Though it's not my usual fare here (in fact it breaks the "three-word rule" I set up for myself, but oh well...) there were so many comments expressing interest in our strategies for travelling with our little ones (almost five, two-and-a-half, and eight months) that I thought I'd share a bit more about it. "Strategies" may make it sounds more systematic and left brained than it was--though I can be a bit Type A I am always emotional in my approach! In any event, here's what I learned from our spring vacation:
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1. If you want to take small children, pick the right trip.
That may sound obvious, but I have always been impressed, and a bit surprised, when I've heard of others taking their children to farflung places because I imagined itineraries such as I maintained in my single and DINKs years. And maybe some of my friends have managed to do that with their children. This trip to Italy wasn't the one to see all the sites in the guide book. We didn't attempt more than one or two sites a day (so for instance, my husband and I took a break to feed lunch to Scarlett and Tess while the others visited the Uffizi), kept the outings to 4 to 6 hours including car time (which means we really just got a "taste" of many of the places we went), and planned some lounge days. I also planned to keep a different schedule than the rest of our group to allow for naps and and earlier bedtime. Because I had lowered my expectations I ended up feeling like I did more than I had planned, and bottom line was I was just thrilled to be able to have my children with me in such a beautiful place!
2. Stay in one place.
We were able to visit a number of different places in Tuscany but we always returned to the same home base. This gave our children an opportunity to become familiar with the place they were sleeping and hanging out, which I believe made them feel more comfortable, and it minimized the incredible hassle of packing and unpacking!
3. Bring good equipment.
I absolutely would not have enjoyed the trip in the same way without my Baby Bjorn, our umbrella stroller, and the girls' car seats. We weren't sure about bringing our own car seats but it was worth the extra baggage to have seats that were familiar to them (which meant they were more likely to nap in the car) and that we new worked safely. The stroller enabled us to move more quickly, contain the exploring and disappearing, and Scarlett fell asleep in hers a couple times too.
4. Take advantage of opportunities to let your children play.
The thing about a trip is that one usually has an ambitious list she is hoping to check off so it's sometimes difficult to take a detour. This trip to Italy was all about detours. It was easier to take that approach because most of us had been there before, and because I tell myself I may get to go back. So we dallied along our path to the Campo in Siena, for instance, to let Audrey have some more hot chocolate, and we adults all sat in a small park to let the girls play on a merry-go-round, and we even came across a bouncy house, where we stayed forty-five minutes.
5. Bring along some of the familiar.
I packed Tess's baby cereal, the girls' favorite blankets, even our brand of baby wipes and animal cookies in an attempt to create some familiarity. Who knows if it would have gone worse had I not, I erred on the safe side.
6. Plan for the plane.
I bought backpacks for Audrey and Scarlett and filled them with small wrapped things to keep them occupied on our flight: coloring books and crayons, new Leapster games, paperback books, small toys, snacks. I tried to bring one new thing for each hour. I also packed some new things to fill their backpacks for the flight back. Sounds a bit crazy I know, and truthfully I had more than I needed, but the plane was the most difficult part of the trip and it was made easier by having plenty of distractions. We also had the digital kind: movies on the iPad, educational games on our phones, and picture slide shows on my computer. A good friend of my helped with a fabulous gift: a pill organizer decorated with stickers and containing a couple pieces of candy in each compartment. The idea was that the girls could open one compartment every 30 minutes. What a great way to mark time and keep them busy!
7. Pack clothing for serious play.
Though I've got pictures of the girls in cute dresses, and even dressy dresses, the great majority of the time they were wearing serious play clothing: jeans, knit pants, t-shirts, tennis shoes. I picked things that could take a gelato spill or two, be comfortable to sleep in if they fell asleep in the car, and would provide good coverage to protect them from sunburns out on the piazzas. I also tried to pick things that I wouldn't mind seeing in pictures. ;-) Oh, and don't forget the backup outfits in the Ziploc bags. I carried them all over and didn't need them, and then of course had to unexpectedly check a bag for our flight home and neglected to retrieve the backup outfits. That resulted in the emergency purchase of one adorable, and outrageously expensive, outfit for Tess in the CDG airport. It's cute, but not that cute!
8. Create some adventure.
Whether it was finding the next gelato spot, or looking for more souvenir replica buildings, or finding pigeons to chase (their favorite activity!) we tried to suggest some treasure to look for, some ritual we could replicate, and that made being on the go more fun for the girls.
9. Try not to get too off-schedule.
I'm a big believer in maintaining a schedule with young children. I think regular sleeping patterns are important, at least for my own well being! So we tried to work within the "windows" that occur in a typical infant's day. You mom's know what I'm talking about, I'm sure... We either set out first thing in the morning and Tess would take her morning nap in the car, or we waited until after her morning nap and I tried to extend the naps she took in her Baby Bjorn (maintaining the bounce, or whatever) so she got close to the right amount of napping times. It was more difficult with Scarlett but she too occasionally napped in the car. But after a few days of that I would bow out of the tourism to stay home and let them both have their regular naps, in their regular napping places. I think it was really important to keep them from getting too tired. After a couple failed attempts to go out around bedtime, I also stayed home while the others went to dinner so the girls could go to sleep. We hired a cook a few times to come to our villa and have dinner ready for us when we returned from an outing. That was the best thing we did in terms of having some good local food, giving the girls their normal bedtime, and enabling everyone to eat warm food together!
We didn't use a nanny service or babysitter. I just couldn't get comfortable with that idea--it's difficult enough to leave my children with one I know well from the neighborhood! We had plenty of help with and aunt, uncle and grandparents--lucky us! I know others have taken along a niece or nanny or someone to help with the children and that sounds like a fabulous plan.
We discovered a little known thing about babies and transatlantic flights: bassinets. Seems most airlines have them if you manage to get your seating assignment in the right place. Tess slept in one about five hours on the way over, which was especially great since Scarlett hardly slept at all!
Would I do it again? Absolutely! I enjoyed it all the more having them along. I remember hearing about Venice as a little girl and being fascinated by the idea of canals instead of streets...it was so much fun to watch Audrey's and Scarlett's eyes get big when we told them we were riding a "water bus" (Vaporetto). What a joy to see new places through children's eyes.
Would I change anything? I don't think so. Though I'm certain there are others out there with a much more expert approach than mine. I am excited about the idea of my trips with my girls. It was a lot of work however. Seemed I was planning it for months. After getting ready for our trip to Italy, everything else this year will seem easy.
My "FYI" posts share news or a perspective about something that's been on my mind. You can read them all here.