Traveling with baby.
As I boarded the plane and made my way to my seat, I instinctively placed a protective hand over my five-week-old son’s face. He was strapped to me in a Baby Bjorn, his tiny head nestled comfortably on my chest. Some one ahead of me sneezed and I wondered what the spray pattern of the germs might be. Should I duck? Probably wouldn’t help.
My ever-supportive husband was wrangling the over-stuffed nappy bag down the aisle behind me, with varying success, and between the cursing under his breath I could hear him apologizing profusely to the passengers who had sustained bodily harm in one form or another due to the unwieldy bag.
We’d booked the flight from Istanbul to Cape Town before my son was born. I’d called the airline to add an infant to our booking.
“Name of the child?” the booking agent had asked.
“Um, I’m not sure” I’d replied, sounding like an idiot.
“You’re not sure?” she’d asked, thinking I was an idiot, or a child smuggler.
“You see, he hasn’t been born yet” I tried to explain pathetically.
An audible sigh. “You can’t pay tax for an infant who hasn’t been born yet.” A disinterested back and forth with a supervisor finally found a solution.
I knew nothing about travelling with a baby. I read online that it’s best not to travel in the first four weeks. So five weeks would be fine then, right? I was so clueless. But with ignorance comes bravery, so in my head it would all be fine.
I’ll admit, I was pretty terrified on that first flight. What if my baby cried all night? What if everyone on the plane hated me? How could I whip my boob out next to a stranger less than three inches away from me? What if I squirted my kid in the eye as he was about to latch and his tiny flailing arms pulled the nursing cover off, exposing me in full lactating glory? I’d be arrested when we landed for indecent exposure.
My paranoia had extended to packing too. I had packed an inordinate amount of ‘stuff’. I mean, it was ridiculous, but as a first time mum I had no idea what my newborn would need.
How many nappies for the plane? Just bring them all.
How many changes of clothes? Eight? Better bring nine.
Baby Bjorn, car seat, pram, three changes of clothes per day for three weeks, plus extra for accidents (apparently washing as we went hadn’t occurred to me. NO! I had to take everything!).
Would I be able to bath him without his hooded Tigger towel?
What would happen if I didn’t bath him in his bathtub, with the exact biological shampoo I’d used since his birth?
How do you take a Moses basket on a plane? And the wooden rocker that goes with it? He needs to ROCK AT NIGHT!
Looking back, I was ridiculous.
A raving lunatic some (my husband) might say.
My baby paraphernalia was my safety net. In those early weeks of motherhood where sleep deprivation and disorientation became my constant companions, at least I had my stuff. I couldn’t conceive of a world, or a happy baby, without it. I eventually compromised on the bathtub and Moses basket, but everything else was squeezed in.
That first flight was a baptism of fire for me. I was thrown in the deep end and I fully expected to sink, my postpartum blubber mutinously ineffective at keeping me afloat.
Except, we didn’t sink. My infant son was an angel. He didn’t cry once. He slept soundly the whole time, waking only to feed, which I found I could do easily in my seat. The guy next to me only saw my boob once. OK twice.
During our blissful three weeks in South Africa I found that I didn’t need even a quarter of the ‘stuff’ I thought I did. That was a huge realization for me: as long as my baby was fed, had a clean nappy and had me close I could pretty much take him anywhere.
Continuing to travel after kids: Do it! It’s amazing…
That was the start of our traveling life. As expats in Istanbul we had the opportunity to explore Turkey, and Europe was right on our doorstep. My son posed with soldiers at the Tower of London (they and he were unmoved), we sipped coffee alongside pretty canals in Amsterdam (I spent the whole time fanning the air in front of my son’s nose to dissipate the clouds of weed we kept walking through), he had his first taste of gelato in Rome, and took his first steps in Lucca. He threw coins into the Trevi Fountain when he was eight months old, and sucked on squid tentacles in Greece. He played in ancient stone gutters in Ephesus, rode a camel in Cappadocia and splashed in hot springs in Pamukkale. And later, when our second son arrived we went on safari in South Africa, marveled at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and imagined we were ancient Greeks at the Acropolis in Athens.
…and it’s also challenging.
That all sounds great, right? Like we’re a perfect traveling family; that I’m a flawless mum with impeccably behaved kids flitting around the world, right?
Oh, OHH not even close.
You see, I could have written the above paragraph like this:
That was the start of our traveling life. My son vomited on himself and me three times on our first solo flight to London, I had to disembark with him wrapped in a blanket because I didn’t have any more clean clothes for him. In Florence he had such a huge poo explosion that it took us forty-five minutes and two packs of wet wipes to get him, the car seat and the car clean. My husband observed wryly that it looked like the scene of an accident. In Rome we attempted a romantic dinner out, but our son refused to sleep and we ended up eating in shifts while we took turns to pace up and down a dimly lit back alley in the freezing cold with a wide-awake fussy baby. In Antwerp our newly-mobile son insisted on walking by himself, except he’d totter a few steps then trip over on the cobblestones. We spent that trip avoiding all cobbled streets just so he could walk and prevent a meltdown (and avoiding cobbled streets in Antwerp is practically impossible). During the flight from South Africa to Dubai my second son decided he didn’t like the food in front of him and kicked the tray in protest. The mashed potato and gravy flew in a perfect arch to land in the hair of the lady sitting in front of him. On our recent trip to Spain, my eldest caught a violent bug and spent a night in hospital on a drip.
There are good times, and bad…oh so bad.
You see, for every beautiful life affirming moment during our travels, there have been as many (or more) stressful, chaotic, messy moments where I just wanted to sit down and cry (and sometimes I did). Traveling with kids is not easy, and don’t believe anyone who says it is. Even when the kids are well behaved, and the flight uneventful, as a parent I’m always worried that something might happen. It’s the unpredictability that’s crippling. You may have had five good flights but just when you begin to think you’ve got this traveling thing down pat, you’ll have such a horrendous string of moments you’ll wonder if you can even survive take off.
But here’s the thing: kids who travel are kids who learn first hand.
I am committed to raising environmentally conscious and socially aware children who are well informed about the world around them, and tolerant of the many types of people they share it with. I find it alarming and sad that we live in a world where racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and religious intolerance is simmering so insidiously beneath the surface. It is my job as a mother of boys to ensure that my kids grow into men who don’t perpetuate these vile stereotypes. And for me, the best way to do this is through travel and conversation. Experience and information brings illumination and tolerance. Showing them our world is a priority. And it starts from birth.
I’ve never understood people who say travel is lost on children. Is it because it’s hard work? Because you are convinced a young child won’t remember the holiday? Surely traveling is about the conversations you have along the way just as much as the memories you make? And you’ll be surprised how much kids do remember. My four year old can remember seeing lions eating a buffalo on safari in South Africa, and he remembers the dung beetles (random). He is inherently interested in what he saw and we talk about animals and caring for our world in a meaningful way that he can connect to on an experiential level. My older son remembers that in Dubai and Istanbul some men wear long clothes and some mamas wear clothes that cover their faces. This leads to discussions about religion and culture and how people are different, and it’s not just an empty abstract concept.
I also don’t believe travel is lost on babies. My kids travel so well now because they’ve been doing it from birth. They sleep anywhere (usually), are pretty patient (for their ages) in queues, and are fine on long road trips (if one doesn’t throw up). Babies can be taught to travel well (yes, I know there are exceptions). And I’ve found that as a parent, being forced to muck in and make do on the road has calmed me down enormously, which has been a benefit in our everyday lives too.
Travel is never wasted.
You are not alone. There is a community of traveling parents who want to share their insights.
Seven years ago when I started traveling with my son, there really wasn’t much support out there, or places where we could get advice or tips on traveling with a baby or young child. But it just didn’t occur to me to stop traveling after I had kids and so I muddled through. Today there are many resources offering travel advice, from travel blogs to small businesses selling in flight entertainment for your kids. One such website is Bebe Voyage, founded by a group of mums who, like me refused to give up traveling once their babies were born. Over the years the site has grown to include baby friendly city guides (they are very thorough!), packing tips, child friendly itineraries, and general advice for traveling families. Their Facebook group is a place to ask questions and get advice about specific destinations, things to do, how to cope etc. I find the Facebook group invaluable because every question, no matter how trivial is taken seriously, and there are many different perspectives and insights on offer.
Dine in peace…with your little ones!
For those of you who have had (or fear having) a nightmare dining-with-kids experience like we did in Rome, fear not! Bebe Voyage has joined forces with Nibble+Squeak to launch the Golden Bib Awards, recognizing outstanding family-friendly quality dining experiences around the globe. Nibble+Squeak are also hosting a month of dining with your kids opportunities which will include New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., London, and Sydney. The first event will be in Chicago at Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill.
The big celebration will take place on Thursday, October 27 at 11AM at Frontera Grill, 445 North Clark Street. Ticket prices are $66 for the three-course meal and agua fresca or $76 for the meal plus a margarita, both inclusive of tax and gratuity. And all children eat FREE, thanks to Mommy Nearest! RSVP is required; to order tickets or for more information, please visit: http://www.nibbleandsqueak.com/chicago.
Do you travel with your kids? Is it wonderful or a nightmare? Share your thoughts with me!
Oh, and this post is not sponsored. I use Bebe Voyage a lot and find the advice really helpful when planning our next destination.