Many families travel during the holiday season and many visit distant relatives. These trips are intended to be wonderfully fun, bonding, memory-building times when baby can meet and enjoy the extended family, and when the family can see the baby. Some are even meeting your baby for the very first time, so it's an exciting time for everyone. However, it can also be a highly stressful time for you and for your baby. You will need to plan carefully, set the ground rules, and in general be in charge of your baby's well-being on this expedition. By doing so, you will help everyone to have a better, more positive visit and will find that you and your baby will be welcomed back for years to come.
First of all, it's very important to remember that babies can be very stressed by meeting lots of new people all at once. Well-meaning relatives and friends will want to see, talk to, and hold your baby. They will feel like this new addition to your family is a welcome person and that they have been waiting forever for this opportunity. You will need to be very careful that your child does not feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of new faces! Depending on your baby's age and developmental level, strangers may be quite frightening. Grandparents, doting aunts and uncles, and rambunctious cousins will feel that they are a part of this little one's family. They will want very much to introduce themselves and play with the baby. The baby, on the other hand, may well perceive these people as total strangers. Consider how your child currently feels about strangers. Chances are that if the baby is under three months of age, strangers are not particularly threatening. But if your baby is between three months and even up towards two or three years old, these unfamiliar people may seem downright dangerous and sinister. You will need to be cautious about how closely you allow them to interact at first, and insist that your baby set the pace and depth of interactions.
And it can be difficult for your relatives to understand why the baby can't "love" them right away. They forget, or fail to understand, that this is a completely normal developmental phase that all children go through, and that blood ties and family bonds count for little unless a person is in a child's life on a day-to-day basis. You may find that you have to fight for the right of your child to get to know these well-meaning relatives gradually, at their own pace and on their own terms. Stand up for your baby as vigorously as you need to. A stressed out infant or toddler will not make your trip pleasant. You may even have to physically insert yourself between your relative and your baby. I clearly recall an incident when I literally had to step between my eldest daughter (who was about one and a half) and her excited great aunt, who was intent on capturing the little girl for a big hug and kiss. My daughter had never met this lady and considered her an aggressive stranger, and my aunt actually tried to chase the poor child around the room when I intervened. She meant well, but hugs and kisses just were not in my daughter's best interests right then, and she needed me to enforce her wishes.
If your child is old enough to begin to understand words and pictures, you can help ease the situation by looking at photos together. Some families even make small books or use soft photo holders to display pictures of the people baby is likely to meet on the trip. Being able to talk about the names and relationships while looking at the faces may help some young children to accept these new people into his or her life. Some relatives may also be willing to write letters or send presents to the baby before the big visit, as well. Be sure to do what you can to make the connection between the letter or gift and the sender.
Finally, gently remind your relatives that babies are very sensitive to things that are outside of their experiences. Unusual odors (such as cigarette smoke or strong perfumes or colognes) may upset baby and should be avoided as much as possible. Bright, loud prints on clothing may be upsetting or confusing. Unfamiliar voices should be kept low and tones should be pleasant. All of these things will help baby to get used to the new family members more quickly and easily.
You can use all of these tips to help your baby make the best transition possible into these important people's lives. With just a little planning and forethought, you can make sure the visit is pleasant rather than disastrous. Talk to your relatives ahead of time if you sense that your baby might be uncomfortable around strangers and remind them that no matter how much they love your little one sight unseen, baby still considers them to be strangers and so may feel quite shy. Ask them to take their cues from you about how close of contact is appropriate. Remember to meet the baby's needs, and the rest of the visit should fall into place and you will set the stage for a life-long pleasant relationship with these important people.