Juggling childcare and scuba diving on the Maltese island of Gozo

Published by Diver, April 2018, with the headline “Child’s play in Gozo”.

A scuba diver is photographed in front of a channel through a cliff in Gozo
Diving the Inland Sea © Steve Pretty

Our daughter has spotted us coming out of the water, and I can see her reaching for me as we walk back to the truck. I rush to put down my tank and peel off my dry suit as she squirms in my babysitting brother’s arms – she’s suddenly desperate to be reunited after my short sojourn beneath the waves.

My partner and I get changed and pack our gear into the truck, passing the baby girl between us and back to my brother when faced with tasks requiring two hands. We strap her into her car seat, and she’s asleep before we reach the main road.

On days like this, diving with a baby in tow feels like a breeze.

It’s all pretty new for us. This trip to Gozo is only the second time we’ve been diving since our daughter was born 14 months ago, a follow-up to a week at Somabay in Egypt when she was seven-months-old.

For that first dive holiday we travelled with some friends with a baby, and tag-teamed babysitting and diving so we were able to buddy each other some of the time.

Here in Gozo we’re trying another childcare option. My 19-year-old brother Yoji is babysitting in exchange for us covering his accommodation and transfers. My partner and I had assumed that we would leave Yoji and the baby behind in Marsalforn while we dived, but dive guides Denis Marin and Georgia Mainente – in charge of Atlantis Diving Centre while owners Brian and Stephania Azzopardi are out of town – were quick to suggest that they come with us in the dive truck instead.

I shouldn’t have been surprised really – the team had already organised us an apartment with a cot and high chair, and the dive centre is equipped with a big pile of toys belonging to the Azzopardis’ daughter.

Somehow we’ve stumbled upon the most family-friendly dive centre in the world.

A baby sits on the beach watching a scuba diver come out of the sea
The baby girl waits for us on the beach after a dive © Yoji Caird

We picked Gozo partly because it’s one of the warmest winter dive destinations in Europe, but also because I’ve been itching to come back here since learning to dive in Xlendi Bay just over 10 years ago.

I never made it to the island’s star underwater attractions on that trip – awesome geological features like the Blue Hole, Inland Sea and Cathedral Cave – and it’s high time to tick them off the list.

Coming here in November, and for just a week, is something of a risky move, but it’s the only time we have, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed for good weather.

We get lucky – after two weeks of strong wind, the dive sites on the north and west of the island are open for business again just in time for our arrival.

We start in Dwejra, at the Inland Sea, gearing up on the stony beach alongside tourists waiting for a fishing boat to take them out through the 80m channel through the cliff. It’s an easy entry off the jetty and, after a short swim on the surface to the opening of the tunnel, we make our descent over shallow boulders home to bearded fireworms and green spoon worms.

It’s dim and narrow here but as we step down a series of shelves to 24m, the channel widens and is flooded with beautiful blue light. Apparently infinite visibility makes this a treat of a first dive.

We turn left out of the channel and follow the algae-covered wall until we reach a narrow cave that cuts deep into the cliff, only accessible when the conditions are right. Pulled gently to and fro by the swell as I make my way in, I can see why you wouldn’t want to try this in rougher weather.

There’s a big shoal of damselfish mobbing the entrance to the channel and a few juvenile parrotfish and scorpion fish here and there but in terms of flora and fauna, this site (and Gozo in general, I’ll learn over the next few days) is really one for algae and sponge enthusiasts.

A carpet of bright green, red and purple covers the walls, providing ample grazing for the handful of nudibranchs dotted around the place.

We’re back at Dwejra bright and early the next morning to dive the Blue Hole before anyone else gets there. There are hardly any other divers around anyway – most of the dive-centres in Gozo are closed for the winter, in fact – but Denis is taking no chances.

His caution pays off – we have the place to ourselves and the entry is an astonishing experience as a result, the surface of the water perfectly still, giving way to the brightness of an archway on one side and the darkness of a cave on the other.

A man and a woman look out at the view at Dwejra in Gozo
Denis tells us what to expect from our dives at Dwejra © Steve Pretty

We explore the cave (which, at just 14m down and with a wide opening, is accessible to all), finding conger eels and shrimp hiding in gaping horizontal cracks in the rock, before heading out through the archway.

Turn right, as we do now, and you find the ruins of the Azure Window, once Gozo’s most famous photo opportunity, but since March 2017 just a pile of massive boulders on the seabed.

The collapse of the arch in a heavy spring storm was a real blow for the island, but fortunately sightseeing’s loss was diving’s gain – this is now a truly brilliant dive site.

There’s not much life here yet – just a faint fuzz of green algae on the sun-bleached rocks – but that doesn’t matter because the area is a veritable maze of swim-throughs, offering endless routes to explore.

Heading back past the Blue Hole, we head up the Chimney, going nearly straight up from 20 to 12m, then up again to 7m to find ourselves in the Coral Gardens. It’s great fun, and beautiful too, the walls of the passageway lined with yellow anemones that give way to yellow-green algae up top that glows bright in the sunshine. Coral Gardens, we discover, is sheltered and shallow, perfect for beginners.

We finish our dive in the Blue Hole – all by ourselves once again. During the safety stop, I watch tourists peering in from the rocks above and a few tiny fish skittering around just beneath the surface. If I had to choose one way of finishing every dive from now on, this would be it.

The walk back to the car park, around slippery rock pools and along a path carved into thefossil-packed coralline limestone, is arduous but nothing compared to the route we take to Crocodile Rock – another of Dwejra’s dive site –  the following morning.

Snug in my dry suit and undersuit, I’m seriously warm by the time we’ve made our way gingerly across the moon-like expanse of spiky limestone pools, and it’s a relief when I can finally step into the 20° water. I can’t imagine what this walk must be like at the height of summer.

We swim on the surface towards the massive outcrop of Crocodile Rock for a few minutes before descending to discover that there’s much more of the rock underneath the water than there is up top.

Keeping it on our left, we gradually make our way down to 39m, to find boulders littering the sea floor but no sign of the large groupers we’re told sometimes hang out here.

Up above us, all of a sudden, are hundreds of barracuda shoaling in an enormous underwater valley between two steep peaks. They pour over the sheer edge of the rock towards us, circling our group before disappearing into shallower water. It’s a mesmerising sight.

After a couple of days playing with the baby on the beach of the Inland Sea, my brother is keen to see some other areas of the island. So after one more dive at the Blue Hole, Denis takes us to the Salt Pans, location of a handful of dive sites to suit various tastes and levels of experience.

To reach Dwejra from Marsalforn you have to drive into Victoria, the main town at the centre of Gozo, and out again, a journey of around 25 minutes, but the Salt Pans are just a short hop along the coast.

Gozitans have been harvesting salt from shallow pools on this beautiful patch of shore since Roman times. In the summer you have to be careful not to step in the pans on your way to the water, but it’s not an issue in the winter, so we stomp straight through.

The Blue Hole in Gozo, photographed from under the water
The Blue Hole © Steve Pretty

Our first stop is Reqqa Point, right at the far end of the pans, necessitating a slow, bumpy, off-road drive that I feel sure is going to end in disaster, but somehow doesn’t.

Steve is looking after the baby girl this afternoon so I’m buddying Denis, while Yoji takes the opportunity to do some snorkelling along the rocks above us.

Denis and I turn right after a giant stride in, descend 10m and duck down, feet first, into a chimney I would never have spotted on my own.

Popping out at the bottom, we double back to Reqqa Point and follow a sheer algae-covered wall west.

Denis points out the entrance to Bubble Cave, a favourite with technical divers, at 36m, before leading me to the top of a sea grass-covered plateau, from which we “jump” off into the blue.

There’s quite a swell at the end of the dive and the rocks below the exit ladder are slippery with algae so Denis signals for me to put my fins around my wrists and get ready. An unceremonious shove from below and I’m sliding up the rocks and grasping the ladder with both hands – not exactly a graceful way out of the water, but a whole lot of fun.

A scuba diver in shallow water, with Crocodile Rock in the background
Exploring the shallows at the end of a dive at Crocodile Rock © Steve Pretty

The next day we all return to the Salt Pans, Yoji and the baby playing in the rock pools in the sunshine while Steve and I dive Double Arch with Denis.

The arch itself is stunning – appearing out of the blue to one side of a large natural amphitheatre – but doesn’t warrant the tedious 10-minute swim on the surface to get there from the shore.

If you’re going to make an effort to get to a dive site in this part of Gozo, save your energy for Cathedral Cave. There’s supposed to be a ladder at the far end of the Salt Pans that puts you in just the right spot for the cave, but it’s been washed away by the time of our visit and won’t be replaced until the spring.

Which means that the only way to get there is down 100 steps cut into Wied il-Ghasri gorge, followed by another 10-minute surface swim – this time in rather more picturesque surroundings.

Under water it’s the usual mix of juvenile scorpionfish, nudis and algae, until all of a sudden I get lucky and spot a little octopus hiding in a hole in a wall. From then on it’s marine life a-go-go, Dennis pointing out a slipper lobster and a Swiss cow nudibranch, while a cuttlefish lurks in a crack at the opening of the cave.

Cathedral Cave is enormous, both above and below the water, entirely justifying its name. A small window lets in fresh air and enough light that we don’t need our torches to see by, and when we duck back under the water to make our way back out, the mouth of the cave is bathed in blue.

On the swim back to the gorge, the waves are smashing powerfully against the rocks above us, a sign of the arrival of a weather front that means that this will be our last visit to Gozo’s famed north and west coast dive sites this week.

The climb back up the gorge is exhausting but I’d do it all again in a shot for another glimpse of Cathedral Cave.

Close up of a flounder in the sand in Gozo
Close up of a flounder at Mgarr ix-Xini © Steve Pretty

We head to the south of the island for our final dives, trying out the sheltered bay of Mgarr ix-Xini and the scuttled passenger ferry Karwela. The wreck-dive is nothing special – with its deck at 33m down, there’s not enough time to explore properly on a no-deco dive.

Added to that, Karvela is dived so frequently that there’s barely any life there, even after 12 years submerged.

The opposite is true of the marine meadow area we pass over on our way back to shore, where I spot no fewer than four octopuses, plus my first ever long-snouted sea horse.

Mgarr ix-Xini, meanwhile, hosts a riot of cuttlefish and flounders, an opportunity for Steve to get his macro lens out after days taking spectacular wide angle shots, and a suitably rewarding spot for my brother to give diving a go for the first time.

Needless to say, he’s hooked, and keen to come along on another diving/babysitting trip the next time we need him.

It’s all been a resounding success. My partner and I have both dived a little less than we would have if we’d been travelling without our daughter – nine dives each over the course of the week, rather than the 12 you might hope to pack in – but that’s OK.

Taking things a little slower has given us the chance to relax in a way that we don’t normally get to do on a dive trip. We’ve even got to see something of Gozo’s topside attractions, checking out the ancient temples at Ġgantija, the impressive Citadel that overlooks Victoria, and pretty Xlendi Bay.

We’ll be booking our next dive trip with the baby as soon as we can work out where to go. And who we can persuade to babysit for us of course.

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Direct flights to Malta from multiple UK airports with airlines including BA, Jet2.com and easyJet. Taxi or bus to the ferry terminal at Cirkewwa, then ferry to Mgarr in Gozo.
DIVING: Multiple dive centres operate in the two resort towns of Marsalforn and Xlendi – Jo highly recommends Atlantis Diving Centre in Marsalforn, atlantisgozo.com
ACCOMMODATION: Basic apartments near Atlantis and five-minutes’ walk from the centre of Marsalforn are cheap. Atlantis has a lodge and can arrange villa accommodation.
WHEN TO GO: Diving is possible year-round, though strong winds can be a problem between November and February, and it can get very hot in midsummer.
MONEY: Euro.
PRICES: Return flights from £130 (May), Atlantis Lodge costs 60-80 euros per room per night (two sharing), a 10-dive package with Atlantis costs 220 euros pp.
VISITOR INFORMATION: visitmalta.com

Camping with a baby or toddler

I’ve never really considered myself much of a camper – my parents didn’t take me camping as a child and the one trip I did with school was awful – yet in 2010 my partner and I decided that an 1980s VW campervan would be a much better investment than a boring old hatchback. Since then we’ve been all over the UK in it (and the newer one we bought when the first one got too unreliable), as well as to France, Sweden and Norway, squeezing in camping trips when we can alongside my work trips, touring with my partner’s band, and myriad friends’ weddings.

We’ve taken the baby girl camping in the van several times now and here’s what we’ve learned so far,* divided into 10 sections: tent or campervan; packing; choosing a campsite; choosing a pitch; setting up camp; sleeping; feeding; nappy changing and potties; bath time; and insects. I’m sure there will be things I’ve missed, so please add your own tips for camping with babies and toddlers in the comments below.

Tent or campervan

A man with a baby in a back carrier stands in front of a white camper van and awning
At a tiny campsite in Yorkshire in summer 2017, our van’s roof popped up ready for bed

Clearly I’m biased, but a campervan is definitely the way to go if your budget will stretch that far. I’d recommend owning one, but there are places to hire them all over the place if you’re not up for that sort of commitment or financial outlay.

The benefit of vans over tents is that they’re warmer, quieter to sleep in, more secure and you can bring more stuff with you. Many vans will also have a fridge, hob and sink – much easier than setting up a camping kitchen outside a tent and useful for storing baby food and milk. A drive-away awning, which is basically a large tent that you attach to the sliding-door side of the van, provides extra space, and is particularly handy as a self-contained play area once your little one is crawling. Inflatable awnings are more expensive but much faster and easier to erect and strike than traditional tents with poles.

The major downside of a campervan (much as I hate to regret that a downside exists) is that you have to pack everything up if you want to go off exploring in it, whereas with a tent you can just jump in the car and go, leaving your whole camping apparatus in situ. Tents are also much less expensive than campervans to buy or hire of course.

When it comes to choosing a tent (or indeed a campervan awning for that matter), get the largest you can afford: large tents are slightly more time-consuming and complicated to erect than small ones, but not exponentially so, and if you’re stuck inside with a baby or toddler on a rainy day, you’ll want as much space as you can get. Essential elements are a covered porch area (ideally with a ground sheet) so you’ve got somewhere to cook and eat without getting food smells in your tent, as well as a place to store your pushchair and muddy shoes. An internal room is useful so you can sleep separately from your child. As with awnings, an inflatable tent will save you a lot of time.

Packing

Don’t bother with suitcases and pillows. Designate a different colour pillowcase for each family member and use them to pack clothes into instead. Then cram all your pillow-suitcases into a black bin bag so they don’t get grubby in transit or when setting up camp. Half way through the trip you’ll need to consolidate clean clothes into one pillowcase and dirty clothes into another.

Choosing a campsite

Tastes vary – I like my campsites relaxed, peaceful and in wild and beautiful locations, and am not too fussed about the state of the toilet facilities, while some people value a neatly maintained shower block and aren’t bothered by the immediate surroundings. The good news for new parents is that camping with a pre-crawling baby is much the same as camping child-free, so you can choose your campsite based on the same criteria you would have done in the past, whatever your priorities happen to be.

Once your baby is heading towards toddlerhood, facilities like a play area, beach or on-site petting zoo are a major boon.

Choosing a pitch

Again, tastes vary. We usually prefer to be as far from the toilet block as possible, as this tends to be the least busy area of a campsite, but there are benefits to being closer to the facilities once you’re camping as a family. Bear in mind though that if your baby is sensitive to noise, somewhere without a lot of passing traffic will give you all a better chance of a good night’s sleep.

Setting up camp

A woman feeds a baby on a blanket on grass
My sister feeds the baby girl while my partner and I set up camp on a trip to Cornwall, our first as a family

If there are only two adults in your party, try to time your arrival for when your child is sleeping – unless you’ve opted for a small tent, pitching camp single-handed while your other half holds the baby is challenging. Other options are for one person to wear the baby in a sling as you pitch the tent together, or to set up a travel cot to serve as a play pen. Going camping with friends or family members offers the distinct advantage of there always being someone else around to hold the baby while you get things done, of course.

Sleeping

Dress your child in extra layers to minimise the chance of them waking up cold in the night. A 3.5 tog sleeping bag on top of a long-sleeved vest and all-in-one sleep suit or pyjamas will keep your baby toasty in temperatures as low as 14 degrees centigrade. If you don’t have a sleeping bag that thick, doubling up lighter weight ones will work just as well.

Bear in mind that if you’re camping in the summer in the UK it gets light early and dark late, not ideal for babies and toddlers who can only sleep in a blackout. Parents of light-sensitive children should check out the travel cot cover made by SnoozeShade. We put the girl in a pop-up tent travel cot within our awning or campervan and put a breathable blanket over the top, which does the same job, though less elegantly.

Noise is trickier to deal with but choosing a quiet pitch will help. White noise could come in handy too.

In campervans with a pop-top roof, the bed in the roof is a good place to put your baby if you don’t want her in your bed with you. The baby girl’s pop-up tent travel cot fits our roof area perfectly, and it means she’s in no danger of rolling out. When she outgrows the tent we’ll start using the safety net that came with our van (it was converted from a panel van by a guy who went camping a lot with his children) to keep her safe in the roof at night. We sleep in the rock ‘n’ roll bed (see picture below), leaving the awning free for any friends or family camping with us.

As already noted above, a large tent with an internal room will enable you to sleep separately from your child, and more importantly, it’ll give you the option to hang out comfortably inside after your baby has gone to bed and while she’s napping.

Feeding

A man and a baby lie on the bed of a campervan
Note the large number of travel pouches of baby food stowed away in the cupboard of our van

As far as I’m aware, there isn’t really a way of feeding your baby while camping that isn’t a bit of a faff. There are lots of options available, but none are without their drawbacks.

A foldable camping high chair is very lightweight and packs away small but the tray is so flimsy that your child will end up covered with food (even more so than they already do). Standard travel booster seats (we have this one) come with sturdier trays, but you’re unlikely to have a chair with you that you’ll be able to attach such a booster seat to safely. That means feeding your child with the booster seat either on the ground or on a table, neither of which is ideal. A lap belt will keep your baby on your lap but means you’re stuck in one place until she’s finished her meal – you’ll also end up covered in food, which is more of an issue that it would be at home because you probably won’t have access to a washing machine. On balance, we find the lesser of these evils is the inconvenience of feeding the baby girl on the ground, so we use a booster seat.

Jars and pouches of readymade baby food come in very handy while camping, since you probably won’t have the space, utensils or storage options available for making your own. Now that the baby girl eats most things we just plan our meals so they’ll appeal to her too, but when she was smaller we always made sure to have a packet of couscous with us on camping trips that we’d add to readymade baby food for extra texture and bulk. That and bits of cucumber, bread and yoghurt mostly formed her diet on those early trips.

For bottle-fed babies, cold water sterilising is your best bet. You’ll need sterilising tablets or liquid and a large plastic container with a lid. See this post for how to do it.

Nappy changing and potties

We try to keep nappy changing to one area in the campervan or awning for the sake of convenience and hygiene but inevitably end up changing the baby girl here, there and everywhere. We just take her nappy change wallet and stow extra nappies, wipes and biodegradable nappy sacks (important in this context to keep odours to a minimum) in an easy-to-access place in the van for refilling when necessary.

I’m not usually a fan of one-use cleaning products, but antibacterial wipes are an important bit of kit when it comes to camping with a baby or toddler still in nappies. We keep bottles of hand sanitizer all over the place too, as with the best will in the world you’re not going to be washing your hands on a camping trip as frequently as you would be at home, and sanitising is better than nothing.

Don’t forget to pack a potty if your toddler is potty trained, as well as some biodegradable potty liners. Your child will most likely use these on camping trips long after she’s toilet trained – far preferable to a long walk to the toilet block in the middle of the night if she wakes up needing a wee.

Bath time

A man stands in front of a campervan and awning
Post-baby bedtime drink – note the inflatable paddling pool in the porch of the awning

Bath time is an important element of lots of babies’ bedtime routines but you’d be hard pressed to find a bathtub at most British campsites. The solution is to pack a small inflatable paddling pool, which you can either use in the shower block or in the porch of your tent if the weather is warm enough. Option two is more labour-intensive as you’ll need to carry water from the nearest tap and heat it up on your camping stove, but it’s nicer being able to do nappy and pyjamas within the quiet and privacy of your own tent, rather than in a bright shower block.

Parents of toddlers who don’t require a bath to get into sleep mode but are grubby enough to need hosing down before bed can experiment with taking their little ones into the shower with them, though I’d only recommend it once your baby is a confident stander. As with showering after swimming, this requires a bit of forward planning to make sure you can get your toddler dry and dressed before they get cold, while also getting dressed yourself. (I’ll be covering trips to the pool in another post, so sign up to the mailing list if you’d find more tips on swimming with a baby or toddler helpful.)

Insects

Insects are more of an issue in some areas of the UK than others, so look into this before you decide on a campsite if you know your family is likely is be bothered by bugs. Wherever you go however, it’s a good idea to take child-friendly insect repellent with you, and to keep tent doors zipped up at all times, especially in the evening. We learnt this the hard way during a camping trip in the Yorkshire Dales in summer 2017, ending up with an awning full of midges and a million bites each – not fun.

* I’ll cover festival camping in a separate post – sign up to the mailing list so you don’t miss it.

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Adventure review: Dear Zoo, Churchill Theatre, Bromley

Published by The Stage, 21 March 2017. Dear Zoo is touring the UK until 1 June 2018. The show is for children aged two to six. 

The cast of Dear Zoo on the set, two actors dressed as children, one actor dressed as a zookeeper
Molly Waters, Aaron Spendelow and Harrison Spiers on the set of Dear Zoo

If you have a child, you’ll have read Dear Zoo – many, many times probably. First published in 1982, this simple story of a child writing to the zoo for a pet and being sent all manner of inappropriate animals, has sold over eight million copies worldwide.

It’s a surprise therefore, given the bankability of such an endeavour, that this is the first time it’s ever been staged.

The set and costumes, by Ian Westbrook and Anne Hewitt respectively, are lifted straight out of the book, and while such a tactic succeeds in creating a familiar environment for young audiences, it’s disappointing that director Michael Gattrell has played it so safe.

The script, written by Dear Zoo’s original writer and illustrator Rod Campbell, is also faithful to the book, filling out its plot with lazily written songs for the animals and inane chitchat by its three human characters. There’s not a moment of drama to be had.

Aaron Spendelow, as Sam the Zoo Keeper, Harrison Spiers as Ben, the boy who wants a pet, and Sally, his friend, are engaging enough to get the children out of their seats for a few fun moments of gentle audience interaction, but all three performances are irritatingly one note.

It’s not their fault – Gattrell, who specialises in directing pantomimes, seems to be of the opinion that children must be talked to very loudly and very shrilly if they’re to understand anything that’s going on. Emma Longthorne, voicing the various animals, offers some much needed relief on this front.

Don’t get me wrong: lots of the two-to-six-year-olds in the audience enjoyed the silliness of this production. It’s just a shame that it has so little else going for it. Young audiences deserve better.

An actor dressed as a monkey, an actor dressed as a zookeeper and two actors dressed as children on the set of theatre show Dear Zoo
Emma Longthorne, Aaron Spendelow and Harrison Spiers and Molly Waters on the set of Dear Zoo

Travel vaccinations for babies and toddlers

The good news is that the standard vaccinations your baby will receive at the age of two months, three months, four months and 12 months will protect her from a lot of the diseases you might come across when travelling. That said, there are of course plenty of further flung destinations for which additional travel vaccinations are recommended. The advice for older children, as for adults, is to make an appointment with your GP or practice nurse six to eight weeks before departure to ensure that everyone is up-to-date with travel vaccinations, but for babies and toddlers it’s worth having that conversation before you book the trip as some vaccines can only be given above a certain age.

Here are a few common travel vaccines and antimalarials, along with their lower age limits (helpfully provided by a doctor friend – thanks Anna!), that I hope might be helpful for the purposes of advance trip planning. For example, if hepatitis A is a major risk in a destination you’re considering visiting, but your baby is less than a year old, you might want to postpone that particular trip until she’s old enough to be vaccinated for hepatitis A. It’s important to stress here that I’m not a medical professional so this information is for guidance only.

A baby receives a vaccination
“Vaccine Reaction, Double Exposure” by Teddy Kwok is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Travel vaccines:

Hepatitis A – from 12-months-old
Typhoid – from 24-months-old
Yellow fever – from six-months-old; given between the ages of six and nine months only during major outbreaks
Japanese encephalitis – from two-months-old
Combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) –from nine-months-old

Antimalarial medications:

Malarone – not recommended for children weighing less than 11kg
Doxycycline – not recommended for children
Mefloquine (Lariam) – not recommended for children weighing less than 5kg

Travelling without vaccinations

A baby receives a vaccination
“P1030972” by Daniel Hatton is licensed under CC BY 2.0

If you want to travel with your baby before she’s received the standard NHS vaccinations, it’s a matter of weighing up the risks of the trip against its benefits. When planning our first proper adventure with the baby girl – to the northern Spanish city of Santiago di Compostela when she was six-weeks-old – we reasoned that although she would not have been immunised by the time of the trip, she was at no higher risk of infection in Santiago than she was in London. By the time of our next adventure – 10 days in Goa a few months later – we had to do that risk/benefit calculation again as we considered the dangers of taking the baby girl away before she had received the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Again, we decided that the destination didn’t present very much of an increased risk, so away we went.

In the case of trips to destinations where a particular disease is a risk but a vaccine isn’t available, talk to your doctor or nurse about preventative measures. This might mean only drinking and brushing your teeth with bottled water, for example, or protecting against mosquito bites with the help of repellents and nets. I’ll be covering how to deal with mosquitos in an separate post – sign up for the mailing list so you don’t miss it.

Essential kit, number 10: buggy clips

A loaded up pushchair on a trainI try to pack light for adventures with the baby girl, but I rarely succeed. Which is where buggy clips come in. I keep the pram rain cover, a SnoozeShade and the sling in the basket under the pram, so everything else – from nappy changing stuff to spare clothes and from toys to snacks – has to go on the handle bar. You can buy changing bags designed to hang directly from the pram, but I’ve never found one I like the look of, so I tend to use a large shopper and buggy clips instead.

The clips come in handy in plenty of other situations too, for shopping, as a secure place to keep my handbag when I’m not wearing it, and for the baby girl’s lunch box when I’m feeding her in the buggy.

There are various styles available, but I like the ones that are essentially large climbing carabiners with a bit of foam covering the metal to stop them slipping along your pram handle or scratching the chassis. The other options, which attach to the pram with Velcro, feel less secure somehow. Depending on the model of your pram and how much you care about it getting scratched, the foam may not be all that useful – if that’s the case for you, search online for ‘large carabiners’ rather than ‘buggy clips’. The results will be less expensive than the ones made with parents in mind.

A woman feeds a child in a pram in a decorated town square
Out for the evening with an overloaded pushchair on our trip to the Canaries

 

Flying with your baby

A baby grabs her father's face on a planeThe sooner you start flying with your baby, the easier it is. You probably spend most of your time with your newborn in your arms anyway, so the fact that you’re on a plane is almost irrelevant. The chief challenge of flying with babies is keeping them entertained and newborns don’t require much in that regard, so if you have the opportunity to go abroad with your baby when she’s still very little, go for it. The other benefit to starting when she’s small is that it’s good practice for flying with her when she’s bigger and more aware of her surroundings: she’ll already be familiar with the strange environment of an aeroplane, you’ll be more confident and you’ll both have a better experience as a result.

This post only covers flying itself, but I’ve written about airports and airport transfers too, plus documents for travelling with children, buying travel insurance and applying for a passport for your child. I’ll be covering booking flights soon – sign up to the Baby Adventuring mailing list so you don’t miss it.

Feeding

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

Take more food and milk than you think you might need – that way you’ll covered in case of delays, and will have plenty of snacks to hand that can serve as distractions at otherwise tedious or challenging moments. (We spend a lot of time walking up and down the plane with the baby girl, either carrying her or keeping a close eye as she toddles along, but when the fasten seatbelt sign is on and she’s not happy about staying put, a handful of baby rice cakes can be very handy indeed.)

Breastfeeding mothers might find themselves feeding more frequently and for longer than usual on flights, which can be exhausting, particularly at night, when you’ll be getting even less sleep than usual. Make sure you’ve got plenty of snacks for yourself, and that you’re drinking enough water. Some extra nursing pads might come in handy too. If you’re bottlefeeding, ready-mixed formula is much more convenient than making it up as you go. Bring enough sterilised bottles to last the duration of your flight, plus a couple of extras in case of delays. Extra muslin squares are a good idea whether you’re breast or bottle-feeding.

I’ve found that our feeding routine goes out the window when we’re flying, along with sleep routines (see below) – there are just too many distractions to contend with and it’s impossible to time things properly when you’re dealing with security, boarding, etc. So we try to go with the flow and offer the baby girl healthy snacks fairly often to make sure she’s getting enough to eat. For toddlers and babies over the age of six months, chopped cucumber and carrots, dried and fresh fruit, crackers, sandwiches and travel pouches of baby food are all easy options. You can put them in resealable sandwich bags, but we like to take mini Tupperware containers from home away with us, as they come in handy for snacks and meals on the go throughout the trip too.

Toys

A mother and child look at a magazine on a plane
Flicking through the inflight magazine for the 768th time on our flight back from Gozo

The longer the flight, the more entertainment you’ll require, so pack as many small, non-noisy toys as you can reasonably fit into your carry-on. It may seem like overkill when you’re packing, but you won’t regret having a plentiful supply. A favourite soft toy or two is a good idea, as are lift-the-flap books, colouring-in book and crayons, stickers and toy cars. A ‘stunt wallet’ filled with a few membership and loyalty cards that I don’t mind losing can keep the baby girl absorbed for ages. We always have fun with the inflight magazines too.

A friend always wraps several small presents ahead of flights with her kids, which she saves for moments when they’re getting antsy. The novelty of the present keeps them busy and the upwrapping is exciting in itself. I haven’t actually tried it yet, as the baby girl isn’t all that interested in unwrapping yet, but I’m planning to give it a go the next time we fly.

Crying

You could bring all the snacks and toys in the world and your baby will still probably kick off at some stage during the flight. It’s no fun dealing with a crying baby on a plane, but try to remember that your fellow passengers are more likely to be feeling sympathetic than annoyed – chances are that most of them have been in the same position at some stage. Only a real jerk could get angry with a parent clearly doing their best to calm their baby, and life’s too short to waste time worrying about what the jerks of this world think of you. Also bear in mind that the noise of the engines muffles the crying for those sitting even just a couple of rows away from you, so it’s probably not as bad as you think.

We’re lucky in that the baby girl has never been a big crier – if she cries, it’s usually for a reason, and it’s just a matter of working out what that reason is and coming up with a solution. (It’s a different story now that she’s started throwing tantrums, but more on that later.) Teething is always very challenging, and affects her feeding too, so we always travel with Calpol, infant Nurofen and teething gel. Earache while flying hasn’t been a problem for the baby girl but troubles lots of babies and toddlers: swallowing equalises pressure in the ears so try to get your little one to breastfeed, eat or drink during takeoff and landing. Walking around can be a good distraction – make sure you’ve got a sling with you to take the pressure of your arms and back.

If nothing does the trick to stop the crying, take her into the toilet for a few minutes. The quiet and privacy might calm her down, and even if it doesn’t, being away from other passengers, even briefly, might calm you down so you’re better able to go back out there and deal with it. This can work for toddler tantrums too, if you’re able to physically manoeuvre your child. If not, employ distractions in turn until something works (see toys and snacks above).

Where to sit

A man sits next to a makeshift tent on a plane
An attempt to get the baby girl to nap on the plane in a makeshift tent we erected on our empty middle seat

Children under the age of two can travel for (almost) free on most airlines if sitting on your lap, though you can buy a separate seat for them if you want. If you’re doing so, you might want to bring a car seat to secure them – check with your airline which models are suitable. Children over the age of two require their own seat.

For long-haul flights, it’s well worth trying to book the bulkhead seats and a carrycot or child seat, depending on the age 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 at check-in.

If these seats aren’t available and there are two of us travelling with the baby girl, we always 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. 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 or get things out of the overheard lockers.

Sleeping

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

A plane is a very exciting environment for a baby or toddler and all those new faces, noises and activities can make napping tricky.  Prepare for the trip by making sure your little one is well rested before you go, and don’t make ambitions plans for immediately after your arrival, if you can help it. That way if your baby doesn’t sleep at all on the plane, you can take the resulting tiredness in your stride.

You never know when a nap might be interrupted on a plane, so err on the side of encouraging your little one to nap as soon as she’s looking sleepy, rather than keeping her awake until her usual nap time. Pack your baby’s sleeping bag so you can mimic your usual nap time routine, and if you’ve got the bulkhead/carrycot seats, pack a SnoozeShade or similar that you can put on top of a carrycot to create a dark environment more conducive to napping.

What else to pack in your carry-on

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.

Spare outfit
Wireless bone-conducting headphones
Nappy changing mat and wallet with a nappies and wipes (plus nappy rash cream and nappy sacks if you use them)
Extra baby wipes

Adventure review: Family Sounds, Wigmore Hall, London

Small children and adults gathered around a suitcase listen to a cello
The baby girl at Family Sounds at the Wigmore Hall

The Family Sounds workshop has already begun by the time the baby girl and I arrive (late) at the Wigmore Hall, and the foyer is full of enticing sounds: lilting song, drum beats emanating from a suitcase, sliding notes from a violin, a flute and a cello. Part of the extensive programme of family events at the hall, the workshop is aimed at under-5s.

The baby girl gets a name badge, we draw close to the magic suitcase and her name is pulled into the song. Workshop leader Esther Sheridan explains that we’ll be going on a journey together, collecting sounds in the suitcase to create a new piece of music. She then leads us all downstairs to the hall’s Bechstein Room, where the floor is littered with percussion instruments waiting for players.

The kids get stuck in with the shakers while the musicians improvise around a piece specially written by the Wigmore’s composer-in-residence Helen Grime. It’s wonderful to be able to listen to multi-instrumental music in the round, and Sheridan and the other workshop leaders hit the right balance in terms of atmosphere as they lead musicians and children into silence and sound and back again. The mood is informal, so everyone feels relaxed, but it’s not a free-for-all – we know where our focus is expected to be.

The next phase of the workshop, in which the group moves to different areas in the room to experiment with sounds of the forest, city and space, is less successful. The music is excellent – the musicians playing in unusual ways to create otherworldly and unexpected noises – but the interactive element feels undercooked. While the older and more independent children have a ball suggesting sounds to take with us on our journey, the little ones are sometimes left behind. As a result, the session begins to drag – two hours is a long time to ask babies and toddlers to pay attention.

That said, when the musicians and workshop leaders are engaging with the children one-on-one (shout out to Gawain Hewitt and his musical plant), and Grime’s evocative music is filling the space, this workshop is a delight. Venues like this one can feel rather forbidding; by throwing open the doors to families, the Wigmore Hall is doing important work in democratising classical music and developing the audiences of the future. It’s good to see.

14 handy tips for taking your baby or toddler to the beach

It won’t surprise you to learn that beaches are a hit with babies and toddlers. From smashing sand castles (building them is beyond the baby girl so far) to splashing in rock pools, and from putting pebbles in shoes to picking up random bits and bobs and exclaiming excitedly about them, the fun is pretty much endless.

A woman and a baby play on a black sand beach
Playing on the black sand beach in La Restinga, on El Hierro, the smallest of the Canary Islands

The entertainment taken care of, all that’s left to think about are a few practical concerns. Here are my tips:

1. Stay in the shade in the middle of the day, ideally between 10am and 4pm.

2. If your baby is under six months old, keep her out of direct sunlight entirely. Put her in lightweight clothing so she’s as covered up as possible, and use baby-safe sunscreen (the higher SPF the better, but at least 15+) on any exposed areas.

3. Apply sunscreen when changing your baby or toddler’s nappy at home before leaving for the beach. It’s much easier to get consistent coverage for that first application when she’s naked and not already covered in sand. Apply it all over just in case – you never know when a toddler might decide to strip off, and you want there to be sunscreen on when she does.

4. The easiest way to apply sunscreen to a baby or toddler is with a roll on. You can make your own from an empty roll-on deodorant – just pop the ball out with a spoon, wash and refill.

5. Reapply every two hours, or more frequently if your baby has been in water.

A woman in a sun hat carries a baby in a sling on a beach, its head covered by a cloth
The baby girl naps in the sling under a damp cloth on the beach in Goa

6. Minimise the faff of reapplying sunscreen all the time with a UV-protection suit.

7. Pack a spare hat for your baby in your beach bag (one with a peak and long flap at the back is best).

8. When changing your baby’s nappy at or after a visit to the beach, don’t bother trying to remove sand with wipes. Let it dry then dust it off.

9. Disposable swim nappies are a waste of time and money. If you’re taking your baby in the water, go for a reusable neoprene swim nappy and cotton inner instead. If she’ll just be playing on the beach, normal nappies (or going without, of course) are fine.

10. Empty yoghurt pots make excellent sandcastle-building tools if a bucket and spade aren’t readily available.

11. Pack a mini inflatable paddling pool so your child can have a dip even if the sea is too rough or chilly for her to go in.

12. Another good way of keeping your baby cool is by covering her with a damp cloth (though admittedly less successful after she’s started crawling).

13. If your toddler isn’t enthusiastic about drinking water, keep her hydrated in hot weather by offering snacks like cucumber and watermelon.

14. Leave the pushchair at home, if possible, and take your baby to the beach in a sling instead. Dragging a buggy through sand or over pebbles is no fun. If you need a place to put your little one down to nap, consider packing the pop-up tent travel cot I wrote about here. It doesn’t offer full UV protection, so you can’t safely leave her in it in full sunshine, but if you’re in the shade, it’s ideal for a snooze.

Baby on holiday in a pop-up tent travel cot on a beach in Goa, with the sun setting over the sea. A mini fan is keeping the baby cool. There are sun loungers on the beach.
The baby girl in her pop-up tent travel cot on the beach in Goa, her miniature fan keeping her cool

Essential kit, number 9: buggy organiser

A close up of a buggy organiser hanging from a buggy, full of stuff.
Buggy organiser: truly essential kit for baby adventuring, whether near or far.

It’s amazing how many things you can squeeze into a buggy organiser. Keys, mobile and travel pass for starters, but less obvious items too. If you spend a lot of time walking your  sleeping baby around in her pushchair, headphones are an essential, whether for hand-free phone calls or sanity-restoring podcasts. Lip balm is good to have in cold weather and a pack of tissues is invaluable. If it’s bright enough outside for sunglasses, they need to go somewhere when you’re not wearing them – your buggy organiser is a much better place than on top of your head. Cash machines are never where you need to them to be, so a spare tenner is a must.

When the baby girl was very small and I was still in that phase of breastfeeding where you’re parched and ravenous all the time, I kept the buggy organiser stocked up with snacks and drinks. Now that she’s bigger, it’s still packed with snacks, but they’re for her, not me, and my keep cup has been supplanted by her sippy cup.

You’ll usually find an emergency toy car in there somewhere, and room is always made for a bottle of Calpol when the baby girl is teething. In goes her hat every time she decides she’s taking it off, thank you very much, ditto her shoes and socks. The buggy organiser is where we stow the baby girl’s ear defenders between gigs at festivals, and it’s a handy place to keep passports and boarding passes at the airport too.

There are lots of different styles to choose from, but I love the Grab & Go Stroller Organizer from Skip Hop. Insulating material keeps your cold drinks cold and your hot drinks hot, it’s spacious, and it comes with a detachable purse so you can leave your pushchair somewhere and easily take your valuables with you. Particularly in the early days, I don’t know what I would have done without it.

How to do airport transfers with a baby or toddler

A man with a baby in a sling eats a salad on a train.
On the train on our way home from the baby girl’s first trip abroad, to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, when she was six-weeks-old.

Public transport used to be my go-to method for getting to and from the airport but that’s all changed since the arrival of the baby girl. Unless our trip is a super short one, these days we travel with too much stuff to mess around with trains and buses for airport transfers.

On the couple of occasions that we have used public transport for transfers, we’ve carried the baby girl in her sling, having packed the pushchair away before leaving the house, ready to be checked in with the rest of the luggage. Doing so means there’s one fewer thing to manoeuvre on and off trains and up and down escalators. (If you prefer to use your pushchair rather than pack it, have a read of this post on train travel and this one on navigating public transport, for some useful tips.)

Taxis are the easiest option, but can be very expensive once you’ve factored in a car big enough for all your luggage and your baby’s car seat. More often than not, therefore, we drive our van and leave it in a car park near the airport, then take a shuttle bus to the terminal. If you’re willing to pay a little more, but still less than forking out for cabs, there’s always onsite parking, or valet services where your car is parked for you – usually available for car parks both on and off site.

When it comes to getting to your final destination from the airport, I highly recommend booking a transfer in advance, particularly if you’re arriving late at night, don’t speak the language or are visiting for the first time. You can request a car seat when you book your transfer, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll get one, so it’s always safer to bring your own. (Most airlines won’t charge you for checking in a child car seat, but do check before you book.)

If you can’t bring your own car seat and end up having to take your baby in a taxi or private car without one, make sure you have a sling with you. The adult who will be carrying the baby sits in the back seat, straps himself in and then puts on the sling so the baby is held by the sling and not the seat belt. To be clear, I’m not advocating that you do this: it’s a safer option than having your baby loose on your lap or strapping her in with your seat belt, but it’s not a safe way to travel.

Hiring a car can be a very convenient way of doing things, if it suits the rest of your holiday plans. Car seats can be an issue here too, with some parents reporting having booked a car seat but finding none available on arrival. This doesn’t happen very often, but again, you can avoid worrying about it by bringing your own.