Flying alone with a baby

Flying with your baby or toddler is probably not an activity you relish, even if you do it all the time. Upping the ante and taking your little one on a plane single-handed? Madness, surely. Well, yes, but sometimes you’ve got no other option.

This week, for example, I’m visiting my brother and his family in Los Angeles. My partner is busy with work, so I had to fly by myself with the baby girl. I flew with her by myself once before, but it was a short flight and she was just six-weeks-old – a far easier proposition than taking a hulking 21-month-old half-way around the world.

I prepared myself for the possibility that she might not sleep at all, be super grumpy and to whinge for the whole flight. I did not prepare myself for the possibility that the flight would be cancelled after boarding, requiring a long slog back home by myself with the girl on the train, then a journey to a different London airport for a flight the following day.

You can only imagine my delight when that is exactly what happened.

Clearly, I would have preferred to avoid the stress and tedium of this situation. Looking on the bright side however (something I was only able to do once I’d got home, put the baby girl to bed, and drunk a cold beer in the garden), the cancelled flight turned out to be pretty useful as a trial run for the one the following day.

Pack light, pack clever

A toddler stands in a queue with a buggy and a wheelie bag
Waiting to board the cancelled flight with the ill-advised wheelie bag

I consider myself a good packer, but I made a bad call when it came to packing for that cancelled flight, opting to bring a wheelie cab bag along with our suitcase, my little handbag backpack and the buggy. I could handle it all myself at the airport, but the moment I had to leave the baggage trolley behind I was seriously overburdened, reliant on the kindness of strangers.

I would have taken a cab home from the airport that afternoon but couldn’t find a taxi company with a car seat available at such short notice, and didn’t want to risk a long drive without one. I could have waited an hour and a half for my partner to come back and pick us up, but the baby girl was already seriously overtired and I wanted to get her home as soon as possible (plus, my partner was busy trying to book us another flight).

In the end it worked out fine: we got the train to London Bridge and my partner picked us up from there, various fellow travellers having gone out of their way to help me juggle the luggage and the girl. We arrived home safely and emotionally unscathed (the one moment where I almost lost it was when I saw the sign at Gatwick Airport Station that says no trolleys allowed past the barriers, and the attendant told me that there was a train in three minutes and then not again for nearly an hour; seeing my despair, he let us through with the trolley, we dashed to the lift, and made it to the platform with 30 seconds to spare), but I made sure I repacked the contents of the wheelie bag and my backpack into one big backpack for the flight the following day.

Bags within bags

A toddler pushes a buggy next to a pile of luggage
Too many bags for one woman and a toddler

If money were no object I would have booked the baby girl her own seat on the plane. Not fancying doubling the cost of our trip, however, I opted to have her on my lap (possible until the age of two). Our time on the cancelled flight was a lesson in exactly how little space we would have for our belongings with just the one seat, and how organised I would need to be to make sure I had everything we needed when we needed it during the flight. So that night after returning home from the airport I did some judicious repacking.

All the baby girl’s food and milk went into one tote bag, all the other essentials – toys, books, headphones, phone, nappy change wallet, sleeping bag and pyjamas, jumpers for us both, toothbrush and toothpaste – went into another, and both these bags went into my backpack. After we’d boarded I was able to stow the food and essentials bags under the seat in front, leaving everything else – items that I thought might come in handy  but wouldn’t definitely need (spare clothes, Calpol, etc) – in the overhead locker to save space.

Doing it this way, I discovered, means you can keep to a minimum the number of times you get up to take things out of the overhead locker – useful when travelling alone with a toddler, absolutely essential when travelling alone with a babe-in-arms.

Avoiding meltdowns

A toddler plugs in a phone charge on a plane
Plugging and unplugging my phone charger kept the baby girl occupied for a surprisingly long time

The baby girl was overdue for a nap when we boarded the (soon to be) cancelled flight. I had brought toys, books, a phone full of downloaded episodes of Hey Duggee and Sarah & Duck, and plenty of food, yet for some reason (probably because I was tired and hot too), I was inept at putting these distractions to good use, and the girl just got grumpier. I made it worse by attempting to get her to nap in the sling, something she was clearly not going to do just to suit me.

On the flight the following day things went more smoothly. I dressed her in cooler clothes so she wasn’t so affected by the heat, and it helped that the seat next to us was empty so we had some space to spread out.

The baby girl was just as tired as she had been the day before, but I was quicker to whip out the snacks and cycle through the available distractions at the slightest sign of an impending meltdown. In terms of my own sanity, I made good use of my wireless bone-conducting headphones, listening to podcasts while playing with the baby girl. I don’t do this at home, preferring not to divide my attention, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

A baby in a pushchair sucks her thumb
In the queue for immigration at LAX

Instead of trying to get the baby girl to nap at her usual naptime, I threw the schedule out the window and waited until they dimmed the cabin lights. After putting her in her sleeping bag and reading her a story, she was happy to go to sleep. It only lasted an hour, but she was chilled enough to lie there awake and quiet for another hour after that.

I tried to put the baby girl down again for another sleep later and she just wasn’t going for it, so I gave up immediately and we spent the second half the flight walking up and down the plane in the dark, carrying bits of rubbish to throw away in the bin in the galley. It was quite tedious for me, but the baby girl enjoyed herself and a lot of the other passengers seemed to find it entertaining.

Fingers crossed we can repeat that positive experience on the flight back to London next week. Please, please, please let it not be cancelled….

Essential kit, number 9: buggy organiser

A close up of a buggy organiser hanging from a buggy, full of stuff.
Buggy organiser: truly essential kit for baby adventuring, whether near or far.

It’s amazing how many things you can squeeze into a buggy organiser. Keys, mobile and travel pass for starters, but less obvious items too. If you spend a lot of time walking your  sleeping baby around in her pushchair, headphones are an essential, whether for hand-free phone calls or sanity-restoring podcasts. Lip balm is good to have in cold weather and a pack of tissues is invaluable. If it’s bright enough outside for sunglasses, they need to go somewhere when you’re not wearing them – your buggy organiser is a much better place than on top of your head. Cash machines are never where you need to them to be, so a spare tenner is a must.

When the baby girl was very small and I was still in that phase of breastfeeding where you’re parched and ravenous all the time, I kept the buggy organiser stocked up with snacks and drinks. Now that she’s bigger, it’s still packed with snacks, but they’re for her, not me, and my keep cup has been supplanted by her sippy cup.

You’ll usually find an emergency toy car in there somewhere, and room is always made for a bottle of Calpol when the baby girl is teething. In goes her hat every time she decides she’s taking it off, thank you very much, ditto her shoes and socks. The buggy organiser is where we stow the baby girl’s ear defenders between gigs at festivals, and it’s a handy place to keep passports and boarding passes at the airport too.

There are lots of different styles to choose from, but I love the Grab & Go Stroller Organizer from Skip Hop. Insulating material keeps your cold drinks cold and your hot drinks hot, it’s spacious, and it comes with a detachable purse so you can leave your pushchair somewhere and easily take your valuables with you. Particularly in the early days, I don’t know what I would have done without it.

Packing list for travelling with babies and toddlers

Travelling a lot for work, I prefer to spend as little time packing – or thinking about packing – as possible. Nerdy though it may sound, I never start the process without consulting one of several packing lists – city break, hot climate, cold climate, hiking, scuba diving, etc.

The baby girl was four-weeks-old the first time we went away with her, to a cottage in Wales to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday over a long weekend. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t have a packing list for the task at hand. After a chaotic day and night throwing baby stuff into various receptacles almost at random, we managed to hit the road. My partner driving, I immediately set about writing a list.

Here it is, more tidily laid out than in the original version on my phone, and with a few annotations. I hope you find it useful. If there’s anything I’ve missed, please add your own packing essentials in the comments (I’ll be doing a separate post on travelling in hot climates – if you want advice about what to pack for a hot climate trip in the meantime, drop me a line in the comments below).

Baby monitor
Or a spare phone or tablet if you’re using the Baby Monitor 3G app (for more information on why this is a brilliant thing, here’s my recent ‘essential kit’ post about it).

Baby nail clippers 

Baby sleeping bag

Bathroom stuff
Bath additive, baby shampoo, toothbrush, baby toothpaste.

Blankets
Something warm, plus one you don’t mind getting grubby that you can use for sitting on when out and about.

Car seat
Plus adaptors if you have a ‘travel system’ pushchair.

Clothes
Two complete outfits (vest + sleepsuit + sweater; or vest + trousers + top + sweater) per day, snow suit/coat, hat and spare; socks; shoes.

Documents
Passport (here’s how to apply for one for your child), visa, birth certificate, permission letter (if appropriate – here’s more information), Personal Child Health Record (‘red book’). 

First aid kit
Including thermometer and painkillers (Calpol, ibuprofen, teething gel).

Inflatable paddling pool
See my post ‘Essential kit, part 1: inflatable paddling pool’ for why you don’t want to leave home without one of these.

Muslin squares
For swaddling, cleaning up, and as comforters.

Nappies
8-12 nappies per 24 hours away, depending how much your baby is pooing in the days leading up to your departure. You can almost always buy nappies where you’re staying, but if you’re travelling with a very small baby, or are going somewhere remote, better to be safe than sorry and take enough from home to last you for the whole trip.

Nappy wallet and change mat
Including nappy sacks, nappy rash cream and hand sanitiser.

Night light 

Pram/pushchair
Sunshade for napping, plus a bag of some kind to pack the pushchair into if you’re flying. We have the official travel bag (bought on eBay) for our Bugaboo Bee (also eBay), which is excellent because it protects the pushchair from being chucked around by baggage handlers and also gives you extra space to stow baby stuff. If you don’t want to buy the official version for your pushchair, there are generics available. But go for one with wheels and/or backpack straps if possible. In a pinch you can use a heavy duty bin liner for each bit of the pushchair (and remember to pack extras for the return journey).

Sling
My ‘essential kit’ post on slings covers some of the different options available.

Toys and books

Travel cot/tent/bassinet
Having been on a couple of trips now where the cot provided hasn’t been fit for purpose, I highly recommend bringing one of your own.

Wipes
One pack of wipes per 72 hours away. Though you can buy baby wipes when you arrive, the options might be pretty rubbish – very highly scented, for example, or not suitable for sensitive skin – so if you’re fussy about these things, just bring a couple of extra packets from home.

 

*Optional extras depending on you and your baby*

Breast pump

Dribble bibs

Dummies

Teething rings

Wireless bone-conducting headphones
These are a must for me – find out why in my ‘essential kit’ post all about them.

 

*If breastfeeding*

Folding sock airer
See laundry detergent below.

Laundry detergent
A small quantity for hand washing milk-soaked bras (and nursing pads, if you use washables).

Nursing bras
Including a couple comfortable enough to sleep in if you’re still at the stage of needing to wear a bra and nursing pads to bed.

Nursing pads
Take more than you think you might need in case the disruption of travel makes your baby feed more frequently, thereby causing your breasts to leak more than usual.

 

*If bottlefeeding (whether formula, expressed breastmilk or a combination of the two)*

Bibs

Bottles, etc

Bottle brush

Cold sterilising tablets or liquid
Only necessary until your baby is a year old – see my post ‘How to sterilise your baby’s feeding equipment when you’re away from home’ for tips

Formula

Washing-up liquid

 

*If your child is eating solids*

Baby food in jars or pouches for emergencies
Plus any type of food you really couldn’t live without while you’re away. The baby girl is a bit of a fussy eater at the moment, but will always polish off a big bowl of porridge for breakfast, so we take a small Tupperware container of oats away with us if we’re self-catering just in case we can’t find any locally at our destination.

Baby/toddler spoons

Bibs/smocks

Laundry detergent
A small quantity for washing bibs so you don’t have to pack one for every meal.

Snacks

Travel high chair
I cover the various kinds available in my post on eating out with babies and toddlers.

Tupperware
One or two small ones so you’re able to feed your child with food from home when out and about.

A toddler sits in an open suitcase, other bags on the floor around her.
The baby girl helping us unpack on our trip to Gozo, November 2017.

 

 

 

 

Essential kit, part 2: wireless bone-conducting headphones

Trying to get a baby to sleep can be tedious at the best of times. Throw in an unfamiliar location, early starts, late nights, missed naps, hot weather and jet lag and it’s probable that you’ll be spending more hours than you’d like at the start of your holiday pacing around a dark hotel room with a baby in your arms, or sitting next to a cot soothing a grumpy toddler.

Your child will settle into their new surroundings at their own pace, depending on various factors (stay tuned for posts on how to deal with jet lag and hot weather), but in the meantime, a pair of wireless bone-conducting headphones can provide some relief.

Initially developed for military operations, and now used by some cyclists and runners, these headphones sit just below your temples (see picture) and send the sound through your cheekbones to the inner ear, bypassing the ear drum altogether. With nothing in your ears, you can hear the world around you – including the baby being rocked to sleep in your arms – while keeping your brain occupied listening to podcasts, music or audio books. The fact that they’re wireless means no cord to get tangled up in.

IMG_8014

My partner bought me a pair of these headphones when I was pregnant and I’ve used them practically every day since the baby girl was born. They came in particularly handy those first few months when I was still feeding her frequently at night and needed something to keep me awake (I recommend getting an Audible account too), but these days it’s when we’re travelling that they’re really useful, whether we’re heading off long distance or just around the local area.

It’s possible to push a buggy one-handed while having a conversation on a mobile, but it’s safer and easier to use wireless headphones instead, and bone-conducting ones mean you’re still aware of traffic noise. I don’t generally listen to podcasts when I’m with the baby girl unless she’s sleeping, but there have been a couple of occasions when I’ve broken that rule, like on the four and half hour train journey back to London after a month at the Edinburgh festival, when I hit a wall of tiredness and had to keep my mind occupied so as not to nod off. It was only by listening to BBC World Service documentaries that I was able to stay awake for yet another round of take-things-out-of-all-the-bags-and-hit-them-against-the-table. I stand by my choice.

At around £100 a pop, these headphones aren’t cheap, but they’re definitely worth it.

What’s on your list of essentials for travelling with babies and toddlers?