Before I had my first baby, I imagined my mothering days would be much like my prepregnancy ones — still filled with outings, just with a sweet baby along. Well, Lilianna was sweet, but she cried (a lot). She spit up (a lot). She nursed around the clock and required more supplies than would fit in my fanny pack. And she got very heavy very quickly. Sometimes it seemed like too much trouble to go anywhere with her in tow.
But it wasn’t long before I realized what great companions babies really are. They’re easy to keep track of and don’t require much in the way of food; they even enjoy running errands. A good trip, though, means keeping your baby’s temperament, her schedule, and the destination in mind.
Karen Miles has been out and about with her kids for the past 16 years. She’s a frequent contributor to Parenting.
PLOT YOUR STRATEGY
First, consider your baby’s disposition. While more adaptable infants seem to thrive in any environment, sensitive babies might find the bright lights at the supermarket or the crowds at the zoo unbearable. That doesn’t mean the sensitive ones should stay home. In fact, it’s part of a parent’s job to gently introduce a baby to the world’s wonders, says Claire Lerner, child development specialist at Zero to Three. Just take it slowly at first if she’s timid — a pit stop at the grocery store, say, instead of a stocking-the-pantry trip.
No matter what your child’s temperament, try to venture out when she’s well rested and well fed. That will not only minimize fussing, but it will also enable her to get the most out of the excursion.
When you arrive at your destination, don’t ignore your baby. Talk with her and point out the sights. It may require a little more effort, but she’ll reward you by being willing to stay out longer. Learn to recognize her threshold, and respect it too — when she’s had enough, find a quiet place to regroup or simply bring her home.
Malls and supermarkets, generic as they are, are prime environments for infants: They’re enclosed, they’re dry, and they have myriad diversions — people, banners, lights, colorful produce.
WHAT TO CONSIDER BEFOREHAND: Learn where the diaper-changing and nursing areas are in malls, and use lockers, if they’re available, to store your coat and bags. Some supermarkets supply vinyl infant seats in their carts, but they may not be in the best condition, so you may want to use your own infant seat instead.
WHAT TO AVOID: Your fatigue and your infant’s cranky mood. Tackle shopping when you’re both fresh.
ONCE YOU’RE THERE: At the supermarket, organize your grocery list aisle by aisle if you can, so you won’t have to backtrack for missed items. Pick up the essentials first, so you’ll be able to make a quick getaway once your baby has had enough.
Some babies appreciate a bird’s-eye view of their surroundings. When Kathy Lofton, of Westby, WI, goes to the mall with 8-month-old Cecilia, she brings both a stroller and a soft baby sling. When Cecilia is tired of riding in the stroller, Kathy uses it as a shopping cart and shifts the baby to the sling.
EXTRAS TO PACK: A baby carrier; a sweater in case the supermarket is chilly; a strap to buckle the baby into the cart in case there’s no seat belt; something long-lasting and not too messy to munch on (such as a bagel); a toy to tie on to the cart.
STROLL BY SOME ART
With our newborn, our toddler, our preschooler, and our first-grader in tow, my husband and I ventured out to a Monet exhibit. We drove five hours to get there and waited an hour in line. Still, I was prepared to leave, if necessary, with whichever child couldn’t cope. We lucked out. The paintings mesmerized even infant Emma.
WHAT TO CONSIDER BEFOREHAND: If you live near a museum, you might invest in a yearly pass; that way you can substitute short, frequent visits for daylong marathons. Some museums don’t allow backpacks and strollers, others restrict one or the other, so call ahead to find out. Decide which exhibits are a priority for you and where you can find a quiet place should you and the baby need to escape.
WHAT TO AVOID: Crowds. Not only in popular exhibits but also in gift shops, which are packed with merchandise as well. (Your little one may not understand why he can’t take a swipe at all those enticing objects — especially when he sees everybody else handling things.)
BEST OPTIONS: Jean Sousa, associate director of museum education at the Art Institute of Chicago, suggests that parents explore more relaxed areas of the museum when possible. "A walk up a light-filled grand staircase or through the halls are great ways to introduce a child to the world of art," she says. Some museums have extended evening hours, but if your baby is usually cranky then, you may find that mornings are better.
ONCE YOU’RE THERE: Remember, your baby will become fatigued, even though he isn’t doing the walking. Try taking a short break outside for a breath of air and a change of temperature. Afterward he may be willing to return for awhile.
EXTRAS TO PACK: Toys that you can tie on to the backpack or stroller; snacks for older babies; a bottle.
RESERVE ANY TABLE
Just because you have a little one along doesn’t mean you’re restricted to fast-food joints. Just about any type of restaurant can be a potential baby-pleaser. "Babies are fascinated by the parade of people and the sounds — the espresso machine or the clattering of dishes," says Ericka Lutz, author of Baby Maneuvers.
WHAT TO CONSIDER BEFOREHAND: Is the music too loud? Are the lights too glaring? Is it smoke-free, or will there be a well-ventilated spot by a window? Will there be a long wait for seating? Is it so formal as to be uncomfortable for family dining?
WHAT TO AVOID: If you wait until rush hour, you might feel pressured getting in and out with your baby and all of her paraphernalia. If the restaurant is too empty, though, your little one might be bored.
BEST OPTIONS: Lutz recommends restaurants that have early-bird hours for families. Meals are less expensive then, and there’s usually a more relaxed atmosphere. (And you’re less likely to have someone standing in the doorway waiting for your table.) She’s found that Chinese restaurants often have an added baby benefit of offering lots of interesting food cut into little pieces.
ONCE YOU’RE THERE: You don’t have to rush through dinner, but don’t order a special dish that takes an extra 20 minutes to prepare, either. Give your baby things to play with on her tray (or in her infant seat). Those little packages of crackers kept my daughter Lilianna busy while we waited for dinner — she tore at the unopened wrappers or threw them on the floor, then graduated to eating the crackers inside.
If your baby is crawling, you’ll want to try to keep her happy in the high chair as long as possible — once she’s on the floor, she’ll be very hard to keep track of. Even if she’s content to sit under your table, remember that anything she finds there will wind up in her mouth. And if there’s a tablecloth to pull on, things could get out of control quickly.
Come tip time, be extra generous to the waiter who’s been especially helpful or who will have to clean up the extra mess.
EXTRAS TO PACK: Small, washable toys and books; a bottle; finger food and snacks — Cheerios, crackers, rice cakes.
SAVE THE AISLE SEAT
Although closed indoor spaces and quiet environments make some activities a gamble for baby-toting parents, so, for different reasons, do outdoor sporting events. Don’t let that keep you away, but keep in mind you may have to rent the video after all.
WHAT TO CONSIDER BEFOREHAND: Attending movies and lectures depends on your baby’s age and temperament, and those who are noisy and active won’t appreciate being cooped up in a parent’s arms for two hours or more. Infants (under 2 months) are most likely to be quiet for an extended period — especially if you come at nap time. Of course, if he routinely squawks before nodding off — like our fourth child, Emma — you’ll need to get that phase over with before you settle in.
BEST OPTIONS: Try matinees and long-running movies that are less likely to attract crowds.
ONCE YOU’RE THERE: Your baby’s reaction to the stimulus may be unpredictable. Because movies are so intensely stimulating to infant’s senses, they put some babies to sleep, while making others scream. Kathy Lofton has brought Cecilia to a foreign film or two but stayed away from rowdy blockbusters. You can try nursing your infant if he stirs, but if he’s gassy, that won’t work. Try to sit on the aisle near an exit and be prepared to leave if all else fails. Finding seats on the aisle so that you can get up to walk your baby around or beat a hasty retreat is also a good idea at sporting events, though they don’t require the same type of noise control. Seating is usually close, however, so an antsy baby won’t be appreciated by your neighbors.
EXTRAS TO PACK: A pacifier; a bottle; quiet, cuddly toys; a blanket.