Travel with a five month old--how to make the best of it?

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We are getting ready to take our first big trip with our five month old.  Serena has done great on a few weekends away, but that was when she was younger and was sleeping in my arms most of the time.  Now she's awake a lot, and although she's generally an easy baby I've heard horror stories from friends, especially about cross county plane trips.  Any tips?

Traveling with a baby is a good way to practice having realistic expectations!  By planning in advance you can make some aspects of travel easier (not easy, because easy travel doesn’t exist anymore!)

Begin by simplifying your journey from home to your destination.  Any experienced traveler knows that it doesn’t help to take a lot of stuff with you, whether it’s your own or your baby’s. But your carry on baggage still needs to hold enough essentials to deal with what can go wrong. At Serena’s age, you should carry more diapers and wipes than you think she’ll need, plastic bags and a changing pad and one change of clothing. Toss in some small bright toys for her to grab and mouth if you need to amuse her. If she takes a bottle, bring ready to feed formula so that you don’t need to mix it on board, following TSA packing regulations  For yourself, a layered shirt to remove in case of spit ups and spills will be helpful.  Even more important for yourself, bring snacks so that you can eat when you are hungry.

You'll hear different ideas about whether a daytime flight or a red eye is better for sleep.  My feeling is that a red eye usually means that no one gets enough sleep so parents and baby are equally frazzled. 

Flight attendants, no matter how sympathetic, are often too busy to be helpful. You may get lucky with fellow passengers, or you may get a grouch who thinks it’s your fault if your baby cries.  There’s not much you can do about them, although I did hear of parents who bought drinks for everyone in their row!  If Serena does cry and you can’t soothe her, it’s probably because she’s tired and wants to sleep, so trying to shush her can make things worse.  Just smile, shrug, and hope for compassion.
Once you arrive, let Serena’s usual temperament and style be your guide for planning and predicting day to day activities.  Some babies are outgoing and cheerful and happily interact with anyone they encounter.  They love stimulation and new places. Other babies can only handle moderate doses of new experiences before they begin to be overwhelmed.  Some babies are quietly watchful or reluctant to engage unless they are in a familiar setting and they know the people around them. Once a baby reaches her individual threshold of stimulation she may get fussy or sleepy or perhaps clingy to her parents.  Whatever happens, happens! Of course, it is easier to travel with an adaptable baby, but it’s important to remember that an easy baby isn’t a better baby than any other type-- she is just a different person.  

If your primary goal for your vacation is to give your families a chance to visit with you and get to know Serena, you'll do just fine.  But if you try to plan too many activities that require you to be out and about, you may all wind up exhausted and irritable.  As you've probably learned already, a baby can pick up your mood and if you're under stress she’ll feel that and react in her own way. Less is always better when planning your days.

Sleeping arrangements in a new place for you and your baby can be a challenge.  The ideal is a separate room where you can retreat when Serena needs down time or to be fed without distractions. Even if Serena seems to be adjusting easily to the new surroundings, you can expect her to need extra comfort at naps and bedtime. Try to establish a routine once you arrive.  Unless she has always been very adaptable to disruptions in her schedule, you'll be happier if you follow her usual nap and bedtime patterns. If naps don’t last as long, you may have to set limits on your families' expectations for the evening.  If you sense that she is tired, don't keep her up to please others or you'll pay the price for it yourselves!

Since it is sometimes impossible to stick to a nap schedule, Serena may be overtired in the evening and may need extra comfort during the night. Even if If she is sleeping in a crib or portable bed, in the middle of the nightit may be easier to let her join you in your bed.  If that’s the case, once you get home, you can restart whatever your usual sleep plan has been.   The back and forth change in time zones may be less upsetting to your baby's schedule than your own. It does help to start the day at the same time, but many babies are quite adaptable.

Serena may or may not be willing to let other people care for her without raising a fuss.  If she is at a stage when she prefers only mom or dad, you may want to limit passing her around, perhaps allowing only grandparents to have the pleasure of close company.  Even grandparents may need to take their time before engaging with Serena. A grandparent may not know or remember that reluctance with strangers is a normal part of infant development. Some babies find it necessary to study a new person’s face from a distance before they want to exchange a smile.  You may need to reassure your parents that any negative reaction to them shouldn't be taken personally!

If you’re looking forward to leaving Serena with her grandparents while you go out on your own, wait until she’s comfortable in her new surroundings. If you are nursing, make sure she’s willing to take a bottle if you plan to be gone more than a couple of hours.   It’s best to say goodbye rather than slipping out when your baby is asleep--she might be confused and frightened if she awakens and finds you gone.

One unfortunate fact of travel is that people get sick. Of course you will want to stay away from anyone with a respiratory illness. The bestprotection for everyone is frequent hand washing, for yourselves and anyone who holds Serena. Make sure that other adults are up to date on immunizations, especially pertussis and measles. Of course, Serena’s immunizations should up to date too! Ask your health care provider for a referral to a pediatrician in the towns where you'll be visiting.  It’s also a good idea to take any medication your baby might need for fever or pain, since most grandparents don't keep these supplies in infant dosages.  

Try to come home a few days before the end of your vacation so that you can rest and get back into your usual routine.  No matter how well your trip goes, you'll need some time to settle in.  There's nothing like a vacation with a baby to make parents need a vacation!