I took my first international flight when I was 10 days old, flying from Salt Lake City to Tokyo, Japan, on Christmas Eve. It’s a story my parents love to tell. How peaceful I was compared to my two older sisters, how much attention I received as a tiny baby at the airport. How exciting it was for me to get my first passport stamp at only 10 days old.
As a parent myself however, I’ve wrestled with this question multiple times since both babies and traveling with kids are a huge part of my life. How young is too young to travel?
The laws surrounding infant travel and the logistics of it are not in alignment. And everyone, it seems, from pediatricians to parenting experts to parents themselves have an opinion. While I don’t have a definitive answer, I do think the question is worth considering — especially as I await baby #3 and my jet-setting ways are far from behind me.
So, How Young Is Too Young to Travel?
First, let’s consider the legalities of infant travel. Airlines have various policies on newborn travel, which you should definitely keep in mind before you book your airline tickets. Most have a minimum age requirement, usually between 2 days old to 2 weeks old. Some airlines require a doctor’s note before allowing a newborn to fly. Check your airline to see what their policy is since their policy is what will determine your trip.
Proof of your baby’s age is also necessary. If your government birth certificate hasn’t arrived yet, you’ll need alternative proof. Usually a vaccination or hospital form will work. But international air travel isn’t a possibility without a passport (if traveling from the United States by car or by sea to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean, a child under the age of 16 can pass with just a copy of his or her birth certificate).
Generally, passports take 6-8 weeks to obtain, but you can pay to expedite them and get them within 2-3 weeks. Since most new parents are recovering during this time period, getting a passport right away may not be at the top of their list (also, keep in mind that both parents have to be present for a child or infant under 16 to obtain a passport to sign Form DS-11).
And while infant air travel may be possible as young as 2 days old, it’s not always advisable.
What Pediatricians Have to Say
Childcare experts have their own opinions, but most are in agreement. Unnecessary air travel shortly after birth is generally discouraged. This is largely due to your newborn’s immune system, which is still developing. Since planes use recirculated air in their ventilation systems, one passenger’s cold can be broadcast throughout the plane. Adults are better equipped to fight off infections than infants. And some babies are more susceptible than others. But the risk is definitely there.
Most pediatricians have a set of general rules they will abide by for flying with babies. They will approve a 4-6 week old baby taking an airplane flight. But only healthy babies. Premature infants, or those with respiratory issues are not advised to go. One reason for this, according to The Mayo Clinic, is the air pressure in an aircraft cabin. During a flight, the air pressure is lower than the air pressure on land. Healthy babies may be fine with the temporary change in oxygen level. But babies born prematurely, or those with lung or heart problems may not be able to handle it.
Their ears are also a concern. Changing cabin pressure can trigger ear pain. While feeding the baby during takeoff and landing or offering a pacifier can help, it may be too much pain for the baby. And those with an existing ear infection will be in even worse pain.
Ultimately, the decision should be brought to your child’s pediatrician. They will have a clear idea of whether or not your baby is ready to fly. They’ll also be able to check their ears for an infection and provide tools you can use to soothe the baby during the flight.
Where you’re going is also a concern for pediatricians. Because most newborns have not received all of their essential immunizations, certain locations may be dangerous for them to visit. The CDC advises parents to make sure their child’s routine vaccines are completed before traveling overseas. The most common illnesses for children traveling abroad are diarrhea and malaria. If a country recommends travel vaccines for malaria and yellow fever, it may not be safe for your child to go. Although most First World countries are not a huge risk, your pediatrician should still be consulted.
Ultimately, parents and pediatricians should reach a consensus on infant travel. A lot depends on the child and the location, and there is no one-size-fits-all determining factor.
You may also enjoy reading: Everything You Need to Know About Traveling with a Baby
Why Travel With Children in the First Place?
Once you consider the safety factor, I think it’s important to ask yourself why you want to travel with your children, especially when they are very young. It’s a question I have asked myself many times, especially during long, red-eye flights with babies that won’t sleep.
It seems like it would be easier not to bring babies — but actually, as a parent with a five-year-old, I can say that traveling with an infant is the easiest. Babies are so portable and the younger they are, the more true that is. They can’t walk yet, so they won’t try to run down the aisle of the plane. They can’t talk yet, so you won’t be hounded with incessant requests or whining. They will sleep anywhere, eat anywhere, and since they’re up all night anyway, jet lag isn’t a huge factor.
We took our daughter on her first trip abroad at four months old to Jamaica and it was a breeze. She slept in a pack-and-play next to the bed and throughout the day, in her stroller. This allowed us to eat meals in relative peace; take long, leisurely walks; and rest ourselves — something that has eluded us on vacations once our girls reached the toddler years. There was no need to bring activities for the plane, because all babies really need, is you. Some of my favorite trips were when my daughter was very young. Later, we took our 3.5-year-old and 6-month-old to Europe for two weeks. My husband and I definitely flipped a coin to decide who could sit with the baby on the flight versus the toddler, because she was so easy in comparison.
I, for one, believe that travel, even for very young children, is beneficial. As someone who cares deeply about exposing my children to a variety of different cultures, races, and belief systems — it’s a big motivation for me to bring them along. If they prefer the familiar, why not familiarize them with more than just their own language and race and culture?
Still – I would hate to expose my children to more than just diversity by traveling with them unnecessarily. Illness, disease, and the regular risks that adults take when traveling are obviously not worth my child’s exposure to diverse cultures. Not to mention, some children are better travelers than others and are equipped to deal with flight delays and jet lag and strange foods.
Ultimately, I don’t think there is one right answer for how young is too young to travel. I believe it depends on the parents and their disposition, the location and reason for travel, and of course — the child themselves. For some locations, it may make sense to leave the child with a trusted caregiver. Other trips, it may be ideal — or even necessary (as in the case of a move) — to bring the child.
Fundamentally, travel is an important part of my life and my family’s culture. But as our family continues to grow, I’m beginning to look at each trip on a case-by-case basis. Checking off another item from my bucket list doesn’t feel as pressing to me now as it did five years ago when I first became a mom. Partly because we have continued to fuel our itch for travel (sometimes leaving, sometimes taking our children), and partly because my children, as cheesy as it may sound, have become my bucket list.
The longer I’m a parent, the more I’m learning that there are good and bad times to travel with children. Some years are better spent close to home. Other years (or even months) are ideal for jet-setting. There is no right answer. All I know is that I want to see the world with them — when they’re ready for it.