Dear Savvy Traveller: Please share tips and recommendations on traveling abroad with a 14-month-old.
Let me not pretend that I have, or have ever had, a 14-month-old child. But I have been on many, many planes with children of all ages, and I have plenty of friends with children who have shared their travel tales and lessons learned. I offer the collected wisdom of my airplane companions and well-traveled friends with families.
You’ve said you’re going abroad, so I assume you’ll be flying during this trip. I also assume a good chunk of any anxiety you might be experiencing is related to the flight, from how to keep your baby happy to how to keep the people around your baby happy. I’ve seen parents handle this splendidly (with quiet AND noisy babies), and parents handle this terribly. The secret I’ve observed sounds trite, but it’s true: Your attitude is your most important weapon. The parents who have stayed calm, happy, and natural have most often had children who were the same. Your anxiety is going to ooze into your baby, especially if he or she is on your lap. From your tense muscles to your elevated heart rate, your physical body will transmit to your baby, so send messages of comfort, ease, and normalcy. That means you have to be normal. Flying is an anxiety-inducing experience for many without children, so the odds are stacked against you here, but do your best to stay as chill as possible throughout. My best advice is for this is to recognize that some things will go wrong and be uncomfortable, and that they will pass, so don’t let them affect you. Just keep flying.
The number one piece of packing advice I’ve heard from countless parents of small children is to bring lots of snacks. We know that food keeps kids quiet more than just about anything else, and that it’s not healthy to stuff them full of calories as a regular means of behaviour control, but flying is an exceptional experience, and food is your best friend here. Bring a variety, and bring plenty. If there’s one thing you don’t have to worry about overpacking, it’s food, because it disappears. It’s important to know this, too: you can bring milk, baby formula, juices, baby food, and even teething toys with gels inside through most airport security checkpoints, regardless of package size. Pack them separately and present them to security agents for inspection. Speaking of airports, remember that your baby needs a passport!
Try to book a seat toward the front of the plane. You’ll find the least amount of traffic and noise (two enemies of baby flying) at the front, away from the bathrooms and the crew galleys where food and beverages are being prepared. Windows are better than aisles for the same reasons. At the gate, ask your agent for preboarding status so you can get situated with your baby without the commotion of an entire plane attempting to board around you. Most airlines allow this, especially if you ask in person ahead of time. Remember that attitude is everything with airline personnel, so ask, don’t demand. Once aboard, ask your flight attendants if there will be any empty seats on the flight. If there are, you want to change your seat to be next to it. Having that empty space next to you will make flying with a baby infinitely more relaxing and enjoyable. You’ll be able to keep toys and hand luggage on the seat next to you at easy access(not during takeoff or landing, but at any other time), and changing a diaper will be much easier here than in the cramped, icky bathroom at the back of the plane.
If you have the option to travel through the night, do it. You may be hesitant, knowing that everyone else will want to sleep and your crying baby may interrupt that, but it’s also true that your baby will be more likely to sleep at night when, presumably, he or she normally sleeps, and when the cabin lights are out and there is little or no noise from other passengers. Remember that your goal is to keep this experience as close to normal life as any other day, so if you want Baby to sleep, fly when Baby should be sleeping! Other important things to bring aboard with you are baby blankets, quiet toys, spare outfits (there will be messes), and something to suck on during takeoff and landing to avoid the pain and discomfort that can come with rapid pressure changes. If you booked a separate seat for your baby, then an airline approved carseat is a must. Assuming your baby is like most children today, an iPad preloaded with videos and games that don’t require internet service will go a long way. Like food, screens are another thing we’re constantly warned not to employ as babysitters but, also like food, I’d wager that everyone would agree this an acceptable exception! But play these on mute or you will have many, many new enemies.
Now that I’ve told you a bunch of things to stuff your bag with, let me also caution you not to overpack with superfluous nonsense. The same way you probably don’t need as much as you originally planned to pack for yourself, your baby doesn’t either. If your bags are overflowing, you’ll find yourself consistently frustrated, trying to find that one thing you need, not to mention how annoying and potentially painful it will be to carry everything through airports and to and from vehicles. Pack anything potentially leaky (or comprised of many small parts) in separate plastic bags. When those packages open in transit, you don’t want the contents spilling all over everything else (this includes your checked baggage!).
Once you arrive and are ready to enjoy wherever it is you’re going, don’t think that you need to take it easy because of your baby. Your baby isn’t feeling the same mental stress about travelling as you are, and needs to stay at least as occupied as a typical day at home. If you stray from our goal of normalcy at all here, stray on the side of extra exertion. Tire the kiddo out. More sleep at night will not be unwelcome, I promise. This is a good time to mention an important piece of advice I never would have thought of myself (inexperience!), but that has been repeated to me over and over by those traveling with young children: Bring a night light. You don’t want to turn on all the lights in your hotel room, or use harsh bathroom lighting, if you need to change a diaper or interact with Baby in the middle of the night. You probably use a night light in Baby’s room at home, and I’m sure you haven’t already forgotten what I’ve mentioned at least 482 times so far: maintain normalcy!
My final piece of advice is to remember that babies cry. You already know this, all too well, but don’t forget that the rest of us know it, too. We’d love your baby to be silent and smiley throughout the entire flight and any time we encounter you on your travels, but we don’t expect it. And anyone who does isn’t worth your worry. Go have fun, and thanks for being cool enough to raise a new traveller.