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

Baby and toddler destination guide: Gozo

We took the baby girl with us to the Maltese island of Gozo in November 2017, when the baby girl was around 14-months-old, and had a brilliant time. We only spent a week there, so this guide is by no means exhaustive – if you’ve been to Gozo with a baby or toddler, please add your own tips in the comments.

Getting there
Gozo doesn’t have its own airport, so you need to fly to Malta International Airport, then transfer by hire car, taxi or bus to the ferry terminal at Cirkewwa. It’s a 40-minute drive and the ferry crossing takes around 25 minutes. You buy tickets on the journey back to Malta. Gozo itself is very small, so your transfer the other end is unlikely to be more than 20 minutes.

If you don’t want to hire a car at the airport (local options are available on Gozo itself), the most convenient way of getting to your accommodation is to book a taxi to transfer straight through to Gozo on the ferry. The cheaper option to have a Maltese taxi drop you at the ferry terminal and a Gozitan one pick you up the other end.

On our recent trip I just assumed that the transfer we had booked would take us direct to our accommodation, and was initially dismayed when it turned out we had to unload at the terminal, board as foot passengers and go from there. In the end, though, it all worked out fine – there’s an efficient luggage pick-up and drop-off service for foot passengers on the ferry which meant we only had to deal with the pushchair and hand luggage.

Getting about
It’s a legal requirement for children under the age of three to use a car seat in Malta, and children up to the age of 10 can only sit in the front seat if they have one. Some taxi companies will be able to supply a car seat, so it’s possible to book one for your airport transfers. If you’ll be using taxis a lot to get around the island though (which I don’t recommend as they’re expensive compared to both buses and car hire), you should bring your own. If you’re hiring a car, you can hire a car seat with it.

Buses on Malta and Gozo (which run 5:30am-11pm daily, plus overnight on Fridays, Saturdays and public holidays) can accommodate up to two unfolded pushchairs. We found drivers and fellow passengers very helpful when it came to getting on and off, even when the bus was totally packed. Gozo bus routes radiate from a central terminus in Victoria, the main town at the centre of the island, which means you have to change buses if you want to get from one seaside place to another, or to tourist spots like the Ġgantija Temples.

High, narrow, uneven pavements make getting around with the pushchair a little perilous, but traffic mainly moves slowly enough in the villages that it doesn’t feel too unsafe in those moments when you have to walk in the road.

Eating out
The staff in every restaurant and café we went to were very happy to accommodate the baby girl, whether by providing a high chair and a bowl of plain pasta or letting us park her out of the way when she was sleeping in the pushchair in the evening. Most also had baby change facilities and several had child menus.

Essentials
You can buy nappies and wipes in the mini markets in the various small resort towns, but for anything else (baby toothbrushes, etc), and for more choice, you’ll need to go to one of the proper supermarkets in Victoria. Supermarkets are open all day, every day – the smaller ones have restricted hours in the off season. Chemists also sell baby supplies – they are usually open Monday-Saturday, though at least one on the island is always open on Sunday morning.

In terms of baby food and formula, small supermarkets have a very limited range, but the big supermarkets are better equipped. Small supermarkets all sell fresh milk.

Healthcare
The phone number for emergency services is 112 and there’s an accident and emergency department at Gozo General Hospital in Victoria. A European Health Insurance Card (I give you the lowdown on how to apply for an EHIC for your child here) will cover you for emergency treatment or treatment for existing conditions. More information on healthcare in Malta and Gozo on the NHS’s website here.

Things to do
There are sandy beaches at Ramla and its much less accessible neighbour, San Blas (don’t try taking a pushchair). San Blas is entirely undeveloped, while Ramla has a small kiosk selling snacks and drinks, so you’ll need to bring everything with you. There’s no shade at either beach, though you can hire umbrellas at Ramla.

There are smaller sandy beaches in the resort towns of Marsalforn and Xlendi, and lovely stony bays all over the place. Our favourites were Mgarr ix-Xini and the gorge at Wied l-Għasri, a secret spot you reach via 100 steps cut into the cliff.

There is a playground in Marsalforn and one right by the bus terminal in Victoria. Here is a handy list I found of lots more.

 

A woman and a man carrying a baby in a sling watch a sunset
Admiring the sunset at the mouth of Xlendi Bay, November 2017 © Yoji Caird

 

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

Essential kit, part 3: pop-up tent travel cot

I’m not looking forward to the day the baby girl outgrows her pop-up tent travel cot. We bought it for a trip to Goa when she was four-months-old, and have used it every time we’ve gone away since then, at hotels, B&Bs, in our campervan, when staying with friends and relatives, and for nearly a month over the summer when we were working in Edinburgh.

It’s handy for a lot of reasons, the primary one being that it functions almost like a separate space within the room because it’s entirely enclosed once it’s zipped up. It’s not soundproof, and it doesn’t entirely block out the light, but it’s better than an open cot in both respects (if it’s not dark enough in the room we’re trying to get the baby girl to sleep in, we usually drape a breathable blanket over the top of the tent). The zip itself is important too: zipping the tent closed works as a sleep cue – for our baby at least (except when it doesn’t, of course). And once it’s closed, it’s a barrier to mosquitos and other insects.

Given how different sleeping in the tent is from sleeping in a cot, you’ll want to do a few practice runs before you go away. It took the baby girl two naps in the tent in our living room at home to get used to it, as I recall.

Depending on your destination and type of trip, you might find the tent useful in the daytime too; and for more than just napping. We put the baby girl in it all the time in Goa so she could roll around with her teething rings and toys in a relatively clean environment. We must have looked ridiculous carting it to and from our room all day, but the staff took it in their stride. We thought we’d use the tent on the beach a lot, but ultimately it was too hot to do that, so we stayed in the beachside restaurant most of the time and took turns going for dips in the sea. We’ve used it camping too, as a way of safely stowing away the baby girl for the moments when two sets of hands are required to set up or strike camp.

Further perks are that it packs down very small and is very light. It’s so small and so light in fact that you can take the tent as carry-on on a plane, or pack it into your luggage. Your actual cot cunningly concealed, you can then pass off another small bag as a travel cot, thereby making the most of your infant baggage allowance of (usually) travel cot, pushchair and car seat. I’ll be covering infant baggage allowance separately in a future post, so sign up to the mailing list if you want to read more (there’s a link on the sidebar on the right).

A major downside of the tent is that it doesn’t provide complete shade, so you can’t rely on it in sunny places – your baby will still need sun cream, a hat, etc. It gets pretty warm in there too – in Goa we used a little battery-operated fan and covered the baby girl with damp muslin squares to keep her cool.

The tent is very easy to pop up and pack away, but the fact that you have to be either on the floor or in a very deep bend to get your child into and out of it means that it won’t be ideal for all parents/carers. We use a conventional travel cot when we take the baby girl to stay at her grandparents’ house.

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, part 1: inflatable paddling pool

For most of the babies and toddlers in my life, bath time is an important part of the bed time routine. But what if you’re away from home, and the place you’re staying doesn’t have a bath tub?

Hosing her off in the shower will get your little one clean, but if she’s not used to it, you risk stressing her out with a new experience just at the time of the evening you want her winding down. It’s also a job that really requires two sets of hands, I’ve found.

You could forgo the bath altogether, of course, and use baby wipes instead, but that’s only really a solution for a short trip. Especially if you’re somewhere hot, and dealing with additional grubbiness-inducing elements like sweat, sun cream, insect repellent, sand, chlorinated water, etc, you’ll want to find a way to give your baby a proper wash at the end of the day.

The trick is to travel with a small inflatable paddling pool, which you position on the floor of the shower, or just on the bathroom floor if the cubicle is too small or awkwardly located. If you don’t have hot running water, as was the case at the place we stayed in Goa when the baby girl was four-months-old, you can ask the management for a jug of hot water and blend until the temperature of the water in the paddling pool is what it should be. A paddling pool is also handy for camping, allowing you to do bath time in the warmth and comfort of your tent or camper van, rather than having to go to and from the shower block.

Even if there is a bath tub where you’re staying, a paddling pool is a very handy piece of kit for hot climates, and beach destinations in particular. Unless you’re somewhere tropical, the sea will probably be too cold and rough for more than a very quick dunking; hotel pools, meanwhile, are often unheated, and too chilly for all but the hardiest of babies and toddlers. A small paddling pool, however, left in the sunshine to warm up a bit, is the perfect option for cooling off and splashing about in.