Traveling with kids can be a messy business. It can get especially messy when you’re flying with a baby and it comes time for changing diapers on a plane. Why? Because – believe it or not – many airplanes do not have diaper changing tables. Here’s what you need to know.

6 Tips for Changing a Diaper on a Plane

A happy sight – a changing table in an airline lavatory.
Photo credit: Leslie Harvey / Frequent Flyer TravelingMom

Changing Diapers on a Plane

I remember well the first time I found myself flying with a baby onboard an airplane with no changing table. I was on a cross-country flight, and my daughter was 6 months old. I wondered how any reasonable airline could expect parents to go more than five hours without changing their baby’s diaper. As a traveling parent, however, you need to be prepared to deal with this reality.

Here are my top 6 tips for mastering the art of changing diapers on a plane.

1) Research your airline & flight before booking.

Some airlines and some airplanes are better than others when it comes to diaper changing. Mercifully, two U.S. airlines have changing tables aboard every flight: JetBlue and Virgin America. With other U.S. airlines, your experiences will vary. Small “puddle jumper” planes rarely have changing tables on board. Luckily, these flights are shorter so you may be able to get by without needing to change any diapers on board. Many larger planes will have at least one diaper changing table. The older the plane, however, the less likely it is to have a changing table on board. Rest assured that I’ve never yet been on a transatlantic or transpacific flight without a changing table, no matter what the airline.

Tips for Changing a Baby's Diaper on an Airplane

A recent San Francisco to Chicago 4 hour flight – no changing table in sight.
Photo credit: Leslie Harvey / Frequent Flyer TravelingMom

2) Change your baby’s diaper before boarding is scheduled to start.

To minimize the number of times you need to change diapers in-flight, be sure to change your baby’s diaper right before you get on the airplane. Domestic flights board approximately 30-40 minutes before the scheduled flight time (check your boarding pass, as it often displays boarding time). Be sure to leave enough time to be back at the gate before boarding starts, especially if you are able to pre-board with children on your particular airline.

3) Ask the flight attendant if there is a changing table on board.

When you are on an airplane and there is no diaper changing table in sight, you should check with a flight attendant. Some airplanes have only one lavatory on board that has a changing table. It may not be in your cabin or section of the plane, so you might miss it unless you ask.

4) Change your baby’s diaper on top of the airplane toilet seat.

If there is no changing table on board, you have to get creative. And by creative, I do not mean changing your baby’s diaper on your tray table (yuck!) or even on an empty seat. These choices are inconsiderate to other passengers and not really sanitary.

The next best spot to change a diaper is on top of the closed airplane toilet seat. Flight attendants will sometimes give you a blanket to spread out, but don’t count on it. I like to bring a few large disposable changing pads for this purpose and throw them away. The toilet seat is very small, so this method only works well with infants. For older babies and toddlers, I recommend trying a standing diaper change while balancing your little one on top of the closed toilet seat. Practice at home so your first attempt at a standing diaper change isn’t in turbulence at 30,000 feet!

Tips for Changing a Baby's Diaper on an Airplane

The seatback tray table – not an acceptable changing table!
Photo credit: Leslie Harvey / Frequent Flyer TravelingMom

5) Change your baby’s diaper on the floor of the airplane galley.

A dirty floor isn’t exactly my idea of an ideal changing spot, but it is a reasonable fallback in some circumstances. Frankly, the floor has to be cleaner and more spacious than a toilet seat, right?

Not all flight attendants will let you use the galley floor, so ask first. Some will even insist it is against the rules of their airline. But other flight attendants have encouraged me to make use of their galley floors when they’ve seen I was in a diaper-changing bind. It probably goes without saying that you’ll need a disposable changing pad for this kind of diaper change too.

6) Change your baby’s diaper in your lap.

Changing your baby in your lap is a method of last resort. I’ve done this on occasions when we were stuck in our seats due to extended turbulence and our diaper changing situation became dire.  It is hard to do with larger babies, although two parents working in tandem and spreading a child across two laps can get it done. It really should be reserved for wet diapers only.  Changing a soiled diaper in an airplane cabin is smelly business and will bother seat mates. As parents, however, we’ve all experienced true soiled diaper emergencies, so do what you have to do.

Tips for Changing Diapers on a Plane

Photo credit: Leslie Harvey / Frequent Flyer TravelingMom