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.

 

 

Essential kit, part 3: pop-up tent travel cot

I’m not looking forward to the day the baby girl outgrows her pop-up tent travel cot. We bought it for a trip to Goa when she was four-months-old, and have used it every time we’ve gone away since then, at hotels, B&Bs, in our campervan, when staying with friends and relatives, and for nearly a month over the summer when we were working in Edinburgh.

It’s handy for a lot of reasons, the primary one being that it functions almost like a separate space within the room because it’s entirely enclosed once it’s zipped up. It’s not soundproof, and it doesn’t entirely block out the light, but it’s better than an open cot in both respects (if it’s not dark enough in the room we’re trying to get the baby girl to sleep in, we usually drape a breathable blanket over the top of the tent). The zip itself is important too: zipping the tent closed works as a sleep cue – for our baby at least (except when it doesn’t, of course). And once it’s closed, it’s a barrier to mosquitos and other insects.

Given how different sleeping in the tent is from sleeping in a cot, you’ll want to do a few practice runs before you go away. It took the baby girl two naps in the tent in our living room at home to get used to it, as I recall.

Depending on your destination and type of trip, you might find the tent useful in the daytime too; and for more than just napping. We put the baby girl in it all the time in Goa so she could roll around with her teething rings and toys in a relatively clean environment. We must have looked ridiculous carting it to and from our room all day, but the staff took it in their stride. We thought we’d use the tent on the beach a lot, but ultimately it was too hot to do that, so we stayed in the beachside restaurant most of the time and took turns going for dips in the sea. We’ve used it camping too, as a way of safely stowing away the baby girl for the moments when two sets of hands are required to set up or strike camp.

Further perks are that it packs down very small and is very light. It’s so small and so light in fact that you can take the tent as carry-on on a plane, or pack it into your luggage. Your actual cot cunningly concealed, you can then pass off another small bag as a travel cot, thereby making the most of your infant baggage allowance of (usually) travel cot, pushchair and car seat. I’ll be covering infant baggage allowance separately in a future post, so sign up to the mailing list if you want to read more (there’s a link on the sidebar on the right).

A major downside of the tent is that it doesn’t provide complete shade, so you can’t rely on it in sunny places – your baby will still need sun cream, a hat, etc. It gets pretty warm in there too – in Goa we used a little battery-operated fan and covered the baby girl with damp muslin squares to keep her cool.

The tent is very easy to pop up and pack away, but the fact that you have to be either on the floor or in a very deep bend to get your child into and out of it means that it won’t be ideal for all parents/carers. We use a conventional travel cot when we take the baby girl to stay at her grandparents’ house.

Baby on holiday in a pop-up tent travel cot on a beach in Goa, with the sun setting over the sea. A mini fan is keeping the baby cool. There are sun loungers on the beach.
The baby girl in her pop-up tent travel cot on the beach in Goa, her miniature fan keeping her cool.

Baby and toddler hotel room hacks, part 1

Self-catering accommodation is almost always going to be preferable when travelling with a baby or toddler, but if you need to stay in a hotel or bed and breakfast, here are some tips to make the best of the situation. This post is a little longer than usual, so I’ve split it into two parts; look out for part 2.

Before you book, get in touch to find out what the hotel or B&B provides in terms of in-room amenities. A kettle is very useful for warming up baby food or milk, and a fridge for keeping it cold. If they’re not available – more common in a B&B – ask if you can use the management’s kitchen.

If there’s an option, and you can afford it, always go for a room with an en suite bathroom. It’s easier for baby bedtime, means you can keep dirty nappies separate from where you’re sleeping, and serves as a nightlight if you leave the door open a crack. Also, you don’t want to be traipsing to and from the communal bathroom when you realise you need to pee after you’ve got up to feed or soothe the baby. Ask for a bathroom with a tub; if there isn’t one available, pack a small inflatable paddling pool.

Washing and sterilising bottles is more challenging without a kitchen, but perfectly doable in an en suite if you’ve packed the right paraphernalia. You’ll need a bottle brush, a bit of washing up liquid (though I used shower gel last time and it was fine), cold sterilising tablets, and a Tupperware box with a lid. I’ll do a separate post on this another time.

Many hotels will provide a cot if you request it in advance, but bear in mind that it might be rubbish – the hotel we stayed at in Egypt didn’t include mattresses in theirs. So if you can handle the extra luggage, bring your own travel cot. If not, pack some bedding just in case – this has the added benefit of smelling like home, thereby making your child feel more secure in a new place. The baby girl kicks off her blankets so we use a sleep bag instead (it also comes in handy on planes).

The first few trips we did with the baby girl she slept in the carrycot bit of her pram. When she outgrew that we moved her into a little pop-up tent, which packs down very small and is super light. The other benefit of the tent is that it’s its own contained environment so your baby isn’t distracted by her surroundings. Whichever style of travel cot you opt for, have your baby nap in it a couple of times at home so it’s familiar when you go away.

If your child needs darkness to sleep, consider packing a SnoozeShade to cover the cot. That way you don’t need to worry too much about chinks of light coming in between the curtains, and can have a light on in the room after your baby has gone to sleep but before you’ve gone to bed (I find the buggy model of SnoozeShade invaluable too). For co-sleepers, bring a travel blackout blind instead, which you can sucker onto the window. They’re a bit of a faff to use, but worth it if your baby is very sensitive to light. You’ll want to buy head torches too if you’re co-sleeping – ones with an infrared setting won’t wake the baby but are bright enough to see your way around and to read by.

That’s it for now. I’ll cover dealing with noise, childproofing and some tricks for bedtime in the next post…

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The baby girl napping in her tent in our hotel room in Egypt (our hotel rooms are always this messy).