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.

 

 

Baby and toddler hotel room hacks, part 2

In Baby and toddler hotel room hacks, part 1 I covered hotel rooms essentials, travel cots and tricks for getting your room dark enough so as not to disturb even the most light-sensitive baby. Here’s part 2, which focuses on noise, child-proofing, and how to avoid having to go bed at the same time as your child.

Noise-wise, you want to position the cot as out of the way as possible in the hotel room so you’re not having to walk past it all the time. Depending on your destination, it’s worth asking about the cost of a suite compared to a standard double – in a lot of the big US hotel chains there often isn’t much difference, and you’ll be grateful of the extra space to stow not just your sleeping child, but all their stuff too. If that’s not an option, a large cupboard can work nicely, assuming there’s adequate ventilation.

Whatever size room you’re in, white noise ­can be helpful to cover the sound of your creeping around after baby bedtime. There are various white noise smart phone apps available, plenty of them for free. If you’re worried about the noise from other guests and hotel staff, ask for a room at the end of a hallway but away from the lifts or stairs (this trick works the other way around too – the further you are from other guests, the less bad you’ll feel if your baby cries in the night). And remember to put the ‘do not disturb’ sign out if you’re staying in for nap time.

The most annoying thing about staying in a hotel or B&B rather than an apartment is that you can’t really leave the baby by themselves, so your own bedtime (or at least your sitting silently in the dark time) is dictated by your baby’s – not exactly the ideal holiday scenario. If you’re in a hot place, getting a room with a balcony is an excellent work round: it can’t compete with being out on the town, but at least you can have a beer and a conversation at a reasonable volume. If your hotel does room service or is okay with you bringing in a take away, even better.

The alternative is to do bedtime at the hotel – bath, book, pajamas, etc – but put your baby to bed in her pushchair (this only works if your baby will sleep in a pushchair, obviously), and take her out with you for the evening. If she’ll stay asleep while you transfer her from buggy to cot at the end of the night, do that. Ours always wakes up if we try that, so we just leave her in the buggy, in our room, until she wakes up of her own accord, and transfer her then.

For those times where you are confined to your room after baby bedtime or during naptime, I can’t recommend bone-conducting headphones enough. I wrote about them the other day so I won’t bang on again here.

Finally, consider packing a roll of duct tape for emergency child-proofing. Use it to secure drawers, tidy cables or pad corners of low tables. Just make sure you test your tape on an unseen area first to make sure it’s not going to take off the paintwork or leave a mark.

I’m sure there are lots of brilliant tricks I haven’t discovered yet, so comment below with your own hotel room hacks, or tweet them to me using the #babyadventuring hashtag.

A pushchair with a sleeping baby in it on a country road in the mountains
The baby girl snoozing in her pushchair on the way to the Wasdale Head Inn in the Lake Distract for dinner after doing ‘bedtime’ at Burnthwaite Farm B&B

 

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?

Museums and galleries

Babies may not seem like ideal companions for gallery-hopping, but with some advance planning, taking a baby to a museum can be a surprisingly fulfilling experience. I’ve actually been on more visits to more museums and galleries with the baby girl than I did in the year leading up to her birth – which is saying something, because, you know, I’m an arts journalist.

The easiest time to take your baby to a museum is before she’s interested in rolling around. Those first few months, it’s just a matter of putting her in a sling and making a note of where the café is so you know where you can sit down and have a rest. You’ll need to bring all the usual baby paraphernalia with you, of course, so I’d recommend taking a pushchair too, or you’ll get pretty tired pretty quickly carrying it all around. Most large museums and galleries will be accessible with a buggy, but if they’re not – or you don’t fancy walking around with it – ask to leave it in the cloakroom. Smaller, quirkier institutions, or those in developing countries, can be less well set up in this regard, so consider packing light and leaving the pushchair at home, in the car, or wherever you’re staying.

Once your baby is of an age where she’s not content to be carried around for extended periods, you need to be pickier about where you’re visiting. Is there an area at the museum you’d like to go to where it would be safe and appropriate to let your baby roll or crawl around on the floor to give her a break from the sling or buggy? Dedicated children’s galleries like the ones at the National Museum of Scotland are ideal, but large foyers like at the Barbican Centre also work, as do immersive installations like Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment at Tate Modern.

Visiting with a small person in tow, you won’t be able to spend hours absorbing every detail of every exhibit in the way that you might if you were there by yourself, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Knowing that you can’t possibly do it all removes the pressure of trying to do so, and the experience can be more enjoyable as a result. That said, if your baby will nap in a sling or buggy, you can probably squeeze in an hour of uninterrupted culture if you time it right.

With toddlers there are a few more things to consider. Lots of museums and galleries run free activity sessions for children and families, so check before you go to see if there’s one that coincides with your visit. Self-guided activity trails can be fun too. If there’s nothing like that on offer, buy a few postcards at the gift shop on your way in, and make a game of finding the object or art work as you go through the museum. Not all toddlers will have the patience for such an activity, but you could try the simpler, DIY version instead: do basic drawings in a notebook of objects that appear – trees, cars, etc – and get your offspring to race around trying to find them.

Public transport with a pushchair

Even an activity as mundane as taking a bus or local train (you can find my post on longer train journeys, including which seats to reserve, here) can be a scary experience the first time you attempt it with a pushchair. It doesn’t take long for this new way of getting around to become second nature, however, once you get the hang of a few key manoeuvres.

There’s space on most buses to park a couple of buggies, though if someone in a wheelchair wants to get on, they take priority and you’ll either have to fold your pushchair or get off and wait for the next bus. If it’s just you on the bus, try and position your buggy so another one could fit in without you having to get up and faff around with it mid-journey. I usually end up taking the baby girl out of her buggy on the bus, as she’s easily bored, but if that’s not possible, it pays to have a couple of toys or snacks with you to serve as distraction. When it comes to getting off, wait until the bus has stopped before taking off the pushchair brake, then exit backwards.

Trains are a slightly trickier prospect, but are worth the additional hassle in terms of increasing your range of options of places to visit. When dealing with stairs, you’ll find yourself relying on the kindness of strangers…a lot. A reassuring number of people offer to help when they spot you at the top of a flight of stairs with a buggy, but it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes you have to pluck up the courage to ask, and sometimes you have to be quite vocal about it. On several occasions I’ve been known to call out, ‘excuse me, man carrying the duffle bag/woman in the trench coat…’  Once you’ve done a particular journey a few times, you get to know which carriage to travel in so that you can get to the stairs before all the other passengers have already rushed away – getting stuck on an empty platform waiting for a potential helper to get off the next train is no fun at all.

It’s nerve-wracking taking a pushchair on escalators, but actually very doable. As you board a down escalator, keep your focus on the back wheels, positioning them against the upright of the step; the front wheels will be hanging in mid-air. To board an up escalator, position your front wheels against the upright of the step, holding the buggy handle up high so the wheels are level (this time the back wheels will be in mid-air).

Some stations have lifts, which are obviously the safest and easiest option when travelling with a pushchair. The only downside is that beeping doors risk waking a sleeping baby, so I’ll sometimes take the escalator even if there’s a lift.

Finally, and this might be stating the obvious, but try and avoid rush hour. Some of the most stressful times in those first few months after the baby girl was born were on super busy buses and trains, having mistimed my journey home. Not recommended.