This time last year I was being pushed through Departures at KLIA on a wheelchair, with a newborn in tow and feeling completely petrified. 50 days after I had given birth (via a rather traumatic) c-section, I was facing the prospects of enduring a 13 hour flight to London with a very young baby. I was bringing my baby to meet my family and to also spend the rest of my maternity leave in London to recover. With the flight ticket booked months in advance, I hadn’t banked on the fact that I would still be in a lot of pain and unable to walk much or carry my baby. It was, to date, one of the most daunting experiences of my life and although my mum had flown in to accompany us, it had been 29 years since she had handled a baby (her only child) and she was so nervous that she broke out in painful hives! I remember thinking that all I wanted was for someone to be able to guarantee that nothing will go wrong or at least give me real tips on what to do when travelling with a baby, instead of the standard “make sure he is sucking on something when you take-off and land”. (Incidentally, we discovered several flights later that the air pressure never bothered Aidan and for us, it was actually better to let him sleep than to wake him to drink.)
Fast forward 12 months later and our baby Aidan has been on the plane 12 times -8 of them being long haul flights. We also travel Economy class; so no flat-beds, fluffy pillows, legroom, floor space or any of the other snazzy benefits that would make a huge difference when travelling with a tot. Aidan’s travel needs have also changed tremendously in a short year, so I hope what I am sharing here will help other ‘first-time-flying-parents’ overcome those fears.
If I had to share just one tip, it would definitely be “Always take a night flight.” Always. It doesn’t matter how short your trip is (we once did London for 3 days) – you’d be surprised at how quickly babies adjust to time differences. Before Aidan, we assumed that we should always avoid night flights (what if he cries and keeps everybody awake?) but what we didn’t realise was that because it was night, he would also be asleep most of the time.
‘At the Airport’
If you are travelling alone with a baby, do “request for special assistance” with your airline. They should be able to organise for lots of help at the airport – just as a disabled passenger would receive. You will get help with your hand-luggage and skip all immigration and x-ray machine queues. If you have recently given birth and must travel, request for a wheelchair so you won’t need to walk the long distances to the gate and risk post-partum injury. You will also receive assistance upon arrival.
‘While in the Air’
Aidan has never been one of those magic babies who can sleep through noise, lights and general stimulation. Our efforts to “train” him to be less sensitive have yielded minimal results as he has been a light sleeper from day 1; so we just had to make him as comfortable as possible.
The problem with in-flight bassinets is that they’re usually fixed to a wall connected to the toilets or galley (cue flushing sounds and metal clanking during food prep). On top of that, there’s also usually another baby next to you. While there’s not much you can do about the noise, (I admit, I did stare daggers at the parents who decided to practice the cry-it-out method at 2am), babies are thankfully very sensitive to light cues. So we always make sure to have a thick blanket and duct tape with us to build a makeshift blackout cocoon on the wall over the bassinet. We get strange looks from other passengers every time, but we’d rather have those than a crying baby any day. (The duct tape is also ideal for baby-proofing the wires and sockets in the hotel room at your destination!)
As Aidan got older it took a lot more to keep him entertained during his waking hours. We bring lots of books, fun, interactive toys like puppets and even a full sized pillow for comfort. The mirror in the toilet also is a great distraction for when your baby is restless in the cabin. If your baby has started solids, make sure to have his food with you. We have been on flights where they have run out of baby food so best not to take your chances. Invest in a good cooler bag that can keep frozen breastmilk and home cooked food chilled throughout your flight. Planes do not have conventional fridges and the best the crew can offer is an extra ice pack for your cooler bag.
If you spy an empty row, run for it as soon as soon as boarding is complete. Your baby will be much more comfortable lying down across the seats than he would be in the cramped bassinet.
As soon as you land, follow the local time and stick to the routine you’ve established at home. Babies are happiest when they’re following a good routine and it will make travelling a breeze when you introduce familiar activities like meals, baths, naps and play at similar times, in between new ones like sightseeing and visiting new places.
“Travelling with a baby doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the local sights and culture”
Always contact the hotel in advance and arrange for breastmilk and food storage (minibar fridges are usually not cold enough and will switch off when you remove the keycard). So far, all of the hotels we have stayed in have been extremely accommodating when it comes to storing and preparing baby food and milk for us. If available, do ask for the ‘disabled access’ room, as you will have lots more space (designed to manoeuvre a wheelchair) and a low bathtub which makes bathing your baby heaps easier. Bring a lightweight foam bath support which will keep your baby safe and also allow for a hygienic shower on the floor if your room doesn’t have a tub. We also always book a suite, so that the bedroom can be closed off and we can enjoy quality time in the living area when Aidan is asleep.
This is something you wouldn’t expect to hear, but when travelling with an infant, it pays to pack as much of their favourite things as you can. On top of necessities like medication, portable changing mats and so on, the idea is to create a home away from home. When we recreated our living room in the hotel room with Aidan’s playmat, books and toys, it resulted in a very happy baby.
When Aidan started solids, not all our hotel rooms came with a kitchenette, so I would bring along his 2-in-1 baby steamer and blender, a portable electric hob, a lightweight pot, a vegetable peeler and a small knife which meant that I could just pop down to the supermarket and prepare fresh meals for him daily.
Depending on where you go, bring a baby carrier and/or a stroller. Your baby will need somewhere to nap in if you will be out most of the time. We ended up having to buy another stroller on holiday because we thought we could manage without one. Some countries have a great public transport system with easy access for strollers while others do not even have pavements. In some countries, you will automatically be assigned to a taxi with a car seat (brilliant!) and in others you will need to book and request in advance. Some won’t even have car seats in which case you just have to buckle up, hold your baby tight and pray for the best.
Before I had Aidan, I was always an avid traveller and was terrified that having a baby would prematurely cap my wanderlust. Since then, my fears are fading and I believe that if you expose a child early enough to travelling, they will grow to enjoy it and become independent individuals later in life. We have just booked our first overseas beach getaway with Aidan so wish us luck for when we grapple with the messy cocktail of a sand-covered toddler, sunblock, saltwater and tropical insects!