It used to be a common expression to say that someone “smoked like a Turk,” and I can confirm after living in Istanbul for nearly two years, Turks still love their smoking. Even after the indoor smoking ban of 2009, cigarettes and nargile (water pipes) are very common here. This portrait by Flickr user MichaelAV captures two of the Turks’ other loves: çay (see the tiny tea glass on the left) and cheese. So beloved is Turkish cheese that I’ve heard of Turks packing their suitcases full of it when traveling abroad. Be sure to try some with your Turkish breakfast or along with a glass of rakı at cocktail hour if you visit Turkey.
Let’s get this out of the way: you can travel with a baby. Many new parents feel that once they have a child, their travel days are over, but many parents will tell you that the first six months are the easiest time to travel with a baby. Is it easy? Not exactly, but with enough planning and the right attitude, it’s not as hard as you might think. Is it selfish? Probably, but so is most travel. Again, planning, attitude and a good amount of luck factor in to ensuring that you and baby aren’t a nuisance to other passengers and that you and your child have a safe and healthy trip. My baby is too young to remember her early adventures, but she’s learning to be adaptable and sociable, and does well with travel, new people, and noise. Is it fun? Your carefree days of travel may be over, but you can still enjoy exploring new places, indulging in great food and wine (it might just be at a sidewalk cafe at 4pm instead of a trendy restaurant at 9pm), and engaging with locals more deeply than you ever did before baby. Given the patience, resourcefulness, and ingenuity that I’ve developed while traveling with a baby, I’d say it has made me a better traveler, maybe even a better person.
Living in a foreign country like Turkey puts me at an advantage: I deal with a language and cultural barrier every day and everything is much more complicated and difficult than it would be at home in New York. Because this is not our permanent home and imported items are expensive, we made it through the first few months with little more than a stroller, a baby wrap to carry her, and a portable changing pad, so we already travel light. I say it gives me an advantage because I’m already used to the challenges and unfamiliarity inherent in travel. What makes foreign travel daunting (even without a baby) is the foreignness of it all, which has become my normal (after nearly two years abroad, I can tell you that knowing what’s going on all the time is overrated). The skills I’ve honed as a traveler and an expat — problem-solving, thinking ten steps ahead, and planning an exit strategy — are the same I use as a parent; you can apply the same lessons with a child or on the road.Now with a few trips under my belt with baby both solo and with my husband (and more travel planned in the coming weeks and months), I’ve developed some guidelines to help with traveling with a baby. I’ll be posting some additional articles on how to cope with a baby on a plane and on the ground, travel gear recommendations, as well as some destination-specific info, but first: some tips on planning a trip with a baby.
-Choose a baby-friendly destination. You may find that people everywhere are much more understanding and helpful to people traveling with babies than you imagine, but some places are more baby-friendly than others. In my experience, Mediterranean Europe is full of baby-lovers, even if the cobblestones, stairs, and ancient infrastructure presents a lot of challenges. Istanbul can be a nightmare to navigate with a stroller, but there are always friendly Turks willing to help. I’ve also heard babies in Latin America and Southeast Asia are treated like rock stars. Generally, countries with a high birth rate tend to be friendlier than others, though I’ve found the United States to be the most difficult in terms of other people’s attitudes.
-Prepare to pare down: There are a lot of great things about having a baby in the 21st century, but people managed quite well for generations without wipe warmers (really, this is a thing?!) and baby gyms. There are a few items I use at home every day such as a bouncy seat, a nursing pillow, and a folding bathtub, but I’ve done fine without them for weeks at a time while traveling. I know at some point down the line, I’ll need to pack a myriad of toys, snacks, and diversions for my child, but infants need very little. It may help to wean yourself off of baby gear in advance of your trip to see how well you can get along with less. Let the baby get used to a travel cot if you plan to use one, try getting around for a day with just a baby carrier, and introduce toys that can be easily attached to a stroller and then stashed in a pocket. Think about your destination: will a stroller be more of a hinderance than a help or can you get along with another mode of transport? Do you need a car seat or can you rent one? What can serve multiple purposes? I carry a thin Turkish towel that looks like a pashmina and I can use it as a burp cloth, nursing cover, baby blanket, and a scarf. The less you can pack, the better. Really all you can handle is baby in a stroller, one wheeled suitcase, and a purse and/or diaper bag. Anything more and you’ll regret it. Also, keep in mind that babies are born everywhere, and there are few places in the world where you can’t buy diapers, formula, clothes, or other gear. Pack enough in your carry-on to get through the first day and night in case you arrive at your destination after shops close.
-Schedule travel around baby: Babies are adaptable, but when it comes to travel, especially flying, make it as easy on yourself as possible. My baby generally wakes up early to eat, then goes back to sleep for a few hours, and sleeps through most of the night. Therefore, I’ve tried to book flights for early in the morning or overnight so she’s awake as little as possible. In the six flights we took to and from the US and domestically, the only one we had any trouble with was a 45-minute Boston to New York flight in the early evening, when she tends to be cranky. It’s hard to comfort a baby when you’re standing in line or getting ready to board a flight, so if your baby is already asleep at the airport, that’s half the battle. There used to be nothing I hated more than getting to the airport at the crack of dawn, but traveling with a sleeping, and more importantly, quiet baby is worth getting up early.
-Consider an apartment rental: With the popularity of websites such as AirBnB (even after the home trashing scandal), renting an apartment for even a short stay is an increasingly viable option when planning a trip. It not only gives you more space and a more home-like environment, it can also help you to get to know a place more through the neighborhood and markets when you buy food to cook on your trip. For a parent, an apartment has several key advantages over a hotel room. Having access to laundry while traveling can be a huge help and reduce your packing load significantly. Likewise, whether you are breastfeeding or using formula, having a kitchen with a fridge can be a necessity with a baby. If you’re set on a hotel stay (daily room-cleaning could be a big help too!), make sure your room has a minibar fridge to stash bottles inside and a bathtub if your baby is too big for the sink, and get info on the closest laundromat.
-Do your research: The last thing you want when traveling is to be standing on a subway platform with a crying baby, after hauling a heavy stroller up a flight of stairs, only to discover the train is bypassing your station. Before I travel next week to Slovenia and Italy, I’m looking up everything from how to cross the border by taxi, to what train stations have elevators, to public bathrooms in Venice with baby-changing stations (though I’ve managed many times on the top of a toilet seat lid and a changing pad). All the stuff about a destination you could wait to figure out until you arrived before you had a baby will help you a lot to plan in advance. Here’s some examples of things to research before you go, the more prepared you can be, the better.
Stay tuned for more tips on travel with a baby, in the air and on the ground plus destination guides for foreign travel with a baby. Waiting for baby to arrive? Check out past Knocked Up Abroad articles on traveling while pregnant and what to expect when you’re expecting in Turkey.
Knocked up abroad has been on a bit of a hiatus as my travel schedule has slowed and the due date has sped up. Feel free to catch up with posts on pregnancy travel, Turkish superstitions, medical care, and naming children.
I’m into the final month of my pregnancy in Istanbul and that means the countdown is on to get stocked up with wee tiny baby things, garishly colored toys and furniture, and gadgets I never knew I would need. If you’ve ever been baby shopping, either for yourself or for a gift, you know it can be intimidating. Specialty boutiques and megastores are overrun with all sorts of contraptions and devices, in many varieties and brands, organized in ways that are overwhelming to all but the most seasoned of parents. Now try doing this shopping in a foreign country, in another language, with very limited space, and a semi-nomadic expat lifestyle and you’ll understand why I’ve put it off until, as the Turks say, the egg is at the door.
My “home” is in Brooklyn, New York, but I’ve spent less than a week there in the past 14 months. My current home in Istanbul is very small but fully furnished and outfitted with many storage cabinets (Turks dislike visible clutter) but little floor space. My husband and I have been heresince last April on an open-ended work assignment with no end date in sight. We may end this year back in Brooklyn, still in Istanbul, or in another city and country altogether. Given our situation, I’m trying to accumulate as little as possible and try to cut through the “must-have” baby lists to the bare essentials and stuff I won’t mind leaving behind in six months.
%Gallery-126823%In many ways, Turkey is a great place to have a baby, as Turks adore children and are happy to cater to them (someone should commission a study on the correlation between Mediterranean countries and baby-craziness, there must be something in the olive oil). Most malls have an area if not a whole floor of stores dedicated to kids, including local chains like Joker and E-Bebek (that’s e-baby), as well as many branches of UK chain Mothercare. While they all carry most of the same brands as in America and western Europe, the websites and store info is generally in Turkish, meaning a lot of time spent with a dictionary and translation site when researching products. Also unfortunate is the usual Turkish sales approach of hovering. Generally when you walk into a store in Istanbul, a sales person marches up to you, says “hoş geldiniz” (Turkish for welcome) and then proceeds to silently follow you around the store until you ask a question or flee the shop in paranoia (I usually flee in search of a shop with sales help who can’t be bothered to look up from their texting). This is the practice in nearly every store other than touristy carpet shops, and Turkish friends will tell me they are expecting me to take the lead and tell them my needs or tell them to buzz off. I found this hard to do in baby stores and instead tried to do much of my browsing online so I was prepared to purchase in stores.
The big ticket item on my list (as with many other expecting parents) is a stroller. I wanted something that could work from birth to toddlerhood, that could serve as a sleeping bassinet for the first few months (no room for a crib now) and be versatile enough to travel the world. Earlier in the pregnancy we contemplated a shopping trip to somewhere relatively nearby like Amsterdam or Barcelona where they must sell the chicest and most practical of European city strollers, but ended up deciding to buy something available in Istanbul that we could get parts and service for nearly anywhere in the world. We don’t own a car in either Istanbul or New York (in fact, I’m in possession of a soon-to-expire learner’s permit), but we got a car seat from a Turkish colleague to use on taxi rides and future road trips that can fit onto many strollers with an adapter. For Istanbul, the stroller needed to be tough enough to handle many hills, uneven sidewalks and cobblestone streets, but be light enough to tote up New York subway stairs and navigate narrow supermarket aisles. After researching dozens of strollers, spending many soul-destroying hours watching demo and review videos online, and testing a few out in person, I have determined the Perfect Stroller does not exist. Since I have no nursery to decorate and few other things to buy, I was able to splash out on a tricked-out Almost Perfect Stroller (I won’t name brands until I have a chance to test drive, but it’s one you will see in most yuppie coffee shops around the world) and will buy something cheap and lightweight when I am back in a city without metro station elevators and helpful Turks.
After the stroller was chosen, there are a few other items necessary to many new parents and designed well for travelers. As is common in many modern Istanbul apartments, we have no bathtub (Turks see them as unclean, and even the traditional hamam bath is more about the steaming than soaking) and tiny sinks in our bathroom and kitchen. I was resigned to buying a big plastic tub that I would eventually leave behind, but then found this cool device by American design company Puj. It’s essentially a glorified piece of foam that folds into a seat you can wedge into the sink, but unfolds flat and can be hung on a wall to dry. I imagine I can also pack it in the bottom of a suitcase for travel. One item on my list for my next US visit is the Nest from Phil&Teds: a rather ingenius travel carrier that can carry all the gear and then work as a bed or cot at night. Our parents would say a suitcase and pillow could serve the same purpose, but this meets more safety standards than a Samsonite and fits in the overhead bin too. Finally, we also wanted a baby carrier to go hands-free and stroller-less when traveling. There are upteen options out there, and we ended up with a Sleepy Wrap (another glorified bit of fabric with a nice label on it but several friends swear by it) purchased at a terrific speciality shop in Singapore. Fun fact: the Turkish word for baby carrier is kanguru.
The most fun things to shop for are, of course, baby clothes. Few people can resist tiny t-shirts, onesies, and dresses, and most parents can expect to receive many items as gifts. I stocked up on the basics at Mothercare and other clothing stores (we do have Baby Gap and even Baby Zara in Turkey), but discovered a treasure trove of baby shops recently in Eminönü, a crowded shopping area between the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market. In these local shops, I found a range of clothes from the adorable to the downright odd, some with Turkish phrases and many more with strange “Turk-lish.” Check out the gallery above for some of the best.
Now that my apartment is filling up with baby things, I feel just about ready for my due date on July 20 without feeling weighed down by useless gadgets. Any other expat or frequent traveler parents out there who can recommend products? Feel free to leave them in comments below.
Stay tuned for a final pre-birth Knocked up abroad (pending baby’s cooperation, but they say first babies are usually late) on Turkish vs. American attitudes toward babies and pregnant women. Until then, catch up on the other posts here.