Sunday, July 24, 2016

Flying with a Baby without Landing in the Loony Bin

There comes a time in every world-traveler-turned-parent's life when you cross over to the other side. Last time you boarded an airplane, you were avoiding babies like you avoid extra baggage fees. Now you’re the one boarding the plane with a living, breathing, crying carry-on.

Mrs. Tires and I crossed over when we brought our eight-month-old son Jacoby on a Southwest flight from Chicago to San Diego. Along the way, we learned a few tricks to keep our baby happy and land with our sanity intact. Hopefully, these tricks will help minimize hissy fits. Your hissy fits. And maybe your baby’s hissy fits, too.

From Car Seat to Cabin

Get there Early

Traveling with a baby is an anxiety-ridden endeavor. Giving yourself some extra time will allow you to get your things in order without the added stress of sweating the clock. Additionally, if you’re bringing breast milk aboard, you'll need the extra time because the TSA will have to screen it. During this process, the bottles are scanned, one at a time, in a black box resembling a microwave. This extra security measure takes a while, as does the process of finding an agent who knows how to work the microwave.

Bring a Gate Check Bag

If you’re bringing a car seat, bring a gate check bag. It’s common for car seats to be strewn about, smeared, or even damaged when stowed as checked baggage, and these bags help protect the seat. We opted for the Flight Joy bag by Bunny Jolly, which worked well. Having the seat in a container provided us with some peace of mind, and the backpack-like straps made the seat easier to carry. It also made me look like a snail.

Note: Gate check bags don't protect your car seat from being damaged, so there's still a risk that it will be compromised during the flight. 

Gate Crawl

If everything goes well, an early arrival should afford you some extra time at the gate. This can be put to good use by allowing your baby to burn some energy crawling or walking around. They’ll be cooped up for a while on the plane, so it’s best to let them move while the opportunity is still there. Open crawl space can be tough to find, but we found an unused terminal, which gave us all the space we needed. We motivated Jacoby to cruise by putting a favorite toy twenty feet or so away from him and he crawled until it was time to board.

Seat Selection Saves Sanity

Whether you fly with a general admission-style airline such as Southwest or pre-select your spot, proper seat selection goes a long way towards a successful flight. In your baby-less days, you probably avoided the back of the plane, but as a parent, those last few rows are gold. First of all, they’re close to the bathroom, making you more equipped to deal with a diaper disaster. Second, if you’re on a pick-your-own-seat-style plane, you’re more likely to get the entire row to yourself, as other travelers avoid the rear of the plane. This extra seat is a huge asset, as it allows for more space and more storage. Finally, the extra noise in the back of the plane acts as the world’s best white noise machine, which increases the chances of your baby taking a nap. We were fortunate enough to get a family nap in shortly after take-off.

In-Flight Infant Entertainment

New Toys

Items your baby has never seen or played with before go a long way towards keeping them occupied. Plan ahead and show up equipped with some new stuff for baby to check out. The new toys we brought kept Jacoby’s attention for a while, and more time engaged meant less time crawling, kicking and spazzing.

Friends of ours recommended the dollar store trick, wherein a few bucks spent at the Dollar Tree produces several objects intriguing to an infant. Rolling these items out throughout the flight brings peace to the seats. We didn’t try this trick during our trip to San Diego, but the collection of free snacks Southwest provided made for a great distraction and implied that the dollar store trick would work, too.

Finger Food

Constant feeding can keep baby quiet and content. Picking puffs off a freshly-wiped tray table is a great distraction, and a mouth full of food makes fussing more difficult. Jacoby had a steady supply of Happy Baby Superfood Puffs throughout the flight, and the whole plane was better off because of it.

The iPad

Put a screen in front of someone, and it’s almost impossible for them to look away. Babies are no different. We try to limit Jacoby’s exposure to screens, but we made an exception for our cross-country flight. Before our trip, I searched for apps that would help us during our journey. There are lots of apps out there for kids, but when you’re searching for apps that don't rely on wifi and are appropriate for babies under one, the search becomes considerably more difficult. The most effective app I found was the Baby Bubbles app, a simple app that involves popping floating bubbles by tapping them. Jacoby enjoyed mashing the screen, and he managed to burst a few bubbles while taking a few precious minutes off the flight.

Three-quarters of the way through the flight, Jacoby got a bit restless, and we had already reached the bottom of our bag of tricks. Once again, the iPad came in quite handy, with an assist from the airline. Southwest offers free streaming television and included among their selections is a constant feed of Mickey Mouse cartoons from Disney Jr. Jacoby was transfixed on the bright colors and movement on the screen, and the display calmed him down just when it seemed like a meltdown was on its way.

I can’t say the entire trip was smooth or that Jacoby was a perfect angel the entire time. However, the flight went better than we had hoped, and as an added bonus, other passengers went out of their way to compliment Jacoby’s behavior on the flight while we disembarked. As we strolled towards baggage claim, Mrs. Tires and I let out huge sighs of relief. We had landed safely on the other side, with our baby still in tow and our sanity intact.

Be brave and go forth, fellow traveler-turned-parent. There is life on the other side.

Jacoby is ready for his next adventure