Flying alone with a baby: survival tips and tricks

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The idea of flying solo with my busy fourteen-month-old from Perth, Australia to Durban, South Africa terrified me! I sought counsel from friends and family who’d ever traveled with a baby and filled in the gaps using blog posts and forums for any and every piece of advice that would increase my chances of a pleasant journey.

We are now back from our fantastic three weeks visiting my family and the flights went as well as they possibly could have. Below are the tips and tricks that helped me and I hope they can be useful to others about to embark on long-haul flights alone with a baby!

WHAT TO PACK IN YOUR CARRY-ON LUGGAGE:

  • Try keep your carry-on luggage to just one bag. A back-pack is the most practical rather than a handbag or nappy bag. This way you can sling it over both shoulders and carry it comfortably, leaving both hands free to carry baby, sort out passports etc. It also has useful compartments for storing the various bits and pieces you’ll have with you.
  • Place nappies, wipes & nappy disposal bags in a smaller bag within the backpack. When you need to change your baby’s nappy on the plane, you can just take this along with you to the tiny toilet cubicle rather than lugging a bulky bag and having to rummage through it to find your supplies. (For nappy disposal, the air hostess I spoke to said I should just place dirty nappies in the normal waste disposal bin in the toilet cubicle)
  • The same principal applies to the snacks you’re planning on taking with you: gather them up in a snack bag to make them easy to locate when your bub is tired and grumpy and you need a distraction fast! (I bought a Nude Food Movers coolskin from Woolworths, Australia and it was the perfect size with flexible material for fitting into a backpack)
  • Dummies are very useful for take-off and landing so that your baby’s ears don’t get sore. If your baby doesn’t usually have a dummy, you can either breastfeed him during these times or give him a bottle to suck. It’s a good idea to use a dummy strap to prevent it falling down and getting dirty or lost on the plane.
  • Take books to read to your baby for long waits at the airport terminal or in-flight. Don’t take too many as your baby will probably be more taken with the in-flight magazine anyway!
  • A small torch is handy for locating lost items under aeroplane seats.
  • If you have a phone with the flight mode function, you will be able to use it for entertainment for your baby while in the air. There are loads of baby-specific apps that you can download ahead of time.
  • If you are planning on using your phone as entertainment, there is the risk of running your battery down and not being able to use it when you arrive at your destination. You can solve this problem with a portable power bank, such as the ones from Juice Up. I bought mine from Dick Smith for $25.
  • Buy one or two small and inexpensive gifts to wrap up for your baby and give them to her on the trip. My baby loves necklaces and accessories so I bought bead necklaces from a kids’ accessory shop. They were an absolute hit! She wore and played with them not just on the plane but every day of the holiday too! Best three bucks I’ve ever spent…
  • A lightweight blanket is handy to have with you, not so much for on the plane – the air-hostesses will provide you with blankets – but it can be used to shield a sleeping baby from glaring lights or keep them snug while you’re walking about airports.
  • Pack a change of clothes for your baby in case of a spill or leaky nappy or a messy meal.
  • Antibacterial wipes can be used for cleaning your baby’s hands or wiping down trays before a meal. Airports and aeroplanes harbour germs from around the world and the last thing you want is your baby picking up some nasty virus to spoil your holiday.
  • Pack some snacks for you, too. You will find it very difficult to enjoy a proper meal on the plane so take snacks along for yourself to avoid running low on energy in transit.
  • To help your baby sleep comfortably while on your lap, you could purchase a travel mattress from SkyBaby. You may find, though, that trying to assemble it and get your baby into it all on your own may be too much of a challenge. They can be quite fiddly with only one set of hands. I went without one and my baby was able to sleep just fine.
  • You’re unlikely to get a chance to brush your teeth so pack some good quality gum to chew on when you need to freshen up.
  • Have a pen with you for filling in the arrival and departure cards.
  • Place all passports and travel documents in one folder or plastic sleeve for easy access. It is advisable to get your partner to write a letter giving permission for you to travel alone with your baby, and take along copies of your baby’s full, unabridged birth certificate and your marriage certificate if applicable.
  • Pack pain medication for both you and your baby in case of a pesky headache or fever en route. Dymadon for babies is a good option as it is pleasant tasting so shouldn’t be met with much resistance.
  • If you are worried that your baby will become anxious and inconsolable, take along some Rescue Remedy for kids to help soothe them naturally rather than use harsher drugs.

OTHER TIPS AND TRICKS:

  • Night flights will be easiest for you as there’s a better chance that your baby will sleep for much of the journey. Trying to keep your baby entertained for hours during a day flight will be exhausting for you and your fellow passengers.
  • If you can afford to buy a seat for your baby, there is the option of taking your car seat along and strapping your baby into it on the plane. This could help settle your baby and get them to sleep comfortably for longer. Confirm with your airline that they allow this.
  • An overtired baby is never a good thing: make sure your baby has kept to his usual nap times before you fly and is as well rested as possible. For my midnight flight, I put Lucy down to sleep at her usual bedtime then woke her up after two hours to head to the airport. This meant she was rested enough to stay reasonably cheerful during the check in and boarding process.
  • When you book your flight, be sure to request a meal for your baby. Don’t assume the airline will provide one unless you’ve asked for it.
  • Eating your own meal on the flight may prove impossible as your baby will probably want to make a grab at everything on the tray. It might be less stressful for you to just decline the meals and eat at the airport before you fly and survive on snacks during the flight.
  • Consider checking yourself in to one of the airport lounges while you wait for your flight. They are quieter, more comfortable spaces to try settle your baby and get them to nap if needed before the trip. They have nicer baby changing facilities and should have snacks available for you. You’ll have to do your research beforehand to see if the airports you’ll be in have such a service available. At Perth airport, the lounges are only available to members or passengers of certain airlines but at Johannesburg airport they allow any passengers to use the lounges for a fee.
  • Once you have finally boarded the plane, you will probably have at least two more hours of bright lights, noise and activity before your baby can drift off to sleep in a dark cabin. Even on midnight flights you will be served supper and drinks. This is another good reason to make sure your baby isn’t over-tired before you fly.
  • The chances of you getting any sleep while in the air are slim to none. Try to have a nap yourself before you leave for the airport.
  • When you check in, ask if it’s possible to book a seat with a spare seat next to it. At least this will allow you some extra space either to have your bag right next to you or for your wriggly baby to crawl and stand a bit on the flight.
  • If you have requested a bassinet, there is no guarantee that you will get one. They are assigned to the youngest babies plus there are weight and height restrictions and your baby may prove too big for it.
  • When you board, ask one of the hostesses to show you which toilet cubicle is equipped with a change table as not all of them are.
  • Some airlines do not allow breastfeeding on takeoff and landing. If you’re willing to risk it, you can probably still sneak it in once the cabin staff are seated and no longer walking around checking. (If you look at the brace position they advise you to adopt when holding a baby, it’s actually very similar to the breastfeeding cradle hold.
  • If you are planning on breastfeeding during the flight, you may want to request a bigger pillow from business class to help you support your baby comfortably. Be aware that the seats are very narrow, which make breastfeeding a challenge unless you’ve got a spare seat next to you.
  • Anticipate that you will be very uncomfortable on the flight. When you baby falls asleep on your lap, you won’t want to move in case you wake her.
  • The hours of discomfort while your baby sleeps on you can be made more bearable by watching movies or listening to music. Plan ahead for this by getting the headsets plugged in and ready for use so that you can get them on without moving around too much and waking up your baby.
  • Going to the toilet is going to be a challenge for you at all stages of the journey! At airports, look for the disabled toilets as they are bigger and can accommodate a pram. If there is no sweet person who offers to hold your baby so you can go to the loo during the flight, I can confirm that it is possible to seat your baby on your knee while in the toilet cubicle!! It’s not ideal but if you are desperate, it can be done!
  • Some airports will have loan prams available for use but you may prefer to take along your own pram rather than risk having to carry your baby around for long periods of time. It also means that you will have it with you to use on your holiday. You should be able to take the pram right up to the door of the plane but check with the airline you’re using whether this is the case.
  • If you’d rather not take a pram, consider taking a sling for carrying your baby around the airport, if your baby is not too heavy.
  • If you are going through passport control, there may be quite a long wait before you can collect your pram and other luggage. Try to find a loan pram to use in the interim so you’re not having to carry your baby all this time.
  • When you collect your luggage off the carousel, you may find that your pram is not with it. Have a look at the collection point for unusual or outsize items which will be located in the vicinity of the baggage carousels and you should find it there.
  • You won’t be able to push a pram and a trolley. Neither will you be able to put your baby in the trolley – they’re not equipped for babies like the shopping trolleys you’re used to. I used a suitcase with wheels for my luggage then a duffle bag for Lucy. At the airport, I placed the duffle bag on top of the suitcase and secured it by putting the straps over the suitcase handle so I could wheel it around with one hand while pushing the pram with the other hand. It’s not easy going but I have proved it is possible! If this sounds too difficult, there are probably ways of getting assistance or a porter at the airport.
  • If you have crossed time zones, both you and your baby are likely to suffer from jet lag and the resulting disrupted sleep. The rough guideline is one night of disrupted sleep per time zone crossed. There is a six hour time difference between Perth and South Africa and Lucy had exactly six nights of poor sleep on arrival and return!
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