Staying Sane on a Plane with a Baby

If you listen to Mr. Daily Mail, you will not inflict your offspring on anyone until they are capable of being in public spaces without being annoying. When they get to 25, perhaps. If you find yourself longing for a bit of adventure beyond Bognor before then, you’re going to have to get on a plane. Arguably the younger you do this the better, as they are more likely to just eat and sleep, and need less entertaining.

Being gluttons for punishment, the first flight we took our three-month-old on was to Hong Kong, a mere eleven and a half hours of being stuck in a small metal tube with lots of other people. And, it turned out, lots of other babies, so we didn’t get a bassinet. Having (just about) survived, here is some advice I wish I had given myself before take off:

The seat belt was a little large

1. Make the most of it.

It’s the first time I’ve ever been able to walk past everyone else to the shiny ‘priority boarding’ bit and not have to stand about for hours in a line. People are also far more likely to help you when you have a cute child in tow, so take help from strangers (we had a lovely Chinese lady walk her up and down for twenty minutes) and don’t be shy pushing that button for service. It’s also pretty much the first time I’ve been able to sit still for hours with interesting stuff to watch and people bringing me food. Enjoy it while you can!

2. Pack light.

Don’t scrimp on changes of clothes (there was water spillage and a poop incident, you can read more about it here) and nappies of course, but in terms of toys you’re probably going to end up leaving them in the bottom of the bag. We got out one book and one toy which made no difference when she did get upset. For yourself, don’t expect too much in terms of what is possible when you have a little one. That pack of cards is perhaps a little optimistic.

3. Bring water. 

Even with all that button pressing, the pathetic little bottles or cups of water they brought me just weren’t enough. The interior of a plane is dry enough for normal people, but if you’re breastfeeding it’s like the Sahara. Buy some water from the departure lounge and chug away. It’s certainly what I’ll be doing next time.

Sleeping is possible, if not attractive. 

4. And Snacks.

You would think, by now, that I would have figured out how much extra food I need to eat in order to feed someone else. Apparently not. Again, the snacks and food was pretty good, but just not enough to keep the both of us going. A packet with about 6 pieces of popcorn is tasty but just doesn’t cut it. Stock up.

5. Get There Early.

Just as we got to the front of the check-in queue, we heard an incredibly helpful air stewardess informing the family just before us that they were being moved to seats that had a bassinet. My hopes plummeted. Just as I feared, when we got to the desk we were told that there were none left. How to get yourself one of these coveted spots seems to vary between airlines. Some don’t allocate until you get there, others reserve them. In our case, the airline said it was the fault of our travel agent, who said it was the airline’s fault. Either way, we didn’t get it. Arriving earlier might just have bagged us a spot and saved our legs. On our connecting flight our of Hong Kong to Japan we had one, and not only was it easier for us (try eating airline food with a baby on your lap) but it was also much better for her – she was able to kick about and have a good stretch.

Some quality kicking time

6. Ask for Stuff.

I’m not great at this. Perhaps it’s my British upbringing, but if anyone asks if I need anything I’m going to say that I’m fine, even if that is clearly not the case. On this occasion, I tried to swallow this urge and get what we could. Unfortunately it didn’t work for the bassinet, but we did push past people in the queue, we got extra pillows and blankets (with the tray down and two pillows, there was a very stable baby shelf which meant she could sleep/lie happily on one of us so we could sleep too). Extra water, extra snacks, using the loo when you’re not supposed to, just make the most of your position and get what you can.

7. Fly at Night.

This would have made life so much easier. At least she is small enough to nap often, but having to entertain her in awake times was far more of a hassle than simply feeding her and putting her back to sleep would have been. Admittedly, the ‘fake night’ the flight provided to try and accustom you to the new time zone we were flying to did help a lot, and she slept much more than she would have done in a normal day. Where possible, try to fit your travel time around sleep time, so it gives you as few windows as possible for problems to occur.

8. Relax.

This is a tricky one. Having only ever been the grumpy passenger behind someone with a baby before, I could all too well imagine the dark thoughts swirling round their heads as the wails began to increase. She managed to keep it together for a full 10 hours, which is very impressive for one so small, but in the end it all got a bit too much. On that occasion, we could get up and walk around a bit. On the next flight, it was during take off and landing, when she had to be sat on one of our laps with the seatbelt on. There was little more I could do than jiggle her, make shushing noises and hope that the dummy would prove a suitable plug. At that point, after over 24 hours of travelling time, I had lost the energy to feel stressed about the effect her cries had on others anyway. The power of fatigue! Besides, I figured that they all got to go home to a quiet bed, whereas we were the ones who’d have to deal with her continuing cries on the onward journey!

9. Remember your Pelvic Floor

Maybe you’re a disciplined guru who spent the last 15 years toning and squeezing, or maybe you’re 22 and everything bounced back into place after having a baby, but most of us are not so lucky. It’s very easy to forget that, just recently, you had a huge amount of baby, fluid and placenta bouncing around on top of some very important muscles. I didn’t realise that things weren’t quite right until I went down to my mum’s with a backpack. Extra weight will really exacerbate things, so don’t go lugging heavy suitcases up and down stairs. Remember you’re still fragile, even if you don’t feel it!

Adventuring together

10. Don’t Expect the Worst

There have been several times since having a baby that people have been astonished with what I’ve done. Taken her on public transport all the way to Surrey when she’s three weeks old, really? Spent 6 hours on trains to France for Christmas when she was two months old, why? Gone for a meal out in London on your own when she was 4 weeks old? Part of this is blissful ignorance. It didn’t occur to me that these things weren’t possible, so it also didn’t occur to me to worry about them. Trust me, it’s often far less traumatic than you would imagine.

And that’s about it. Don’t despair, travelling for long periods at a time with small ones can actually be fun, and means that you can all go and explore the world together.

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I'm a writer, teacher and drummer based in London. Short fiction and reviews are my main staples, along with some dabbling in novel writing.

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