How to do a music festival with a baby

Family-friendly music festivals offer a brilliant opportunity to hang out with your little one in a totally different way than you do at home, throwing the routine out the window and taking the days as they come. For parents of babes-in-arms that might mean revisiting your pre-child life, strapping your baby into a sling so you can stay up late and have a dance to your favourite bands. For toddlers, a festival is a (relatively) safe, contained, outdoor environment with thousands of exciting new sights, sounds, tastes and smells to experience. Watching festival gigs with the baby girl and seeing her dance along are some of my all-time favourite moments as a parent.

Of course, being at a music festival with a baby or toddler isn’t always easy. Make no mistake: it’s a very different experience from doing a festival child-free. There will be times where the lack of routine causes problems and times where you wish you’d left your little one at home altogether. But with a bit of pre-planning and a willingness to go with the flow, the good far outweighs the bad and everyone ends up having a lovely time.

Here are my tips for a successful festival with a little one, split into seven sections: how to choose a festival; camping; getting around; sleeping and napping; feeding and snacks; what to pack; and the importance of a getaway plan.

How to choose a festival

Adults and children play on the WOMAD sign at the music festival
Exploring at WOMAD Festival

If it’s your first time taking your little one to a music festival, opt for a smaller, family-focused one, such as Latitude or Just So Festival. Or if there’s one you’ve been to before and know well, that works too – just make sure you’ve done your research about family camping and other facilities for babies and small children. I’d steer clear of any festival that doesn’t have a family camping area or advice for families on its website, unless you’ve been before or have had a personal recommendation from someone you trust.

Some family-friendly festivals run a shuttle service from the carpark to the family camping area so you’re not having to lug all your gear – and your baby – by yourself, while others provide the facilities for baby bath time. Most offer a wide range of fun activities for even the littlest kids.

If your baby isn’t crawling yet, you don’t need to worry too much about activities however. Various festivals have baby areas, which are handy if you fancy a quiet sit down, and really come into their own in bad weather. More likely though, you’ll want to take advantage of your baby’s portability to make the most of the festival’s offerings for grownup punters.

It makes sense to pick a festival not too far from home for your first go with your little one, unless there’s a particularly good reason to opt for somewhere further afield. Picking up wristbands, parking and setting up camp can be time-consuming and tedious, so cutting down on your travel time will make the whole process that bit easier.

Camping

I’ve confessed my personal bias for campervans elsewhere on the blog, but that doesn’t make what I’m about to write any less true. When it comes to festival camping, more than any other camping trip, a campervan is your friend: quieter, warmer, more secure, easier to keep tidy and better for making a quick getaway if you need to. If I didn’t own one I would seriously consider hiring one for festivals. While an awning is an excellent addition for a standard camping trip, it’s not really necessary for festival camping, as you’ll mostly be hanging out away from where you’re camped. If you need extra storage space, a small pop-up tent works well.

In my post on camping with babies and toddlers I advise buying the largest tent you can afford, and that holds here too. A lot of festival camp sites will feel safe enough to leave your buggy outside at night, but you can’t guarantee that until you get there, so make sure your tent has enough room to bring your buggy inside (and bring a piece of tarpaulin to put it on so you don’t get the rest of the tent grubby).

A tent with a separate interior room means you can sleep separately from your child, and a blackout tent is an ideal solution for little ones (or their parents!) who are sensitive to light. If that’s not an option, a pop-up tent travel cot is an effective way of creating a bit of a cocoon around your sleeping baby – it doesn’t block out all the light but is better than nothing, and will keep her safe from biting insects too.

There’s lots more practical advice about camping with babies and toddlers in my dedicated post on the subject. Lots of it is relevant for camping at festivals – using pillowcases rather than suitcases for clothes, for example, and ideas for baby bedding – but don’t worry about the section on bath time as it’s unlikely you’ll have the facilities to do it properly at a festival. Baby wipes are your friend here.

Getting around

A man pushes a child in a pushchair at WOMAD Festival
The baby girl in her three-wheeled pushchair at WOMAD Festival, 2018.

A pushchair – ideally one with big wheels – is essential festival kit, as far as I’m concerned. I did Glastonbury last year with the baby girl (aged 9 months) in just a sling and it was exhausting. The combination of her weight and a backpack full of baby paraphernalia was just too much, a situation made worse by the fact that she would only sleep in the sling if I was standing up. At festivals this summer I’ve been able to put her to bed in the pushchair (see below), wearing ear defenders, and stay out late, whereas at Glastonbury last year I had to put her to bed in the van each night and miss out on the fun.

You could probably do a festival with just a sling with a smaller baby, and someone to help lug the baby stuff, if you really wanted to, but I don’t see why you would. By all means bring a sling, because it will definitely come in handy at some stage, but a pushchair just makes everything a lot easier (and doubles as a means of transporting your camping gear from the car park to the campsite). Just don’t forget the rain cover. And if you’re taking a pushchair with pneumatic tyres (which I highly recommend as they offer a much smoother ride over bumpy ground), remember to bring a bicycle pump and puncture repair kit.

Feeding and snacks

A toddler in a sun hat eats corn at a gig at WOMAD Festival
The baby girl munching on corn on the cob in a pause from dancing along at WOMAD Festival.

Jars and pouches of readymade baby food come in very handy at festivals, along with non-perishable healthy snacks such as oat bars, rice cakes, baby crisps, nuts and dried fruit. You don’t want to be queuing up and paying over the odds for food every time your little one gets peckish. And while it’s unlikely you’ll be doing much cooking, it makes sense to bring muesli or cereal for breakfast so you’re not having to leave the campsite before you’re ready to start the day proper.

For bottle-fed babies, pre-sterilised bottles, while wasteful, are the easiest and most hygienic way to go, given that you probably won’t have access to hot water for washing up. The other option is to use cold water sterilising tablets, which I’ve written about how to use elsewhere on this blog. Bottles of ready-mixed formula are much more convenient than messing around with powder with a grubby festival happening all around you.

Sleeping and naps

Part of the fun of being at a festival is the freedom from the usual routines, so it makes sense to come with a more relaxed attitude to napping and bed time. That said, foregoing naps altogether is a recipe for disaster for most small children – it’s a matter of finding the right balance for your family.

In any case, a festival is such a stimulating environment that your little one will probably just conk out of her own accord in the pushchair or sling at some point. If you can anticipate that happening, try to put on her ear defenders before she does so that you’re free to explore without worrying about noisy gigs waking her up or damaging her hearing. A pushchair sleep shade is handy for keeping the sun off her while she’s napping during the day and for blocking out bright lights at night time.

When it comes to bed time, we tend to do our usual bedtime routines at the campsite (pyjamas, teeth brushing, sleeping bag, story) then take the baby girl out with us in the pushchair. She doesn’t normally fall asleep until long after her usual 7pm bedtime, and sometimes we even get her out of the pushchair for a run around if she wants to, but eventually tiredness gets the better of her.

What to pack

A toddler wearing ear defenders watches a gig in a tent at WOMAD Festival
The baby girl in her ear defenders enjoying a gig at WOMAD Festival, 2018

These days you can buy almost anything at a festival, so it’s not the end of the world if you forget something essential. But in an ideal world, on top of all the usual festival essentials (cash, phone booster battery, etc), you’ll need:

For babies and toddlers
Sunscreen
Sun hat
Ear defenders
Plastic-coated picnic blanket
Extra baby wipes
First aid kit
Infant paracetamol/ibuprofen
Baby sleeping bag
Sling

For toddlers only
Waterproof jacket and trousers
Non-toxic permanent marker for writing your phone number on your toddler in case she wanders off

Getaway plan

In all likelihood it’ll all go smoothly and you’ll have an awesome time but when you’re travelling with a little one it’s reassuring to have a getaway plan in case unforeseen circumstances (torrential rain, for example) make you wish you were elsewhere.

Write a list of important phone numbers and keep it in your wallet so you’ve got them handy in case your phone dies. Have a look to see where the nearest hospital with an A&E department is, and write that down too. On arrival, make sure wherever you’ve left your car will be accessible throughout the festival in case you need to drive off early. Or if you’re going by public transport, do some research as to how you would reach the nearest station or bus stop in a hurry. Finally, in the event that you needed to leave late at night or just couldn’t face camping for some reason, what’s the accommodation situation like nearby?

Have fun!

Baby and toddler destination guide: El Hierro, Canary Islands

We took the baby girl with us to El Hierro, the smallest and most remote of the Canary Islands in January 2018. We were there for nearly three weeks, staying in a tiny village called La Restinga at the southernmost point of the island and splitting our time between diving (I was researching an article for Diver Magazine), exploring El Hierro and tag-teaming looking after the baby girl so we could both keep up with work while we were away.

It was a fantastic trip and I hope this post encourages you to visit El Hierro too. You might not have heard of it – I hadn’t – but it’s an extremely beautiful and peaceful place to spend some time. If you’ve ever been to El Hierro, please add your own tips in the comments.

A woman holds a baby in the afternoon sunshine. In the background is the beautiful view of the coastline of El Hierro from the visitor centre at El Julan © Steve Pretty
The astonishing view from the visitor centre at El Julan © Steve Pretty

Getting there

You can fly to El Hierro from Gran Canaria and Tenerife North with local airline Binter in around 40 minutes (most flights from the UK arrive at Tenerife South Airport so you’ll need to leave plenty of time for the transfer). Or there’s a ferry from Los Cristianos in Tenerife to Valverde on El Hierro (the port is a 15-minute drive from Tenerife South airport), operated by Navaria Armas. The crossing takes around two and a half hours and can be pretty choppy so remember to bring medication if you suffer from sea sickness. The chief benefit of the ferry is that you can take as much luggage as you want, while there’s a very stingy allowance on the tiny planes that operate on the inter-island flights. There’s a luggage pick up and drop up service for foot passengers on the ferry.

If you’re taking the ferry from Tenerife, hiring a car at the airport when you arrive is more convenient than waiting until you arrive in El Hierro (though there is a car hire company at the port in Valverde). There’s car hire at the airport in Valverde too, and in the centre of town. Car hire firms on El Hierro and Tenerife can supply child car seats but make sure you book in advance as numbers are limited. To feel completely secure, either bring your own from home or hire one from Hire4Baby Tenerife and they’ll have it waiting for you at the airport in Tenerife when you arrive (they also have pushchairs, cots and high chairs).

There is a taxi rank at the airport in Valverde or you can book an official El Hierro taxi in advance. They can’t provide child car seats so you’ll need to bring your own. Local buses run from Valverde port (numbers 7 and 11) and airport (number 10) to Valverde town every couple of hours, where you can transfer to other routes to reach your final destination.

El Hierro is small, so your transfer from the ferry port or airport will be under an hour, unless you’re doing it by bus, which takes longer because you have to change in Valverde town.

Getting about

While buses on El Hierro are inexpensive, clean and very punctual, there aren’t very many of them – most routes run 7am to 10pm on weekdays (earlier at weekends), with departures taking place only every couple of hours.

Hiring a car is a much more convenient way of getting around and works out relatively inexpensively. Not to mention the fact that there are some truly spectacular drives on El Hierro that you’d miss out on without your own vehicle. The roads are in excellent condition, so no worries on that front, but bear in mind that the island has only three petrol stations, so you need to plan ahead to avoid getting caught out.

Pavements are generally in good condition so walking with a pushchair is no problem in villages and towns all over the island. That said, almost everywhere is very hilly so be prepared for a workout. With the exception of Valverde and Frontera, the island’s biggest towns, there’s very little traffic on El Hierro – the baby girl wasn’t walking yet when we were there but I wouldn’t hesitate to let her toddle along on the pavement if we were to go back.

Eating out

A baby having its nappy change on a shelf next to a window with an amazing view of a shoreline
No baby change facilities at Mirador de La Peña restaurant but the view from the loos made up for it

The staff in every restaurant and café we went to were very happy to accommodate the baby girl, whether by providing a high chair or letting us park her out of the way when she was sleeping in the pushchair in the evening. None had baby change facilities.

Essentials

The supermarkets on El Hierro are all small and quite expensive, which isn’t surprising given that almost everything is brought in by boat from the mainland via Tenerife. That said, we were able to find a wide range of nappies and baby wipes in most supermarkets we visited. Supermarkets close for a few hours at lunchtime and are closed on Sunday afternoons.

Emergencies

The phone number for emergency services is 112 in the Canary Islands and there’s an accident and emergency department at Hospital Insular Ntra. Sra. de Los Reyes in Valverde. A European Health Insurance Card (this post tells you how to apply for one for yor child) will cover you for emergency treatment or treatment for existing conditions. More information on healthcare in the Canaries on the NHS’s website.

Things to do

A man hikes through a volcanic seaside landscape with a baby on his back on El Hierro in the Canary Islands
Hiking through the volcanic landscape east of the natural swimming pool at La Maceta

El Hierro has a handful of sandy beaches, including at Arenas Blancas, El Verodal, Las Playas, Tamaduste and La Restinga (the latter two are very little), but you won’t find much in the way of amenities. Some have an outdoor shower and public toilet, but that’s usually about it.

Much more common on the island are sea water swimming pools carved into the volcanic shoreline and accessed by the sort of ladders you find at actual swimming pools. While less convenient for families with small children than a sandy beach, these areas boast open access barbecues, shady picnic tables, showers and toilets, and usually a bar or restaurant (some of which are only open in high season).

When it comes to non-seaside pursuits, we found small playgrounds in La Restinga, Valverde, at the Pozo de La Salud spa hotel in Sabinosa (the restaurant is open to non-residents) and at the Hoya del Morcillo recreation area in the forested centre of the island. There’s lots of fantastic hiking on El Hierro, so you’ll want to bring a sling or backpack carrierThe visitor centre at El Julán, which is dedicated to the ancient people of the island and has the most incredible views, has an area of floor cushions that looks inviting for toddlers, while the Centro de Interpretación Vulcanológico outside La Restinga is immersive enough to be entertaining for little ones while the grown-ups learn about volcanic activity on the island.

Local village festivals, such as El Pinar’s celebration of its patron saint San Antonio Abad in January are exciting for small children, and families with babies and children of all ages come together to watch the local sports obsession, Canary Islands wrestling. Matches take place in the evening. It’s hard to find information about this sort of community event online so remember to ask in the local tourist office (only two offices are listed here but there are more than that on the island, I promise) if there are any festivals or wrestling matches taking place during your stay.

 

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Essential kit, part 8: ear defenders

A smiling mother holds a newborn baby wearing ear defenders in an empty theatre, while a man plays saxophone in the background. Credit Steve Pretty
The baby girl at her first soundcheck, when she was 7-weeks-old. © Steve Pretty

We owned a pair of baby ear defenders – sound-reducing ear muffs – before we owned a cot. That’s what happens when you have a baby with a musician.

In all seriousness though, buying those ear defenders felt like a statement of intent. We were determined that having a baby wouldn’t stop us from doing the things we love, including going to gigs, and we knew that to have the baby girl along with us at noisy events, we needed some kit.

The thing to look for when you’re buying ear defenders is the SNR value, which tells you how much sound they cut out. Most of the ones available for babies and children have an SNR value of around 26db – enough to stop their hearing from being damaged, while not totally cutting them off from what’s going on around them.

Ear defenders that fold up are more convenient and less likely to be accidentally damaged in your bag. The more comfortable they are, the more likely that your little one will keep them on. At least that’s the theory – the baby girl was perfectly happy to wear ear defenders when she was little, but started to object at around 12-months-old. These days we have to keep her constantly distracted while she’s wearing them or she’ll whip them off in a flash.

We started the baby girl on a pair of Ems for Bubs, which come with an adjustable elastic headband, making them suitable from birth. Once she outgrows them, at 18-months-old, we’ll be getting her a pair of Ems for Kids. Whichever style you go for, just make sure the ear muffs cover the ear completely and that no hair is in the way.

We bought the baby girl’s ear defenders to use at gigs, but the first time she wore them was actually at a wedding of some friends of ours when she was two-weeks-old. The music wasn’t all that loud, but combined with the hubbub of conversation, it was all a bit overwhelming for her. We put on the ear defenders, she calmed down and we were able to relax and enjoy the party.

We took the baby girl to Glastonbury when she was about nine-months-old and kept her ear defenders on us at all times. She wore them at gigs, of course, but we also put them on at nap time, which was always spent on the move in the sling. That way we were free to explore the festival without having to wake her up to put on the ear defenders when we found ourselves in a noisy environment.

 

 

Adventure review: Rave-A-Roo, Ministry of Sound

The first time I went to the Ministry of Sound – at the tender age of 16 – someone threw up on my shoes in the queue. On this most recent visit, to check out indoor family festival Rave-A-Roo, the worst that happened was a leaky nappy. I think you could call that progress.

Launched in early 2016, Rave-A-Roo is a brilliant concept: an opportunity for children to dance, play and generally run wild in an environment so stimulating that it takes them all weekend to wind down again, while their parents drink overpriced prosecco and indulge in nostalgia for their clubbing days.

The baby girl isn’t really Rave-A-Roo’s target audience, but babies are welcome, and there are enough exciting things to look at (giant disco ball, anyone?) and different places to sit to make this little adventure worth the trouble.

Clouds of bubbles waft over us as I park the pushchair in an undercover area in the venue’s courtyard, a suitably enthusiastic DJ Cuddles (I’m desperate to know if he uses this stage name for adult gigs too) playing pop tunes in front of tables covered with jewellery-making paraphernalia.

Worried about the volume levels, I bring the baby girl’s ear defenders, but they end up staying in my bag. The main room – headlined by none other than everyone’s favourite ovine film star Shaun the Sheep – would be too loud to go without ear protection for longer than a few minutes, but the baby girl isn’t interested in being in there anyway. Crawling is all she wants to do right now, and the main room isn’t the place for it, so despite the temptation of a flock of inflatable ducks, we leave it to the bigger kids.

We spend most of our time in the Funky Soft Play Room, carving out a corner for ourselves in the midst of dozens of wired toddlers. The soft play isn’t quite as soft as it should be – the only cushioning on the floor of the inflatable that holds the soft play equipment is a few rag rugs – and there’s no one in authority keeping the rowdier children from going rogue. The small pile of baby toys in the corner is welcome, but positioned in such a way that it feels like we’re in constant danger of being stepped on.

The other place we hang out is Chill-A-Roo, aka the Ministry’s VIP area, which overlooks the main bar on one side and the biggest club room on the other. No concessions to the family crowd here apart from a barista serving proper coffees, but the baby girl is happy enough sitting on a banquette and hitting her cup against the table while I drink a hot chocolate.

At £12.10 for early bird tickets (going up to an eye-watering £25 on the door) for adults and children over the age of 18 months, Rave-A-Roo isn’t cheap, but the super friendly vibe, plus nice touches like nappy change supplies in the loos, swings it for me. The baby girl will be too little to really appreciate it for a while yet, but if Rave-A-Roo is still running in two or three years’ time, you can find us in da club.

A baby holds a ball in amongst some soft play equipment.
The baby girl larging it in the Funky Soft Play Room at Rave-A-Roo at Ministry of Sound.

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?

Welcome to Baby Adventuring

I’m a freelance travel and arts journalist and, as of autumn 2016, mother to a very cheery baby girl. This is a practical blog inspired by my travels with her, that I hope will be practical and inspiring for you. Before I get started though, here’s some context.

My partner and I spent years deliberating starting a family, trying to work out how a baby might slot into our busy freelance lives. Travel has been a passion for both of us, as well as important in our work, for as long as we can remember, so finding a way to continue our adventuring with a small person in tow was something we came back to again and again. Every trip we went on, whether for business or pleasure, the conversation would inevitably turn to how we might manage in such a place with a baby. We knew that travelling as a family would be different to travelling as a couple, and that some compromises would be necessary, but we were committed to approaching these new travel adventures with the same spirit that had informed our plans thus far.

There’s only so much you can game these things out of course, so eventually we decided to go for it. Our daughter was born just over a year ago and has proved remarkably amenable to gallivanting, accompanying us on work trips and holidays including a city break to Santiago de Compostela, Christmas with the in-laws in the ‘burbs, diving in the Red Sea, camping in drizzly Devon, visiting family in California, and to Glastonbury Festival, as well as countless trips into and across London from our home in Hackney.

Not all these adventures were 100 per cent fun, 100 per cent of the time, but I’d do them all again. (Well, I’d do most of them again. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend taking a four-month-old to Goa for just 10 days; we had a lovely time, but jet lag + heat + baby girl trying to put everything in her mouth = more stress than ideal.)

I’ve learnt a lot this past year and the aim of this blog is to package up some of those lessons to hopefully bolster the confidence of other parents to travel with their babies and toddlers. You don’t need to fly across the globe – baby adventuring is just about continuing to explore the world while your kids are small. For some, that might mean checking out a local arts festival, going camping as a family or taking your baby to the seaside. Others among you will be desperate to pick up where you left off in late pregnancy and whisk your newest family member away to far flung destinations. Most will fall somewhere in between, and this blog will have things in it for all you.

I’ll be asking for your tips too, and inviting you to request topics for me to cover. I hope this can be a space for conversation, an online version of the sort of chat that parents of small children share in WhatsApp groups, in cafes and at the playground. Parenting is largely trial and error, as far as I can tell – but mining your friends and acquaintances for tips certainly increases your chances of success. The same is true for travelling with babies and toddlers – I’d like this blog to be another location for that mining to take place.