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Tips for flying long haul with a baby

(I originally published this blog post in 2017 - so long before covid was a thing and travel was a little more doable)

I said to my husband “if I were brave I would visit South Africa with the baby”.

why not be brave?” he said

And so I took a trip to visit a dear friend in South Africa when my second baby was just three months old.

I left husband at home with the toddler (because taking a toddler on a 18 hour long haul trip is not brave; its foolhardy in the extreme) and baby and I packed our bags.

When you’re spending most of your days looking after a toddler plus a baby, a long haul trip sounds like a piece of cake. A train journey, a bus ride to the airport, a 7 hour flight from Dublin to Addis Ababa, a 2 hour layover in Addis Ababa; a 5 hour flight to Johannesburg. A reunion outside OR Tambo international, and a 3 hour car trip to the tranquil setting of their countryside retreat. Yup..piece of cake..

Baby barely slept on the first flight. Completely overstimulated. No bassinet. Many small poops in his nappy so that by the time I reached Addis I was almost out of nappies and  beating down the door of the tiny airport mini-mart to buy an overpriced, oversized pack of pampers.

He slept almost the entirety of the second flight (probably as a direct result of the no-sleep situation on the first flight). I was like a zombie wandering the crowded departures area of Bole international airport in Addis.

But guess what?All of that. Easy peasy compared to all day with both toddler and baby.

So on to my 12 tips.

  1. Do it when baby is small. I think 3 months was ideal because he was still sleeping lots, but was over the tiny tiny stage and the major digestive issues that seem to affect them for the first couple of months. By 5 months I think he would have been way too interested in everything around to have slept much, or to have been lulled to sleep nursing.

  2. Make sure to confirm the bassinet on the flight. Despite ringing ahead to confirm, I wasn’t automatically allocated a bassinet on the flights and had to wrestle a large Indian woman out of the bassinet seat on one of the flights… Ok I didn’t, but I did have to ask multiple times before I finally was shown to the bassinet seat on the second leg of the outbound flight, and I had to get the seats changed at check-in on the return flight.

  3. Bring a carrier/ sling. My arms would have been falling off me if I hadn’t been able to walk baby up and down the aisles in the carrier. Also, being handsfree for passport checks etc is very useful. At some airports you can even go through the metal detectors with baby in the carrier- but it’s best to have a no-fuss carrier to make life easy if you do have to take baby in and out a bit. And make sure you’ve tried it out beforehand- the last thing you want is to be wrestling with an overtired baby while trying to figure out which buckle/strap/piece of cloth goes where.

  4. If your journey involves two flights, do the first leg of the journey in daytime. At least this way, if baby doesn’t sleep on the first flight, you aren't yet suffering from lack of sleep heading into the second flight (well no more than is normal with a tiny baby). I made the mistake of doing the Dublin-Addis leg overnight and was zombie-like on arrival in Addis.

  5. Accept help. People will offer to put your bags overhead, to hold your baby for a moment. To give you a seat in the waiting area. Let them. Most people will look on you and your baby kindly. I found the most helpful were men travelling for work with young babies left behind at home (Daddy guilt?).

  6. Don’t drink the wine. On the flight that is. Maybe you’re breastfeeding and wouldn’t anyway. But if comforting an overstimulated baby who hasn’t slept all night is difficult, then try doing it dehydrated and with the beginnings of a mini-airplane wine hangover. It might make you wish you were back looking after the toddler. Feel free to pack as much wine as will fit in your suitcase to enjoy when you get home (this is what I did.. I love South African wine.. just a pity my suitcase wasn’t bigger).

  7. Feed yourself (properly). You are already sleep deprived. You are travelling long haul. Your immunity may be low. Take your vitamins. Eat fruit. bring some healthy cereal bars to stop you binging on sugary/salty snacks. And drink lots of water. Lots!

  8. Make sure to bring a soother/pacifier if baby will take one. This saved me on the return flight. As I didn’t have to take baby out of the bassinet to soothe him back to sleep- I just had to replace the soother in his mouth.

  9. Visit people who also have small babies. A big draw for me was that I was visiting a friend who was on her last week of maternity leave with her 4 month old. It meant we were on pretty much the same rhythm. It can be frustrating sometimes to try to connect with friends when baby demands so much of your attention and time, but when they are in the same situation with you, then it’s like a little baby moon for all of you!

  10. Bring the minimum amount of stuff so that you’re not lugging lots of bags around the airport but make sure you have enough nappies! I used a little backpack to carry everything- with lots of separate pockets so I could access stuff without having to dump the entire bag out. Also make sure to have a couple of changes of clothes for baby (clothes for warm/cool weather depending on your destination).  A change of top for yourself is also a must.

  11. Breathe. When it’s all getting too much and you’re wondering whether it could possibly be worth it. Breathe… relax those shoulders…that jaw. Baby will eventually sleep, the flight will eventually land, your airplane neighbour will eventually stop snoring/glaring, and you will be with friends again.

  12. Decide not to care. What people think. There will be people who disapprove of you travelling with a small baby.. f*** them. There may be people on the flight who are kept awake by baby.. try not to have baby cry into their ears, but don’t stress yourself worrying about them. Focus on you, focus on baby, keep calm.. and see tip 11 again.

Did I mention that my baby slept through the night EVERY night of my trip. And hasn’t slept through the night since (2022 update- baby is now 4 and I can confirm he sleeps through the night most of the time- but it was a looong time before that became a regular thing).  If I had a list of top tips for getting baby to sleep through the night it would look like this:

  1. Travel long haul to Africa to holiday on Tegwaan farm

  2. See 1

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