had a baby and was insane enough to travel

Saturday, August 31, 2013

I know this is totally not related to design but I felt a moral obligation to put this information out there. I found a lot of posts and articles on international travel with toddlers and up, and short trips with infants but there was no one with my particular brand of crazy. I traveled internationally, half way around the world, with my six month old infant... And I learned a lot.

So one day my husband came home from work and said, "Dear, I'm going back to America for two months, do you want to come?" To the land of Chipotle and Target? Sure! Really, it was more in the spirit of keeping our family together since we're apart so much already for his work. Well, I bit the bullet, read every parenting blog known to mankind and this is the takeaway from our trip:

On Advice: We have several friends who had travelled overseas with three-month-olds and two with six-month-olds. Ask your friends for every bit of advice. Seriously, they've been there and done that. 

The Cost and the Seat:
Upgrade to Economy Plus and request the bassinet. While one could upgrade to business or first it seemed silly to us to pay for a small Honda with nothing to show for it after twelve hours. However, the area right in front of Economy is apparently known as Economy Plus (thank you marketing genius) and for an extra $300 it is well worth it. Plus they can attach a bassinet in front of your seat in this zone. The mother (or person carrying the infant) doesn't pay $300 (which was explained to me in broken English and my poor Japanese which made this really confusing once I got to Narita from our hub in Japan) but rather 10% of the ticket fee for the bassinet upgrade. The other parent pays for the upgrade. Even if you don't have a bassinet, for international travel you will be charged 10% for an "infant in arms" while domestic is free. Also, the bassinet is frustratingly shallow. Now this was confusing as no one explained how to use the bassinet to me but it basically has a mesh enclosure that is an inch over their face. The baby next to me slept the whole way, my child freaked out. I had to wait until she was totally asleep in my arms before putting her in the bassinet (which only lasted 2 hours of the 12...). Consider the mesh the baby seat belt, if the baby is in the bassinet, the mesh has to be closed. I didn't find it worthwhile to get her a separate seat. We opted not to since we booked last minute and you can imagine the cost there (it was like a used Honda, even for Economy) but had we more notice I still would have opted to save money. She wanted to be held and nursed the entire time anyways. Know your baby, some kids might want their own space more than our daughter. Also, I'm super thankful for the cool, calm and collected Aussie mom and her husband seated next to us and their kind reassurances the whole trip! They lived in Mexico but once lived in Japan and were baby traveling pros.

The Strategy:
Invest in a good carrier (I used an Ergo) and a good travel stroller (I used a Maclaren Triumph) and I can't repeat this enough. So in addition to the madness of an international trip, I decided to do a family roadshow with my child solo while my husband was working. I know, I'm insane but we have relatives that are unable to travel and had not yet met her. So I figured out that for security and boarding the plane (once the stroller was gate checked) baby in the carrier was easiest. Also for the flight, bring lots of toys. I brought a new toy for every two hours and it worked well for us. I also brought her Happy Baby Organic Gluten Free puffs (so free they'll fly away) because she had just started Baby Led Weaning and it was the neatest snack I could offer while I ate anything. Let me note that I didn't eat much on the flight because with a baby, there's nowhere to put your meal. And they clean up within a certain time frame so if baby is fussing during that time frame, you don't get to eat. This made for a very hangry (hunger anger, thank you Facebook for keeping me current on slang) mommy once we landed in America... So I learned to pack lots of snacks, bottled water and even sandwiches from the airport shops. 

On Nursing:
If you are nursing, invest in a nursing scarf. I saw the Aussie mom next to me had a nice crochet one she bought in Japan but I had one from Etsy and it was basically a jersey infinity scarf so you had on demand privacy without having to store/retrieve a bigger nursing cover. In Japan we have a lot of nursing rooms (these are amazing, seriously) but there were none to be found in America. I had to nurse at the gate, in airport lounges, etc. and sure I got looks but people would have been more upset if she were screaming. After traveling I quickly got over any hangups about nursing in public out of necessity. Also, if you have airport lounge perks, take advantage of them! They often offer more quiet and privacy (and sometimes even snacks) for when baby is overwhelmed by everything. Airport lounge staff is very welcoming of babies and while some business travelers will frown at you, be considerate and go to the other end and find a spot your own so they can continue catching up on their ESPN. I see you over there "working" Mr...

The Security and Gate Check:
No one told me this but often airports have a "Family Line" in America which makes it easier and you can take your time without a huffy traveller breathing down your neck. They will send you through the metal detector and then swab your hands. Generally security folks were really, really nice to me as a new mom; I think they know how stressful it all is. Also it seems fair to note here that not everyone does "Gate Check" like Americans. I read all these American bloggers and was so prepared to Gate Check my stroller but found that Japan asks you to use an airport provided stroller. They're branded by JAL but the same type we have at our local mall so I was pretty pleased with them since they have a built in bag rack underneath for your carry-on. I found not everyone will notify you about Gate Check while Stateside so when you get to your gate, go to the counter and ask for the Gate Check Tag. Affix to the stroller or stroller bag and drop it at the end of the walkway as you are boarding. Like magic, it will be there waiting for you once you deplane.

The Carry-on:
I read all kinds of things about what to pack thanks to many helpful mom bloggers. I had a duffel with changes of clothes for everyone, extra diapers, etc. There's tons of info out there on this. I had my main diaper bag as my purse (which is how I roll anyways) and inside a diaper clutch with just the required basics. That thing was genius for small bathrooms on planes. Invest in a diaper clutch. And hand sanitizer/alcohol wipes.

The Jet Lag: 
This was the part that was most painful. All the sleep training blogs say don't travel... well I read that once we got to America. Luckily I had established an awesome routine at home so once we got to America we just continued the routine on local time. Not going to lie, we spent a lot of time watching late night TV and looking at the stars. My child was very angry that I should be trying to make her stay in the bedroom and sleep when to her it was the middle of the afternoon. So I say embrace jet lag, get up (you're not sleepy anyways with your own jet lag), eat some cold pizza, and catch up on cable. They say it takes a day for every time zone and I've found this to be especially accurate with babies. She was also a little insecure in the new surroundings so I spent a lot of extra time just holding her and snuggling.

The Sleeping and Hotel Living:
Keep the routine, as mentioned above. But also invest in a travel crib. I bought the Phil and Ted's and that thing is amazing. It is only 7 lbs so nothing in my checked baggage. Giving her a familiar surrounding has really helped her sleep. I tried using the nursery at my in-laws (they have it set up for all the grandchildren visiting) and she refused to sleep in their very nice crib with a very nice mattress. I would have slept in that thing... Oh well. She really wanted to co-sleep (ah, the controversy) at first so invest in the tools (like a safety rail) and make it safe, even if you are going to donate it once you head home. Also, forget the Sleep Sheep, there's an app for that. Go light and use the noise machine app on an iPhone or iPad. While living in a hotel room (ours was more like a studio with an open floor plan and kitchenette) we found it helpful for her to sleep in a corner of the room and used the app to drown out noise we might make. Embrace comforting things like pacifiers, stuffed animals and blankets. My daughter has a familiar blanket and that has been the best thing ever on this trip. She feels much safer and more relaxed with it. Bring a nightlight and clothespins. Clothespin the curtains shut at bedtime and use a nightlight to go about your business. Also invest in those goofy ET looking book lights. They're the best, not too bright but bright enough to do whatever you want around your hotel room without waking baby. I have also found those tap LED lights helpful as a travel night light so I don't require an outlet. Don't forget a handful of outlet covers and some painters tape to help baby-proof.

The Road Trip:
I had the genius idea to drive cross country with my child. I exaggerate but less than a week after landing I did drive for a couple hours. We have family in Milwaukee and Chicago. It seemed silly to fly point to point just stressing her out with more flights and going through more airports. So I rented a car and took advantage of her jet lag. She slept the entire way, like a baby. It was awesome. Truthfully I stopped about a million times because I was so worried she would wake up screaming but she didn't. I got lucky I guess. But I would say with baby road trips, plan an extra hour of stops for every two hours of driving and take a really long lunch break. And know how to install your car seat like the back of your hand so you can transfer it from rental car to rental car.

The Car Seat:
We brought ours and I used it in three separate rentals and three family-owned vehicles. Know how to safely and properly install that thing. If you are prone to forgetfulness, bring the manual or a smart phone to google the manual. Also bring your own car seat mirror and shade which can all go in the car seat bag along with any extras you can stuff in there. On the car seat bag - there is really only one on the market. On one flight there were four babies and four car seat bags all of which were the same and everyone was confused picking up their bags. Mark your car seat bag with a luggage band (preferably in neon), luggage tags and/or iron-ons/paint pens/puffy paint. And here's why - remember that nice Aussie couple on the flight from Narita? They deplaned before us and apparently grabbed out car seat at the baggage carousel before customs... I nearly had a panic attack. Luckily with modern baggage tracking and bar codes the thing ended up at our final destination but if that airport had been their final destination, it would have been gone forever. Of course, they're still missing their seat which is not good either. So moral of the story is, mark your luggage. A tag is not enough because people are rushed and don't always check. And in my experience, the car seat bag has been checked for free, thanks airlines! And if it does get lost, know both airlines and car rental companies offer loaners.

The Culture Shock:
This is the last thing I have to say but it is also the most depressing for me. I've only known mothering in Japan and there they truly view children and babies as the future. Even the children love babies. No joke, I've been swarmed by school boys telling me how cute my baby was when she was only three months old. America is the complete and total opposite. Just watch American TV and you'll notice that family life isn't exactly put on a pedestal. Sometimes I'll meet someone sweet and kind, but this is just a general observation based on my experience. I've been blessed with a very social, happy baby and even when she's just sitting there smiling people scowl at her and make nasty faces at me. Expect people to be less than friendly and shrug it off. I had so many people at the gate and on the plane make nasty, rude comments to me about traveling with a baby. And you know how many times my baby cried in transit? Exactly zero. You don't know another person's situation - we're military serving overseas so travel is a way of life. So next time you see someone flying with baby, know they're probably stressed beyond belief and extend a little kindness. And if the baby cries, know that the baby is a small human, not a dog, and it can't be trained while they are still too young to understand. Also, when a baby cries, it isn't exactly pleasurable for the parents either so have a little empathy. Let's extend that kindness to restaurants too because seriously I can't just see the inside of my hotel room the entire trip so please remember that babies are little people. I try to get there for first seating as they say in the UK, so the early bird dining at 5pm. That's not exactly peak hours to ruin any one's first date. And if you are starting your first date at 5pm, well I hope y'all like kids.

p.s. I've disabled comments only because I've seen other parenting blog posts on other sites where people get a little mean.  I know everyone has thoughts on parenting but I just wanted to share the information for other moms that might have to travel overseas, thanks for understanding!