Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Our travels with a 14-month old

We just got back late Sunday night from a trip to St. Louis for a family event for Matt's grandmother. This trip marked the first of our plane travel with Natalie. Everyone, myself included, is always looking for travel advice with an infant or toddler. Although I can't state definitively how much of what we did is legitimate/will work for us again/will work for anyone else, I thought I'd throw this out to the interwebs.

To add more context to the trip, we left on a Friday morning and were scheduled to return on a Sunday night. At 14-months old, Natalie is fully mobile, relatively talkative (lots of single words, only one two-word expression: "good dog"), still drinks milk out of a bottle, drinks water out of a sippy cup, vacillates between 1 and 2 naps per day, and sleeps 12 hours at night. She loves books, doesn't really watch TV, is getting interested in toys with lots of parts (think blocks, finger puppet sets), has a mostly agreeable temper but is starting to get more fussy/express her will more vehemently.

Here's the climax:
We woke up early Sunday morning to a horrible weather forecast: 10 inches of snow predicted for St. Louis, and it would start any minute. We were scheduled to leave on a 5:20 p.m. flight. We didn't want to miss some family events happening that morning, but we really didn't want to risk missing a friend's funeral back home. We called the airline and got the flight changed to 11:55 a.m. We got ready quickly, let Natalie sleep as long as possible (9 a.m. for the win!), said goodbye to Matt's grandmother, and kept watching the flight status on the way to the airport.

When we were going through security, our flight was still on. Five minutes later, when we made it to the gate, our flight was canceled. We called the airline and got reassigned to the 5:20 p.m. flight we'd been on originally. The roads in St. Louis were treacherous at this point, so we knew sitting tight at the airport for about six hours would be the plan. By some miracle, as we watched the majority of flights out of St. Louis that day get canceled, our flight remained scheduled, and even on time.

In disbelief, we boarded the plane. Then we sat on the tarmac for one hour while the plane was de-iced. As the de-icing men boarded the plane, we looked at the other passengers and thought, "This is it. We're not going anywhere." Again, by some miracle, our plane took off about 15 minutes later. We hit some turbulence in the air, but nothing absurd. We landed in D.C. around 10 p.m., and by 11 p.m. our baby was asleep in her crib at home. Our 12+ hours of travel, though not what we would choose, were actually OK, and we have our daughter's mostly agreeable temperament and a little bit of preparation to thank.

Here's what we did.

Packing plan

1) Over pack.

I hate to over pack, but I know it's a necessity with a toddler in tow.

Starting about a week before we left, the weather forecast had been calling for a freak early-spring snow storm in St. Louis the day we were supposed to fly home. So I threw in an extra day's worth of necessities. That means extra outfits, extra PJs, extra socks, extra diapers and wipes.

2) Bring items for the night time routine.

For us this meant Natalie's Halo sleep sack, stuffed bunny, and a copy of Goodnight Moon.

3) Ditch the cloth diapers; put vinyl pants over the disposable diaper for the airport/plane.

Although cloth diapers are still working perfectly for us, we knew we didn't plan to travel with them. This was especially helpful for the dozen or so airport diaper changes we had to do. To hopefully save us from an unexpected diaper leak, we put Natalie in the Dappi vinyl diaper covers we originally bought for taking her in the pool.

4) Have a bags-within-bags baby carry on.

Of everything we experimented with on this trip, this is the thing I think we did "right." Diaper bags do not count toward the total carry-on bag allowance, so we ditched our normal diaper bag for this trip and instead used a giant Land's End canvas tote as our big diaper bag for the weekend. Inside we had three additional bags:

1) a lunch bag filled with food and drink for Natalie
2) a medium-sized canvas tote filled with books and toys
3) a small tote, no bigger than a normal purse, just containing diapers for the airport/flight,      changing pad, a travel case of wipes, hand sanitizer, dog poo bags (for containing any really gross diapers in a worst-case scenario), and diaper rash cream. This suggestion was a great one from a mom friend who said this made her travels easier because it minimizes how much stuff has to come with you into an airport or airplane bathroom for a quick change.

5) Bring two bottles' worth of milk. Put them inside a big Ziploc bag with a freezer pack.

I knew prior to the trip that you could take breastmilk and formula through airport security. I wasn't sure about whole milk. Good news: bottle that stuff up and bring it with you. Two 8-ounce bottles were enough for us. Starbucks also sells whole milk in small cups (for $1.35 in St. Louis, at least), and a waiter at the airport Chili's who has three small kids of her own and feels bad for you might bring you a cup of whole milk, too. The Ziploc bag is crucial, as we learned, thanks to the changes in air pressure inside the cabin causing a tightly sealed bottle to still leak.

6) Take a small stroller to the airport, put it inside a travel bag, and gate check it.

We originally were not going to travel with a stroller. We were staying with generous family friends who happen to be grandparents who have a fully stocked nursery. There was a car seat, crib, stroller, and high chair waiting for us when we arrived. At nearly the last minute, we decided to take our own umbrella stroller, fearing getting stuck in the airport on the way home without a stroller. A generous neighbor lent us her umbrella stroller bag, which gave us peace of mind when we checked the stroller at the gate. I'd read strollers can get rather knocked around on airplanes and didn't want to risk it.

Airport/airplane plan

1) If traveling with a partner, have one person in charge of parking the car and handling most of the luggage. Have the other person in charge of the diaper bag and baby.

This fits into our plan of minimizing how many forms of transit Natalie had to be on and increasing how many opportunities she had to run around before getting on the plane.

2) If traveling with a partner, have one person board the airplane with all the luggage right after the first-class passengers board. Have the other person run around the airport with the baby and be the last people to board the plane.

Natalie really wanted a water bottle, so I made her chase me around the airport for 20 minutes while I held the bottle and the other passengers boarded.

3) Don't bring out the milk bottles until you can hear the plane's engine getting ready to take off.

We've all been stuck on planes on the tarmac. On our return flight, we were stuck for one hour on the tarmac while they de-iced our plane. Natalie did shockingly well, but to keep her from drinking her milk too soon I had Matt distract her while I got a bottle out of the bag, otherwise she would have seen it and wanted it.

4) Remember to save some milk for landing.

On our first flight from D.C. to St. Louis, Natalie drank too much too soon and therefore wasn't interested in milk during the descent. This led to a not fun time thanks to the pressure on her ears.

5) Let your child play in the aisles for as long as humanly possible.

Our flight to St. Louis was pretty uneventful because Natalie could play in the aisle fairly indefinitely while we were at our cruising altitude. Snowy turbulence on the way back to D.C. meant basically no time in the aisle, aside from the one hour waiting on the tarmac. Thankfully, by squeezing Natalie super tight (despite her significant protestations), I got her to sleep for about 30 minutes on that flight.


1) Take some favorite books.

We opted for variety: a couple lift-the-flap, a couple first words, a couple calm/bedtime stories.

2) A few weeks/months before the trip, hide some favorite, small toys, and bring them out on the plane.

We did this with Natalie's Green Sprouts stacking cups and Sassy linking letters. When we reintroduced them on the plane they led to over an hour of distraction.

3) Bring non-toy, tried-and-true distractions.

Natalie loves to wear my big, chunky necklaces (which she calls "'sazs"). Seeing as they are likely choking hazards and whatnot, she only gets to wear them under close supervision on special occasions. Airplane travel seems like an appropriately special occasion. Taking the necklace on and off repeatedly is a favorite pastime.

What we didn't use

1) Ergo carrier.

We brought it along, but Natalie screamed in it at the airport despite a week of re-training her to love it prior to the trip.

2) iPad apps.

We downloaded six free Fisher-Price apps to the iPad before we left. We didn't let Natalie see them prior to the trip, either. We never had to resort to using them, which is for the best because she's never really used an app before and likes the iPhone/iPad solely for looking at pictures of herself.

"OK, as you take that picture of me, you also must let me see it."

3) Cheap toys/stickers/PlayDoh, etc.

Many friends recommended stocking up on items from the $1 bins at Target. I think this is an awesome suggestion for slightly older kids. I just knew it wasn't in the cards for Natalie, so I didn't follow the advice this time.

You know, it's not that bad

We went into this trip prepared for just about anything, and we experienced just about everything. While on the trip, we were able to accommodate the weekend's schedule and make Natalie's schedule fit around it. Natalie was exhausted at night and slept like a champ. For the first time since she was about four months old, Natalie actually fell asleep on top of me Saturday night. Holding her in my arms while she sweetly cooed reminded me of how she's somewhere in between infancy and toddlerhood. Maybe that's what parenting is all about: moments when your child reminds you of what she used to be and what she's becoming.

In the 11th hour of travel, when we were about 30 minutes away from landing in D.C. Sunday night, as Natalie was falling asleep on me, her head nuzzled against my chest, I poked my almost-falling-asleep husband and said, "Isn't our daughter adorable?" He said, "Good job with that." We watched the lights of D.C. emerge from under the clouds. Sure, she started her meltdown about five minutes later, but we made it, and we are better for it.

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