Sightseeing with babies and toddlers

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

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

Timings: feeding, nappies and naps

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

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

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

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

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

Essential kit

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

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

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

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

Where to visit

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

Museums and galleries

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

Places of worship

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

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

Historic houses

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

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

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

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

 

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 leave the house with a newborn

A smiling woman with a baby in a sling holds an ice cream cone.
Jubilant on an early solo outing with the baby girl.

Your newborn baby is probably not leaving you much free time to get things done, but it pays to get organised in advance, if you can. Being prepared ahead of time, rather than rushing to sort everything out just as you’re walking out the door, is key to reducing the stress of those first outings. (This advice holds good for older babies and toddlers too: having the baby girl’s bag and pushchair packed and ready to go makes getting out and about much easier; alas, I’m rarely as organised as I’d like to be. This is very much a case of do as I say, not as I do.)

If you’re taking your baby out in her pushchair, you’ll want a bag that will hang off the handles. Specialised changing bags are useful but by no means essential for this purpose – a lot of ordinary shoulder bags or shoppers will work just fine with a pair of pushchair clips (we use these ones from My Buggy Buddy). For journeys with a sling (often easier than a pushchair, and more comforting for very little babies – more about why slings are excellent in my ‘essential kit’ post on the subject), a backpack is almost certainly your most comfortable option.

Either way (and it’s not a bad idea to prepare two bags so you’re ready to go with both sling and pushchair), here’s what you need:

  • nappy changing mat and wallet with a few nappies and wipes (plus nappy rash cream and nappy sacks if you use them)
  • a muslin square or two, depending on how pukey your baby is
  • spare outfit – vest, sleepsuit, jumper
  • hat
  • blanket
  • spare T-shirt/jumper for yourself in case the baby vomits on you in an impressive way

If you’re breastfeeding you’ll also need:

  • spare nursing pads
  • bottle of water and some snacks for yourself

If bottle-feeding:

  • sterilised bottle and teat
  • bottle of ready-made formula OR powder formula in small sterilised containers, plus a vacuum flask of just boiled water
  • bib

Optional extras:

  • if you’re recovering from an episiotomy, an inflatable ring cushion to sit on
  • if you’ve got long hair, a couple of hair ties
  • if your baby suffers from wind, Infacol
  • dummies
A father with a baby in sling holds a pushchair
At the bus stop before our first bus journey with the baby girl.

For trips with the pushchair make sure you’ve got the sling with you just in case your baby has a meltdown and you end up needing to carry her in your arms. It should fit in the basket under the pushchair with no difficulties, leaving plenty of space for a rain cover and a sleep shade (another piece of essential kit). Have your baby’s bag packed and hanging off the pushchair ready to go, along with a buggy organiser to hold essentials such as a phone, wallet, sunglasses, etc.

Have your baby’s warm outer layer, your own coat, and a pair of comfortable, slip-on shoes (I wore the same pair of ankle boots every time I left the house for the first three months of the baby girl’s life) ready by the door, and don’t worry at all about what else you’re wearing or if you’ve showered that day. You will almost certainly have puke on you, but that’s fine: no one will care – they will be too busy being impressed that you have made it out the door with such a tiny human in tow.

The best moment to attempt an outing is immediately after a feed, so you’ve got maximum time before you need to find somewhere to sit and get your boobs/a bottle out again. Check that everything is ready to go (including making up a bottle of formula if you know you’ll be feeding your baby very soon – otherwise, it’s safer to stick with making up a new bottle when you need it), change your baby’s nappy, cross your fingers that she doesn’t poo again as you’re walking out the door and leave the house as fast as you can. Good luck.

 

Essential kit, part 7: baby sleeping bag

When the baby girl was born my mum gave me the beautiful blanket that my aunt knitted for me when I was a baby. After just a few months, alas, we had to stop using it – the baby girl is such an active sleeper that she ends up at the other end of the cot from where you put her, kicking off blankets and wriggling out of pyjamas in the process. Fortunately we had a hand-me-down baby sleeping bag given to us by a friend, and have since amassed quite the collection of them, turning to eBay each time we need the next size up or a different tog rating.

The primary benefit of the baby sleeping bag is that it keeps your little one warm (the Gro Company has a helpful guide to tog ratings and what your baby should be wearing underneath her sleeping bag), but it’s handy in other respects too. Zipping the baby girl into her sleeping bag is an important part of the bedtime and nap routine, working as an effective sleep cue whether she’s at home in her own bed, at nursery, or out adventuring with us. The baby girl is a pretty good sleeper when we’re travelling, which is probably as much to do with luck as anything else, but the presence of familiar objects like her sleeping bag surely can’t hurt.

The most practical baby sleeping bags, I’ve found, are those designed with travel in mind – they have a two-way zip plus a slot at the back so you can use them with a car seat or five-point harness. This means you can dress your baby in her pyjamas and sleeping bag when travelling at night, put her to bed in her car seat or pushchair, then transfer her to her cot when you reach your destination, without messing around with other layers. We do this on journeys, but also on holiday, doing the standard bedtime routine before heading out to a restaurant with the baby girl all wrapped up in her pushchair. I prefer this style for use at home as well – it’s easier to get the baby girl in and out of a sleeping bag with a zip down the front than it is the standard ones that do up at the side.

A sleeping bag is more convenient than a blanket on planes and trains too, or indeed in any potentially chilly environment where you might have your baby napping in your arms or on your lap. You can even put it on over a sling, though you probably won’t be able to zip it up.

A baby wearing a sleeping bag sleeps curled up in a ball at one end of a cot.
The baby girl wriggles around so much in her sleep that blankets are useless. A sleeping bag keeps her cosy wherever she ends up.

Essential kit, part 6: pushchair sleep shade

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Essential kit, part 4: sling

Aside from a pushchair, a sling – or baby carrier as they call them in the US – is the bit of kit you’ll use most often when adventuring with your baby. In the very early days it’s ideal for making her feel supported and secure while you have your hands free to get things done, whether at home or out and about. While your baby is little it’s also much more convenient to carry her on you than to lug a pushchair around, particularly in crowded environments or locations with lots of stairs, like train stations (but have a read of my post on navigating public transport with a pushchair for when you do get to that stage).

Once the baby girl was a few months old she got too heavy to carry about in the sling all the time, but I still never leave the house without it. I transfer her into it when I want to look around an art exhibition without the hassle of the pushchair, for example (more museum tips here), and use it as a tool of last resort to calm the baby girl down if she’s flaking out about something when we’re on the move. For long hikes my partner will carry her in our big backpack carrier, but I use the sling for short walks over terrain the buggy can’t handle.

A sling is particularly invaluable when flying, especially if you’re travelling solo with your baby. You can take a pushchair as far as the gate, or sometimes onto the tarmac, but you can’t take it into the cabin, so once it’s gone into the hold, a sling is the only way to effectively juggle baby, cabin baggage, passport and boarding pass. It’ll also save your arms and back when walking up and down the plane is the only thing that works to keep your baby quiet in the air. With any luck she’ll snooze in it too. (All this applies to train journeys too, of course.)

Finally, a sling means that you take your baby out with you in the evening during those first few crazy months before she’s settled into a bedtime routine and is still sleeping a lot of the time. This won’t work in all situations, obviously – you need to make a call depending on what you’re doing and where – but we took the baby girl out to dinner with us in her sling every night of our trip to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain when she was six weeks old (more on eating out with babies and toddlers in a future post – sign up to my mailing list so you don’t miss it), and I’ve been at comedy gigs where audience members have brought their little ones along.

We had the baby girl out in the evening with us in the sling at Glastonbury Festival too when she was nine-months-old. It wasn’t as easy as when she was small, as she was sleeping less well in the sling by then, but it was still doable and meant I could see more evening gigs than I would have otherwise been able to.

There are lots of different styles of sling to choose from, so see if you can find a local sling library to try some out before you invest – hire fees are usually minimal. For what it’s worth, the most popular brands among my parent friends are Ergobaby (we’ve got the 360) and Lillebaby. I never got on with stretchy fabric slings – too much material, hard to get the right fit – but my partner and I both loved our Vija tops, which look like ordinary T-shirts but have special supportive panels in them to enable you to carry a baby up to 7kg or so, with skin-to-skin contact.

A woman carries a baby in a sling, holding a pair of binoculars up to the baby's face. In the background is the rocky landscape with a lake.
The sling came in handy for short hikes in Joshua Tree National Park in California. © Steve Pretty

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.