The accumulated wisdom of Those Who Have Gone Before (i.e. the parents whose children can read and wipe their own bottoms) has a lot to offer to those of us with babies and toddlers as we face the holiday season. Who among us wouldn’t benefit from travel tips, or some tried and true techniques for gracefully fending off unwelcome advice? But the real value, in learning from these Elders of the Parenting Realm, is the reminder that as we grow our families, we have the opportunity to define or redefine what the holidays mean to us, and shift our ways of celebrating for a decrease in stress and an increase in authenticity and connection.
Here’s some advice to consider as we rapidly draw near to the end-of-year holidays:
Learn to say no. This may not be the year to do a tour de force of 14 (or 4, or even 2!) relatives’ homes. And you may feel exhausted simply thinking about the countless invitations to holiday events and gatherings you might once eagerly have attended. Give yourself permission to not overcommit. Gently remind yourself - and others, if they need some education - that having a new baby changes the balance in a family (and this balance continues to shift as infants become toddlers become preschoolers). The holidays *are* a time for family - but sometimes the needs of your young family have to come first. There will be other years for all the rest.
Travel wise. If you’ll be traveling, here are a few things veteran parents recommend:
Use a baby carrier to make it easier to cart kiddo through various airports and on and off airplanes, to provide closeness and comfort to baby, to encourage sleep, and to keep strangers’ hands away from baby
Keep multiple changes of clothes close at hand - for baby and parents!
For a young baby, bring a few favorite toys to rotate throughout the trip; for an older child, pack a few small, new travel toys or activities, to bring out at intervals throughout the trip
You can never have too many snacks
Consider timing car travel to your child’s nap schedule
Don’t panic - *most* people are incredibly kind to parents traveling with kids
Prepare for the onslaught of advice. There are some topics that are just bound to come up: “You’re breastfeeding?!? You’re NOT breastfeeding?!? You’re STILL breastfeeding?!? Certainly you’ve read what they say about co-sleeping! Your baby STILL doesn’t sleep through the night? You haven’t started solids YET? A little screen time won’t hurt. All babies love X, Y or Z.” And the list goes on.
If there are things you know may be points of contention with family members, give yourself a pep talk before you go, reminding yourself of the reasons for your decisions. Then, have your answers at the ready. A few ideas: “Our pediatrician recommends…,” or “our postpartum doula really helped us understand how babies’ sleep needs evolve,” or simply (since, really, you don’t owe anyone an explanation), “we’re doing X, and that’s what works best for our family.”
Set boundaries. Only you know your baby, with their particular quirks, needs, or health issues. And only you know what works for you, your partner or your family system. You’re the final authority, no matter how many babies Aunt Jane raised! Here are a few thoughts from parents with experience:
Using a baby carrier can keep unwanted touches to a minimum and germs at bay. And whether you have a newborn or a toddler, frequent hand washing in flu season just makes sense - don’t be afraid to ask that family members wash their hands!
The decision around when your baby has their first solid food is yours alone to make - no matter how much a distant family member would like to witness it. See above re: “preparing for the onslaught” and stay strong in your convictions!
Consider how you’ll support your toddler or older child when hugs or kisses are requested (or demanded) - meeting and greeting a slew of unfamiliar relatives can be stressful for young children. A high five or a wave, or whatever feels good to your little one, is a fine substitute.
Keep gift giving simple. If your celebrations include gift exchanges, you hereby have permission to K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Sweetie.) Shorten your list, give a virtual gift or a gift of time together. Gift certificates are easy and appreciated, and many of us would rather a gift be made to charity in our honor than take home another tchotchke. If you must shop, shopping online is a lot easier while managing the realities of life with a new baby or young child.
Take time to take care of yourself. Feelings, friendships and family relationships can fray under the stress of the holiday season and its myriad expectations. Optimize sleep for you, your partner and your littles; take time out for yourself, while your partner or a trusted friend or family member holds your baby or entertains your toddler. Balance indulgences with good nutrition, and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate (you’ll feel better, and, if you’re breastfeeding, this will help with your supply). Connecting with others is so much easier when you can be connected to, and responsive to, your own needs.
Make room for new traditions. As our families grow and change, some holiday traditions take on increased meaning, while some may begin to feel out of reach, or out of keeping, in your new reality. It’s okay to let new-baby fatigue set the pace for celebrations this year, or put off elements of celebration that a toddler just can’t make it through without undue havoc. And it can be fun to get creative with new takes on old practices, or inventing a way of celebrating that expresses the values and budding traditions of your new family.
Over all, the big take-home message is take the pressure off. As they say, “you can’t be all things to all people, all the time.” Similarly, this holiday season doesn’t have to be the be-all, end-all of holiday seasons. There may be room in the future for Pinterest-perfect decor, all-scratch meals, and handmade gifts that put Martha Stewart to shame. But maybe in taking this year to draw inward, we can give ourselves the opportunity to consider how a new baby or a new balance can shift us toward more connection - to self, to others, and to the true gifts we can find within our growing families - in the holiday season and beyond.