First Getaway With Baby: Travel Tips from the Pros

Heading home for the holidays with baby? Follow these smart you-can-do-this travel tips to make sure everything from naptime to mealtime is smooth sailing.

Baby in cardboard airplane Purple Turtle Photograph/Getty Images

As Emily Francis, a mom of two in Atlanta, prepped to travel with her baby girl, Hannah, to see relatives in Ohio for Christmas, she felt like she was starring in a feel-good holiday movie—right before everything goes terribly wrong. The trip involved crossing multiple state lines, enough baby gear to fill a small warehouse and a whole lot of people to be seen. "My mom is one of 10 kids, so we had so many houses to visit when we arrived," Francis says. "Everyone was like, 'Where's that baby? Gimme that baby!' It was boundary violation to the max." Out of her element and way off Baby's routine, Francis wound up hiding out in the bedroom with her sweetie for most of the trip. But that doesn't have to be you. While new moms do have some extra work cut out for them while schlepping their little snowman to faraway family, it's possible to stay calm and confident—and get full enjoyment out of your stay—with these tips.

Babyproof Beforehand...

Talk to your hosts early about prepping their pad, says Shelly Rivoli, author of Travels with Baby. Take stock of MVP (Merry but Very Perilous) items (hint: your mom's extensive Lladró collection), including holiday-specific safety dangers, like breakables on the tree, and parcel out who will do a baby-friendly sweep of the house before you get there.

...But Still Come Prepared

Sure, your mom raised you and you turned out just fine. But once you arrive, it's still smart to pick an area where you'll spend most of your time (say, the family room) and go on a safe-seeking mission. Spend a few minutes crawling around at Baby's level and pick up anything that looks shiny and exciting and oh-so dangerous. Bring babyproofing supplies with you so you can defuse hazards on the spot (because Target on Christmas Eve? No). You can either go deluxe (Travel-Tot Travel Childproofing Kit; $35, or MacGyver (tape). "My husband used to be a pro cameraman, so he always had electrical tape on him," says Corinne McDermott, founder of Have Baby, Will Travel, a website that encourages families with young children to take trips. "We'd use it to cover electrical outlets and tie up loose cords from blinds and lamps." Other cheap, helpful suitcase-stuffers: corner guards, cabinet locks and door knob covers. Also, know when to back off. If your mom is attached to her prized nativity scene with a million little pieces, don't hassle her about putting it away. Just keep an extra-close eye on your tyke.

If your new-mama anxiety is on high alert and you just can't enjoy yourself (Poinsettia displays! Fragile trinkets everywhere! Tinsel dripping from the tree!), consider staying with a relative who has small kids; her house should be pre-proofed. Or, call a local inn. "Some hotels will babyproof for free," says Colleen Lanin, founder and editor of Travel Mamas, a website that offers tips for vacationing with kids. So check when booking your accommodations if it's a service they provide.

Avoid Overscheduling

"With all the shopping and going to see Santa, it's tempting to skip naps," Lanin says. "But if you do, it'll be harder to get the baby to sleep at night and he'll end up with that overtired, crazy gleam in his eyes." McDermott recommends limiting outings to one per day—a quick morning or afternoon jaunt—to stay as close as possible to your baby's normal sleep routine. "You might get the occasional eye roll from relatives, but set expectations early in the visit," McDermott says. If everyone's heading out for the annual Choosing of the Tree, drive separately so you can make a break for it if Baby's good cheer takes a turn.

Map Out A Sleep Plan

If your baby will be sleeping in a travel crib or bassinet while you're away, have him take a few naps in it at home to get used to it. During the visit, stick with your regular pre-nap and bedtime routines—so if you rock and sing at home, do that away from home, too.

Worried your little one's middle-of-the-night wails will wake your husband's extended family? Ease the tension (and baggy eyes) by dropping some earplugs and chocolates on their pillows with a sweet, funny note.

Designate Zones

Create home bases for the ins and outs of child care. Think: changing, feeding and playing. "It's easier to set everything up right when you arrive than to re-create your station—pulling out the mat, locating the wipes— every time another diaper needs to be changed," Lanin says. For eating, set out just enough bottles to get you through one day before you have to wash them, and if your baby's eating solids, pack a single spoon. Ditto when it comes to play: Lay down a comfy, familiar blanket on the floor and a few of peewee's favorite toys from home to give him a sense of comfort. Set up all of your zones away from foot traffic, so your fam isn't huffing that you've plastered the house with baby gear galore. Also, invite other relatives with babies to share the stations, so they're not annoyed when you co-opt the space.

Deal With Sick Relatives

When Keri Hampton, a mom of three in Greenville, Texas, arrived for the holiday with her newborn, it turned out a few family members had colds. "My son ended up getting RSV [a virus that causes lung infections, breathing problems and at times hospitalization], which was so stressful," she says. If your baby is younger than 2 months, any illness can be dangerous, so steer clear of sneezing or coughing loved ones. Before your trip, make sure that everyone you're visiting has had a flu shot and a whooping cough booster, adds Danette Glassy, M.D., a pediatrician in Seattle and former chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Early Childhood.

Accept Well-Intentioned Help

If you were ho-ho-horrified to see your mother-in-law scooping oatmeal into your babe's bottle, come up with some tasks she can do to your liking so she feels appreciated and involved, says Katie Malinski, L.C.S.W., a family therapist and parenting coach in Austin, Texas. Put her on chin-dabbing duty during the meal, or ask your cousin, who loves to squeeze Baby so tight, to help keep an eye on your tot while the present-opening bonanza takes over the living room, Malinski recommends.

Some things, like annoying plastic toys you'd never allow in your home, likely fall under "Don't sweat the small stuff." But on bigger issues (e.g., your uncle rubbing whiskey on bébé's gums), you need to be clear. In a private convo, pull the offending family member onto your team by letting him know you appreciate his point of view, but that you're still learning to parent so it would be helpful if he respected your approach, Novell says.

Everyone will want to hold the baby, too, which is fine (and great for you— two hands to eat!). In terms of your little one's health, there's no such thing as too many (clean-handed) people holding her, but there are precautions to take (see Deal with Sick Relatives, above). If your wee one is getting weary from all the attention—crying and eye-rubbing are signs—perch her in your carrier so she can be close to you but still accessible to loving family members. When she really needs a break, whisk her off to a quiet bedroom. "Nursing is the best excuse for a little escape," Francis notes.

Parent Your Way

Who makes the best holiday ham may be up for debate, but when it comes to parenting decisions regarding Baby's safety and well-being: You win. No matter how many decades your mother saved your old drop-side crib slathered with lead paint, you're allowed to bring a play yard instead. Ease the blow by praising your mom's parenting, then deflecting attention onto the baby, says Martin Novell, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. Practice this line: "I'm so appreciative of your love for the baby and me. It's just that she will be more irritated if we don't bring the sleep space she's used to." 'Tis the season for giving—and everyone will be giving you plenty of parenting advice, too. Hippie aunt insisting you try an amber teething necklace? Your father-in-law demanding your vegan baby try mac and cheese? Deep breath, mama. "Go into the visit planning to take any and all advice you get with a huge grain of salt," Hampton says, whose firstborn, Jude, was just 3 weeks old for his first trip to see the in-laws. "Nod and smile and say, 'Thank you, I'll think about that,' and then do whatever you want to do anyway."

Coolly Handle A Meltdown

So, Baby decides to go into a full-on meltdown—we're talking face as red as Rudolph's nose—in the middle of a room packed with family and friends. "It's hard to parent well when we feel like we're being observed," Malinski says. "We're more impulsive and reactive and less creative and connected. To stay composed, get rid of the eyeballs." Go to your room, shut the door and put on some smooth music, or pass the baby to your partner and walk around the block through the pretty, white snow. If nothing else, just turn your back and close your eyes. Staying calm ups the odds that Baby will chill, too.

Most Importantly—Enjoy The Season

The holidays used to mean guzzling red wine and wrapping prezzies until 2 a.m., but it's important to slow down for your first festive day as a mama. "You have to be well to parent well," Malinski says. Eat healthy, limit alcohol and get some exercise while you're away, and it'll be easier to stay coolheaded. Don't forget that you need to rest, too. When you're away from home, you can nap when peanut does since you're not surrounded by your own chores. And keep in mind that your baby, partner and you need nuclear-family time every single day, too. "Tell people ahead of time to expect this so that when you withdraw from group interaction, they don't misinterpret it as you being upset," Malinski says.

And here's a thought: Not every moment has to be about the baby. Leave your partner in charge for an hour while you roll out cookie dough with Grandma. Bonding with the family sans Junior can re-center you, and putting in the effort will soften them to your plight as an exhausted new mom, too. Merry traveling!

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