Flying with a baby: survival guide

Last updated on February 6, 2023

Tips for flying with a baby: Baby watching airplane

I get asked about flying with a baby often. The biggest question being: is it worth it? Followed by a flurry of questions about how best to survive it.

We’ve been on many flights with a baby, starting from when Otis was just 3 months old. And over those journeys, we’ve gathered lots of useful tips for flying with a baby that make it that little bit easier.

But don’t believe anyone who says there’s a foolproof guide to stress-free flying with a baby. It’s always partly down to luck (like with most things with parenting!). I’ve had flights where Otis and Arlo have slept the whole way through and others where I’ve been pulling my hair out, desperately trying to calm an overtired child. But it’s always been worth it – and so long as you’re prepared and have a few key things with you, you can up your chances of a peaceful flight.

In this guide, I’m covering all my top flying with a baby tips, from how to choose an optimum flight to what to bring when flying with an infant. And just let me know if I’ve missed anything – I’m happy to answer your questions!

Also see our complete guide to travelling with a baby. And our guide to the pros and cons of Airbnbs and hotels for babies.

Top tips for flying with a baby

Flying with Baby: Booking your flight

Airplane wing over sunset

What flight to book when flying with a baby?

First things first, try to choose a flight that will make your journey easier. This will vary depending on your baby’s routine and also the length of the journey, but try to avoid flight times that mess with your schedule.

For example, if you’re only flying for two hours then it might be better to avoid a very early morning flight as then you won’t have to deal with a grumpy baby in the airport and won’t throw off their bedtime later in the day.

But if you’re travelling long haul, an overnight flight could be a good option as then it ups the chances of your baby sleeping for the journey. This is an individual choice based on your and your child’s needs, but do think it through as it’s one of those things that can make air travel with an infant easier.

If you can, it’s great to coincide the flight with your baby’s naps/overnight sleep, as then you might strike gold and have a sleeping baby on the plane!

Things to consider include:

  • what time you’d have to get up to get to the airport on time
  • what time you’ll arrive in your destination and how long it takes to get to your accommodation from the airport
  • the time difference between your departure point and destination
  • your child’s usual nap/bed times
  • if your child has a strict routine and how well your child adapts to being out of it
  • what your child would normally be doing at the time of the flight – for example, is it naptime or will they definitely be awake? And what would you prefer?

Of course, you might not have much choice in this if there are limited flights available or they vary significantly in cost. Whatever flight time you end up with, you’ll be able to make it work, but this is a handy thing to bear in mind if you do have choice.

I recommend searching for flights using Skyscanner, which collates many different airlines and helps you find the cheapest and most suitable option.

Do babies fly free internationally?

The answer is kind of. Children under two don’t have to pay for a seat as they’re allowed to sit on you, but most flights have a surcharge for babies, so you do end up paying something. It’s usually just a fraction of the cost – for example $20 or so (although this can be a lot more i you’re flying business class).

Children over the age of 2 have to pay for a normal seat, which is the same charge as an adult – a very good reason to try and travel far and often before your child turns two!

Remember that it’s the age the child is for the return journey that counts (so if it’s your child’s birthday while you’re away, it might work out cheaper to book two separate flights).

This rule applies for both domestic and international flights.

If you don’t want to fly with your baby on your lap, you can also book an entire seat for your baby, but this will cost the same as your own seat. Some parents choose to do this for ease/safety (covered in the car seat section below).

Flying with a baby

When can you fly with a baby?

A baby can fly as soon as they have a passport, so you can fly with a newborn. Some airlines require them to be a week old.

Some people like to wait until a bay’s first vaccinations at six weeks before flying, but there is no set rule for when is it safe to fly with a baby

Does a baby need a passport?

A baby needs a passport for international travel, but not for domestic travel.

Do I need to bring my baby’s birth certificate when flying?

If flying with baby internationally, you don’t need a birth certificate as they’ll have a passport. The rules for traveling domestically vary country by country, but generally you don’t need to bring the baby’s birth certificate.

The only reason to bring the birth certificate is if you have an older baby who looks close to two as you might need the birth certificate to prove their age and eligibility for a free flight. That said, Southwest in the USA apparently always ask for proof no matter the baby’s age. Check ahead with the airline if unsure.

Travel insurance for families and flying with baby

Make sure your kids are covered by your travel insurance. We use True Traveller or World Nomads.

Do I need any special documents to travel with kids?

When traveling internationally, babies and children need passports and visas just like adults. And in some countries, if only one parent is travelling with the child, they need to bring a letter of consent from the absent parent. We don’t have to do that in the UK, but it is required in the US.

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Also check the COVID rules for the country you’re travelling to as some require proof of vaccination/a negative PCR test. Children under 11 are normally exempt from this, but it varies country by country.

Where to sit when flying with a baby

Flying with infant on lap with seatbelt

Flying with an infant on lap

Children under two are allowed to travel on their parent’s lap. Most airlines provide a seatbelt that attaches to your belt, so the child is held in securely. Flying with an infant on your lap is the most common way to travel with a baby and is generally considered safe. You could also put your baby in a baby carrier for added security.

Flying with a baby car seat

Some people feel uncomfortable with the safety of flying with a baby on lap and choose to bring a car seat and attach it to the airplane seat as you would in a car. Because this takes up a seat, it means you have to pay for a full-price ticket for the baby.

You would also need to check with the airline that your car seat fits the dimensions of the airplane seat and is FAA approved. There is no such thing as an infant airplane seat, but attaching your own car seat is the way to create your own.

The FAA does recommend that the safest way to travel with a baby is with a car seat, so this is something to consider when making your choice.

Bassinet seats

If you’re flying long-haul, most airlines have bassinet seats available at no extra cost. Also known as bulkhead seats, they include a little pull-down bassinet for your baby to sleep in.

This is amazing if your baby is happy to sleep in it (and I’ve seen plenty of babies who do), but we’ve had limited luck with them. Arlo has slept in one once, but Otis never did.

But even if your baby won’t sleep in the bassinet, bulkhead seats have the added bonus of having extra legroom as they’re always at the front of a row of seats. This is super useful as it means you have more room for all your stuff and the baby/toddler can also wander round/play in that area too. It also means you don’t have to worry about your child kicking/hitting the seats of the people in front!

The bassinets vary by airline – some are similar to a travel cot, while others are made of sturdy cardboard. They also have different weight limits, so check ahead to make sure it’s suitable for your baby.

You normally need to reserve these seats ahead of time. Sometimes this is possible when making the booking online, but sometimes you have to call customer services to arrange it. Domestic flights often won’t let you reserve a bassinet, but it’s always worth asking when you check-in/at the gate.

When there are no bassinet seats

If you’re on a flight without bassinet seats, or they’re all booked up, try to book a row where your travel group/family are the only ones in it. For example, if you book three seats, better to go in a row of three rather than taking three seats in a row of five. And if that’s not possible, make sure at least one of you has an aisle seat, so you get up and down freely during the flight.

If it’s just two of you and the baby, you could try booking the aisle and window seat in a row of free, and if you’re lucky, the middle seat might be free too (and if it’s not, the person in the middle will almost certainly swap seats with you – who wants to be in the middle of two parents/carers and a baby!)

That said, if you’re breastfeeding, you might prefer a window seat for privacy, or use a nursing cover if you want extra privacy.

And always ask if there are any free seats on the plane – the airline staff might be able to move you so you can take the extra seat for your baby – it’s always worth asking!

Lots of legroom with a bassinet seat
Lots of legroom with a bassinet seat

Extra legroom and where to sit

I also think it’s worth paying extra for more legroom if you can afford it. And I prefer to sit near the front of the plane so I can be one of the first ones off. And not close to a toilet as people tend to gather there and the noise might disturb a sleeping baby.

Babies aren’t allowed in some seats, for example those close to emergency exits.

Paying for a seat for the baby

You can, of course, pay for a seat for the baby so that they have their own space during the flight. This is particularly useful with an older toddler, so they’re not confined to your lap and have a bit of room to play.

We’ve only had this luxury when there happened to be an empty seat next to us, and it was definitely helpful, but it’s hard to justify the cost when they could be flying for free. That said, if you have the money to spare, it’s an option worth considering.

Can I order a baby meal?

You can often order a baby meal on flights. But you might want to bring your own, depending on how fussy your baby is. I cover food and milk in the packing section below.

Can babies get TSA-approved or US Global Entry?

Babies don’t need a TSA approval, but they can get US Global Entry (available to both USA and UK citizens). You have to apply for the baby separately to yourself and they need their own in-person interview! Here are details about how to apply if you live in the UK or if you live in the USA.

Packing for babies and toddlers

Baggage when fling with a baby

I have a full post with packing tips and a packing list for babies and toddlers, but here are some top tips for what you need to fly with a baby

What baggage can I bring for a baby or toddler?

Different airlines have different baggage allowances for babies, so be sure to check yours carefully. Generally speaking, if you’re travelling with a baby, you can bring one piece of ordinary checked baggage for them, plus two pieces of baby equipment (such as a pushchair, travel cot or car seat). And you can also bring one piece of hand luggage plus a nappy changing bag. But definitely check with your airline first.

Annoyingly, some flights don’t allow certain pieces of equipment, such as car seats, to be included in the allowance. And to make it even more complicated, they all vary in the dimensions and weight limit allowed for checked bags and hand luggage.

Getting ready to board plane
Getting ready to board plane with our pushchair in its bag

A note on pushchairs in airports

A pushchair has to be checked in unless you have one that can be folded down to hand-luggage size (like the Babyzen YoYo). However, airlines will normally allow you to check it in at the gate, so you can still use it throughout the airport. We nearly always do this as it’s handy to have it in the airport. The only downside is that it can be a bit of a faff putting it through security.

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Make sure you check where your pushchair will be returned to when you land. Some airlines bring it to you at the entrance to the aircraft while others return it on the usual conveyor belt with the rest of the luggage. Others send it to the fragile/oversized items desk in the baggage hall. There are a few options, so be sure to check where yours will be.

You can check your pushchair in when it’s simply folded up, but we like to put ours in a bag for extra protection. We have the Phil and Teds stroller bag, which we put the pushcair in once we’re at the boarding gate.

Carry-on pushchairs

So is it worth getting a hand luggage-sized pushchair? I think it’d be handy in some situations – for example when you have a long walk from your gate to the luggage reclaim area and your child is too heavy to be carried in a baby carrier. But I’ve never been in that situation, so in my experience, it’s been fine to have a normal pushchair. It also means that you can take more hand luggage on the plane as you’re not using your allowance for the pushchair.

Some airports, like Barcelona, even have little pushchairs you can use in the same way as luggage trolleys to get from the gate to the baggage reclaim.

If you do want a carry-on pushchair, popular options are the Babyzen YoYo, the GB Pockit and the Diono Traverse.

Can you bring milk or baby food on a plane?

Airlines have special rules for baby milk and food on planes, so you can exceed the usual 100ml rule for liquids. They get checked at security, but are allowed through and there is no official limit on how much you can bring. The same goes for baby formula on a plane – you can bring as much as you need (including water to make it up). You can find the official guidelines for the UK here and the USA’s TSA baby food guidelines here.

Toddler with Storksak hand luggage

Can I bring a breast pump?

Yes, you can bring breast pumps on planes. I never pumped because Otis and Arlo wouldn’t take a bottle, but I know many travellers and mums who swear by wearable pumps like the Elvie.

What should you pack in hand luggage for a baby or toddler?

Some tips for packing hand luggage:

Aim to bring as little hand luggage as possible as it makes it easier at security, but you also need to bring enough stuff to keep your baby entertained and comfortable on the flight. So, for example, only bring as many nappies as you need and pack the rest in your check-in luggage.

Arrange everything carefully so it’s easily accessible during the flight – packing cubes are super useful for this. For example, you can use one for toys, one for nappy changing materials, one for snacks and so on. I recommend the Storksak as it has built in compartments for easy organisation.

See more things to bring in the section about how to keep a baby entertained on a flight.

What should a baby wear on a plane?

Comfort is your number one priority when choosing airplane baby clothes, plus something that’s easy to change nappies in as the changing area on an airplane is normally pretty cramped.

Also pack layers as the temperature on a plane varies, plus you might be taking off and landing in countries with different climates. Make sure you’re prepared for the weather at both your departure point and destination.

Flying with a baby: Tips for the airport

Fast track queue for parents
Instead of queuing in this long line, families go down the empty lane on the left!

Checking in

Going through airport check-in and security can be a bit long for anyone going through an airport and this is multiplied if you have an impatient baby or toddler on your hands. Luckily, most airports and airlines recognise this and often have fast-track queues for people travelling with young children. This is one of the definite perks of travelling with a baby.

However, if you do have to queue to check-in, try and get one adult to do the queuing while the other stands to the side with the child and joins at the last minute – if your little one is walking, it gives you a bit of flexibility for them to run around and explore rather than stay stationary in the queue (they’ll have enough of that on the flight!).

Security

Airport security is nearly always a faff, but you can mitigate it by being prepared. Make sure all your liquids are in a plastic bag ready to be taken out of your main bag. Similarly, keep any electronics, like smartphone and tablets, in a bag/packing cube so they can also be separated quickly.

Also tell the agent if you have any baby milk/food over 100ml as this will be checked separately. They do tests such as holding a paper over the unscrewed lid to check for vapours or rubbing a cloth on it for a bomb test. This adds time to the process, but will vary from agent to agent.

Your pushchair has to go through the x-ray machine, so you’ll need to take your baby out of it. Some airports will allow you to carry your baby through in a fabric sling like this one, but they don’t normally accept a more structured one like the Ergobaby. If security coincides with naptime, make sure they’re in the soft sling rather than the pushchair/Ergobaby where you’ll have to disturb them. We’ve had to wake a sleeping baby at security before and that’s alwasy fairly painful!

If you’re travelling alone, don’t hesitate to ask for help.

Otis in the departure lounge

Departure lounge

Airports vary a lot, but some have excellent facilities for kids, including play areas, parent rooms where you can feed/change your baby, and lots of restaurants with kids menus etc. I prefer not to eat before the flight, so that snack and meal time can be part of the in-flight entertainment, whereas other people like to feed the kids beforehand so they’re ready to sleep. Definitely bring food as they’re unlikely to like to airplane food.

Breast feeding areas

If you’d like privacy to breastfeed/pump, most airports have breastfeeding areas/ lactation pods. The Mamava app helps you find the nearest one in the USA.

Airport lounges

If you have access to an airport lounge, you can normally take kids under 2 for next extra cost.

Boarding

Airlines nearly always encourage people traveling with children to get on the flight first. Personally I always avoid this as I’d prefer to have as little time on the airplane as possible, and as much time for the kids to run around beforehand.

If you’re travelling with more than one adult, one could get on first to get your seat ready and all your hand luggage arranged.

On the flight

Rules for flying with an infant

As mentioned in the section about choosing where to sit, you can fly with an infant on your lap. The child needs to be on the adult’s lap for take-off and landing and whenever the ‘fasten seat belts’ sign is on. This is easy if you have a little baby on a plane, but harder with a fidgety toddler!

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Tips for take-off and landing

We all know the feeling of air pressure building up in our ears during a flight and this can happen to babies too. The best way to relieve it is by swallowing, so a good idea is to feed your baby on take off and landing, or a dummy/pacifier also works.

Top tips for keeping your baby/toddler happy on the plane

Otis and Steve on plane

So the biggest question of all is how to keep your toddler or baby happy during a flight. As I said before, it’s partly down to luck and the mood, illness, growth spurt or teething situation of the day. But there are also some bases you can cover that will help to make a peaceful flight more likely.

As with any outing you go on with your child, there are a few things you need to consider: tiredness, hunger, boredom and attention – try to make sure you have a strategy or something that combats all of these!

The attention side of things is easy as you’ll be with them for the whole flight. The other three are more challenging.

How to get a baby to sleep on a plane

The golden situation is for a child to sleep for as much of the flight as possible. That way, the parents can either sleep too or just relax, reading a book or watching the in-flight films (bliss!).

To maximise your chances of this:

  1. Book a flight that coincides with a time when your baby is usually asleep.
  2. Avoid your baby sleeping in the time leading up to the flight – so try to avoid naps in the airport. But you’ll also want to avoid overtiredness, so think about what works for your child and plan in any pre-naps accordingly. I know this is much easier said than done – it’s just something to bear in mind and aim for if you can.
  3. Burn off energy in the airport – if your baby is walking, let them run around and tire themselves out, ready to pass out on the flight.
  4. If it’s a longhaul flight, bring PJs and sleeping bag, and do a little bedtime routine on the flight, brushing teeth, reading a book and putting them in a sleeping bag before trying to get them to sleep.
  5. Don’t forget your child’s favourite cuddly toy if they have one!
  6. For any flight, make sure they’re wearing comfy clothing that’s good for sleeping in.
  7. Book a bassinet seat, and if you’re lucky, or some kind of baby sleep magician, you might be able to get them to sleep in the bassinet. Bear in mind that you normally can’t assemble the bassinet until after take-off and the seatbelt lights are off.
  8. I’m no sleep magician and my kids wouldn’t sleep in the bassinet, so depending on their age, we got Otis and Arlo to sleep on the plane either by breastfeeding or by walking around/rocking them in the baby carrier.
  9. Some people have had luck with these snooze shades, which can attach to the bassinet and block out the light.

How to keep a baby or toddler entertained on a plane

Arlo playing with busy board

When your baby or toddler is awake on the plane, there are some good ways to keep them happy and entertained.

First off, they’re likely to be quite intrigued by everything and everyone around them, so this will keep them entertained for a good while. Sometimes a fellow passenger may even help with a bit of peekaboo or the like. Problem with this is that even the most baby-friendly passenger is going to tire of playing peekaboo or the like at some point, so be sure to know when to pry your baby’s attention away!

Another good way to keep babies and children entertained and calm is with snacks, so make sure you come prepared. Things that take a while to eat, such as raisins, are ideal. Avoid your child eating just before you get on the flight, so that snack/meal time can be part of your in-flight entertainment!  

Walking around the airplane is an activity toddlers tend to love, but you can’t go up and down the aisle very often without starting to disturb/annoy other passengers. It’s best reserved for the occasional trip to the loo. Similarly, the air stewards sometimes discourage people from hanging out around the loos, so this isn’t always an option.

You’ll mostly be confined to your seating area, so will need plenty of in-seat entertainment.

Baby playing with phone on plane

The best toys are those that your baby or toddler has never seen before as they’ll likely keep their interest for longer. Some baby airplane toys/activities we’ve found useful are:

  • Children’s magazines from the airport. Let you toddler pick one before the flight and they’ll likely choose one with a toy that will be another thing to keep them busy.
  • Sticker books
  • Mess-free colouring books
  • A travel busy board
  • Lift the flap/interactive books
  • Finger puppets
  • For small babies, Lamaze toys are good
  • If your child is at the stage where they love practising fine motor skills, something like a plastic bottle and some pipe cleaners can keep them entertained for ages while they put them in and out of the bottle. A bag filled with activities like this is a good option.
  • Depending on how you feel about screens, filling up an iPad or phone with your kids’ favourite shows and some apps is a good way to pass some time, especially if they don’t normally get to use smartphones at home.

Don’t worry what people think!

I know this is a lot easier said than done, but if your baby/toddler has a meltdown on the flight and is crying loads, try to stay calm and not worry about those around you. It’s likely they’ve been in the same situation before, either as a parent or as a child themselves! Yes, of course a crying baby is an annoyance on a flight, but it’s only for a limited period of time. You’ll forget about It in no time.

Of course, you could do a George Clooney and buy favour by providing gifts for your surrounding passengers, but this really isn’t necessary!

Flying with a baby during Covid

Flying with a baby during covid

The rules for flying with a baby during covid vary from country to country. Most commonly, children and babies are exempt from the travel restrictions and testing rules. But be sure to check the individual rules with both your departing country and the country you’re travelling to, plus any country where you are doing an airport transfer.

We’ve flown from the UK to Spain during the pandemic and, while Steve and I had to get tests and wear masks, the boys (ages 1 and 3) didn’t have to. We did, however, have to fill in a special form for them on arrival.

Let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed – happy to answer your questions!

1 thought on “Flying with a baby: survival guide”

  1. Thank you for posting this. Now we have an idea of when we will go on vacation via air travel with my newborn baby. This is highly appreciated. Great post!

    Reply

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