Ahhh…the dreaminess of summer vacation. Strolling endless stretches of sandy-white beaches…sipping pina coladas while taking in a jazz trio…paddling a canoe across a wooded pond…immersing yourself in a contemporary sculpture exhibit. Sounds marvelous…but is any of it possible if you share your vacation with baby?
First-time parents are usually overwhelmed by their new arrival. The very idea of taking the whole operation, with requisite STUFF, on a trip can be intimidating to the most seasoned of travelers. But trust me, you can make it happen, and it can even feel like fun. The trick is being prepared. Having traveled with my son numerous times before his second birthday, I speak from experience, and not all of it good. This list of tips should help ensure that you are as prepared as possible, making it likely you’ll enjoy your first vacation with baby.
Pack in advance…way in advance when you vacation with baby
This may sound ridiculous but trust me, your sleep-deprived brain will be far less stressed if you can take more time to get organized. My partner and I would dedicate one quarter of our bedroom to packing starting a week to 10 days in advance and, of course, we would always make a list. Envision yourself going through all phases of your trip. What will you need? Don’t forget items like the bouncy seat, extra pacifiers, receiving blankets, and a baby monitor that could make the time spent away easier and more comfortable. While a vacation with baby means a heavier load, it doesn’t have to mean total chaos.
Bring a day-trip baby bag
Every new parent has a baby bag, usually a sizeable tote for schlepping around all the paraphernalia we westerners “need” to care for our babies: diapers, cream, bottles, wipes, sunscreen, hat, changing pad, breast pump, toys, books, …the list goes on for days. We ended up packing a second baby bag empty in our suitcase for vacation, an abbreviated version that was a lightweight backpack, so we could do shorter excursions relatively unencumbered.
Keep your family routine when you vacation with baby
As much as possible, try to incorporate baby’s typical daily activities. Some parents travel with the expectation (born out of desperate need, no doubt) that other people can put their baby to bed on the first night away. Although some babies are ok with this, many aren’t; try to remember that babies are people who need to get to know others before becoming intimate. Also, see if you can make “away” as similar to “home” as possible for baby. For example, Alexi used to fall asleep to sounds of the ocean, courtesy of “Sleep Sheep,” so we always brought her along. We tried to nap around the same time he was used to napping at home and we had a bath before bedtime with his favorite bath toys and books. Some kids are more sensitive to environment; if you know this is your baby, see how much home you can pack in your suitcase. It may feel cumbersome, but when your baby is happy on vacation, so are you.
If you haven’t already, try wearing your baby
Strollers are great but unusable in certain contexts. Baby wearing is the norm in many other cultures and has been catching on in North America and Europe in the past decade or so. There are lots of companies that make slings (http://kellymom.com/parenting/parenting-faq/sling/) or you can buy a backpack style baby carrier that you don’t have to tie (http://www.babygearlab.com/Best-Baby-Carrier). By wearing your baby, you have full use of both arms and hands, enabling you to enjoy all kinds of activities that would otherwise be difficult, like hiking, playing Frisbee, or participating in a craft workshop. Just be careful to dress both parent and baby in lightweight clothing; the body contact can make both people hot on days when the mercury’s high.
Car seats, crying, and conjecture
Think about your destination realistically. Babies who are used to being held most of the day may not be comfortable in their car seats for hours on end. Our first long trip with Alexi was to Provincetown when he was five months old. The drive from Montreal is long, close to eight hours. New parents that we were, we figured Alexi would sleep in the car. And he did: for two half-hour naps. At one point, he simply could not tolerate being in that car seat for one more second. We had to pull over, take him out, nurse, rock, cuddle, put him back, take him out again, more nursing, more rocking, more cuddling…after seven stops, we entered this sleep-deprived adrenaline-fueled nightmarish state which ended in one of our worst fights ever. With the baby continuing to scream. Not pretty. I suggest keeping initial trips to a few hours unless experience has shown your baby’s comfy in the car seat for long stretches of time. One friend of mine waited until her baby was over one to drive longer than one hour. Depending on where you live, there are usually fun spots to visit within a sixty-mile radius of your home. Plus, as every experienced parent will tell you, that first year just flies by.
Vary baby’s level of stimulation during each day
I’ll never forget one particularly frantic call to our doula while we were on vacation. Alexi was about eight months old and we had gone to the beach, had a barbeque with 25 people (all of whom wanted to hold the baby), went to visit an older relative at a senior home, then met other friends at a restaurant for supper. My very social baby, who normally would have enjoyed any one of these activities, could not stop crying. My doula caught on immediately and asked me to take him into a dark, quiet room and wear him in the sling. Within a few minutes, he settled. In retrospect, had I allocated some down time in between these very exciting and stimulating activities (including being held by people he didn’t know), Alexi would have fared better. And, by the way, this is actually better for us adults too, especially when we’re sleep deprived!
Invite a childless friend or relative along when you vacation with baby
Before we went to Provincetown, we offered my partner’s sister a free vacation in exchange for helping us out with the baby: a fabulous arrangement I heartily recommend. Just make sure you pick somebody you don’t mind seeing you at your worst. Sleep deprivation, hormones, and recovering from a C-section did not bring out the best in me. But having her there made it possible for Lucie and I to integrate adult activities into our vacation, without Lucie’s sister sacrificing much. We saw Margaret Cho live, ate in a Thai restaurant with no kids’ menu, and saw an independent film-ON THE BIG SCREEN. It was also very bonding to experience that trip with my sister-in-law; we still enjoy looking at the photos and reminiscing about the art we saw, the beauty of the dunes, and the many adorable baby moments.
Go visit Grandma, or, even better, Surrogate Grandma
Not everybody has parents with whom they are close; trips “back home” can often be stressful and not an easy option during that challenging first year. I am lucky enough to have numerous friends in the generation above me who have unofficially adopted Alexi, and they love spending free time with him. Our trip to Pennsylvania when Alexi was about a year old to see “Nana” and “Papa,” very good friends who are surrogate grandparents, is a great example. Staying at their simple lakeside cabin not only was affordable, but also allowed us time to connect while exploring the area with people who knew all the good spots. And of course we got to have some precious couple time while Nana and Papa took Alexi on special outings without us.
Taking a vacation with baby is certainly more complicated than traveling with adults only, but if you’re smart about it, you can plan and execute trips that are fun with a minimum of stress. Just don’t forget that camera…and the charger.