What you need to know to get through an airport with a baby or toddler

Air travel is a wonderful thing, but airports are a pain. I like the teeny tiny ones where you can arrive 20 minutes before your flight, but all the others make me wish I was taking a train instead. Add a baby or toddler to the mix and you’ve got the potential for a pretty wearying – not to say stressful – experience.

The key is to leave plenty of time so you’re never in rush. That might mean quite a bit of waiting around – which, let’s be honest, isn’t ideal with a baby or toddler either – but at least you stand a good chance of boarding your flight calm, contented and ready for whatever the next few hours hold (I’ll be covering flying itself, as well as airport transfers, in separate posts – sign up to my mailing list so you don’t miss them).

The one benefit of travelling with a baby or toddler is that airline check-in staff are almost always nicer to you than if you’re checking in alone. I get the sense that they’re more willing to turn a blind eye to a couple of kilos of extra weight here or there, on the understanding that babies require a lot of stuff. (Though now I think of it, the baby girl has always been remarkably cheery at check-in desks – who knows what treatment we might get if she was being a grump.)

Infant baggage allowance varies from airline to airline, but most let you check in two or three items of baby equipment free of charge, usually including a pushchair, car seat, travel cot and backpack carrier. You’ll want to check your airline’s policy before booking so you don’t get any nasty surprises before departure. Check in your pushchair and car seat at the desk or, if you’d prefer to have them with you as you go through departures, get them tagged at check in and leave them with airline staff when you reach the gate. At some airports you’ll be able to send your baby equipment through with the rest of the luggage, but at others you might be asked to drop it off in a different area.

Whatever you decide to do with your pushchair, it’s a good idea to keep a sling handy. The first time I flew with the baby girl, when she was six-weeks-old, I kept the pushchair with me until the gate and didn’t end up using it at all. Airports are very stimulating environments and the baby girl was unhappy unless she was being carried. Also, travelling alone with her, getting the pushchair down the stairs from the gate to the tarmac was a real pain – fellow passengers helped out, but it wasn’t ideal. I’ve since learnt that you can request special assistance in advance for those situations, but these days I just check everything in and avoid the problem that way.

At security they might ask to x-ray your pushchair, car seat or sling, so be prepared to carry your child through in your arms, and make sure that if you there’s anything else in the pushchair it’s easy to lift out and put through the machine too. The last few times I’ve flown with the baby girl I’ve been able to walk through the scanner with her in the sling – if only I could remember to wear the sling under my jacket so it’s easy to remove.

Formula, sterilised water for preparing formula, cow milk and soya milk for babies are exempt from the usual rules about liquids in hand luggage, so you’re allowed to take them through security, as well as gel packs to keep them cool. They need to be removed from your carry-on so they can be screened separately (incidentally, you don’t need to be travelling with your baby to carry expressed breast milk through). The rules vary slightly from country to country, but security staff have always been understanding in this regard in my experience.

My final tip relates to food. You’ll obviously need to take enough baby food or milk to cover the number of meals or feeds you’ll be in transit for, but don’t underestimate the power of snacks either. Take as many as you can fit into your carry-on, so in the event of boring delays or just general grumpiness, you’ve got distractions at the ready.

A woman in a red jacket carries a shoulder bag and a baby in a sling at airport security.
A remarkably easy passage through security at Malta International Airport on the way back from our dive trip to Gozo, November 2017.

 

 

 

Documents for travelling with children

Children require passports for international travel (read my post on applying for your child’s first UK passport), but for flights within the UK the adult travelling with them can vouch for their identity. The adult will need to carry photo ID, the more official the better (though I was intrigued to learn that the airline Flybe includes NUS cards and valid firearm certificates on its long list of acceptable forms of identification).

When it comes to visas to almost any destination you care to name, you can safely assume that the rules are the same for children as they are for adults. This has implications not just for pre-trip admin, but for budgeting too – fees are typically the same regardless of the age of the applicant (though they do often vary depending on the nationality of the person applying, something to watch out for if your child holds a different passport to you).

None of the above probably comes as much of a surprise – we’re all used to needing passports and visas to travel. What you might not be aware of is that if you’re taking a child abroad, you technically need permission from anyone else with parental responsibility to do so – ie if you’re a mother or father travelling with your baby by yourself, you need to bring a letter specifying that their other parent has given the trip the go ahead. To really do it by the book, the letter should be witnessed by a notary, and you should bring along proof of your relationship to the child, such as a birth certificate – the real thing, not a photocopy. Mumsnet helpfully provide this template consent letter for travelling with children to make sure you don’t leave anything out.

There are very few situations in which you would actually be asked to provide such a letter, but some countries are stricter than others so it’s worth checking in advance. Parents who don’t share a last name with their children also report more hassle in this regard (the law is designed to prevent child abduction). Sorting out the permission letter – particularly having it notarised – certainly sounds like a pain, but much less of a pain than being refused entry at the border and being sent home.

Update: a commenter on Mumsnet told me that she always travels with her children’s birth certificates because they have a different last name to her, and that she is usually asked to show them at the UK border. I think I’ll put a copy of the baby girl’s birth certificate in the travel document wallet the next time we go away, just in case.

A baby in its mother’s arms holds a new British passport
Just after this was taken the baby girl turned to the photo page and had a proper laugh at herself as a two week old.

 

A jet lag survival guide for parents of babies and toddlers

Travelling long-haul is one of the few situations where being a sleep-deprived parent comes into its own. You may grumble when your baby or toddler repeatedly wakes you up in the middle of the night, but the benefit of such training is that when it comes to jet lag, you might not really notice much difference – you were tired to begin with, and now you’re just a little bit more tired, but in an excellent new location. Unfortunately, jet lag is almost certain to affect your child. Here’s what you can do to help her ­through it.

Where possible, book an outbound flight that doesn’t require waking your baby up earlier than usual. Leaving for the airport in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn is a pain as an adult, and doing it with a baby is worse. You want her as well rested as possible before you go. Similarly, encourage napping on the plane – easier said than done, of course, but always worth a go. I’ll go into this further in a separate post, but the sling is your friend in this situation.

Make a call depending on where you’re going about whether to adjust to the new time zone. If the difference is less than four hours, and you’re heading east, keeping your baby on home time can be a good workaround – she eats with you at adult dinner time and stays up until your bedtime, meaning no need for babysitters or spending your evening sitting in a hotel room in the dark beside your sleeping child (some useful hotel room tips here).

You can prepare for a bigger time difference by moving your’s baby bedtime forward or back a bit in the days leading up to the trip. I’ve personally never got organised enough to do this with the baby girl, but a couple of friends swear by it, and I plan to try it next time we travel long-haul.

Once you get to your destination, you might find that your baby sleeps really well the first night because she’s exhausted from the journey, but is wakeful at night and grumpy in the day after that. Don’t worry, it will pass; it’ll just take a few days – four probably. (And don’t worry about getting back into a sleep routine after the trip – that too will take a little while, but it’ll happen eventually.) But bear these timings in mind when booking your trip – if you’ve got less than 10 days to play with, a smaller time difference might be a better idea.

Being easy on yourself during those first few days is crucial, including not attempting any ambitious adventures until you and your baby are adjusted to the new time zone. Nap when your baby does so you’ve got some energy to cope with additional nighttime wake ups, and spend some time outdoors – day light helps kick the body clock into line.

Try to keep your baby’s bedtime routine as close to what it is at home so she knows on some level that it’s time to sleep even if her body is telling her the opposite. She might be hungry when she wakes at night – whether or not you feed her will depend on how you manage night feeds generally. My thinking with these things is just to go with it and trust that your baby will work it out eventually.

If you’re a breastfeeding mother, bear in mind that your milk production might go a bit haywire as it adjusts to your baby demanding feeds at different times (your boobs are jet lagged, basically). Pack a few extra sets of nursing pads to deal with possible leaks, and remember to drink plenty of water. (I’ll be going into greater depth on breastfeeding while travelling in a later post, so sign up to the mailing list to make sure you don’t miss it).

When it comes to jet lag so much depends on where, when and how you travel, as well as on the foibles of your particular child, so please share your baby and toddler jet lag hacks by commenting below. Forewarned is forearmed.

A baby sleeps in a sling worn by her father, her head covered with a muslin cloth. The wheely bag and passports he carries show that he's at the airport, about to board a flight.
You want to avoid arriving tired, if possible, so napping en route is a good idea – by whatever means necessary.