Baby On Board

Keeping your baby safe and comfortable in the air

by kathy sena

If you plan to fly with your baby or toddler this holiday season, you’re faced with a lot of tough decisions: Do you buy him his own airline seat and use an approved restraint system? Or do you hold him in your lap and pray for a smooth ride?

     And then there are those horror stories you’ve heard about babies with ear pain, crying all the way from New York to Los Angeles. Yikes. If the thought of flying with your baby has you thinking it might be easier to just stay home, you’re not alone. But air travel with your infant or toddler can be safe and (okay, relatively) comfortable. It just takes some advanced planning and a little good advice.

Buckling Up Baby

     The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t require the use of a child restraint system (CRS) on commercial airplanes because a mandate would require parents to purchase an extra airline ticket for their child. This would force some families who can’t afford the extra ticket to drive, a statistically more dangerous way to travel.

     However, the FAA strongly recommends the use of a CRS or an alternative FAA-approved device based on a child’s weight. Measure the width of your CRS. It should fit in most airplane seats if it is no wider than 16 inches. Also, the label on the CRS should say “this restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft.”

     Airlines currently allow children under the age of two to fly free of charge as “lap children.” Not the safest way for a child to travel. Many airlines offer half-price tickets so parents can be guaranteed that their child can travel in a CRS or other restraint device. Parents should call the airline to ask for a discount and/or ask what the airline’s policy is for using empty seats.

     Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using a CRS. The FAA recommends that a child weighing:

Less than 20 pounds use a rear-facing CRS

From 20 to 40 pounds use a forward-facing CRS

More than 40 pounds use an airplane seat belt

A child also may use an alternative, such as a harness-type restraint, if it is approved by the FAA. The FAA has approved one restraint appropriate for children weighing between 22 and 44 pounds. This type of restraint is not safe for use in motor vehicles.

     While booster seats enhance safety in motor vehicles, the FAA prohibits passengers from bringing them on airplanes. These should be checked as baggage.

     For more information, call the FAA’s Consumer Hotline at 800-322-7873.

Avoiding Cabin Germs (as much as you can)

     First, the bad news: You really can’t protect your baby — or yourself — from coming in contact with some of the germs carried onboard by fellow passengers “because you’re all breathing the same air,” says Ruth Demonteverde, M.D., a Manhattan Beach, California pediatrician with special training in pediatric infectious diseases. “That’s part of the risk you take when you fly.”

    But there are some things you can do to help minimize the risk, she says. It’s easier said than done in such tight quarters, but “try to avoid being around people who are actively sneezing,” advises Demonteverde. Also, politely refrain if fellow passengers ask if they can touch or hold the baby. And wash your hands frequently — especially after visiting that lovely communal restroom — during the flight.

     Also, I’ve used antibacterial wipes to clean the tray table ever since I saw a mom change a baby’s diaper on one years ago (I kid you not!).

Protecting Tiny Ears

     Giving your baby something to suck on during take-off and landing can help open up the eustachian tubes and help equalize the pressure between the middle ear and the pressurized aircraft cabin, says Demonteverde. So arranging feeding times around your flight schedule (no easy task, I know), can help. Distraction helps, too, she says. So be sure to pack a few favorite books and toys. And don’t be above resorting to making silly faces and funny noises for your child’s amusement during takeoff and landing. We’re in the trenches here.

     If your child, even when she is well, tends to get mild ear pain from the pressure, you might want to give acetaminophen before the flight, Demonteverde advises. But don’t travel by plane if your baby is sick, she says. “Even if he doesn’t have a full-blown ear infection, fluid in the middle ear can cause pain during a flight.”

     Stephanie Sheaffer, who writes one of my favorite parenting blogs, Metropolitan Mama (www.metropolitanmama.net), has this suggestion for battling in-flight ear pressure: If your child is old enough to safely eat a lollipop, bring some in your carry-on. Give your child a pop at take-off and/or landing. The sucking motion will help clear up clogged ears from cabin pressure — and the pop will serve as a welcome distraction for a good 20 minutes.

Flying In (Relative) Comfort

     Be prepared for possible flight delays by packing more diapers and baby food than you think you’ll need. Dress your baby in layers, as planes can go from cold to hot quickly. And pack two changes of clothing for baby — and two for yourself. On long plane rides, as in life, spit-up happens.

Kathy Sena is a freelance journalist specializing in health and parenting issues and is the mother of a 13-year-old son. Visit her blog at www.parenttalktoday.com.