I started this blog when I was pregnant with Esme. I had a lot of ideas for how I hoped life with baby would pan out. It's so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day with a baby, between feeds, nappy changes, sleep deprivation, one day largely merges into the next, and it's hard to stop for long enough to get the opportunity to reflect. So, I thought it would be good to have a look back over the last while to see how we managed with my plans for adventures. Esme is now 8 months, the first 2 months were mainly a blur. I don't think we often made it out of the house before midday, and that was usually to go to the local park for a coffee. We did manage to make it over to Newcastle in England to buy a Bongo camper van, but other than that, Esme was 2 months before we really managed to get our heads above water enough to even think about adventures. So, here's a review of the last 6 months of adventuring with baby - what did we manage to do? Did we enjoy it? Did Esme?
We booked Iceland when we were still in the throes of new-baby-exhaustion. We picked there because we'd been a few times before, so knew what to expect and wouldn't need to spend precious time and energy researching the destination. We knew we could get a direct flight, and the thought of a long journey with transfers was too overwhelming. We chose to stay in a couple of different self catering houses, as we thought this would be the easiest to manage, and allow us to see more of the country.
By the time the trip came, she was 3 1/2 months, and we'd already been on the flight to Newcastle to get the Bongo. For us, the flying bit was very easy, and with hindsight, I think we could have easily done a destination which involved transfers. We had her in the Tula sling going through the airport, the car seat went on as luggage, and I was breast-feeding, so we didn't have too much to carry through with us, just Esme and a small nappy changing bag. She slept most of the way there, just waking up for a feed from time to time. The most awkward bit was having to take her out of the sling to put her into the air-plane seat belt while she was asleep (I'd recommend doing this before they fall asleep!). On the journey home, she wasn't so co-operative, and I ended up dancing on the spot at the front of the plane for most of the journey, at least no worries of deep vein thrombosis there! We booked row 1 seats so that there was plenty of room for me to do this, which was worth doing. It also included priority boarding, which we thought would be good, but since they let people with babies on first anyway, it wasn't really worth it.
We arranged car hire pick up and drop off from the airport, so we didn't have to haul our luggage, car seat and baby too far. We always get a car when travelling so that we can easily get off the beaten track, and I really can't imagine doing that type of a trip with a baby without a car.
Unfortunately, Iceland was experiencing some particularly cold weather when we went, and the places we had planned to go to were inaccessible due to snow, so we ended up doing a lot of driving, much more than we had planned. It wasn't much of a problem for Esme, as she slept through most of it, but I ended up sitting in the back seat with her a lot to keep her company when she was awake as we felt very guilty about all the driving, which meant I wasn't really able to see much of the scenery. We managed to get out for a good few walks, on the beach, interior hilly areas, and waterfalls, despite the sub-zero temperatures. The landscape was so beautiful, and unique with all the snow, that it was even nice to just pop out of the car when the road ended in a snow blockade to have our picnic lunch. We wouldn't have done much more in that weather without Esme, and she was well wrapped up and warm enough. But the drive to and from the house each day to the areas we wanted to be in were too much for all of us. We had to stop a lot for nappy changes, and feeds, and a kick about, and so getting to the areas of interest took a lot longer than they would have done previously. For the cost of the 4*4 car we had, and the rent on the houses, we could have got a pretty hefty campervan, and would have saved ourselves about 4 hours driving daily.
So as far as foreign travel with a baby goes - air travel is fine, too much driving when you get there is not.
Esme was about 4 1/2 months when we decided to do our first long trip in the camper. We took a ferry to mainland Scotland, and then headed over by ferry to the Outer Hebrides. We had 16 nights in total, and planned to spend most of them in the van to maximise time at a destination, and minimise driving.
Stopping for feeds, nappy changes and a play was much more pleasant in the van than a car. By opening up the side door at a nice view point, it felt more like a camping picnic, than lunch in the vehicle. We had a heater installed in the van, so getting drenched regularly in the Hebridean weather wasn't too bad, and when the sun came out, it was almost as nice as camping. It was pretty tough going at times, especially trying to feed Esme in the night, and get her back down to her bed in the van without waking her - all a bit awkward. And living in a vehicle is a bit knackering at the best of times, so double that with a four month old, and all the related night time awakenings. After about ten days we were desperate for a shower and a bed, and so checked into an off-grid caravan on the Isle of Eigg. It did indeed have the much-coveted hot shower and bed, but no heating, or lighting, so we just swapped one version of roughing it for another, and didn't leave there feeling particularly refreshed!
Over all, the ferry-camper combo worked much better for us, allowing us to deal with Esme's needs in a lot more comfort, and reducing the amount of driving time significantly for her. We have a pretty nice, warm camper, which made it as easy as possible on ourselves. Life with a baby is pretty tiring, and aside from really wanting a shower, I don't think living in the van made us any more exhausted than usual. With hindsight, we should have booked into a hotel or airbnb (with electricity!) a couple of times to get refreshed and ready to hit the road again. It was a really great trip, and we had some beautiful moments, watching spectacular sunsets from the beach, picnics on the sand, brisk walks in the gorgeous Hebridean hills and shorelines. The best bit about the van is that we were able to do this three or four times a day - much more activity-packed than we could ever manage at home or if we had had stationary accommodation, with no time wasted going back and forth to the house, or having to think about packing a bag to last all day. Esme was too young to get much out of it, but at that age, she was a good bit hardier than when we were in Iceland, and so it was easier for us to get out more and enjoy the trip.
I'd do another trip like this in a heartbeat with Esme, especially as she is getting older and more aware of her surroundings so she would really enjoy it too. If you can sleep in a van for a week pre-baby, I think you can definitely do it with a baby, as it's the lack of shower and bed that gets to you first, and if you've never tried sleeping in a van for a week, and are thinking about doing it with a baby, it is the easiest type of trip to maximise your time out and about, and minimise the stress of having to remember to bring what you need all the time, it's all with you all the time anyway. Just book in somewhere from time to time and you have the best of both worlds! (See my previous blog post on why Airbnb is the perfect companion to wild camping)
Since getting the van when Esme was about 7 weeks old, we've been on 6 Ireland van trips of varying lengths (from 1 night to 8 nights). We've also been on a wild camping trip, and stayed with friends in a holiday home.
As far as trip length goes, one night is a bit short; by the time you get the van packed, and do the long drive, it's a shame to be coming back the very next day just to unpack it all again. 8 nights is probably a night or two too long without booking in somewhere for a shower and a real bed.
We've been up and down the full length of the Wild Atlantic Way on the beautifully rugged west coast of Ireland, and round the north coast of Northern Ireland too. Ireland is ideal for a baby trip, the weather is pretty mild (compared with the Outer Hebrides and Iceland anyway!), and for us, it doesn't involve ferries or planes, so you don't need to plan too much in advance, and can come on home when you like.
Staying with friends
Staying with friends is great as you get a break, there always someone keen on holding the baby, and even maybe a spot of babysitting if you're lucky. I'm not the most social though, so I'm not sure if I could do this for more than a night or two, especially since you are "on" all the time with a baby, socialising can feel like yet more "on" time. Trying to look after Esme, while also trying to have an adult conversation is quite exhausting. And it is so tempting to stay up late with the rest of the gang, but then you go to bed to sit up half the night feeding while they are all getting some zzz.
The Bongo trips in Ireland were much shorter than the Outer Hebrides, and Esme was a bit older by the time we were going away for a week at a time to Mayo (6 months), and the South West (7 months), so we enjoyed them a lot more. It was so nice to see her enjoying paddles in the sea, or walks on the beach in her Osprey backpack carrier. She loved being high up, and able to see all around her, and really started to get something out of being outdoors. It was a lot of fun bringing her out for picnics, and she loved seeing all the farm animals and sea birds we passed along the way. It started to feel like she was enjoying the trip just as much as we were, rather than us just dragging her around with us, albeit willingly as she has always been a very accommodating child! It was also nice to be able to get home to get refreshed after a week, since it was only a few hours drive from our house.
Night feeds were a lot easier by then too, and she even slept through from time to time. And since it was summer, we had all the long evenings and nice weather to celebrate too. We had imagined we would get Esme down to bed at her normal time around 8pm, and then we could hang out outside the van, and enjoy a drink over a long sunset and the like. No such luck - whether because she was sleeping more on the long drives than usual, we were disturbing her, or she was just too excited to sleep, she really wasn't keen on going to bed much before 11pm. This worked out fine as we were able to get out for a nice walk after dinner on the beach. We had worried that we had broken her bedtime routine, and that she would be a night owl when we went home, but she went straight back to her usual bedtime on our return.
The long summer nights are great in the camper, but it is winter when it really comes in useful, when camping with a baby would be completely out, we were still able to get away for a night or two on a trip, without paying for accommodation, and to wake up somewhere wild and beautiful.
And so, we couldn't wait for camping. I absolutely adore camping, and have wanted to camp with kids for a very long time. I was so excited about taking Esme on her first camping trip, we had all our top Connemara camping spots pencilled in, and as we knew where we would be staying, so there wouldn't be too much driving around for her. The weather forecast was looking good. We had our spacious and stable trusty Hilleberg Staika. We had mastered roughing it with baby in the camper, what could go wrong?!
Esme was so transfixed by all the zips and toggles on sleeping bags and tent, so excited by the wind blowing on the tent, so alert to all the noises of nature around her, and so happy to be right beside mum and dad all night, that she woke pretty much every hour throughout the first night. Ok, we are all exhausted, but at least she'll now be used to it, and tired out, so we should sleep the second night? Eh, no. Still too transfixed, excited, alert and happy. Let's try a third night. Same story. We were able to get her to go to sleep a good bit earlier in the tent than in the camper, which meant we were able to enjoy those beautiful beach sunsets with a coffee as we had so been looking forward to. And we had some beautiful camping moments with Esme; paddling in Finny lake, where we have started every Connemara trip for the last 8 years; picnicking on our own little private cove; waking up on gorgeous Omey Island, so with enough coffee to beat the fatigue, it was totally worth it!
We're determined to crack it, and I will keep you posted with any tips if we can manage to camp and sleep! We're heading back down to Connemara again next weekend, this time to meet family, and Esme has managed a few nights sleeping through at home since we were last camping, so I am hoping she will sleep a bit better. Maybe if your child is slightly less obsessed with toggles you would get a bit more sleep.
Our adventures always were a bit gruelling, I think if I came from a trip well rested, I would feel like I hadn't been trying hard enough. Sleepless nights, feeds in an icy wind on the beach, and nappy changes on the go certainly make things a bit more challenging. So, for the first 6 months of exploring with baby, we have had our fair share of adventures both at home and abroad, Esme is a happy, engaged little adventurer no matter where she is, and we will keep at it, figuring out how to explore as a family as she grows.
While it's been fairly challenging at times, the experiences we have had as a new family it has been completely invaluable; for the views first thing in the morning when we slide open the door over a peaceful river reflecting the sunrise; for the impromptu skinny dipping in a quaint little harbour at tea time; to see Esme enjoying her first paddle in the sea; to have our family dinner cooked on the gas stove on a long sandy beach. I could go on, but you get the picture. It is tough, but it is beautiful. Just like life with a baby, but more so. More difficult, more beautiful, more worth it.