Q&A: going overseas with a 6-month-old

Zaimah writes:

"My husband and I are planning a trip to Pakistan for next month.Most of our family is there and are anxiously waiting for us to come
and see them. By the time we travel our son, R, will be 6 months old
and we are dreading this trip. We are dreading it for many reasons
including the typical comments such as "You’re spoiling him" "What?!
You haven’t started solids yet?" "Why isn’t he sleepong through the
night?" etc. But what we are dreading most is the jet lag. We will be
there for 3 weeks and it takes us 2 nights to get over jet lag. What we
wonder is how will it affect R? He is an average sleeper I would say.
He sleeps for about 11-12 hours at night but every 2-3 hours he wakes
up to nurse. By the time we get there he will most likely be
experiencing the 26 week regression anyway or just coming off it (he
was 2 weeks early) and so I know sleep will be crappy. But what will
happen when all of a sudden day turns to night and vice versa? Should
we just accept that it will be a miserable 3 weeks for us and then a
few more miserable weeks when we get back? Or is there some way that we
can help him adjust to the time difference?

We have a bedtime routine for him which we will continue over
there plus we will make sure he gets in his naps but will he be
sleeping through the day and keeping us up at night? I want to know
what are realistic expectations in this situation so that I can prepare
myself and come up with a game plan to handle our family’s comments
about his crankiness or sleepiness or whatever. Oh and one more thing,
our bedtime routine starts between 7.30 and 8 with R asleep by 8.30-9.
We have been doing this for about a month and he is so used to it now
that if we miss it one night then he doesn’t sleep so well and has a
crappy day the next day. How can we make our family understand (cause
they won’t) that it is important for us to be home by a certain time
because life in Pakistan is different. Dinner is usually at 8 which
means bedtimes are normally at around 10 or 11. I know that we will get
flack for it but still it is very important for us to keep that as part
of his routine there. Any thoughts on how to handle all of this?"

There are two entirely separate issues here, but I think one is going to help you deal with the other.

The first issue is the cultural differences between how you’re raising R and how your family thinks you should be raising R. This has something to do with going to another country, but not everything. "Cultural differences" manifest even if you live a few blocks away from your family if you and they have different ideas about child-rearing. It’s going to hit you particularly hard, though, because you’ll be with them for 3 weeks and you won’t have your usual routines and resources to support you so far away from your home.

It’s going to be tough on this visit. But the good news is that it’ll get easier for other visits. It never stops surprising me how food becomes the focus for so much of our emotional issues around children (all family relationships, really), and that’s one thing you can "give in" on very easily with an older child (assuming no food allergies). Once R is older you’ll be able to hold the line on things that are actually important to you by allowing your family to feed him whatever they want to. When he’s 1 1/2 and 3 and 5 it won’t matter if he eats junk food for a few days (and he’ll just refuse to eat anything he doesn’t want).

But back to now. You obviously can’t give in on feeding issues with a 6-month-old, but there might be some things that you’re willing to release for a few weeks. Think about it and talk about it with your partner, and keep it in mind in case you need to carefully-consider-their-advice-and-decide-that-they-may-be-right. You might not have to, but it’s nice to have a Plan B.

Now, the logistics. I don’t know where you’re flying from, so I don’t know which direction you’ll be flying. In general, kids seem to have fewer problems adjusting when going east than when going west. So you could be in for a really rough week or so. But I have two pieces of good news about that.

The first is that you have a really solid bedtime routine. You’ll be amazed at how much easier that makes things. Even if his body has no idea what time it is, you can do the routine and he’ll cue to get closer to sleep. And you can use the jet lag to your advantage. Since you aren’t moving to Pakistan permanently, it doesn’t matter if you get him on his home schedule at all. So you could try to move him to a later schedule, so that he goes down for the night right before you eat dinner (or right after, if people want to see him during dinner). His body is going to be confused anyway, so you might as well pick something that avoids conflict for the weeks you’re there instead of trying to get him onto an identical schedule as at home just to have to go back in a week or two.

The other thing is that he’s not going to be a happy kid for at least a few days because of the time change. But even once he’s feeling better, you have a free pass for as long as you can milk it because he’s a baby with jet lag. Don’t hesitate to play that card as much as you need to. He’s nursing too much? Oh, he’s just needy because of the flight. He wants to be held all the time? It’s the jet lag. He wakes up all night? Oh, poor baby has his days and nights mixed up. You’re not giving him solids? Oh, he was eating them until the flight–maybe he has some kind of stomach thing from all that recirculated air.

It’s my feeling that this is going to be the worst trip you take back to Pakistan, because once he’s older many of these issues will have evaporated or changed. And even if you travel later on with a second young baby, R will be older and will distract your relatives from your "strange" baby-care choices with the little one. So knowing that these three weeks are kind of the penalty you’ll have to pay to be able to have good visits later, and also the first time you’ll be negotiating your boundaries as parents with your family (which will set the tone for the future) might help you be able to deal with it without losing your mind completely.

As far as the flight itself, wear the baby through the airport so you don’t have to worry about his being snatched, and use the stroller (if you bring one) as a luggage cart for your carry-ons. Check everything else. Nurse or pacifier on the way up or down. Depending on what kind of mood R is in, either preboard (if he’s sleepy or cranky) or wait until the end to get on so you can parade your happy baby down the aisles so people will see him and think of him as a happy kid. That way when he cries on the flight they’ll think, "Oh, that sweet little baby is unhappy about something" instead of "Whiny little brat!"

Anyone else have ideas for Zaimah?

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