The Highs And Lows Of Travelling With Your Baby

Photographed by Viktor Jakovlev.
When you have a baby, a walk down the road is like an SAS mission. A botched SAS mission. One where you end up leaving late, sweaty and swearing, after half an hour spent chucking baby tat out of cupboards, upending furniture, shouting The Checklist to yourself. Nappies? Muslins? Spare clothes? Changed the baby? Fed the baby? Change again…

So flying thousands of miles with your child, over oceans and time zones, to the other side of the world, well, it's kind of daunting. But that’s what we did, my boyfriend Mat and I. At 3am on the 23rd of April 2016, we left our home in south London, with our six-month-old daughter, Scarlet, bound for Havana.

We’d talked about visiting Cuba long before we became parents. But it was in the final year of a medical degree that Mat had the chance to do a placement abroad, I was on maternity leave, and it seemed like the ideal time to go. We’re not alone; more and more adventurous mums and dads, people like Travel Mad Mum blogger Karen Edwards, for example, are making the most of the career break that comes with having a new baby to add a few stamps to their passports.
Postgraduate student Becky Buchanan spent four months travelling in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize with her baby Iris, then 16 months, and Iris's dad, Artem – kicking off with six weeks solo with her baby. Becky had travelled alone in the past, through south-east Asia, north Africa and Eastern Europe – though with Iris now in tow, she had to modify her plans. “I originally wanted to go to Myanmar but it’s rated 190th out of 191 countries in the World Health Organisation’s ranking of health systems,” she tells me. “Iris’s godparents talked me out of it.”
Scarlet with her mate Marcelo.
Cuba has a great health system. My fear was the 10-hour flight. I imagined nightmare scenes; the baby bawling at 30,000 feet, other passengers tutting with disapproval. But it was a doddle. Scarlet helpfully learnt to wave the day before we left so passed the time by making new friends. This was a small taste of what would become the theme of our trip. On the streets of Havana, blue-eyed “Escarlata” was a star. Women and men, young and old, would approach her buggy to admire her, chat to her, kiss her feet, take a cheeky selfie. Even the cop guarding the North Korean embassy was a fan. He told us she looked like Leonardo DiCaprio. Scarlet loved it. We stayed in Cuba for seven weeks. Writer Rachel Holmes’ two kids, Frankie, seven months, and Evie, three years old, also got a lot of attention during their four-and-a-half month trip to Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Brazil with her husband Danny. “Evie hated it at first but she got used to it. Since we got back I’ve noticed that it used to take her ages to warm up to our friends but now she’s in there straight away chatting to people,” Rachel says, adding: “In some ways it’s easier travelling with children than without. People love children and as a mother, you’re venerated. You jump to the front of the queue. People want to help you.”
Becky encountered less enthusiasm from her fellow backpackers. “You get a strange reaction from other travellers,” she says. “They couldn’t deal with it. I think the whole backpacker thing is really escapist. People want to pretend that real life doesn’t exist. Some hostels would say you can’t stay here because you’ve got a baby. Other places they were totally lovely.”
Evie sleeps in Arequipa Peru.
Everyone has their 'what-the-fuck-am-I-doing' moments. Both Iris and Frankie picked up nasty stomach viruses. “It was pretty miserable,” Rachel remembers. “I thought, we’re out here, we don’t speak any Spanish and our child is ill, should we really be doing this? But as soon as he got better, it was fine.” In Cuba, when the days were so impossibly hot, we spent the middle hours stuck in our apartment and I missed my stuff; rugs for her to roll about on, local playgroups to entertain her.

Being without it forced me to be resourceful. Plastic bottles turned into toys, sinks into paddling pools. The neighbours put an old mattress onto our shared balcony for her to play on. And I learned that so much of the kit I brought with me was unnecessary. Scarlet slept between us in the bed, little limbs outstretched to occupy the maximum possible space. The blanket, the baby sleeping bags, the pop-up travel cot – they all sat forlornly in the corner of our room, unused.
Travelling gave me more confidence in my ability as a mum. It made me realise you don’t need half the crap you buy for a baby in those first months, subconsciously hoping it will make you a better parent. Especially in Cuba, where web access is tricky to come by, you can’t spend all day Googling, “why does a baby…” “when should a baby…” “what happens if a baby…” You just have to get on with it. And you realise that much of what the internet tell us is the right way of doing things – when your baby should sleep, where, for how long… – is culturally specific. “Kids stay up later in South America,” Rachel notes. “Here people are a bit frowny if your kid’s up past eight o’clock.” You can’t get it right because there is no right.
Scarlet loved the sea.
Don’t get me wrong, hanging out on a beach with a baby is a very different experience to hanging out on a beach pre-baby. You’re constantly on duty, attending to the needs of a tiny person who is hell bent on yanking down your bikini top and swallowing fistfuls of sand. But there are all the funny conversations and beautiful experiences that you just wouldn’t have had without them there. Becky recalls a hot tub in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala. “Iris hates the shower and they never have a bath anywhere when you’re travelling. At one point she and I were sat in this huge granite tub, outdoors, under the trees, as it pissed with rain. Iris was so happy, floating around, shouting ‘a bath, a bath!’”

As I write this, there’s another tab open on my laptop with listings for used vans. The plan is to buy one cheapish, convert it and head off on road trips. Becky’s next stop is China when Iris is bigger. Tempted to do something similar? It’s like my aunty, who spent time in Singapore when my cousin was a baby, said: “As long as they’re with you, they’ll be fine. You’re their world.” @rachsh
Scarlet with her mate Carolina.

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