Thursday, June 14, 2007

Baby Jet Set

I just got a note from an old friend. She mentioned that she and her husband are taking their kiddo (who was born on the same day as MG) to France next month.

BJ and I lost our minds and took MG to France when she was 13 months old, and we learned a TON. I thought I'd share it here, for posterity's sake, and in case any of you ever lose your mind and decide to attempt international travel with a baby.

Our biggest concern was the plane ride. That was stupid. Our biggest concern should have been transportation. But we'll get to that... Our doctor told us to give her Benedryl on the plane. I do NOT want to hear about what a horrible mother I am for "drugging" my child. We'll just agree that I'm horrible, but I'm more popular among my plane-mates than someone who refuses to "drug" her child, and move on. Seriously, though, our flight left around 4 pm, and arrived around 7 am (local times), and she slept nearly the whole flight, and it was wonderful. BJ and I didn't get much sleep, because we were busy trying to keep her in the seat, but that's ok.

We had her between us, and when she fell asleep we spread her blanket out on the seat and over the tray table. Then we put the carry-on on top of the tray table, so that it was sort of hammock-like. That way, if she rolled while we were dozing, she didn't roll off of the seat. Quite brilliant, aren't we?

Our flight out wasn't full, so we didn't buy a seat for MG. We just requested the two seats on either side of the three-seat middle section, knowing that no one in his right mind would want to pick the middle, given a choice, and that MG could have that empty seat. That worked, but it was risky. If I had it to do over (considering that she didn't have a seat on the way back because the flight was full, and it was miserable), I'd suck it up and buy her a ticket. Actually, I hear that the "under two, fly free" rule will be changing soon, but that's just a rumor. Anyway, if you want to know what it's like to share an airplane seat with a toddler, find the least comfortable chair in your house, put it about eight inches from the wall (facing the wall), grab your baby or toddler, and sit in it for the duration of your upcoming flight. Then buy your kid a seat. It'll still be tough, but at least you'll have some precious personal space. (The other option would be to fly first class, but I think 3 coach seats are still cheaper than 2 first class seats).

Our return flight left at 11 am and arrived at 1 pm (local time), so it was a weird day for MG. The benedryl didn't work at all. The lesson here is, if you're going to be on a plane for 8 hours, try to make those 8 nighttime hours, so your kid doesn't have a weird 36 hour day that screws her up. It literally took me two weeks to get her back on a normal routine, which was hard on everyone.

In flight entertainment was a challenge. You don't want to lug 50 pounds of board books onto a plane. Don't forget that small kids love repetition. They will happily read the same book 12 squajillion times. So save your back and take a few (non-board) favorites. Trust me, though. Do NOT take books that will drive you nuts. This is NOT the time for Dora. Dora sucks. Bring things that you have memorized, so you can close your eyes and recite them while Junior turns the pages. That's probably the closest thing you're going to get to rest, honestly.

Beyond books, we found puppets to be a big success (bonus, they're light, squishy, and don't take up much space). Of course, you can always make your own Odoriferous J. Stockingham (of the London Stockinghams) but that's a whole 'nother post. Crayons would've been good for her at this age, but she didn't quite get it at 13 months. If we were doing it now (hahaha... We'd have to be crazy with two under two!) I would take some modeling clay - the kind that cleans up easily, not play-dough. We also had fun looking for dogs and cats in all the in-flight magazines. Magazines are pretty good for babies - especially magazines that feature lots of dogs, cats, and babies. I'm a total nutjob, and I will make up stories about the babies in magazines ("That baby's crying because the doggie on page 30 ran away from him. What should he say? 'Heeerrreee doggie!' Do you think he'll be happy if that doggie comes back? Let's look at the doggie again..." etc.) I also enjoy drawing clothes on magazine critters. It makes her laugh. We also make up songs, but you're going to think I'm seriously warped if I start posting those!

By far, the best distraction was Hershey Kisses. Yes, I know. I'm going to cause her to have all sorts of "food issues" by using chocolate as a reward. Whatever. It worked. Sometimes you have to do whatever works. We took other snacks, too. Both for variety's sake, and for helping her clear her ears on the plane. You definitely want to have lots of beverages available. We found that the flight attendants were very accommodating, and brought us things as-needed, and not just when the beverage cart went by. Actually, they were even kinder when I traveled with MG to Texas by myself (and visibly pregnant - I got a lot of great sympathy on that trip!!). Now that they have all the stupid rules about liquids, you will have to buy them once you pass security, but it's worth it. It may be a good idea to take a soft-sided cooler, so that you can stock up in the airport and then keep them cool for the wait.

Entertaining a toddler in an airport can be a challenge. They move fast. They're small. And people are in a hurry (and dragging huge luggage) and they're not looking for people at toddler height - they're looking up at the arrival boards, etc. most of the time. You want to keep your little one in the stroller as long as possible. I know it's counter-intuitive - he's going to be cooped up on a plane for 12 hours, but trust me. Once you get to your gate, you can use your carry-ons or movable benches to block off an area (enlist the help of other parents who are on your flight) and make a corral for the little ones. Get all the kids playing together, and then you can go "visit your friends" every once in a while during the flight. You may even get the other parents to take your kids for an hour so you can nap, if you offer to take theirs to your seats, first. Or, you could, if you find some really cool family with a kid or two around your child's age, ask them if they want to see if you all can sit together. Nothing entertains kids like other kids! Airline personnel know this, and might be willing to move mountains to make it happen, but you have to ask.

Now, a word about strollers. You may be tempted to take a cheap umbrella stroller to save weight and space. Or, you may have completely lost your mind and thought, "Oh, we're not taking a stroller!" Repent! You want to take the biggest Humvee of a stroller you can find.

I know, this seems really stupid, but trust Mommy. We didn't have enough room in the car to take our giant Graco stroller, and we regretted every minute of it. For one thing, the Graco reclines. When MG fell asleep in the umbrella stroller we ended up borrowing, we had to tip it back onto the two back wheels to recline her, which caused a lot of back difficulty for us (plus, it didn't look that comfortable for her). Another perk of the Graco is that there is storage underneath. I can't tell you how many times I tipped the umbrella stroller because I took MG out without taking the bags off of the back. Of course, the Graco would've been more comfortable for MG, too, even awake. The umbrella stroller's seat was pretty wimpy in the padding department. But the biggest disadvantage of all was that we borrowed the umbrella stroller in France - so we didn't have a stroller in the airports! I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I tell you that I had an easier time when I took MG to Texas by myself, with the big stroller, than I had with no stroller and four adults when we went to France.

Take the big stroller, thank me later.

Also, if there is the slightest chance that you will be in a car of any kind, take your own car seat. I know, I know, you don't want to drag all this junk through the airport. Trust me. European rules about car seats are not what you think they are. I thought everyone would have Britax. Ha ha.. And people drive like maniacs over there, honestly. We borrowed a car seat, and spent the entire trip worrying about it. Sure, we were very grateful to the family of our friend who loaned us this stuff, and it was extremely generous of them, and I am not trying to be a brat, here... But peace of mind is a beautiful thing, especially away from home. If there is anything that can help you achieve peace of mind, take it. Get a sherpa if you must. Check the car seat, (and gate check the stroller). It's really not going to save anyone in the event of a crash. In fact, from everything I've read about plane crashes, it's going to make things worse. You've got a ridiculously short amount of time - on the order of 10 to 20 seconds, to get out of the plane if there's a crash. I don't know about you, but I can't get my screaming kid out of a car seat that fast, let alone get out of a door (even if there's a cool inflatable slide involved). In my completely amateur opinion, you're much better off holding the child, and then bolting for the door if possible. But, let's face it, plane crashes being what they are, you might as well bend over and kiss your ass goodbye, so there's no sense worrying about it.

Well, that took a turn for the morbid. Moving right along... Let's talk about Europe.

I'm pretty certain that all Europeans (or at least, all French persons) spring forth from the womb as 5 year olds - fully potty trained, eating pâté, and looking snidely at anyone who doesn't do those things. This is just my opinion, but it is based on two important facts:

1) There are no changing tables in France.
2) There are no children's menus in France.

This is where we come back to that big horkin' stroller that I convinced you to take along. It reclines, remember? So you can change a diaper wherever you are. This is a beautiful thing. I changed diapers on some surfaces that I really don't care to think about right now, because I just ate lunch. Honestly, they were gross. And there were no changing tables to be found. And when you say things like, "Est-ce qu'il ya une place pour changer la bebe?" they look at you like you're high. Hey, I tried.

So, you take your Humvee stroller, and you're good. I think the reason that they don't have changing tables is because they don't feed babies in France (because everyone's over 5). Seriously, MG had just started eating real food, and was on a steady diet of ravioli and chicken nuggets, and we had a hell of a time finding food for her to eat. On one hand, it was nice that she had to try new things, and I'm pretty sure that this is why, at 22 months, she'll eat scallops and salmon and other non-kid food, but at the same time, sometimes you just want your kid to EAT, not have a cultural experience. We found that quiche worked really well for this purpose. Also, a lot of restaurants have ravioli. I got in the habit of ordering something that I knew she would eat, and sharing, so I didn't pay another 10 Euros for a meal that she'd take two bites of and then heave onto the floor. All in all, she did really well, and I was very glad that she was nursing at the time, so I knew that there was always something nutritious for her, no matter what.

Take a sweater for baby wherever you go. I was astonished at how much the temperature could vary in a day (in October). Just like for grown-ups, the rule is "Layer"!

Oh, I almost forgot. They haven't heard of the ADA in Europe. Maybe they're keeping all the disabled people wherever they keep the babies. Anyhow, do not go with any expectation that you and your Humvee stroller are going to be able to get around easily. We ended up carrying the stroller up and down stairs and escalators (I know) in Metro stations because there were no elevators to be found in most of them. However, I maintain that unless your stroller really weighs as much as a Humvee, the benefits of having it will outweigh the pain in the ass factor of having to run it up and down stairs. You're also going to have to deal with curbs, and small doors, and other potential hazards. One of the things I came back appreciating was how much easier it is for people to get around here, even though we don't have the public transportation and things that are available in Europe.

The biggest problem we faced was when MG came down sick. She was getting really high fevers at night, and it was scary. You want to make sure you take a thermometer, any meds you would use for your kid (write down the correct doses before you go, because you don't want to make an international call to Walgreen's, and you don't want to guess), and any medical equipment you have ever had to use on your kid (I'm thinking inhalers and whatnot, but I'm sure that other things would fall into this category). Fortunately, our friend Tim was with us, and his family is made up of mostly doctors, so we were able to get treatment (free, even, with a housecall!) and to translate. It may not be a bad idea, if you're not fluent in the language of the place you're visiting, to write down a few key phrases, for example:

"My child is allergic to X."
"My child has a fever."
"My child is vomiting."
"My child is injured here (with the idea that you would point)."
"Is an English translator available?"
"Please speak slowly, I do not understand you."

Babelfish is good for some of these things, but it isn't reliable, so check with a native speaker of the language, if possible, before you go. Be aware that some things are named different things in Europe. Tylenol, for example, is called paracetamol. This is the best reason to take your own, in my opinion, so you know what you're getting.

That about exhausts my expertise in this area. I'm sure that I'll think of many more helpful hints and tips for traveling with a baby. Even though it sounds like it was a Major Troop Movement (and it was), our trip to France was one of the most fun things we've ever done with MG. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It was exhausting, but it was a lot of fun.

Bon voyage!


Eva said...

Wow, this was fantastic. So helpful seeing as Saturday we go to Sweden. However we can't get a seat for the baby at this point, and I'm still not bringing a stroller. We'll just see how miserable we all are. It'll be like a contest!

Anonymous said...

Jeez this was informative. I'm only flying with my 14 month old to Florida but I think I can plan better after reading all of this.


Anonymous said...

This will hopefully help me a ton! We move to Hawaii at the end of dec. ( yeah we fly on dec. 29th wont that be fun) and i have a three year old and a eight month old. To help the matter i am ungodly afraid to fly. So im freaking out lol. Plus i have to figure out what to pack to survive for three months without stuff. Lucky for us the AF bought us four seats so i dont have that headache. Hopefully your advice will save me more craziness than i will already have. LOL or should i say my husband since i will prob. be in such a panic about being on a plane that he will have three kids :)

Anonymous said...

I love your blog! So true. I should add that for parents not wanting to take a stroller and a car seat there is the Sit 'n' Stroll 5-in-1 Combination Car Seat/Stroller This is a car seat that turns into a stroller. (I've had people offer me money in the airport for it! No joke.) Thanks for all the tips. Your honest perspective is refreshing.