First family vacation

Whether your destination is down the highway or across the ocean, baby-friendly planning is the key to a happy holiday

Vacations before baby: relaxing on the beach, eating leisurely gourmet meals, wandering around museums, fulfilling your thrill-seeking side with a roller-coaster ride or white-water adventure.

Vacations after baby: not quite the same.

Of course, nothing is quite the same after the baby arrives. As Corinne McDermott of Toronto says, “In the early days, just leaving the house seemed like a big ordeal, let alone leaving the country.” With the end of her maternity leave looming, though, she and her husband wanted that first family vacation with their 11-month-old daughter, so they booked a trip to Cuba.

They learned so much during that adventure — and from the other parents they consulted before the trip — that McDermott created a website, havebabywilltravel.com, to help other new parents finesse the challenges of vacations with little ones.

“I think the number one thing people want to know is ‘Am I still going to have a good holiday with a baby?’” says McDermott. “If you want to duplicate your pre-baby trips, you’ll be disappointed. But in some ways having a baby or child along improves your vacation. You slow down. You see things through your child’s eyes. We’ll never forget the first time we took our daughter to the beach — her reactions to the birds and the flowers and the way she scurried across the sand like a crab.”

Travelling with a baby or child also “opens many doors,” says McDermott. “We had so many conversations with people in Cuba that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t had a baby.”

Kathleen Finlay, who took her son, Loïc, just two, to Paris for an entire month (and photographed him for us while they were there), also found that having her son in tow helped her connect with the locals. “People love children no matter where you go,” she says. “People were so gracious to Loïc, and they would help us on the bus and the subway. People are friendlier when you have a small child with you, for sure.”

So, yes, you can make this family vacation fun for everyone, especially if you invest some time in preparation and planning.

Location, Location, Location

Your first trip with your new addition may not be the ideal time to head for an exotic location — sticking with the tried-and-true will be more relaxing, McDermott says.

  • Don’t compromise on cleanliness and safety when you have a baby travelling with you, advises McDermott. Check online for reviews by other travellers of the hotel or resort you are considering. Research medical facilities in the area and make sure you have appropriate insurance, just in case.
  • You are likely to be spending more time in your hotel room while your baby naps or your toddler needs a break from more hectic activities, so it may be worth looking for some extra amenities. A room with a balcony or patio means mom and dad can have a drink and talk while the baby sleeps. A suite with a separate bedroom is another option.
  • Kitchen facilities, or at least a fridge in the room, is another amenity worth asking about, so you can keep food and drink for your child handy. Ask if the hotel can provide a high chair or use your stroller as a place for your baby to sit at mealtimes.
  • If your baby sleeps in a crib, ask if the hotel provides one, and find out exactly what they mean by that. When Penny Miles of Regina and her husband travelled to Tampa, Florida, they booked a hotel that promised a crib. What they got was a playpen with no mattress. “There was no way Nicholas could sleep in it, and no way we could co-sleep in the double bed,” says Miles. She ended up taking all the extra blankets they could find in the room and folding them up to make a sleeping mat on the floor. “I surrounded him with our suitcases, corralling him in. If he’d been crawling, it wouldn’t have worked.”
  • Thinking about crossing time zones? Recognize that your child may be waking up at 4 a.m. local time, and ready to go to bed for the night by late afternoon, and it may take days to reset his body clock.

Getting there (in one piece)

  • Booking a long flight? Travel writer and mother of two Kira Vermond suggests you consider a layover if you think your toddler will be restless or your baby cranky. The chance for your toddler to stretch his legs or for you to walk your baby to sleep may be worth the hassle of changing planes.
  • Should you carry the baby on your lap or spring for the extra seat and install baby’s (approved) car seat? Vermond says it depends on your baby. If he’s used to the car seat and likes it, “it’s worth the extra money. Because it feels familiar, your baby may be more likely to sleep, and you can relax more than if the baby is sleeping on your lap.” But a baby who hates his car seat will probably be cranky in it on the plane. Vermond suggests that if you are not planning to go the car seat route, try to book a less-crowded flight, and the flight attendants will usually try to sit you next to an empty seat. (Of course, if you can afford it, paying for the extra seat will guarantee that everyone’s more comfortable, especially on a long trip.)
  • Make use of waiting time in the airport to give your toddler some active playtime, so he’ll be more likely to sleep on the flight. Finlay says: “When we arrived at the airport, Loïc was quite hyper and excited, so I got him running around to burn off some of that energy.”
  • While airlines usually invite families with small children to board first, you’re probably better off to wait and get on last — less time with your child confined to his seat.
  • Bring more toys, snacks and entertainment than you think you’ll need. Finlay packed a bag of new toys for Loïc (“I hit the dollar stores,” she says) and brought these out one at a time when he got bored on the plane. A portable DVD player also helped amuse Loïc.
  • Carol Lockhart of Dartmouth, NS, found a nursing pillow was very helpful when flying with her two-month-old daughter, Effie. “She rested on it when she wasn’t nursing, and it made things less sweaty for me,” Lockhart says. “I also had a sling and would rock her in it while standing in the aisle.”
  • To prevent painful ear congestion on takeoff and landing, nurse your baby or toddler or give her a bottle to drink or a drink with a straw to suck. If your baby has a cold or is recovering from an ear infection, check with your physician, who may recommend decongestants.
  • Driving instead? Allow yourself lots of extra time, says Miles. “When Nicholas was nine weeks, we drove from Regina to Calgary. What should have taken 8½ hours took 13. We allotted an extra day so we wouldn’t feel rushed.”

You made it (now what?)

  • What happens to your baby’s routine? Finlay says that when you plan your holiday activities, “you have to be flexible. To me, it didn’t matter if Loïc missed his nap time because we were going to see the Eiffel Tower. He could sleep in the stroller later. Maybe he didn’t get as much sleep as he would have at home, but it was only for a month.” On the other hand, Vermond recalls a trip to Whitehorse with family members who “tended to plan dinners for around 7 p.m. That meant Nathaniel, who was two, would be tired and hungry and not much fun. That was a really hard trip.” How much you can flex your usual daily routine depends on your child’s temperament. If missing a nap will mean a miserable afternoon, you may want to save the Eiffel Tower for tomorrow.
  • Restaurants are always challenging with babies and toddlers. Finlay relied more on takeout meals to be eaten in the park or back at the apartment where they were staying. When you do go to a restaurant, Vermond suggests bringing along a snack for your toddler — a container of yogurt or a granola bar may just prevent a meltdown.
  • Keep sightseeing goals modest. In many ways, small babies are easier than toddlers to take with you if you want to visit museums and tour historical sites. Miles says: “We learned on our first cruise with a toddler that we can’t see all the sights when we’re in port. It’s just too difficult. So we just hit the beach or water park, and make sure he gets his afternoon nap. Taking a nap is the best part of being on vacation!”
  • One more tip — if your child has a special stuffed animal or blanket or pacifier, be sure to pack extras. Finlay lost Loïc’s beloved monkey in Versailles and was very grateful that her husband had persuaded her to bring a duplicate.

Will your little one remember this vacation? Probably not. But you will. You’ll have the funny stories about the challenges you faced and solved. You’ll have the photos of your baby in Mickey Mouse’s arms and your toddler’s expression when he saw the ocean for the first time. And you’ll remember the pleasure of an entire week — maybe more! — with your whole family together and focusing on each other without work interruptions. A time to treasure.

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