A friend recently told me, “Vacations become trips when you have kids.” That got me thinking of my own upcoming “vacations.” As a new mom, everything is a new adventure, and I’m learning you really can’t plan for anything. But I am a planner by nature. It’s been one of the hardest things in my motherhood journey — to let go. Going with the flow is not my first instinct. Instead, I thrive with advance planning, by making detailed lists and having structure. That went out the window when I had a baby, and I’m working on adjusting — but not without anxiety and stress creeping in. 

With a big trip with my family looming, I went through what I always do before traveling. I made an extensive packing list, planned out each step, went through the “what if” scenarios for Hunter, and got my mind around how it will — or may — go. I talked to my mom friends and my Facebook support groups. I was ready. Or so I thought. 

But things didn’t go according to my very thorough plan. As a result, this “trip” turned out to be just the learning experience I needed to let go, and to transform future trips into vacations. Here are some tips and tools that helped me. I hope they help you too!

Mentally prepare

Don’t wait until the last minute to think about packing and planning. There is nothing wrong with a little advanced organizing. Make lists of all the things you’ll need to pack — not only for your baby, but also for yourself. I planned it out by day, so I knew exactly how many pajamas, outfits, and other items I would need daily. For the baby, I learned it’s a good idea to always allow for a few more items, as unexpected spills or diaper blowouts are likely to happen. And be OK with throwing your plan out the window. Remember, your baby may have their own agenda, and that’s alright! Reframe your thinking from, “This isn’t what I planned,” to “OK, let’s roll with this.” Believe me, that’s easier said than done. But on our trip, instead of being stressed about all the changes, I laughed and saw what was happening through Hunter’s eyes. I made a point to remind myself that he is seeing everything for the first time — how exciting is that! 

Pack smartly

I have a tendency to overpack. Adding a baby on top of that triples what I’d normally plan for. One thing we realized early on is that my husband and I each only have two arms, and we needed to be able to carry all the bags we were planning for. Here’s how I managed:

  1. Order in advance. if you need diapers, baby food, or anything small — ship it to your hotel or rental home in advance. Diapers take up a lot of room, so that extra space will help. 
  2. Rent when you can. Call your hotel to see if they have cribs you can use; many do. That way, you can just pack a sheet with you instead of hauling the pack and play. There are also all these amazing rental sites that you can tap into for cribs, high chairs, car seats, bath tubs, and even kitchenware. Do a quick search in the area you are staying to see if you can arrange. This way, you can have the comforts of home, without carrying all the necessary items yourself. I also packed extra wipes to wipe down the rental furniture for extra germ security. 
  3. Plan for on-the-go sleeping. There were a couple things that were really helpful to me for my son’s sleep patterns on the trip. Hunter likes white noise to sleep, but our machine is cumbersome, and you can’t plug in on the plane or on the beach. I loved this portable noise machine called the SoundBub. It is small, so it was great for the plane (and for using in the car, too!) to dull out some of the background noise. A bonus is that it looks like a little animal, so it was also a great distraction for Hunter to play with. 
  4. Pack and unpack. After I had finished packing for Hunter and me, I realized I needed to eliminate one bag. I had to get smarter about what I was planning to wear. Know that you can rewear an outfit or use the hotel laundry if you need to. That mindset helped me to pack less for myself (although I still had too much, to be honest) and make room for both Hunter and myself in one bag. That seems simple, but it’s effective — if you pack first, and then go through it one more time, you are likely to realize you may not need, say, 10 T-shirts for a five day trip.

Think about your space

One thing we didn’t think about when booking our hotel room was naps and sleep. We got a normal room for us all, but didn’t factor in the fact that Hunter takes two naps a day, and goes to bed at 7 p.m. We luckily had a balcony, so we sat out there while he was sleeping, and we didn’t have to stay in the dark in the room, but it would have been better if we had thought ahead and requested a suite with another living space. If your budget doesn’t allow for a bigger room, you can still make a separate space by getting some command hooks and a dark shower curtain liner — hang it as a divider between your bed and the crib so your baby doesn’t see you when you are watching a movie on your iPad. Also, that noise machine will be a savior to block out noisy neighbors and sounds they may not be accustomed to. 

Plan for the plane ride

This was a big stressor for me. What if Hunter didn’t sleep at all on the flight, or cried the whole time, or had a diaper blowup? Here’s the truth: Parents so often feel like what is happening with their little one on a plane is far worse than the reality. Yes, we’ve all been annoyed at one point in our lives when a baby cries on a flight — but mostly we feel bad for the parents and have some understanding. Give yourself a break and know that everything will be OK when you get on that plane, but do plan for the unexpected. 

Hunter didn’t nap at all; he was too excited and curious about his new adventure. He also decided to find his voice on the plane, and yelled excitedly — often. We, as his parents, did our best to keep him entertained and were as polite as possible to all those around us. And each person just gave us a warm smile, and many even gave us a knowing nod at our situation. So don’t be afraid of the plane, just be prepared. Here’s what I did:

  1. Pack extra (again!). Pack extra diapers and a change of clothing for the whole family in your carry-on just for the flight. Your baby may spit up, blow out a diaper, or spill on themselves and you. Having that extra outfit is key. I recommend an extra pair for both parents, and two for the baby.
  2. Bring new toys. Go to the store and pick up a few new toys (keeping them in the packaging). This will get you 10 minutes or more of happy time — unwrapping the package is half the fun! Some of my mom tribe told me to also get Post-Its, a cup from the beverage cart (that bought us 30 minutes!), and small light-up toys. I brought a few little ones with me, and even shared one with another mom on the plane when she was struggling. 
  3. Bring your baby carrier (if your baby is small enough). Hunter didn’t sleep, but he did relax with me in it when I walked the halls. It was also helpful to carry him in the carrier on the way to the plane, so that I had both hands to carry bags — and that way you can use the stroller to put things in as well!
  4. If you can afford it, get an extra seat. And if you make friends with the flight attendants, they may let you play in the back for a while to change the scenery. 
  5. Feed at take off and landing. Your baby’s ears may hurt with the cabin pressure. If you can nurse, give a bottle, or have them eat something, since I found that it helped with that pain. 
  6. Plan for delays.  Any travel plan can be derailed by weather, equipment malfunctions, or traffic. Be prepared with extra food, water, and that extra clothing. You don’t want to be stuck in an airport early or late before anything opens with no food for your kids (or yourself). And keep your cool — find a place to cozy up with the extra blankets you packed, or make up a game to keep the kids moving. 
The O’Connell Crew in San Diego

Be flexible

Again, I am a mom that thrives on having a plan and sticking to a routine. Hunter is on a sleep schedule that we try to stick to, but on vacation, changes are inevitable. That was a hard lesson for me to adjust to. I learned quickly that if we wanted to do anything during the day, we may not be able to have him in his crib to nap. We took a family trip to the San Diego Zoo and planned for an on-the-fly nap. I brought a carrier in the hopes he would sleep on me, and he did, but only for a short time. I didn’t want to miss out on the fun, but I ended up stressing about the nap anyway, and not fully enjoying our time at the zoo. 

This was a hard lesson for me, but an important one. Babies are adaptable. Hunter just went to bed a bit earlier and made up for the sleep that night. Vacation isn’t a typical day, and it’s OK to be a little flexible with how you spend your days. Also, if you are breastfeeding, I found that bringing a portable pump is a good idea — this way you can bring a bottle on the fly and not worry about finding a place to nurse. I personally like The Willow, which has no wires and which you can do anywhere, but a simple hand pump could do as well. One day of not being on schedule is okay, but do what is comfortable for you. If skipping out on an activity will make you feel better, do that. It’s better to feel good than to feel stressed all day. Take small steps if you need to, and see what works for your family. 

Truly, I found that the most important thing to remember is to be kind to yourself. This is new for everyone! Enjoy the journey, accept any stress that arises, and then move on to the positive. Take deep breaths — you’ve got this! 

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  • Lindsey Benoit O'Connell

    Deputy Editor, Entertainment + Partnerships at Thrive

    Lindsey Benoit O'Connell is Thrive's Deputy Editor, Entertainment + Partnerships. Prior to working at Thrive, she was the Entertainment + Special Projects Director for Good Housekeeping, Women's Health, Cosmopolitan, Redbook and Woman's Day booking the talent for covers and inside features. O'Connell currently lives in Astoria, NY with her husband Brian and adorable son, Hunter Fitz.