Going to the beach with babies & toddlers: What Works & What Doesn't

 What works when you take your baby or toddler to the beach? What makes the trip more stressful? Here's some helpful advice if you're hitting the shore this summer. | instafather.com

What works when you take your baby or toddler to the beach? What makes the trip more stressful? Here's some helpful advice if you're hitting the shore this summer. | instafather.com

So you've decided to go for a beach vacation with your baby.

First of all, that is super adorable you are still calling it a vacation.

For your baby, it will be a wonderful vacation! He'll play in the sand, splash in the water, eat watermelon on the deck, and make memories that will last a lifetime and/or the next 2 months because it's a baby and they don't remember shit.

For you, dear new parent, this is not going to be a vacation. 

I'm not going to sugarcoat it. Sugarcoating is for those Instagrammers that only show photos of their babies giggling while they are drinking a quinoa and spinach smoothie in an all-white kitchen in full make-up.

Will you have absolutely heartwarming moments? Photos that you want to immediately frame? A fond memory of playing together on the beach? Sure! It's the beach, not prison.

But when you become a new parent, one thing that might be hardest to embrace is that for at least the short term, trips like this are going to be more about making sure your baby or toddler is having a good, safe, fun time and much, much (much!) less about whether you are relaxing and soaking in the sun.

I've been taking three kids to the beach for years now, and we are always learning what works and what doesn't. One thing that works: My wife is a fantastic planner and thinks of everything we could need, and also is the most patient and calm person I know. That's the kind of person you want with you for a beach trip with toddlers, trust me.

Are you heading to the beach this summer? We're about to go on a weeklong trip to Ocean City, New Jersey, a place that is the epitome of family beach vacations (the slogan is "America's Greatest Family Resort." I would also accept "America's Easiest Access to As Many French Fries As You Can Handle." What I am saying is I eat french fries nonstop on the boardwalk.). 

A weeklong beach trip means packing up the van — it is insane how much more stuff comes with you when you are bringing kids. At least they aren't babies anymore. Babies mean a stroller. Diaper bag. Highchair. Pack 'n' Play. 152 outfits. And on and on. It's crazy how much stuff you end up putting in your car. And then you use half of it.

A weeklong beach trip means you have to gird your loins for potential meltdowns without all of your usual tricks available to calm them down.

A weeklong beach trip means your house literally can't get messy for a week! You did it!

Whether you're planning to go for a week or a weekend, it can be hard at first to know what you should do. Is it worth packing everything you have? (No. You won't use it.) Should you plan for a full day at the beach? (Has your baby ever lasted that long doing any other out-of-the-house activity?) Read on to see what's worked well for me, and I'd love to hear your own tips in the comments.

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Here's what I've learned about what works and what doesn't when you're bringing infants and toddlers to the beach:

 A wagon like this with a canopy can save you from carrying your kids all the way down the boardwalk. Unless they decide they won't go in it. Because toddlers. But at least my twins look cute, right?

A wagon like this with a canopy can save you from carrying your kids all the way down the boardwalk. Unless they decide they won't go in it. Because toddlers. But at least my twins look cute, right?

  • Works: Two different types of sunscreen. We use a spray for bodies and a sensitive skin sunscreen lotion for faces. Walmart's Equate sunscreen spray is top-rated (I know, I doubted it, too, but it works well). When you've got wiggly infants, using lotion is like asking you to fill up the gas tank of an Indy car while it's flying past you. And spraying the face is just asking for sunscreen to get in their eyes, which, if you ask my kids, is worth the death penalty. Don't forget that many baby/kid swimsuits have UV protection, so in this case long sleeves make your life easier. Do not worry too much about swim diapers if there is not much of a chance they will actually get in the water. Or bring one with you - you can always toss one on there.

  • Doesn't work: Bringing tons of beach toys. Your average 1- or 2-year-old will not need 10 beach toys. You may have this vision in your head of building a giant sandcastle, complete with a moat. Your infant will be eating sand. Literally just putting that shit in their mouths. Temper your expectations. You can easily get by with a plastic shovel and a bucket. Max.

  • Works: Brevity. Our first time on the beach with each of our babies lasted mere minutes. That was a lot of work for a few minutes on the beach, yeah, but this was about baby steps and I mean exactly that. We wanted them to enjoy it and leave on a high note. You get your cute photo for Instagram and move on. The next time, maybe 30 minutes. The next time, maybe an hour. If your baby freaking loves it, go nuts, but if they start getting cranky, remember that a beach is a huge environmental overload for them, and while you may know it's supposed to be fun, they are thinking "WHY IS THE GROUND MOVING BENEATH ME AND OH GOD IS THAT WATER MOVING TOWARD ME? ARE YOU SEEING THIS MOM? DAD?" Don't force a 5-hour beach session because you've committed to it in advance if after an hour your 1-year-old is done. We're hoping this year, with our 3-year-old twins and 5-year-old son, to do a few hours in a row, and that's considering they love the beach and splashing in the water. Make sure you factor in normal nap times, too. Will your wife nurse on the beach? Do you need to bring a bottle (which then means a cooler)?

  • Doesn't work: Assuming you can do your normal beach thing. I have to admit, this was frustrating for some time. Especially in the early going, when your baby can't do much on their own, you will be in 24/7 patrol mode. If you're lucky, you'll get them to fall asleep for a quick nap on your chest (under an umbrella, I hope!) so you can read a magazine and sip on a tasty beverage. Most likely you'll be helping them process all of the new sensations around them — sand will get in places that don't even make physical sense. You'll get your time to sunbathe or toss around a football, I promise. That might mean taking shifts on who is watching the baby if that's possible. Or you just soak up the experience for what it is — a cool new thing for your baby and a great check off the parenting list for you.

  • Works: Wagons. If your baby can fit in a carrier, you'll have your hands free to lug the chairs, umbrella, tent (just make sure bringing the tent is truly worth it. We once spent 30 minutes setting one up and had to leave 15 minutes later!), and snacks. A Radio Flyer wagon can do the trick if you want to make it easier to pull everything and don't have a beach cart. In fact, those wagons are fantastic for the boardwalk, too! A stroller may not do well in the sand and is likely going to be pretty heavy. The wagon can easily be rinsed off and won't be hot to the touch if it sits in the sun. Bonus points if you get the UV-protection canopy! It folds flat. My kids need all the sun protection they can get, as their parents are pale folk who burst in flames like a vampire at a glimpse of sunlight.

  • Doesn't work: Being inflexible. Just getting to the beach can be an odyssey (wait, is that why they call our van that?). Traffic, crying, and heat can make you want to be done with vacation before it starts. I remember one trip where the whole first day I was in a bad mood over the rough ride in, and my wife had to basically say "Hey take an hour, calm down, and act like a grown-up" (which I did because she is very wise). You have to remind yourself over and over that even if you've planned everything out, things are going to change beyond your control. It'll rain and you're stuck inside. The beach is way more packed than usual and you can't get the spot you want. Your baby has a blowout after you got them in their new swimsuit. Your toddler gets a bad ear infection and needs to be rushed to the ER (this happened to us last time... poor Quinn.) Figure out what the point of your beach trip truly is. Is it to relax? Then don't line up a bunch of plans so that whatever happens is no problem. Is it to capture some memories? Then be ready to go with a backup plan if your big beach photo session is interrupted because your baby is having a tough day. Is it to enjoy the sun and sand? Then figure out the quickest way for you to get everything packed and ready to walk onto the sand so you spend more time outside and less time chasing down a can of sunscreen.

  • Works: Appreciating each of your kid's beach excursions for what it is at that stage in life. I look back at my oldest's first beach trips and it is insane to me how time flew by. I distinctly remember jogging down the boardwalk with him in a stroller. And tossing him in the air when he was small enough to do such a thing, the sun behind his smiling face and the waves crashing around us. Now he's at the point that he wants to run around on his own, which means I don't have to monitor him as much but also I don't get to hold his hand as much, either. Enjoy the stage for what it is, because the cons will fade away but you'll miss the pros.

I hope you've been having a wonderful summer so far. If you see a dad on the beach chasing three kids around and telling them sand is not for throwing, that's me. Say hello.