Surviving a cross-country flight with your baby

I thought I was prepared for a cross-country flight with my 1-year-old. I had been pep talking myself for weeks and packed an arsenal of toys and snacks. It didn’t matter. It was a brutal seven hours and we barely survived to tell the tale.

When my son was much smaller, we took several flights to visit family in Alabama and New Hampshire. The second the plane started to climb, he was out cold and usually slept most of the flight. When he was awake, he’d flirt and giggle and coo, much to the delight of any passenger stuck next to us.

Turning 1 was a game changer, and for this flight, pretty much whatever could go wrong did go wrong. That trove of animal crackers and cheddar bunnies was abandoned after he threw up all over me – and the super cute rocket T-shirt I dressed him in with hopes that we’d win a few fans. The toys and puppets and books were more trouble than they were worth, as he just tossed them in the aisle and said “uh-oh.” Over and over again. Instead he wanted to tear the in-flight magazine to shreds and wave the safety instructions card around his head. During a stop-over in Denver, I sat him down standing in the aisle as I fixed him a bottle. He fell headfirst into the armrest and I spilled formula powder everywhere.

He didn’t want to sit still or nap. He wanted to climb and crawl and walk and wiggle and move. None of which is possible during turbulence as your fly over the Rockies. So he clawed at me and screamed and flailed. And I wrangled and mitigated and swallowed my urge to sob.

When we returned from the bathroom for a claustrophobic diaper change, the woman next to us (who herself had a 4-year-old, thank the heavens) had pulled out her iPhone and opened the Monkey Preschool Lunchbox app.

Oh he’s too young for that, I thought. There’s no way that will hold his attention or distract him from his need for constant movement.

But alas, he was enthralled. I watched in relieved awe as my fellow passenger guided my son through the game, tapping on the yellow fruit, counting the apples, matching like fruit. My son just sat there in my lap and watched, reaching out to point every once in a while. After about 10 minutes, he was fast asleep and I owed this woman a kidney.

The flight home was exponentially better. A layover in Denver gave him time to crawl around and get it out of his system. We had started the day at 4:30 a.m. so he was exhausted already. I also had an iPhone fully of counting monkey apps.

Mainly, though, I think it was my attitude that made the flight back better. I was more relaxed, resigned maybe. I knew it was going to be rough, but the flight there had actually ended and we exited that plane alive. I had lived through it and knew there was light at the end of the tunnel. I was far less concerned with what other passengers were thinking, and managed to actually relax and enjoy the madness that is having a squirming 1-year-old on your lap for several hours.

But the hell that was the first flight was worth it. Of course I would do it a thousand times over to get to spend the week with my friend and her son in San Francisco. It was also a chance to really get my son out of his element and experience a new city with new air and smells and sounds. I watched him thrive in the adventure. All the schedules and routines were essentially abandoned (He didn’t care; I learned to get into it), and every moment that week was filled with newness. It’s nice to see that he embraces adventures and that he’s far more easy going than his mother.

Five things to remind yourself while flying with a baby:

  • Prepare and pack to your comfort level. Want to wing it with one carry on? Fine. Prefer to pack every piece of baby gear and a month’s worth of diapers? Do it. Whatever it takes to make you feel comfortable and in control.
  • Bring plenty of snacks and toys – even a few that will make their debut on the flight. But know your kid might be completely uninterested in any of them.
  • People are generally nicer and more understanding than you’d think. There are a lot of parents out there who feel your pain and will help. Return the favor one day.
  • The flight will eventually, one day, God willing, come to an end. And you can get the hell off the plane.
  • Relax. You’re stuck on the plane and it will be awful so you might as well take a deep breath and laugh a little about it. The kid might pick up on the vibe and chill a bit, too