A few months ago, a friend of mine returned from a week-long break in Sanya with her husband and 6 month-old son. I asked how it was, she sighed, related the details of the trip (no time alone, little one didn’t sleep well, lack of space in the hotel room, no clothes-washing facilities, no baby pool, restrictive), and after 20 minutes said, we should have just stayed at home.
When our daughter was 3 months old, we went to New Zealand for 10 days, when she was 5 months old, we went to Sanya for a week, at 7 months, off to Europe for a month, at 10 months to Suzhou and so on. Like many ex-pats in Beijing, we do plenty of traveling with our little bundle of joy. Therefore, I could definitely relate to my dear friend. The whole process of traveling with a small child, start to finish, can be exhausting and disappointing. A holiday, planned and paid for, and looked forward to, somehow just ends up not meeting expectations.
We are off to Europe next month, and this question “how do we enjoy our holiday?”, both on a macro and micro level, has been at the forefront of my daily thoughts. Doing a web search on traveling with infants and toddlers didn’t really help. Apart from the endless packing lists and suggested travel items, its generally based around “coping strategies”. How to get through it, how to survive it, how to make things easy as possible.
Words such as "tiresome," "nightmare," "agony" and "stressful" are prominent. In addition, these tips on infant and toddler travel are so “one size fits all”. One site declared that traveling by car with a toddler was the easiest and best way to travel. Our daughter starts protesting the moment she is strapped into a car seat, so I quickly lost faith in the rest of the proffered tips that seemed to ignore the fact that children, like all beasts, are different. Another site, and I do have to mention this, claimed that holidaying with infants and toddlers is about remaining sane, and anything beyond that is a bonus. Clearly, browsing these sites just made me feel more deflated. How can we actually enjoy our holiday?
Looking at the big picture, I have come to realise that its time to calibrate my expectations. Traveling with your little one does change things, but if you are prepared for that, and prepared to adjust your expectations, traveling with your child or children can be a wonderful and enriching experience.
Time and Pace
Everything takes a little more time with a little one, and that of course goes when you’re on holiday. Be realistic about how much you can fit into your day, and take the time to smell the roses. Your 18 month old will be thrilled to stare at bucket full of crabs in the old part of Dali for 20 minutes, and won’t be so interested in your thoughts about making the 11am cable car up the mountain. Adjust your pace to suit your children and you’ll all have a better time.
Flexibility is Perfection
Whenever I told my dear aunt of our travel plans, she would sigh and say “well, it won’t be perfect”. I guess, in her way, she was helping me be prepared for the “unknowability” of traveling with a child. When everything is said and done, our best times have been when we were flexible, and it has often resulted in the perfect day.
You’re a Team
Whether traveling alone with your little ones, or with your partner or friends, you are all part of the same team. Its important to be on the same page and to approach each challenge united. Your travel experience is a chance to connect in a new environment, your chance to share those funny little experiences, and to revel in your little one’s joy at seeing something new. An untimely “discussion” on the plane about how to best sooth an unhappy child won’t help the situation. Be supportive of your child and of eachother, and plan before hand how you are going to deal with difficult situations.
Your Destination, Your Day
When planning your holiday, consider how your 6 month old, 12 month old, 2-3 year old is going to experience his or her day? What will the weather be like (winter and rain are more difficult obviously), will there be opportunities to meet your infant’s needs, will your toddler have a chance to run around, get some exercise and enjoy the day? Is there a time difference and how long are you staying? A 6 hour time difference and a 5 day stay is generally not a good combination.
Let Go and Make the Most of It
Living in China, we’ve all had moments of our little ones being taken from us at restaurants and smooched by enthusiastic staff. Like it or not, its a chance to have a few bites of your meal. In that vein, think about the use of nanny or ayi services when they’re offered. You may not be comfortable with giving your little sweetie to an underpaid waitress while you go deep-sea diving, but consider an ayi to play close by with your child or children so that you can have a swim or read a book. Likewise, let the restaurant staff carry your little one around for a few minutes so that you can enjoy your morning coffee and a plate of fruit. In addition, one of the big benefits of family holidays are devoted grandparents and uncles and aunts who want to become your little one’s favorite for the holiday. Don’t deprive them, or yourself.
Have a Little Faith
Many new parents, myself included, will be quick to determine what their child or children won’t do. Sleep in the pram? My child won’t do that. Eat scrambled egg? My child won’t do that. Be carried in a sling? My child won’t do that. Test you and your child’s comfort zones from time to time, particularly in preparation for a trip, sometimes you’ll be surprised.
With this change of approach, this new expectation of traveling with our little girl, I have started to look forward to our holiday. All the unknowns are still unknown, I can’t do too much about that. But I do look forward to enjoying our holiday now, not just surviving it.
www.deliciousbaby.com – a great website for helping first-time and seasoned travelers – also offers tips for specific destinations.
www.babycentre.com – offers helpful, age-specific travel and packing tips
Susan Hoch lives in Beijing with her husband and baby daughter. Traveling is still a bittersweet experience for her, but she’s working on it.