Hiking with babies and toddlers

I’m very much a fair weather walker. Various members of my family will happily set off up a hill in driving rain, but if there’s not at least a reasonable chance of it clearing up in the foreseeable future, count me out. I like hiking, but being soaked to the skin on a cloudy mountaintop just isn’t my idea of fun.

I tell you this to make it clear that hiking with your baby isn’t just the preserve of hardcore walkers. If you enjoyed the occasional hike before your baby arrived, don’t be afraid to give it a go now that she’s here; as with all things baby-related, it’s just a matter of being prepared.

An all-terrain buggy will serve you well if you’re out and about in relatively flat countryside, but this post is really about the sorts of outdoor excursions that you wouldn’t attempt with a pushchair. For those, you’ll need a sling or baby carrier backpack. Which you choose depends on the age of your child, the type and duration of your walk and who’s doing the carrying. Don’t attempt a hike without some means of transporting your child, even if your toddler is a very confident walker; it’s highly unlikely she’ll be up for toddling along beside you for more than a few minutes and you’ll spend the rest of the walk carrying her in your arms.

We only started hiking with the baby girl when she was 10 months old, by which time she was big enough to fit into a backpack carrier. There are lots of different types available, but ours (which we picked up cheap in a charity shop) does up around the waist so there’s less pressure on the wearer’s shoulders, has lots of space for stowing all your other baby kit (of which more later) and a frame that means it stands up by itself, making loading and unloading the baby girl much easier.

The only trouble is that all of those useful features add weight and bulk – I’m fairly slim and only 164cm (5’ 4”) tall, and the carrier plus an increasingly heavy baby girl is too much for me. So my partner uses the backpack carrier and I use the lightweight sling, ideally with someone else carrying the rest of the baby gear (more on how brilliant slings are in this recent post). If it were just me, lugging the baby girl and all of both our stuff, I wouldn’t attempt a walk longer than an hour or so.

Whatever set up you opt for, you want to keep additional weight to a minimum, while ensuring you’re prepared for all eventualities. Take the lightest possible changing mat, a couple of nappies and a few wipes in a ziplock bag rather than your usual nappy change wallet. Spare clothes (including a hat) are essential, especially if your child is in a backpack carrier – you’ll warm up quickly as you walk, but your baby will be sitting still, exposed to the elements.

We eschew trousers and socks in favour of pyjamas with feet to stop the baby girl getting cold legs when her trousers inevitably ride up. Waterproof trousers to go over the top are a good idea if you’re walking anywhere with the possibility of rain. It might sound like overkill but for hikes in locations where the weather can quickly take a turn for the worse, it can’t hurt to bring a lightweight storm shelter.

Don’t be too ambitious when it comes to route planning, even if you’re an experienced walker. A hike that might have taken a couple of hours baby-free can easily become the work of an entire afternoon once you’ve factored in pauses for snacks; bottle or breastfeeding; giving parental shoulders a break; and pointing and laughing at sheep. Remember, too, that there’s no shame in cutting a walk short if things aren’t working out as planned.

Parents of rolling or crawling babies should consider packing a mat or blanket; breastfeeding mothers will appreciate having somewhere dry to sit too. If you’re bottle-feeding, ready-to-drink formula is much more convenient on the move than making it up from powder. Finally, keep a ready supply of snacks in your pockets that you can produce with a flourish as a solution to sudden onset baby crankiness – you’ll all have a much nicer time.

A family climbs a mountain in the Lake District, the man in the foreground of the picture carrying a toddler in a baby carrier backpack.
Our first proper hike with the baby girl, climbing Lingmell in the Lake District in July 2017. She was sound asleep when this was taken.

 

 

 

 

Eating out with babies and toddlers

Eating out with a baby or toddler can be a stressful experience, so your choice of eatery is paramount. You’d be surprised by how many cafes and restaurants are welcoming to children, but there’s nothing worse than dealing with a grumpy/messy/loud baby or toddler while restaurant staff and other patrons give you evils. If you get a bad feeling about a place when you arrive with your offspring in tow, trust your gut and go somewhere else (if there are no other options available, apologise in advance, cross your fingers and grit your teeth). If in doubt – and it pains me to say this, because I’m a big cheerleader for independent businesses – opt for a chain, in the UK at least, as they tend to be child-friendly and well equipped.

A high chair isn’t essential, but having one will make your life considerably easier. If there’s not one available, pick a table with enough space to park your pushchair right up against it and leave your baby strapped in while you feed her. (Having the pushchair close by is helpful, even if you do have a high chair, as it means you’ve got everything to hand when you need it; it also avoids having to wake your little one up if she’s napping when you arrive.)

For trips away where you’re going to be eating out a lot – or if you know in advance that the venue has no high chair available – bring a portable high chair. Ones that clip onto the table are great because your baby will be at the right height, but they’re a pain to clean; plastic ones that strap onto the chair are easy to wipe down, but bulky to carry; and fabric ones that slip over the back of the chair are super light, but mean your baby will be at eye level with the table. Another option is a lap belt, which keeps her securely on your lap but allows you the use of your hands.

Check out the baby change situation before you commit – changing your little one on the floor of a toilet cubicle isn’t a pleasant experience, especially once she’s at the stage of trying to escape while you’re at it. If you’re travelling in the UK, the NCT has a handy app that shows you nearby restaurants (and other places) with baby change facilities.

I’ve never had an issue getting restaurant or café staff to provide hot water to heat up milk or baby food, but it’s best to ask about this as you’re being seated, just in case. Bringing food in from outside can feel a bit awkward, but I’ve never had any pushback on this either. The older the baby girl gets the odder it feels, so these days I try to order something for myself I know she’ll eat rather than lay out a baby food picnic. It’s worth bearing in mind though that restaurant food tends to be saltier than ideal for babies, particularly those under 12 months – fine now and again but not something you want to be doing every day.

It’s all rather simpler for smaller babies, so make the most of this stage, before your infant becomes an unruly toddler. Taking your baby in a sling (you can find my post on this piece of essential kit here) rather than a pushchair increases your options as you don’t need to worry about there being space to park it – and time it right and you might even get her to sleep through an entire meal.

The choice of table is important: if one of your party is breastfeeding, a chair with a back makes for a much more comfortable experience; and sitting with your back to the room allows for greater privacy while breastfeeding. (I’m very pro breastfeeding in public and in no way advocate women hiding themselves away while feeding their babies, but sometimes you’re just not in the mood to show your boobs to an entire restaurant.)

Wherever you’re sitting, consider your escape route for that moment when your baby kicks off and needs jiggling and pacing to calm down – assuming it’s not freezing cold or pouring with rain, outside, away from the gaze and eardrums of other diners, is often less stressful than in. In warm weather I’d always go for an outside table when given the option, for this very reason – in fact I’d go for an outside table with a bigger baby or toddler too, as there’s less of an issue of them making a mess outdoors.

Whatever the age of your child, it helps to manage your own expectations before you set off – meals out with babies and toddlers can be fun, chaotic (in a good way) and sociable, but they’re never relaxing. Be prepared for the worst and you might just have a good time.

A pram with a cloth covering a sleeping baby is parked next to a restaurant table with a glass of red wine on it
Eating out with a baby or toddler is usually easier if you can park the pushchair right up against the table.

How to sterilise your baby’s feeding equipment when you’re away from home

The NHS recommends sterilising any feeding or expressing equipment that comes into contact with milk until your baby is a year old. So if you do any bottle feeding at all and are planning on spending time away from home with your baby before she turns one, you need a portable way of sterilising her things. Even with the most generous baggage allowance in the world you’re not going to want to take your bulky plug-in electric steriliser on holiday.

If you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen, boiling the feeding equipment in a saucepan on the stove is a good solution that doesn’t require any extra kit. Make sure there’s enough water to cover the equipment, check that there are no air bubbles trapped, and boil for five minutes. If you put the bottles together with their teats and lids and keep them in a clean container, they’ll stay sterile for up to 24 hours.

An easier route, which doesn’t require access to a stove, is cold water, or chemical, sterilising. There are two options available – tablets and fluid – and which one is best for you will depend on the circumstances of your trip.

They work in the same way: you make a solution and submerge your clean feeding equipment, again ensuring there are no air bubbles. The equipment is ready to use after the time specified on the label (15-30 minutes usually); there’s no need to rinse it, just shake off the excess solution. The items will stay sterile if left in the solution for up to 24 hours; after that point you have to make a fresh batch.

The tablets are extremely light and take up no space in your luggage but are less convenient to use. Each tablet is designed to be dissolved in a specific quantity of water (which varies brand to brand) so if you don’t have a container large enough you’ll need to do some sums and split the tablets accordingly. The fluid is heavier in your luggage but it’s easier to measure out the exact quantity you need.

Whether you opt for fluid or tablets, pack a Tupperware box big enough for your requirements, measuring how much it holds before you travel (pack a lid too – the solution can bleach fabrics so you don’t want it splashing around). You’ll also need a bottle brush and washing up liquid to clean the feeding equipment before you sterilise it, though I’ve been known to use shower gel for the purpose.

Even if you’re not planning on doing any bottle feeding at all, it’s a sensible precaution to take feeding equipment and a couple of bottles of ready-mixed formula away with you if you’re travelling with an unweaned baby, particularly somewhere remote. In the unlikely event that something happens to get in the way of breastfeeding, you’ll want an alternative way of getting some milk down her.

Essential kit for cold sterilising – feeding equipment, sterilising tablets, Tupperware box – in a partially packed suitcase filled with baby clothes
Essential kit for cold sterilising: feeding equipment, sterilising tablets, Tupperware box

 

A jet lag survival guide for parents of babies and toddlers

Travelling long-haul is one of the few situations where being a sleep-deprived parent comes into its own. You may grumble when your baby or toddler repeatedly wakes you up in the middle of the night, but the benefit of such training is that when it comes to jet lag, you might not really notice much difference – you were tired to begin with, and now you’re just a little bit more tired, but in an excellent new location. Unfortunately, jet lag is almost certain to affect your child. Here’s what you can do to help her ­through it.

Where possible, book an outbound flight that doesn’t require waking your baby up earlier than usual. Leaving for the airport in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn is a pain as an adult, and doing it with a baby is worse. You want her as well rested as possible before you go. Similarly, encourage napping on the plane – easier said than done, of course, but always worth a go. I’ll go into this further in a separate post, but the sling is your friend in this situation.

Make a call depending on where you’re going about whether to adjust to the new time zone. If the difference is less than four hours, and you’re heading east, keeping your baby on home time can be a good workaround – she eats with you at adult dinner time and stays up until your bedtime, meaning no need for babysitters or spending your evening sitting in a hotel room in the dark beside your sleeping child (some useful hotel room tips here).

You can prepare for a bigger time difference by moving your’s baby bedtime forward or back a bit in the days leading up to the trip. I’ve personally never got organised enough to do this with the baby girl, but a couple of friends swear by it, and I plan to try it next time we travel long-haul.

Once you get to your destination, you might find that your baby sleeps really well the first night because she’s exhausted from the journey, but is wakeful at night and grumpy in the day after that. Don’t worry, it will pass; it’ll just take a few days – four probably. (And don’t worry about getting back into a sleep routine after the trip – that too will take a little while, but it’ll happen eventually.) But bear these timings in mind when booking your trip – if you’ve got less than 10 days to play with, a smaller time difference might be a better idea.

Being easy on yourself during those first few days is crucial, including not attempting any ambitious adventures until you and your baby are adjusted to the new time zone. Nap when your baby does so you’ve got some energy to cope with additional nighttime wake ups, and spend some time outdoors – day light helps kick the body clock into line.

Try to keep your baby’s bedtime routine as close to what it is at home so she knows on some level that it’s time to sleep even if her body is telling her the opposite. She might be hungry when she wakes at night – whether or not you feed her will depend on how you manage night feeds generally. My thinking with these things is just to go with it and trust that your baby will work it out eventually.

If you’re a breastfeeding mother, bear in mind that your milk production might go a bit haywire as it adjusts to your baby demanding feeds at different times (your boobs are jet lagged, basically). Pack a few extra sets of nursing pads to deal with possible leaks, and remember to drink plenty of water. (I’ll be going into greater depth on breastfeeding while travelling in a later post, so sign up to the mailing list to make sure you don’t miss it).

When it comes to jet lag so much depends on where, when and how you travel, as well as on the foibles of your particular child, so please share your baby and toddler jet lag hacks by commenting below. Forewarned is forearmed.

A baby sleeps in a sling worn by her father, her head covered with a muslin cloth. The wheely bag and passports he carries show that he's at the airport, about to board a flight.
You want to avoid arriving tired, if possible, so napping en route is a good idea – by whatever means necessary.

 

 

Train journeys with babies and toddlers

It pays to be very organised when it comes to taking a baby or toddler on a train, particularly if it’s going to be a long journey. Not all train companies will let you reserve a seat, and even the train companies that do don’t necessarily offer reservations on all their routes, but if you can book a seat, you should.

And the seat you should book, if it’s possible to specify (you can when booking direct through the Virgin trains website, for example, right at the very end of the booking process, or in person or on the phone with Great Western Railway), is one of ones closest to the wheelchair accessible seats. That way, if there’s no wheelchair user on your train, you can park the pushchair – unfolded – in the wheelchair space (it goes without saying that if a wheelchair user gets on, you have to give up the area for them). This avoids the faff of folding and stowing the pushchair in the luggage rack, but it also means you’ve got a place to put your baby down for a nap during the journey if need be. The wheelchair seats are also the closest to the disabled toilet, which is where you’ll usually find the baby change.

A pushchair with a cloth draped over it in the wheelchair area of a long-distance train, with the countryside rushing past outside.
Snoozing in the wheelchair area on a long-distance train.

If you can’t choose your actual seats when making a reservation (the case with the majority of operators), the next best thing is to select the ‘near the toilet’ option, as this will at least mean that you’ll be as close to the end of the carriage as possible. You might then have the option of leaving the pushchair unfolded, and standing with it while your baby sleeps, while at the same time keeping an eye on your stuff (less of an issue if you’re travelling with someone else of course).

This plan won’t work if the space between the carriages is small or if the train is busy, so be prepared to fold your pushchair. The underneath of the baby girl’s pushchair is perpetually in chaos, making it difficult to fold in a hurry, so before I set out on a train journey I try to remember to do an audit, taking out the non-essentials and making sure all the bits and bobs I might need are in one bag that I can quickly grab out of the pushchair and take with me to my seat. Travelling off-peak is always going to be preferable, but if that’s not an option consider leaving the pushchair at home. If you can get away with a sling instead you’ll have a much less stressful experience on a busy train.

A pram with a sleeping baby in the vestibule of a train.
The baby girl in her buggy in the area at the end of a train carriage.

In situations where you haven’t been able to reserve the seat you want, get to the platform as early as possible and ask a member of staff where the carriage with the wheelchair seats will be stopping, so you can be first to those seats. There’s a website and app called Realtime Trains that train staff use to get advance information on which platform trains are coming into – it’s a useful way to get ahead of the crowd on busy routes.

Once you’re seated, other things to consider are food and activities. I learnt the hard way that the staff in the café carriage can’t heat up baby food for you in the microwave – the ones on trains are too powerful apparently. They’ll give you hot water though, so heating up milk isn’t a problem. If you want to give your child hot solid food, pouches are a good idea.

A quick note about milk while I’m on the topic – while I’ve found breastfeeding to be far and away the most convenient option when it comes to travelling with a baby, the one situation in which I was glad to have a bottle with me was on an extremely busy train on the way to Hull when the baby girl was seven-weeks-old. It’s not impossible to breastfeed standing up on a tightly packed train, but it’s not ideal, especially if you’ve also got a couple of bags with you.

As far as activities are concerned, bring as many books and toys as you can bear to carry – it’s stating the obvious, but long train journeys are boring for small children. If you’ve nabbed those coveted wheelchair seats, put a picnic blanket on the floor to make a play area. The baby girl is only happy sitting on my lap for so long, and when she wants to be on the move, it’s easier to let that happen than to fight it.

Once you’ve reached your destination you may need to take a bus or, if you’re in London, the Underground. Check out my post on navigating public transport with a pushchair for tips on how to do that.

 

 

Essential kit, part 2: wireless bone-conducting headphones

Trying to get a baby to sleep can be tedious at the best of times. Throw in an unfamiliar location, early starts, late nights, missed naps, hot weather and jet lag and it’s probable that you’ll be spending more hours than you’d like at the start of your holiday pacing around a dark hotel room with a baby in your arms, or sitting next to a cot soothing a grumpy toddler.

Your child will settle into their new surroundings at their own pace, depending on various factors (stay tuned for posts on how to deal with jet lag and hot weather), but in the meantime, a pair of wireless bone-conducting headphones can provide some relief.

Initially developed for military operations, and now used by some cyclists and runners, these headphones sit just below your temples (see picture) and send the sound through your cheekbones to the inner ear, bypassing the ear drum altogether. With nothing in your ears, you can hear the world around you – including the baby being rocked to sleep in your arms – while keeping your brain occupied listening to podcasts, music or audio books. The fact that they’re wireless means no cord to get tangled up in.

IMG_8014

My partner bought me a pair of these headphones when I was pregnant and I’ve used them practically every day since the baby girl was born. They came in particularly handy those first few months when I was still feeding her frequently at night and needed something to keep me awake (I recommend getting an Audible account too), but these days it’s when we’re travelling that they’re really useful, whether we’re heading off long distance or just around the local area.

It’s possible to push a buggy one-handed while having a conversation on a mobile, but it’s safer and easier to use wireless headphones instead, and bone-conducting ones mean you’re still aware of traffic noise. I don’t generally listen to podcasts when I’m with the baby girl unless she’s sleeping, but there have been a couple of occasions when I’ve broken that rule, like on the four and half hour train journey back to London after a month at the Edinburgh festival, when I hit a wall of tiredness and had to keep my mind occupied so as not to nod off. It was only by listening to BBC World Service documentaries that I was able to stay awake for yet another round of take-things-out-of-all-the-bags-and-hit-them-against-the-table. I stand by my choice.

At around £100 a pop, these headphones aren’t cheap, but they’re definitely worth it.

What’s on your list of essentials for travelling with babies and toddlers?

Child passports

Applying for a passport for a child is very similar to applying for an adult, but as it’s probably been a while since you did that for the first time, here’s a refresher.

You can apply online or with a paper form, which you can pick up at the Post Office. The online form is more convenient, but you’re on your own with it, whereas there’s a ‘check and send’ service available with the paper application, via the Post Office.

As with an adult passport you’ll need to include two identical photographs, though the rules about how children and babies must appear in photos are not as stringent as for adults. Children aged five and under don’t have to have a neutral expression and don’t need to be looking straight at the camera. Babies under 12 months can have their eyes closed.

I had the baby girl’s taken at our local Snappy Snaps, with her lying on a beanbag, photographed from above. This got around the problem of trying to support her sitting up without my hands appearing in the picture (she was only two weeks old at the time).

The photos have to be countersigned by someone who has known you (the adult applying on behalf of the child) for at least two years. That someone has to be ‘a person of good standing in the community’ – which is a bit nebulous – or someone who works in or is retired from a ‘recognised profession’. You can find a list of accepted professions here. They can’t be related to you, or live at the same address, and they must be a British or Irish passport holder who lives in the UK.

I know several people who have been tripped up by the countersignature thing, and have seen their child’s application delayed as a result, so be careful with this bit. Make sure the person who does your countersigning has included contact details – the passport office do check up.

For most applications for first passports, the only other piece of paperwork you need, in addition to the form and countersigned photos, is your child’s birth certificate (particular circumstances require additional documentation, though, so do read the forms carefully).

Child passports currently cost £46, or £55.75 if you use the ‘check and send’ service, and you can pay by card, cash or cheque.

If you’ve filled everything in correctly and sent in the right documents, the passport will be ready in about three weeks. If you need it sooner than that, there is a fast track service to turn around a new passport within a week, for which you have to complete the paper form, attend an appointment in person, and pay a total fee of £87. Note that while adult passports can be processed on the same day, the one-day service isn’t available for child passports.

If you do need to attend an appointment, bear in mind that the passport office in central London has lifts and baby change facilities, but there’s nowhere to sit at the counters where you get your application processed. I’m pleased to report, however, that the guy who did the baby girl’s application for me didn’t blink an eye when I had to undertake a few minutes of emergency stand-up breastfeeding at his desk.

You can find more information on applying for passports for children here.