Are you a parent who can’t wait to take your first-born on an international journey? Are you childless but curious about the behind-the-scenes excitement of travelling with a wee one? From pre-trip delusions and anxiety, through undoing airplane seatbelts to skipping the immigration line at Narita Airport, we share our tips and discoveries taking our baby to Japan.
Evolving into a parent traveller
Swapping night-before packing marathons with week-in-advance prep, learning meditation to handle guaranteed craziness with maybe a little grace, kind of resting before travel, and arriving at the airport earlier than ever before are new standards of travel. If these were the only tweaks necessary, travel with baby would be sweet. Alas, there is more, so ever much more.
Buying sanity in the form of a car seat*
If you can afford it and it fits with your travel plans, buy a seat for your baby and take a car seat. You get another checked bag and one more seat worth of space on the plane. This is welcome since baby luggage volume is inversely proportionate to baby volume.
Once baby fell asleep, Hitoshi and I could eat a meal, watch movies, read a book and even stare at the ceiling. Taking care of baby on our own since the beginning made these moments novel and most welcome. If your baby skips this section and stays awake the entire flight, I’m so sorry!
*see the Car Seat Supplement at the end for points to be aware of
Security is was it is. Travelling with a baby threw us a twist or two we didn’t expect. Baby had to be carried through the gates, but not in the carrier. In fact, we had to remove baby from the carrier and send it (the carrier, not the baby) through the x-ray. If you use a carrier, hold baby in your arms before you enter security.
The façade of priority boarding
Before baby, I envied parents who got to board first. Waiting at the gate for our first flight, I imagined a relaxed and quiet stroll onto the aircraft. Installing the car seat was bliss and we had ample time to put our bags away and settle in before another passenger set foot on the plane.
Reality was harsh.
After we got us and our bags on the plane, we had about 17 seconds to find a spot for everything in a space the size of a horizontal broom closet before a panting wave of fellow passengers careened and squashed down the narrow aisles. Since every flight was full, we had to be fast to get space in the overhead bins nearest us while juggling baby, the car seat and the bits we wanted with us at our seats.
The only advantage of getting on the plane early was the chance to change baby’s diaper before we took off. The downside was having to weave to the back of the plane where the toilets were and then return to our seats through the crush of boarding passengers.
Installing the car seat and relief!
You’ve made it on the plane first, last or somewhere in between. A flight attendant, travel partner or stranger has your baby and it’s showtime. The players are a car seat, an economy plane seat and you. Are you ready?
The first flight was domestic and installing the seat was too easy. Like a car, face the seat to the rear of the plane, use the arrow guide to level the seat, thread the two airplane seatbelt straps through the guides on the car seat, buckle them closed, and pull the belt tight. I was surprised how easy it was to get the plane seatbelt secure.
The second flight was the international one with the skinnier seat. Sweat started to drizzle down my back as I pushed and pulled the inflexible car seat. I was starting to panic until I lifted the arm rests of the airplane seat, followed the above steps, and pushed the arm rests back down.
Once the seat was buckled in, it was a pain to get baby in the seat. Our doe-eyed creature’s suddenly straight legs taunted us as we shimmied them under the airplane seatbelt. Once that test was won, we had to buckle baby into the car seat working around the wide restrainer while baby slapped and fiddled with the shiny, target-like buckle. Putting baby into the car seat first before securing the airplane seatbelt is logical and recommended.
How do I keep baby occupied?
Pray that baby sleeps?? Our baby was not walking and congrats to those who fly with a freshly mobile baby. It is so hard to function when you’ve been awake for over 20 hours, your baby is having the party of a lifetime and all you want to do is (a) get off the tin can you’re trapped in NOW and (b) sleep.
We brought books and toys but baby was most fascinated with the airplane seatbelt buckle, sucking on the airplane seatbelt straps, and playing with our water bottles.
When the seatbelt sign was off, we put baby in the carrier and bounced and jiggled in the aisle near our seats. While baby enjoyed this and the attention from other passengers, it completely failed at getting baby to fall asleep.
Get as much rest as you can before you leave and be prepared to sing, dance and entertain baby for the entire journey and then some. If baby sleeps, enjoy the break! If not, know that you are in my thoughts.
Poopy pants and other explosions
Changing baby at our seats was less than desirable. Using the microscopic toilet was barely better. Incredibly, those tiny wash”rooms” shrink when you’ve got a wriggling babe in your arms.
The pull-down change table was hard as a rock and freezing cold. I wasn’t paying attention and clonked baby’s head. What was supposed to be a quick diaper swap became a project with a miserable, shivering, scared baby. Along with a diaper and wipes, stuff a padded change pad in your pocket before heading to the loo.
Bring the following on the plane to deal with liquid and solid excitement:
- jumbo package of wipes
- diapers to last your journey plus at least two days. Luggage gets lost and hunting for diapers in a new land, jet-lagged and bewildered is undesirable.
- towels of different sizes and receiving blankets for personal protection and mopping up messes plus plastic bags for used ones
- Sleepers are handy but dressing baby in separates mean easier changes, especially when messes stick to one zone.
- We didn’t sit in pukey clothes for seven hours but we wouldn’t want to. Bring extra clothing for you!
Babies go through a surprising amount of clothing every day. Airplane climates vary. Luggage doesn’t always arrive when you do. Bring enough layering outfits and outerwear for the journey plus two days with you – not in your checked bags!
Food on the plane and baby-led weaning
We follow baby-led weaning so baby had never had commercial baby food. We brought food for the first part of the journey and pre-ordered a low-salt meal for baby for the international flight. Before dinner was served, we were handed an icy, cardboard box that contained a jar of puréed meat and a little tub of fruit mush. I didn’t ask about the missing meal at the time. Baby got the leftovers from my dinner and we relied primarily on breastfeeding until Japan. If you follow baby-led weaning and order a meal, check to make sure you can get it. If not, consider introducing baby to prepared food for convenience before your trip.
We brought baby’s cutlery, cups and bibs on the plane for familiarity. Thank goodness because the plastic drinking cups were not sturdy enough for baby’s hands and teeth/gums. Bring a towel or receiving blankets for your lap to stay a little cleaner and drier.
Breastfeeding on the plane and stayed hydrated
The seats were really cramped for breastfeeding. If baby’s head was towards the aisle, there was a chance it would be knocked by a cart or person in the aisle. The other direction squished baby into the car seat. Jamming the airplane blanket into the armrest made it reasonably comfortable for me while I turned on an angle to create a comfy space for baby to feed.
Drinking water on the 11-hour international flight wasn’t difficult as I never slept and took advantage of the flight attendants offering water. Hitoshi and I also brought bottles and filled them after security, carrying four litres of water onto the plane.
Yay for landing! Boo for getting off the plane.
Before baby, the wait from landing to leaving the plane seemed to take forever. After baby, the process seemed far too efficient. The entire plane was empty while we were madly stuffing our multiplying belongings into bags that had shrunk in flight. It didn’t help that two flight attendants were standing over us, offering assistance. I was convinced we had left one quarter of our things in and under the seats.
Part of the problem was extended turbulence for the last three hours of the flight. This meant no sorting out stuff that we couldn’t reach strapped in and me naïvely thinking I could quickly organize our stuff once we landed. Save yourself anxiety after far too many hours of travel and attempt to stay somewhat organized far before you land. Better yet, pack fold-up bags that you can chuck stuff into and sort later.
You don’t have a stroller?!
When we finally dragged ourselves and our junk off the plane, the staff were incredulous that we didn’t have a stroller. I felt the same when we discovered there were no luggage carts as far as we could see. Narita involves a lot of walking regardless and the Air Canada gate is in the boondocks.
We finally came across petite carts after a solid ten minutes of lugging, groaning, and sweating. This was only a brief reprieve as the carts had to be abandoned before going down the escalators for immigration.
Two positives on way were toilets and water fountains. There was even a curtained breastfeeding room off the path!
Skipping the immigration line
When Hitoshi and I went back to Japan the first and second time, we stood in separate lines – Hitoshi in the Japanese passport line and me in the Foreigner line. I thought this was stupid. It took Hitoshi all of ten minutes to go through while I was still 30 minutes away from an officer.
Travelling with our baby, there was no way I was going to have us split up. Finding a note online by a non-Japanese hubby travelling with his Japanese wife inspired me. All he did was ask a staff member at immigration and a booth was opened for them to transition through together.
I convinced Hitoshi to speak to the first officer we saw. Not only was it okay for us to go to a special line but my parents could join us. We were directed to the first booth at the far end marked for diplomats, those with disabilities, and… families with small children. Despite my fingerprints failing to scan four times, we still made it through in record time.
On your way! Sort of. Remember the car seat?
Hitoshi’s family met us at the airport with vehicles. We use a click-in car seat base in Canada. The seat base didn’t make the trip. Practice installing a car seat with a seatbelt before arriving in Japan, at night, in torrential rain, feeling sleep deprived and irritable.
Travel schedules and baby zzzzzzzzs
If you can, fly when baby would normally sleep. This worked on both international flights so the first couple of hours were restful!
Baby food and baby-friendly restaurants in Japan, where we stayed, and our travels in Japan are around the corner.
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Car Seat Supplement
While I am no expert on car seats and flying, this is what we did before booking a seat for baby.
Carefully read the car seat manual to confirm the seat is approved for airplanes and for installation instructions. Bring the manual with you on the plane.
Check the car seat policies of EVERY airline you are flying with. Be prepared to prove the car seat is safe to fly for the return journey. Know where the sticker is on the seat to show check-in staff. Consider printing documentation that clearly explains the meaning of the sticker. We ran into trouble leaving Japan and could have used this.
Check the Department of Transport or the like for car seat use on planes and automobiles for each country you will travel to.
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