Even if you were a seasoned traveler pre-parenthood, flying with a baby or toddler can be intimidating. Procedures that were once straightforward — like buying a ticket and having the right documentation — might now seem a little perplexing.
You can’t smooth out all the turbulence, but you can be as prepared as possible in the security line, at the gate, onboard, and arriving at your destination.
How old should a baby be to fly?
There’s no official age when experts say it’s okay for your baby to fly. That said, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages newborns from flying unnecessarily after birth, since air travel can increase a young baby’s risk for catching an infectious disease.
That’s especially true for preemies, those with chronic heart or lung problems, or those who already have a respiratory infection since changes in cabin pressure could make it harder for them to breathe.
If you have to fly shortly after birth, check if your airline has age restrictions for newborns. Some airlines won’t accept passengers less than a week old, while others will allow passengers who are as young as 2 days old.
Even after you’ve passed that tender early period, talk with your baby’s pediatrician before committing to flying, the AAP recommends. Depending on when and where you’re going, the doctor might recommend giving your baby an early or extra dose immunization. Like the influenza vaccine when traveling during flu season or the MMR shot if traveling to an area with a measles outbreak.
What do children need to fly?
Got the green light from the pediatrician to board with your baby or jetting off with your toddler? Before you start thinking about what to pack in her pint-size suitcase, you’ll need to gather some key documents and items.
- A ticket, in some cases. Most airlines don’t require you to buy a ticket for babies younger than 2 years old for domestic flights. But she’ll have to sit on your lap, and taxes and fees may still apply. If you do purchase a ticket for a separate seat, she’ll need to sit in her car seat (more on that later). Flying internationally? Your under-2-year-old may need her own ticket depending on the airline. In either case, if you don’t need a ticket for your baby, you still need to notify the airline that you’re bringing her on the plane. As for kids 2 and up? They always need a ticket.
- A passport for international flights. All U.S. citizens, including newborns, need their own passports to fly internationally. To obtain one for your baby, you’ll need to use the DS-11 form and apply together in person, so plan ahead. For domestic flights, babies and children under 18 don’t need a passport or an ID.
- Her birth certificate. Some airlines require proof of age documentation for babies and children under 18. Call ahead to find out if you need it, or to be safe, just bring it along.
- A letter of consent to travel. For international travel, unless a baby or child is traveling with both parents, U.S. Customs and Border Protection strongly recommends having a notarized letter granting parental permission. If the child is traveling with one parent, the other parent should authorize the note. If the child is traveling without either parent, both parents should authorize the note.
- A face mask, for toddlers 2 and up. To protect against COVID-19, commercial air passengers over age 2 must wear a face mask throughout the duration of their travel experience, says the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Tips for flying with an infant
A little bit of prep work can go a long way towards making your journey more manageable. Here’s what to know before you go, plus advice for keeping your cutie safe and (relatively) happy in the air.
- Save a spot. If you can swing it, purchase a seat on the plane for your baby. (The airline might have discounts for children.) Because you can bring her car seat and strap it in, it’s safer and often easier on you. Since you’ll have a secure, familiar place to stow baby instead of wrangling a squirmy worm on your lap for the entire flight. Just make sure your child-restraint system (CRS) is approved for use on an airplane. If your child weighs less than 20 pounds, she should use a rear-facing CRS; if she weighs between 20 and 40 pounds, she should use a forward-facing child safety seat.
- Prep your liquids, formula, breast milk, or juice. All are exempt from the TSA’s 3-1-1 rule limiting carry-on liquids to 3.4 ounces. So you can bring the amount that you need and don’t need to worry about fitting it into a plastic quart-sized bag. (Canned or jarred baby food is okay too.) They’ll need to be screened separately though, so corral them in a separate bag or container that’s easy to pull out of your carry-on bag when you get to the security belt. It’s safe for liquids to go through the X-ray machine, says the AAP. But you can also request to have the liquids inspected visually if you prefer.
- Avoid boarding boredom. Even if you’re flying with an infant, think twice before pre-boarding. True, you can get situated instead of having to hold your baby behind a long line of passengers. But you’ll have to entertain your baby from your seat while everyone else boards (on top of the rest of the time you travel with an infant). The best idea: Send your partner (or friend or family member) ahead with your bags while you walk around the wide-open terminal with your baby.
- Pack for playtime. Bring a few favorite toys and books and a few new ones to keep things interesting while you’re flying with your baby.
- Fill ‘er up. Remember to pack some snacks (or a full meal, depending on when and how long you’ll be in the air) and plenty of drinks — plane rides are dehydrating. You’re allowed to bring small jars of baby food and formula (if you’re bottle-feeding) on board.
- Ease her ear pressure. Plan feedings for takeoff and landing. That’s when your baby will experience the most ear pressure, and swallowing can relieve some of that.
- Ask for help. You’re not the first to fly with an infant — airlines are used to accommodating young families. So if your baby won’t take a cold bottle, it’s perfectly reasonable to see if a flight attendant will warm one up for you. When you get it back, do the same bottle heat test you’d do at home to avoid scalding your baby.
- Tie the knot. Just like when you’re driving with your baby, it’s wise to tether objects like her binky to something secure. Since it’s even harder on a plane to duck down and retrieve lost items from the tiny space between your seat and your neighbor’s. (Plus it’s probably pretty gross down there.) Another pacifier travel tip: If your baby uses one, pack plenty extra.
- Pack safely. Make sure anything that should be out of the baby’s reach is out of the baby’s reach. Like enticing-but-dangerous medications and other toiletries, you have to store separately in plastic bags for security reasons. Be sure those bags (and any other pill containers, like the daily variety) are firmly fastened and zipped shut in your carry-on so that your little one can’t get to them. And don’t stash loose pills in baggies; keep them in their original childproofed bottles.
- Think outside of the box (or baby bag). You can improvise with what you’ve got: Make an air sick-bag puppet. Play burp-cloth peekaboo, count all the doggies in the SkyMall catalog, or try these easy travel activities.
Babies and flying can be a tricky combination. But when you plan ahead and expect the unexpected, the odds of friendly skies will be in your favor.