I am reclining on a couch with my six month old baby boy asleep on my lap. He is resting after a big feed. It consisted of breast milk, tofu, shiitake mushrooms, yoghurt and lychees. The concrete landscape of Tokyo extends below us, punctuated by flickering neon signs and illuminated by hot hazy sunlight.
“How is your mental health going?” The Plunket nurse asked me and my husband two weeks earlier.
“Terrible” my husband replied with tears in his eyes.
“We’re a little bit busy,” I explained apologetically.
“You need to sit down together and work out a plan. You also need to utilise concierge” the plunket nurse offered, all knowing, “that’s what they are there for”.
Let me explain. I am not an exciting adventure seeker. I am a dumpy, safety-conscious mother with a very precious baby. And I am exhausted to my core. So why do I find myself in Tokyo?
It began late in pregnancy.
I am going to blame “baby brain” (even though I actually don’t believe “baby brain” is anything more than what happens when every day for 9 months someone wakes up feeling like she just spent last night partying like it was 1999 (when actually she rolled her whale-like, exhausted, sleep deprived self into bed at 7pm ready to snore for 2 hours until the next vomit)).
So, I found myself straddling the chair at the travel agent explaining our need for 3 tickets to “Somewhere exciting. And cheap. Non refundable please”.
“Sure,” the young guy agreed, “what’s the date of birth?”
“We don’t know yet,” my husband offered, “do you want us to guess?”
Five days later we welcomed our precious son into our lives and thankfully he seemed blissfully unaware of the poor calibre of parents he had been gifted to. And so, the insanity of my maternity leave travel was born.
I decided to travel to Singapore for my work. We went to Indonesia to “relax”. After a brief stint at home to catch the beautiful winter snow, we packed up for summer in Japan. My husband needed to go to Tokyo for work and I didn’t want to be left on my own at home with a new baby. Too scary.
In between we would travel within New Zealand: to Wellington, Christchurch and Central Otago. Sounds exhausting? It is. And it is wonderful. At other times it feels like I am an idiot living in my own self-made little slice of hell.
We agreed to stay in better quality accommodation than usual and take more expensive direct routes. I am not sure what happened to that plan because it took 36 hours to get home from Bali and then 26 hours to get to Tokyo.
Luckily we are blessed with, what we consider, a very easy baby. Looking at him asleep between two suitcases on the floor in Sydney airport after 20 hours of travel my husband said
“He’s so chilled out. Who did he get that from?”
“Not us!” I answered. My husband laughed and agreed. Then he looked worried.
“Do you think we brain damaged him by the shaking in the bike trailer?” he asked.
I hope not.
That said, new parenthood is not easy for anyone and we are no exception. Every step of parenting is novel and requires thought. Getting out the front door sometimes feels like planning a hiking expedition: dressed? Check. Breasts covered up? Check. Showered? Can’t remember when I last did that. Nappy bag? Check. Puke cloth? Check. Credit card? Check. Not sure if it’s been paid off… House keys? Check. Baby? Check.
Then I walk out the door and realise I forgot shoes. And underpants. We are also blessed with a baby who fed every two hours for the first three months. At four months our beautiful baby changed to hourly waking. By 4 1/2 months I actually thought I might die of sleep deprivation. Or turn homocidal. Exactly when did my baby sleep? And why did my husband have to BREATHE in such an annoying fashion?
Our little cherub also considered being in the car seat akin to child abuse (and I thought all babies instantly fell asleep in the back of a Toyota). He is also the only baby I have known who will eat anything at all…. except baby formula. And put anything and everything in his mouth….except a baby bottle. Seriously. He will drink a fluffy from a short black cup and sip spicy soups from the bowl but will hold out for 10 hours to get breast milk from the source.
“HOW are you going to travel?” my Dad asked me.
“I don’t know” I answered “We’ll just wing it”.
And the scariest, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants travel adventures began.
I am going to be honest, the 48 hours before we leave for each trip are never as organised or relaxed as we hope. They are a crazed, grumpy, sleep deprived chaos that involves at least one of us throwing a tantrum and declaring we are not getting on the plane.
The intellectual ability to pack bags including estimates of bigger clothes sizes for the baby and (unrealistically optimistic and not required) smaller clothes sizes for me is far beyond what we are capable of when working on three hours collective sleep. To do that while also deciding on travel itineraries, determining visa requirements, counting four weeks worth of nappies and organising someone to feed the cat is actually impossible.
We used to travel to far away places and the excitement lay in what mountain expedition or diving experience we would have. Now the excitement lies in whether we can make it out the front door and to the airport on time (Without someone losing ‘it’. Or losing anything else for that matter.) The excitement (and anxiety) also increases as we board the plane unsure what baby-related disasters might occur in the next however-many hours we will be travelling.
For the record, I don’t recommend anyone travel like we do now (especially with a baby in tow). We don’t travel with any baby food or other “necessities” except nappies. We just never seem to sort ourselves out enough to pack them. I once googled “travel with a baby advice” but was too tired to read the advice. We have given up reading a guidebook. No time. We arrived in Bali with no idea at all of the exchange rate. It took four days before we got a chance to work it out. Our estimate was out by a factor of ten.
We recently made a hurried phone call from the departure gate at Auckland airport 1 minute before boarding our plane to Japan to buy travel insurance. My credit card was declined in Singapore and it was my only form of currency. It happened because I was so tired I couldn’t remember my PIN number. Our baby’s first food was Bali pool water.
It turns out, in a restaurant in Osaka, holding a baby in the air with poo trickling down his leg is socially offensive but is very effective in finding a baby change room fast. When a baby vomits over an airline seat a wet wipe will clean it off well, except it leaves streaks on the monitor screen. It is possible for two people to carry three suitcases, two hand bags, a stroller and a baby onto an escalator. Getting off is not so easy. Chilli-laden Asian soup is not an ideal first baby food: it goes in okay but explodes out of the baby on the bullet train somewhere near Kyoto.
A crying baby will irritate everyone on the plane except its parents: they will be thankful that the drone of the airplane cuts some of the pitch out and be too dog-tired to care what anyone else thinks anyway. I should never have fed blue ice cream-like substance to my baby (it contained sherbet lollies). I have also discovered that when the temperature hits 37 degrees with 70% humidity my post-baby body with its 20kg extra fat and stretch marks looks super hot in a swim suit. Walking up hill to a waterfall is slow going in similar heat – especially when pushing a stroller and holding a baby who wants to be carried.
We are not exactly ideal parents but we are too tired to conger up much guilt about that. As my maternity leave draws to a close and I face returning to work full time I can’t help but reflect on what a great time we have enjoyed as a family. We have had fun and adventures together that I would never have dared dream about. Our little boy has been exposed to a vast number of sights, tastes, people and experiences. My husband and I have grown closer. We both agree that these have been the happiest 6 months of our life. We have all survived. Oh yeah, and our Plunket nurse noticed that my husband came close to a breakdown.
21 (tongue and cheek) tips for travelling overseas with an infant
My recommendations for first-time parents travelling with a baby (I have no recommendations for people with more than one child – how you crazy people wash and dress yourselves is beyond me):
- Expect to feel totally unprepared, scared and overwhelmed- go anyway.
- The most important thing is that you all survive. Minor injuries and your appearance at the conclusion of the adventure are less important.
- Travelling with a 2 or 3 month old is easier than travelling with a 6 month old. At younger ages they can’t crawl, stick their fingers in things, put every piece of filth into their mouths and who cares what time zone you are in when you are awake most of the night anyway?
- Book direct routes (with minimal stop overs) and only travel during the daytime if possible. If not, take a longer stop over and book into a hotel for the day (this can be surprisingly cheap and gives you a bed and shower).
- Stay in more expensive and more boring hotels than you usually would. There is enough excitement travelling with a baby: you need a laundry, food nearby, thick enough walls to reduce noise and comfortable places to sit and feed (not breakable antiques in an atmospheric room above an an all-night bar (the all-night bar now happens at your place. Whoop. Whoop)).
- No need to worry about jet lag. Your baby doesn’t know the difference between night and day and, let’s be honest, neither do you anymore.
- Don’t take much. There are parents successfully raising children in every corner of the world. If you are prepared to be flexible, the stuff you need will be there.
- That said, if you don’t want to spend your time travelling at the supermarket, take some nappies. If you use reusables, chose a country with cheap laundry services.
- And baby bottle steriliser tablets are good for bath water if you forget water treatment tablets and your baby is a slurper (that, by the way, may be dangerous and is by no means medical advice).
- Baby carriers are the go in airports and on trains. An umbrella stroller is required when the temperature is over 35 degrees C – that’s too hot to have a 37 degree heater strapped to you.
- Travel always involves some risk. Just like stepping out of your home does (and I found getting out the front door daunting enough with a newborn). Be certain about what safety issues you really care about and realise you will be forced to take risks you would not take at home. Things like car seats are usually not available in a taxi (in NZ you do not legally need to use a child restraint in a taxi!) but they can sometimes be organised or you can use a train instead.
- Breast feeding happens in every country in the world so don’t worry about it. Make an effort to not be overtly offensive if the country is conservative but I have fed in all kinds of places- including on subways and when walking in rice paddies- with no problems (I have a light scarf that my baby helpfully pulls off both of us when he feeds).
- Immunise your baby if you don’t want him/her to join the childhood mortality statistics of the country you are visiting.
- FYI: Snakes are attracted to lactating breasts. Personal experience…
- Avoid feeding your baby blue foods, wasabi or chilli. I added that in case my husband is reading this.
- Bring a sense of humour and try to use it frequently. You will need it.
- Don’t pressure yourself into enjoying every moment. It is crap to be stuck in a hotel room with a baby who caught a cold off some cougher on the plane when you want to visit some great sights. Trawling Facebook in Bali is much like looking at Facebook in New Zealand and isn’t worth the airfare.
- Leave at least an hour for all transport transfers. I really hope my husband is reading this.
- Don’t plan to do too much. Sitting in one place and soaking up the atmosphere while the locals admire your baby is a gift. Enjoy the slow pace and unexpected interaction with the locals.
- Have fun. A baby is the ultimate excuse to lounge around because you are too tired to do anything else. Also, Kiwis seem so much more up-tight about children than people in the countries we have visited. Relax, babies are a normal part of life and almost everyone you meet who has had a child understands. They will help in the most unexpected ways. It is a wonderful experience to be helped by a complete stranger who cannot speak your language but is a fellow parent.
- Good luck!
Are you thinking of heading overseas, check out Surviving a Long-haul Flight with Toddlers or A travel advisor’s 9 top tips to maintain sanity while travelling. You may also like Sightseeing with Kids , or our article on Managing Transits and Stopovers.
For more great articles go to our Family Travel section.