How to survive family holidays
Sun, sea and sand aside, holidaying with the kids inevitably revolves around persuading them to eat, keeping them amused and getting them to bed (no change there, then).
Here's our family holiday survival guide full of practical tips to help you remain shiny, happy (and sane) parents.
No matter how child-friendly the accomodation you've booked is supposed to be, it's worth having a quick shufty round when you arrive. After all, what's "friendly" for one (bigger/less inquisitive) child may be death-defyingly irresistible to your poke-a-finger-in-everything toddler.
That said, there's no need to launch at the room with every child-safety device known to man: the cupboards in your holiday villa are hardly likely to contain anything lethal (or anything at all, really).
But it is definitely worth checking the locks on doors and windows and making sure your child can't climb over balconies/wander off into the pool the moment your back's turned.
It's also a good idea to check the temperature of the hot water: if it's much hotter than at home, children who are old enough to wash their own hands/bodies might need warning.
"If you have to put medicines etc in an unlockable cupboard, hair bobbles are great for keeping the door handles fastened shut." noonit
Other wise moves include the removal of stand-alone bedside lights (unless you fancy dealing with toddler flex-pulling or older-kid giggly midnight switchings on and off) and, if your child's just crawling (or just likely to fiddle with anything) moving furniture to cover/block trailing wires or plug sockets.
"Plasters make great emergency plug-socket covers." Bugsy
If your child's no longer in a cot and you're worried about her tumbling out of a strange bed, think about putting the mattress on the floor.
If you've chosen to holiday several time zones away, you're undoubtedly going to have to deal with jet lag – and deal with children who are dealing with jet lag. Quite how badly this affects your holiday mood really depends on the kind of sleep deprivation you're used to dealing with on a non-holiday basis:
"It is really hard. We took our 11-month-old on holiday to a place that was eight hours behind. She adapted within two days but, when we returned (two weeks later), she took a week to get back into her sleep patterns and was very grumpy. It was an exhausting, to be honest." theressomthingaboutmarie
"We had no problem with jetlag going to Australia. (That is, the baby didn't; DH and I were shattered!) And, coming back, it only took a week for her to readjust." californiagirl
The good news is that, on the whole, children do seem to adapt more easily than grown-ups to having their bodyclocks turned topsy-turvy...
"Children don't get jet lag nearly as badly as we do." mabanana
... and there are some well-tested tricks for making it even easier:
"They are always fine, as long as you just put them straight onto local time as much as you can. So on the way over, try and keep them awake when you get there so they can have supper and bed at vaguely approximate times (OK, they may conk out at 5pm, but that is still pretty good). I find if you feed them at the right times, then their internal clock does the rest and they sleep when it is dark etc. Go for it!" princesspeahead
"Once you arrive, slip into your normal routine (naps, meals etc) as far a possible. Try to go outdoors, if you arrive during daylight hours – apparently, sunlight helps readjust the bodyclock. Don't be tempted to let everyone sleep really late the next day. As far as possible (hard when exhausted!), get everyone up the next day around normal time and get out and do things. Maybe take a short nap in the afternoon to keep everyone going – although set the alarm clock or you will sleep for ever!" sjs
Obviously, if you're holidaying in the UK or mainland Europe, jetlag's not going to be an issue but that doesn't necessarily mean you get off scot-free on the sleep-adjustment thing. Faced with sleeping in a strange new place in a strange new room in a strange new bed, your child may not want to go to sleep at the usual time or to sleep as long. If he happily had daytime naps at home, he may suddenly refuse to go down for some (or any) of them now.
"Don't fight the impossible. You may just need to accept a slightly different routine while you're away. It won't take long to snap back into your familiar old routine once you're back at home." Porpoise
Once your child is past the stick-her-in-a-sling-and-go stage (and even then, it's never quite that simple, it it?), you're going to have to tailor your what-to-do-now-we're-here wishlist to what your child can reasonably manage and get some fun from. Should you be foolish enough, by contrast, to think that your toddler will share your limitless joy in admiring the art treasures of Florence, we can bet you'll never look at a Leonardo again without wincing at the tantrum-filled memories.
So, plan for a slower pace. In fact, plan your day around the pace of your youngest child and your ability to carry her from, ooh, about ten minutes after you set off. If you fancy going for a ("No, mum, boring!") walk, choose a route where the scenery will change frequently and plan for it to end in something less "boring", such as swimming or going on a train ride.
"Before we set off on holiday, we do a bit of research into the area and draw up a list of things to do and places to see. Then the kids take it in turns, in the morning, to choose from the list what we're going to do that day." fionaskettle
"If you're travelling with another adult, there's no law saying you need to stick together all day. Try splitting up from time to time, with one of you having one child and the other another. Or one having all of them for a bit, while (bliss!) the other does something on their own." LoryGoryant
With older kids, it can be fun to show them ways to help them preserve memories of your trip. They could fill a holiday scrapbook with tickets, postcards, badges and maps, as well as their own drawings and thoughts – and, if you're abroad, maybe even a list of some of the words they've learnt in the local language.
Of course, you may not want to do anything at all on holiday. And, providing you can work out how to factor your offspring into that plan, we'd take our sunhats off to that...
"A few holidays ago, I saw a couple with a young toddler. They had filled a small paddling pool with a little water and made a triangle shape around it with three loungers. Their little one was merrily playing in the paddling pool in the 'safety' triangle with a parasol over it, whilst the parents sunbathed on the loungers." papaya
If you're breastfeeding, it's business as usual – except that, if you're heading somewhere hot, it might be business distinctly more often than usual: in hot countries, frequent feeds help avoid dehydration. Attitudes towards breastfeeding in public still differ from country to country, so be prepared to show a little diplomacy with a well-manoeuvred cardi or sarong.
If your baby's bottle-fed, it's wise to try to get your baby used to room temperature or even cold milk before you travel – it'll save you a lot of faff, wherever you're going. You can buy formula (and instant cereal) almost everywhere overseas, although the brands may not always be familiar. If you run out of your own supply, take the empty tin to a local pharmacy to find the nearest, similar brand to yours. Always check the contents for additives, added sugar and salt.
As for sterilising, your best bet is to pack a travel steriliser (don't forget the plug adaptor, if you're headed overseas) or to use a little old-fashioned ingenuity...
"I use to use an ice cream tub or popcorn bucket (empty of course!) and Milton tablets – or the liquid, if we weren't abroad." sarahpea
"The easiest thing to use are Boots disposable sterilising bags: they come in a box of seven individually sealed bags. Each bag contains a sterilising tablet and then you just fill it to the line with water and hang it off a tap/door handle/whatever. Each bag of water lasts 24 hours." heavenstobetsy
"Foreign water" is nowhere near as hazardous as your mum probably led you to believe but, if you've flown to somewhere off the main kids-with-families-tourist-drag and notice locals drinking from plastic bottles, chances are the tap water is unsafe to drink – and that means you'll need to boil, filter or sterilise your own, or buy bottled water. Always check that the seals on shop-bought bottles are intact and, in restaurants, try to insist bottles are opened at your table, within view. Most brand-name carbonated drinks are bottled under strict sanitary conditions worldwide. If you plan to use bottled water to make up formula feeds, buy the brand with the lowest mineral content you can find. Make sure the children don't drink from taps, including when brushing teeth. Keeping a bottle of drinking water by the sink is a helpful reminder.
Now, remember that thing about babies being such easy travel companions, compared to the older, less portable beings they will become? There is a small but important exception to the rule: the baby you're just weaning onto solids:
"Do NOT go on holiday at this time. Honestly. Unless you are prepared to forego taking any clothes yourself, so that you can fill an entire suitcase with babyfood jars, it just isn't worth it. Do you really want to spend your holiday pureeing, for heaven's sake?" mamaincognito
With their small tummies (and even smaller repertoire of things they'll actually eat), toddlers can be a bit of a challenge on holidays where you're not in charge of the kitchen.
Make sure you have a daily stock of vaguely nutritious snacks (fruit, crackers, cereal bars, nuts, raisins) for times when hunger strikes but mealtimes aren't even close. And, if you're planning a trip anywhere off base, edit the snacks you take with you, leaving behind anything that could leak, crumble or turn to mush in your handbag/coat pocket/buggy. Oh, if your child's going to be confined to a small space or strapped in a buggy at any point on said trip, avoid handing over snacks high in sugar: there is nothing worse than a hyped-up toddler with nowhere to go.
- Eating well(ish), whatever their age
Repeat after us your stress-lowering holiday-meal mantra: "My children won't suffer if they eat more ice cream than fruit while we're away." And then surrender to the whole five-a-day-nah-one-if-you're-lucky vibe: it's only for a few days, after all.
"We always do 'with the flow' on holiday. I just make sure dd has some fruit and milk every day and don't fret if she just eats sandwiches/chips/pasta/ice cream the rest of the time, depending on what's on the menu. Veggies can be hit and miss if you eat out abroad." Portofino
If you know you're going to have to depend on food that's not familiar to your kids, try at least to give them some idea of what they're likely to encounter by dishing up some "taster meals" at home before you travel. If that doesn't exactly reassure you, pack a few fun-sized boxes of cereal for crisis picnics.
And, once you arrive, it's probably not worth pressing the "ooh, look at that interesting food!" issue too early. Opt for the stealthier tactic of letting your children see you try out different foods first (extra points for Best Parental Attempt at Pulling Yummy Facial Expression). And keep it fun (or just pretend to through gritted teeth); try bribing them with a local coin or dessert for each new dish they try.
- Eating out in the evening
The idea of "going out for a nice meal" on a family holiday is, sadly, often a triumph of hope over bitter experience. Either your children are too young to make it to pudding (or, sometimes, even starters) without falling asleep or they're too fidgety/noisy/moany for you ever to couple the word "nice" before "meal out" again.
It's for this reason that self-catering (or hotels with baby-listening/babysitting services) is such a popular option for families with young kids: enjoying a quiet post-kids-lights-out meal for two on the verandah while the sun goes down – or (UK version) in the lounge while the rain crashes down - can be infinitely preferable to wincing through a public parade of your children's more unusual table manners.
There is one slim but gorgeous window of opportunity on the dining-out-with-small-child horizon, though. It opens when your baby is born and slams sharply shut once she is no longer a reliably sleepy-in-the-early-evening toddler. And, during that time, you can put her in her PJs and a blanket/baby sleeping bag, pop her in her pushchair/car and let the walk/drive to the restaurant lull her to sleep. Then you can eat in peace, with your child dozing cherubicly beside you, before strolling home and transferring her smoothly to bed.
"We used to 'tent' off the stroller, using a lightweight cloth over the hood and down to the legs, to make the restaurant appear dark - and had a fab time." Julesnobrain
"I always got DS to go to sleep in his buggy before we went out to eat. It sometimes took a bit of walking around first; we put sunglasses on him to make him think it was dark!" Blu
- Avoid an empty restaurant. Unless you know the locals dine late (as in Spain and Italy) there is usually a very good reason why nobody eats there.
- In some places, you may need to think twice before buying ice cream and other dairy products. In Africa, India and parts of the Middle East, you can't always be sure the milk has been pasteurised or the dairy products properly refrigerated. If in doubt, opt for long-life, powdered or tinned milks. And, if you're pregnant or have a small baby, don't forget that unpasteurised cheeses and milk products are common in many parts of Europe, especially France.
- Do your where-and-what-to-eat homework if you're headed to a developing country with a poor food-hygiene record. And remember that the best all-round maxim to adopt is: "peel it, boil it, cook it or forget it."
If you're lucky enough to have an adaptable toddler, you may be able to extend your window of opportunity with a cunning change of daytime routine:
"We adopted a temporary routine with long afternoon naps and late(ish) nights. We weren't the only ones out with toddlers in smart restuarants at 9pm - it seemed the norm with locals and people were so helpful. He did live off pizza and pasta for a week but no harm done!" feedthegoat
But be warned that if your toddler doesn't adapt, she will be spectacularly grumpy in the mornings.
Your time in holiday-evening-eating-out purdah doesn't last for ever, of course. By the time your child's about four, you should be able to face venturing restaurant-wards in the (early) evening again...
"But, if you are going out for a meal, let then bring along some small pocked-sized toys or books to keep them amused." Gloworm
If you're heading anywhere hot – or snowy or beachy – remember that children's thinner skin burns more easily that ours does. Encourage them to play in the shade, if you can, and try to keep them out of the sun during the hottest parts of the day. Cover them liberally (we're talking 20ml per small child) with a high-SPF suncream and keep reapplying during the day and especially if you've all been swimming.
The more a kid's body is covered by clothes, the better, sun-protection-wise. Baggy T-shirts and wide-brimmed hats are good; UV-protective tops, suits and legionnaire's hats are even better. (Those UV-protective pop-up cabanas are great for beachside naps, too - provided you're up to the ritual struggle to get them "popped" back down into their carrying bag afterwards.) Children's eyes are more vulnerable to glare than yours, so get them sunglasses, or goggles with elasticated straps, if you think there's even the remotest chance that they'll keep them on. Don't forget, too, that car seats and seat-belt buckles can become scorching hot in direct sun and could burn sensitive, exposed skin; try to park your vehicle in the shade and always cover the car seats with a blanket or towel.
If your child does get sunburnt, give her some paracetamol suspension and a ten-minute cool bath and smooth on some calamine lotion (if you have or can find some). If her skin is blistered, you'll need to see a doctor.
Stay alert to the signs of overheating, too. Make sure everyone is drinking long and often, and pick loose-fitting clothes made from natural fibres (and changed often in a very hot climate) to reduce the risk of prickly heat or sweat rash.
If your child is sweating excessively and/or feels light-headed, headachey or nauseous, put a wet towel around her, move her to a cool, shady place and give her a drink. If she doesn't get better or becomes disoriented or her breathing becomes rapid and shallow, seek medical help for heatstroke immediately.
Assuming you've done your regulation pre-holiday prep (packed a first-aid kit; got travel insurance; sorted vaccines/tablets if you're the intrepid malarial-zone-venturer type), you're now in the lap of the gods, health-wise. And bearing in mind the hugely unpredictable nature of godly laps, it's definitely worth making sure you...
"Know the emergency numbers for the countries you visit." cupsoftea
If you're heading anywhere hot (or even just warmish and dampish), you will also need to do something to dodge the mosquitos that bite between dusk and dawn. Wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers if you're going outside after sundown and vaporise an insecticide in bedrooms to help deter the buzzing blighters from feasting on you as you sleep. (If you're somewhere where mosquito bites carry with them the risk of serious diseases such as malaria or dengue fever, you'll need to hang an impregnated net above your beds, too.)
Insect repellents are useful but do check the label: pregnant women and children under one year should avoid repellents containing DEET – look for ones containing bug-staving lemongrass, lavender, eucalyptus and cedar instead.
Should you survive the nights unbitten and unbowed, don't forget to take a pared-down first-aid kit (plasters, antiseptic wipes) with you when you venture out the next day. It is one of the many unwritten laws of parenting that your child only ever skins her knees on the day you find yourself plaster-less.
And do take - and drink - plenty of water. When they're away from home (and a familiarly handy tap), children often forget to drink enough and that can lead to constipation and, in hot weather, dehydration. Steel yourself to check the loo or sniff a nappy from time to time; if your child's urine is darker than usual, cloudy or strong-smelling, ask/cajole/bribe her to drink more.
And finally, but hugely importantly, get hot about washing hands. Being meticulous about hygiene is pretty much the most effective way to avoid getting sick on holiday. Wash your own hands before touching food or feeding your kids, and make sure they wash their hands properly too.
If, despite all this, your child does get a tummy bug, treat it just as you would at home: if she's a baby under six months, see a doctor straightaway; if she's over six months but under a year, see a doctor if the diarrhoea and vomiting lasts longer than 24 hours; if she's over a year, see a doctor if it lasts longer than 48 hours. Keep offering water (or breastmilk or rehydration drinks).
And (assuming she's old enough for solid food), once things are improving and your mopping-up duties are over, try to get her to eat some bland food (dry bread, potato, pasta, banana). Don't make the mistake of thinking fruit juice or sweetened drinks would be a nice, energy-boosting idea: too much sugar can actually kick the diarrhoea off again.
- "Don't use a sat nav near Calais. It sends you across fields." TheChicken
- "Take talc to the beach with you. It makes getting sand off really easy." lucy5
- "Pack lollipops in your First Aid Kit - a vital distraction technique used the world over." Lucycat
- "Take envelopes to put postcards in. They arrive far quicker when in envelopes - have tested this theory from many destinations!" WowOoo
- "Plait your daughter's hair into lots of small braids before she goes swimming. This avoid this dread detangling session - and looks very cool." Summac
- "Take a few big, light, cheap cotton sarongs with you. They take up hardly any space or weight, but they have loads of uses: beach mat, emergency towel, windbreak or privacy screen, cover-up for you or cosy wrap for chilly kids on the beach. They can even come in useful for making dens etc." snowleopard
- "Write down credit card numbers and passport numbers and give them to a relative. Also photocopy passports." ilovemydog
- "Wear matching cagouls: really handy if you lose sight of each other in a crowd." scattyspice
- "Always pack some decent tea bags." Lucewheel
- "And a large bottle of Kalms." Marina
Last updated: 5 months ago