When my daughter, Lily, was 10 months old, I decided to take her on a six-hour flight to visit my best friend. Obviously, I was delirious from lack of sleep.
The trip was a disaster: I had to empty my bags for airport security, Lily's diaper leaked on my shirt, and she spent an hour of the flight fussing and crying. At least I learned what to do -- and what to avoid -- on future journeys. To spare you the same aggravation, here are some strategies for a more enjoyable adventure.
- Be direct. Book the most direct flight (nonstop if possible), and travel first thing in the morning to avoid delays. Also, get to the airport at least an hour and a half early so you have enough time to go through security.
- Pack only the essentials. Take enough diapers, wipes, and formula to last your journey -- plus extras in case of a delay -- then buy more when you reach your destination. (If you're staying with relatives, ask them to stock up before you arrive.) Keep your baby's favorite doll, blanket, or other comfort object handy in your carry-on. And instead of packing bulky baby gear, consider renting a crib, stroller, or high chair from a company like Baby's Away (www.babysaway.com), which has more than 50 locations in the U.S.
- Think surprises. Bring a toy, rattle, or other goodie your baby hasn't seen before, and take it out midtrip (or mid-meltdown). Something new and exciting will keep him entertained and distracted longer.
- Dress for (security) success. To pass through airport security checkpoints more quickly, wear slip-on shoes in case you're asked to remove them. Avoid accessories that might set off the metal detector, like jewelry or a belt buckle. The Transportation Security Administration requires that babies go through security screening too, so take off your child's shoes, and don't dress him in clothing with metal buckles or zippers. Always pack nail clippers or scissors in your checked baggage, and in case your carry-ons get searched, organize small items into gallon-size resealable plastic bags. "This way security people can check the contents without creating a mess for you to repack," says Ericka Lutz, author of On the Go With Baby.
- Pocket what you need. Have your tickets, photo ID, and other important documents -- as well as dollar bills for renting luggage carts or tipping skycaps -- in an easy-to-reach spot.
- Don't forget your stuff. You know to bring a sweater and extra clothes for your baby, but also stash an extra outfit of your own in your diaper bag. Accidents can happen, and who wants to sit in sticky, smelly clothes for hours?
- Diaper with care. Change your baby just before you board a plane or hit the road, because few airplanes and trains have changing tables in their bathrooms. Still, a row of empty seats will do as long as you won't offend nearby passengers. Take along a few plastic bags in case you can't get to a garbage can right away.
- Make the most of naptime. "If you'll be driving long distances, leave late at night or during your baby's naptime so you can get in several hours of driving while your baby sleeps," Lutz suggests.
- Bring your own food. Mix infant formula in advance, and keep it cool in a thermos. When it's time to feed your baby, pour the formula into a baby bottle, then ask the flight attendant for a cup of hot water and place the bottle in it for a few minutes to knock off the chill. Or measure out powdered formula beforehand, and carry bottled water that's room temperature. Pack enough baby food and other snacks to make it through potential delays or traffic jams. On flights, don't forget to take along something for yourself that you can eat with one hand. After all, you won't be able to pull down the tray table if you're entertaining your baby on your lap.
- Give your baby a break. "If your child's crawling or cruising, she isn't going to be happy strapped in a car seat for hours," Lutz says. On road trips, map out pit stops every 45 minutes to take a stretch. On planes or trains, walk her up and down the aisle.
- Protect tiny ears. The change in air pressure during takeoffs and landings can cause ear pain. If your baby's sleeping, he probably won't notice. Otherwise, feed him or give him something to suck on, like a bottle or pacifier, to relieve ear pressure.
Safety Seats On Airplanes
Though the Federal Aviation Administration and most airlines don't require you to buy your baby an airline ticket, they strongly recommend it. "It's tempting to save money by holding your baby on your lap, but doing so can be very dangerous in cases of hard landings or turbulence," says Peter Greenberg, travel editor for NBC's Today show. "Your infant is safest buckled up in a car seat." Some airlines have an empty-seat policy: You can bring a car seat on board and use it in an empty seat even if you haven't purchased a ticket. But with cutbacks in scheduled service, you can't always count on an available seat. (For international travel, you're typically required to buy a ticket for your baby.) Make sure your car seat is certified for use on an aircraft (the label will say so) and no wider than 16 inches (to fit in most coach seats).