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Taking A 12 Week Old Baby Abroad Assignment

Since then, she and I have criss-crossed the globe with my work, flying the equivalent of four times around the world. In some places I have had the fantastic support of friends, and I have consistently received the indispensable help of strangers, too. City-based assignments have been the most fun and probably the easiest: New York, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Moscow, Bangkok, Monaco and Doha. There was the long road-trip from London to the Swiss Alps, and back again; an overnight cruise on a rice-barge in Thailand; sub-zero weather in Lapland, and sailing in a regatta off Sardinia.


New York City (AP)

For most of our journeys, it has been just the two of us but when Mara was 18 months-old, my partner was able to take time off his work and we had a family holiday backpacking through Vietnam.

We started in Hanoi and had no fixed plans nor reservations (except for our flights from Ho Chi Minh City back home to London). It felt intrepid, incredibly romantic and full of possibility. Like we might never return.

Each day, we tried to keep a balance by doing something for Mara and something for ourselves. For example, the first day we explored Hanoi’s old town by foot, and then went to a traditional water puppet show for Mara. We ate on the street, and Mara gobbled up fried rice and spring rolls. After dark, we strolled around Hoan Kiem Lake and made friends with local kids. Mara must have had her photograph taken a hundred times.

We adopted this same laidback rhythm throughout the trip, which I think was the reason it was so easygoing. We all adored the overnight train to the former imperial capital, Hue. Mara loved watching the world trundle past our window; showing our tickets to the conductor; flirting with fellow passengers and sleeping on a bunk.

In Hue, we packed a picnic and wandered around the ancient ruins of the royal palace. Mara played among the fallen stones, chased chickens and sat in the shade of a banyan tree. In Hoi An, we spent an afternoon at An Bang beach before exploring the markets, old merchants’ houses and eateries of this charming port.

In our final destination, Ho Chi Minh City, we visited the city’s excellent museums and wandered around its colonial buildings. Then we headed to the riverside park. There was a toddler, the same size as Mara, sitting on a flattened cardboard box while his mother was a way off trying to sell cold sodas to tourists. As he sat there, crying, Mara joined him and would not let us lead her away until his mother returned.

The most tender moment of the trip was in the War Remnants Museum (documenting the Vietnam War). By the gift shop was a group of severely disabled men making costume jewellery. One had no eyes; another had no arms; another had no limbs at all. Mara, of course, could not understand the sign above their heads, which read: 'Victims of Agent Orange’. She bounded up to them and watched in wonder as they threaded beads with their toes. When the blind man started to play an electric piano, she danced. She cheerfully called out “bye-bye” to her new friends as we headed into the first gallery.


Ho Chi Minh City (AP)

I think the trick to this trip was the go-slow less-is-more pace. We learned that backpacking is an especially fun and immersive way to travel as a family and relatively cheap, too. We stayed in a mix of hostels and airbnb.com apartments that cost an average of £12 a night, which allowed much more exchange with locals. The Vietnamese could not have been more generous hosts and Mara was regularly given gifts, from bottles of water to salty crackers to bunches of lychee. Because I was visibly pregnant with a second baby, there were also endless offers of food for me, and assistance to carry my backpack. I have become keenly aware how children are celebrated in most cultures, as are expectant mothers.

Of course, the trips have not always been plain sailing but neither is life at home in London. I would argue it is easier to be away with Mara, free on the road, than juggling commitments and budgets and pressures back home. Her 50 flights to date may be a testament to that.

Still, the criticism can be hard to hear: “Poor Mara, it is not very fair on her, is it?”; “Tut, tut; exposing her to all those funny diseases just because you want to carry on with your career”; “Children like routine and familiarity, you will have trouble with her later in life”. I confess some lines can touch a raw nerve: “You will kill her desire for travel with all these trips”; “She’ll get sick one of these days and then you will regret it”; “You may be able to do it with one, but not when you have two”.

Many working parents hear sentiments like these and some may turn out to be true. I am not trying to raise a global nomad, only to spend time with Mara while trying to make a living. If she turns out to be a confident traveller, an adventurous eater, aware of the differences in how children are raised, and eager to learn more about the world, that is a bonus. She may of course choose to become a grey-faced desk-bound accountant, as one friend warned me.

After my own experiments and errors during the last 20 months, and after speaking with friends and other parents, I know it is not always obvious how to travel well with little ones (see below for some top tips). The kids will love it; that is for sure. But us, the parents, sometimes forget why we are going away.

Parents of more than one child may scoff at my tale. When I have a second baby this autumn, I promise to address travelling with children in the plural -- and I also promise to be honest if I throw my hands in the air and burn my passport.

Travel tips for parents

The (dreaded) flight

Endeavour to pack lightly.If you are going to a place without good pavements, leave the pushchair at home. Baby pouches or baby-carrying packs free up hands (allowing you to pull a wheelie bag) and are a much better option (especially when going to the loo!). If you want to take a pushchair, try a lightweight umbrella-style model that folds up easily -- and use a backpack for luggage. Shoulder bags worn across the body are useful for travel documents.

Request a bulkhead seat and bassinet/baby chair.

Have bottles of warm milk or favourite drinks ready for take-off and landing when the action of swallowing can relieve pressure build-up in children’s ears.

Be heartened: most airport security personnel are sympathetic to parents and their liquid caboodle.

Do not expect to sleep on a long-haul flight; that way you will not be disappointed! If you have only one baby, you sleep (or rest) when the baby sleeps. NO MOVIES! NO MAGAZINES! If you have more than one child, the chance of sleep lessens. Think coffee and patience.

A day before flying, consider the time zone of the destination. Cut down naps or shift sleep times a little to move into the new zone. Pack kiddie snacks and a spare set of clothes (and a spare shirt for parents in case of spills).

Do not be weighed down with toys; there is enough entertainment on board (the inflight magazine, the security card; headphones; safety belts; etc).

Think of a stopover as a break when kids can explore a new environment and watch planes landing. Take advantage of a changing station rather than struggling in the tiny toilets on board. If there is time, have a bite to eat rather than tussling with tray tables.

Take photographs of key travel information on a smartphone so you are not rifling for flight numbers, etc.

The sky-nannies service Nanny in the Clouds (nannyintheclouds.com) helps match parents seeking in-flight childcare with babysitters who happen to be on board the same flight. Parents can search for free but pay £6 to access the contact information of a potential sky-nanny. The two parties agree on a rate (£6-£12 an hour).

The “holiday”

Some families choose beach resorts with kids’ clubs but I would argue there are better ways to travel as a family and still achieve a stress-free restorative break. Here are some alternative ideas:

Hiking trips: There are some excellent child-carrying packs on the market, which means you can do this kind of trip in a similar way as you could before children. Of course, this only works if there is one adult per child.

Urban escapes: Babies can pop in a pouch and be carried around the Louvre for hours (you will probably have less stamina than them). When they are walking, aim for one activity per day that makes you happy, and one activity per day that makes them happy.

Roadtrips: babies may tolerate long car journeys but toddlers will complain. Choose a route with natural stops every few hours, like the Pacific Coast Highway in California, and time driving to coincide with nap times.

Backpacking: a great solution for families, which can mix up cities, hiking and beaches. The journeys become part of the travel, too. The best backpacking destinations are in Southeast Asia, like Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.

When on the road, observe the habits of local families from where they take their children to what they eat to how they play -- and copy.

Read more

Flying long haul with a baby: tips and advice
Italy with a new baby
A barefoot honeymoon in the Maldives – with baby
Why family travel isn't child's play
Travelling with baby: travel accessories
Hugh Dennis: why children should spend more time outdoors
Paris holidays: family-friendly restaurants, shops and things to do

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Flying for the first time with a baby can be a very stressful situation.  In fact, one of the email requests I receive most frequently is for advice on flying for the first time with a little one.  No parent wants to be the one with a child who is uncomfortable and crying on the airplane for a very long list of reasons.  While I have written about flying with babies and young children before, the reality is that lumping advice for flying with “babies” together is really over-simplifying. There is a huge difference in terms of planning and tips relevant for flying with a 6 week old, a 6 month old, and a 12 month old.

Flying with a three month old

I’ve successfully flown a couple of times now with my second child who is currently around 3 1/2 months old, so I wanted to summarize some tips specifically geared for those flying with an approximately 3 month old since that seems to be a pretty common age when families first hit the skies with their little one.  In fact, I think it is generally a very good time to hit the skies with your baby!

Tips for Flying With a 3 Month Old

  • Keep your routine and schedule before the flight as normal as possible.  Sometimes this isn’t possible, but if you can avoid having to wake the baby up significantly earlier than normal or disrupt a standard nap time (if your baby has one), that would be preferable.  While it may against common logic, an exhausted baby doesn’t necessarily just go to sleep – sometimes they can become “over tired” and temporarily turn into something that resembles a hysterical hyena.
  • Have the baby suck on something for as much of the flight as possible.  Whether your baby nurses, takes a bottle, or a pacifier, or whatever encourage the opportunity for your little one to suck on something for as long as possible.  Not only will this help with potential air pressure changes with their ears, but babies that are sucking can’t be crying!  If your baby has a tendency to fall asleep nursing or taking a bottle then this is even better since you can then just keep them that way for as long as possible.
  • Consider flying during their traditional sleep time.  By 3 months old, most babies have at least some sort of routine in place.  It may not be totally consistent day after day, but they have probably settled into some rhythm especially when it comes to what time they typically go to bed at night (though lord knows they don’t always stay asleep at night!).  Regardless of when their usual sleep time is, consider scheduling the flight during that time as it is possible they will fall asleep for a good portion of the flight.  This is far from guaranteed, but it has worked for me so far.

  • Bring a few toys for the baby.  The main difference between when I flew with my baby at two months and three months old was that by three months she was to the point where interacting with some infant toys was now entertaining for her whereas at two months she wasn’t yet very interested in interacting with toys.  Nursing and sleeping were still the main activities for her during the flight, but having a few toys on hand was also a good idea.
  • Take turns with the baby.  If the baby sleeps for most of the flight or otherwise is easily content this is a non-issue, but in the event you are actively entertaining the baby during the plane then trading off that task with your spouse (if both people are flying) can be a good way to not only ensure everyone has a break, but also give the baby some different stimulation.

  • If necessary walk up and down the aisle or head to the galley area.  I don’t recommend jumping right to this since the flight attendants and others often need the aisle space, but in a pinch with a really upset baby it can pay to try walking around the plane a little or holding the baby and bouncing in the back of the plane in the galley area if the flight attendants are okay with that arrangement.
  • Ensure you have seats assigned well in advance.  This perhaps should be #1 on the list of advice, but whether you are traveling by yourself or with a companion, make sure you have selected your seats in advance to make them as good as possible.  When flying with a baby by yourself you will probably want the aisle or window seat, and with a companion you will want to make sure you are seated next to each other if possible.  While I am a fan of a getting your toddler their own seat even if they aren’t yet two years old, whether or not that is actually helpful with a three month old is much murkier.  I know my own three month old would likely scream uncontrollably if she were seated in her car seat next to me instead of in my arms (just as she does in the car).
  • Bring boppy or baby carrier if you wish.  While it probably looks kind of funny lugging it around the airport, I have enjoyed flying using my boppy with my three month old as it makes holding her in a nursing position for a couple of hours much more comfortable for both of us.  Alternatively, you could also consider putting your baby in a carrier if they like that, though technically this is not permitted on takeoff/landing/etc.

  • Have back-up clothes, diapers, bottles, etc.  While you three month old doesn’t need a ton of toys at this age, you will want extra clothes, diapers, and bottles as you never know when a quick two hour flight can turn into four hours or more on the plane thanks to unexpected delays.  A large ziploc bag is also always a good thing to have on-hand in case you need to discard of any unpleasant items…
  • Have something to document their age on hand if flying as a lap baby.  If you are flying internationally, you will need a passport for your baby, but even domestically you will want at least a birth record to document their age of being under two years old if they are flying as a lap infant.  Most airlines won’t really ask for this with a baby that obviously appears to be under two, but some, like Southwest, have a reputation for needing proof of age for every lap child regardless of how young they appear.

While you never know when your three month old will temporarily lose their cool, it is actually generally a very good age for air travel.  Three months olds are usually past the total unpredictability that can come with being a true newborn, but they still relatively small and easy to hold, sleep a good amount, and aren’t yet mobile or in need of the extensive entertainment that will creep in as the months pass.

Have you flown with your three month old or similar?  What tips worked for your family?

Posted in Traveling Kids, Traveling with a Baby

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