Travelling with a toddler

By Kerry MacGregor


When my husband and I decided to travel for the eight months of his sabbatical, I’d been pregnant for about a month.

We started in Venice, Italy, when our son was around two months old — because we were naive, because we were rookies. We’d never really had a honeymoon and somehow, we’d decided that packing everything and the baby onto a ferry to spend one night on the city’s winding canals would be romantic.

Not knowing that all of Venice’s canal-crossing bridges were actually staircases, we’d brought a stroller, and had to criss-cross a dozen of these bridges — baby, stroller, and overly-stuffed suitcases all piled into our arms — just to find our hotel.

And because we’d paid more attention to our new-parent idealism than to what we could carry while running to catch the last ferry out of Venice, we’d brought an extra 10 pounds of cloth diapers to weigh us down. Make that 30. On the way back, they were wet.

It was only the first leg of the sabbatical, but our little maiden voyage mistakes had me nervous about the rest of it — especially the part where we’d be trapped in the cabin of a plane with no corner store, no emergency toy shop, and a few hundred other passengers who were trying to sleep.

So, I tried to calm some of those fears with a little research.

“Talk to your child about flying before you go,” most Top Ten Tips sites told me. “Give yourself extra time and pack lots of snacks.”

The Internet offered up pages and pages of hints, tips, and words of encouragement, but, as with many mommy blog topics, I found a lot of the advice didn’t really do anything for me. It was decorative — soft, fluffy and ornamental, like a doily sitting pretty on a coffee table, when what I really needed was a hotplate.

I knew I’d be packing snacks once our kid started eating, but I wanted someone to tell me what kind of snacks to buy and how to pack them.

Some of these doily sites even suggested bribing your fellow passengers with gifts while they’re taking their seats. Here’s how I’d imagined hour four of that flight: Me, jiggling a wailing baby in the aisle, while the people sitting around me stared daggers at the cute pens and notepaper I’d given them, gritting their teeth and cursing themselves for being gagged by something that might have been bought at the Dollar Store.

So, without much help, we went out and made a lot of our own discoveries: I learned to put the kid’s feet on the side, where the food carts roll (not the head), to nurse my baby on the plane whenever I could, to use a carrier rather than a stroller everywhere, and to store multiple bags with handles at my feet to manage, respectively, access to diapers, food and toys.

I learned to ask for three cups when I order a drink to give my son something to play with, to pack everything I could into Ziploc bags, and to fill at least one of those Ziplocs with re-usable stickers (the static kind that are meant for children over three), because they stick on the round little plane window when I can’t get an aisle seat.

Gradually, very gradually, we developed our own little travelling protocol and, once we had that, I realized what I’d been looking for online all along: Some confidence in my own parenting skills.

After Venice, we went to the Loire Valley in France (my husband’s hometown), to Ottawa (my hometown), Vancouver, a bunch of different cities in the U.S., and back to France, where we live in Nice.

Two years later, our family is still booking flights, even though we know that our son changes all the time, in ways that we can’t always predict, and that every flight will be different. Now, I think, we’ve gotten used to learning from our own mistakes.

If you’re looking for a “hotplate” site for your trip this March Break, however, I did eventually find it:

It’s a one-page blog, written by a former flight attendant and mother of three.

With all of the decorative advice floating around on the Internet, it’s comforting to read something that will actually keep you from getting burned.

“If your children fall asleep in their seats,” Sharon writes, “put the seat belt around them so it can be seen. If you all are sleeping (we can always hope) and the seat belt sign goes on, the flight attendants are supposed to come down the aisle to check.

“If they can clearly see that everyone’s strapped in, they won’t have to wake you up.”