Traveling with infants and young children can be stressful. Add in winter holidays, travel delays, a fussy child and a smorgasbord of germy environments, and traveling gets even messier.
Joanna Parga-Belinkie, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician and neonatologist with a third child on the way, advises families to plan ahead for delays and embrace that traveling over the holidays can be tough.
“Going in with realistic expectations will help,” she said. “If you can, bring other people to help, such as friends or relatives, so you can travel together and tag team with the child. If not, plan ahead as much as you can, try to be patient with yourself, and know that you will get there in the end.”
Consider avoiding travel with infants under six months old, who may be at higher risk of illness and are too young to be vaccinated. Infants under 2 months of age are especially vulnerable to getting sick, and most pediatricians don’t recommend any travel before then.
Dr. Parga-Belinkie, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, offers these tips for traveling safely this season.
Airlines seem to have more delays than ever. How can parents keep babies and young children occupied and happy at the airports or on the plane?
- The AAP recommends the safest way for your baby to fly is in a child safety restraint, such as an FAA-approved car seat. While FAA regulations allow children under age 2 to be held on an adult's lap, if there is turbulence it may be difficult to protect your baby. A car seat also offers a good place to have your baby nap, especially if you encounter flight delays. If your child will be on your lap, be sure to bring a carrier that allows times where you can be hands-free and that might promote a nap. (Remember the baby cannot be worn in a carrier during take-off or landing,)
- For getting your child around the airport, bring a baby carrier or a stroller. Some car seats connect into a stroller frame. Having a stroller is convenient for layovers - to help with carry-on luggage and to put your infant or young child in to sleep. Car seats, booster seats, and strollers generally don't count as luggage, but policies vary by airline; check with yours before flying. In most cases they can be checked at the gate.
- Look for rows on the plane with more space, like the bulkhead. Exit rows are out, for safety reasons. Choose a seat closer to the window, if possible. Aisle seats can be risky for babies during beverage service. Hot drinks being passed to passengers can spill and cause burns, and their little arms and legs can be caught by passing carts. Aisle seats are also closer to falling overhead bin items. If you are using a car seat, that must be installed next to the window. If your baby will be in a separate seat, check your airline’s policy around family seating to ensure it is next to you.
- Bring a carry-on bag for your child with items your child enjoys that are calming. These may include crayons, coloring books and other art supplies, such as “mess free” markers that keep their creativity contained to special paper. Children also may enjoy books, noise canceling headphones or small toys. Older children may enjoy watching a tablet during a flight, but young children and infants don’t engage with screens so you need to bring toys they enjoy. Planning a walk down the aisle of the plane can also be a fun experience, as long as there is no turbulence.
What if children show signs of illness right before or during your travels ?
- You can test for illnesses like COVID, the flu, RSV and strep throat. Consult with your pediatrician if your child is ill and it’s something that can be treated and that you wouldn’t want relatives to catch.
- Before your trip, get vaccinated! Children age 6 months and older can be vaccinated for the flu and COVID. Encourage the vaccination for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) for older relatives, pregnant family members, and babies who are eligible.
- Every family has their own comfort level when it comes to visiting with sick relatives. Discuss with your family what is right for them, what risks they are willing to take and their vaccination status.
- Masks are a great idea – whether someone is sick or not. They can help prevent the spread of infection and might prevent you from getting infected. Consider wearing masks especially within an enclosed space like a plane or airport.
- If you can, traveling by car helps reduce being in crowds and spreading germs.
What essentials do you carry with you when you travel with an infant or toddler?
- Infants require gear – extra diapers, wipes and onesies for accidents. Bring at least two back-up outfits in your carry-on or in an accessible spot in your vehicle if you are driving. Dress your baby in layers, since temperatures on a plane can vary widely.
- Bring a carrier or place for them to sleep while traveling. Also plan a safe space for them to sleep at your destination, such as a portable crib, play yard or bassinet.
- If you don’t breastfeed, bring extra formula or milk. The Transportation Security Administration allows formula, breast milk, toddler drinks, and baby or toddler food in quantities greater than 3.4 ounces or 100 milliliters in carry-on baggage. Inform the TSA officer at the beginning of the screening process that you are carrying these items, which may need to be tested.
- Bring only medications your infant or toddler needs. One medication you should not bring is a diphenhydramine, such as Benadryl, to make your child sleepy. Some children have a reaction to this product and get hyper and you don’t want to discover that in a long plane or car ride. You could bring acetaminophen, or ibuprofen if your infant is over 6 months of age.
- Consider a diaper change right before boarding.
Over all, remember it’s best to plan ahead – and to ask for help. For instance, you may ask the airline for help in making a connecting flight.
Dr. Parga-Belinkie reminds parents and caregivers to go easy on themselves when traveling. That may mean letting go of a few rules you’d normally impose at home.
“As long as everyone is safe, it’s ok if your rules during travel vary slightly from your rules at home,” she said. “Forgive yourself if your kids watch their screens a bit more when you travel. It's not permanent. You can get back into a routine when you reach your destination.”
AAP website for parents: Flying with Baby: Parent FAQs - HealthyChildren.org
U.S. Department of Transportation: Tips for Families and Links to Airline Webpages
The American Academy of Pediatrics is an organization of 67,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical subspecialists and pediatric surgical specialists dedicated to the health, safety and well-being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults.