travel with baby, part one: trip planning
Munchkin’s recent birthday has put us in a reflective mood. As his due date approached last year, one of our biggest fears about becoming new parents was that his arrival would change who we are, impacting not just how we live our day-to-day lives but also our ability to indulge in the activities we enjoy and the things we used to take for granted. Chief among these is our passion for travel, which we feared we might have to forego for the foreseeable future. We need not have worried.
In addition to several cross-Atlantic trips between Moldova and the United States, we managed to visit seven other countries with Munchkin during the first year of his life. By some accounts, we spent even more time on the road since his arrival than we had before he was born. Sightseeing with a baby in tow added new complications to our travel planning, but we soon settled into a routine.
Of course, one of the cruelest ironies of parenting is that as soon as one masters a particular challenge, things change and new challenges emerge. We got really good at traveling with a baby; by the time we take another trip with Munchkin, however, he will be well into toddlerhood. Who knows if the lessons we learned from his first year will apply to our subsequent trips. In the interest of sharing the knowledge we gained largely through trial and error, and because some of our readers asked for them, these are our thoughts and suggestions for traveling with a baby.
The general rule of thumb is to schedule flights or car trips around naps or bedtime, when everyone is at their best. For example, our first road trip with Munchkin was to Romania when he was 3 months old. We waited to leave until it was time for his mid-morning nap; he dutifully fell asleep as soon as we got on the main road and slept all the way to the border.
Shorter, more direct flights are usually preferable to layovers, but not always. The most optimal route for our trip to Portugal was a four-and-a-half hour direct flight. Unfortunately, the only return flight on this route left after midnight. We arrived back in Moldova with a whole new appreciation for the word “red-eye.” Chisinau is not exactly a hub, so sometimes we’re forced to choose the less worse of two bad options, but after this last trip S vowed to do everything possible to avoid nighttime travel with Munchkin in the future. It’s a lot easier to recover from a missed nap than from a sleepless night.
Once, thanks to a mad dash through the airport and some ninja-quick baby gear repacking skills, we managed to make a 35-minute connection in Vienna that included not one, but two separate security checkpoints. We arrived at the gate mere minutes before the announced departure time and the aircraft doors closed before we were even seated. Again, this was an itinerary where we had no realistic alternatives, but if possible, we try to schedule a moderate layover for feedings and diaper changes, and to give Munchkin a chance to get out some energy. It may not always work but, theoretically, active time before boarding should optimize nap time in flight.
Many parents try to avoid flying during their child’s first three months because infants are susceptible to germs, which thrive in crowded places such as planes and airports. On the other hand, trips with very young children are the easiest to manage. Munchkin had his own seat for his cross-Atlantic trips between Moldova and the United States, and he spent the bulk of his first long flight happily snoozing in his car seat. We simply gave him the parakeet treatment, putting a blanket or nursing cover over the car seat to block out light and other distractions.
Once Munchkin became mobile, it became more challenging to manage his wakeful time, but he was still a good traveler between 3-9 months, before he learned to walk. Even without a separate seat for him, we made it through numerous shorter flights by taking turns distracting him with a variety of snacks, books, and toys.
Even with proper planning and appropriate expectations, flying with a baby will have its unpleasant moments. There were times when Munchkin insisted on screaming his head off — either because he was exhausted but couldn’t sleep or because his ears hurt on takeoff. There is nothing to do but grin and bear it, to ignore the annoyed looks from the odd passenger who mistakenly thinks that he feels worse for being disturbed than the parents who are unable to calm their upset child. Eventually the crisis passes (milk helps).
Driving, on the other hand, offers the flexibility of going at one’s own pace and stopping if need be to attend to baby’s needs. Once Munchkin got used to his car seat, driving became our favorite mode of travel during his first six months. As long as we kept moving and avoided getting stuck in traffic, Munchkin was happy to sleep or simply gaze out the window. That was a golden age for car travel, and it came to an end abruptly shortly after his half-year birthday. We were in Slovenia, and S nearly lost her mind singing the same baby songs over and over again to keep him happy. We hope this was just a weird phase that has passed, but we haven’t had a chance to test Munchkin’s resilience on a long car trip since.
Getting to one’s destination is only half the battle. Unless one can spring for a nanny, managing baby’s needs while trying to sightsee presents another array of challenges, a topic we’ll cover in a subsequent installment.