When we announced we were having a baby, we received many comments along the lines of, “I guess your traveling days are over!” Not a chance. When we decided to expand our family, we did so with the intention of continuing to travel as much, if not more, than before baby. We’re not naive; we knew how we travel would change. But, we fully intended to bring our baby along on our adventures. What better education for a child than to explore the world and be immersed in different cultures and lifestyles?
At the beginning of September, we boarded a plane for Paris with two large suitcases, a travel crib, a stroller with car seat, a backpack and a diaper bag, to spend a month in France with our seven month old Theo. After spending a few days in Paris, we rented a car and spent the rest of the month exploring Burgundy, the Dordogne and Provence before returning to Paris to stock up on chocolate and butter for the trip home. What a great country to travel with a baby! The French love children, and children–even babies–are welcomed in restaurants, hotels and shops. We really enjoyed exploring France with Theo, and over the course of the month we learned a lot about the ins and outs of traveling with an infant.
The best unexpected benefit of traveling with our son is the number of strangers we met because of him. I anticipate that when Theo starts school, we’re going to get comments from teachers that he talks too much or is too busy socializing to focus on his work, because our little social butterfly loves to meet new people. When we sit down at a restaurant, he smiles and starts ‘talking’ to the servers and the people at the table next to us. He always has a ready smile for the stranger who stops us on the street to squeeze his foot and pat his head.
We learned a lot in that month of travel. Here are a few tips.
Stock your diaper bag for the plane. A well-stocked diaper bag is key for comfortable international travel. Some of the things on this list are no-brainers, but I’ll include them anyway, because mama brain is a very real condition. To keep my diaper bag organized, I pack like things in large plastic ziplock bags or mesh bags. It also keeps the contents of the bag clean and makes it easy to find everything. Obviously, plenty of diapers (double what you think you will need, in case your flight is delayed or you end up with an unexpected overnight layover) and wipes, diaper cream, hand sanitizer and burp clothes (these come in handy for lots of things). Extra pacifiers, clips and teethers (see below). Two extra outfits for baby (I dress Theo in footed pajamas for the plane, to keep him warm and clean) plus an extra outfit for you (my go-to international travel outfit is leggings, a long tee and a sweater or wrap), in case you get spit up, pooped or peed on (it happens). Two swaddle blankets (one for warmth and one to lay on the floor of the airport or airplane for stretching out). Two or three favorite books (he never gets tired of Little Blue Truck, Barnyard Dance and Goodnight Moon) and several different toys (I pack Sophie, a puppet, and two rattles. Eating is a great activity, so if your baby is over 6 months, pack a wipeable bib, bowl and spoon and shelf-stable purees (see below). I also pack a sippy cup, again more for an activity than because he actually needs to drink water from it. Also in the diaper bag, don’t forget to pack your toiletries and any essential medications that can’t be replaced.
In your suitcase, pack all the essentials. It can feel like you’re bringing your whole house with you, but depending on where you are traveling, you might not be able to buy what you need, or the brands or types your baby is used to. Here is a list of some of the essential items we packed.
First, we took our stroller with the carseat attachment, which was essential. We needed a car seat because we rented a car, but it’s also necessary for taxi rides. And while Theo rarely rode in the stroller, it was awesome for lugging around the diaper bag and all of our purchases. When we were in Paris, we loaded our stroller down with everything from copper pots to boxes of chocolates.
When we went out, we mostly carried Theo in the Ergo, which happens to be his carrier of choice (we’ve tried a lot of them). I would throw it in the washer about once a week to refresh it.
We took our travel crib, which I highly, highly recommend. It creates a consistent, comfortable sleeping space for your baby and can make the transitions easier if you are moving around. Pack two crib sheets, so you have an extra when one is in the laundry. Also, if your baby uses a white noise machine for sleep, don’t forget to pack a portable version. Even if your baby doesn’t use white noise, it’s great for drowning out unfamiliar noises in hotels or apartment buildings or from city streets.
If your baby relies on a pacifier for comfort or sleep, pack many, depending on the length of your trip. If you lose the pacifiers or they wear out, you might not be able to replace them. Theo will only use this one, and you can’t find them in France. We packed 5 pacifiers, and I wish I had taken more, because I was sanitizing them so often and they started to wear out.
Pack a first aid kit with remedies for both you and baby, including bandaids, Neosporin, insect repellent, sunscreen (adult and baby), aloe vera, thermometer, baby Tylenol, adult Tylenol or Motrin, saline drops, Nose Frida, cough drops, and any essential medications. We also take these on every trip, in case we come down with a cold (but don’t take them if you are pregnant or breastfeeding). When we leave home without a complete first aid kit, we always regret it.
When it comes to clothes, pack for a variety of climates and situations. You never know when the weather might change. But don’t pack too many clothes for baby. A baby doesn’t mind wearing the same thing over and over again, and if you have an apartment with a washer and dryer, it’s easy to rotate clean clothing. I always pack a small bottle of laundry detergent from home, because I am also particular about detergents.
If you’re pumping, pack your pump and supplies. Don’t make the same mistake that I did, and if you are traveling to a country with a different electrical current, check the requirements of your pump before you plug it in. I blew up my pump the first time I plugged it in, and so I couldn’t use it the whole time we were in France.
In addition to the books and toys that you pack in your travel bag, pack a few more in the suitcase. The number you pack depends on your tolerance for reading the same books and playing with the same toys over and over and over.
If your baby is eating solid foods, embrace packaged baby food. I mentioned packing shelf-stable baby food in the diaper bag, and I also packed a supply of food in our suitcase, including baby oatmeal and fruit and vegetable purees. I like this brand and this one. You can also check this website or app to evaluate the brands available in your area. While I had visions of shopping at French markets and cooking for Theo while we were in France, the reality was much different. We were usually out exploring during the day, and he often went to sleep soon after we came home, which left little time for cooking. When we went to restaurants, he ate what we were eating. But, at home, it was nice to have quick and easy options. We debated bringing a collapsable travel booster seat, and we decided not to. If I were traveling with an infant again, I would bring one.
If possible, give your baby his own room. When we booked our trip, we were still co-sleeping with Theo, so I didn’t even really consider it. But if your baby is sleeping in his own crib, it’s very nice to let him have his own room, so you and your spouse can have a little privacy. Also, check the layout of the apartment you’re considering booking, and make sure the kitchen isn’t right next to the bedroom the baby will be sleeping in. If your baby is sensitive to noise (and Theo is), it makes it very challenging to prepare dinner after the baby goes to sleep. We ate lots of eggs and salads for dinner, because we were trying to be very, very quiet. Also, if you are going to share a bedroom with your baby, check to make sure there is enough room in the bedroom for your travel crib. Our last apartment in Paris had a TINY bedroom and no other space for the travel crib. We actually ended up putting the travel crib on top of the bed (I’m not advising you do that), and Elie and I slept on the very uncomfortable pull-out sofa in the living room.
Stay in apartments and consider the location and amenities. With VRBO, Airbnb and other sites like Apartments Actually and One Fine Stay, it’s easy to book an apartment, and it can be less expensive than a hotel. When booking your apartment, the location is important. We prioritized places within walking distance of shops, restaurants and grocery stores, because we like the convenience of being able to just strap Theo in the Ergo and head out the door. However, sometimes it might be better to be in the country, especially if you have older kids and need a place for them to run around. Location is important. In terms of amenities, a washer and dryer is top on the list. Even for short trips, with a baby or kids, you’re going to need to do laundry. Also, check to make sure that the apartment is on the ground floor or that it has an elevator. In many countries, an elevator is not a given. And to tell you the truth, the elevators in Europe are so small, it’s a bit of a hassle even if it has one. And as I mentioned above, consider the number of bedrooms you might need and the layout of the apartment. Lastly, we also prioritize apartments with an outdoor space, even if it’s just a balcony. With naps and an early bedtime, we spent more time than usual in the apartments we rented, and it was nice to be outside, even while we were keeping an eye on Theo.
Keep your night-time sleep schedule. Elie and I have a ‘no jet lag’ policy for ourselves, which almost always works. Whenever we land in a new place, we immediately adopt that time zone. We never ask, “What time is it at home?” We eat meals and adopt appropriate bed times in the new time zone on the very first day. We might wake up early in the morning, but we’ve never had a problem of sleeping all day or being up all night. We did the same thing with Theo and it worked pretty well. We arrived in Paris in the morning, and he took a nap for a couple of hours (he had slept a little on the plane). When evening came, we put him to bed at his normal bedtime of around 7:00 p.m. That first night, he woke at midnight and was up for two hours (we took a walk to Notre Dame, and it was actually quite wonderful), and then he went back to sleep and slept until 9:00 a.m. (waking to nurse a few times, of course). It took him 10 days to completely adjust, where he went to sleep and woke at his normal times. But each night got a little better, and after a few days he wasn’t waking in the middle of the night. (Also, coming home was much easier. It only took him a few days to adjust).
Be flexible with naps, so you can spend time exploring. While Theo doesn’t particularly like to sleep, he’s a much more cheerful and happy baby when he’s well-rested. Theo was around seven months old on this trip, and so he was still taking three naps a day, generally about two to three hours apart (and three hours is really pushing it). When we planned our trip, our intention was to balance letting Theo get good naps with getting out and enjoying and exploring France. I think we did a good job. In general, we made sure he got at least one good nap at home in his travel crib (except on travel days, when he napped in the car). Usually, he took the first nap of the day at home, and the other naps might be in the carrier or in the stroller. For some babies, this might not be an issue, but Theo is not an easy sleeper. He’s generally too interested in playing and socializing, so when we’re out, he fights sleep to the bitter end. But he got used to it, and it worked well.
Take rest days. This might be harder on a shorter trip, but since we were gone for a month, we took some days where we just stayed in and rested. It helps if you have a rainy day or two, because then it makes the decision an easy one.
Eat lunch out and dinner in. When Theo was four months old and younger, we could easily take him to restaurants for dinner and he would just sleep or nurse. Around five months, that flexibility waned. Eating great food is a big part of why we travel, and so we embraced the concept of the long French lunch, having our biggest meal earlier in the day and then making a light dinner at home. It was great. We still had some amazing meals, including dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant, and Theo got to enjoy them, too. He ate everything from duck to bone marrow to zucchini soup to crepes. Seeing him experience foods for the first time was one of the highlights of our trip, and we met a lot of people whom Theo charmed while we ate. We’ll be telling Theo stories about those lunches, as they are some of our very favorite memories of the trip.
Embrace a new normal. Is traveling with an infant the same as traveling just as a couple? Of course not. You’re forgoing the ease of spontaneity and late nights out for the pleasure of seeing the world through your little one’s eyes. And I do mean pleasure. Even at his young age, Theo changed the way we experienced a place. He forced us to slow down, to take our time and to stop and talk with people (because everyone wanted to stop and talk with Theo). It was wonderful. The extra time spent in our apartments for naps and early bedtimes meant we spent a lot more time reading, writing, sleeping and talking. One of the beauties of vacation is that nap times are not consumed with work or cleaning or errands, so you can truly relax. It was an unexpected bonus. And this is our experience with a seven month old. I can only imagine that as Theo gets older and can do, understand and experience more, our travel will be all that much richer. But even now, we love our new normal.
I’ll be posting brief travel guides on the places we visited in France. You can see the one for Burgundy here, and the Dordogne, Provence and Paris are coming shortly.