Taking your baby or toddler swimming is great fun, whether you’re visiting your local pool or taking a dip in a hotel pool on holiday. Your little one might be nervous of the water at first – clinging onto you like a baby monkey and objecting every time her face gets wet – but it won’t be long before she’s merrily splashing and demanding to be thrown up in the air.
Some of the information in this post will be applicable to swimming in the sea but my main focus here is swimming pools (I cover beach visits more fully elsewhere on the blog). I found my first few swimming pool visits with the baby girl quite stressful – while the actual swimming part was lovely, the logistics of getting changed, dealing with the pushchair, showering with a baby, etc, were surprisingly challenging. Now I’ve got the hang of it all, I wanted to share what I’ve learnt in the hope that when you start taking your little one swimming, it all goes smoothly from the very start.
Before I begin, a quick note about when to take your baby swimming for the first time. While lots of pools advertise swimming lessons for babies from a few weeks old, it’s advisable to wait until your baby is around six-months-old before taking her swimming in chlorinated water. Young babies have extremely sensitive skin which is easily irritated by the chlorine and other chemicals in pools, and there is some suggestion that immature lungs can be damaged by breathing the chlorine-rich air in badly ventilated indoor swimming pools.
Choosing a pool
Most large public swimming pools in the UK will have a training or toddler pool with warmer water than the main pool, but it’s worth checking in advance. If you end up in a pool where the water temperature is less than around 26°C your swim will be very short indeed, which hardly seems worth the effort.
Outdoor pools at hotels and resorts are very often unheated, so take a small inflatable paddling pool with you that you can fill from the pool or shower and leave to warm up in the sun.
Whatever the temperature, it makes sense for your little one to wear a wetsuit. You’ll be moving around in the water, but your baby probably won’t be and she’ll get cold soon. A wetsuit will buy you time, though bear in mind that even in a warm pool, wearing a wetsuit, 20 minutes is about the maximum time you can expect to spend in the water. A full body wetsuit is also useful in terms of protecting your baby’s skin from the sun if you’re swimming outside.
Swim nappies are required for public pools. You can choose between disposable and washable. Washables are better for the environment and make sense financially if you plan to take your little one swimming a lot. A washable swim nappy fits tightly around your baby’s legs and is worn with a washable cotton liner and flushable paper liner that catch the poo. Disposable swim nappies are more widely available, including at a lot of public pools. If your baby will be in and out of the water a lot over the course of a day – in the pool at a resort, for example – disposables are easier, though once you get the hang of travelling with a couple of spare cotton and paper liners, washables work well too.
I also usually bring a ball or toy watering can to play with in the water, and a poncho towel for warming the baby girl up as fast as possible after showering. Plentiful snacks work as a good distraction for the few minutes when you’re getting dressed after your swim.
Scope out the whole changing area when you arrive, before you get your baby out of her pushchair. You’re looking for somewhere spacious and close to the baby change table, lockers and showers. If there’s nowhere close to all three, the changing table should be your priority as you’ll need somewhere safe to put your baby while you get ready.
Get yourself ready first, as you want to leave your baby in her nappy until the very last minute – you don’t want her pooing in her swim nappy before you even get in the water. Be as organised as possible when it comes to putting your clothes in the locker so you can get dressed again quickly after you’ve been swimming; same with your baby’s clothes. Your baby will most likely be knackered, cold and hungry by the time you get out the water and have finished showering, so you want the process of getting out of there to be as quick and efficient as possible.
Take a small washbag with whatever you need for the shower with you to the poolside, along with a towel. This saves you having to return to the locker before showering.
If you’re by yourself with a small baby, the most you’ll realistically be able to do in the shower is rinse off the chlorine. You can then shower properly and give your baby a bath when you get home. Remember to moisturise as the chlorine will dry her skin.
Some pools have baby-friendly changing areas with changing tables or wall-mounted high chairs that can go in the shower, giving you the opportunity to shower properly. Or if your baby can sit or stand by herself, you can put her on the floor at your feet, assuming she’s okay with getting water on her face. As with most things baby-related, it’s nerve-wracking the first time you do it, but fine thereafter.
Don’t worry about getting dry yourself until your baby is dry and warm (ah, the selflessness of parenthood). Once you’re dry, get your baby dressed, then distract her with a bottle or snack of some kind while you get dressed. If you’re breastfeeding, factor a post-swim feed into your timings.
I’ve never really considered myself much of a camper – my parents didn’t take me camping as a child and the one trip I did with school was awful – yet in 2010 my partner and I decided that an 1980s VW campervan would be a much better investment than a boring old hatchback. Since then we’ve been all over the UK in it (and the newer one we bought when the first one got too unreliable), as well as to France, Sweden and Norway, squeezing in camping trips when we can alongside my work trips, touring with my partner’s band, and myriad friends’ weddings.
We’ve taken the baby girl camping in the van several times now and here’s what we’ve learned so far,* divided into 10 sections: tent or campervan; packing; choosing a campsite; choosing a pitch; setting up camp; sleeping; feeding; nappy changing and potties; bath time; and insects. I’m sure there will be things I’ve missed, so please add your own tips for camping with babies and toddlers in the comments below.
Tent or campervan
Clearly I’m biased, but a campervan is definitely the way to go if your budget will stretch that far. I’d recommend owning one, but there are places to hire them all over the place if you’re not up for that sort of commitment or financial outlay.
The benefit of vans over tents is that they’re warmer, quieter to sleep in, more secure and you can bring more stuff with you. Many vans will also have a fridge, hob and sink – much easier than setting up a camping kitchen outside a tent and useful for storing baby food and milk. A drive-away awning, which is basically a large tent that you attach to the sliding-door side of the van, provides extra space, and is particularly handy as a self-contained play area once your little one is crawling. Inflatable awnings are more expensive but much faster and easier to erect and strike than traditional tents with poles.
The major downside of a campervan (much as I hate to regret that a downside exists) is that you have to pack everything up if you want to go off exploring in it, whereas with a tent you can just jump in the car and go, leaving your whole camping apparatus in situ. Tents are also much less expensive than campervans to buy or hire of course.
When it comes to choosing a tent (or indeed a campervan awning for that matter), get the largest you can afford: large tents are slightly more time-consuming and complicated to erect than small ones, but not exponentially so, and if you’re stuck inside with a baby or toddler on a rainy day, you’ll want as much space as you can get. Essential elements are a covered porch area (ideally with a ground sheet) so you’ve got somewhere to cook and eat without getting food smells in your tent, as well as a place to store your pushchair and muddy shoes. An internal room is useful so you can sleep separately from your child. As with awnings, an inflatable tent will save you a lot of time.
Don’t bother with suitcases and pillows. Designate a different colour pillowcase for each family member and use them to pack clothes into instead. Then cram all your pillow-suitcases into a black bin bag so they don’t get grubby in transit or when setting up camp. Half way through the trip you’ll need to consolidate clean clothes into one pillowcase and dirty clothes into another.
Choosing a campsite
Tastes vary – I like my campsites relaxed, peaceful and in wild and beautiful locations, and am not too fussed about the state of the toilet facilities, while some people value a neatly maintained shower block and aren’t bothered by the immediate surroundings. The good news for new parents is that camping with a pre-crawling baby is much the same as camping child-free, so you can choose your campsite based on the same criteria you would have done in the past, whatever your priorities happen to be.
Once your baby is heading towards toddlerhood, facilities like a play area, beach or on-site petting zoo are a major boon.
Choosing a pitch
Again, tastes vary. We usually prefer to be as far from the toilet block as possible, as this tends to be the least busy area of a campsite, but there are benefits to being closer to the facilities once you’re camping as a family. Bear in mind though that if your baby is sensitive to noise, somewhere without a lot of passing traffic will give you all a better chance of a good night’s sleep.
Setting up camp
If there are only two adults in your party, try to time your arrival for when your child is sleeping – unless you’ve opted for a small tent, pitching camp single-handed while your other half holds the baby is challenging. Other options are for one person to wear the baby in a sling as you pitch the tent together, or to set up a travel cot to serve as a play pen. Going camping with friends or family members offers the distinct advantage of there always being someone else around to hold the baby while you get things done, of course.
Dress your child in extra layers to minimise the chance of them waking up cold in the night. A 3.5 tog sleeping bag on top of a long-sleeved vest and all-in-one sleep suit or pyjamas will keep your baby toasty in temperatures as low as 14 degrees centigrade. If you don’t have a sleeping bag that thick, doubling up lighter weight ones will work just as well.
Noise is trickier to deal with but choosing a quiet pitch will help. White noise could come in handy too.
In campervans with a pop-top roof, the bed in the roof is a good place to put your baby if you don’t want her in your bed with you. The baby girl’s pop-up tent travel cot fits our roof area perfectly, and it means she’s in no danger of rolling out. When she outgrows the tent we’ll start using the safety net that came with our van (it was converted from a panel van by a guy who went camping a lot with his children) to keep her safe in the roof at night. We sleep in the rock ‘n’ roll bed (see picture below), leaving the awning free for any friends or family camping with us.
As already noted above, a large tent with an internal room will enable you to sleep separately from your child, and more importantly, it’ll give you the option to hang out comfortably inside after your baby has gone to bed and while she’s napping.
As far as I’m aware, there isn’t really a way of feeding your baby while camping that isn’t a bit of a faff. There are lots of options available, but none are without their drawbacks.
A foldable camping high chair is very lightweight and packs away small but the tray is so flimsy that your child will end up covered with food (even more so than they already do). Standard travel booster seats (we have this one) come with sturdier trays, but you’re unlikely to have a chair with you that you’ll be able to attach such a booster seat to safely. That means feeding your child with the booster seat either on the ground or on a table, neither of which is ideal. A lap belt will keep your baby on your lap but means you’re stuck in one place until she’s finished her meal – you’ll also end up covered in food, which is more of an issue that it would be at home because you probably won’t have access to a washing machine. On balance, we find the lesser of these evils is the inconvenience of feeding the baby girl on the ground, so we use a booster seat.
Jars and pouches of readymade baby food come in very handy while camping, since you probably won’t have the space, utensils or storage options available for making your own. Now that the baby girl eats most things we just plan our meals so they’ll appeal to her too, but when she was smaller we always made sure to have a packet of couscous with us on camping trips that we’d add to readymade baby food for extra texture and bulk. That and bits of cucumber, bread and yoghurt mostly formed her diet on those early trips.
For bottle-fed babies, cold water sterilising is your best bet. You’ll need sterilising tablets or liquid and a large plastic container with a lid. See this post for how to do it.
Nappy changing and potties
We try to keep nappy changing to one area in the campervan or awning for the sake of convenience and hygiene but inevitably end up changing the baby girl here, there and everywhere. We just take her nappy change wallet and stow extra nappies, wipes and biodegradable nappy sacks (important in this context to keep odours to a minimum) in an easy-to-access place in the van for refilling when necessary.
I’m not usually a fan of one-use cleaning products, but antibacterial wipes are an important bit of kit when it comes to camping with a baby or toddler still in nappies. We keep bottles of hand sanitizer all over the place too, as with the best will in the world you’re not going to be washing your hands on a camping trip as frequently as you would be at home, and sanitising is better than nothing.
Don’t forget to pack a potty if your toddler is potty trained, as well as some biodegradable potty liners. Your child will most likely use these on camping trips long after she’s toilet trained – far preferable to a long walk to the toilet block in the middle of the night if she wakes up needing a wee.
Bath time is an important element of lots of babies’ bedtime routines but you’d be hard pressed to find a bathtub at most British campsites. The solution is to pack a small inflatable paddling pool, which you can either use in the shower block or in the porch of your tent if the weather is warm enough. Option two is more labour-intensive as you’ll need to carry water from the nearest tap and heat it up on your camping stove, but it’s nicer being able to do nappy and pyjamas within the quiet and privacy of your own tent, rather than in a bright shower block.
Parents of toddlers who don’t require a bath to get into sleep mode but are grubby enough to need hosing down before bed can experiment with taking their little ones into the shower with them, though I’d only recommend it once your baby is a confident stander. As with showering after swimming, this requires a bit of forward planning to make sure you can get your toddler dry and dressed before they get cold, while also getting dressed yourself. (I’ll be covering trips to the pool in another post, so sign up to the mailing list if you’d find more tips on swimming with a baby or toddler helpful.)
Insects are more of an issue in some areas of the UK than others, so look into this before you decide on a campsite if you know your family is likely is be bothered by bugs. Wherever you go however, it’s a good idea to take child-friendly insect repellent with you, and to keep tent doors zipped up at all times, especially in the evening. We learnt this the hard way during a camping trip in the Yorkshire Dales in summer 2017, ending up with an awning full of midges and a million bites each – not fun.
It won’t surprise you to learn that beaches are a hit with babies and toddlers. From smashing sand castles (building them is beyond the baby girl so far) to splashing in rock pools, and from putting pebbles in shoes to picking up random bits and bobs and exclaiming excitedly about them, the fun is pretty much endless.
The entertainment taken care of, all that’s left to think about are a few practical concerns. Here are my tips:
1. Stay in the shade in the middle of the day, ideally between 10am and 4pm.
2. If your baby is under six months old, keep her out of direct sunlight entirely. Put her in lightweight clothing so she’s as covered up as possible, and use baby-safe sunscreen (the higher SPF the better, but at least 15+) on any exposed areas.
3. Apply sunscreen when changing your baby or toddler’s nappy at home before leaving for the beach. It’s much easier to get consistent coverage for that first application when she’s naked and not already covered in sand. Apply it all over just in case – you never know when a toddler might decide to strip off, and you want there to be sunscreen on when she does.
4. The easiest way to apply sunscreen to a baby or toddler is with a roll on. You can make your own from an empty roll-on deodorant – just pop the ball out with a spoon, wash and refill.
5. Reapply every two hours, or more frequently if your baby has been in water.
6. Minimise the faff of reapplying sunscreen all the time with a UV-protection suit.
12. Another good way of keeping your baby cool is by covering her with a damp cloth (though admittedly less successful after she’s started crawling).
13. If your toddler isn’t enthusiastic about drinking water, keep her hydrated in hot weather by offering snacks like cucumber and watermelon.
14. Leave the pushchair at home, if possible, and take your baby to the beach in a sling instead. Dragging a buggy through sand or over pebbles is no fun. If you need a place to put your little one down to nap, consider packing the pop-up tent travel cot I wrote about here. It doesn’t offer full UV protection, so you can’t safely leave her in it in full sunshine, but if you’re in the shade, it’s ideal for a snooze.
Your newborn baby is probably not leaving you much free time to get things done, but it pays to get organised in advance, if you can. Being prepared ahead of time, rather than rushing to sort everything out just as you’re walking out the door, is key to reducing the stress of those first outings. (This advice holds good for older babies and toddlers too: having the baby girl’s bag and pushchair packed and ready to go makes getting out and about much easier; alas, I’m rarely as organised as I’d like to be. This is very much a case of do as I say, not as I do.)
For trips with the pushchair make sure you’ve got the sling with you just in case your baby has a meltdown and you end up needing to carry her in your arms. It should fit in the basket under the pushchair with no difficulties, leaving plenty of space for a rain cover and a sleep shade (another piece of essential kit). Have your baby’s bag packed and hanging off the pushchair ready to go, along with a buggy organiser to hold essentials such as a phone, wallet, sunglasses, etc.
Have your baby’s warm outer layer, your own coat, and a pair of comfortable, slip-on shoes (I wore the same pair of ankle boots every time I left the house for the first three months of the baby girl’s life) ready by the door, and don’t worry at all about what else you’re wearing or if you’ve showered that day. You will almost certainly have puke on you, but that’s fine: no one will care – they will be too busy being impressed that you have made it out the door with such a tiny human in tow.
The best moment to attempt an outing is immediately after a feed, so you’ve got maximum time before you need to find somewhere to sit and get your boobs/a bottle out again. Check that everything is ready to go (including making up a bottle of formula if you know you’ll be feeding your baby very soon – otherwise, it’s safer to stick with making up a new bottle when you need it), change your baby’s nappy, cross your fingers that she doesn’t poo again as you’re walking out the door and leave the house as fast as you can. Good luck.
We took the baby girl with us to the Maltese island of Gozo in November 2017, when the baby girl was around 14-months-old, and had a brilliant time. We only spent a week there, so this guide is by no means exhaustive – if you’ve been to Gozo with a baby or toddler, please add your own tips in the comments.
Gozo doesn’t have its own airport, so you need to fly to Malta International Airport, then transfer by hire car, taxi or bus to the ferry terminal at Cirkewwa. It’s a 40-minute drive and the ferry crossing takes around 25 minutes. You buy tickets on the journey back to Malta. Gozo itself is very small, so your transfer the other end is unlikely to be more than 20 minutes.
If you don’t want to hire a car at the airport (local options are available on Gozo itself), the most convenient way of getting to your accommodation is to book a taxi to transfer straight through to Gozo on the ferry. The cheaper option to have a Maltese taxi drop you at the ferry terminal and a Gozitan one pick you up the other end.
On our recent trip I just assumed that the transfer we had booked would take us direct to our accommodation, and was initially dismayed when it turned out we had to unload at the terminal, board as foot passengers and go from there. In the end, though, it all worked out fine – there’s an efficient luggage pick-up and drop-off service for foot passengers on the ferry which meant we only had to deal with the pushchair and hand luggage.
It’s a legal requirement for children under the age of three to use a car seat in Malta, and children up to the age of 10 can only sit in the front seat if they have one. Some taxi companies will be able to supply a car seat, so it’s possible to book one for your airport transfers. If you’ll be using taxis a lot to get around the island though (which I don’t recommend as they’re expensive compared to both buses and car hire), you should bring your own. If you’re hiring a car, you can hire a car seat with it.
Buses on Malta and Gozo (which run 5:30am-11pm daily, plus overnight on Fridays, Saturdays and public holidays) can accommodate up to two unfolded pushchairs. We found drivers and fellow passengers very helpful when it came to getting on and off, even when the bus was totally packed. Gozo bus routes radiate from a central terminus in Victoria, the main town at the centre of the island, which means you have to change buses if you want to get from one seaside place to another, or to tourist spots like the Ġgantija Temples.
High, narrow, uneven pavements make getting around with the pushchair a little perilous, but traffic mainly moves slowly enough in the villages that it doesn’t feel too unsafe in those moments when you have to walk in the road.
The staff in every restaurant and café we went to were very happy to accommodate the baby girl, whether by providing a high chair and a bowl of plain pasta or letting us park her out of the way when she was sleeping in the pushchair in the evening. Most also had baby change facilities and several had child menus.
You can buy nappies and wipes in the mini markets in the various small resort towns, but for anything else (baby toothbrushes, etc), and for more choice, you’ll need to go to one of the proper supermarkets in Victoria. Supermarkets are open all day, every day – the smaller ones have restricted hours in the off season. Chemists also sell baby supplies – they are usually open Monday-Saturday, though at least one on the island is always open on Sunday morning.
In terms of baby food and formula, small supermarkets have a very limited range, but the big supermarkets are better equipped. Small supermarkets all sell fresh milk.
There are sandy beaches at Ramla and its much less accessible neighbour, San Blas (don’t try taking a pushchair). San Blas is entirely undeveloped, while Ramla has a small kiosk selling snacks and drinks, so you’ll need to bring everything with you. There’s no shade at either beach, though you can hire umbrellas at Ramla.
There are smaller sandy beaches in the resort towns of Marsalforn and Xlendi, and lovely stony bays all over the place. Our favourites were Mgarr ix-Xini and the gorge at Wied l-Għasri, a secret spot you reach via 100 steps cut into the cliff.
Travelling a lot for work, I prefer to spend as little time packing – or thinking about packing – as possible. Nerdy though it may sound, I never start the process without consulting one of several packing lists – city break, hot climate, cold climate, hiking, scuba diving, etc.
The baby girl was four-weeks-old the first time we went away with her, to a cottage in Wales to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday over a long weekend. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t have a packing list for the task at hand. After a chaotic day and night throwing baby stuff into various receptacles almost at random, we managed to hit the road. My partner driving, I immediately set about writing a list.
Here it is, more tidily laid out than in the original version on my phone, and with a few annotations. I hope you find it useful. If there’s anything I’ve missed, please add your own packing essentials in the comments (I’ll be doing a separate post on travelling in hot climates – if you want advice about what to pack for a hot climate trip in the meantime, drop me a line in the comments below).
Muslin squares For swaddling, cleaning up, and as comforters.
Nappies 8-12 nappies per 24 hours away, depending how much your baby is pooing in the days leading up to your departure. You can almost always buy nappies where you’re staying, but if you’re travelling with a very small baby, or are going somewhere remote, better to be safe than sorry and take enough from home to last you for the whole trip.
Nappy wallet and change mat Including nappy sacks, nappy rash cream and hand sanitiser.
Pram/pushchair Sunshade for napping, plus a bag of some kind to pack the pushchair into if you’re flying. We have the official travel bag (bought on eBay) for our Bugaboo Bee (also eBay), which is excellent because it protects the pushchair from being chucked around by baggage handlers and also gives you extra space to stow baby stuff. If you don’t want to buy the official version for your pushchair, there are generics available. But go for one with wheels and/or backpack straps if possible. In a pinch you can use a heavy duty bin liner for each bit of the pushchair (and remember to pack extras for the return journey).
Travel cot/tent/bassinet Having been on a couple of trips now where the cot provided hasn’t been fit for purpose, I highly recommend bringing one of your own.
Wipes One pack of wipes per 72 hours away. Though you can buy baby wipes when you arrive, the options might be pretty rubbish – very highly scented, for example, or not suitable for sensitive skin – so if you’re fussy about these things, just bring a couple of extra packets from home.
Baby food in jars or pouches for emergencies Plus any type of food you really couldn’t live without while you’re away. The baby girl is a bit of a fussy eater at the moment, but will always polish off a big bowl of porridge for breakfast, so we take a small Tupperware container of oats away with us if we’re self-catering just in case we can’t find any locally at our destination.
Laundry detergent A small quantity for washing bibs so you don’t have to pack one for every meal.
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.
I’m very much a fair weather walker. Various members of my family will happily set off up a hill in driving rain, but if there’s not at least a reasonable chance of it clearing up in the foreseeable future, count me out. I like hiking, but being soaked to the skin on a cloudy mountaintop just isn’t my idea of fun.
I tell you this to make it clear that hiking with your baby isn’t just the preserve of hardcore walkers. If you enjoyed the occasional hike before your baby arrived, don’t be afraid to give it a go now that she’s here; as with all things baby-related, it’s just a matter of being prepared.
An all-terrain buggy will serve you well if you’re out and about in relatively flat countryside, but this post is really about the sorts of outdoor excursions that you wouldn’t attempt with a pushchair. For those, you’ll need a sling or baby carrier backpack. Which you choose depends on the age of your child, the type and duration of your walk and who’s doing the carrying. Don’t attempt a hike without some means of transporting your child, even if your toddler is a very confident walker; it’s highly unlikely she’ll be up for toddling along beside you for more than a few minutes and you’ll spend the rest of the walk carrying her in your arms.
We only started hiking with the baby girl when she was 10 months old, by which time she was big enough to fit into a backpack carrier. There are lots of different types available, but ours (which we picked up cheap in a charity shop) does up around the waist so there’s less pressure on the wearer’s shoulders, has lots of space for stowing all your other baby kit (of which more later) and a frame that means it stands up by itself, making loading and unloading the baby girl much easier.
The only trouble is that all of those useful features add weight and bulk – I’m fairly slim and only 164cm (5’ 4”) tall, and the carrier plus an increasingly heavy baby girl is too much for me. So my partner uses the backpack carrier and I use the lightweight sling, ideally with someone else carrying the rest of the baby gear (more on how brilliant slings are in this recent post). If it were just me, lugging the baby girl and all of both our stuff, I wouldn’t attempt a walk longer than an hour or so.
Whatever set up you opt for, you want to keep additional weight to a minimum, while ensuring you’re prepared for all eventualities. Take the lightest possible changing mat, a couple of nappies and a few wipes in a ziplock bag rather than your usual nappy change wallet. Spare clothes (including a hat) are essential, especially if your child is in a backpack carrier – you’ll warm up quickly as you walk, but your baby will be sitting still, exposed to the elements.
We eschew trousers and socks in favour of pyjamas with feet to stop the baby girl getting cold legs when her trousers inevitably ride up. Waterproof trousers to go over the top are a good idea if you’re walking anywhere with the possibility of rain. It might sound like overkill but for hikes in locations where the weather can quickly take a turn for the worse, it can’t hurt to bring a lightweight storm shelter.
Don’t be too ambitious when it comes to route planning, even if you’re an experienced walker. A hike that might have taken a couple of hours baby-free can easily become the work of an entire afternoon once you’ve factored in pauses for snacks; bottle or breastfeeding; giving parental shoulders a break; and pointing and laughing at sheep. Remember, too, that there’s no shame in cutting a walk short if things aren’t working out as planned.
Parents of rolling or crawling babies should consider packing a mat or blanket; breastfeeding mothers will appreciate having somewhere dry to sit too. If you’re bottle-feeding, ready-to-drink formula is much more convenient on the move than making it up from powder. Finally, keep a ready supply of snacks in your pockets that you can produce with a flourish as a solution to sudden onset baby crankiness – you’ll all have a much nicer time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.