Flying with a Newborn: When Can You Jet Off on Your First Adventure?

My eldest was just a couple weeks old when my husband and I took her to Shanghai to declare her US citizenship. In China, as in most places, you have the option of holding your baby on your lap. You should know though that the FAA says the safest way for a newborn to travel on planes is in a child seat.

Another thing you should know:

It’s not free to fly with a newborn baby on your lap, though the fees are computed as a percentage. The Points Guy is great with all kinds of flying tips and has a very detailed section on this and why in some cases, it’s just cheaper to bring the car seat and pay for the use of a full airline seat.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. For starters, where are you going on your trip? There’s a lot to think about when it comes to flying with a newborn. When you’re planning a trip with your infant along for the ride, it changes everything.

What do you pack? How do you know what to do? What if your baby cries? Don’t worry, doll. As usual, I’ve got you covered.

This post is specifically about the particulars of flying with a newborn, though. I’ve already written a post about flying with breastmilk, so please go there to check out what you need to know about TSA and all that good stuff.

When is it Safe to Fly with a Newborn?

In most cases, flying with an infant is entirely appropriate. BUT (ah yes, there it is!), you should always confirm with an airline official before booking your trip. Each airline has specific rules they adhere to.

Generally speaking, it’s wise to ask your pediatrician first. You may also need to present a note from the doctor to be granted permission by the airline to fly. If you can wait at all to take your travels, you may want to hold off.

We had to get to Shanghai to declare our daughter as a US citizen, but we did wait a few weeks to help her build her immunity. Still, as an infant, she was more susceptible to illness by being on a plane full of strangers, most with less-than-sanitary habits. If you can’t postpone traveling with your baby, you should take steps to keep things sanitized to keep her protected.

As I mentioned, every airline adheres to policies they set about newborn travel. Each one varies, and further, they vary by country. In just about every scenario, you’ll need a medical clearance form filled out by your pediatrician in the first week or two after birth. Some will only permit this if you fill out an official airline form signed by the doctor while others will gladly accept a letter of permission your doctor writes.

To be sure, you should contact the airline directly with your questions to ensure you have the most up-to-date information. Currently, JetBlue insists on a doctor’s letter for babies younger than 14 days but will allow you to fly with a baby that’s just 3 days old. American Airlines will allow babies as young as 2 days old with a medical form.

Internationally, it’s very similar to most North American flight carriers with some notable differences. Emirates will not allow you to fly with a baby younger than 7 days unless the reason for your travels if for emergency treatment. British Airways allows babies to fly just 2 days after birth unless you had a C-section or another surgery immediately after the birth (in which case, you must wait 10 days after delivery and get medical clearance with the airline too).

Mother holding her newborn inside of a flight

The bottom line on flying with an infant:

Talk to the airline and make sure all policies are unambiguous and that you have the proper paperwork to go along with it to avoid any problems.

And then, there’s proving the age of your baby. Airlines need proof of your baby’s age. But in those first couple weeks of life, how do you get that? In the states, you still won’t have that Social Security card or even the official birth certificate. So what do you do?

In China, we had the discharge papers from the hospital to present as well as some sort of Chinese proof of birth. In most hospitals anywhere, you can get this information to present as an acceptable form to prove the birthdate of your child. Again, you can ask the airline you’re using what they will accept for proof. They are all very aware that birth certificates and other official items take time to receive.

How do I get a newborn plane ticket?

For all kids under the age of 2, most airlines will permit you to hold your child on your lap. This spares you the fee of purchasing an additional seat. Again, The Points Guy has great information on the particulars of this.

In China, using car seats is rather uncommon, especially on airplanes. When my eldest was a baby, we took several trips with her, the first of which was to Shanghai. Later on, just before she turned 1, we took her to Beijing. On both of those trips, I held her in my lap.

I wore her in a baby carrier onto the plane. I was asked to remove her from it during takeoff and landing. When she cried and fussed and I wore her during the flights, walking up and down the aisle to soothe her, the flight attendants didn’t mind.

However, many airlines do have rules about using baby carriers on airplanes. The reason is that they can be more harmful due to the g-force. You’re better off holding the baby or using a full-fledged car seat. There was an instance with Frontier airlines a few years ago for this very reason.

For complete safety, you should buy a seat and keep your baby in the car seat within that seat. The flight attendants can help make sure you secure it properly. When you do, though, you’ll need to buy the seat.

Most of you traveling in domestic situations will want to take that car seat unless you’re going somewhere that choosing one would be a hindrance.

Case in point: China

Just about any taxi, you jump in is missing seatbelts in the back, making it impossible to tether your car seat safely. Even strollers are a bit of an impediment in China. Lack of ramps and accessibility make it complicated. You’re better off taking the carrier along and just removing it during the flight.

What if I’m planning the trip before the baby is born?

That’s a great question! The best thing you can do is call the airline and ask. Most of the time, they’ll tell you to book the tickets to reserve your seats and after the birth, to add your newborn to the reservation. Last-minute tickets are always outrageous in price plus many airlines limit how many newborns can be on any one particular flight.

Also, with international travel, you can request a bassinet to make your life a whole lot easier, but the amount of those available is limited. When we moved back to the states, we were supposed to have one for my youngest, but they split up our seats. I was stuck next to a rude older couple that, no matter how kindly we asked them in their native tongue, refused to let us sit together. I wound up holding my youngest the whole way back to America.

Having multiples?

It’s very common for airlines to limit each adult to one infant, but if you’re flying alone with more than one baby, the airline may request that one baby has to buy a seat. This is because you can’t safely hold both babies in your lap during the flight.

Potential Health Risks for Newborns

As I said earlier, newborns are at more risk to catch illnesses. In most cases, they’re too young for vaccinations. It’s wise that before you go anywhere on a plane with your baby, especially anywhere international, that you speak to your pediatrician to ensure the health and safety of your baby. Some destinations may require you to have immunizations, and your doctor will know exactly what to do.

The other thing about flying with babies is this: they can’t pop their ears by chewing gum or swallowing like adults can do. They don’t know how to handle that pain, and THAT is why they cry during the flight, particularly during takeoff and landing.

My ultimate recommendation is to breastfeed your baby during these times to help ease her through the changing pressure. The suckling will help pop the ears naturally and keep your baby calm.

Baby cry

And guess what, even if your baby does cry (for ear pressure or otherwise), it’s a baby. Most people I’ve found are incredibly kind when you’re trying to do everything you can to quiet your crying baby down on a flight. Many will even try to help you. If anyone makes a snide comment or a nasty face, ignore them and thank your lucky stars that you’re not such a miserable person.

For most healthy babies, these are the only potential problems. However, if your baby has any chronic heart or lung problems or was born prematurely, your doctor may completely advise against flying with your newborn.

What Should I Bring When Flying with My Newborn?

You should know that most airlines allow you to check baby gear like strollers and car seats without it counting toward your checked luggage. That means there are no extra fees. If you want to hold your baby on your lap but check your car seat, you can do so without trouble. You can even bring it to the gate and have it checked from there.

Using the car seat on the plane though is most recommended, and most car seats for infants are certified for air travel. The only time I’d advise against this is if traveling to a place like China where it’s hard to use a car seat. Other destinations that are in developing countries might be the same. It’s wise to research other countries and see what their policies are on child safety seats.

Something else you will be glad to hear is that your diaper bag doesn’t count as a carry-on either. So if you needed to bring your baby and your laptop for work, there’s no need to choose or try to stuff your laptop in a bag full of diapers and baby supplies.

Quick Tips on Essentials for Baby on Flights

And finally, I’d like to end with this quick bit of tips for what you should have directly on you at ALL times when engaging in air travel with a newborn.

Diapers, diapers, diapers

You can’t have too many of these. Because if you get delayed, you’ll go through all of them and need to seek out other well-prepared moms to help you.

Change of clothes

Throw an extra onesie or two in the diaper bag. Make sure you have at least two pairs of baby socks that fit well in case you lose a sock or two). Layers are great if the temperature changes so you can keep baby comfortable.

Change of clothes for you too

When my youngest was a newborn, we took her to Guangzhou. I was nursing her, and she spits up all over my shirt. I’m so happy I had an extra t-shirt in my carry-on. I also had an extra pair of leggings, but thankfully, my pants were still clean.

Receiving blanket

Bring a couple of these to use to keep your baby cozy.

Wipes and sanitizer

Always bring these anywhere you go with a newborn, no questions asked.

Breast and/or bottle-feeding needs

If you read my post about flying with breastmilk or formula, you’ll know what to do for requirements. Don’t forget anything you may need related to feeding though from bottles to the breast pump if you worry you might become engorged and need to release excess milk, storage bags for milk, and a breast cover if you feel more comfortable nursing that way (you don’t need to cover up, but at least for me, I felt more at ease nursing in public when I had one).

The good news is that once you endure one flight with a newborn, every other flight after that is so much easier. When all else fails, smile and know you’ll get there soon!

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