Airplane Travel With An Infant…Halfway Across The World

I really wish I would have written this during the hours I spent NOT sleeping on the plane during our trip back to the states this past December, but for reasons I’ll explain in this post, I didn’t, and I probably saved you what would have surely been in-cohesive fragments from my frazzled brain. However, I’ve had a lot of people ask me how it went traveling with a newborn halfway across the world so I’m here to share our experience, and what I learned.

THE LOGISTICS

A little background to what we were faced with for this trip. In order to get to Asheville, NC from Adana, Turkey, we were looking at three legs of air travel, then a final two hour drive from Charlotte to Asheville. Going to the states, our first flight was just shy of 1.5 hours that left at 3:35am, followed by a 4 hour layover, then a 4 hour flight from Istanbul to London, followed by a 2 hour layover, then a 9 hour flight from London to Charlotte. Once we got to Charlotte we planned to stay a couple of nights with my Aunt and see friends and family there before making the drive on into Asheville.

Coming back from the states we planned to make the drive to Charlotte the night before we flew out. Our flight left Charlotte at 8:50pm and thanks to the tailwind was only 7 hours to London. Unfortunately we then had a 7 hour layover in London before catching our next 4 hour flight. Then the last leg involved a 2 hour layover in Istanbul and the final hour-ish flight into Adana, setting us to arrive at 2:50am.

Both trips involved right at 24 hours of travel total. At the time we left Adana, Aubrey has just hit the 8 week mark, and was not quite 2 months old. She required to eat the very moment she was hungry, and to nap the minute she had been awake the normal 40-60 minutes…laying down on a flat non-moving surface I should add. In other words, little girl did NOT like to be held once she got tired. She  just wanted her paci, her white noise, and a good swaddle. Failure to provide any of these things at the very second she wanted them resulted in a ear shattering screaming fit.

HOW WE MANAGED

SCHEDULE & FEEDING
Aubrey is a very schedule, or maybe routine is a better word, oriented baby. She naturally follows the eat, wake, sleep pattern, and baby girl could write the book on specific wake and nap times following a 3 hour feeding schedule. So my basic plan was to try as much as possible to keep things as normal as I could in regards to her daily schedule. I decided not to bring any bottles or expressed milk determining it would only create more weight in my already overstuffed pack, and it’s just as easy to nurse as it is to get a bottle ready.

During the Trip
We did manage to maintain her routine, but the issue I ran into was the fact that I had to wake her up in the middle of the night to catch our first flight, meaning she missed out on a chunk of time where she would have normally gotten a consecutive 4 or so hours of sleep. Even with regular naps she was still exhausted pretty much the entire trip. Nursing worked out just fine. I was pleasantly surprised to find private nursing rooms at each airport located beside the bathrooms. Each room had a seat, a changing table, and a sink. I nursed her in my seat on the planes, but during layovers we would retreat to these rooms to give us some privacy, to give both of us some room to stretch out, and to give Aubrey a break from the chaos of the airport.

Tip: If it gets down to the last hour of your flight, or of your layover, and the next diaper change and feed falls within that next 1.5 hour time frame – go ahead and change their diaper and nurse early. There are too many factors involved in getting boarded and settled, or de-boarded and making sure you make your connection on time, to assume that you will be able to get settled and get to these things before little one has a meltdown. When in doubt, just go for it and don’t worry about the schedule. Trust me. We’ve made this mistake coming home to Turkey from Germany, and Aubrey ended up having to go a much longer time between feeds, and screamed for a solid hour as we all but ran through the airport trying to catch our next flight.

SLEEPING
In short, I did not sleep a wink on the flight to the states. Going back I had learned a few things and was able to get in a couple of hours, but two hours out of 30 doesn’t really equate to a well rested mom. This was mostly due to being keyed up trying to make sure Aubrey was taken care of and not ruining the other passengers’ flights with her screaming. Obviously this depends on the individual, so others may have better luck catching a few zzz’s.

As far as Aubrey’s sleep was concerned, I checked the seating chart frequently before we left, changing our seats as needed to try to get a seat in an empty row, or at least with an extra seat beside us so I would be able to lay her down. I always opt for an aisle seat so that I can get up to bounce her or change her diaper as needed. I took my phone and used the white noise app during her naps, and made sure to pack swaddle blankets and plenty of pacis.

During the Trip
In spite of my best efforts, some of the flights still ended up booked full, so I didn’t always have an empty seat to lay her down in. If you have compassionate flight attendants they will sometimes help to move people around to free up a seat next to you, even if you haven’t paid for it. We experienced every scenario. In the flights where we had a seat, I kindly asked the person two seats away if they minded me laying her down (they never did – a sleeping baby means a quiet baby) and she slept happily. On the flights where no seats were open, I blew up a small inflatable neck pillow to give my arms some support, then did what I could to get her to fall asleep in my arms. She would never sleep long like this, but it was usually enough to get her out of her cranky mood. I also ended up nursing more frequently in those cases as it was the easiest way to soothe her. The best scenario happened on the long flight from London to Charlotte. The plane was relatively empty and the flight attendants moved us up to the bulk head row which was completely empty. We ended up having empty seats on both sides, as well as the luxury of a portable bassinet hung on the wall in front of us. I nursed Aubrey through takeoff then laid her down in the bassinet where she proceeded to sleep for 5 hours before waking up to eat and play for a bit then going back to sleep. I had to wake her up to get her off the plane. And while I wasn’t able to wind down enough to sleep while she did, I was able to have a nice conversation with a man who was also moved up to our row, eat my meals in peace, read my kindle, and enjoy a few glasses of complimentary wine. It was heavenly! The wall the bassinet hangs on is the same wall for the bathroom. So I was able to easily go to the bathroom as needed without always needing someone to watch her, or taking her with me.

On the long flight back however, the plane was completely full, and the bulk head rows were booked with parties of four. At first neither the person working the gate check-in, nor the flight attendants were willing to ask if anyone would be willing to switch seats with me so I could use the bassinet. Aubrey then decided to take matters into her own hands…and pitched an almighty fit. After about 10 minutes of her screaming while people were trying to board, and me trying every move to bounce and console her in her carrier, and working up a good sweat in the process, the flight attendant suddenly decided it was in everyone’s best interest to at least ask. Thankfully this kind lady gladly made the switch, and my nerves started to calm. Aubrey again slept for a good 5 hour chunk, and this time I was actually able to doze a little.

One other thing we did that I am now a big advocate for, was to splurge and make use of the rentable bedrooms in one of the lounges in the London airport. We had a 7 hour layover following the long 7 hour flight back from the states. The room had a shower, a bed, free wi-fi, and access to the lounge including the buffet and a free meal. I was never so grateful to have a shower and a place to lay down for a little bit, and to be able to just walk down the hall to grab lunch and snacks. It was a bit pricey, but worth every penny in my book to be able to relax and regroup.

Tip #1: Book aisle seats, and try your best to choose seats in empty rows or with an empty seat beside you if you aren’t able to pay for an extra seat. If that situation isn’t available, always ask at the check-in counter, or the flight attendants if they can move some people around to help you. It never hurts to ask, and in the end, if your baby is upset and screaming it will make the flight a lot more uncomfortable for everyone, than for someone to lose a little extra elbow room.

Tip #2: If your layover is over three hours, look into the lounges and facilities available. A good nap, or at least a few hours of real relaxation can go a long way when you are exhausted and have a long way to go. 

PACKING FOR THE PLANE

My main goal for packing for the plane was to be as streamlined and minimal as possible, while still being totally prepared. I wanted to be able to dash through the airport without tugging along a small suitcase. I also did not want to try to juggle multiple bags as well as Aubrey. So I borrowed one of Will’s backpacks and strategically packed everything we needed into that one bag. The only other things I took was the Ergo to tote Aubrey around in, and to keep my hands free.

PACKING LIST

For Baby

  • Diapers & Wipes – Figure out how many you would normally need for the amount of hours you are traveling (don’t forget layover time) and double it. Seriously. I read before we left to pack way more diapers than you think you will possibly use, and I’m SO glad I did. Within the first two hours of leaving Turkey Aubrey had three blowouts, one calling for an emergency change of clothes. Speaking of…
  • Extra Clothes – I brought three changes of clothes and an extra onesie for Aubrey, and ended up using all but the onesie. Between blowouts, drool, spit up, and the general nastiness you encounter while flying, extra clothes are absolutely necessary. I suggest packing mostly footed PJs, and one real outfit to put them in before you arrive at your destination. Footed PJs mean you don’t have to worry about socks, and their feet stay warm.
  • Blankets – I brought one thicker blanket to swaddle her for sleep (we were traveling during winter), and one thin muslin swaddle blanket that I used for a burp cloth, pillow, nursing cover, and general use cloth. 
  • Carrier – I opted to use a carrier instead of a stroller. It’s much easier to move quickly through the airport with your baby strapped to you, than trying to manage a stroller through the crowd. The carrier also allowed me to have her close to me to tend to her as needed, while also having the ability to do things like hand the associate at the counter my passport, boarding pass or what have you. I kept our passports and boarding passes in the small pocket on the front of the Ergo for quick and easy access. 
  • Pacis and Clip – Having a paci clip to keep her paci attached to us was CRUCIAL. I didn’t have it hooked at first and after the paci fell on the ground the third time I switched tactics. Pacis are also useful to help alleviate the ear pressure during take off and landing if it’s not time for them to eat.
  • Portable Changing Pad – Airports and planes are disgusting. I was so thankful to have something clean to lay her down on to change her diapers. Mine has a pocket for diapers and one for wipes. I would makes sure to stock it before the flights so I was able to put the backpack with the extras below the seat or in the locker overhead and just keep out the diaper clutch to grab quickly when needed. 
  • Phone (and charger) – My phone doubled as a white noise machine, and now that she is getting older it’s also useful for entertainment in the form of baby apps. 
  • Inflatable Pillow – Also probably considered optional, but extremely useful for supporting your tired and aching arms while nursing, and also for another option to lay baby down on in the case you don’t have an extra seat nearby.
  • Toys – Aubrey wasn’t old enough to play with toys at the time, but now that she is older I would include a toy or two as another option for entertainment.

For Mom (and/or Dad)
  • Extra Shirt – Aubrey spit up on me before we even boarded the plane coming back to Turkey. I think it goes without explaining that having an extra shirt is always a good idea when traveling with a baby. I also packed a pair of underwear anticipating taking a shower during our long layover in London.
  • Snacks – These need to be substantial enough to replace a meal if needed. If you are flying internationally you will most likely be fed on the plane, but on the shorter flights you are lucky if you get a pack of pretzels these days. Baby’s needs always come first so by the time you’ve taken a feeding and diaper change break, and made your way to your connecting gate, there may not be time to grab something to eat for yourself. I packed Clif Bars and turkey jerky; things that are high in protein and calories to tide me over until I could eat a real meal.
  • Kindle – I say kindle instead of books because as much as I love reading and handling a real book, when you travel frequently, and read as fast as I do, it’s not practical to use valuable room in your carryon for all of your books. It’s also much easier to hold a kindle, flip pages one handed, and to read in the dark (built in light). They are lightweight, compact, and a travel must-have for me.
  • Water Bottle – I have a water bottle that rolls up and takes up very little space when traveling.
  • Lightweight Jacket (depending on the time of year) – I have a green military style jacket that has a removable liner that goes with almost anything I wear. In the winter months I always roll the shell up and either attach it to my backpack carryon, or stuff it down inside, and then I pack the liner in my luggage. That way I have an extra layer if I need it while flying, and I have a light as well as heavy coat when I get to my destination.  
  • Soap or Cleaning Wipes – I typically start my flight not wearing any makeup because I know by the time I arrive at my destination it will practically be melting down my face. I also like to wash my face towards the end of a long flight (and sometimes splash my face with water multiple times during the flight) and start fresh before de-boarding.
  • Lotion & Lip Balm/Gloss – Nothing dries you out faster than flying.
  • Makeup – I always keep my makeup in my carryon to keep it from getting smashed in my luggage. I like to wash my face, apply some lotion, and put on a fresh face right before we arrive so I at least look refreshed, even if I don’t feel it.

WHAT TO WEAR

As much as I would have loved to sport pajama pants, I always feel better, and I think people treat you with more respect, when you are actually dressed decently while flying. Because I would be nursing I had to think strategically about what I wore to make it as easy as possible. The best outfit I figured out what a comfy pair of jeans, a stretchy tank top (nursing tank would have been ideal but I don’t own any), a cardigan, and slip on shoes (Birks in my case) so that I could easily take them off for security screening. Because I didn’t have a nursing tank, I had to pull my shirt up to nurse and the cardigan covered what the nursing cover didn’t.

RANDOM NOTES

  • Many times if the TSA agents see that you have a baby and are flying alone, they will usher you to the front of the line, or to a separate “family only” line to make the process easier and quicker for you.
  • Play areas for children in the airports make a great place to sit down and let your little one nap, or play, or fuss. Although there is a lot of noise, people will mind less if your baby is crying, and for Aubrey the extra noise just added to the white noise she loves so much.
  • Although you plan to hold your baby in your lap, I’ve learned that most airlines require that you pay a lap infant fee. It’s usually around 10% of your ticket cost. I think that’s pretty absurd, but they will not let you through security or board without a ticket specifically for your baby. 
  • If your child likes their car seat, most airlines will let you bring them on the plane to use in an empty seat (whether you’ve paid for the seat or not), just ask before you board. If there aren’t available seats they will let you check it at the gate. 
And finally, unless you are just lucky, there is a really good chance that your baby will cry at some point. It will be ear shattering. It will cause people to give you dirty looks. You will do everything you know to do to make the crying stop, but it won’t. Because baby is tired. Tired of flying. Tired of being jerked this way and that, and bounced around and smushed in the carrier. Tired of the chaos and the crowds. Just tired. And the only way they know to let their frustrations and pent up energy out is to cry.
It’s ok.
It bothers other people less than you feel like it does, and if does bother them they’ll just have to get over it. 
Aubrey made it the whole trip to NC, and 23 hours of the 24 back home to Turkey without a meltdown. But on our last hour long flight, her belly was hurting, and she was so over traveling, so she screamed. For 45 of the 60 minutes. I spent almost the entire flight in the galley with the flight attendants trying to bounce and soothe her. My legs were beyond fatigued at that point. And upon the decent I had no choice but to return to my seat. People around us were trying to shhh her and play with her to stop her crying. The man beside us looked at me with the ultimate disgust. But all I could do was ride it out. The very minute the plane touched down she magically fell asleep, and stayed that way until Will met us outside to go home. All in all I feel like we were successful. Countless people complimented her on being a great baby, and although exhausted, and pretty wired, I don’t feel like I was ever near a panic attack. If you are flying with your baby, whether it’s across the world, or just a few hours away, I feel the need to say I feel your pain, good luck, and try to take it all in stride. 

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