Friday, May 3, 2013

Attending a Conference with a Baby


I was just in Paris, attending CHI 2013, and felt a little homesick because none of my children were with me. For over six years, while I was pregnant and nursing, at least one of my four boys came with me to every conference I attended. Griffin, for example, traveled one hundred thousand miles in his first year of life. Below are some things that I found made attending a conference alone with a baby a little easier for me.

First, be clear in your mind about why you are attending a conference with your children. Possible goals include:
  • See cutting edge research.
  • Catch up with colleagues.
  • Share your work with others.
  • Give your spouse at home a break.
  • Expose your baby to new things.
  • Incubate or feed your baby.
  • Have a travel companion for exploring.
Only choose one or two goals. You cannot possibly attend a conference alone with a child and do everything. (And if you make the mistake of bringing two babies with you alone, as I did twice, you won’t be able to do anything at all.) For me, I brought the baby who was in my belly or nursing with me because he depended on my physically, and I brought other children because it seemed unfair to leave my husband home alone, all by himself, with four children under the age of four. I traveled to see my colleagues and to stay visible in the community. Research and reading, however, I chose to keep up with at home.

Traveling tip: Having your baby with you at a conference if a lot of work, but it can also be a useful networking tool. It’s an instant conversation starter and makes your visit memorable.
 
If you bring a spouse for childcare, don't set a goal of having the trip serve as a family vacation – because it won't be one. Your spouse will get to see a new city, but they won't see it with you. Instead, they'll be stuck being a single parent in a strange city without any of the comforts of home. Alex hates to take time off work to travel with me and the children to a conference.
 
Once your goals are clear, structure your visit to achieve them. For example, because I wanted to catch up with colleagues, I typically hired childcare to cover lunch time, presentations I had to give, and scheduled meetings, but not regular sessions. Those I attended with my baby. Babies are hard in many ways, but easy in that they will go wherever you take them without complaint. They may scream and fuss in the middle of a session, but when they do you can just step outside. You will probably have to step outside a lot, but celebrate what you accomplish on the trip rather than focusing on what you miss. You would probably get more done if you were traveling alone, but the trip is still worthwhile if you meet your goals.
 
Traveling tip: Nobody minds a screaming baby as long as the parent is doing everything possible to soothe it. It’s the parents who ignore inappropriate behavior (or sad, uncomfortable children) that are annoying.

Traveling to attend a conference with a child is not like traveling alone with a child in that you have instant community at your destination. Take advantage of your colleagues and ask the people around you for help. Most people are happy to hold a baby for a few minutes while you run to the restroom, or meet at the park rather than in the crowded hallway at the conference center. Most will happily run to the store to pick something up for you, or join you for a glass of wine with you in the evening in the hallway outside your room after your baby has fallen asleep. It feels good to be able to help someone out – just be sure to let people will know what they can do.

Of course, even complete strangers are usually willing to help when you are alone with a baby. Let the flight attendants, hotel staff, and others know what you need, too. Some things worth asking for include:
  • A refrigerator in your hotel room for milk and snacks. Surprisingly not all hotel rooms have one, but if you mention your need in advance one can be procured. Most major hotel chains have one placed in my room for me by default now.
  • A bathtub. My children hate the shower, but are entertained for hours in a bathtub.
  • The appropriate sleeping configuration (e.g., a king bed for us, since we co-sleep).
  • A good seat on the airplane. Airline staff has a lot of power in seating arrangements if you ask nicely. For example, they can often free up a bulkhead seat or block the seat next to you so it stays empty.
  • A private space to pump at the conference. It is often easy for organizers to procure an extra room at the venue with sufficient warning.
  • A conference badge for your child so the child can feel included.
Note that while flight attendants will hold your baby if you need a free hand for a second, TSA agents are not allowed to. This is extra motivation to wear slip-on shoes. You have to manually carry your baby through the security check point (no carrier), so, if possible, avoid having your baby fall asleep right before going through. [Edit: While carriers must be removed according to TSA policy, colleagues report being allowed to wear their children through security on recent trips. Security officers once asked me to remove my baby while in utero, asking me to place my "fanny pack" on the conveyor belt. Fortunately my pregnant belly didn't need to be sent through the x-ray machine.]

Rather than buy my children plane tickets, I carried them on my lap for as long as possible (age 2). Some people argue traveling with a lap child incurs an unnecessary safety risk, but the benefits outweighed the costs for me. A separate seat is very expensive, having to carry on a car seat is a pain, and children in car seats need to be placed in a window seat, which limits your options. I have also always assumed that an airplane disaster is unlikely to turn out well regardless of how my child is seated – but others may have better information on that front than I do. If you are traveling with two lap children (and another adult), be aware that you can't be in the same row because there aren't enough extra oxygen masks. Children (or pregnant women, I've been told) also can't sit in exit rows.

When preparing for the trip, pack lightly. I always try to avoid checking luggage because it gives me one less thing to worry about. You can generally purchase, borrow, or rent what you need at the other end, even internationally. For example, I usually traveled with just a few extra diapers beyond what I expected I would need, knowing I could buy more if I underestimated. I remember one child lost a shoe on the metro in Rome. The lucky boy came home with a pair of beautiful Italian leather shoes.

Traveling trip: Don’t bring toys. An empty ice bucket, an unplugged phone, or an airplane safety information card are all more fun. The bathtub, some shower gel, washcloths, and a few plastic cups can be entertaining for hours. And, yes, you can read the hotel information book to your children as a bedtime story in a pinch. Electronic devices are awesome for entertaining older children in constrained situations, but babies tend to find ripping the duty free magazine to shreds more entertaining.

To keep the baby gear I travel with to a minimum, I try to avoid: 
  • Car seats. Alternate: Take the metro. Many major urban areas have trains to and from the airport that are safe, clean, easy, cheap, and fast. Note that if you do bring a car seat, you can check it for free.
  • Strollers. Alternate: Use a baby carrier. Baby wearing makes it easy to bring your child everywhere. He can snuggle close, nurse, nap, and look around while you go about your other activities. I found a carrier especially useful in Europe, where the sidewalks are often narrow and uneven. A small umbrella stroller can come in handy, however, as a high chair proxy, as many European restaurants don't seem to have them.
  • Crib. Alternate: Bring the baby into bed with you. Because we co-slept at home, my boys never grew attached to a particular bed. Instead, they were always happy to sleep wherever I slept. Of course, co-sleeping is a parenting choice we made for many other reasons – the fact that it made traveling easier was just an extra bonus.

Traveling tip: Babies seem immune to jet-lag, perhaps because they are up and down all the time regardless. I think I experienced less jet lag when traveling with babies, too – probably because I was so tired.

A few things not to scrimp on when packing: Bring two of any article of clothing you really depend on. For short trips I often just take one pair of pants, but after a messy diaper blowout on the plane en route to a conference I quickly learned to bring two. An alternate presentation outfit is a good plan, too. I also like to pack a reading light so I can read in a dark room while putting my baby to bed. Light cotton receiving blankets are another essential, but if you have a baby you probably already know that.

When you get to your hotel room, take a quick-and-dirty baby proofing pass.
  • Place chairs strategically to block the most dangerous areas (e.g., the corner by the desk with lots of plugs and cords).
  • Close the bathroom door and throw the bolt on the front door.
  • Unplug the phone. Makes a good toy, and avoids accidental baby-calls to the front desk.
  • Put the trash can on a counter out of reach.
  • Gather up all of the small stuff left out by the hotel and sort into two piles: 1) Good for playing with (place on floor), and 2) useless (place in a drawer or somewhere out of the way).
  • Hide the TV remote.
No matter how carefully you set up the hotel room, however, it's almost certainly easier to be out and about most of the day. Children are a great excuse to explore. Even when my children couldn't walk or talk, it didn't feel right to visit Rome, Hong Kong, or Barcelona without taking some time to show them the sites. It may be hard (or impossible) to find a playground, but you could go to a playground at home. Visit the places that make the conference venue unique instead. The lawn in front of a museum, for example, can be a great place to run around and let off some steam.

Unfortunately, the one thing you really want advice about when traveling alone with a baby – namely Childcare – has no easy answer. When at all possible, invite a spouse, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or friend along for the ride. It can be hard to know in advance exactly when you will need to be child-free, and a travel companion allows you to change your schedule on demand. I have, on occasion, brought along our nanny when traveling, and childcare is particularly easy on such trips. However, when the nanny is with me there is no childcare at home, so I have to bring all four boys, which tends to be expensive and a little crazy.

To hire a babysitter, I usually first try to find a personal recommendation. I ask friends with children who live near the conference venue, friends with children who are attending the conference, and the conference organizers, and I check in with local universities. If asking fails to produce a good lead, my fallback plan is to go with a childcare service. Most hotels will recommend a service if you call the concierge, and many companies offer their employees discounted access when used for work purposes (including conference travel). Services are flexible, easy, and reliable to use, but often have silly rules (e.g., no leaving the hotel room) and additional expenses (e.g., placement fees and parking). You are also not guaranteed to have the same person every day.

It is very hard to leave your baby with a stranger. I remember sitting outside my hotel room door after leaving Brier with a new sitter, and listening to him sob like his heart was broken. If I didn't have a presentation to give, I'm sure I never could have left. To allow time for hard transitions, schedule your childcare blocks to be somewhat longer than you think you will actually need. The small added expense is well worth having extra flexibility. Although it is tempting to check in during coffee breaks, be careful – you may find separating multiple times makes things harder. A phone call might be less disruptive, and you can ask your sitter to text you occasionally so that you know all is well. Bring a list of important phone numbers with you to leave with the sitter, including yours, several other colleagues attending the conference, your spouse, and your pediatrician.

Travel tip: Don’t feel like you have to have childcare for every conference event. Instead, bring your child with you to most events and strategically schedule child-free blocks that help you meet your goals.
 
Just like you should allow time for childcare transitions, you should also allow space for transitions when you leave and return home. Change is hard, so be patient with it. I remember returning home from a  conference in Singapore that I attended with my four year old while 32 weeks pregnant and being exhausted. I wanted to drop everything and spend a few days not lifting a finger. But my husband was exhausted, too, having just spent the week alone with our two year old twins. We unfortunately couldn't both drop everything. Instead, we do what we can to make the transition as easy as possible by, for example, not scheduling anything right before or after a trip, and hiring extra childcare support.

In writing this post, I built on ideas and experiences shared by colleagues. Thank you, Louise Barkhuus, Cathy Braasch, Jeremy Brown, Ben Carterette, Julie Kientz, Scott McCrickard, Vanessa Murdock, Leysia Palen, Wanda Pratt, Erin Solovey, Nati Srebro, and Stephanie Zerwas for your insights. Conference travel with children is obviously an issue that many of us in the academic community care deeply about, and it is great to see the support we can offer each other. Please feel free to add any additional travel suggestions you have in the Comments Section. I also am actively interested in ideas about how conference organizers might best support parent attendees for a future blog post. Happy trails!

7 comments:

  1. I am also interested in ideas that organizers -- or an executive committee with funding -- could apply to this.

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  2. This is a wonderfully thoughtful article, clearly from a mom who has been there more than most of us ever will be! I am expecting to starting traveling for work in October, with an approx 6 week old (or leaving him home sometimes) - and although it's my third child, I haven't traveled with or without a baby since my first son was small 7 years ago. I'm nervous to say the least. Thank you for all the tips! I will certainly keep in them in mind.

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  3. Thanks jamie, I'm going to confrence with DD today. Very nervous. She's 17 months

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  4. Thanks jamie, I'm going to confrence with DD today. Very nervous. She's 17 months

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  5. Thanks Jamie. I am at CSM 2016 in Anaheim, USA. Unfortunately, they did not allowed me to go inside the venue with my daughter. I couldn't believe... I have been in many conferences with moms and child together... I am very disappointed.

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  6. Jamie - I love your blog post. I'm one of the volunteers for this year's SC17 conference http://sc17.supercomputing.org/ and I'm responsible for the childcare and parenting rooms that we are making available for attendees. One of the ways we are trying to promote these services is through blog posts. I've done one blog post in support of this (http://sc17.supercomputing.org/2017/06/01/sc17-an-inclusive-family-friendly-experience/) and I was planning another one on "tips for bringing your child to SC" but since mine are now 18 and 22, it has been awhile. I was wondering if you might allow me/us to republish your article (or an excerpt) on our site - of course with attribution to you.

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    1. You're welcome to use this content. There's also a related write-up here: http://women.acm.org/ACMW-Webpage/Newsletters/Articles/2014-01-Family-Friendly-Conference-ACMWConnections.pdf Send me an email and we can discuss.

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