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!

Flying alone with a baby

Flying with your baby or toddler is probably not an activity you relish, even if you do it all the time. Upping the ante and taking your little one on a plane single-handed? Madness, surely. Well, yes, but sometimes you’ve got no other option.

This week, for example, I’m visiting my brother and his family in Los Angeles. My partner is busy with work, so I had to fly by myself with the baby girl. I flew with her by myself once before, but it was a short flight and she was just six-weeks-old – a far easier proposition than taking a hulking 21-month-old half-way around the world.

I prepared myself for the possibility that she might not sleep at all, be super grumpy and to whinge for the whole flight. I did not prepare myself for the possibility that the flight would be cancelled after boarding, requiring a long slog back home by myself with the girl on the train, then a journey to a different London airport for a flight the following day.

You can only imagine my delight when that is exactly what happened.

Clearly, I would have preferred to avoid the stress and tedium of this situation. Looking on the bright side however (something I was only able to do once I’d got home, put the baby girl to bed, and drunk a cold beer in the garden), the cancelled flight turned out to be pretty useful as a trial run for the one the following day.

Pack light, pack clever

A toddler stands in a queue with a buggy and a wheelie bag
Waiting to board the cancelled flight with the ill-advised wheelie bag

I consider myself a good packer, but I made a bad call when it came to packing for that cancelled flight, opting to bring a wheelie cab bag along with our suitcase, my little handbag backpack and the buggy. I could handle it all myself at the airport, but the moment I had to leave the baggage trolley behind I was seriously overburdened, reliant on the kindness of strangers.

I would have taken a cab home from the airport that afternoon but couldn’t find a taxi company with a car seat available at such short notice, and didn’t want to risk a long drive without one. I could have waited an hour and a half for my partner to come back and pick us up, but the baby girl was already seriously overtired and I wanted to get her home as soon as possible (plus, my partner was busy trying to book us another flight).

In the end it worked out fine: we got the train to London Bridge and my partner picked us up from there, various fellow travellers having gone out of their way to help me juggle the luggage and the girl. We arrived home safely and emotionally unscathed (the one moment where I almost lost it was when I saw the sign at Gatwick Airport Station that says no trolleys allowed past the barriers, and the attendant told me that there was a train in three minutes and then not again for nearly an hour; seeing my despair, he let us through with the trolley, we dashed to the lift, and made it to the platform with 30 seconds to spare), but I made sure I repacked the contents of the wheelie bag and my backpack into one big backpack for the flight the following day.

Bags within bags

A toddler pushes a buggy next to a pile of luggage
Too many bags for one woman and a toddler

If money were no object I would have booked the baby girl her own seat on the plane. Not fancying doubling the cost of our trip, however, I opted to have her on my lap (possible until the age of two). Our time on the cancelled flight was a lesson in exactly how little space we would have for our belongings with just the one seat, and how organised I would need to be to make sure I had everything we needed when we needed it during the flight. So that night after returning home from the airport I did some judicious repacking.

All the baby girl’s food and milk went into one tote bag, all the other essentials – toys, books, headphones, phone, nappy change wallet, sleeping bag and pyjamas, jumpers for us both, toothbrush and toothpaste – went into another, and both these bags went into my backpack. After we’d boarded I was able to stow the food and essentials bags under the seat in front, leaving everything else – items that I thought might come in handy  but wouldn’t definitely need (spare clothes, Calpol, etc) – in the overhead locker to save space.

Doing it this way, I discovered, means you can keep to a minimum the number of times you get up to take things out of the overhead locker – useful when travelling alone with a toddler, absolutely essential when travelling alone with a babe-in-arms.

Avoiding meltdowns

A toddler plugs in a phone charge on a plane
Plugging and unplugging my phone charger kept the baby girl occupied for a surprisingly long time

The baby girl was overdue for a nap when we boarded the (soon to be) cancelled flight. I had brought toys, books, a phone full of downloaded episodes of Hey Duggee and Sarah & Duck, and plenty of food, yet for some reason (probably because I was tired and hot too), I was inept at putting these distractions to good use, and the girl just got grumpier. I made it worse by attempting to get her to nap in the sling, something she was clearly not going to do just to suit me.

On the flight the following day things went more smoothly. I dressed her in cooler clothes so she wasn’t so affected by the heat, and it helped that the seat next to us was empty so we had some space to spread out.

The baby girl was just as tired as she had been the day before, but I was quicker to whip out the snacks and cycle through the available distractions at the slightest sign of an impending meltdown. In terms of my own sanity, I made good use of my wireless bone-conducting headphones, listening to podcasts while playing with the baby girl. I don’t do this at home, preferring not to divide my attention, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

A baby in a pushchair sucks her thumb
In the queue for immigration at LAX

Instead of trying to get the baby girl to nap at her usual naptime, I threw the schedule out the window and waited until they dimmed the cabin lights. After putting her in her sleeping bag and reading her a story, she was happy to go to sleep. It only lasted an hour, but she was chilled enough to lie there awake and quiet for another hour after that.

I tried to put the baby girl down again for another sleep later and she just wasn’t going for it, so I gave up immediately and we spent the second half the flight walking up and down the plane in the dark, carrying bits of rubbish to throw away in the bin in the galley. It was quite tedious for me, but the baby girl enjoyed herself and a lot of the other passengers seemed to find it entertaining.

Fingers crossed we can repeat that positive experience on the flight back to London next week. Please, please, please let it not be cancelled….

Sun protection for babies and toddlers

Taking your little one out in hot weather can be nerve-wracking. So here are some tips on how to protect that perfect skin from the sun, whether you’re on holiday somewhere exotic or adventuring close to home.

It’s best to keep babies and children out of direct sunlight entirely, particularly at the hottest time of the day, between 11am and 3pm. Put your little one in lightweight clothing so she’s as covered up as possible and use baby-safe sunscreen on any exposed areas. For visits to the beach, swimming pool or paddling pool, a UV-protection suit and hat provide excellent coverage. A sun tent (I like this pop-up one that doubles as a travel cot) means you’ve always got somewhere shady to lay your baby down.

Sunscreen

La Restinga beach
Hanging out in the late afternoon winter sunshine on El Hierro in the Canary Islands

Choose a sunscreen with an SPF (this tells you how much protection the sunscreen offers from UVB radiation) of at least 30 and a UVA star rating of four or five to get maximum coverage. My paediatric dermatologist friend recommends the Australian brand SunSense – it doesn’t actually include a separate UVA rating because in Australia all sunscreens must screen UVA as well as UVB. An SPF50+ sunscreen will filter out at least 98% of UV radiation.

Remember that sunscreen can go off, particularly if the bottle has been left in the sun for extended periods. Have a look for an expiry date on the packaging; if there isn’t one, use it within a year. If you notice the cream has a strange consistency or smell, that probably means it’s degraded, which means it’ll offer less effective sun protection and might even cause irritation to your child’s skin.

Apply sunscreen when doing your baby’s final nappy change before leaving the house – it’s much easier to get consistent coverage when your little one is naked. Apply it all over just in case – you never know when a toddler might decide to strip off, and you want her to be protected if when she does. The easiest way to apply sunscreen to a baby or toddler is with a roll on; these small bottles are expensive for the quantity you get, so I suggest buying a big bottle and making your own roll on from an empty roll-on deodorant – just pop the ball out with a spoon, wash and refill.

Persuading a wriggling toddler to let you apply sunscreen can be challenging, particularly when you’re already out and about and she wants to be dashing around. For some reason the baby girl loves putting on cream (it might be because I used to do a bit of baby massage at bedtime so it’s got cuddly associations for her, but really, who knows?) so I tend to make a big thing of sunscreen, to make it seem like a treat rather than something tedious to be endured. Reapply every two hours, or more frequently if your little one has been in water.

On the move

A pushchair, covered by a black sun shade, sits in an alleyway. A pair of little feet are poking out from underneath the sun shade.
Napping in the narrow back streets of Victoria, the biggest town on the Maltese island of Gozo, with the help of our SnoozeShade

Most pushchair brands make a sun canopy you can attach to keep your baby in the shade when on the move. Personally I find the canopy easier to use than attaching a parasol. A pushchair sleep shade will give you even fuller coverage for when your baby is sleeping.

Now that the baby girl is a bit bigger she hardly ever lets us put the sun canopy up, so it’s a matter of covering up with clothing, a hat (if she can be persuaded to wear a hat; and it’s a big if – I’d welcome tips on how to talk her into it!) and sunscreen.

For a babies in a front-carrying sling, all you need is a hat and sunscreen for her hands and feet. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat yourself can offer extra coverage. Backpack carriers, where your child is high up on your back, often come with a built-in or attachable sun canopy – make sure yours has one before investing.

Dealing with sunburn

If your baby or toddler gets sunburnt, get her out of the sun as soon as possible. Talk to your GP – they may want to see your child to check that the sunburn isn’t severe. In the meantime, cool the skin by applying a damp muslin square or flannel for 15 minutes a few times a day, give her tepid baths, and get her to drink plenty of fluids to cool her down and prevent dehydration. Apply water-based moisteriser (oil-based products can worsen burns) to relieve any itching and give baby paracetamol or ibuprofen if the sunburn is causing her pain.

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Sightseeing with babies and toddlers

There’s a temptation, once children come along, to abandon cultural holiday experiences like galleries, historic houses and cathedrals in favour of guaranteed child-friendly pursuits like beaches, waterparks or camping. I’m certainly not knocking that type of holiday (you can read my post on camping with babies and toddlers here, in fact) – I just want to make fellow parents aware that it’s not the only option available. When it comes to unweaned babies in particular, sightseeing with your offspring is not really very different from sightseeing child-free.

You don’t even need to be on holiday to enjoy these sorts of sightseeing excursions. Parental leave is a great opportunity to get to know your own back yard a bit better, whether that’s visiting a gallery for the first time, ticking a major tourist attraction off your list or exploring the sightseeing possibilities of a nearby city or town. There are only so many ‘rhyme time’ and baby swimming sessions you can go to in a week anyway, so why not mix it up by swapping into holiday mode and taking your offspring to see something new?

Timings: feeding, nappies and naps

A pushchair covered with a SnoozeShade on the concourse at Waterloo Station
Snoozing at Waterloo Station en route to Strawberry Hill House

Travelling at nap time (the baby girl has always been a good buggy sleeper, but I appreciate that not everyone is so lucky) increases the chance that your little one will be alert, cheery and interested in whatever you’re seeing when you get there. I try and give the baby girl lunch or a snack when we arrive (read my post on eating out with babies and toddlers), but before we start the experience proper, for the same reason. Eating and drinking isn’t allowed outside specific areas at a lot of attractions, so it makes sense to fuel up before you go in. This is less of a consideration for unweaned babies as you’ll usually be able to find somewhere to feed a small baby, whether you’re nursing or bottle-feeding.

Some attractions are excellently equipped with myriad baby change toilets, but many are not – at historic houses in particular the facilities are often in an out building far away, for example. Doing a pre-emptive nappy change on arrival means there’s one less thing to think about as you’re wandering around (though obviously a code brown situation could occur at any moment, particularly if your baby is very little).

A trip to a nearby playground or soft play place after you’ve finished your visit is an excellent way of letting your toddler blow off some steam. If I’m planning an excursion and it’s a toss up between two attractions, the proximity of a playground can be a useful deciding factor.

Whatever the age and mobility of the little one you’re sightseeing with, be less ambitious in your planning than you would be if you were child-free, and factor in lots of breaks. Lugging a baby around, even a newborn, is more tiring than sightseeing solo, and you’ll need to stop to feed her every couple of hours anyway. Going anywhere with a toddler takes forever – leave extra time for those moments when she won’t get back in the buggy, walks off mid-nappy change, loses a shoe, etc, etc, etc.

Essential kit

A toddler wearing a bag that looks like a bee at the top of the stairs at the Gothic masterpiece Strawberry Hill House
Action shot of the girl and her bee bag at Strawberry Hill House

You’re likely to have a pram with you, so will need to factor that into your travel planning (see my blog post on public transport with a pushchair for tips). That said, you should be prepared to leave your buggy at the entrance of the attraction you’re visiting, as not all of them are accessible to pushchairs. It’s worth calling ahead to check the pushchair policy, and make sure you’ve got a sling with you just in case. (On a recent visit to Ham House and Garden in West London, where you have to leave your buggy at the door, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they have a few slings available for parents to borrow – well played National Trust, well played.)

Don’t forget to transfer any essentials (bottles, muslins, nappy change wallet) from the pram into your bag so you’ve got everything you need with you. It’s better to take a little longer to get yourself sorted at arrival than have the faff of returning to the pram for something important later on.

I wasn’t sure about toddler reins in the past, but I’ve become a fan since the baby girl started walking. She has a little bee backpack with a sort of leash attached to it, which has come in very handy on recent visits to historic houses. It’s extremely rare that I would actually use the leash to halt her progress, but it’s comforting to know that I could if I needed to, particularly if there are stairs around. The baby girl doesn’t like holding my hand most of the time when we’re out and about (I’m pleased she’s so independent of course, but this does make me just a bit teensy bit sad, I must admit), but the backpack means I can keep her close.

Where to visit

Your options are almost limitless when it comes to sightseeing with a babe-in-arms, but there’s more to think about once your little one is crawling or walking. ‘Family-friendly’ attractions, often involving either animals or the great outdoors – I’m thinking aquariums, zoos, city farms and botanical gardens – will be almost guaranteed fun for your toddler and entertaining for you too. More ‘grown-up’ attractions need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Here are a few tips based on my sightseeing adventures with the baby girl…

Museums and galleries

There’s no hard and fast rule about which museums and galleries will make you feel welcome when visiting with a toddler, but I’d usually go for a large institution over a small one. In general, the more rooms there are to explore the more likely you are to be able to find somewhere for your child to run around/have a bit of a shout and not disturb other visitors. Smaller institutions also tend to be more tightly packed with exhibits, always a bit of a worry if your child has trouble with the notion of ‘look but don’t touch’. I’ve covered visiting museums and galleries elsewhere on the blog – you can read that post here.

Places of worship

A buggy in a Byzantine-style chapel
The baby girl snoozes in the pram at Westminster Cathedral

Churches and other places of worships are always welcoming in my experience. You wouldn’t necessarily think that a church would hold much interest for a toddler but the combination of lots of space – including high ceilings, which little ones often find pretty impressive – and unusual acoustics make them a surprisingly diverting outing.

Historic houses

Historic houses can be great but make sure you do some research ahead of time so you don’t end up at a stately home full of priceless antiques – paranoia about your toddler breaking something doesn’t make for a relaxing experience. What you’re looking for is the type of historic house that’s all about the architecture, gardens, etc, rather than a treasured furniture collection. (We had a great time at Strawberry Hill House and Garden – I pretty much let the baby girl run around at will because the rooms were mainly empty and it wasn’t busy on the day of our visit.)

Another good rule of thumb is to go for a historic house that runs events for young children. Even if there’s nothing suitable for toddlers specifically, the fact that the team there will be used to having kids around is a good indicator that you’ll be made welcome.

A fun activity to do with toddlers at historic houses (this works for galleries and museums too) is to hunt for animals in paintings, tapestries or stained-glass windows. When it comes to your own enjoyment of the place you’re visiting, forget the idea of reading any of the information boards or a guide book if you’re there with a toddler – your attention will be too divided for such demanding intellectual pursuits. That doesn’t mean you can’t have an informed experience however – I’ve found myself chatting to volunteers at historic houses much more than I ever used to, apologising in advance for the moment when I’ll inevitably have to rudely dash out of the room after the baby girl mid-conversation.

Essential kit, number 10: buggy clips

A loaded up pushchair on a trainI try to pack light for adventures with the baby girl, but I rarely succeed. Which is where buggy clips come in. I keep the pram rain cover, a SnoozeShade and the sling in the basket under the pram, so everything else – from nappy changing stuff to spare clothes and from toys to snacks – has to go on the handle bar. You can buy changing bags designed to hang directly from the pram, but I’ve never found one I like the look of, so I tend to use a large shopper and buggy clips instead.

The clips come in handy in plenty of other situations too, for shopping, as a secure place to keep my handbag when I’m not wearing it, and for the baby girl’s lunch box when I’m feeding her in the buggy.

There are various styles available, but I like the ones that are essentially large climbing carabiners with a bit of foam covering the metal to stop them slipping along your pram handle or scratching the chassis. The other options, which attach to the pram with Velcro, feel less secure somehow. Depending on the model of your pram and how much you care about it getting scratched, the foam may not be all that useful – if that’s the case for you, search online for ‘large carabiners’ rather than ‘buggy clips’. The results will be less expensive than the ones made with parents in mind.

A woman feeds a child in a pram in a decorated town square
Out for the evening with an overloaded pushchair on our trip to the Canaries

 

How to do airport transfers with a baby or toddler

A man with a baby in a sling eats a salad on a train.
On the train on our way home from the baby girl’s first trip abroad, to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, when she was six-weeks-old.

Public transport used to be my go-to method for getting to and from the airport but that’s all changed since the arrival of the baby girl. Unless our trip is a super short one, these days we travel with too much stuff to mess around with trains and buses for airport transfers.

On the couple of occasions that we have used public transport for transfers, we’ve carried the baby girl in her sling, having packed the pushchair away before leaving the house, ready to be checked in with the rest of the luggage. Doing so means there’s one fewer thing to manoeuvre on and off trains and up and down escalators. (If you prefer to use your pushchair rather than pack it, have a read of this post on train travel and this one on navigating public transport, for some useful tips.)

Taxis are the easiest option, but can be very expensive once you’ve factored in a car big enough for all your luggage and your baby’s car seat. More often than not, therefore, we drive our van and leave it in a car park near the airport, then take a shuttle bus to the terminal. If you’re willing to pay a little more, but still less than forking out for cabs, there’s always onsite parking, or valet services where your car is parked for you – usually available for car parks both on and off site.

When it comes to getting to your final destination from the airport, I highly recommend booking a transfer in advance, particularly if you’re arriving late at night, don’t speak the language or are visiting for the first time. You can request a car seat when you book your transfer, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll get one, so it’s always safer to bring your own. (Most airlines won’t charge you for checking in a child car seat, but do check before you book.)

If you can’t bring your own car seat and end up having to take your baby in a taxi or private car without one, make sure you have a sling with you. The adult who will be carrying the baby sits in the back seat, straps himself in and then puts on the sling so the baby is held by the sling and not the seat belt. To be clear, I’m not advocating that you do this: it’s a safer option than having your baby loose on your lap or strapping her in with your seat belt, but it’s not a safe way to travel.

Hiring a car can be a very convenient way of doing things, if it suits the rest of your holiday plans. Car seats can be an issue here too, with some parents reporting having booked a car seat but finding none available on arrival. This doesn’t happen very often, but again, you can avoid worrying about it by bringing your own.

How to leave the house with a newborn

A smiling woman with a baby in a sling holds an ice cream cone.
Jubilant on an early solo outing with the baby girl.

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.)

If you’re taking your baby out in her pushchair, you’ll want a bag that will hang off the handles. Specialised changing bags are useful but by no means essential for this purpose – a lot of ordinary shoulder bags or shoppers will work just fine with a pair of pushchair clips (we use these ones from My Buggy Buddy). For journeys with a sling (often easier than a pushchair, and more comforting for very little babies – more about why slings are excellent in my ‘essential kit’ post on the subject), a backpack is almost certainly your most comfortable option.

Either way (and it’s not a bad idea to prepare two bags so you’re ready to go with both sling and pushchair), here’s what you need:

  • nappy changing mat and wallet with a few nappies and wipes (plus nappy rash cream and nappy sacks if you use them)
  • a muslin square or two, depending on how pukey your baby is
  • spare outfit – vest, sleepsuit, jumper
  • hat
  • blanket
  • spare T-shirt/jumper for yourself in case the baby vomits on you in an impressive way

If you’re breastfeeding you’ll also need:

  • spare nursing pads
  • bottle of water and some snacks for yourself

If bottle-feeding:

  • sterilised bottle and teat
  • bottle of ready-made formula OR powder formula in small sterilised containers, plus a vacuum flask of just boiled water
  • bib

Optional extras:

  • if you’re recovering from an episiotomy, an inflatable ring cushion to sit on
  • if you’ve got long hair, a couple of hair ties
  • if your baby suffers from wind, Infacol
  • dummies
A father with a baby in sling holds a pushchair
At the bus stop before our first bus journey with the baby girl.

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.

 

Essential kit, part 7: baby sleeping bag

When the baby girl was born my mum gave me the beautiful blanket that my aunt knitted for me when I was a baby. After just a few months, alas, we had to stop using it – the baby girl is such an active sleeper that she ends up at the other end of the cot from where you put her, kicking off blankets and wriggling out of pyjamas in the process. Fortunately we had a hand-me-down baby sleeping bag given to us by a friend, and have since amassed quite the collection of them, turning to eBay each time we need the next size up or a different tog rating.

The primary benefit of the baby sleeping bag is that it keeps your little one warm (the Gro Company has a helpful guide to tog ratings and what your baby should be wearing underneath her sleeping bag), but it’s handy in other respects too. Zipping the baby girl into her sleeping bag is an important part of the bedtime and nap routine, working as an effective sleep cue whether she’s at home in her own bed, at nursery, or out adventuring with us. The baby girl is a pretty good sleeper when we’re travelling, which is probably as much to do with luck as anything else, but the presence of familiar objects like her sleeping bag surely can’t hurt.

The most practical baby sleeping bags, I’ve found, are those designed with travel in mind – they have a two-way zip plus a slot at the back so you can use them with a car seat or five-point harness. This means you can dress your baby in her pyjamas and sleeping bag when travelling at night, put her to bed in her car seat or pushchair, then transfer her to her cot when you reach your destination, without messing around with other layers. We do this on journeys, but also on holiday, doing the standard bedtime routine before heading out to a restaurant with the baby girl all wrapped up in her pushchair. I prefer this style for use at home as well – it’s easier to get the baby girl in and out of a sleeping bag with a zip down the front than it is the standard ones that do up at the side.

A sleeping bag is more convenient than a blanket on planes and trains too, or indeed in any potentially chilly environment where you might have your baby napping in your arms or on your lap. You can even put it on over a sling, though you probably won’t be able to zip it up.

A baby wearing a sleeping bag sleeps curled up in a ball at one end of a cot.
The baby girl wriggles around so much in her sleep that blankets are useless. A sleeping bag keeps her cosy wherever she ends up.

Breastfeeding out and about

I’ve recently stopped breastfeeding the baby girl, having successfully nursed her out and about all over the place over the last year and a bit, including to the US and Egypt. I never experienced the slightest bit of hassle, finding that my go-to breastfeeding clothing solution – strappy top under a T-shirt – did the trick pretty much everywhere. In cold places I added a couple of layers on top, finding that thinner fabrics were more convenient than bulky ones that bunch up when you lift them to get your baby to your boob. Swimwear-wise, I found triangle bikinis most convenient for breastfeeding on the beach (top tip: remember to give your nipples a once over with a wipe – as chemical-free as possible – before feeding your baby straight after a dip in the sea).

In hot places where wearing two layers was too much, I opted for lightweight dresses with buttons down the front. At least that was the idea. Sometimes, however, I found myself feeding the baby girl in just a strappy top, and basically revealing an entire boob to the world, as in the photo below. I didn’t plan to expose myself that day, but I was so warm I just couldn’t bear to keep my second layer on. Fortunately, no one in the restaurant batted an eyelid, and it was only when I saw the photo that I realised quite how naked I had been. I paused over whether to include the picture here, but decided to post it because I think it’s helpful to have positive, unambiguous images of breastfeeding out there in the world.

Though breastfeeding in public is welcomed in most places, there are corners of the globe that aren’t too keen, so if you’re a breastfeeding mother it’s worth checking before you travel to set your mind at ease/arm yourself with some facts about your rights in case anyone confronts you. Wikipedia has a handy list of attitudes to breastfeeding in public around the world, which is a good start. Googling “attitudes to breastfeeding [your destination]” should bring up various resources and forums too. If you’re still nervous, consider packing a breastfeeding cover. I never used one so I can’t recommend one personally, but this handy roundup from Made for Mums should give you an idea what’s available.

When it comes to feeding your baby on the move, department stores and airports often have parents’ rooms for just that purpose. Posh hotels can be a good option too – though not all of them, as Claridge’s made abundantly clear a couple of years ago.

Wherever you find yourself, if privacy is a factor for you when feeding, opt for a table by the wall and sit with your back to the room. As far as your physical comfort is concerned, look for a chair with a back. I never got the knack of breastfeeding the baby girl in the sling, but would have loved to do it – friends who’ve mastered this skill find it both convenient and discreet.

Other things to take with you: nursing bras, obviously, but pack more than you think you’ll need. Between the stresses of travel, the time difference and a change in climate, it’s likely that your baby will be feeding more frequently than usual, which means that your breasts might become engorged and leaky. Bring a small bottle of travel wash (you can use shampoo, but it won’t be as effective) and a mini folding clothes airer so you can wash and dry milky bras overnight. You’ll want to bring a bigger supply of nursing pads and muslin squares than usual for the same reason.

If you’re planning to express while you’re away, take a manual breast pump rather than an electric one – they’re much lighter and you don’t run the risk of running out of batteries or forgetting the power cable. Remember that any expressing or feeding equipment that comes into contact with milk needs to be sterilised until your baby is a year old (according to the NHS) – you can read my post on the various options for sterilising while away from home here.

Finally, a wide-brimmed hat will provide shade for both you and your baby when nursing in hot destinations if none other is available. If you, like me, are the type of woman who has always wanted to wear such a hat but never had the nerve before, now is very much your moment.

A mother breastfeeds her baby
Breastfeeding the baby girl on a warm day in Los Angeles, when she was around six months old © Steve Pretty

What you need to know to get through an airport with a baby or toddler

Air travel is a wonderful thing, but airports are a pain. I like the teeny tiny ones where you can arrive 20 minutes before your flight, but all the others make me wish I was taking a train instead. Add a baby or toddler to the mix and you’ve got the potential for a pretty wearying – not to say stressful – experience.

The key is to leave plenty of time so you’re never in rush. That might mean quite a bit of waiting around – which, let’s be honest, isn’t ideal with a baby or toddler either – but at least you stand a good chance of boarding your flight calm, contented and ready for whatever the next few hours hold (I’ll be covering flying itself, as well as airport transfers, in separate posts – sign up to my mailing list so you don’t miss them).

The one benefit of travelling with a baby or toddler is that airline check-in staff are almost always nicer to you than if you’re checking in alone. I get the sense that they’re more willing to turn a blind eye to a couple of kilos of extra weight here or there, on the understanding that babies require a lot of stuff. (Though now I think of it, the baby girl has always been remarkably cheery at check-in desks – who knows what treatment we might get if she was being a grump.)

Infant baggage allowance varies from airline to airline, but most let you check in two or three items of baby equipment free of charge, usually including a pushchair, car seat, travel cot and backpack carrier. You’ll want to check your airline’s policy before booking so you don’t get any nasty surprises before departure. Check in your pushchair and car seat at the desk or, if you’d prefer to have them with you as you go through departures, get them tagged at check in and leave them with airline staff when you reach the gate. At some airports you’ll be able to send your baby equipment through with the rest of the luggage, but at others you might be asked to drop it off in a different area.

Whatever you decide to do with your pushchair, it’s a good idea to keep a sling handy. The first time I flew with the baby girl, when she was six-weeks-old, I kept the pushchair with me until the gate and didn’t end up using it at all. Airports are very stimulating environments and the baby girl was unhappy unless she was being carried. Also, travelling alone with her, getting the pushchair down the stairs from the gate to the tarmac was a real pain – fellow passengers helped out, but it wasn’t ideal. I’ve since learnt that you can request special assistance in advance for those situations, but these days I just check everything in and avoid the problem that way.

At security they might ask to x-ray your pushchair, car seat or sling, so be prepared to carry your child through in your arms, and make sure that if you there’s anything else in the pushchair it’s easy to lift out and put through the machine too. The last few times I’ve flown with the baby girl I’ve been able to walk through the scanner with her in the sling – if only I could remember to wear the sling under my jacket so it’s easy to remove.

Formula, sterilised water for preparing formula, cow milk and soya milk for babies are exempt from the usual rules about liquids in hand luggage, so you’re allowed to take them through security, as well as gel packs to keep them cool. They need to be removed from your carry-on so they can be screened separately (incidentally, you don’t need to be travelling with your baby to carry expressed breast milk through). The rules vary slightly from country to country, but security staff have always been understanding in this regard in my experience.

My final tip relates to food. You’ll obviously need to take enough baby food or milk to cover the number of meals or feeds you’ll be in transit for, but don’t underestimate the power of snacks either. Take as many as you can fit into your carry-on, so in the event of boring delays or just general grumpiness, you’ve got distractions at the ready.

A woman in a red jacket carries a shoulder bag and a baby in a sling at airport security.
A remarkably easy passage through security at Malta International Airport on the way back from our dive trip to Gozo, November 2017.