Essential kit: non-spill trainer cup

The toddlers walks beside a laden pushchair
Never without her non-spill trainer cup

When it comes to travelling with a toddler – or even just going out and about near where you live – a non-spill trainer cup is a real necessity. Even if your toddler is perfectly happy and able to drink from an open cup, chances are that plenty gets spilled in the process, whether as a result of poor coordination, mischievousness, getting distracted, or a combination of all three. That’s fine at home, where you can be on hand to wipe up any spills, but it’s not ideal in a restaurant, on public transport or wherever else you happen to be. A cup with a lid keeps things nicely contained.

As well as keeping the liquid in, a good toddler cup also serves to keep anything else out, from backwash to grubby fingers. If you’ve ever let a toddler drink from your glass and instantly regretted it, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

Make sure that any cup you take out with you has a non-spill spout so it doesn’t leak in your bag. I’ve tried various kinds and have had most success with the Tommee Tippee Trainer Sippee Cup – no leaks at all. This model also has the benefit of handles that you can hook over the handle of a pushchair or the seat pocket of a car.

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Essential kit, number 11: portable high chair

I’ve tried a lot of different types of portable high chair since I began travelling with the baby girl, and my favourite is definitely the Totseat.

This washable fabric harness slips over the back of most chairs, meaning you can make almost any chair into a high chair, whether at a restaurant, café, or in the home of a friend or family member. The Totseat folds down into a bag no bigger than a packet of wipes and is so light that I keep ours in the bottom of the baby girl’s buggy all the time, or in my handbag if we’re buggy-free. It’s suitable for babies and toddlers aged 6 to 30 months.

The only downside of the Totseat, compared with other portable high chairs, is that there’s no option but to have your baby at eye level with the table. Meal times therefore tend to be messier and require more involvement from an adult than might be the case with a portable high chair hanging from the table, or one with its own tray (more on the different options available in my post on eating out with babies and toddlers).

As far as I’m concerned though, the benefits of the Totseat’s adaptability and portability outweigh this slight inconvenience. Sitting the baby girl on a couple of cushions or, even better, rolled up towels, is an effective workaround.

What’s your must-have piece of kit for eating out with your baby or toddler?

Toddler in a portable high chair at a table in a restaurant
The baby girl in her Totseat portable high chair

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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.

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.

Essential kit, part 5: baby monitor app

Almost every time we travel with our baby monitor we discover on returning home that we’ve left at least one part of it behind, necessitating either a trip to retrieve it or getting someone to post it back to us. The irritation we feel at our own idiocy is even more acute in those situations when the monitor hasn’t actually done its job, whether because the distances involved were too great, or the signal was blocked by thick walls or floors.

Fortunately, some friends introduced us to the Baby Monitor 3G app; not only does our regular baby monitor now stay safely at home when we travel, but we can be confident that we’ll be able to keep an eye on the baby girl in whatever situation we find ourselves in while on the move.

It’s extremely simple to use. You just buy and download the app on two devices – it’s available on Apple and Android phones, watches and tablets, plus Mac computers and Apple TV – and pair them, nominating one as the ‘baby station’ and one as the ‘parent station’. The app runs live video (or just audio, which uses less data) over wifi or 3G networks, and you can change the sensitivity of the microphone to suit the surroundings.

The app costs between £3.59 and £4.99 per device, plus any data charges if you’re using it over 3G, but that’s it – no in-app purchases or anything of that rubbish. Great for grandparents or other family members who only need a baby monitor on an ad hoc basis, and also for travel scenarios where you don’t have access to mains power, such as when camping.

When travelling by myself with the baby girl I take an old handset along so I can keep both my phone and laptop with me while still using the app. The spare handset is useful for travelling as a family too – god forbid one of us having to cope without our phone for the evening: how would we tweet about what a nice time we were having?

An Apple iPhone runs the Baby Monitor 3G app, showing that the baby is awake.
Uh oh

 

 

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

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.

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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?

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.