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Not surviving, but thriving, with baby

The author’s 1-year-old son on his maiden trans-Atlantic trip, to Kenmare, County Kerry, in the southwest of Ireland. The author’s 1-year-old son on his maiden trans-Atlantic trip, to Kenmare, County Kerry, in the southwest of Ireland. (Christopher Klein for The Boston Globe)
By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / October 4, 2009

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As we boarded our flight to Ireland for a long-anticipated and badly needed vacation, a single thought raced through my mind: “What have I gotten us into?’’

My wife and I were setting off on a trans-Atlantic flight with our 12-month-old son in tow, not bound by any family obligation, but completely of our own free will. Sure, the irresistible lure of international travel and chronic sleep deprivation might have impaired our decision-making, but our passports had been gathering dust for a couple of years and we were eager to resume our globetrotting ways.

Taking our son abroad for the first time sounded like a fun - albeit challenging -adventure. But as soon as I set foot on the jetway, I was hit with overwhelming trepidation at how our energetic traveling companion would handle the confinement of the long flight, the time change, and unfamiliar surroundings thousands of miles from home. Luckily, our boy proved to be a regular jet-setter, and we found that international travel with an infant or toddler can be rewarding if approached with a recalibrated mindset, some advance planning, and plenty of Cheerios.

It’s important for parents traveling with really young ones to realize that they can’t stick to their usual itineraries, says Cynthia Harriman, author of “Take Your Kids to Europe.’’ “Get your expectations in check, and understand that you just can’t do the same things as before,’’ she says.

As we planned our Irish excursion, we realized that our usual m.o. of bouncing from city to city and stuffing in as much sightseeing and night life as we could was out the window. Instead, we opted for a totally different experience, spending a slow-paced week in a small village and taking leisurely day trips instead of dashing around madly as if we were on “The Amazing Race.’’

“With younger kids, don’t try to do seven countries in eight days but really hook into the local culture,’’ Harriman says. “Rent a cottage or do a home exchange and concentrate on everyday life.’’

We rented a spacious townhouse that allowed us to spread out, cook our own meals, do laundry, and let our little guy have his own room for sleeping, which allowed us all to maintain some semblance of a normal routine. Plus, our budding Magellan, who was crawling all over the place, had plenty of uncharted waters to explore.

We quickly fell in love with our Irish village and soaked up all it had to offer. We walked to town each day to pick up breakfast from the bakery. We shopped the aisles of the lone supermarket and ogled the local cheeses and chocolate desserts at the outdoor market. We went to Mass at the village church and thumbed through the First Communion photos in the local newspaper. Although we couldn’t stay out late, we managed to have some pints of Guinness in a few of the village pubs while our companion downed a bottle of milk.

We got to see the town wake the sleep out of its eyes and tuck itself in at night. While the attractions of our quiet hamlet couldn’t compare with the hustle and bustle of Dublin, we appreciated the opportunity to absorb everything it had to offer.

Ireland turned out to be ideal for our international foray with our son. The flight time from Boston to the Emerald Isle is on par with West Coast destinations, and there are no language or cultural barriers to overcome. Plus, Ireland practically mandates flexibility, since the weather is as temperamental as a 1-year-old.

We not only had to adjust our itinerary, but we also had to allot more time for packing. It’s amazing that someone so small requires so much gear, and the older baby gets, the more you have to haul. Along with our umbrella stroller, we also brought our car seat. One of our most useful pieces of gear was a baby backpack that allowed us to hike through the countryside, although I felt like a royal elephant carrying around the king in his howdah.

We brought enough food and diapers just to get us settled and bought the rest in Ireland. The jars of hearty shepherd’s pie and creamy rice pudding were a bit foreign to our son’s American palate, but the European version of Cheerios was just as much of a hit as it is back home and a godsend when Mr. Fussy started to get bored on our road trips.

Shelly Rivoli, author of “Travels with Baby’’ and a mom who has changed diapers on four continents, says parents can also use a delivery service such as Babies Travel Lite to ship baby food, formula, and other supplies to their destination. “It’s a good option if your baby has allergies or sensitivities, or you’re just not sure what you’ll find at a more remote or underdeveloped destination.’’

Harriman also recommends packing a baby food mill. “That way kids can eat what you eat, and you know it’s always fresh,’’ she says.

Even if you rent a home with a kitchen, part of the fun of traveling is eating out. Although fine restaurants were obviously out of the question, we found the village pubs perfectly suited for young eaters (and al fresco dining works well, too).

Most of the pubs had high chairs, which Harriman says is common for Northern Europe. Just don’t expect that to be the case everywhere.

“In Southern Europe, you won’t necessarily find high chairs, but that’s just because they see babies as integrated into daily life,’’ Harriman says. “Go out in Italy, and instead you may find five people will hold baby while you eat.’’ At places without high chairs, we used our versatile cloth Totseat, which slips over the back of nearly any kind of chair and has a pouch in front to keep baby snug and tight.

Even though we didn’t have to order any food for our son, dining out still proved to be a more expensive proposition because our guilt compelled us to leave higher tips to compensate for the mess of food left underneath his chair.

Our one regret from the trip was that we hadn’t gone sooner. Like most new parents, our first few months after the birth were filled with thoughts of survival, not traipsing around Europe. However, Rivoli points out that traveling can be easier with an infant than a mobile toddler: “There is a good window for most parents between three and six months when they’ve had a chance to recuperate from the birth and adjust to the new routine, and while the baby still sleeps many times throughout the day and is content to spend a lot of time in the car seat, stroller, or child carrier,’’ she says. “There is no need to mess with baby food yet, and if you’re breastfeeding, things will be dramatically simplified compared with the months ahead.’’

Although our son won’t recall the trip, he blessed us with memories we’ll treasure forever: the thwack of the stamp on his fresh passport, his bright smile as we hiked among the sheep and waterfalls, his giddy laughter while scaling our townhouse staircase, and a pair of innocent brown eyes peering over a pub table. And he opened our eyes to an entirely different - and rewarding - travel experience.

Christopher Klein can be reached at chris@christopherklein.com.