Tempting fate at 33,000 feet: travelling with an infant

A couple holding a baby on a plane.
Me, Freddie, Erin, and Gary, the CBC Kids unicorn, on a plane to Nova Scotia.

Before Freddie was born, I told people I didn't think we'd take him anywhere for at least a year. I've watched friends who have had children basically spend the first months of their kid's life conducting a travelling roadshow, driving from place to place to let other people meet their baby. It looks exhausting. "That won't be me," I said, defiantly and definitively.

After all, having a newborn already seemed pretty tiring, and these people were adding day trips to the mix? It all seemed a little extreme. So I figured, as is often my kneejerk approach to things, I'd embrace the opposite extreme. For the first year of Freddie's life, we'd just hang out at home and people could — pandemic permitting — come to visit us. He'd be a little baby homebody. The littlest hermit.

Part of my reasoning was that we did not — and do not — own a car. ("Matt, now that you have a baby, are you going to get a car?" people still ask. To which I respond, "No. No no no. A thousand times no. I'm already responsible for a human. You want me to be responsible for an automobile too?!") Part of it was that even with access to a car, there's no such thing as a short drive from downtown Toronto to see relatives who live outside Toronto. Get on the highway at any time of day and it's a two-hour trip, minimum. I love you, everybody who lives outside the range of an easily walkable distance from my house, but, honestly, who's got the time for that?

Still, people told me this whole notion seemed a little nuts. They told me I would, probably, reach a point where I wanted to leave the house with our child.

And god dammit, they were right.

I hate when that happens.

We did spend the first couple of months of Freddie's life in our little home-bubble. Aside from stroller walks, we didn't go anywhere. Never ventured beyond a kilometre-or-so radius of the house.

Not only did those limits feel like a natural fit with the unpredictable nature of newborns — when will they sleep? When will they cry? When will they poop? Nobody knows! — that period also coincided with the Omicron wave's peak. Deciding, heroically, that we did not want our newborn to get COVID, we played it safe.

But soon, the walls started to close in. As the days began to bleed together, the idea of taking this kid places got more and more appealing.

So we started small, with appropriate COVID precautions. When Freddie was two months old, we visited my parents for a few days. And, once the retirement home rules allowed it, we took Freddie to meet his great-grandparents in Oakville. We then did a few friend visits.

All that went pretty well. The kid seemed to be a decent traveller. And so we decided to up the degree of difficulty.

We decided to take the kid on a plane.

To another province.

Erin's family is from Nova Scotia, and we knew it would be good for them to meet and spend time with Freddie.

To say I was nervous about this idea is a massive understatement. I was a bit terrified. I've been on a lot of planes, but travelling with a seven-month-old baby is a whole different experience. All of my best travel tips — never check a bag, wear a blazer (you can use the extra pockets), don't show up too early, have a beer before you board, and bring something good to watch and/or read — would not apply to this trip. Not even the beer.

But the plans came together. The tickets were booked. Soon, there was no going back. We were set to take our baby on a plane.

A baby looks out an airplane window
Freddie and the sky.

I survived, obviously. So did the kid. I also learned a lot. Here are some of my best baby travel tips now that I am a seasoned veteran who has taken one moderate-length trip with a baby.

Babies are the skeleton key to airport security

Freddie drinks Enfamil Gentlease ready-to-feed formula bottles. We had a few cases shipped to Nova Scotia in advance — itself a good tip! — but needed to make sure we were well-stocked for our time at the airport and plane. And so we set out with a need to bring several bottles of liquid baby formula through security.

Knowing airport security workers are not generally the most pleasant and easy-going people on this planet, I was worried this would be a problem.

It was not. It was the opposite of a problem, amazingly. We pushed our luck on this one, because in addition to the bottles of formula, Erin also had a water bottle on her during the security check-in process.

Seeing it, the security agent looked a bit curious. "Is this for the baby?" he asked, gesturing at the sizable bottle of water.

"No," Erin said. Honestly, and pretty clearly, I thought. We were prepared to dump it and move on.

But the agent went on like he hadn't heard a thing. He asked again — more slowly this time —, "is... this... for... the... baby?"

Ah, we figured it out. "Yes," Erin said.

And suddenly, all was well. The water bottle and bottles of formula passed through security with no further questioning. The message was unspoken but clear: If it's for the baby, it's fine.  

I don't know how far you could push this. We probably won't test the limits. But I am curious about what they are. Could a case of Coke Zero be for the baby? A chocolate milkshake? A giant novelty snowglobe? I wonder. For science.

(The other logistical elements of the trip also went pretty smooth. We took our stroller, car seat and car seat base through security and checked them all at the gate. They were waiting for us when we landed.)

If you're travelling as a couple, alternate who takes the window seat

A selfie of a baby and a couple, on a plane.
His skepticism was boundless.

My usual inclination on a plane is to take an aisle seat. I think it's a tic from watching a bunch of seasons of The Amazing Race when I was in university. I like the idea of being able to get off the plane quickly, just in case Phil Keoghan shows up and suddenly tells me I'm part of a global team competition in pursuit of a million dollars. It just makes sense to be prepared.

So I took the aisle on both ends of our flight – to Halifax, and back again. Erin took the window.

This was a mistake, because Freddie is a very large baby and it turns out holding him in your lap while sitting in an aisle seat means some part of him — generally either his head or his feet — is going to be hanging out in the aisle, where they're in danger of being hit by a beverage cart or other passengers heading to the lavatory.

As a result, we were not able to alternate the holding of Freddie as often as I would have liked. I'd hold him for a bit, but there was no real way to get him in a comfortable sleeping position in my lap that didn't also expose him to the aisle.

So I felt like a jerk, as Erin held a sleeping (or fussing) Freddie for the majority of the flight as I, well, watched. And, uh, occasionally played games on my phone. Look, I'm not proud of it. It's a learning experience.

As a learning experience, you'd naturally assume I would have learned from the experience of the flight there and made sure to take the window seat on the flight back, so I could do the majority of the baby-holding.

But, well, there were 11 days between those flights, and I forgot.

But you shouldn't! I am giving you advice. Follow it. Learn from my errors.

Harbour no concerns about "screen time" while travelling

Here's a partial list of things Freddie, at approximately seven months old,  watched on my iPad during our airport and plane experience: two and a half episodes of Spidey & his Amazing Friends, approximately eight mini-games from the appropriately-titled "Baby Games" app (he has no idea how to play but liked watching us), 20+ minutes of the Camera app set to selfie mode, so he could watch himself. (The kid is a raging narcissist. )

No regrets. No apologies. Look, I get that "screen time" is a fraught topic, with opinions ranging from "Cocomelon is a great babysitter!" to "even a minute of screen time before the age of two will destroy millions of neurons and spoil your baby's chances of ever being a Rhodes Scholar."

I tend to come down somewhere in the vast middle between those two poles. Using screens as an everyday child-minder seems less than ideal. But screens exist — I make my living looking at screens — so I'm not going to try to raise my kid in some unrealistic fantasy world where he never so much as glances at one before he leaves for university.

But whatever your policy on screens, please just forget about all of it when travelling with an infant.

Use screens. Use lots of screens. They're all you have.

Freddie, for example, can reliably be distracted for at least ten minutes by an episode of Spidey. This is great for me, because I really enjoy the show. The theme song is a banger from Fall Out Boy's Patrick Strump, and "with great power comes great responsibility" is an all-timer of a life lesson. We watched a few on the plane. In one episode, Rhino tried to steal a bunch of ice cream but the Spidey crew stopped him.

Freddie's still generally confused by iPad Games, but they kept his attention for a while, too.

But, by far, his favourite remains the simple Camera app. It's a miracle worker for babies. Parents, try turning it on and letting your baby watch themselves. If they're anything like Freddie, the ego will be powerful, and you'll kill a bunch of time. And when you're in flight with a baby, killing time is your top priority.

Hope the people sitting behind you enjoy — and can entertain — babies

Freddie was generally pretty good on the plane. Especially if you consider the circumstances. I mean, imagine it: he's just seven months old. He's just started to figure out how his world works. It includes his parents. His house. His stroller. His bottles. His crib. His stuffed Spider-Man toy and rubber squeaky giraffe. All these things are starting to seem familiar.

Okay, he's starting to think, I've got this. This is my life.

But then one day he wakes up and gets taken to an entirely strange place. Worse, he's ushered into a kind of cramped metal tube that starts making a very loud noise and, well, I'm not certain he really got a good grasp of the science of aeronautics or the fact that he was literally moving through the sky at unbelievable speeds, but there was definitely a moment where he looked at us with every bit of skepticism he could muster, as if to say, hey, WTF is this?

A fair question! On the way there, understandably, that WTF emotion became dominant about 90 minutes into a two-plus-hour flight, and the fussing started.

Thankfully, both on our flight there and later on our flight back we were blessed with people sitting behind us who seemed happy to make funny faces at the baby on board.

If you've ever been that person on a flight — the kind who smiles and makes faces at babies held up in front of you — thank you. It can make a difference. On the flight there especially, there was one person sitting a row or two behind us who had endless patience with making Freddie laugh as we held him up in the last half-hour of the flight. I'll never know who it was, but I think it helped avoid what could have been a potential crying meltdown.

It will be worth it

A baby in a lake, held up by a floatie
S.S. Freddie, near Digby, NS.

I could have talked myself out of taking this trip with Freddie a million times before we did it. After all, he's not going to remember any of this. What's the point?

But it was worth it. Not necessarily for him, but for us. This will forever be one of the first big things we did this as a family — as a team. And while there were definitely a bunch of stressful moments over the course of the trip where I was wishing we were back at home, memories of those stressful moments will fade. They'll make way for better moments that'll burrow deep into my memory. Moments like Freddie swimming (as much as babies can swim) in the same lake his mom swam in when she was a kid, or Freddie getting a book read to him for the first time by his maternal grandfather.

So I'm glad we did it.

But, of course, I was so glad to be home at the end of it, too.

Another moment that will stick with me: as we were leaving the airport in Toronto, a woman stopped us as we were exiting an elevator. "Your baby was so good," she said, unprompted. We just smiled and said "thank you" but here's what I was thinking: damn right.

Damn right. He was good. He is good. I'm proud when others get to see that.

A baby and his father, selfie style
Just two guys waiting around in Nova Scotia.