Just after I took my then nine-month-old son on his first flight and first trip overseas, a friend gave me a copy of Travelgirl magazine, which she’d just discovered. “Look!” she said, pointing to the cover. “ABCs of flying with babies!” A bit late for me, I didn’t say. But I read it anyway, thinking it might have tips for future trips. And, boy, was I annoyed. I like Travelgirl, I really do, but how could they print an article that recycled conventional wisdom so blatantly? Not only were there no original ideas in the article (except for the tip of keeping a travel journal of notes, plans, and boarding cards for when your baby grows up — not to quash the author, but that’s just the sort of time-wasting clutter creator I don’t have time for and my boy probably won’t care about; that’s what cameras are for), some of them were just plain bad advice.
I don’t want to pick on Travelgirl. This isn’t the first place I’ve seen the same chirpy guidelines, and so much of it is useless in practical situations. So in response to all the flying/traveling-with-babies advice that’s been foisted on the public, I’d like to expand and explain some conventional advice to make it more useful, and debunk other bits. Here’s my take on the top 5 issues when traveling with a baby:
1. Nurse or bottle-feed during take-off and landing. Great advice, which you can get by squinting half an eye in any direction. Everyone says this. But what they don’t go into is what is meant by “take-off and landing.” Seems simple enough, but you and I know that sometimes the approach to a major airport can take up to 40 minutes. Being a lactivist and breastfeeding advocate, I was happy to let my boy John chomp on me during the crucial time. But then, you know (or you might not), after about 10 or 15 minutes you run out of supply. This could be true of bottles, too, and in either case you can’t force a baby to drink for 20 minutes or 40 minutes or however long it takes. They just won’t do it.
After the first couple tense sessions, when my ears were still popping and the boy was crying, I stopped to chat with a friendly British Airways flight attendant on the way off the plane. Yes, she said, my instincts were correct. It’s not during take-off and landing that matters so much — it’s actually the time when the air pressure changes. No captain or attendant is going to tell you exactly when that happens, but your ears will. So instead of waiting for the moment of liftoff or descent, I just started nursing whenever my ears complained of air pressure change. It worked. And if I ran out of milk, I had him suck a bit of water from a bottle. The important thing is that the baby is swallowing, relieving the pressure just like adults do.
As a side note, if you love to travel and are having a baby, choose breastfeeding. No bottles, no mess, no formula, no fuss. Baby’s food is always on tap. If you’re nervous, buck up by checking out Sheila’s post about nursing on her Family Travel blog. I breastfed John all over Europe, and, since America seems to be unique in its squeamishness about seeing babies suck on boobs, I didn’t even have to bother dragging out a nursing shawl.
2. Cheerios are a parent’s best friend. This blithe statement flies smack in the face of the World Health Organization’s advice that many babies should avoid wheat until at least a year old. Advice like this can be dangerous. Do your research and consult your pediatrician. My family has a history of celiac disease (gluten/wheat allergy), so I have to be careful when I introduce wheat to my kids. Without such a history, some parents are advised to introduce it earlier. Cheerios also contain soy protein, another common allergen.
If, like my family, Cheerios aren’t on your menu, you need other options. When packing emergency in-flight or layover or stuck-on-the-tarmac-for-4-hours snacks for your baby or kids, look for wheat-free and gluten-free cereals, often sold at natural food stores. Ask around. I’m told Trader Joe’s carries gluten-free Cheerios-type cereal. The Wholesome Baby Food website has a list of most and least allergenic foods for kids and babies. I also find that Earth’s Best organic food in 4-ounce jars travel relatively well and are easy to stuff down a hungry gullet in less than ten minutes (regarding on-plane liquid limitations, I just insisted they were solid food, which they are. Sort of).
3. To keep your kids happy, bring all their favorite toys! Well, that’s just silly. And it’s also exactly what I did. My little John doesn’t own a whole lot of toys, enough to fill half a plastic sack, so of course I brought them all. To keep him happy on the plane, or while we were eating long lunches or strolling through museums. And what happened? He played with one. Sometimes. Absentmindedly. Because it hinged onto his stroller. Unlike adults, unless their brain development is poisoned with television, babies don’t need entertainment. Life is entertainment. You know what John did while we were having long lunches? He played with table napkins. On the plane he flirted with the flight attendants and chewed on a blanket. In museums, gasp, he looked around. At everything. Skip the toys. Bring one or two favorites if your tot is old enough to miss them.
4. Stick the car seat in checked baggage. Leaving the car seat behind isn’t a great option unless you’re sure you’ll never be in a car. Besides, the Federal Aviation Administration may soon implement rules requiring that infants fly in their own car seats. Until then checking it or not is another question. We checked ours, and of course neither it nor the stroller appeared at the other end until 24 hours after we arrived. We hummed and hawed and finally packed John in the Ergo Carrier (which I love because, besides being built with a weight-distributing waist belt like a really good backpack, it has a hood that snaps up to keep a head from flopping around when baby is sleeping), pulled the hood up to give his head extra security, and belted us both in the back seat of a cab. Car seats are good, but I come from the generation whose mothers used to drive without seat belts and held us on their laps in the car. You make do and mostly everything turns out okay. Besides, we got caught out one night during a transportation strike and had no option but carrying him in a cab, and of course the seat was back in the hotel room.
5. Leave the stroller behind. You’ll find a lot of support for this, including from our own esteemed Sheila, my own family travel guru. After much thought — and much arguing with my husband before leaving for our trip — I decided that it comes down to what sort of traveling you do and what your comfort needs are. Sheila, wisely, advises leaving the stroller and packing the sling, buying a simple umbrella stroller at the other end if absolutely necessary, which is great advice, especially when you’re focused on packing light. My husband actually referred to Sheila’s blog to argue his point in favor of packing the umbrella stroller we have instead of the bright green sporty Phil & Ted’s thing that’s built like an SUV and weighs about as much.
I dug my heels in. I’m good at doing that. So is he, but since he was going to be attending a conference and I’d be out in Rome and Vienna by myself with the baby, I won. We brought the lime monstrosity. And I never regretted it for a moment. Sure, there were points. Getting it on and off buses and trams was something of a pain. But a woman traipsing around by herself with a flirtatious baby boy? You think people don’t help you? Ha!
You see, I’m a walker. I can walk for hours, especially in a foreign city. I’m happy to carry the baby in my Ergo Carrier or a sling, and did so my very first day in Rome. But after a certain point (3 hours) the following things came to mind: 1) he was hot and uncomfortable and wanted a change of position, 2) I was hot and uncomfortable and wanted to sit down and have a beer without feeling like I was pregnant with a baby elephant, 3) without a stroller with the handy compartment underneath, I had to carry the diaper bag, which was heavy and would eventually give me scoliosis, 4) digging for the neck pouch to extract money reminded me of certain impossible positions in my yoga class, and 5) John found his flirting much encumbered by being stuck so close to a woman’s face all day.
The umbrella stroller would have had similar issues, especially with regards to the diaper bag. Yes, I know you can use a backpack for a diaper bag, but why walk around geared up like I’m getting ready to shoulder through Rocky Mountain backcountry when I could just plop the diaper bag, water bottles, sling, rain cover and accumulated souvenirs in the little bucket underneath the big green stroller seat? That way I didn’t feel like a Michelin man and I had the option of putting him in the Ergo when he felt like being carried.
But the main point in favor of the three-wheeled monstrosity came through when I was tooling around Rome’s ancient ruins. That morning, I’d met a few other mothers who were regretting leaving their real strollers behind. “This umbrella, it’s useless on cobblestones,” said one German woman from Berlin. “She just bounces around and is uncomfortable.” When I got to Ancient Rome, I didn’t find cobblestones — more like cobbleboulders. I just ran the front wheel through them like the stroller was on a mogul slalom course and John was happy. He was even happier when, able to broadcast his smile widely from his green throne, swarms of teenage Italian girls stopped us twice and insisted on having their picture taken with him. Doubt he would have been so lucky if, sitting in a sling, they would have had to include me in the photo-op.
On top of that, I took him on two 6-mile walks through hills and farmland in Austria, and my stroller was sturdy enough to handle it. “See?” I kept poking at my husband when I got back. “Told you so.”
There you have it, my highly prejudiced take on baby travel. But my biggest piece of advice is this: don’t worry about it all. You might be concerned about where you’ll change your baby, where you’ll feed her, how she’ll sleep, if she’ll get bored … forget it. It all works out. You can change her on the grass. You can feed her anywhere. Given enough walking around and a caring parent, she’ll sleep just fine. And babies don’t get bored. They’re adaptable, a lesson to us all.