As our daughter Cleo turns 14 months old, my wife, Sally, and I are proud to report that she says "Mama" and "Dada," stands up all by herself, and has flown a total of 36 times, including to the Caribbean and Europe. Most of our experience flying with our infant has been positive. On more than one occasion, Cleo has happily let flight attendants stroll up and down the aisle with her and even take her up to visit the first-class area, where we could only guess, from our seats back in coach, how she was getting on.
But flying with a baby can also be an ordeal, especially in the United States, where many airlines these days seem ambivalent about their youngest passengers. It's increasingly common, for instance, for airlines to deny families with young children the opportunity to board the plane first. Fellow passengers can be even more intolerant of babies: I've watched travelers go completely pale when -- loaded down with an infant, a cumbersome car seat, and an overstuffed diaper bag from which the melody "Farmer in the Dell" was escaping -- I hesitated in front of their seat just long enough to ask Sally if the next row back was ours.
To cope with these and other travails of flying with an infant, we've put together a set of strategies we use to ensure that the flight is not only as safe as we can make it for our child but also as pleasant as possible for everyone else on the aircraft.
How to Prevent Problems
If we had a second golden rule, this would be it. Infants can't apologize for their actions, but you can apologize for them. The biggest complaint about infants on airplanes is not their crying or their delight in hoisting themselves up on the seat in front of them, but the seeming indifference of their parents toward the discomfort any of this may cause other passengers.
If your child is feeling out of sorts and expresses it by ripping the headset off the balding man in the seat in front of her, you have to apologize -- and you have to mean it. You may not placate the man, but you are likely to gain a few sympathetic nods. And you may even discover that the man was tired of listening to country classics anyway and would rather play peekaboo with the cute little baby behind him.
Plan your seat ahead of time.
When you make reservations, let the agent know that you're traveling with an infant who will have a child safety restraint, as there are restrictions about where it may be placed. (Normally, the seat goes by the window so it doesn't block another passenger's access.) Try to get as far forward as possible, because the back of the plane is noisier, vibrates more, and is less convenient for deplaning than the front.
If your child is particularly active, a bulkhead row eliminates the possibility that her Mr. Worm toy will land in the glass of anybody sitting in front of you. But we don't like bulkhead rows, because you can't have most of your carry-ons near you during takeoff and landing, when you tend to need them most. We don't like the bassinets that bolt to the bulkheads, either, because they're so flimsy that you'll worry constantly about sudden turbulence.
Handle baggage better.
You become most aware of how much baggage a traveling infant requires when you arrive at the airport and unload everything on the curb. If you're lucky, a check-in or a skycap will be right there. As much as you may have disdained these in your pre-baby days, be grateful for them now and tip accordingly ($1 per bag is standard). If neither is available, then your stroller becomes invaluable. Throughout your trip, you'll use it only occasionally for an infant and more often as a private baggage cart. Every airline we've flown will let you check it at the gate. Get a tag for it from the gate staff, and drop it off just before you step through the door of the plane, where it will be returned to you at your destination, hopefully in time for you to make your next connection.
Watch your baby's back.
Because families with small children are often not allowed to preboard, infants are now in the thick of the boarding fray -- and more at risk for the injuries associated with it. There's the danger that somebody will drop a carry-on on them while trying to move it into or out of an overhead bin or smack them with a wayward bag when boarding or getting off the plane.
One way to minimize the risk is to have one adult board as early as possible, carrying the safety seat and anything that will allow you to stake a claim for the bin directly over your seat. Then, after everyone else has boarded, the other adult and the infant can make a late entrance. This also minimizes the time that your baby has to be aboard.
Pack extra supplies.
One of our most unpleasant experiences traveling with Cleo was on a flight from New York to Seattle that was supposed to last five hours but ended up taking two days. We sat on the runway at LaGuardia for three hours before taking off, made an unscheduled stop in Nashville because we were low on fuel, and spent an unplanned night in Dallas, where the airline refused to release our bags. At midnight, we had to hire a taxi to help us scour convenience stores for baby food and supplies. Needless to say, we now carry a two-days' supply of everything.
Protect her ears.
During descent and takeoff, we usually keep Cleo sucking on something to relieve ear pressure -- a bottle, a pacifier, or her favorite: the plastic seat-back safety card. We give her decongestants only if she's had a cold. So far, her ears have bothered her only once, when we made a quick descent for our unscheduled landing in Nashville. And even then, she complained less than many adults on that flight.
Diaper with care.
People seem so put off by seeing a diaper being changed that we change Cleo's in the cabin only if we are sitting three across in an aisle-window row and no one we might offend can see us. On short flights, if she isn't uncomfortable, we wait until we get into the terminal; on longer flights, we try to get in and out of the lavatories as fast as we can. I find that a particular challenge, because although Cleo has been reluctant to accept the fold-down plastic shelf in the lavatory as a changing table, she has discovered that if she clings tightly enough to my neck, it functions quite nicely as an infant trampoline.