottle of water after breezing through security with no liquids to be checked. This was a huge mistake. Mixing bottles of formula on the plane was such a hassle. First of all, baby was already irritated and crying when I’d start making a bottle. Then, pouring water into a bottle requires that you have two open containers sitting on the stupid tiny tray table that can be spilled by your flailing, hungry baby. Thirdly, those single serve packets of powder can be impossible to tear open in a pinch. I had to struggle to make every single bottle, and she drank a lot of bottles on that flight. I cried twice over making bottles. Unless you have someone that can take care of this for you, just prepare your bottles ahead of time and give yourself some extra time to get through security.

Tip #4: Choose your luggage wisely.

Do not use any carry on luggage that just hangs on your shoulder. Use backpacks and rolling luggage only. If your diaper bag is a shoulder bag, you need to get a backpack version of it. That baby is going to require both of your arms and it is literally impossible to carry a baby down the aisle with a bag hanging at your side. You will not fit. Do not do it. Go get a backpack diaper bag now. Here are a couple that are on super sale for you to look at now:

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It’s helpful to have a multi-functional diaper bag that fits under the seat in front of you because it’s a pain to have to dig in the overhead bins. It’s far better to have bottles and poop explosion clean up materials super handy on the plane. I actually used the seat back pocket to hold a couple diapers and a pack of wipes (after pulling out all the dumb magazines and throwing them on the floor). On my second round of flying with my baby, I made sure everything I needed was within arm’s reach, and I ditched the purse and shoulder bag.

Tip #5: Take fewer toys than you think you’ll need.

Before my trip, I read a dozen accounts about how others tackled the problem of flying with an infant. It seemed that most people agreed that taking lots of different toys to entertain the baby was crucial. I packed too many things which resulted in having more carry on luggage than I needed. With a much younger baby, you obviously wouldn’t take a bunch of toys, but my daughter has favorite stuffed animals, favorite books, and favorite dirty napkins. I took them all and I followed some advice to buy a new toy to break out halfway through the flight as well. That new toy was a small MagnaDoodle. I never read her any books and I never touched the MagnaDoodle. A baby wipe entertained her for some time and she was magnetized to the screen on the back of the seat. She hugged her “monkey bear” a few times but even he was cast to the floor. She was far more interested in the safety information card and finding ways to annoy other passengers. The toys just took up valuable space. I would recommend getting a headset that fits on your baby’s head if you want to try and get her to watch kids shows. Most airlines only supply earbuds to economy class passengers and there’s zero chance of those working with a baby. I never let my daughter watch TV or movies at home, but there’s no getting around it when you’re confined to such a small space for so long with that touch screen crammed in your face. Bring a good headset, one favorite stuffed animal for comfort, and maybe one more toy if you feel there’s something your baby would really enjoy.

Tip #6: Gate check a stroller or use an easy baby carrier. Ditch the fancy wraps and slings.

I chose not to bring a stroller at all. I wrestled my daughter in and out of a Boba wrap in the Detroit airport and then again in the Seoul Incheon airport. I made this choice because I was traveling without my husband so I had to carry/pull my luggage on my own. I actually practiced trying to pull my rolling bad and push the stroller at the same time at home and could not do it. I love my Boba wrap, but it is hard to get it on and get the baby in it by myself when I’m super tired and dazed from flying. It also doesn’t work well to try and get the baby in it on the plane before deboarding, so I ended up really straining my tiny little arm muscles carrying her more than I had expected. If you can’t manage a stroller, get a baby carrier with clips that can be set up by yourself in a minute. If you can manage a stroller, bring it and have it gate checked. This is a free service and you will be so glad to have it during your layovers, in the customs line, and when you just need some device to strap down your crazy baby.

Tip #7: Get the CARES harness if your baby is big enough.

If you’re traveling with a baby under 22 lbs or you’re one of the brave souls that has chosen to go for the lap ticket, you can disregard this tip. I would never get a lap ticket for a one-year-old. Where the heck is that baby going to sleep? Anyway, if you have a baby that’s over 22 lbs and has her own seat, you can buy a really nifty harness that makes the airplane seat much more baby friendly. The lap belt does not restrain a curious little wiggle worm. During takeoff and landing, your baby must be in your lap, a carseat, or sitting in a seat with an FAA-approved harness. Simply buckling a kid under 2 with the lap belt is not allowed for takeoff and landing. I liked having the harness to buckle my daughter in securely if I needed to stand up and get into to the overhead bin. Sometimes you just have to strap a baby down! If you decide to use the harness, you must get the one that is FAA-approved. There are several out there masquerading as approved, but this one is the only one that is actually FAA-approved:

It’s a tad pricey, but worth it if you plan on flying frequently. It fits kids up to 44 lbs so it lasts a long time! It’s very easy to install. Get on the plane early before everyone else and pop it over the seat when someone isn’t already in the seat behind you.

Tip #8: Board the plane first.

Most airlines give some kind of priority to people with babies, but my experience on Delta was that because I did not have a carseat or stroller, I had to wait until after all the elite members boarded to be called. First class, priority, premium, Sky Miles people, and jerk wads all get to go first. The plane fills up if you wait your turn and it becomes really hard to get down the crowded aisles with your baby and luggage. People behind you will be panicked that it takes you a long time to situate your baby and get your stuff in the overhead bins. Flight attendants will ask you you check your luggage last minute because the overhead bins are filled up. You will have to yell at them that you will not be checking your baby’s formula and diaper supply and the whole thing just gets off terribly. You need to board first, and you may need to be a butt about it depending on what airline you’re flying and what airport you are in. I did not do this on the flight from Detroit to Seoul and it was awful. When I flew out of the Seoul Incheon airport, the gate attendant told me I couldn’t pre-board with those needing additional time or assistance (wheelchairs, strollers, and carseats), but because everyone crowds up and just boards out of order anyway, I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I told him that was bull**** and that was enough to make him uncomfortable and let me through.

Some people advise that getting on the plane early just prolongs the excruciating time you must spend on the torture tube, and I would’ve agreed pre-baby. I always boarded last. It really is difficult to do that with a baby and a harness and your luggage.

Tip #9: Cute things matter.

I did a few silly things for my flight back to the States that made me feel a little excited to fly. I bought really cute passport covers at a funny store called Artbox in Korea that has its own line of characters called Galapagos Friends. Specifically, there’s this shark named Boss that really resonates with me for some reason. I got a Shark Boss passport cover, a Shark Boss t-shirt to wear on the plane, Shark Boss luggage tags, a Shark Boss suitcase, and a tiny Shark Boss backpack for my daughter.

That’s Boss on the left.

Nothing can actually make a transpacific flight with a baby enjoyable, but you can chip away at the negatives with some really cute shark paraphernalia!

Tip #10: Truly great adventures aren’t comfortable.

If you’re flying to other side of the world with your baby, you’re on an adventure. You’re destination is hyper foreign, and the trip is made 10 times more difficult with the addition of a cute little monster. When you’re on the plane crying in the dark because you’re tired beyond words and you’re so dehydrated that it just feels good for your itchy eyeballs to feel wet tears, remember that no one ever wrote an adventure novel based on their experience sitting on their own comfortable couch in their own comfortable tract home watching predictable TV in their own boring native language. Adventures are uncomfortable! You’re baby is lucky to have them so early in life!

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