Adventure review: Hush-A-Bye, Artsdepot, London

Published by The Stage, 18 December 2017. Hush-A-Bye runs at Artsdepot until 31 December, and will be touring in the new year. The show is for children aged three to five. 

Every aspect of the theatre experience has been carefully considered in Hush-A-Bye, a gently interactive show for children aged three to five (there’s a relaxed version too, and one for babies and toddlers) from veteran company Oily Cart. In director Anna Newell’s capable hands, this ‘woodland wonderland’ is not just a place of fun but of learning and comfort too.

Sitting at a sort of bar, looking into Jens Cole’s bright treetop set, their grownups behind them, the children are each invited to build a nest for some hatching baby birds. It’s a sensory activity, and a fun one at that, but it’s also a neat way of getting the children comfortable in the space and invested in the story. The pace here, as throughout, is leisurely enough that no one is left behind, and there’s plenty of time for the cast to engage with their young patrons one-on-one.

Cole’s design really shines as writer and Oily Cart artistic director Tim Webb’s simple plot – the arrival of some unexpected weather and an even more unexpected visitor – takes off, and lighting designer Jack Knowles deserves a particular nod for the magical moment when the rain starts to fall.

Katherine Grey and Griff Fender as Grandma and Grandpa Bird are reassuringly familiar and grandparental, despite their colourful birdy getups, while participatory stage manager Deanne Jones as Hoppity is childlike enough to identify with. Kadialy Kouyate’s beautiful kora playing and singing provides atmospheric underscoring before bursting into life for several fun song and dance numbers. I didn’t want any of it to end.

Four performers in bright bird costumes, the cast of Oily Cart show Hush-A-Bye, stand in front of a background painted with leaves
Hush-A-Bye by Oily Cart © Suzi Corker

Breastfeeding out and about

I’ve recently stopped breastfeeding the baby girl, having successfully nursed her out and about all over the place over the last year and a bit, including to the US and Egypt, where you might think it would get a negative response. I never experienced the slightest bit of hassle, finding that my go-to breastfeeding clothing solution – strappy top under a T-shirt – did the trick pretty much everywhere. In cold places I added a couple of layers on top, finding that thinner fabrics were more convenient than bulky ones that bunch up when you lift them to get your baby to your boob. Swimwear-wise, I found triangle bikinis most convenient for breastfeeding on the beach (top tip: remember to give your nipples a once over with a wipe – as chemical-free as possible – before feeding your baby straight after a dip in the sea).

In hot places where wearing two layers was too much, I opted for lightweight dresses with buttons down the front. At least that was the idea. Sometimes, however, I found myself feeding the baby girl in just a strappy top, and basically revealing an entire boob to the world, as in the photo below. I didn’t plan to expose myself that day, but I was so warm I just couldn’t bear to keep my second layer on. Fortunately, no one in the restaurant batted an eyelid, and it was only when I saw the photo that I realised quite how naked I had been. I paused over whether to include the picture here, but decided to post it because I think it’s helpful to have positive, unambiguous images of breastfeeding out there in the world.

Though breastfeeding in public is welcomed in most places, there are corners of the globe that aren’t too keen, so if you’re a breastfeeding mother it’s worth checking before you travel to set your mind at ease/arm yourself with some facts about your rights in case anyone confronts you. Wikipedia has a handy list of attitudes to breastfeeding in public around the world, which is a good start. Googling “attitudes to breastfeeding [your destination]” should bring up various resources and forums too. If you’re still nervous, consider packing a breastfeeding cover. I never used one so I can’t recommend one personally, but this handy roundup from Made for Mums should give you an idea what’s available.

When it comes to feeding your baby on the move, department stores and airports often have parents’ rooms for just that purpose. Posh hotels can be a good option too – though not all of them, as Claridge’s made abundantly clear a couple of years ago.

Wherever you find yourself, if privacy is a factor for you when feeding, opt for a table by the wall and sit with your back to the room. As far as your physical comfort is concerned, look for a chair with a back. I never got the knack of breastfeeding the baby girl in the sling, but would have loved to do it – friends who’ve mastered this skill find it both convenient and discreet.

Other things to take with you: nursing bras, obviously, but pack more than you think you’ll need. Between the stresses of travel, the time difference and a change in climate, it’s likely that your baby will be feeding more frequently than usual, which means that your breasts might become engorged and leaky. Bring a small bottle of travel wash (you can use shampoo, but it won’t be as effective) and a mini folding clothes airer so you can wash and dry milky bras overnight. You’ll want to bring a bigger supply of nursing pads and muslin squares than usual for the same reason.

If you’re planning to express while you’re away, take a manual breast pump rather than an electric one – they’re much lighter and you don’t run the risk of running out of batteries or forgetting the power cable. Remember that any expressing or feeding equipment that comes into contact with milk needs to be sterilised until your baby is a year old (according to the NHS) – you can read my post on the various options for sterilising while away from home here.

Finally, a wide-brimmed hat will provide shade for both you and your baby when nursing in hot destinations if none other is available. If you, like me, are the type of woman who has always wanted to wear such a hat but never had the nerve before, now is very much your moment.

A mother breastfeeds her baby
Breastfeeding the baby girl on a warm day in Los Angeles, when she was around six months old © Steve Pretty

Adventure review: The Ramshackle House, Stratford Circus, London

Published by The Stage, 7 December 2017. The Ramshackle House runs at Stratford Circus until 24 December. The show is for children aged 3 and up and their families.

Telling a story through contemporary circus is a feat attempted by many, but achieved by regrettably few. With The Ramshackle House, Upswing Theatre make it look easy, painting a picture of family life that is emotionally resonant yet sufficiently silly to hold the attention of younger audience members.

Delia Ceruti and Renato Dias begin the show performing alone – she, defying gravity on a tangle of ropes; he, clowning around on the perilously sloping roof of the eponymous abode. They soon come together, to tumble, balance and twist their way into love. It’s not long before a child arrives in their lives, a suitably excitable Matthew Smith, making their family complete.

The circus itself, devised by the company and directed by Upswing artistic director Vicki Amedume, is unshowy, made to serve the narrative thrust of the show, rather than the other way around. Keeping things contained in this way means that there’s room for the handful of moments of proper spectacle to really breathe, as when Dias and Ceruti teeter, impossibly, on a plank of wood balanced on the rung of a ladder.

An accomplished original score by James Atherton – at times plaintive, at times funky – keeps the show motoring along, while Daniella Beattie’s lighting design bathes Becky Minto’s set in a series of beautiful coloured glows, eliciting oohs and aahs at each scene change.

There’s a magic to the fact that all this takes place up on the roof, a harvest moon shining overhead. It’s like normal life – laundry, chairs, books and lampshades all make an appearance – but transported into a different dimension, one where disagreements are solved with handstands and parents can be carried by their children.

4 stars

A man and a woman balance on a plank suspended through a ladder, in front of a theatre set of a moon.
Delia Ceruti and Renato Dias in The Ramshackle House © Mark Robson

 

Buying travel insurance for your baby or toddler

The good news is that a lot of travel insurance policies cover children for free (some up to the age of two, some right up until 16 or 18). The bad news is that even if yours does, you still need to get in touch with your insurer before you travel to ensure that your baby or toddler is included on the policy by name. You’ll need to give them your baby’s date of birth too, and tell them about any pre-existing medical conditions – epilepsy, for example – as these might affect the premium. Children insured for free are usually only covered when travelling with the policyholder, so check with your insurer if you’re planning on sending your toddler off with another family member.

If you’re buying a new policy, you’ll include your child’s details in the same way that you would your partner’s when buying a couple’s policy. Something to look out for is whether the policy covers cancellation in the case of one of the travellers falling ill before departure. Fingers crossed your toddler doesn’t come down with a horrible bug on the eve of a holiday, but if she does, and going ahead with the trip is impossible, you really don’t want to lose all the money you spent on flights, hotel, car hire, etc – the cancellation of the trip would be grim enough all by itself; you don’t want to compound it with financial stress too. It’s worth buying travel insurance as soon as you book your trip so you don’t run the risk of being caught without coverage.

Most insurers will need to see a medical certificate signed by your child’s GP stating the reason she can’t travel, before they agree to settle the claim, as well as a form from the doctor about your child’s medical history.

A lot of policies will cover you for travel within the UK (including cancellations due to illness) but there are often stipulations you need to meet – such as staying away from home for a minimum number of days, or travelling a minimum distance from home – before coverage kicks in. Check before you travel.

For travel within Europe, you’ll want to get a EHIC for your child, but I’ll cover that in a separate post. Sign up to the mailing list so you don’t miss it.

A blonde baby sits on a pebbly beach, looking out over a bay with crystal clear water
There’s no interesting way of illustrating the purchase of travel insurance, so here’s a picture of the baby girl enjoying herself at Mgarr ix-Xini on the Maltese island of Gozo in November 2017 instead.

Adventure review: Ugly Duckling, The Albany, London

Published by The Stage, 6 December 2017. Ugly Duckling runs at The Albany until 31 December, and continues its UK tour in January. The show is for children aged 3 and up and their families.

Tutti Frutti Productions begins its adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s story of a baby bird hatched into the wrong nest using puppetry, then switching into live action as the tale takes off.

It’s a good call on Tutti Frutti artistic director Wendy Harris’s part, enabling the company to set the scene for a young audience before adopting a less literal dressing-up box aesthetic that makes for a very stylish piece of children’s theatre.

Catherine Chapman’s inventive design uses sunglasses to suggest beaks, woolly jumpers as feathers, and paper flags to stand in for snow, leaving plenty of room for Mike Redley’s lighting and Tayo Akinbode’s score to help conjure up the urban park where our story takes place.

Danny Childs does an excellent line in gangly awkwardness as the Ugly Duckling, wide-eyed in his dealings with Daniel Naddafy’s Fluffy, the mean older brother who nudges him from the nest.

Also playing some of the characters that Ugly encounters in the wilds of the park gives Naddafy a chance to have fun with different accents and physicalities. Maeve Leahy, meanwhile, keeps the show grounded with her tender portrayal of the mother duck, and reveals a fine singing voice too – it’s a shame that after her sweet song there’s little live music to be heard, replaced by recorded music that jars in both its tone and volume.

Emma Reeves’s script steers clear of excessive tweeness. The message of ‘it’s what you do that matters, not what you look like’ is hardly revelatory but, buffered by a lot of genuinely funny physical comedy and a surprisingly moving piece of dance (props to movement director Holly Irving), Tutti Frutti more than gets away with it.

Two actors jump into the air
Daniel Naddafy as Goose and Danny Child as Ugly Duckling in The Ugly Duckling at The Albany © Brian Slater

Essential kit, part 6: pushchair sleep shade

A friend gave us a SnoozeShade before I had the baby girl and it’s something we use every time we go baby adventuring, whether just around the corner or far from home. It’s not a complicated bit of kit – it’s basically just a piece of breathable UV-protective black fabric that you put over the pushchair when you want your baby to sleep – but is no less effective for its simplicity. There’s a zip down the front for peeking in at your hopefully sleeping child and Velcro tags to attach it to the pushchair – they do the trick even in very strong winds, we discovered last month, when the village where we were staying on the Maltese island of Gozo was battered by a storm that nearly swept us off our feet on the way out to dinner one evening.

It took a few attempts to get the baby girl accustomed to the idea of going to sleep when the SnoozeShade went on, when she was just a few weeks old, but it’s worked a treat ever since. We give her a kiss, put one of her special cloths in her hand, tell her ‘night night’ and put the SnoozeShade over. Zzzzzzz.

If we had done more car journeys with the baby girl when she was still in her group 0+ car seat I might have considered getting the car seat SnoozeShade too. As it was, we made do with the pushchair one – it’s not a great fit on a car seat but it did the job.

We drape it over the top of the backpack baby carrier too, if we know the baby girl will need to sleep while we’re on a walk. It doesn’t look very pretty up there – a bit shroudlike, in fact – but it works just fine.

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.

What you need to know to get through an airport with a baby or toddler

Air travel is a wonderful thing, but airports are a pain. I like the teeny tiny ones where you can arrive 20 minutes before your flight, but all the others make me wish I was taking a train instead. Add a baby or toddler to the mix and you’ve got the potential for a pretty wearying – not to say stressful – experience.

The key is to leave plenty of time so you’re never in rush. That might mean quite a bit of waiting around – which, let’s be honest, isn’t ideal with a baby or toddler either – but at least you stand a good chance of boarding your flight calm, contented and ready for whatever the next few hours hold (I’ll be covering flying itself, as well as airport transfers, in separate posts – sign up to my mailing list so you don’t miss them).

The one benefit of travelling with a baby or toddler is that airline check-in staff are almost always nicer to you than if you’re checking in alone. I get the sense that they’re more willing to turn a blind eye to a couple of kilos of extra weight here or there, on the understanding that babies require a lot of stuff. (Though now I think of it, the baby girl has always been remarkably cheery at check-in desks – who knows what treatment we might get if she was being a grump.)

Infant baggage allowance varies from airline to airline, but most let you check in two or three items of baby equipment free of charge, usually including a pushchair, car seat, travel cot and backpack carrier. You’ll want to check your airline’s policy before booking so you don’t get any nasty surprises before departure. Check in your pushchair and car seat at the desk or, if you’d prefer to have them with you as you go through departures, get them tagged at check in and leave them with airline staff when you reach the gate. At some airports you’ll be able to send your baby equipment through with the rest of the luggage, but at others you might be asked to drop it off in a different area.

Whatever you decide to do with your pushchair, it’s a good idea to keep a sling handy. The first time I flew with the baby girl, when she was six-weeks-old, I kept the pushchair with me until the gate and didn’t end up using it at all. Airports are very stimulating environments and the baby girl was unhappy unless she was being carried. Also, travelling alone with her, getting the pushchair down the stairs from the gate to the tarmac was a real pain – fellow passengers helped out, but it wasn’t ideal. I’ve since learnt that you can request special assistance in advance for those situations, but these days I just check everything in and avoid the problem that way.

At security they might ask to x-ray your pushchair, car seat or sling, so be prepared to carry your child through in your arms, and make sure that if you there’s anything else in the pushchair it’s easy to lift out and put through the machine too. The last few times I’ve flown with the baby girl I’ve been able to walk through the scanner with her in the sling – if only I could remember to wear the sling under my jacket so it’s easy to remove.

Formula, sterilised water for preparing formula, cow milk and soya milk for babies are exempt from the usual rules about liquids in hand luggage, so you’re allowed to take them through security, as well as gel packs to keep them cool. They need to be removed from your carry-on so they can be screened separately (incidentally, you don’t need to be travelling with your baby to carry expressed breast milk through). The rules vary slightly from country to country, but security staff have always been understanding in this regard in my experience.

My final tip relates to food. You’ll obviously need to take enough baby food or milk to cover the number of meals or feeds you’ll be in transit for, but don’t underestimate the power of snacks either. Take as many as you can fit into your carry-on, so in the event of boring delays or just general grumpiness, you’ve got distractions at the ready.

A woman in a red jacket carries a shoulder bag and a baby in a sling at airport security.
A remarkably easy passage through security at Malta International Airport on the way back from our dive trip to Gozo, November 2017.

 

 

 

Packing list for travelling with babies and toddlers

Travelling a lot for work, I prefer to spend as little time packing – or thinking about packing – as possible. Nerdy though it may sound, I never start the process without consulting one of several packing lists – city break, hot climate, cold climate, hiking, scuba diving, etc.

The baby girl was four-weeks-old the first time we went away with her, to a cottage in Wales to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday over a long weekend. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t have a packing list for the task at hand. After a chaotic day and night throwing baby stuff into various receptacles almost at random, we managed to hit the road. My partner driving, I immediately set about writing a list.

Here it is, more tidily laid out than in the original version on my phone, and with a few annotations. I hope you find it useful. If there’s anything I’ve missed, please add your own packing essentials in the comments (I’ll be doing a separate post on travelling in hot climates – if you want advice about what to pack for a hot climate trip in the meantime, drop me a line in the comments below).

Baby monitor
Or a spare phone or tablet if you’re using the Baby Monitor 3G app (for more information on why this is a brilliant thing, here’s my recent ‘essential kit’ post about it).

Baby nail clippers 

Baby sleeping bag

Bathroom stuff
Bath additive, baby shampoo, toothbrush, baby toothpaste.

Blankets
Something warm, plus one you don’t mind getting grubby that you can use for sitting on when out and about.

Car seat
Plus adaptors if you have a ‘travel system’ pushchair.

Clothes
Two complete outfits (vest + sleepsuit + sweater; or vest + trousers + top + sweater) per day, snow suit/coat, hat and spare; socks; shoes.

Documents
Passport (here’s how to apply for one for your child), visa, birth certificate, permission letter (if appropriate – here’s more information), Personal Child Health Record (‘red book’). 

First aid kit
Including thermometer and painkillers (Calpol, ibuprofen, teething gel).

Inflatable paddling pool
See my post ‘Essential kit, part 1: inflatable paddling pool’ for why you don’t want to leave home without one of these.

Muslin squares
For swaddling, cleaning up, and as comforters.

Nappies
8-12 nappies per 24 hours away, depending how much your baby is pooing in the days leading up to your departure. You can almost always buy nappies where you’re staying, but if you’re travelling with a very small baby, or are going somewhere remote, better to be safe than sorry and take enough from home to last you for the whole trip.

Nappy wallet and change mat
Including nappy sacks, nappy rash cream and hand sanitiser.

Night light 

Pram/pushchair
Sunshade for napping, plus a bag of some kind to pack the pushchair into if you’re flying. We have the official travel bag (bought on eBay) for our Bugaboo Bee (also eBay), which is excellent because it protects the pushchair from being chucked around by baggage handlers and also gives you extra space to stow baby stuff. If you don’t want to buy the official version for your pushchair, there are generics available. But go for one with wheels and/or backpack straps if possible. In a pinch you can use a heavy duty bin liner for each bit of the pushchair (and remember to pack extras for the return journey).

Sling
My ‘essential kit’ post on slings covers some of the different options available.

Toys and books

Travel cot/tent/bassinet
Having been on a couple of trips now where the cot provided hasn’t been fit for purpose, I highly recommend bringing one of your own.

Wipes
One pack of wipes per 72 hours away. Though you can buy baby wipes when you arrive, the options might be pretty rubbish – very highly scented, for example, or not suitable for sensitive skin – so if you’re fussy about these things, just bring a couple of extra packets from home.

 

*Optional extras depending on you and your baby*

Breast pump

Dribble bibs

Dummies

Teething rings

Wireless bone-conducting headphones
These are a must for me – find out why in my ‘essential kit’ post all about them.

 

*If breastfeeding*

Folding sock airer
See laundry detergent below.

Laundry detergent
A small quantity for hand washing milk-soaked bras (and nursing pads, if you use washables).

Nursing bras
Including a couple comfortable enough to sleep in if you’re still at the stage of needing to wear a bra and nursing pads to bed.

Nursing pads
Take more than you think you might need in case the disruption of travel makes your baby feed more frequently, thereby causing your breasts to leak more than usual.

 

*If bottlefeeding (whether formula, expressed breastmilk or a combination of the two)*

Bibs

Bottles, etc

Bottle brush

Cold sterilising tablets or liquid
Only necessary until your baby is a year old – see my post ‘How to sterilise your baby’s feeding equipment when you’re away from home’ for tips

Formula

Washing-up liquid

 

*If your child is eating solids*

Baby food in jars or pouches for emergencies
Plus any type of food you really couldn’t live without while you’re away. The baby girl is a bit of a fussy eater at the moment, but will always polish off a big bowl of porridge for breakfast, so we take a small Tupperware container of oats away with us if we’re self-catering just in case we can’t find any locally at our destination.

Baby/toddler spoons

Bibs/smocks

Laundry detergent
A small quantity for washing bibs so you don’t have to pack one for every meal.

Snacks

Travel high chair
I cover the various kinds available in my post on eating out with babies and toddlers.

Tupperware
One or two small ones so you’re able to feed your child with food from home when out and about.

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.

 

 

 

 

Adventure review: Rave-A-Roo, Ministry of Sound

The first time I went to the Ministry of Sound – at the tender age of 16 – someone threw up on my shoes in the queue. On this most recent visit, to check out indoor family festival Rave-A-Roo, the worst that happened was a leaky nappy. I think you could call that progress.

Launched in early 2016, Rave-A-Roo is a brilliant concept: an opportunity for children to dance, play and generally run wild in an environment so stimulating that it takes them all weekend to wind down again, while their parents drink overpriced prosecco and indulge in nostalgia for their clubbing days.

The baby girl isn’t really Rave-A-Roo’s target audience, but babies are welcome, and there are enough exciting things to look at (giant disco ball, anyone?) and different places to sit to make this little adventure worth the trouble.

Clouds of bubbles waft over us as I park the pushchair in an undercover area in the venue’s courtyard, a suitably enthusiastic DJ Cuddles (I’m desperate to know if he uses this stage name for adult gigs too) playing pop tunes in front of tables covered with jewellery-making paraphernalia.

Worried about the volume levels, I bring the baby girl’s ear defenders, but they end up staying in my bag. The main room – headlined by none other than everyone’s favourite ovine film star Shaun the Sheep – would be too loud to go without ear protection for longer than a few minutes, but the baby girl isn’t interested in being in there anyway. Crawling is all she wants to do right now, and the main room isn’t the place for it, so despite the temptation of a flock of inflatable ducks, we leave it to the bigger kids.

We spend most of our time in the Funky Soft Play Room, carving out a corner for ourselves in the midst of dozens of wired toddlers. The soft play isn’t quite as soft as it should be – the only cushioning on the floor of the inflatable that holds the soft play equipment is a few rag rugs – and there’s no one in authority keeping the rowdier children from going rogue. The small pile of baby toys in the corner is welcome, but positioned in such a way that it feels like we’re in constant danger of being stepped on.

The other place we hang out is Chill-A-Roo, aka the Ministry’s VIP area, which overlooks the main bar on one side and the biggest club room on the other. No concessions to the family crowd here apart from a barista serving proper coffees, but the baby girl is happy enough sitting on a banquette and hitting her cup against the table while I drink a hot chocolate.

At £12.10 for early bird tickets (going up to an eye-watering £25 on the door) for adults and children over the age of 18 months, Rave-A-Roo isn’t cheap, but the super friendly vibe, plus nice touches like nappy change supplies in the loos, swings it for me. The baby girl will be too little to really appreciate it for a while yet, but if Rave-A-Roo is still running in two or three years’ time, you can find us in da club.

A baby holds a ball in amongst some soft play equipment.
The baby girl larging it in the Funky Soft Play Room at Rave-A-Roo at Ministry of Sound.

Essential kit, part 5: baby monitor app

Almost every time we travel with our baby monitor we discover on returning home that we’ve left at least one part of it behind, necessitating either a trip to retrieve it or getting someone to post it back to us. The irritation we feel at our own idiocy is even more acute in those situations when the monitor hasn’t actually done its job, whether because the distances involved were too great, or the signal was blocked by thick walls or floors.

Fortunately, some friends introduced us to the Baby Monitor 3G app; not only does our regular baby monitor now stay safely at home when we travel, but we can be confident that we’ll be able to keep an eye on the baby girl in whatever situation we find ourselves in while on the move.

It’s extremely simple to use. You just buy and download the app on two devices – it’s available on Apple and Android phones, watches and tablets, plus Mac computers and Apple TV – and pair them, nominating one as the ‘baby station’ and one as the ‘parent station’. The app runs live video (or just audio, which uses less data) over wifi or 3G networks, and you can change the sensitivity of the microphone to suit the surroundings.

The app costs between £3.59 and £4.99 per device, plus any data charges if you’re using it over 3G, but that’s it – no in-app purchases or anything of that rubbish. Great for grandparents or other family members who only need a baby monitor on an ad hoc basis, and also for travel scenarios where you don’t have access to mains power, such as when camping.

When travelling by myself with the baby girl I take an old handset along so I can keep both my phone and laptop with me while still using the app. The spare handset is useful for travelling as a family too – god forbid one of us having to cope without our phone for the evening: how would we tweet about what a nice time we were having?

An Apple iPhone runs the Baby Monitor 3G app, showing that the baby is awake.
Uh oh