My son Laz is turning 2 in about a month, and so far he has made it to 10 countries–some of them twice. (One friend jokes that Laz’s blankie has more frequent flier miles than he, a 40-year-old man, does.) All of this adventuring is great fun but not without challenges – and the experience has taught me a lot! Here are the top 10 things I’ve learned from taking a baby and then a toddler around the world.
- No matter where you go, an old lady will chastise you for dressing your baby too warmly/coldly/incorrectly.No matter what continent you’re on, what country you traverse, in the big city or the backwoods, an old woman is lurking nearby to let you know that you have dressed your child inappropriately for the current weather conditions. And don’t worry if you don’t speak the local language, because she will use hand gestures and disappointed/disapproving facial expressions to get her point across! Try to think of this woman fondly as a surrogate grandmother for your child. Otherwise you may have the urge to slap her, which is probably considered rude in most every culture.
- The stroller is not always your friend.
In a lot of places around the world, they have things like cobblestones. Or 3-foot deep potholes full of garbage. Or hordes of people eating pho on the sidewalk. In these places a stroller is no longer a helpful tool that totes your child and your packages, but rather a terrible burden that YOU now have to carry while your partner carries your child. So in situations like this, you may want to consider the terrain and opt for a backpack, front carrier, shoulder carry, or forced toddler marching.
- Don’t assume a kid won’t eat weird/spicy/strong things. I often fall into the trap of assuming my son won’t want “adult” foods–like things that are spicy, vinegary, or in some way strange–but when he tries them, he often likes them. I realize that it’s ME who has the bias of what kids do and don’t want to eat, whereas he just wants to eat delicious stuff. Now we let him try everything and see what he likes, which usually turns out to be pretty much the same stuff that we like.
- Travel is great for building a burgeoning vocabulary. Laz only knows maybe 40 or 50 words total, but they now include things like “taxi,” “dumpling,” and “guacamole.” Also: he can totally tell the difference between a bus, a car, a cab, and a train. That’s got to be good for something, right?
- Ideally you and your partner should take at least one short solo break per trip. It took us a while to figure this out, but now me and my husband each take 2-4 hours per trip to do something ALONE. Just a few hours to get back that exhilarating feeling of NOT being bound to a tiny irrational person while you’re traveling is enough to carry you through at least for a week, and is an easy treat to come by. If you do it during nap-time it’s even easier on your partner. For example, on our recent trip my husband spent an afternoon getting a long massage and a drink in a fancy bar, and one morning I took a cool photography tour.
- Increase the adult to child ratio whenever possible. Have childless adults who love kids in your life? Grandparents? Aunts and uncles? Invite them to go places with you. Or see where they’re going and tag along if they’ll have you. 2 adults to 1 child is OK, but 4 adults to 1 child is awesome.
- Don’t get hung up about the plane ride. I find that family travel articles always focus on the plane ride and how hard it can be. In short, long plane rides with a little kid can suck, or they can be OK. But they always end at some pre-determined point and then you are not on the plane anymore. Don’t let the idea of a long plane ride deter you from going places. Plan ahead, be prepared, and know that it will end and you’ll be somewhere really cool so it will be worth it. [Related: 10 Ways to entertain a toddler on an airplane]
- But you might want to think about jet lag. I just advocated for not worrying too much about the plane ride… but you may want to worry about jet lag, because it can be pretty horrible. When we returned from a trip to Asia a few weeks ago and went through a week of weird sleeping and waking hours, my husband declared that we are only going places with a 3-hour time difference or less from now on! (Of course knowing him, he will forget all about this when he gets excited about some far-flung destination with a bad time change.) My point is, it’s worth considering, especially if sleep is an issue in your house. For example, if you live on the West Coast and are thinking Spain (9 hour difference) maybe you should look into Argentina (3 hour difference.)
- Reflect and discuss so the next trip will be even better. At the end of a trip my husband and I discuss: what worked? What didn’t? What did we love? What was too hard? Was it too annoying to go out to eat for every meal? Maybe next time we’ll try to get an apartment instead of a hotel. Was the jet lag unbearable? Or the flight? Let’s think about a closer destination with less of a time change. Would it have been more fun to have a pool? Let’s make that a priority at the next hotel. Did the cold weather make it less fun? Let’s think about going somewhere warm next time. You get the idea. This kind of reflection helps us decide how to plan the next trip so it’s even better… or may even help us decide that we want to take a break from traveling for a little while.
- My strong opinion is that the best time to get a big epic trip in is between about 6 and 9 months of age. If you are thinking about one big trip, my strong opinion is that when the baby is around 6-9 months old is the ideal time (you know, until they’re like 8 or 10.) Why? Hopefully their sleep is not so crazy by this time and you’re not waking up constantly. Hopefully your family has a rhythm and most basic things figured out by now. Hopefully your baby still likes nursing or bottles enough to get comfort from them on an airplane. If they are eating solid foods, they are still of the small, packable kind. They don’t need a lot of toys or gear at this age and their clothes are small for packing. They are portable and can’t walk yet, so you can put them in a carrier and do big hikes, see museums, and so forth without them being antsy or overly heavy. They are cute and will charm the people they meet. All of this makes this an ideal time for you to take that BIG trip you’ve been thinking about, because once you have a walking, talking, eating toddler in your life, things do get a lot more complicated. [Related: Traveling internationally is better with a baby]