Parental Leaving

Trip Start Jan 16, 2007
Trip End Mar 01, 2007

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Flag of Cuba  ,
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"You're travelling with a baby and a little kid!? To Cuba!?!"

Old aunts and people who don't know me well tend to have this reaction to our upcoming trip. Over the Christmas holidays I'm riddled with questions and burdened with the concern of various relatives. Where will the kids sleep? What if something happens? Is it safe?

Maybe I'm a literalist, but when I hear that the government is willing to pay me to take Parental Leave, I ask "When are we leaving and where to?"

Cuba seems a perfect destination for travel with kids: no rampant tropical diseases, a great health system, a reputation for being family-oriented. And we've got the time.

Canada, like other progressive countries, pays part of parents' wages so they can be off work in the first year of a child's life to bond, nurture and get intimate with diaper changing. I'm all for that, I just want to do it somewhere warm. Somehow, cleaning up baby yarf becomes less of a chore when you're doing it under a tropical sun. Nightfeeds are so much more interesting when you can do them outside, under a sky wheeling with unfamiliar stars.

Some folks think it's cheating to consider going on what amounts to an extended paid vacation on public money. Isn't the idea to stay at home with your baby? Get to know your new kid? Anyone who has travelled with small fries knows that you become inescapably aware of what they want and need. Kids demand attention on the road. It's tougher to ignore them away from the home entertainment system.

And what are the demands? Babies eat, stare and fill their diapers. Except for some wiggling and cooing, that's about it for six months. As long as those needs are met, travelling with an infant is pretty easy. As for travelling with toddlers and children, in my experience we spend more time with our kids when we're travelling.  You're with them all day, every day. You're likely in the same room -- maybe the same bed -- with them every night.

Away from home, you can't shove them in front of a video while you arrange transport to the next town; you have to keep them entertained. That means interacting. Look at those odd birds! What are those insects doing? Can you draw me a picture of the fish we saw yesterday?

This will be the second major trip we've done while on parental leave. Between these two trips and the shorter long-weekend visits by car or plane to visit family, we'll have travelled five months with children under one year of age. Our first trip to the South Pacific, we took along my 12-year-old as well. For this Cuban trip, we trade the adolescent (now 15 and working towards school exams) for her three-year-old sister with the Big Personality. This will turn out to be the real challenge of the trip.

To find out what happens, move on to the next travelogue entry (or skip to entry 6 if you don't need to hear about a few days of sick kids). If you're thinking about travelling with kids, below is a checklist of stuff we took (or wish we had), as well as travel tips for the road. My last entry in this travelogue deals with items and information specific to Cuba.

Newborn to 7 months
With a few caveats, I think babies are the easiest to travel with. They stay put when you put them down. They can't ask "Are we there yet?" They charm airport security. The caveats are:
- the mother is breastfeeding (good luck sterilizing bottles on the road!)
- the baby is old enough to have established sleeping patterns
- you're going to a place with good medical care

For my money, this means two months to six months old. I know people who've gone with newborns, but with each of my kids I found the first six weeks so demanding that I can't imagine doing more than dealing with the sleep deprivation. At the other end of this range, around six months, babies want to start crawling and don't like staying in one place as much. Also, most people introduce solid food around six months. The flying food tends to create more laundry. Food prep means more things to pack.
Teethed and and dangerous -- 8 months to 16 months old
You're a braver person than me. Beyond weekend trips, I've never risked my sanity travelling with kids this age: too mobile, too impossible to reason with, too ready to shove everything in their mouths. The only way I can imagine this working well is if you move somewhere for a chunk of time where you would feel comfortable with food (and whatever else) being eaten off the floor.
Toddlers -- 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 years old
Once kids have walking and other basic motor skills pretty well mastered, they become easier than a crawler for travel. Our success with 3- to 4-day trips suggests one could in effect string a few of these together to make longer trips. Don't plan too many outings in one day. The most critical things for this age are favourite foods and toys (e.g., blocks).
Young children -- 2 1/2 to 4 years old
By now, kids have a rudimentary ability to be patient and adapt to the inconsistencies of travel. We found that things work best if you establish routines. Have a regular quiet time. Dinner should happen at about the same time daily, preferably in the comfort of your lodgings for the night. Obviously you want to find things of interest to kids. Remember the shorter attention span at work; we had a bag of activities for every outing. The other thing important for this age is rewards/bribes. Kids don't derive the same pleasure from a nice colonial building an adult does, but they are delighted to be frequently praised or rewarded for making it to the top of a lookout.

School age
From age five up, kids are more and more open to new experiences. They will remember bits of the trip, a nice bonus. The rewards still matter, but you can spend more time researching the flora and fauna of the area and engaging your kids. Their questions can enrich your experience.

Every guidebook will have a list of basic items for your destination. Below are the kid-specific things they tend to leave off (revised after the trip with the most utilized at the top).
- car seat. We only brought one for the baby, anticipating we'd rarely be in cars with seatbelts anyway.
- Snap-N-Go. We can't say enough about this simple attachment for converting a car seat to a stroller. Unlike some of the ridiculously bulky stroller/car-seat combos out there, this is light, folds quickly and packs easily. Julie devised a sun cover that allows good circulation.
- baby carrier. The Baby Bjorn is a godsend on a trip. We were given another brand when Jonathan was born, but the original Bjorn carrier is infinitely easier on a trip. Baby can face in or out. Locals instantly open up when they encounter a smiling face strapped to your chest. We rigged up a way of draping a light cotton blanket around the perimetre to keep his legs and arms out of the sun.
- walkie talkies. A pair proves amazingly handy. Whenever we go out of eyeshot with each other, we tend to turn them on. It saves a lot of time reconnecting and nullifying the potential complications of emergency bathroom trips, etc. Rechargeable ones are obviously better, as is a set with a decent call button. Our pair for Cuba was supposed to have a voice-activated mechanism. We had hopes of using one as a baby-monitor, but it wasn't reliable.
- nalgene waterbottles. We had one each. The kid-sized ones are handy, and let you see how much water they're drinking.
- mosquito netting. We just brought along a small one for the car seat. In hindsight, I would have brought along a full-sized one for the kids' bed for the Cuba trip.
- toys and distractions. Crayons, chalk, colouring book, dice, cards, small stuffed animals,  baby toys, string (handy for a toy and to keep all the baby toys from hitting the dirt).
- Portable baby crib. We didn't bring one this trip. On our trip by car in OZ, the Pack-N-Go (with UV shades) was handy but bulky.
- little backpack for kids. Our 3-year-old became adept at taking out her own stuff in situations where she was bored.
- battery charger and rechargeable batteries
- duct-tape
- thermometer
- suntan lotion
- pocket knife (with can opener)
- insect repellent suitable for kids (non-DEET)

If you're going to a developed country, you can obviously get some of your medicine there on an as-needed basis. Run your list and intended purposes past your doctor, because I'm sure not a medical professional!
- Purell or other instant hand sanitizer. We bought a couple of small bottles to carry with us at all times, and a larger bottle we left in our room and used for refilling.
- cortisone cream. The medicine of the trip was a tube of Hyderm, an ointment with cortisone. Very effective healing heat rash and other skin irritations. We used almost the whole tube.
- acetaminophen. For kids' doses, take more than you think you'll need. We made the mistake of mainly taking infant stuff, reasoning that the bottle had doses for Lucy's age as well. The problem was, in a 10ml bottle a few doses for a 3-year-old used it all up. If you're going where Tylenol is difficult to get, assume a 24-hour fever once a week and pack accordingly.
- antibiotics. We had some prescribed in powder form. This solves the short expiry on many, and the need to refrigerate. We took two treatments for kids.
- antibacterial ointment. Polysporin, for small cuts and infections.
- diaper cream. We used medicated Penaten lots. We brought it for diaper rash, but discovered it was good on sunburns; it has the added bonus, being a thick, white zinc-oxide paste, of protecting burnt arms from getting more burned. Babies can't use sunscreen, so this seems to be one of the few options, although it's not supposed to be used on large areas of the body.
- Kids AfterBite. Not to be confused with other skin creams (which actually treat the skin), this is a topical pain killer for stings and bites.
- oral rehydration salts. Both Lucy and I used cherry-flavoured Pedialite pouches. Just add water.
- antinausea. We took liquid Gravol, and wished we'd had Gravol suppositories as well. Even with frequent vomiting and diarrhea, these are absorbed quickly enough to take effect, something not true for the liquid.
- decongestant. For stuffed-up kids on planes. Lucy would have nothing to do with being squirted up the nose. We used Sudafed chewables.
- ear drops
- antihistamines. We had both chewables and Visine allergy drops.
- Solarcaine. For sunburns. Used rarely.
- antidiarrheal. We used Kaopectate once -- for me. Most things we read said rehydrating was more important than stopping the diarrhea. There are other treatments available.
- laxatives. At the other end of the spectrum, we had glycerin suppositories for constipation. Never used.
- puffers. Obviously bring along any asthma medication you require.
- bandaids. These of course almost fall under the toy category with kids.
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