We’ve all seen the film. Many of us were children ourselves back then. I was just 10 when I first watched Baby’s Day Out and was enthralled by the adventures this little boy had embarked on without any knowledge of the world. He had so many close shaves — crawling on a road in peak hour traffic, moving from one steel girder to another with mindless bliss on a construction site with a 100-foot drop down. But while the movie is a family comedy (so we know nothing untoward will happen), real life is very different, as parents well know. Babies have a way of leading lives with carefree abandon while their caregivers bend over backward to ensure they don’t get electrocuted, bump their heads, choke on a toy, fall off the bed, suffocate, consume the wrong thing, feel too hot or too cold, drown while bathing… the list is endless. As a recent mother, the memory of that film only makes me more aware of the potential risks that babies encounter in the outside world.
But will that stop me from taking my child out of home? No way.
We no longer live in the Dark Ages where children were dying by the thousands of epidemics like the plague. As a 21st century mum, I believe it’s extremely important to keep your child up to speed in this fast-paced and ever-changing world that we live in. What about the fact that homes themselves can be grounds for disasters waiting to happen?! You can console yourself by imagining that at least your child is in a controlled environment, and you are the master puppeteer (or so you would like to believe). But by cossetting them you’re not doing them any good. There’s a term for it – helicopter parenting.
Overprotectiveness is a hallmark of Indian parenthood, and one of the main reasons that children become shy, diffident adults. Maybe it’s because there’s a plethora of people to look after your baby in your absence — grandparents, relatives, siblings, ayahs, house help — that parents don’t feel the need to take their babies out. Or worse, they think that they are benefitting them by keeping them safe at home. You couldn’t be more mistaken. Going out is great for your child, for reasons ranging from Vitamin D intake to socialization. I interviewed a set of mums for this article and they agree with me.
I’m not advocating a cavalier attitude towards your children or putting them in situations that are dangerous or high-risk. But there’s a fine line between caution and smothering. I know a five-year-old boy who never went to kindergarten because his parents were apprehensive! This will only make life more difficult for him in school when it comes to mixing with other kids or adjusting to the dreary disciplining that education entails. The attitudes of parents or caregivers have a direct influence on the child, and play a key role in making him/her confident, well-adjusted individuals, equipped with skills to cope with different life situations.
Time is on the side of parents with an outgoing approach towards their toddlers. This century has seen a spurt in nuclear families, which means there may not be a relative or grandparent at hand to look after the baby while the parents step outside for work, grocery shopping or other chores. Add to that the fact that people are increasingly choosing not to employ an ayah or nanny in order to be fully involved in their baby’s growth and development. If this sounds like you, then you probably need to take your baby out with you. It’s also simply unreasonable to put your lives on hold for too long after your new entrant arrives. In the rush to care for and protect your baby, it’s easy to forget that parents are human too. As a parent or caregiver, you just need to play your cards right. Arm yourselves with the right information, equipment, strap your baby onto a carrier and go forth!
Prepare, prepare, prepare
There is no age prescription or “right time” to start your baby’s outings. Every child is unique. But newborns have weak immune systems, and indiscriminate outside contact can make them prone to infection. People in India have a tendency to touch strangers’ babies indiscriminately, and this may transmit any infections they are carrying. I get that, babies are irresistible and it’s very hard for people to keep their hands off them but I, for one, have been particular about not letting strangers squeeze my baby’s cheeks or carry him at will (and God help them if they try to kiss him)!
The two-month mark, when babies’ immune systems get stronger, is an important milestone set by pediatricians. However, open spaces and exposure to indirect sunlight are good for the baby. New mums also face social isolation in the first months of a baby’s arrival so walking in the park is a good way to shed that extra flab and also shake off the baby blues. And with firmer necks and vaccination schedules on track, babies are definitely physically ready to go beyond the neighborhood park and engage more with the complex entity that is life.
One of the first elements of enabling a happy baby outside a home is to be completely in control of the situation. And you can do so only if you know what to anticipate, and are prepared. For this, information is key. Nothing is worse than an underprepared parent looking around wildly as your child proceeds to throw the biggest tantrum this side of the Bay of Bengal. As every parent with a baby must have felt at some point, others are always around to enjoy their giggles and good moods but run for the hills the second they burst into tears or a fit of rage. So it’s best to fortify your bases and be in charge.
Have a checklist. Checklists are to parents what sugar is to tea. You can do without it, but it makes everything better. If you have even a mental checklist handy before any outing with your baby, you will not be scrambling in your already overworked brain to remember all their travel needs. As one of the interviewees pointed out, you always end up needing exactly what you forgot to bring with you! So remember that the devil is in the details. Invest in a bag or backpack that can accommodate their essentials. Remember that their needs will just grow as they get bigger. Keep some basics in the bag all the time — diapers, wipes, diaper changing mat, hand sanitizer, spare clothes, bib, wrap. You’ll just need to put in formula/ water, bottles or sippy cups, snacks and some favorite toy. This is the background to setting the stage for the real thing.
Making day outs fun and stress-free
Outings with your baby should not only emanate from necessity. Children get bored very easily and the more they grow, the onus is on the caregiver to keep them entertained (and I don’t mean the TV or the iPad). The end goal should be having fun and providing a change in environment for your child, which can be interesting and beneficial if done right. It is important for parents to negotiate unfamiliar places with their children to prepare them for their future negotiations with the world. Nobody grew up to be a well-adjusted individual by being holed up in their apartments. In short, the more exposure, the better.
Some months ago, in a mall, I held the lift door open for a young couple with a baby, no more than three or four months old. I saw them again in an hour, seated close to my table at a restaurant. Their baby lay next to them in her stroller as I watched discreetly, furiously making mental notes since I hadn’t had the courage to take my little one to a restaurant yet. It was simply because I was intimidated by the unknown. When she got cranky they took turns to eat, while the other soothed and walked her. They were calm and happy and made a picture-perfect young family. Just seeing them do it was so motivating. Don’t we all want to be mums that make other people say “I want to be like her!”
If you are going to a restaurant with your baby, find out if the place offers feeding chairs, and whether they will let you carry home-cooked food. Restaurants abroad allow tiffins to be carried for babies till the age of two. Your meal should coincide with their feeding hour. This will help in averting crankiness. Another option is to feed them before leaving. One of my interviewees says her challenge is to keep her child occupied and not wander about. She carries crayons and papers or jigsaw puzzles for his entertainment, and a phone to watch nursery rhymes or shows.
Take your children to do things you need to do (like going to the departmental store) or like to do (like going for a picnic). Fit your chores into a bi-weekly schedule that your baby can anticipate and participate in. Involve them in the action. If you’re grocery shopping, let them ride on the trolleys, even pick up the smaller groceries. Necessity is the mother of adaptation. Children love routine, but they also like to see and touch new things, hear new sounds. Some of the mums I interviewed have led very active lives with their toddlers in tow. Take your toddler to the zoo on a nice spring afternoon or the museum on a hot summer day. Some mums I know have also taken their babies to live concerts! My infant’s first proper day out was to a friend’s art exhibition. Since he is endlessly fascinated by color and design, this was a great idea. He loved the pleasant buzz of conversation that is standard background noise in galleries, and the bright lights. He may not grow up to be an art connoisseur but it sure made for a memorable first outing.
The Out of Towners
Traveling out of town with your baby is another ball game altogether. Contrary to imagined fears, many parents travel to other cities or countries with their babies even before they are six months old. With more couples living abroad, people come frequently to visit their families in India with the baby in tow. Also, 21st-century parents are an adventurous lot. Many travel with their babies for the sake of travel. Gone are the days when people imagined babies to be deterrents to having interesting lives. People are increasingly learning to integrate their babies’ habits with their own forms of leisure, making life more pleasant all around.
Packing to travel with a toddler is similar to moving house. You’ll need to take everything that ever belonged to them with you! Being an avid list-maker myself, I’ve zoomed in on the things more or less necessary for a good travel list. It’s important to have yours at hand, especially if you are traveling to a foreign country. You may not find the stuff that your baby needs or is used to.
When traveling abroad, weather changes and jet lag may be difficult to deal with, since this disrupts their sleep patterns and appetites. Factor in a day or two of rest for your baby if your destination is in another time zone. It will give their body clocks time to settle. And if they do get cranky, what are mums for? It’s during times like these that breastfeeding comes in handy. It is the biggest source of comfort and security. Smartphones and tablets are also of great benefit to distract children. But you may even be pleasantly surprised to find that your baby is having a great time and isn’t fussy as he or she is too busy taking it all in!
Many parents are anxious about their baby’s first flight. Every parent gets cold sweats about the cold looks and loud “tchs” from other passengers when your baby is bawling in pain. Funnily, parents of older kids also tend to be mean. It’s like college ragging. When you are ragged, chances are that you cannot wait for the next batch of students to join so you can inflict the same humiliation on them. Similarly, instead of empathy, these parents sometimes practice emotional sadism. They’re just so happy that they can relax without waiting for their baby to break into loud wails that they couldn’t care less about your woes. But the flying experience can be relatively simplified once you’ve identified what problems your baby may face.
A classic problem is that all too familiar earache during take-off and landing. For that, breastfeed your child or give them lollipops during take-off and landing. Mums may not be thrilled about feeding on a plane. Indians can get all virtuous about public displays of anything that should be considered normal. To avoid prying eyes and self-righteous comments, travel with a dupatta or wrap. Try and avoid traveling when your baby has a cold, because this can exacerbate an earache. Children love momentum since it lulls them to sleep. But it’s helpful to keep your babies awake and sucking/ suckling during take-off and landing. If you are traveling alone, befriend a steward or stewardess to take charge of your baby if you have to use the bathroom. Find out what the cabin temperature is beforehand. I personally tend to feel uncannily cold on a flight, yet always forget to carry a stole or wrap. It’s a vicious circle, but you cannot afford to take risks with your baby.
Babies under two are not given a separate seat so be prepared to keep them on your lap throughout the journey. This is not easy, especially in cramped low-budget carriers infamously known as the “cattle class”. But one mum told me that she’s always bought a full price seat ticket for her baby and that having their own seat makes a lot of difference. So if you can afford it, maybe that’s worth checking out. And it’s not all babies who cry on flights. Some are perfectly peaceful and may even sleep through the journey. Anyway, you’ll never know till you find out, and it’s always better to find out sooner than later. A travel-friendly parent/ caregiver will always be happier than one grounded at home with their child!
Help your baby find their wings
Each baby is wired differently so it’s only practice and increased exposure that will enable you to perfect the art of the outing. Then again, babies’ moods are like clouds in the sky – ever-changing — so it isn’t necessary that what worked once will necessarily always work. Every parent is allowed to be anxious about their baby’s outings. It is, after all, their contact with the mysterious and unpredictable nature of things. But think of it like a mother bird pushing her baby birds out of the nest and urging them to fly. Though it will cause apprehension, have you ever seen a bird that doesn’t fly (with the exception of penguins and emus)? It’s so important to be in tune with your baby, and the best way to figure this out is to put both of you in an unfamiliar setting. It’ll help you both bond and take your relationship to the next level, tantrums and all. So pack up your bundle of joy and go explore what the world has to offer.
(This article has been written with valuable inputs from Maitrayee Roychoudhury, Radhika Baruah, Gayatri Shantaram, Ambika Rajbongshi, Prita Arvind and Rita Chowdhury).