As a new parent, the idea of leaving home, baby in tow, can be incredibly intimidating. What do you really need to pack in your nappy bag to survive an outing? What if they scream/vomit/overfow their nappy in public? And how do you time it so they're well-rested, happy, and sociable? The stroller, the supplies, the stress! If you're thinking it may just be easier to stay home and take a nap, here is a great strategy for getting out and about with your baby with minimal drama.
Ten days after my daughter was born, my friend, an early-childhood development expert and educator, came to visit. She always waited until the 10-day mark to visit new mothers, she explained to me, because that was when the fowers were wilting, the other visitors had dried up, the pre-made meals had been eaten, the laundry had proliferated... and the new mum was feeling vulnerable and a bit overwhelmed, all on her own with her baby. As she pushed me gently into an armchair and brought me a glass of water and a sandwich while I breastfed, she casually asked when I'd last left the house. I was embarrassed to admit that since coming home from hospital I hadn't even been out to the letterbox. I mumbled something about not wanting the neighbours to see my unbrushed hair, but my friend was wise. "You need to work on getting out," she declared. "It's good for you and good for your baby. Today, you will walk to the letterbox."
Every few days after that, Rebecca would call and ask how far I'd gotten with my baby that day. It took two or three weeks before I made it around the block with the pram - a mission that took me over an hour to plan and execute the frst time, and despite my forward-thinking, I forgot baby wipes and had to jog the stroller home after a particularly explosive nappy. It was three months before I felt confident enough to set out for the local supermarket, a 20-minute round-trip. Unfortunately, I'd timed that outing badly - it was pension day, and I fled, groceryless, after the fourth stickybeaked stranger had poked her head into my daughter's pram and enquired whether she was a boy or a girl (she's been dressed almost exclusively in pink since birth, for goodness' sake).
When my daughter was four-and-a-half months old, we travelled overseas to visit family. "They're so easy to travel with at that age!" is what people kept telling me, but 24 hours of long-haul fying probably wasn't on their agenda when their children were newborns. Fortunately, it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, but the six-week visit was a blur of exhaustion. My daughter was perplexed by the It took some coaxing from my friend and another week or so of venturing only to the letterbox, but I got back out of the house. We moved to a new neighbourhood with a more family-friendly community, heaps of parks and reserves, and a mall right down the road. I started taking my daughter to baby gym one morning a week - mind you, we usually only made it there every other week, but when we did manage to get there in one piece, I felt so proud. I even started to think about getting out on my own, and joined an evening women's group that met once a week, trusting my very capable husband to handle our daughter himself for a couple of hours. And eventually, I felt comfortable saying to friends, "Where do you want to meet?" instead of, "Do you just want to come to my house?"new climate (we'd gone from winter to summer), her eating and sleeping schedule were a mess, and the constant stream of visitors was overwhelming. When we finally flew back to New Zealand at six months, I was ready to hole up in my home and never leave again. All of the confidence I'd built up over the first couple of months had been somewhat damaged by my "too much, too soon" approach.
Two-and-a-half years later, it's still something of a mission getting out of the house on some days (just ask my daughter's caregiver - we're chronically late to childcare). But I've learned some simple rules that make getting out and about more enjoyable for both of us, rather than a dreaded event. I like to call them "the four P's": plan, pace, prioritise, and process.
When you're a busy professional used to a career, a schedule, meetings, conference calls, deadlines, and "key deliverables", it can come as something of a shock to realise that your newborn not only doesn't care that you have a Blackberry, he or she staunchly refuses to conform to anything remotely resembling the carefully organised schedule you're used to programming in there.
Newborns don't come with the precisely calibrated body clocks we adults have developed over our lifetimes, with scheduled breaks for meals and sleep. They may spend the first few days of their lives snoozing serenely, but unfortunately, it doesn't last. Once you're up six times between midnight and 8am feeding and changing a newborn, you start to know what tiredness really is. During the day, it's sometimes all you can do to get dressed and comb your hair. I discovered online grocery shopping late in my pregnancy - the ultimate excuse for staying in all the time. My newborn daughter would go in her cot for a nap, and I'd sit down at my computer and hurriedly order up a week's worth of food, then hide while the deliveryperson left it all on my doorstep (so he wouldn't see me in my pyjamas).
That's fine for the first few weeks, but eventually you do need to get out. Your baby needs fresh air and sunshine, and you need to learn how to cope in the real world once more. Enter The Plan.
Yes, I know it's overwhelming, the amount of stuff your baby seems to require throughout the day, just to keep him or her fed, clothed, and warm enough. And you probably can't imagine carting even half of that stuff in the basket of your pram or in your nappy bag when you go out. But here's the thing - you don't actually NEED all that stuff when you're out. If you have a plan, and you stick to it, you can actually be okay when out in public with your newborn. And here's what you need in your nappy bag:
• 2 nappies
• Travel wipes
• 2 plastic bags (one for nappies, one for wet clothing)
• Light blanket (doubles as a changing mat or a sunshade for the pram)
• Light jumper
• Small rattle or soothing toy
That's about it - honestly. If your child has a dummy, toss that in there too. Many new parents overpack their child's nappy bag with everything they can think of, including three changes of clothing, six toys, and a week's worth of nappies. Remember, you're not a Sherpa, and you're not scaling Everest with Ed Hillary. Stick to the basics. Realistically, you're not going to be away from your house long enough for your newborn to do too much damage to your supplies. And if you do, by some fluke, run out of nappies or other necessities, you can always run into the supermarket on your way home and restock - or just run home.
When going out with a toddler, the list is much shorter. When I take my two-and-a-half-year-old out, all we pack is a couple of nappies and wipes. It all fits into my handbag and because I know my daughter's habits, likes, and dislikes pretty well, I know what she can handle and how long she'll last in a given situation before we both have to go home and have a nap.
Timing is everything - plan your outing for a good time of day. If you have a newborn who hasn't yet established a sleeping or feeding schedule, it's probably best if you limit your outings to very short durations while you work this out. Go to the letterbox. Sit in the sun on your verandah or in the backyard. Take a walk around the block with the pram.
Once you have a better idea of when your infant eats and sleeps, you can venture further afield. Go to the postshop, the dairy, or a mother's group. Have a manageable goal in mind - mailing a letter, buying bread and milk, or simply meeting other new mums for a brief time.
The purpose of getting out of your house is to reconnect with the wider world, so make it a goal to have at least one outside interaction per week to start. Gradually increase this to one outing a day - a small outing, that is, like a walk or a short trip to the local playground. Don't make the mistake I made and think you're ready to leap from going to the supermarket to visiting relatives overseas! This brings me to the second part of my strategy - pace.
Olympic athletes will tell you that pace is extremely important when you're trying to go the distance. If you do too much, too soon, you'll burn out - and end up wanting to hide when you actually do need to leave the house for something important, like well-child appointments. Start small and build up your outings gradually, both in frequency and duration.
As the parent of a newborn, you need to make a plan to go out when you feel ready. If your baby is a week old and you're accepting invitations to family dinners and booking tickets for an overseas holiday, you're either really brave or feeling really pressured. Slow down, rest, and take it slowly - especially in those early weeks when your baby's schedule is a bit of a mess. You need rest so that you can feed and care for your baby.
As your baby gets older and shows more interest in the world around him or her, going out can be quite fun. Take a walk around your neighbourhood in the pram, or, if it's a rainy day, head to the mall on a weekday (when it's less crowded) and do a couple of laps while window-shopping. Grab a chai at your local coffee shop - takeaway if your baby is starting to fret - and just get your legs moving. Go to a friend's house or visit your parents - they'll love to see you and the baby, and you'll be in a comfortable environment where it won't matter if your bundle of joy screams, spews, or poops. You'll feel better for getting out, and the stimulation of a new environment will awaken your baby's senses and help them to sleep better when it's naptime. But don't overdo it. An outing like this once or twice a week is plenty, unless you're the type who gets bored at being close to home.
When your little one is a few months old, you may feel ready to head out to longer activities once or twice a week. Catch up with friends at a coffee group, visit your local parents' resource and meet other new mums, or head to the mall and do some shopping. But as you increase your time away from home, pay attention to your own wellbeing and your child's routine. Too much disruption to their normal, everyday schedule can make for unsettled nighttimes and fretful feeding.
By about the six-month mark, your child's routine should be pretty well-established. This is the time to start considering larger-scale adventures, like mum-baby swimming classes, music groups, playgroups, and other organized activities. We've put together a great list of places you can go to find out about these activities in your area here. I recommend checking out your local or community newspaper. Many of them have listings of parent-child activities in your area. Another great resource is your local Plunket or Parents' Centre, and many local churches run playgroups and music groups. Ask your child's GP if they know of child-friendly activities around, and check out the messageboards on www.ohbaby.co.nz for more advice and suggestions for places to go with your little one.
Once your baby is starting to become more mobile, their schedule should also be fairly consistent, so you'll be able to plan for longer outings and go to places like the zoo or on longer car trips to visit relatives and friends. The key to pacing yourself is to match your outings to your child's age and ability to cope. If you've got him or her scheduled for swimming Monday, music group Tuesday, playgroup Wednesday, baby gym Thursday, and coffee group Friday, by just midweek, you'll both be exhausted and prone to tantrums. Children need down-time, too. That's why you need to learn to prioritise your activities.
Once you master the whole "getting out of the house" thing, you'll start to feel as if a whole new world has opened up. I remember realising there were whole sections of Newmarket where I could now legitimately shop - the toy stores and children's clothing boutiques. It was nice for a couple of days, but I soon realised the main reason I was frequenting these places was because I thought I might bump into another cool mum I could make friends with, and not because I actually wanted to buy anything. I had my priorities mixed up, and once I abandoned the shops and found myself some mother-baby activities, we were both happier.
What do you want to accomplish while you're out? This isn't a loaded question, it's just a good thing to keep in mind. If you're heading out to the supermarket, you want to get the groceries for the week. If you're going to baby gym, you want to socialise with other mums, bond with your child, and give your little one some physical stimulation. Know the reasons behind what you're doing and where you're going, and it'll help to keep you from veering off-track.
If you find that you don't know why you're going somewhere, or you're not enjoying it but you feel obligated or pressured to go, you need to step back and re-prioritise. Your time is precious when you have a child, especially a newborn who needs so much of your attention. Do the activities that make the two of you happy, and if you're finding yourself getting over-scheduled, you need to decide what's important and what's just "filler", and prune away the unnecessary activities.
When I say "process", I'm using it as a verb - you need to process what's happened while you were out, review the situation and its high points and low points, and figure out whether you want to do something different the next time. Maybe you do need to pack six toys to keep your baby occupied while you wait in the queue at the postshop. Or maybe you should make a mental note that Thursday is pension day, so the supermarket is best avoided unless you want to add an extra hour to your visit and practice fending off nosy questions from strangers in between choosing apples and deciding what meat to have for dinner.
There might be things you can do to streamline your routine for getting out of the house - perhaps it was time to go and you realised you hadn't packed the nappy bag, or you forgot the rain cover for the pram, or you couldn't remember how to fit the capsule into the backseat. The first time I went out for a long walk with my daughter, I realised I'd forgotten a water bottle for myself, so when we got home, the first thing I did was to fill up a water bottle and pop it into the basket of the pram for next time. The stuff you need to do to plan your outings will change according to where you're going and how long you'll be away, but even a miserable, grumpy outing is a learning experience. You'll soon figure out which cafes are child-friendly, where the best parents' rooms are located, and how many nappies you need to get you through a visit to Grandma's. And if you're conscious of what worked and what didn't, every time you go out will be that little bit easier, until you'll find that it's not so intimidating, after all. (And you can even go ahead and book that overseas trip.)
Take care of these things when you're safe at home and planning for your next outing, and it'll be heaps easier next time you venture out into the great-wide world. After all, you and your baby are mobile - you have places to go and people to see!