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The first time I flew with my son, I was terrified. He was about 18 months old and what one might call an… intense child. I was certain he was going to scream like a banshee the entire flight. It turns out he was a little wiggly, but otherwise did fine and has since been a great passenger. In the weeks leading up to his first flight  — and in the days following — I learned a lot about what to expect and prepare for when flying with a child for the first time. Here are some things to keep in mind.

1. Figure Out What Documentation They’ll Need

All flights require boarding passes, even for infants, while international flights require a valid passport for child passengers. But the TSA doesn’t require kids under 18 to have photo identification for domestic flights within the US — only a boarding pass. Airlines, however, often do require proof of age, such as a birth certificate, for children who are traveling for free as an “infant in lap” or at a discounted price. Even if an ID is not technically required, however, it’s still a good idea to keep their birth certificate with you at all times in case of an emergency.

Be sure to know what kind of ID — if any — your child needs before going to the airport. Image courtesy of Caiaimage/Agnieszka Olek via Getty Images.
Be sure to know what kind of ID — if any — your child needs before going to the airport. Image courtesy of Caiaimage/Agnieszka Olek via Getty Images.

2. Determine If They Need Their Own Seat

Children under 2 can typically fly for free — so long as they stay in your lap. After that, they are required to have their own seat. But just because they can, does that mean they should? The FAA strongly encourages passengers to put children in a government-approved car seat while flying due to safety concerns. After all, you can hold on as tight as you want to when the skies get bumpy, but your arms won’t be as secure as a child restraint system.

There’s also the consideration of space and sanity. Flying with young children can be challenging. They are squirmy, often temperamental and hard to contain — especially on longer flights. Sometimes you can luck out and get an empty seat next to you, but with flights frequently being overbooked, it’s not something to bank on. Getting them their own seat will guarantee you both a little extra space. If your child is also used to traveling by car, a car seat might make them feel a little more comfortable in the brand-new environment.

If you do decide to fly with an infant in your lap, you can wear them in a baby carrier, such as a Moby Wrap or Babybjörn, but be aware that you won’t be allowed to have them in the carrier during takeoff or landing.

Sometimes kids just need their own space. Image courtesy of Westend61 via Getty Images.
Sometimes kids just need their own space. Image courtesy of Westend61 via Getty Images.

3. Know the Perks of Baby Gear   

While strollers aren’t allowed on the plane, they can almost always be checked at the gate at no cost to the passenger. The same is true for car seats. TSA also allows you to take on food and drinks “in reasonable quantities” for young children during the flight. That includes milk, formula, juice and pureed baby food that exceeds the usual 3.4-ounce maximum applied to other liquids. Let the TSA agents at the security checkpoint know you have liquids for your child as soon as you reach the x-ray machines to help speed up their screening process. Thankfully, kids aged 12 and under don’t have to take off their shoes or coats when going through airport security, which will also help you avoid delays.

A note for nursing moms: breast pumps and breast milk are allowed on planes, even if you aren’t traveling with an infant. Save yourself an even greater delay at security by taking the pump completely out of its case to go through the x-ray machine and letting the agents know what it is ahead of time. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve had to assure to security agents that it was not, in fact, some sort of bomb.

Strollers and car seats can often be checked for free at the gate. Image courtesy of Alija via Getty Images.
Strollers and car seats can often be checked for free at the gate. Image courtesy of Alija via Getty Images.

4. Respect the Flight Crew 

Traveling with kids is stressful — I get it, trust me. But while most flight attendants are sympathetic to passengers flying with kids, the plane is still their workplace. Be mindful of any mess you make and trash you generate, and clean up after yourself the best you can. Almost all planes are equipped with changing tables in the restrooms, so please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t change a baby on the tray table and then hand the dirty diaper to an attendant. If you need a little extra assistance, it’s OK to ask for it. And you certainly don’t need to trip over yourself to apologize for bringing a kid on board. Just be nice and respectful to the flight crew. They can be your greatest allies when traveling with kids.

Flight attendants are nice people. They don
Flight attendants are nice people. They don’t deserve to be tossed stinky diapers. Image courtesy of Hero Images via Getty Images.

5. Be Prepared for Tears 

While nobody wants a shrieking child on a plane, it happens — and that’s OK. Kids react to new environments in different ways, and breaking up their routine can be really stressful. While sometimes children crying is really and truly outside of your control, there are some things that can help minimize the risk of full-on tantrums or screaming throughout the flight. Things like: Keeping plenty of snacks on hand to avoid a “hangry” kid, bringing stuff to distract them like a tablet or a few novel toys or games and minimizing ear pain during take-off and landing by giving them something to suck or chew on — nursing, bottle-feeding or using a pacifier during take-off can help with infants who are too young for suckers or chewing gum. It also might be helpful to have the child seen by their doctor before the trip to make sure they aren’t getting sick or developing an ear infection, which can make ear pain much more intense. If they do cry, try to stay calm. If you’re stressed, your child will likely pick up on it and be harder to soothe.

Yeah, we get it, buddy. Flying makes us want to cry sometimes, too. Image courtesy of Radist via Getty Images.
Yeah, we get it, buddy. Flying makes us want to cry sometimes, too. Image courtesy of Radist via Getty Images.

6. Come Ready for Mishaps 

You don’t need to go overboard with packing, but it’s helpful to have some emergency supplies on hand to help with inevitable disasters. Pack an extra set of clothes for both you and your child in the event of spills, spit-up or accidents, as well as an extra plastic bag to store the messy items in flight. Bring along extra snacks and a refillable water bottle in case of delays — if you will be using electronics, be sure to pack a portable charger. To avoid losing beloved toys or scrambling to chase after ones that fall on the floor, tie a piece of string to each one and attach the string to the arm rest or tray table. If your child is old enough, you can also talk to them beforehand about what will happen so they know what to expect and be better able to cope with the new environment.

Kids can get into all kind of mischief. Image courtesy of Elisabeth Schmitt via Getty Images.
Kids can get into all kind of mischief. Image courtesy of Elisabeth Schmitt via Getty Images.

Bottom Line

Flying for the first time can be an exciting experience — one that your child might remember for the rest of their life. Regardless of where you’re going or why, it’s a big milestone. Try to savor the moment.

Flying for the first time is a big deal. Make it special. Image courtesy of Granger Wootz via Getty Images.
Flying for the first time is a big deal. Make it special. Image courtesy of Granger Wootz via Getty Images.

Do you have any tips for parents about to travel with their little one(s) for the first time? Sound off, below.

Featured image courtesy of Marc Romanelli via Getty Images.

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