Flying alone with a baby

Flying with your baby or toddler is probably not an activity you relish, even if you do it all the time. Upping the ante and taking your little one on a plane single-handed? Madness, surely. Well, yes, but sometimes you’ve got no other option.

This week, for example, I’m visiting my brother and his family in Los Angeles. My partner is busy with work, so I had to fly by myself with the baby girl. I flew with her by myself once before, but it was a short flight and she was just six-weeks-old – a far easier proposition than taking a hulking 21-month-old half-way around the world.

I prepared myself for the possibility that she might not sleep at all, be super grumpy and to whinge for the whole flight. I did not prepare myself for the possibility that the flight would be cancelled after boarding, requiring a long slog back home by myself with the girl on the train, then a journey to a different London airport for a flight the following day.

You can only imagine my delight when that is exactly what happened.

Clearly, I would have preferred to avoid the stress and tedium of this situation. Looking on the bright side however (something I was only able to do once I’d got home, put the baby girl to bed, and drunk a cold beer in the garden), the cancelled flight turned out to be pretty useful as a trial run for the one the following day.

Pack light, pack clever

A toddler stands in a queue with a buggy and a wheelie bag
Waiting to board the cancelled flight with the ill-advised wheelie bag

I consider myself a good packer, but I made a bad call when it came to packing for that cancelled flight, opting to bring a wheelie cab bag along with our suitcase, my little handbag backpack and the buggy. I could handle it all myself at the airport, but the moment I had to leave the baggage trolley behind I was seriously overburdened, reliant on the kindness of strangers.

I would have taken a cab home from the airport that afternoon but couldn’t find a taxi company with a car seat available at such short notice, and didn’t want to risk a long drive without one. I could have waited an hour and a half for my partner to come back and pick us up, but the baby girl was already seriously overtired and I wanted to get her home as soon as possible (plus, my partner was busy trying to book us another flight).

In the end it worked out fine: we got the train to London Bridge and my partner picked us up from there, various fellow travellers having gone out of their way to help me juggle the luggage and the girl. We arrived home safely and emotionally unscathed (the one moment where I almost lost it was when I saw the sign at Gatwick Airport Station that says no trolleys allowed past the barriers, and the attendant told me that there was a train in three minutes and then not again for nearly an hour; seeing my despair, he let us through with the trolley, we dashed to the lift, and made it to the platform with 30 seconds to spare), but I made sure I repacked the contents of the wheelie bag and my backpack into one big backpack for the flight the following day.

Bags within bags

A toddler pushes a buggy next to a pile of luggage
Too many bags for one woman and a toddler

If money were no object I would have booked the baby girl her own seat on the plane. Not fancying doubling the cost of our trip, however, I opted to have her on my lap (possible until the age of two). Our time on the cancelled flight was a lesson in exactly how little space we would have for our belongings with just the one seat, and how organised I would need to be to make sure I had everything we needed when we needed it during the flight. So that night after returning home from the airport I did some judicious repacking.

All the baby girl’s food and milk went into one tote bag, all the other essentials – toys, books, headphones, phone, nappy change wallet, sleeping bag and pyjamas, jumpers for us both, toothbrush and toothpaste – went into another, and both these bags went into my backpack. After we’d boarded I was able to stow the food and essentials bags under the seat in front, leaving everything else – items that I thought might come in handy  but wouldn’t definitely need (spare clothes, Calpol, etc) – in the overhead locker to save space.

Doing it this way, I discovered, means you can keep to a minimum the number of times you get up to take things out of the overhead locker – useful when travelling alone with a toddler, absolutely essential when travelling alone with a babe-in-arms.

Avoiding meltdowns

A toddler plugs in a phone charge on a plane
Plugging and unplugging my phone charger kept the baby girl occupied for a surprisingly long time

The baby girl was overdue for a nap when we boarded the (soon to be) cancelled flight. I had brought toys, books, a phone full of downloaded episodes of Hey Duggee and Sarah & Duck, and plenty of food, yet for some reason (probably because I was tired and hot too), I was inept at putting these distractions to good use, and the girl just got grumpier. I made it worse by attempting to get her to nap in the sling, something she was clearly not going to do just to suit me.

On the flight the following day things went more smoothly. I dressed her in cooler clothes so she wasn’t so affected by the heat, and it helped that the seat next to us was empty so we had some space to spread out.

The baby girl was just as tired as she had been the day before, but I was quicker to whip out the snacks and cycle through the available distractions at the slightest sign of an impending meltdown. In terms of my own sanity, I made good use of my wireless bone-conducting headphones, listening to podcasts while playing with the baby girl. I don’t do this at home, preferring not to divide my attention, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

A baby in a pushchair sucks her thumb
In the queue for immigration at LAX

Instead of trying to get the baby girl to nap at her usual naptime, I threw the schedule out the window and waited until they dimmed the cabin lights. After putting her in her sleeping bag and reading her a story, she was happy to go to sleep. It only lasted an hour, but she was chilled enough to lie there awake and quiet for another hour after that.

I tried to put the baby girl down again for another sleep later and she just wasn’t going for it, so I gave up immediately and we spent the second half the flight walking up and down the plane in the dark, carrying bits of rubbish to throw away in the bin in the galley. It was quite tedious for me, but the baby girl enjoyed herself and a lot of the other passengers seemed to find it entertaining.

Fingers crossed we can repeat that positive experience on the flight back to London next week. Please, please, please let it not be cancelled….

Essential kit, number 11: portable high chair

I’ve tried a lot of different types of portable high chair since I began travelling with the baby girl, and my favourite is definitely the Totseat.

This washable fabric harness slips over the back of most chairs, meaning you can make almost any chair into a high chair, whether at a restaurant, café, or in the home of a friend or family member. The Totseat folds down into a bag no bigger than a packet of wipes and is so light that I keep ours in the bottom of the baby girl’s buggy all the time, or in my handbag if we’re buggy-free. It’s suitable for babies and toddlers aged 6 to 30 months.

The only downside of the Totseat, compared with other portable high chairs, is that there’s no option but to have your baby at eye level with the table. Meal times therefore tend to be messier and require more involvement from an adult than might be the case with a portable high chair hanging from the table, or one with its own tray (more on the different options available in my post on eating out with babies and toddlers).

As far as I’m concerned though, the benefits of the Totseat’s adaptability and portability outweigh this slight inconvenience. Sitting the baby girl on a couple of cushions or, even better, rolled up towels, is an effective workaround.

What’s your must-have piece of kit for eating out with your baby or toddler?

Toddler in a portable high chair at a table in a restaurant
The baby girl in her Totseat portable high chair

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The rapid growth of theatre for babies

Published on the Mobius Industries blog, 15 May 2018. I’m sharing this, a post commissioned by a theatre PR company I work with from time to time, because I hope it might tempt those of you who haven’t yet taken your kids to the theatre to give it a go. 

A baby girl sits on stage at the end of a performance for babies
Wowed by Scottish Opera’s BambinO at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017

While grown-up audiences fret about sweet wrappers and mobile phones, patrons of early years theatre are merrily storming the stage, grabbing the props and bursting into noisy tears if they see something they don’t like. And so they should – after all, what’s the point of theatre if not to provoke a response?

Making work for the under-2s, an audience that literally stomps all over theatre etiquette and doesn’t give a hoot about concepts like character, narrative or the fourth wall, presents a challenge for theatre-makers, but also an opportunity. Theatre for babies and toddlers – when done well – is the form at its purest and most experimental, a chance to play with storytelling, communication and sensory pleasure without any of the baggage that theatre for grownups usually carries.

Work for this audience may still only make up a tiny proportion of the children’s theatre market, but it’s a genre that’s mushroomed in recent years. Venues like the Unicorn in London, The Boo in Rossendale, Lancashire, The Gulbenkian in Canterbury, and the recently opened Hullabaloo in Darlington all regularly produce or host performances for babies and toddlers that are just as original, technically innovative and well crafted as theatre made with grownups in mind.

Tim Webb, artistic director of children’s theatre company Oily Cart and a pioneer of early years theatre in the UK, believes this is down to the fact that there are “a lot more people coming out of university and drama school who take work for babies seriously, not as something to do until you get a proper job”.

Some shows for youngsters adopt extremely simple versions of the sort of linear narratives you find in mainstream theatre for adults, while others have more in common with live art. Glisten, for example, which I took my daughter to see at the Half Moon Children’s Theatre earlier this year, featured actor and theatre maker Daniel Naddafy shining a torch on his feet while doing giant steps around the stage and then crinkling and uncrinkling bright and shiny material – it was great.

Both approaches can work but either way, flexibility is key. Oily Cart made Jumpin’ Beans, their first piece for babies aged 6-18 months, in 2002, having spent two decades making work for children of a range of ages and young people with learning disabilities. Webb remembers being inspired by a Belgian early years show but feeling let down that the music was all recorded – it made the show “inherently inflexible”. The solution, at least as far as Oily Cart’s shows are concerned – and they’re the best in the business – is to include a musician playing live. “If a baby changes the show’s direction the show can change as it should,” explains Webb.

The best performance for babies sets up an imaginative framework and physical context within which its audience is free to express itself. Some babies are shy and some very adventurous and a production needs to cater to all if it’s to succeed. One way of doing that is by factoring in close contact between the performers and each little audience member. This is easier when performers are not too outnumbered by their charges, but a cleverly conceived production can factor in one-to-one engagement even when there are lots of babies and just one performer.

Another way of ensuring each child has a good time on their own terms is to give the audience a measure of physical freedom. A show needn’t be a complete free-for-all, but under-2s theatre that is too prescriptive of its audience’s behaviour is doomed to failure. Snigel and Friends, a show we saw at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer, was no crawling allowed, which meant my daughter spent the whole show squirming in my arms as she tried to get closer to the action. It was a shame, as it was otherwise a brilliant piece of work.

Early years theatre, then, is all about the audience. There’s no space for ego or artistic vision where babies and toddlers are concerned. They’re happy to stomp all over that too.

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Booking plane tickets for a baby or toddler

Children under the age of two travel for (almost) free on most airlines as long as they’re sitting on your lap, but you still need to book a ticket for your baby. The information required for booking varies depending on the airline but be prepared to provide your baby’s full name and date of birth, as you would with an adult booking.

Fees and taxes

A man sleeps with a sleeping baby on his lap while a flight attendant passes
The baby girl and my partner passed out on our flight back from the Canaries

Most airlines charge either a small one-off fee (usually around £20) or 10% of an adult fare for a child under the age of two sitting on an adult’s lap. Because one-off fees are set, it’s sometimes cheaper to pay for a seat for your baby on budget airlines, though bear in mind that you won’t get infant baggage allowance (see below) on an adult ticket.

There’s no airline tax to pay on tickets for children under the age of 16 leaving from UK airports, but you may be charged a local tax on the ticket for the return journey, depending on where you’re travelling from.

Children aged two and over require their own seat, which are usually charged at around 75 per cent of the cost of adult tickets. If your child will be turning two while you’re away, get in touch with the airline before you book. Some airlines will waive the fee on the return journey, some won’t, but it’s always worth asking.

Booking a ticket for an unborn child

2016-10-23 12.14.21
Post-feed on the baby girl’s first flight, to Santiago de Compostela, when she was six-weeks-old

If you’re pregnant and booking a trip that will take place after your baby is born, most airlines will ask you to put ‘Infant [Your Surname]’ as the name and your due date as the date of birth, then call them with the correct details after the birth. Policies do vary though, and you probably won’t find information this niche on airlines’ FAQ pages, so make sure you phone or email to check before booking. Each airline has its own minimum age for flying so double check this too – it’s 14 days on easyjet, for example, while babies can travel with British Airways 48 hours after birth.

Which seats to book

Infant lap tickets are limited to one per adult so if you’re travelling with two children under the age of two you’ll either need to bring a second adult or book a seat for one of the little ones. In the latter case, you’ll also need a suitable child restraint system, depending on the age of your child. This might be a car seat (check with your airline which models are allowed) or an AmSafe Child Aviation Restraint System (CARES), which is suitable from 12 months. They aren’t cheap, but you can save some cash by hiring one on eBay.

For long-haul flights, it’s worth trying to book the bulkhead seats at the front of the cabin and a carrycot or child seat (depending on the weight and height of your child). This is sometimes more straightforward to do over the phone rather than online. It’s a good idea to reconfirm the carrycot booking before you travel and again at check-in.

If these seats aren’t available, and there are two of us travelling with the baby girl, my partner and I try to book window and aisle, in the hope that the middle seat will be left empty. This tactic often works, and even when it doesn’t, your neighbour is very likely to be willing to swap their middle seat for one of yours, so you end up sitting together anyway.

For short-haul, we find two seats across the aisle from each other more convenient than sitting side-by-side, as you’re both easily able to get up and walk around with the baby in a sling or get things out of the overhead lockers.

There are restrictions on where in the cabin you can sit with an infant on your lap – exit rows are always out of bounds and other rules apply on some airlines. This will usually be made clear when booking. Some airlines will let you reserve seats for your whole party for no extra cost if you’re flying with a baby but be on guard for those that don’t (ahem, easyjet) so you can factor the additional cost of sitting together into the price of your trip.

Infant baggage allowance

A toddler sits in an open suitcase, other bags on the floor around her.
The baby girl helping us unpack on our trip to Gozo, November 2017

The rules around cabin and checked baggage for infants under two, whether sitting on your lap or in their own seats, vary wildly from airline to airline, but you can expect to be able to bring two or three large items of baby travel paraphernalia, such as pushchair, travel cot, car seat and a small additional cabin bag for nappies, milk, baby food, etc. Beyond that, it’s hard to generalise so check when booking.

For ideas on what to pack, including snacks, toys and essential kit, check out my post on flying with a baby or toddler. You might find my general baby/toddler packing list handy too.

Travel documents

I’ve written a couple of dedicated posts about travel documents so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that you’ll need a passport for your child and a visa if one is required for your destination. If you’re taking a child abroad you technically need permission from anyone with parental responsibility for that child (i.e. your other half, if you’re travelling without them) – more on this in my other post.

A baby in its mother’s arms holds a new British passport
Just after this was taken the baby girl turned to the photo page and had a proper laugh at herself as a two week old

Adventure review: Kika’s Birthday, Little Angel Theatre, London

Published by The Stage, 8 May 2018. Kika’s Birthday is playing at the Polka Theatre, London, until 20 May 2018, then at the Edinburgh Fringe, 1-13 August 2018. The show is for children aged 3–8.

An actor holds a puppet mouse
Kika’s Birthday © Richard Davenport

Today is Sophie’s 16th birthday, so her mother is baking a cake. As Danyah Miller (who co-wrote the show with John Miller) mixes together the ingredients to bake a real-life cake before our very eyes, she’s reminded of a story she used to tell Sophie when she was little: about a family of mice celebrating a birthday of their own.

Kika’s Birthday is charming in places, and Miller is a very likeable performer, but the show lacks dramatic oomph, more story session than theatrical performance. Designer Alison Alexander’s menagerie of everyday objects transformed into animals, though often ingenious, are not used to their full potential. There’s very little attempt to bring these creatures to life in director Samantha Lane’s largely static staging – Miller’s own physicality is dynamic (credit to movement director Jennifer Jackson) but when it comes to the puppetry, she’s really just creating a series of tableaux and the story never really takes hold as a result.

Chris McDonnell’s lighting design is effective in switching between the cake-baking narrative and the story it frames, but the other signifier – a change from prose to rhyming verse and back again – feels rather twee.

We’re offered no sense of the world inhabited by the mice, either via the design, which doesn’t shift from the kitchen, or the Millers’ script, which is heavy on plot and light on atmosphere. Not enough heed has been paid to character either – it’s hard to care about protagonists that barely speak or move, even if they are cute puppet mice.

Baby and toddler destination guide: El Hierro, Canary Islands

We took the baby girl with us to El Hierro, the smallest and most remote of the Canary Islands in January 2018. We were there for nearly three weeks, staying in a tiny village called La Restinga at the southernmost point of the island and splitting our time between diving (I was researching an article for Diver Magazine), exploring El Hierro and tag-teaming looking after the baby girl so we could both keep up with work while we were away.

It was a fantastic trip and I hope this post encourages you to visit El Hierro too. You might not have heard of it – I hadn’t – but it’s an extremely beautiful and peaceful place to spend some time. If you’ve ever been to El Hierro, please add your own tips in the comments.

A woman holds a baby in the afternoon sunshine. In the background is the beautiful view of the coastline of El Hierro from the visitor centre at El Julan © Steve Pretty
The astonishing view from the visitor centre at El Julan © Steve Pretty

Getting there

You can fly to El Hierro from Gran Canaria and Tenerife North with local airline Binter in around 40 minutes (most flights from the UK arrive at Tenerife South Airport so you’ll need to leave plenty of time for the transfer). Or there’s a ferry from Los Cristianos in Tenerife to Valverde on El Hierro (the port is a 15-minute drive from Tenerife South airport), operated by Navaria Armas. The crossing takes around two and a half hours and can be pretty choppy so remember to bring medication if you suffer from sea sickness. The chief benefit of the ferry is that you can take as much luggage as you want, while there’s a very stingy allowance on the tiny planes that operate on the inter-island flights. There’s a luggage pick up and drop up service for foot passengers on the ferry.

If you’re taking the ferry from Tenerife, hiring a car at the airport when you arrive is more convenient than waiting until you arrive in El Hierro (though there is a car hire company at the port in Valverde). There’s car hire at the airport in Valverde too, and in the centre of town. Car hire firms on El Hierro and Tenerife can supply child car seats but make sure you book in advance as numbers are limited. To feel completely secure, either bring your own from home or hire one from Hire4Baby Tenerife and they’ll have it waiting for you at the airport in Tenerife when you arrive (they also have pushchairs, cots and high chairs).

There is a taxi rank at the airport in Valverde or you can book an official El Hierro taxi in advance. They can’t provide child car seats so you’ll need to bring your own. Local buses run from Valverde port (numbers 7 and 11) and airport (number 10) to Valverde town every couple of hours, where you can transfer to other routes to reach your final destination.

El Hierro is small, so your transfer from the ferry port or airport will be under an hour, unless you’re doing it by bus, which takes longer because you have to change in Valverde town.

Getting about

While buses on El Hierro are inexpensive, clean and very punctual, there aren’t very many of them – most routes run 7am to 10pm on weekdays (earlier at weekends), with departures taking place only every couple of hours.

Hiring a car is a much more convenient way of getting around and works out relatively inexpensively. Not to mention the fact that there are some truly spectacular drives on El Hierro that you’d miss out on without your own vehicle. The roads are in excellent condition, so no worries on that front, but bear in mind that the island has only three petrol stations, so you need to plan ahead to avoid getting caught out.

Pavements are generally in good condition so walking with a pushchair is no problem in villages and towns all over the island. That said, almost everywhere is very hilly so be prepared for a workout. With the exception of Valverde and Frontera, the island’s biggest towns, there’s very little traffic on El Hierro – the baby girl wasn’t walking yet when we were there but I wouldn’t hesitate to let her toddle along on the pavement if we were to go back.

Eating out

A baby having its nappy change on a shelf next to a window with an amazing view of a shoreline
No baby change facilities at Mirador de La Peña restaurant but the view from the loos made up for it

The staff in every restaurant and café we went to were very happy to accommodate the baby girl, whether by providing a high chair or letting us park her out of the way when she was sleeping in the pushchair in the evening. None had baby change facilities.

Essentials

The supermarkets on El Hierro are all small and quite expensive, which isn’t surprising given that almost everything is brought in by boat from the mainland via Tenerife. That said, we were able to find a wide range of nappies and baby wipes in most supermarkets we visited. Supermarkets close for a few hours at lunchtime and are closed on Sunday afternoons.

Emergencies

The phone number for emergency services is 112 in the Canary Islands and there’s an accident and emergency department at Hospital Insular Ntra. Sra. de Los Reyes in Valverde. A European Health Insurance Card (this post tells you how to apply for one for yor child) will cover you for emergency treatment or treatment for existing conditions. More information on healthcare in the Canaries on the NHS’s website.

Things to do

A man hikes through a volcanic seaside landscape with a baby on his back on El Hierro in the Canary Islands
Hiking through the volcanic landscape east of the natural swimming pool at La Maceta

El Hierro has a handful of sandy beaches, including at Arenas Blancas, El Verodal, Las Playas, Tamaduste and La Restinga (the latter two are very little), but you won’t find much in the way of amenities. Some have an outdoor shower and public toilet, but that’s usually about it.

Much more common on the island are sea water swimming pools carved into the volcanic shoreline and accessed by the sort of ladders you find at actual swimming pools. While less convenient for families with small children than a sandy beach, these areas boast open access barbecues, shady picnic tables, showers and toilets, and usually a bar or restaurant (some of which are only open in high season).

When it comes to non-seaside pursuits, we found small playgrounds in La Restinga, Valverde, at the Pozo de La Salud spa hotel in Sabinosa (the restaurant is open to non-residents) and at the Hoya del Morcillo recreation area in the forested centre of the island. There’s lots of fantastic hiking on El Hierro, so you’ll want to bring a sling or backpack carrierThe visitor centre at El Julán, which is dedicated to the ancient people of the island and has the most incredible views, has an area of floor cushions that looks inviting for toddlers, while the Centro de Interpretación Vulcanológico outside La Restinga is immersive enough to be entertaining for little ones while the grown-ups learn about volcanic activity on the island.

Local village festivals, such as El Pinar’s celebration of its patron saint San Antonio Abad in January are exciting for small children, and families with babies and children of all ages come together to watch the local sports obsession, Canary Islands wrestling. Matches take place in the evening. It’s hard to find information about this sort of community event online so remember to ask in the local tourist office (only two offices are listed here but there are more than that on the island, I promise) if there are any festivals or wrestling matches taking place during your stay.

 

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Practical tips for a scuba diving holiday with a baby

Published by Diver, May 2018, with the headline “Baby diver”.

Scuba divers come out of the sea while a baby watches on a beach
The baby girl watches while her diving parents emerge from the sea at Gozo’s Wied il-Ghasri gorge © Yoji Caird

Almost the moment my partner and I found out that I was pregnant, we started talking about the first dive trip we’d take with the baby. We had lost count of the number of times that people, on finding out that we were divers, told us wistfully how much they used to love diving too…before their kids were born and that phase of their life came to an end. We really didn’t want that to happen to us, but we knew that we would need to be proactive if we were going to continue diving as new parents.

When our daughter was three-months-old we booked a week’s diving at a Red Sea resort with some friends who have a baby around the same age. That trip, which took place when she was seven-months-old, was exhausting, but it was also an unqualified success and got us talking about where we could take her next. Two dive trips later – first to the Maltese island of Gozo, then to El Hierro, the most remote of the Canary Islands – this is what we’ve learned.

Choose your destination wisely

While in the past our choice of dive destination was informed mainly by what we could afford and whether we had the time to do it justice, these days there are more factors to consider. Babies and jet lag are a bad combination, so we try to avoid time differences greater than four hours unless we’re going away for at least 10 days. Flight time and transfers come into play too – long-haul flights are doable with a baby or toddler, but short-haul is certainly easier, and the smoother the transition from airport to accommodation the better. If you’re itching to visit a particular long-haul destination, however, there is definitely an argument for doing it sooner rather than later – most airlines charge a small fee for travelling with a baby, while toddlers two and up pay full fare.

All those considerations might seem limiting, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: there’s a lot of world out there to dive and it can be helpful to have your options narrowed a bit. Being forced to shift the focus onto some of the excellent, but less glamorous, diving available closer to home can be positive too. We are UK-based, but had never thought to go the Canaries before, for example, because far flung spots like Sipadan and the Great Barrier Reef just seemed like more tempting options. But on our recent trip there, we dived on an underwater volcano, spotted bull rays for the first time and explored some of the prettiest shallow caves we had ever seen.

Family-friendly dive centres

A man and a woman in scuba gear stand at the seaside with their daughter in a pushchair
Before a dive at the Salt Pans on the Maltese island of Gozo © Yoji Caird

Dealing with staff who are willing to be a bit flexible about how they do things (within the bounds of safety and not negatively impacting other divers, of course) makes all the difference when it comes to diving with a baby in tow. We really fell on our feet with the staff at the dive centres we’ve visited since travelling with our daughter. The dive guides and RIB driver at Orca Dive Club Soma Bay in Egypt were extremely patient when we arrived a few minutes’ late for the scheduled departure time for almost every dive, for example, while those at Atlantis Dive Centre in Gozo let our daughter and my babysitting brother (see below for more on childcare on dive trips) come with us in the dive truck so they weren’t stuck in the apartment.

Let the dive centre know that you’ll be travelling with a baby when you first enquire about a trip. Or if you’re booking through an agent, ask them to sound out the dive centre on your behalf. If they appear uptight at this stage, look for an alternative – travelling with a little one is unpredictable enough with having to worry about dive centre staff throwing a hissy fit if you have to opt out of a dive at the last minute.

In addition to making the diving itself more relaxing, and therefore more enjoyable, a family-friendly dive centre can also be helpful when it comes to recommending baby-friendly restaurants or activities, and some will even arrange babysitting. At Atlantis our little one was delighted to find a huge pile of toys belonging to the daughter of the couple who own it; and we were delighted to be able to sort out our gear in peace after each dive.

Get informed about your accommodation

If having the dive centre close by was important before, it’s even more so now – babies take up a lot of time and you don’t want to spend any more of it in transit than strictly necessary.

Other factors to consider when you’re choosing accommodation are proximity to shops, bars and restaurants, availability of healthcare (more of an issue at remote destinations in the developing world than elsewhere) and the presence of a pool (ideally heated) or baby-friendly beach.

The biggest accommodation decision you need to make is between resort and self-catering. The latter is certainly easier as far as flexibility around meals and snacks for your little one, but grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning take up valuable time that you might otherwise be able to spend diving. Hotel buffets are also excellent if your little one is hard work at mealtimes, allowing you to tag team eating and childcare while not letting your dinner get cold.

Make the most of childcare

Two women in scuba dive gear hold babies wearing sun hats
Tag-teaming babysitting and diving © Steve Pretty

Couples where only one partner dives have it easier when it comes to travelling with a baby – just make sure the non-diving partner gets some relaxation time doing what they like, too.

If both dive, the simplest option is to tag team diving and childcare, but that can feel like a somewhat sad way to spend a vacation if part of what you love about scuba is sharing it with your other half.

Many resorts have a free or inexpensive kids’ club, some of which are open to children from the age of two. This can be an excellent – and fun – solution to your childcare problem, but won’t be right for all children. You need to be prepared for your child to take a while to settle in or refuse to go altogether.

Taking a non-diving friend or relative along to babysit is a good alternative; and offering to cover some of the costs might entice more candidates for the role, if your budget stretches that far. Or go with another pair of diving parents who will be happy to look after your little one while you dive and vice versa.

Be organized

Vacations are supposed to be about kicking back and going with the flow, right? Sadly not, if you’re talking about taking your baby away with you diving. Gone are the days when you can just roll up at the dive centre, do a day of diving and head straight to the bar afterwards. That doesn’t mean you won’t have a brilliant trip, it just means you need to do a bit more day-to-day planning than you used to.

On our trip to Egypt, my partner and I and the other couple all each squeezed in two dives a day every day by doing very efficient changeovers. After each dive the babysitting pair would be waiting at the dive centre with the babies, ready to hand them over the moment the diving pair were out of their wetsuits. As the new diving pair prepared for their dive, one of the new babysitters would take charge of the babies, while the other rinsed and hung up both sets of gear. We would also discuss at dinner each night who was diving and when on the following day, making use of both early morning and sunset dive options so we could pack in as much time underwater as possible.

For self-catering trips, meal planning will allow you to have as chilled out a surface interval as possible, especially if your accommodation is close to the dive centre. It’s not always easy pinning down exactly how long you’ll be out on a dive, so having something easy like sandwiches or leftovers that be quickly thrown together or heated up is a good route to go down.

Be prepared for a slower pace

A woman and a baby play on rocks, photographed from the water
Hanging out at El Tacarón natural swimming pool on El Hierro on a day off from diving © Steve Pretty

Unless you’re taking a babysitter along who’s happy to look after your little one all day every day, it’s unlikely that you will be able to do as much diving as you did on trips pre-parenthood. Chat with your partner (and whoever is helping with childcare, if applicable) before the trip about your expectations – all things considered, how many dives will you each be able to do per day? Getting into the right frame of mind – that you’re there not just for diving but also to spend some time together as a family – will ensure you have a more enjoyable experience.

With that in mind, it’s probably best to hold off on those bucket list dive destinations until your child is old enough to be left at home with a relative while you travel – or of an age to dive with you! You don’t want to fly half way round the world just to spend your trip seething with jealousy when you find out that you missed out on seeing the sardine run/marine iguanas/a shoal of manta rays because it was your turn looking after the baby.

Destinations that require long boat trips to reach the dive sites are best saved for another time too. Opt instead for a resort with an excellent house reef, or plenty of local dive sites, so you can dive a couple of times a day with a minimum of fuss. You may not see anything really earth shattering on this type of trip, but sometimes a slower pace can give new passions room to breathe, whether that’s observing fish behaviour, spotting rare nudibranchs or getting handy with a GoPro.

Remember that increased time topside is also an opportunity to immerse yourself in the cultural side of a destination, get to know a new cuisine or explore the great outdoors, all elements that might have played second fiddle to the diving before your little one came along.

Don’t be intimidated

If all this sounds like hard work, don’t worry…I promise that it will be worth it. A dive vacation with your baby in tow is a very different beast to the dive vacations you took before you became parents but different doesn’t mean inferior – go into the experience with your eyes open and you never know what adventures you might be letting yourself in for.

Sun protection for babies and toddlers

Taking your little one out in hot weather can be nerve-wracking. So here are some tips on how to protect that perfect skin from the sun, whether you’re on holiday somewhere exotic or adventuring close to home.

It’s best to keep babies and children out of direct sunlight entirely, particularly at the hottest time of the day, between 11am and 3pm. Put your little one in lightweight clothing so she’s as covered up as possible and use baby-safe sunscreen on any exposed areas. For visits to the beach, swimming pool or paddling pool, a UV-protection suit and hat provide excellent coverage. A sun tent (I like this pop-up one that doubles as a travel cot) means you’ve always got somewhere shady to lay your baby down.

Sunscreen

La Restinga beach
Hanging out in the late afternoon winter sunshine on El Hierro in the Canary Islands

Choose a sunscreen with an SPF (this tells you how much protection the sunscreen offers from UVB radiation) of at least 30 and a UVA star rating of four or five to get maximum coverage. My paediatric dermatologist friend recommends the Australian brand SunSense – it doesn’t actually include a separate UVA rating because in Australia all sunscreens must screen UVA as well as UVB. An SPF50+ sunscreen will filter out at least 98% of UV radiation.

Remember that sunscreen can go off, particularly if the bottle has been left in the sun for extended periods. Have a look for an expiry date on the packaging; if there isn’t one, use it within a year. If you notice the cream has a strange consistency or smell, that probably means it’s degraded, which means it’ll offer less effective sun protection and might even cause irritation to your child’s skin.

Apply sunscreen when doing your baby’s final nappy change before leaving the house – it’s much easier to get consistent coverage when your little one is naked. Apply it all over just in case – you never know when a toddler might decide to strip off, and you want her to be protected if when she does. The easiest way to apply sunscreen to a baby or toddler is with a roll on; these small bottles are expensive for the quantity you get, so I suggest buying a big bottle and making your own roll on from an empty roll-on deodorant – just pop the ball out with a spoon, wash and refill.

Persuading a wriggling toddler to let you apply sunscreen can be challenging, particularly when you’re already out and about and she wants to be dashing around. For some reason the baby girl loves putting on cream (it might be because I used to do a bit of baby massage at bedtime so it’s got cuddly associations for her, but really, who knows?) so I tend to make a big thing of sunscreen, to make it seem like a treat rather than something tedious to be endured. Reapply every two hours, or more frequently if your little one has been in water.

On the move

A pushchair, covered by a black sun shade, sits in an alleyway. A pair of little feet are poking out from underneath the sun shade.
Napping in the narrow back streets of Victoria, the biggest town on the Maltese island of Gozo, with the help of our SnoozeShade

Most pushchair brands make a sun canopy you can attach to keep your baby in the shade when on the move. Personally I find the canopy easier to use than attaching a parasol. A pushchair sleep shade will give you even fuller coverage for when your baby is sleeping.

Now that the baby girl is a bit bigger she hardly ever lets us put the sun canopy up, so it’s a matter of covering up with clothing, a hat (if she can be persuaded to wear a hat; and it’s a big if – I’d welcome tips on how to talk her into it!) and sunscreen.

For a babies in a front-carrying sling, all you need is a hat and sunscreen for her hands and feet. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat yourself can offer extra coverage. Backpack carriers, where your child is high up on your back, often come with a built-in or attachable sun canopy – make sure yours has one before investing.

Dealing with sunburn

If your baby or toddler gets sunburnt, get her out of the sun as soon as possible. Talk to your GP – they may want to see your child to check that the sunburn isn’t severe. In the meantime, cool the skin by applying a damp muslin square or flannel for 15 minutes a few times a day, give her tepid baths, and get her to drink plenty of fluids to cool her down and prevent dehydration. Apply water-based moisteriser (oil-based products can worsen burns) to relieve any itching and give baby paracetamol or ibuprofen if the sunburn is causing her pain.

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Adventure review: Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake, Polka Theatre, London

Published by The Stage, 9 April 2018. Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake is playing at the Polka Theatre, London, until 13 May 2018. The show is for children aged 4+. (It’s worth pointing out though that I took the baby girl (aged 19 months) and another toddler buddy (aged 22 months) along with me to a performance open to younger siblings and both of them were totally absorbed throughout.) 

A man stares, amazed at a huge chocolate cake
Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake at the Polka Theatre, London © Ellie Kurttz

Based on a poem by the former Children’s Laureate, this diverting show from Polka Theatre artistic director Peter Glanville and singer-songwriter Barb Jungr tells the story of Michael, a little boy whose passion for chocolate cake threatens to ruin his brother’s birthday.

By blending the everyday – household routines and the journey to school – with flights of fancy – an extremely jolly Bake Off prize-giving and monsters at bath time – Glanville and Jungr create a theatrical environment that is at once familiar and fantastical to this audience of children aged four and up.

Witty writing and hummable tunes power the show along, and even though we (the adults, and probably a lot of the kids too) know exactly what’s going to happen from the word go, the denouement of Michael waking up in the middle of the night to eat an entire chocolate cake is still genuinely exciting.

Mark Houston as Michael, Todd Heppenstall as his older brother Joe and Aminita Francis as their mum are an effortlessly likeable trio, and some effective doubling swells the dramatis personae to six. Not all the music and singing is live, but there’s enough to give the piece a vibrant feel, and Jungr gives Houston, Heppenstall and Francis some lovely harmonies.

Verity Quinn’s modular set is entertaining in itself, folding and unfolding ingeniously to evoke different parts of Michael’s world, and quirky projections from Will and Joe provide a dollop of surreal humour. Lighting designer Dan Saggars really ramps up the tension when it comes to cake-eating time, making the eponymous dessert the real star of the show.

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Sightseeing with babies and toddlers

There’s a temptation, once children come along, to abandon cultural holiday experiences like galleries, historic houses and cathedrals in favour of guaranteed child-friendly pursuits like beaches, waterparks or camping. I’m certainly not knocking that type of holiday (you can read my post on camping with babies and toddlers here, in fact) – I just want to make fellow parents aware that it’s not the only option available. When it comes to unweaned babies in particular, sightseeing with your offspring is not really very different from sightseeing child-free.

You don’t even need to be on holiday to enjoy these sorts of sightseeing excursions. Parental leave is a great opportunity to get to know your own back yard a bit better, whether that’s visiting a gallery for the first time, ticking a major tourist attraction off your list or exploring the sightseeing possibilities of a nearby city or town. There are only so many ‘rhyme time’ and baby swimming sessions you can go to in a week anyway, so why not mix it up by swapping into holiday mode and taking your offspring to see something new?

Timings: feeding, nappies and naps

A pushchair covered with a SnoozeShade on the concourse at Waterloo Station
Snoozing at Waterloo Station en route to Strawberry Hill House

Travelling at nap time (the baby girl has always been a good buggy sleeper, but I appreciate that not everyone is so lucky) increases the chance that your little one will be alert, cheery and interested in whatever you’re seeing when you get there. I try and give the baby girl lunch or a snack when we arrive (read my post on eating out with babies and toddlers), but before we start the experience proper, for the same reason. Eating and drinking isn’t allowed outside specific areas at a lot of attractions, so it makes sense to fuel up before you go in. This is less of a consideration for unweaned babies as you’ll usually be able to find somewhere to feed a small baby, whether you’re nursing or bottle-feeding.

Some attractions are excellently equipped with myriad baby change toilets, but many are not – at historic houses in particular the facilities are often in an out building far away, for example. Doing a pre-emptive nappy change on arrival means there’s one less thing to think about as you’re wandering around (though obviously a code brown situation could occur at any moment, particularly if your baby is very little).

A trip to a nearby playground or soft play place after you’ve finished your visit is an excellent way of letting your toddler blow off some steam. If I’m planning an excursion and it’s a toss up between two attractions, the proximity of a playground can be a useful deciding factor.

Whatever the age and mobility of the little one you’re sightseeing with, be less ambitious in your planning than you would be if you were child-free, and factor in lots of breaks. Lugging a baby around, even a newborn, is more tiring than sightseeing solo, and you’ll need to stop to feed her every couple of hours anyway. Going anywhere with a toddler takes forever – leave extra time for those moments when she won’t get back in the buggy, walks off mid-nappy change, loses a shoe, etc, etc, etc.

Essential kit

A toddler wearing a bag that looks like a bee at the top of the stairs at the Gothic masterpiece Strawberry Hill House
Action shot of the girl and her bee bag at Strawberry Hill House

You’re likely to have a pram with you, so will need to factor that into your travel planning (see my blog post on public transport with a pushchair for tips). That said, you should be prepared to leave your buggy at the entrance of the attraction you’re visiting, as not all of them are accessible to pushchairs. It’s worth calling ahead to check the pushchair policy, and make sure you’ve got a sling with you just in case. (On a recent visit to Ham House and Garden in West London, where you have to leave your buggy at the door, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they have a few slings available for parents to borrow – well played National Trust, well played.)

Don’t forget to transfer any essentials (bottles, muslins, nappy change wallet) from the pram into your bag so you’ve got everything you need with you. It’s better to take a little longer to get yourself sorted at arrival than have the faff of returning to the pram for something important later on.

I wasn’t sure about toddler reins in the past, but I’ve become a fan since the baby girl started walking. She has a little bee backpack with a sort of leash attached to it, which has come in very handy on recent visits to historic houses. It’s extremely rare that I would actually use the leash to halt her progress, but it’s comforting to know that I could if I needed to, particularly if there are stairs around. The baby girl doesn’t like holding my hand most of the time when we’re out and about (I’m pleased she’s so independent of course, but this does make me just a bit teensy bit sad, I must admit), but the backpack means I can keep her close.

Where to visit

Your options are almost limitless when it comes to sightseeing with a babe-in-arms, but there’s more to think about once your little one is crawling or walking. ‘Family-friendly’ attractions, often involving either animals or the great outdoors – I’m thinking aquariums, zoos, city farms and botanical gardens – will be almost guaranteed fun for your toddler and entertaining for you too. More ‘grown-up’ attractions need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Here are a few tips based on my sightseeing adventures with the baby girl…

Museums and galleries

There’s no hard and fast rule about which museums and galleries will make you feel welcome when visiting with a toddler, but I’d usually go for a large institution over a small one. In general, the more rooms there are to explore the more likely you are to be able to find somewhere for your child to run around/have a bit of a shout and not disturb other visitors. Smaller institutions also tend to be more tightly packed with exhibits, always a bit of a worry if your child has trouble with the notion of ‘look but don’t touch’. I’ve covered visiting museums and galleries elsewhere on the blog – you can read that post here.

Places of worship

A buggy in a Byzantine-style chapel
The baby girl snoozes in the pram at Westminster Cathedral

Churches and other places of worships are always welcoming in my experience. You wouldn’t necessarily think that a church would hold much interest for a toddler but the combination of lots of space – including high ceilings, which little ones often find pretty impressive – and unusual acoustics make them a surprisingly diverting outing.

Historic houses

Historic houses can be great but make sure you do some research ahead of time so you don’t end up at a stately home full of priceless antiques – paranoia about your toddler breaking something doesn’t make for a relaxing experience. What you’re looking for is the type of historic house that’s all about the architecture, gardens, etc, rather than a treasured furniture collection. (We had a great time at Strawberry Hill House and Garden – I pretty much let the baby girl run around at will because the rooms were mainly empty and it wasn’t busy on the day of our visit.)

Another good rule of thumb is to go for a historic house that runs events for young children. Even if there’s nothing suitable for toddlers specifically, the fact that the team there will be used to having kids around is a good indicator that you’ll be made welcome.

A fun activity to do with toddlers at historic houses (this works for galleries and museums too) is to hunt for animals in paintings, tapestries or stained-glass windows. When it comes to your own enjoyment of the place you’re visiting, forget the idea of reading any of the information boards or a guide book if you’re there with a toddler – your attention will be too divided for such demanding intellectual pursuits. That doesn’t mean you can’t have an informed experience however – I’ve found myself chatting to volunteers at historic houses much more than I ever used to, apologising in advance for the moment when I’ll inevitably have to rudely dash out of the room after the baby girl mid-conversation.