Practical tips for a scuba diving holiday with a baby

Published by Diver, May 2018, with the headline “Baby diver”.

Scuba divers come out of the sea while a baby watches on a beach
The baby girl watches while her diving parents emerge from the sea at Gozo’s Wied il-Ghasri gorge © Yoji Caird

Almost the moment my partner and I found out that I was pregnant, we started talking about the first dive trip we’d take with the baby. We had lost count of the number of times that people, on finding out that we were divers, told us wistfully how much they used to love diving too…before their kids were born and that phase of their life came to an end. We really didn’t want that to happen to us, but we knew that we would need to be proactive if we were going to continue diving as new parents.

When our daughter was three-months-old we booked a week’s diving at a Red Sea resort with some friends who have a baby around the same age. That trip, which took place when she was seven-months-old, was exhausting, but it was also an unqualified success and got us talking about where we could take her next. Two dive trips later – first to the Maltese island of Gozo, then to El Hierro, the most remote of the Canary Islands – this is what we’ve learned.

Choose your destination wisely

While in the past our choice of dive destination was informed mainly by what we could afford and whether we had the time to do it justice, these days there are more factors to consider. Babies and jet lag are a bad combination, so we try to avoid time differences greater than four hours unless we’re going away for at least 10 days. Flight time and transfers come into play too – long-haul flights are doable with a baby or toddler, but short-haul is certainly easier, and the smoother the transition from airport to accommodation the better. If you’re itching to visit a particular long-haul destination, however, there is definitely an argument for doing it sooner rather than later – most airlines charge a small fee for travelling with a baby, while toddlers two and up pay full fare.

All those considerations might seem limiting, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: there’s a lot of world out there to dive and it can be helpful to have your options narrowed a bit. Being forced to shift the focus onto some of the excellent, but less glamorous, diving available closer to home can be positive too. We are UK-based, but had never thought to go the Canaries before, for example, because far flung spots like Sipadan and the Great Barrier Reef just seemed like more tempting options. But on our recent trip there, we dived on an underwater volcano, spotted bull rays for the first time and explored some of the prettiest shallow caves we had ever seen.

Family-friendly dive centres

A man and a woman in scuba gear stand at the seaside with their daughter in a pushchair
Before a dive at the Salt Pans on the Maltese island of Gozo © Yoji Caird

Dealing with staff who are willing to be a bit flexible about how they do things (within the bounds of safety and not negatively impacting other divers, of course) makes all the difference when it comes to diving with a baby in tow. We really fell on our feet with the staff at the dive centres we’ve visited since travelling with our daughter. The dive guides and RIB driver at Orca Dive Club Soma Bay in Egypt were extremely patient when we arrived a few minutes’ late for the scheduled departure time for almost every dive, for example, while those at Atlantis Dive Centre in Gozo let our daughter and my babysitting brother (see below for more on childcare on dive trips) come with us in the dive truck so they weren’t stuck in the apartment.

Let the dive centre know that you’ll be travelling with a baby when you first enquire about a trip. Or if you’re booking through an agent, ask them to sound out the dive centre on your behalf. If they appear uptight at this stage, look for an alternative – travelling with a little one is unpredictable enough with having to worry about dive centre staff throwing a hissy fit if you have to opt out of a dive at the last minute.

In addition to making the diving itself more relaxing, and therefore more enjoyable, a family-friendly dive centre can also be helpful when it comes to recommending baby-friendly restaurants or activities, and some will even arrange babysitting. At Atlantis our little one was delighted to find a huge pile of toys belonging to the daughter of the couple who own it; and we were delighted to be able to sort out our gear in peace after each dive.

Get informed about your accommodation

If having the dive centre close by was important before, it’s even more so now – babies take up a lot of time and you don’t want to spend any more of it in transit than strictly necessary.

Other factors to consider when you’re choosing accommodation are proximity to shops, bars and restaurants, availability of healthcare (more of an issue at remote destinations in the developing world than elsewhere) and the presence of a pool (ideally heated) or baby-friendly beach.

The biggest accommodation decision you need to make is between resort and self-catering. The latter is certainly easier as far as flexibility around meals and snacks for your little one, but grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning take up valuable time that you might otherwise be able to spend diving. Hotel buffets are also excellent if your little one is hard work at mealtimes, allowing you to tag team eating and childcare while not letting your dinner get cold.

Make the most of childcare

Two women in scuba dive gear hold babies wearing sun hats
Tag-teaming babysitting and diving © Steve Pretty

Couples where only one partner dives have it easier when it comes to travelling with a baby – just make sure the non-diving partner gets some relaxation time doing what they like, too.

If both dive, the simplest option is to tag team diving and childcare, but that can feel like a somewhat sad way to spend a vacation if part of what you love about scuba is sharing it with your other half.

Many resorts have a free or inexpensive kids’ club, some of which are open to children from the age of two. This can be an excellent – and fun – solution to your childcare problem, but won’t be right for all children. You need to be prepared for your child to take a while to settle in or refuse to go altogether.

Taking a non-diving friend or relative along to babysit is a good alternative; and offering to cover some of the costs might entice more candidates for the role, if your budget stretches that far. Or go with another pair of diving parents who will be happy to look after your little one while you dive and vice versa.

Be organized

Vacations are supposed to be about kicking back and going with the flow, right? Sadly not, if you’re talking about taking your baby away with you diving. Gone are the days when you can just roll up at the dive centre, do a day of diving and head straight to the bar afterwards. That doesn’t mean you won’t have a brilliant trip, it just means you need to do a bit more day-to-day planning than you used to.

On our trip to Egypt, my partner and I and the other couple all each squeezed in two dives a day every day by doing very efficient changeovers. After each dive the babysitting pair would be waiting at the dive centre with the babies, ready to hand them over the moment the diving pair were out of their wetsuits. As the new diving pair prepared for their dive, one of the new babysitters would take charge of the babies, while the other rinsed and hung up both sets of gear. We would also discuss at dinner each night who was diving and when on the following day, making use of both early morning and sunset dive options so we could pack in as much time underwater as possible.

For self-catering trips, meal planning will allow you to have as chilled out a surface interval as possible, especially if your accommodation is close to the dive centre. It’s not always easy pinning down exactly how long you’ll be out on a dive, so having something easy like sandwiches or leftovers that be quickly thrown together or heated up is a good route to go down.

Be prepared for a slower pace

A woman and a baby play on rocks, photographed from the water
Hanging out at El Tacarón natural swimming pool on El Hierro on a day off from diving © Steve Pretty

Unless you’re taking a babysitter along who’s happy to look after your little one all day every day, it’s unlikely that you will be able to do as much diving as you did on trips pre-parenthood. Chat with your partner (and whoever is helping with childcare, if applicable) before the trip about your expectations – all things considered, how many dives will you each be able to do per day? Getting into the right frame of mind – that you’re there not just for diving but also to spend some time together as a family – will ensure you have a more enjoyable experience.

With that in mind, it’s probably best to hold off on those bucket list dive destinations until your child is old enough to be left at home with a relative while you travel – or of an age to dive with you! You don’t want to fly half way round the world just to spend your trip seething with jealousy when you find out that you missed out on seeing the sardine run/marine iguanas/a shoal of manta rays because it was your turn looking after the baby.

Destinations that require long boat trips to reach the dive sites are best saved for another time too. Opt instead for a resort with an excellent house reef, or plenty of local dive sites, so you can dive a couple of times a day with a minimum of fuss. You may not see anything really earth shattering on this type of trip, but sometimes a slower pace can give new passions room to breathe, whether that’s observing fish behaviour, spotting rare nudibranchs or getting handy with a GoPro.

Remember that increased time topside is also an opportunity to immerse yourself in the cultural side of a destination, get to know a new cuisine or explore the great outdoors, all elements that might have played second fiddle to the diving before your little one came along.

Don’t be intimidated

If all this sounds like hard work, don’t worry…I promise that it will be worth it. A dive vacation with your baby in tow is a very different beast to the dive vacations you took before you became parents but different doesn’t mean inferior – go into the experience with your eyes open and you never know what adventures you might be letting yourself in for.

A jet lag survival guide for parents of babies and toddlers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.