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Travel Experts Answer All Your Questions About Traveling with a Baby
July 27, 2023

Travel Experts Answer All Your Questions About Traveling with a Baby

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Travel Experts Answer All Your Questions About Traveling with a Baby

Welcome to Ask the Expert, a series in which real experts answer questions from real Babylist parents. For this installment, we asked Babylist parents to submit all their questions about traveling with a baby or toddler (no small task no matter how far you’re going). Here to give expert advice on all things travel are Kara Mulder, a flight attendant for 14+ years and the voice behind Flight Attendant Life, and Kailee Noland, a pediatric physical therapist and the owner of The Movement Mama.

Traveling with a little one can be such a rewarding experience full of family bonding—at the same time, it can also be such an exhausting experience. Whether you’re flying, road tripping or taking another form of transportation, there’s a lot to think about with a baby or toddler in tow. From how much time they can spend in their car seat to keeping a fussy kiddo placated on a cross-country or even an international flight, here’s advice from two travel experts to keep your trip moving smoothly.

Flying with a baby or toddler

Taking to the skies? With over 14 years of experience as a flight attendant, Kara Mulder answers all your questions.

How old should a baby be before air travel?

Airlines generally suggest that a baby should be at least two weeks old before flying, but a physician can provide a more personalized answer. Some airlines may require a doctor’s letter for newborns under two weeks old. Many parents and pediatricians recommend waiting until baby is around six weeks old and has started their vaccinations to better handle potential germ exposure.

How important is getting my baby his own seat? Is it dangerous if I just have him in my lap on a flight?

Although airlines allow children under two to sit on a parent’s lap during the flight, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) states that purchasing a seat for your baby and using an approved child safety seat is the safer option.

When booking flights, consider your child’s age, the duration of the flight, the type of aircraft and whether you’re traveling alone. This will help you make an informed decision regarding purchasing a separate seat for your toddler. Air travel can be exhausting, and providing your child with their own seat can offer invaluable peace of mind.

One final recommendation is to understand the aircraft configuration anytime you travel with infants or toddlers. If possible, reserve a bulkhead row (the row with no seats in front of it, usually at the front of economy/coach class) with the attachable bassinet. If you have any questions about how to reserve the best seats on an aircraft when traveling with young children, airline customer service representatives can assist you.

How many baby items (and which ones) can you take through security and check at the plane gate?

The TSA allows parents to bring baby essentials such as bottles (including breast milk and formula), baby food (including puree pouches) and medication through security, even if they’re over 3.4 fluid ounces—and they don’t need to be in a quart-sized bag with the rest of your liquids, they just need to be in your carry-on.

To keep breast milk, formula and baby food cool, freeze some juice and use it as an ice pack. Frozen liquids are allowed in your carry-on luggage, and once they’re done keeping things cool, they can double as a snack for you or your little one. Note: when traveling with frozen juices, remove the containers before security screening and communicate to TSA that the contents are frozen. And they have to be completely frozen; if there’s any partial melting or liquid at the bottom, they have to meet the regulation for 3.4 fluid ounces.

As far as other baby items, diaper bags, strollers and car seats are also allowed, and many airlines allow travelers to check strollers and car seats at the gate for free.

For international travel, each country has its own rules regarding what items are allowed through airport security. So depending on where you depart, be sure to look at customs, security and border guidelines. For example, in other countries, you won’t be able to bring frozen liquids. However, items for your baby fall under medical exemption and are allowed to travel in reasonable quantities.

Should I check the car seat before security if I’m not using it on the airplane? Or is it best to check at the gate? Is there a cost for checking car seats and strollers?

Most airlines allow you to check a car seat and stroller for free, either at the ticket counter or at the gate. If you’re not using the car seat on the plane, I would suggest gate-checking. That way, you can use your car seat or stroller right up until you board the plane, making managing a baby and luggage easier—just hand it over at the boarding gate.

Gate-checking also minimizes the risk of damage by reducing some of the handling associated with checked luggage. Just remember to ask for a gate-check tag at the boarding gate.

What are some tips to keep a baby or toddler entertained on a flight?

There are several strategies to keep a little one entertained during a flight. First, consider bringing some new, small toys or books that your child hasn’t seen before—novelty can be a powerful distraction. Baby’s favorite comfort item, whether it’s a blanket, stuffed animal or pacifier, can also be incredibly useful during your trip.

While some parents prefer to limit screen time, a flight can be considered a “special occasion.” A digital tablet loaded with some toddler-friendly apps or shows can be a lifesaver.

For long-haul flights, international trips or ones lasting more than six hours, consider taking your baby for a short walk around the cabin when the seatbelt sign is off. Feel free to greet the flight attendants, but be aware, your baby might become their favorite passenger!

How can I pop baby’s ears during/after a flight?

Changes in air pressure can cause discomfort to a baby, but there are strategies to help. Consider breastfeeding or offering a bottle during takeoff and landing, as the swallowing action helps clear your baby’s ears. A pacifier can also stimulate swallowing and provide the same benefit.

For toddlers, a drink from a sippy cup or a small snack might do the trick. Chewing and swallowing can help adjust their ear pressure.

If you’re nervous about your baby’s ear health for an upcoming trip, it’s always a good idea to consult with your pediatrician before the flight for additional recommendations.

Where is the best place to breastfeed on the plane?

Where to breastfeed on a plane will largely depend on your comfort level and the type of aircraft. On wide-bodied aircraft with two aisles, some lavatories are larger and might offer more privacy. However, you’re more than welcome to breastfeed at your seat with a nursing cover.

Additionally, breastfeeding can help clear baby’s ears, so nursing during takeoff or landing may help alleviate any discomfort your baby might experience due to air pressure changes.

Where can I use a breast pump while flying? Is it rude to pump in the bathroom on a plane? And how/where can I clean all the bottles and pump parts, especially on long-haul flights?

You are absolutely allowed to use a breast pump while flying. Some parents feel more comfortable pumping in their seat with a nursing cover, while others prefer the privacy of the lavatory. Larger lavatories on wide-bodied aircrafts may offer a more comfortable space.

Cleaning pump parts can be challenging on a plane, as limited bottled water is stocked onboard. Using potable water from lavatory sinks or galley faucets is not recommended. Ideally, bring enough parts to last the flight without needing to clean anything. However, for lengthy flights or if packing additional items isn’t feasible on your trip, consider cleaning breast pump parts with bottled water and disinfectant wipes. As a flight attendant, I’d encourage you to ask the working crew for bottled water if needed. The crew is there to help.

Road trips and car seat comfort for babies and toddlers

No matter how you travel or how long it takes, it’s important to know how traveling impacts your little one’s body and behavior. Pediatric physical therapist Kailee Noland answers all your questions about keeping kiddo safe and happy during the long haul.

What is the longest a baby should be in a car seat on a road trip without getting out?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies (12 months old and younger) should only spend two to three hours in a car seat at a time, including on long road trips. This is because of how babies are positioned in a car seat, which can cause physical strain and restricted breathing after more than a couple of hours. It’s a statistic that many parents aren’t aware of and one that we definitely need to spread the word on, so be sure to send this article to a friend!

Taking breaks during travel allows baby to stretch and move, plus it reduces the risk of plagiocephaly (or flat head syndrome). Remember, too, that car seats aren’t recommended as safe sleep devices. So while it may be tempting, when you reach your destination or a pit stop, please get baby up and out, even if it means having to wake them from their sweet slumber.

It’s not forever, though. Most experts agree that once a baby has the upright head and neck control to sit independently, you can begin driving longer stretches. While I know the two-hour rule may seem restricting, this is a great excuse to hunker down and stay home in those first few months to adjust, as your life has now changed, and family and friends can begin to make the effort to come to you!

If longer travel is unavoidable, here are some tips:

  • Plan for your trip to take twice as long as normal. With all the stops and time allowing babe to stretch out, it’s wise to just plan this into the schedule.
  • Do some gas station tummy time.
  • Babywear while you take a quick walk around a park on your route. If you’re nearing the two hour limit, just check the next town en route and google “[Town Name] Park” or “[Town Name] Trail”; you’ll likely find a lovely spot for some fresh air and stretching your legs.
  • When the adults need to stop to eat, be sure to take baby out of the carseat. You could babywear here, too.
  • Have one parent sit in the back with baby to monitor temperature, breathing and overall comfort level. If this isn’t possible, use a travel-safe mirror or car camera to check on babe.

Keep in mind: If your child is premature or has any other medical conditions, always consult your pediatrician regarding their specific travel recommendations.

At what age is it okay to use a tablet for long trips?

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, screen time should be limited by age as follows:

  • Prior to 18 months old, the only screen time should be video phone calls, which provide an active and involved experience for your child.
  • Between 18 and 24 months, it’s recommended to only provide educational programming for less than one hour per day that you view with your child.
  • Between two and five years old, limits are capped at one hour per day and three hours per weekend day.

These guidelines were created not only to protect your child from potentially harmful content, but also to promote optimal brain and body development. All that to say, my recommendation for independent tablet use in the car would be no sooner than two years of age. I also invite you to consider utilizing a device that isn’t actively connected to the internet or data during usage to prevent your child from accidentally stumbling onto something they shouldn’t.

For our family, we’ve always had fun utilizing a portable DVD player and headrest mount with DVDs we own or check out from the library. This ensures we’re able to control exactly what’s being viewed and the toddler/child isn’t in control of the buttons, causing potential driving distractions.

Of course, we all understand needing to entertain them in the car so you’re not stuck with a screaming toddler, but try the ideas mentioned here before resorting to screen time. Some of our favorites include:

  • Activity books and sticker books
  • Bubbles
  • I spy
  • Listening to music
  • Listening to children’s stories on audiobook or podcast
  • Pop-its or other car-safe toys

We also personally find that if our children have too much screen time on road trips, particularly near nap or bedtime, the blue light their eyes are taking in may reduce their sleep quality and make it difficult to get to sleep. You might consider investing in some child-sized blue light blockers to assist with combatting this issue.

How can I keep my toddler entertained in his car seat without using technological devices? Car rides often become screaming sessions!

Trust me. Been there. And it’s no fun. While I can’t guarantee a tantrum-free trip (because toddlers love to move, after all), I can give you lots of ideas that have helped make traveling with toddlers as smooth as possible!

Here are some of our favorite travel solutions:

  • A portable audio player like the Yoto Mini
  • Storytime podcasts
  • Coloring books + Clickup markers (no more missing lids or lids that are choking hazards)
  • Water painting books + reusable brushes you can fill with water
  • Bubbles + the car vent
  • Pop-its
  • Foam activity boards
  • Playing “I spy”
  • Music
  • Suction spinning toys
  • Car-safe non-projectile books (soft-cover only)
  • Car-safe toys

Keep in mind: All items offered in the car shouldn’t be considered projectiles. This means the item should be lightweight and soft, so that in the case you got into a collision, it wouldn’t cause harm if thrown around the vehicle.

My toddler is good for about two hours of driving in a day (plus naptime), but then he screams at the very sight of his carseat, and it doesn’t really get better. I know this is normal, but when will things get better? Our family lives seven hours away, and it’s very hard to get there!

This is so tough—but our children have an innate desire to move! Think about how much we adjust in our car seats. Because of the restraints of child car seats, they’re often unable to wiggle and readjust as we are, leading them to feeling uncomfortable and fussy!

To help minimize the fuss:

  • First, ensure that your kiddo’s car seat is installed properly for their weight and height and it’s at an appropriate incline angle. This eliminates whether or not significant discomfort might be what’s bothering them.
  • We love to do playground pit stops to get out some energy. Often we’ll pack some snacks or grab food at a drive-through and instead of stopping at a gas station each time, we google “[Next Town] Playground” or use the Playground Buddy app. If it’s bad weather, consider exploring a nearby department store or wandering a grocery store for road trip snacks. If there’s more than one adult, you could also try having one adult take the child to the playground while the other packs the car. This already starts your little one off on a positive note with some of their movement needs fulfilled.
  • Novelty is key. I often try to pack most of the activities I listed above in our travel caddy. I try to only offer one activity at a time and use “first, then” statements, like “First we’re going to color, and then we can watch a show.” Break up your screen time so you always have something fun and enticing to offer. Give them something to look forward to—maybe a special snack they get to have at your next stop.
  • Consider breaking up your trip into two parts. We’ve enjoyed staying halfway in AirBnBs to make our trips more enjoyable for everyone!
  • Some families also like to leave close to bedtime or very early in the morning to get a few “sleepy” hours for the kiddos in the car. Always be sure you’re not driving when you are too tired, though.
  • Try playing a game of “I Spy,” but make it simpler by encouraging them to tell you when they see animals on the side of the road (we love to look for cows in the Midwest) or something that you know they might see often, like big trucks or billboards. Encourage them to look for shapes in the clouds or find things that are a certain color along your trip!
  • Finally, know that it’ll improve with time! But it’s completely normal for your mover and shaker to not want to be confined to a seat for hours on end. And soon you will be at your destination and having fun!

How do you make a baby more comfortable in a car seat, especially for babies that find it hard to self-soothe in order to sleep in the car?

First, know that it’s completely normal for separation anxiety to increase in the car. While you can easily see them in the mirror, they may not be able to understand at a very young age that you’re right there with them. As mentioned previously, consider having one caregiver sit in the back next to them to ease their little minds.

And as always, make sure your car seat is installed properly for your baby’s age and size so they’re as comfortable as possible.

Something to note with car seats, too, is that traditional infant seats create a C-curve to the spine, which can be particularly uncomfortable for babies with reflux or for prolonged time spent in the car seat. Consider transitioning to a convertible car seat for improved comfort—just be sure the seat’s harness and weight limits accommodate your baby’s size safely!

Making the car environment as soothing as possible can help a lot, too. Maybe this means turning on white noise or their favorite lullabies. Try using a pacifier clip to prevent them losing their means of orally soothing.

Be sure to also offer stretch breaks at minimum every two hours to improve their physical comfort in the seat.

Be mindful of their body temperature and check to ensure they’re not too hot or too cold.

There are also many car-safe toys that you can offer if they’re at the age where they’re able to manipulate toys!

I hope these tips have been helpful and given you some ideas to try out on your next trip!

This information is provided for educational and entertainment purposes only. We do not accept any responsibility for any liability, loss or risk, personal or otherwise, incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, from any information or advice contained here. Babylist may earn compensation from affiliate links in this content. Learn more about how we write Babylist content and review products, as well as the Babylist Health Advisory Board.