How to survive flying alone with a baby

21 May

flywithbabyI’ve been a mom for less than a year and am no professional travel adviser. But since my baby boy was born, I have traveled cross-country three times by myself–with a two-month-old, then six-month-old, then ten-month-old–and survived. I have:

  • Breastfed my baby while squeezed between two people on a plane, and in at least seven different airports.
  • Pumped milk (under a nursing cover) next to some college kid who was thankfully too absorbed in his iPhone to wonder what the heck was going on.
  • Shelled out 20 bucks for a onesie in the Chicago airport because my baby had already pooped/peed through the FOUR outfits I had brought.
  • Sat next to my seatmate (an old, bearded gentleman) in uncomfortable silence for the last 20 minutes of the flight holding my baby bottom-side-up because he had pooped through his outfit but I couldn’t get up and change him. (I thought maybe if I didn’t call attention to it the guy wouldn’t notice? I doubt it.)
  • Endured the unavoidable indignities of TSA pat-downs and breastmilk inspections.
  • Used an airplane lavatory while holding the baby.

Along the way, I’ve learned a few things I thought I’d share:

How to not freak out

About half of traveling with a baby is logistics, and the other half is all in your head. As with many baby-related matters, how you feel can impact how your baby feels and behaves–which can impact how the whole trip goes. Here’s how I deal with the in-your-head part:

Practice ahead of time. If you’re used to using a Boppy for nursing, it’s helpful to practice breastfeeding positions you might use.

Think the best of people. Don’t worry too much about what your fellow travelers think–you’re never going to see them again. But even if some people may be rude or unsympathetic, there are lots of parents and grandparents out there who are feeling for you. I’m always pleasantly surprised by how many people offer to help me through security or carry my things onto the plane and offer words of encouragement.

Do something that makes you feel happy. Me, I like to curl my hair, even though I’m awaking at an absurd hour. And I always track down a See’s Candy Bordeaux Bar at the airport shops because TREAT YO SELF.

Laugh so you don’t cry. This is the best coping mechanism when your baby poops through his outfit and onto your jeans in the first ten minutes of a flight.

Have people pray for you. It helps. 🙂 If you need to borrow someone, my mom has a pretty good track record.

How to avoid “Are we there yet?”

Wear a watch set to whatever time zone you start in to keep track of how long your flight is and how long it’s been since baby last ate or napped. Plus, instead of having to reach for your phone, it keeps your hands free for holding/feeding/entertaining baby. And a watch makes a great last-ditch-entertaining-the-baby tool.

How to change baby’s diaper on the plane

Diaper kit for flying on a plane - spifftacular.wordpress.comOn Southwest planes, there is a fold-down changing table in the front lavatory. You may want to bring your own changing pad to put on it, but I just lie down a few paper towels and call it good. Most flight attendants request that you throw away diapers in the trash outside of the lavatory, and will provide a trash bag to use. I’ve found it’s easier to bring my own Ziploc bag (at least it’s slightly less wasteful than using a whole trash bag), and I just pack a diaper and a few wipes in it so I also save the trouble of bringing an entire package of wipes. (I put the wipes and diaper on separate sides of the Ziploc then fold it, so the wipes don’t make the diaper soggy.) It also tends to score points with the flight attendants–they’ll think you’re thoughtful and organized.

How to go to the bathroom on the plane

Unrealistic strategies: (1) Don’t have a small bladder. (2) Have a small bladder but don’t drink any water.

Realistic strategies (in order of preference): (1) Put the baby in a carrier/sling. (2) Be deft and hold the baby in one hand (may require practice before hand, but possible). (3) If you feel comfortable with it, befriend a fellow traveling parent and ask them to hold the baby, or ask a flight attendant to help.

How to breastfeed on a plane/in the airport

I pack my nursing cover, and usually wear a cardigan to provide a little backup coverage on the side just in case baby pulls at the cover.

In the airport, I can usually find an empty row of seats; I prefer the seats facing a window so I’m not facing anyone head-on either. Seats next to other women work too. In really crowded airports, I sometimes have better luck finding a less-busy spot and just sitting on the floor. I put one knee up and use that leg to support the arm holding baby’s head, with baby sitting in my lap.

On the plane, I always pick the aisle seat so I can get out and use the bathroom without having to wake or climb over seatmates. I know some people prefer the window seat for the added privacy, but the aisle also affords a little extra elbow space, which makes it a little easier for positioning and allows more room (at least on one side) for baby to squirm to his heart’s content.

How to dress

How to survive flying alone with a baby -

Comfortably, obviously. One favorite element: an exercise shirt. They may be designed to wick away sweat, but they’re also super handy at being easy to wipe off vomit, applesauce, and other unwelcome substances. I wear my charcoal-grey exercise shirt from Target with pride on every single flight, and it’s never failed me. I also wear my Chewbeads necklace, which is a favorite toy of baby’s.

How to pack

How to survive flying alone with a baby - spifftacular.wordpress.comBe warned: I tend to overpack, so this list may be longer than what works for other folks. After a total of six twelve-hour days of traveling via plane with a baby, I’ve narrowed things down as much as I can. Here is everything in my carry-on backpack:


  • Boarding passes
  • Driver’s license
  • Copy of baby’s birth certificate
  • Copy of the TSA policy on breastmilk and formula
  • Credit card and some cash


  • Nursing cover
  • 2 bottles for pumped milk or water (or if you’re doing formula, pack however much you need for the day)
  • Ice pack if bringing pumped milk
  • Water bottle for me
  • Snacks for me
  • Snacks for baby
  • 2 or 3 plastic baby spoons
  • 1 or 2 bibs
  • If you think you’ll need to pump: I pack a manual pump in my carry-on, and check my electric pump (just make sure to pack it very well; the faceplate of my pump chipped the first time I flew with it)


  • 14 diaper kits (see above; I usually use 7 or 8 but pack double to be extra safe)
  • Antibacterial soap
  • A few napkins/paper towels
  • Empty Ziploc gallon bag (for trash, or whatever)
  • Small package of wipes
  • 3 burp rags
  • Chapstick

Baby entertainment

  • 3-5 toys
  • 3-5 board books


  • Phone
  • Phone charger
  • Tablet

Just-in-case mama essentials

  • Spare outfit
  • Small brush
  • Mascara


  • 3 spare baby outfits
  • 3 spare pacifiers (all hail pacifiers!)
  • Pen
  • Watch

Baby schlepping

  • Stroller (which I gate-check)
  • Baby carrier/sling (for bathroom use if needed, and so I have my hands free during boarding while I fold up the stroller and get settled; I just toss it in the overhead bin) (P.S. most flight attendants won’t let you wear the baby in a carrier during takeoff/landing–which I think is dumb, but just FYI)

How to keep baby content

You know your baby best and what will soothe and entertain him or her. But the most important thing that every family member/friend/stranger urged me was to make sure that your baby sucks on something during takeoff and landing. This apparently helps them adjust to the pressure change. If baby is asleep, though, no need to wake him or her up. If you opt to nurse or give a bottle, wait until you know for sure you’re taking off, since sometimes it can take awhile for the plane to taxi to the runway.

Along with bringing traditional toys and books, be willing to improvise and turn anything into a toy. (Granola bar wrappers! Tray tables! SkyMall catalogs!) Make silly faces, sing songs, play simple games like peekaboo. I tried resisting writing a line this cheesy, but I couldn’t: Imagination doesn’t take up any room in your carry-on. Have fun with it!

I’ve also heard it helps to keep a damp cloth in a bag to cool the baby’s face. It never helped my baby much, but it couldn’t hurt to have on hand and try.

You can do it!

Gracefully or not, you’ll get there eventually. But you can do it gracefully! As my mom told me about labor, “Think of all the nitwits who’ve pushed a baby out. You’ll be OK.” Just think of all the nitwits who’ve flown on a plane, alone with a baby. Someone as thoughtful and organized as you will surely be fine. As long as your definition of “fine” includes the possibility of one or two poop-covered onesies.

Bon voyage!

Have questions or your own tips or experiences you’d like to share? Comment away!



2 Responses to “How to survive flying alone with a baby”

  1. Summer May 22, 2014 at 5:49 pm #

    This is all good advice. I especially love the idea of an exercise shirt for me! I had never thought of that. I’ve flown solo with one kid 4 times (two of which were transpacific and I was 6 months pregnant to boot). And our family will be crossing the pacific and the states for our third time this summer, now with three kids in tow (we live in Japan). Needless to say, we’ve had a bit of experience. My favorite things are my ergo carrier (learning how it breastfeed in that bad boy has been a lifesaver), an abundance of stickers, an iPad and headphones with a splitter, and a smile. Seriously, your attitude is the most important thing. By far the “worst” flight for us could have been from Japan to California after the big earthquake in 2011. I had an 18 month old and was 6 months pregnant. I was on a contracted military flight full of mostly moms with infants and kids, all leaving under stressful circumstances. I was determined to be happy. And I prayed hard for it ;). A smile and patience got us a long with under that stress and I must say it as rather a pleasant experience for us.

    • Holly May 23, 2014 at 9:56 am #

      Thanks, Summer! Flying with a baby and while pregnant is extra impressive. And I agree, a smile goes a long way!

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