Does "vacationing" with your baby sound like an oxymoron? As someone who has ventured on road trips, beach getaways, cruises, and more with my two kids, and who is writing a book about family travel -- The Travel Mamas' Guide -- I know that vacations now are not as easy as they were prebaby. And while there are tons of tips on how to get there, there's not much advice for how to manage once you arrive. A few simple tricks have saved some of my family's trips.
Just as important as what you pack -- and you can check out get-ready checklists here -- in my opinion, is how you unpack.
Do it immediately. As soon as you arrive (unless someone in the family is overly cranky or tired), set up your room to make it as close to home as possible. Put the baby in the playpen or hotel crib with a pile of toys and occupy an older kid with a coloring book. Or have your partner take the older sibling out to get the lay of the land while you unpack. Settling in will help you remain organized (and sane) throughout your stay.
Designate a baby-changing station. Bring a box of wipes, lay out a changing pad (I like to put a disposable changing pad on top of a hotel towel), and stack a bunch of diapers in one area. That way, you won't need to chase down the diaper bag when that first big poop occurs.
Create a play space... Stash toys and books on a low shelf or in a drawer, or keep all the playthings in one corner. Creating a place for your baby to play will make the room feel homey and keep it from looking like a disaster area.
...and a kitchen. Even if your room doesn't have a kitchen or bar area, establish a spot where you'll keep bottles, dishes, baby food, snacks, formula, and dish soap. Sometimes the bathroom is best if it has the only sink in the room.
Your baby needs her naps, but you don't want to spend your whole vacation watching her snooze. Follow these strategies for squeezing in that daytime sleep:
Start walking. When my daughter, Karissa, was a baby, she wouldn't nap in a strange crib while on vacation. So we planned our days around taking long walks with her napping in a stroller. Some moms advise bringing the lightest, most compact umbrella stroller on vacation to save room, but I always pack a stroller that reclines completely to make stroller slumber easier.
Wear your baby. If your baby doesn't sleep well in a stroller, try a front carrier (like the BabyBjorn) or baby backpack. If you've never used one at home but think it might be convenient on vacation, try it out a few times before you leave. Not all babies will like it, and it might be too hard on your back.
Go for a scenic drive. Try taking leisurely drives to check out the area while your baby naps in the car seat. And on some trips, you can coordinate drive time between destinations with sleep time.
Take turns nap-sitting. If your tot isn't an in-transit sleeper, don't be afraid to schedule naps back in the room. While it's a different vacation rhythm than you're probably used to, an a.m. break and midday siesta can be relaxing for you, too. Just consider your baby's napping style when booking accommodations; if you'll need to return to the room often, a hotel near the beach may be a better bet than a spot farther away, even if it's a bit pricier. If you can, book a room with a balcony or patio so the parent "on duty" can enjoy the outdoors, too.
One of the most worrisome things about traveling with a baby is getting your tot to sleep in a new place. Here's how to up your odds of at least a few peaceful nights:
Do some trial runs. If you're bringing a portable travel bed, have your baby sleep in it for a few nights before you leave. That way, it will feel like a familiar, comfy spot to go night-night on vacation.
Give it a few days. While it can be tempting to throw in the blankie and drive home in the middle of a sleepless vacation night with an inconsolable baby, I implore you to power through. Eventually, babies will adjust to their new surroundings and schedule, and sleep. If you can survive a couple of nights, I am (almost) willing to promise happy vacation days ahead.
Book the right room(s). If bedding down in the same room means no one will get any sleep, consider booking a suite or connecting rooms. A suite may offer the convenience of a kitchen area, but connecting rooms may afford more space at a cheaper price.
Stick to the routine. If your baby's bedtime ritual at home includes a bath, lullabies, and a bottle, do the same on vacation to make up for the change in location.
Get adjusted. Instead of expecting your infant to shift her internal clock and adjust to a new time zone, shift your day: Stay up later or get up earlier than usual by a few hours.
Meals on Wheels
Sampling local cuisine and splurging on restaurant meals are vacation pleasures I refuse to give up. Dining with babies can be done.
Breakfast in Bed. Because our times to swim, hike, shop, or visit an aquarium are limited by morning and afternoon naps, it makes sense for the entire family to eat something quick in the hotel room. So we pack plenty of ready-made breakfast foods like mini-bagels, cereal bars, and fruit (bananas, apples).
BYOF. If your baby drinks formula, it helps to pack more than you think you'll need. To save space, empty powdered formula into zipper-lock plastic bags. Or order heavy staples like diapers and formula -- even baby shampoo -- from a site such as diapers.com or Babiestravellite.com that will ship to your destination (and since you won't have to carry the formula, consider splurging on the ready-to-feed type).
Nurse wherever you feel comfortable. You can breastfeed anywhere you are legally allowed to be.
Bend the rules. To enjoy dinners out, you may have to encourage what you would normally consider bad behavior. I don't let my kids watch TV while eating at home, but we always bring portable DVD players when we eat out. Putting on some Sesame Street for them allows us to actually taste the food we're shelling out big bucks for.
Eat early. Sure, a romantic dinner would normally be at 8 p.m., but by dining out at 5:30, you'll likely have an empty restaurant, room to park your stroller, and a short wait for your food. Alternatively, if your newborn loves to sleep in her car seat, make later reservations and then feed her a bottle or nurse her while you wait for your appetizers. Hopefully, she'll be out for the rest of the meal.
Now, go enjoy! Toss out all your old ideas about what a vacation should be and embrace the new craziness that is traveling with a baby. Laugh at the fact that you're at the local playground by 6 a.m. and in bed for the night at 8 p.m. Consider all the gear- and baby-lugging as great vacation exercise. And then savor going back home to "regular" life that much more.
Colleen Lanin is the creator of Travelmamas.com.