Flying With An Infant

Aug 18, 2003

The Bottom Line Some foreign airlines may not accept your child's car seat for use on their flights. Be prepared to entertain your child.

My daughter, now 14 months old, is a seasoned traveler. We have taken her on two flights now; once from Italy to Germany, a second time from Italy to the United States and back. She has flown at 6 months and 14 months. Each time the experience was a little different, but they both had similarities.

The Car Seat

The first question that you probably want to ask yourself before you book your flights is whether you want to even book a seat for your child. If you have a young infant and the flight is short, you may want to save yourself the money and have him or her sit on your lap. If you have a squirming toddler that doesn't want to sit on your lap for more than two minutes at a time, you will probably want to buy the seat no matter what the duration of the flight. We had a seat for our daughter on both of her flights.

Once you have decided whether you want to book your seat or not, you will want to decide on what to do about the car seat. If you are not booking a seat for your child you may want to bring it along anyway, in case there is an open seat next to you. On many of the recent flights I've been on the flights have been quite full, so that may not end up being an option. If you have booked a seat, you will want to bring the car seat along.

Is FAA approval enough?

For most people flying, your car seat will be approved by the FAA and you will not have a problem with the flight attendants and your car seat. On almost all of the flights my daughter has been on, there has been no problem. The car seats usually strap in just like in your car (I did have to make some accomodations with my daughter's rear-facing seat when she was on an already rear-facing seat on one flight). I did have one problem on a British Airways flight, which I'll mention later. The flight attendants have usually been helpful in making sure the seat is safe. Most car seats you buy in the United States will have FAA approval and you should not have a problem with them for domestic flights.

British Airways had a problem with our FAA-approved car seat on one of their flights. Our trip was composed of four different flights, and for three of them there was no problem. However, we did have a problem during one of the flights because there is some sort of "CAA regulation" that requires that your car seat have a tether in the back and not through the bottom of the seat, as ours does. They made us put up the car seat and have her sit on our lap during take off and landing as a result.

If your child sits on your lap (or if you end up with a flight crew that for some reason doesn't like your child's car seat) you will get this nifty little seat belt extender. The British Airways personnel insisted that this seat belt extender was safer than having her fly in a CAA unapproved (but FAA approved) car seat... but I highly have my doubts. I don't think that a baby sitting on your lap would really be safer than in a car seat... under any circumstances (something to think about if you do not get a seat for them). I am sure that it is perfectly safe, don't get me wrong... if your child is willing to sit down.

If you have a squirming toddler that is unwilling to sit still, the seat belt extensions are certainly not safer than a car seat with a five-point harness. Why am I willing to go out on a limb and contradict a supposedly knowledgeable flight crew on this? Because my daughter can stand up in my lap using a seat belt extender. In a seat belt extender, she can reach over to the seat next to her, lay perpendicular on your lap, and practically crawl all over the place. A small infant will not be doing this, of course, but if we were to truly get into an accident, I don't think my daughter is safer standing up on my lap than she would be securely strapped down into her car seat. That's just my opinion, but it seems like common sense to me.

An Entertaining Flight

Once you have figured out the whole seat issue, you will want to start thinking about what to take on the flight to keep your child quiet and not bother the other passengers. Most people don't expect a baby to be good on the flight... you should consider it your personal mission to prove them wrong. This is easier with some babies than others (mine is an especially easy baby in this department) but you should attempt to do your best out of common courtesy.

You will want to make sure that your baby has plenty of food for the flight. Travel-size cans of ready-to-use formula are the best if your child has a large enough appetite to consume 8 ounces of formula at a sitting. Otherwise, it is possible to mix formula while sitting in your seat. You may want to premeasure some powder into different bottles before the flight, as that tends to be the messiest part of the preparation. If your baby is old enough to eat finger foods, you will probably want to include his or her favorites in your carry-on luggage.

Toys are also good to have handy. The flight attendants may pass out packets for children including a coloring book and crayons, but your child may be too young to take advantage of them. On our last flight, I read the coloring book to my daughter and let her grab the pages and play with them as she desired. We also brought other toys for her to play with. The amount of toys you need to bring depends on your child, the size of your carry-on luggage, and the length of your flight. You'll have to figure out how much to bring, just don't forget to bring something.

Diapers and messes

Don't forget to bring enough diapers and wipes for the flight as well. If you've never traveled with an infant before, you may be wondering how the heck you are going to change a baby's diaper in those tiny airport bathrooms? If my British Airways experience is a good representation of what you can expect on other flights, there is a table that folds down over the toilet for you to change the baby on. It is VERY handy. You'll be glad it's there; there's certainly not enough room on the floor.

If you're going on an extremely long flight, your child may leave the plane with a serious case of bed-head. Everybody else is going to look like death warmed over when they get off the plane too, so don't worry about it. If you have a girl, you may want to bring something to tie her hair up.

Flying at Different Ages

It is very different flying with a toddler than it is with a six-month-old. Although there are some similarities, there is definitely a difference.

The young infant: at six months my daughter was a very easy flyer. We were able to get her to sleep through most of the flight. A couple toys and some food was all we needed to make her happy. We picked her up and held her during part of the flight and she seemed to enjoy that. At this age babies are more interested in you and do not require a lot of objects to keep them happy on a flight.

A young toddler: my daughter at fourteen months likes to crawl around. Of course, she can't really do that much on a flight, which is a downside. We tried to provide extra stimulation and crawling at the airport before the flight. She is interested in toys, so it was more important to have those along.

Other notes

On some flights and with some babies, they may need to suck on something during takeoff and landing to help prevent pain in their ears. Bringing a bottle or a pacifier for this purpose and giving it to him or her during this time may help.

Take advantage of pre-boarding. You will have to set up the car seat and put away the stroller, plus dealing with your infant might make things take longer in general.

Many airlines will allow you to take your stroller on the plane with you, especially if it is small. A cheap umbrella stroller works great. Although we usually have a very nice stroller with lots of bells and whistles, we left it at home for our three-week vacation and the umbrella stroller worked well (although there were a few times it would have been nice to have our other stroller). If your child is too young for an umbrella stroller, they will probably be small enough to go in a baby carrier/car seat, which is also nice for the flight, since you don't have to take that AND the car seat on the flight.


Taking a baby on a plane doesn't have to be a nightmare. It does take a little bit of planning. The only real problem I have ever had flying with my daughter was the disagreement over my car seat on one flight.

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