Baby on Board: Family Travel Tips

Whether you plan to travel by land, sky or sea, our travel guide will make sure you and your tiny globetrotter get there safely—and even have a little fun along the way.

Traveling with a baby doesn’t exactly elicit imagery of relaxing family togetherness. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Although most pediatricians advise keeping your newborn at home to avoid sickness and establish a routine, family travel is sometimes necessary (and desirable!). There are ways to make your adventure safer, easy and enjoyable for your growing family. Adjust your expectations and plan for success by heeding our helpful travel tips for junior jet-setters.

Baby’s First Wings

As the coronavirus pandemic continues and more people get vaccinated, air travel is getting safer, though the CDC still advises people to delay their trips until fully vaccinated. And since children under 5 aren’t yet eligible for the COVID vaccine, non-essential travel for families with small children is not recommended. Travel by car if possible, but if you MUST travel by air, pack plenty of sanitizer. If you can, book direct flights to minimize transit time.

Carol Wilkinson, MD, PhD, pediatrician, advises parents to wait until their infant has had his first round of recommended vaccinations (generally at two months, although as early as six weeks) to travel by plane, train or bus for the first time. But flying with an infant isn’t just your doctor’s decision. Many airlines, including Southwest, have an official policy that requires passengers be at least 2 weeks old before boarding. There are always exceptions, however, and most airlines will accept a newborn with a medical release from a pediatrician.

So why two weeks? “This allows time for possible health conditions that were not found on the initial newborn exam to be discovered. Some conditions, such as heart or lung issues, may make it unsafe for your infant to fly, or these conditions may restrict when and how long your child can tolerate a flight.” says Tracei D. Ball, MD, chief medical officer of On Call Mobile Medical and Wellness.

If possible, it’s smart to delay travel until the mother has had her own postpartum checkup as well. “While traveling with a newborn may be safe for the baby, the mother may find it uncomfortable if she had a C-section. She may not be permitted to fly or travel until cleared by a doctor, usually at a six-week check,” reminds Carole Hallett Mobbs, founder and editor of ExpatChild.com.

Security Measures

Once you both have been cleared for baby’s first flight, remember to pack plenty of formula, sterile nipples and other feeding supplies in your diaper bag if he takes a bottle.

If you’re breastfeeding, bring along nursing pads, a backup breast shield (if needed) and nursing cover. According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), security should treat breast milk the same way they treat liquid medication. This means parents are allowed to bring more than three ounces of breast milk, but it can be inspected at the security checkpoint. Be aware some TSA agents may want to open containers, which could create an unsterile environment for your breast milk.

While there is no official rule for how much formula or baby food you can bring on a the plane, TSA encourages families to only bring what they need. This can be tricky for parents who may not know what their newborn will consume from one day to the next. To be safe, pack what you think you’ll need plus a bit extra in case your flight gets delayed or cancelled.

To date, security checkpoints allow you to walk through a special area with your little one in a baby carrier. And because young children (under 12 years old) are not required to remove shoes at security check-in, you won’t have to worry about your little one’s footwear. However, TSA agents may ask to swab your hands for residue or do a light pat-down.

Kick it to the Curb

Here’s a tip from veteran parent travelers: Make the airport process as easy as possible by checking your bags curbside instead of lugging them inside to the general ticket desk. Lines are often shorter, and you can ditch unnecessary gear as soon as possible. Fortunately, most airlines—including Delta, American and United—allow you to check baby-related items like umbrella strollers and car seats for free. Some even allow travel cribs or bassinets at no charge.

If you’re keeping your stroller to cruise the airport, opt for a travel system that allows you to easily detach the car seat and remove baby when you check the stroller at the gate. Remember, you will need to take apart the entire system and send your gear through the scanner at security. Although a stroller is handy for hauling your tot and belongings, there are definite upsides to checking big gear and wearing baby in a carrier or wrap instead.

If you decide to use an extra seat for your child as opposed to your lap, keep in mind that some travel car seats can pull double duty, serving as an FAA-approved child safety restraint system on the flight. Be sure to check out whether your specific model may be used this way well in advance of your trip.

Friendly Flyers

Don’t hesitate to look to your flight attendants for help beyond getting situated. Sara Allegra, mom of two and founder of the Sub-Saharan Education Project, takes several international flights a year with her small children to West Africa. When her daughter was an infant, she started showing signs of a stomach bug in flight, spiking a fever and losing her appetite. Allegra could no longer get her baby to nurse or take any food but luckily remembered the flight attendant was a grandmother. She asked for help and was quickly assisted. Together they got the baby sipping fluids again.

What if your baby is fussy with no signs of stopping on a long haul flight? Offer to buy adult passengers around you a drink. They might refuse, but it breaks the ice and lets them know you care about their comfort, too. You can also try passing out small bags with a sweet treat, earplugs and a short note explaining that you are flying with a baby and will do what you can to keep her soothed. Don’t forget plenty of teething rings, pacifiers (if your baby uses them), and a few toys to break out when things get dicey.

Don’t Miss the Boat

Cruises can be a potentially relaxing way to travel with a baby. Once the airport or road trip to the port is behind them, families can move at their own pace and enjoy their vacation from the moment they step on deck. Keep in mind that a negative coronavirus test is often now required by cruise lines for children who are not yet old enough for the COVID vaccine.

Not all cruises are baby-friendly or equipped with common conveniences. And many cruise liners don’t allow babies until they’re at least 6 months or older. Pick a baby-friendly cruise—like one on Disney Cruise Line—for babies as young as 12 weeks. They allow you to preorder formula, wipes and diapers and even deliver them to your stateroom. While most baby-friendly cruises offer strollers and highchairs, some need to be reserved in advance or are distributed on first-come, first-served basis. Have a backup plan in mind in case a stroller isn’t available or you need more diapers than anticipated. Remember many cabins come equipped with only a shower and small sink. Unless you want to bathe your baby while holding her in the shower, request a cabin that has a tub.

Unlike other modes of transportation, cruises are difficult to navigate with an endless sea of baby gear. Excess gear needs to be stored somewhere in the confines of your cabin. It may be necessary to splurge on a bigger cabin, so you can spread out and walk around with a restless newborn in the middle of the night.

Dreaming of a relaxing afternoon at the pool? If you have older babies who are ready to swim, check the cruise ship’s policy on diapers before you book. With the exception of Disney Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean, most do not allow swim diapers in the pool or splash areas.

Home Away From Home

Newborns don’t need much to settle in for the night short of a place to sleep and sustenance. But hotel walls aren’t very soundproof and you may be dealing with jet lag and a disrupted nap time schedule. You risk waking up your neighbors in the middle of the night with a crying baby—or worse, having loud guests next door disrupt your baby’s sleep.

To avoid trouble, ask the attendant for a quiet hotel room, and explain you’re worried your baby will wake up surrounding guests. They’re more likely to respond to the pervasive threat of multiple complaints than give you a quiet room for the sake of your beauty sleep.
Renting a private Airbnb home or asking a hotel for a quiet room can lessen the stress of an infant overnight. Inquire about necessities like a fridge to store any premade formula or pumped breast milk and a bathtub instead of a solo shower. Some vacation rental properties also offer grocery delivery service recommendations, which can help out with necessities for mom and dad, as well as supplies for baby.

Take the time to do a little research before your trip. A bit of forethought and a hefty dose of flexibility can make for an agreeable adventure the entire family enjoys.

By Susan Finch

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