Image: Baby on board
Owen Franken  /  Corbis file
Where you sit, what you zip and when you feed are just a few of the decisions that can make a plane trip a dream — or nightmare — when traveling with babies.
By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 10/10/2006 7:51:07 PM ET 2006-10-10T23:51:07
OPINION

There I was, baby in one hand, diaper bag in the other, at the gate, paralyzed by indecision. The gate agent had inquired if I wanted to upgrade to first class.

I was haunted by my own demons, having written an article a couple of years earlier about the evils of letting infants fly first class. The article had apparently been forwarded to a mothers Web site, which generated about 1,000 e-mails condemning my views; some even wished me a lifetime of sterility. Well, those curses didn’t stick, and I was about to introduce my 5-month-old son to the world of air travel. We were catching a quick flight and connecting to another on which his mother would be the pilot.

Upgrade? I couldn’t, could I?

It was a temptation, and there was a loophole I could use to get there. After all, I’d never said I wouldn’t fly first class with a baby, just that it shouldn’t be allowed. Nevertheless, I turned down the upgrade and took a seat in economy. At least there was an empty seat next to me.

I had never traveled with an infant before. I normally have a down-pat routine when I fly, but things were different this time. I was now a complete novice, accompanied by a precious bundle of goo. Except for almost putting him through the X-ray machine at security, and leaving him at the airport Starbucks sleeping away in his car seat, things started out relatively well. I had packed like a champ, researched all the different scenarios and was planning to use this trip as research for a column.

The first thing my boy did upon entering the airplane was to issue the all-knowing grunt that signals a smelly present down under. I rushed to the lavatory before the rest of the passengers boarded, changed his diaper in record time and returned to my seat. Here I was greeted by many scowls and much rolling of eyes. It was if they were saying, “Oh great, a screaming baby next to us.” Oh sure, they were smiling, but you could tell they were secretly looking for an empty seat many rows away. I didn’t blame them. I had been in their very position many times before, and I had felt the same way.

I reached into my bag, pulled out a sack full of earplugs and passed them around to my immediate neighbors. “This is my first trip with my baby, so I don’t know if you are going to need these or not,” I told them. “But they can’t hurt.” Not a single person turned me down. We got settled in the seat and prepared for my son’s first big trip — well the second, if you count his journey into the world five months earlier.

I had researched baby air travel carefully, and soon had some experience of my own. Here are the eight tips that helped me the most.

1. Sit carefully. Many parents of infants favor the bulkhead row because it can accommodate a bassinet. The second-best place is near any engine. The hum of the engine will work like audio Ambien. Even if you don’t like the sound of it, you are more apt to sleep if your baby does.

2. Zip it up. Bring lots of large zippable plastic bags. They are good for food, but most of all they are good for baby blowout. I was tempted to throw away many items that couldn’t be washed up on the airplane, but saved them by zipping them up instead.

3. Feeding time. Plan for your baby to eat upon take-off and during the descent for landing. It will relieve the discomfort of changing air pressure in the ears and will distract the baby from strange noises or turbulence.

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4. Packing list. Never depend on your airline to have any baby amenities. I haven’t seen an onboard diaper for years. The following are just a few of the items that proved helpful to me: toys with a tether, a diaper for every hour we were gone, extra outfits for both baby and me, a big travel pack of wet wipes, hand sanitizer, baby Tylenol and infant gas relief medication.

5. Proof of age required. No, not yours, the baby’s. Babies under 2 fly free if they are held in someone’s lap instead of occupying a seat of their own. The person holding the baby must be at least 16 years old. Recently, airlines started cracking down on the 2-year-old baby that looks to be more like 4, demanding a birth certificate or passport to verify age.

6. Get some space. If you are taking an extremely long flight, or you are shepherding older children as well, it might behoove you to buy an extra seat for the baby. Many airlines have infant fares available, and the extra money you spend could save your sanity. As a flight attendant, I’ve talked to many parents with lap-held children, and the universal comment after a sold-out, nine-hour flight is: “Never again.”

7. Safety first. Pay new attention to the safety briefing, for you are handling precious cargo and want to be prepared for all circumstances. If the flight attendant does not bring you an infant life vest before take-off, ask for one. Do not, and I repeat, do not buckle the seat belt over you and the child. If the pilot hits the brakes for any reason, your weight could crush the baby.

8. Courtesy is a two-way street. If your baby cries and cries, get up and go to the back of the airplane and try to calm him down. If you are unsuccessful, at least you tried. People will be annoyed — true — but they’ll get over it. They were once babies, too, and some of them still are. Note to more understanding passengers: If you see a parent in distress, offer a hand and cut the pour soul some slack.

My first flight was a small nightmare. I think my son sensed my apprehension. He cried, he went through three diapers and one set of clothes (his and mine) and he never quite got settled. When I met up with my wife, I told her I could have used that cocktail in first class. But something miraculous happened on the next three flights we took, because my boy was a perfect angel. He behaved like a regular frequent flier, and never once complained about the meal service.

My wife made the obligatory embarrassing announcement from the cockpit about her precious onboard cargo, made a perfect landing, and sat beaming as many cockpit photos were taken. It was a successful trip, and I had managed it without giving in to the first class temptation. But I will be honest with you, if they had offered me the first class seat or nothing, I would have taken it in a second, and I probably would have enjoyed that cocktail, as well.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.

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