Travelling with a baby

Travel with a baby during maternity leave isn’t just for the intrepid — it can offer up bonding time, be cheaper to live in another country and satisfying to see your little one take in new sights. With a bit of preparation, it can be immensely rewarding.

By Helen Warwick
Published 29 Apr 2019, 08:00 BST
Travelling on maternity leave can be a rewarding experience
Travelling on maternity leave can be a rewarding experience.
Photograph by Getty Images

We’re 15 minutes into a two-hour flight and three-year-old Charlie is already bored. His snacks were guzzled before boarding and the iPad has been discarded. He flings one of his toy cars and it whacks a disgruntled passenger ahead of us. One-year-old Maxi — ever the ball of energy — pelts up and down the aisle. At one point I lose him as he snakes beneath one of the rows, picking sticky popcorn off the floor. This is getting stressful. And then it occurs to me: I may have missed a trick — why didn’t we fly more often when the boys were tiny babies? When they could be perched on my chest, sleeping and feeding and not much else. The fact is, it can be much easier travelling with a young baby than a toddler. Tiny babies hardly move. They (generally) sleep anywhere. Hell, I’ve heard they even sell nappies overseas. 

Blogger Karen Edwards wasn’t daunted by the prospect and saw her maternity leave as an opportunity for a family adventure. She found tenants for her house, sold the family car, and, after giving herself a few weeks to learn the ropes of being a first-time mum, she hit the road with her husband Shaun and 10-week-old Esmé for a 10-month trip. Living off her maternity pay and savings from Shaun’s job as a landscape gardener, they ticked off Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia and Shaun’s home country, New Zealand. “It was hard being away from my comforts as a new mother,” she says.

But the Irish native relished the trip, so much so that when her second child, Quinn, was born, the family had no qualms about upping sticks from London again when he was just 11 weeks old, but this time to Central and South America.

“Travelling with a baby can be the best time — it’s quality bonding time and seeing your little one take in the new sights, smells and sounds is amazing. I’ll never forget visiting Machu Picchu. I was breastfeeding Quinn at one point and Shaun had to rescue Esmé who was being chased by an alpaca for her cracker.”

As a family, they’ve zip-lined through Ecuadorian forest, cycled through Hoi An in Vietnam and paddled off the Balinese island of Nusa Lembongan; when Quinn was just a few weeks old, he was suited up in a baby lifejacket, lying in the bow of the canoe, as they rowed around Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada. 

Trials & tribulations 

The idea of a maternity gap year is still pretty novel — even stats on family travel are few and far between and as yet, there’s little data to suggest this intrepid travel trend is on the rise. That said, industry experts are starting to sit up and take notice of the idea. 

“We’ve recognised it’s a growing trend as seen by our members over the past year or so,” says Jack Sheldon at flight deal finder Jack’s Flight Club. “For one, it’s become a more accessible thing to do for new parents — not only due to the emergence of companies such as us, which allow for more affordable flights, but also due to the likes of Airbnb. It’s become much easier for people to rent out their properties while away, thus reducing their costs. It can often be cheaper to live in another country if you can avoid paying rent in the UK at the same time.”

Jack also credits the fact it’s something that’s flaunted across social media, too. “Platforms such as Instagram help showcase maternity gap years as an option.”

In Karen’s case, she’s amassed an Instagram following of 105,000. However, she reveals, life on the road with a baby can be far from simple, despite the rose-tinted shots on social media. The couple have had to cook sweet potato in a kettle and hide away from Esmé’s cot in a bid to get her to sleep, all in the name of backpacking with a baby. “Yes, we’ve pulled chairs into the bathroom, with a can of beer and one ear of an iPod each. I thought this was hilarious, Shaun wasn’t impressed — having a beer in the bathroom at 7pm!” 

There’s no doubting a baby gap year isn’t for everyone. Being at home with a baby is tough enough: from torturous sleep deprivation to breastfeeding complications — even the idea of boarding a train with your little one can instil heart palpitations in some women. Neuroses aside, one of the biggest concerns for most is the health of your baby — taking your little bundle miles away from the familiarity of a UK medical practice is pretty daunting.

In the absence of specific guidelines for travelling long-term with a baby, the NHS recommends avoiding countries where vaccinations are necessary — for example, babies younger than six months can’t receive a vaccination against yellow fever because of the risk of developing encephalitis, while babies younger than two months can’t take anti-malaria tablets. So you might want to give trekking through the Amazonian rainforest a miss. Karen suggests looking at UK-based site Fit for Travel — a great resource that can help you decide the high-risk areas to avoid. And it goes without saying you must meet with your GP or travel health adviser well in advance of your trip to discuss vaccinations and precautions, too.

There are also no hard and fast rules about flying with a baby, so your best bet is to check with an airline, as some allow two-day-old babies to board; others stipulate they must be at least two weeks. Dr Rachel Tomlinson, an online GP at Push Doctor, asserts the need for babies to have their newborn vaccinations before you flee overseas, usually given at eight, 12 and 16 weeks. “Fill up a first aid bag, too, with over-the-counter meds — painkillers, antihistamines, insect repellent and hydration solutions. Give baby a bottle, breast or dummy to suck on while taking off and landing. And always remember to take out comprehensive travel insurance for peace of mind before you go.”

Preparation is key 

The question remains, however: how do you consider financing an epic travelling trip? The good news is that travelling with a baby or very young kids has its financial perks. Most airlines charge just a small fee for lap infants, and travel by bus or train worldwide is generally free for them; while on the whole, hotels don’t tend to charge for little ones. And here’s the thing about maternity leave — when else are you given (up to) a year off from work, nine months of which is paid for? Since the shared parental leave rights came into effect in 2015, giving both parents or carers the chance to take time off work in their child’s first year, a partner could have the right to paid paternity leave at the same time.

Husband and wife Daniel and Preethi Harbuck have braved a whole bunch of trips with their brood of four kids, now eight, six, four and one. Their intrepid escapes all started when their eldest was just four months with a trip to South Africa. “I vividly remember one game drive with him wrapped onto me in a baby sling, nursing away as our vehicle went bumping along.” Since then, they’ve tallied up a number of trips, from Australia and New Zealand, to the Middle East and the Balkans, and more recently, a three-month jaunt around Europe, Southeast Asia and India with all four children after her husband managed to secure three months’ paternity leave.

“Travel with kids isn’t easy, but then, being at home with kids isn’t easy,” says Preethi. “Maybe we just have really low expectations, but kids almost always handle travel better than we expect. My advice is to plan — few things are more stressful than being starving and not knowing where to go; or wandering aimlessly trying to figure out what sights to see. Do your research beforehand, but be willing to change plans if the situation dictates.”

She also recommends packing light. “You will be tempted to pack your entire house. Don’t. Minimise as much as possible. Consider house rentals that have washing machines and bring lightweight baby cots and pushchairs, or find out if your destination can provide them. Remember that babies live all over the world and most necessities are easily accessible.”

Karen agrees, suggesting the most essential item is a baby carrier. “I have so many other tips, but in a nutshell, plan your trips at a much slower pace — usually one big activity a day is plenty; and take turns with your partner to do things you used to enjoy, whether it’s a massage or diving. And, if you can, breastfeed for ease and for passing on immunity. With a changing environment, breastfeeding was a solid reassurance and familiar comfort with my two little ones.”

If the idea of long-haul freaks you out, Europe is always going to exceed expectations. You don’t necessarily need to fly either. Esme and Tom Lawy headed to Spain for two months when their son, Emile, was just eight months, campervanning their way through the Picos de Europa mountains and the Costa Verde, visiting the towns of Oviedo, San Sebastián and Hondarribia, and stopping in the Rioja wine region. The travelling trio then headed west to the Sierra de Guarda, pitching up besides the Rio Vero for dusky river paddling, before driving back to the UK through France. 

“I was still on paid mat leave and Tom had come to the end of his contract so it seemed like a natural time to go. We put our flat up for rent in London and headed off with the aim of visiting as many sites as possible from a ‘wild swimming Spain guide’.”

How did the campervan work out with a baby? Esme insists they cracked it: “It’s great with kids as you can be really consistent with their sleeping arrangements. It’s a proper little home from home for them. Yes, there were stressful moments and there were tears (mostly but not exclusively Emile’s) but that’s part of the adventure. Every time we got him down to sleep in the van and then were able to relax with a glass of wine in the sun, we felt so pleased with ourselves.”

So successful was the trip that the family are finalising plans for several months campervanning in the Algarve and Andalusia with the addition of 11-month-old Rafa later this year. 

Jade and Simon Johnston, another intrepid duo who backpacked around Europe for six months with their newborn, are convinced a maternity leave gap year is a no-brainer. “Travelling with a little baby is actually pretty easy. At the time of our adventure, he couldn’t walk or talk. All he wanted was to be snuggled up all day — which is exactly what he got being carried in the baby carrier most of the time. 

“Everyone will want to help you, too. You will get to skip queues (in many countries). Locals will be more engaged and will want to interact with you. And in our experience, we were less of a target for pickpocketing or petty crime, especially in countries where family values are sacred.”

It makes you think. With a little more planning, research and creativity, maternity leave could be a hell of a lot more than baby music classes, sedate coffees and afternoons cosied up at home.  

Five baby-friendly destinations

Indonesians shower little ones with attention. Many hotels have all the baby gear parents or carers need, the island has plenty of home rentals, and as long as you avoid the rollicking nightlife of Kuta, you’ll all be hunky dory.

This boho chic enclave in Mexico is synonymous with hippie hotel hideaways, spectacular beaches and a laid-back vibe. No one will bat an eyelid if a baby is breastfed and most hotels offer all the necessary baby paraphernalia.

As a whole, the USA is a dream with babies — but the Windy City excels as a cultural hub where the little one can just tag along, from free pushchair tours at its major museums to family festivals.

Parents can feel smug drifting around Lecce’s streets, receiving adoring glances from passing locals — Italians love babies. Adding to the appeal are al fresco lunches while baby snoozes, excellent child-focused accommodation and Porto Cesareo’s beaches. 

Revisit a 20-something backpacking trail with baby on board and there can be surprising relief. Southeast Asia remains cheap, Westernised medicine is widely available, and the cuisine and culture never get boring.

Published in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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