London with children under 5 (part 1)

I realize this may not be of interest to everybody, but if it is up on the web, people who need this information can find it.  Feel free to click away if it is not of relevance to you; my feelings won’t get hurt.  Also, feel free to add points in the comments if you have any ideas.   This is part one, containing general information.  Part two, with information on specific sites, will post sometime in the next week. 

            When we found out we were moving to London, my in-laws started buying us books on things to do in London with children.  Knowing us as they do, they had a hunch that I would enjoy an opportunity to read through several different books, folding down corners and making color-coded marks in the margins.  I am, after all, the woman who reads Zagat’s Guide as though it is a book and then highlights the entries with various colored markers depending upon the location, cuisine, and affordability of the restaurant.  I am not compulsive, really I am not (shut up, PokerChick).  But it just gives me so much satisfaction to be able to break down my leisure opportunities into easily digestible chunks.

            The problem with all those books, however, is that they are not broken down by age.  Book after book told me that the museums in London are very child-friendly because they had activity packs and scavenger hunts.  That’s fantastic, except we moved when Zachary was 21 months old and Benjamin was not yet born.  Zach had only recently mastered walking; he was not yet up to running about the National Portrait Gallery with a pencil seeking a painting of a woman with three eyebrows.

            That’s where these posts come in.  We have been in London almost two years, and we are grateful to be leaving, as life in London has not been easy.  Nonetheless, it has been fun.  We have seen and done almost everything the city has to offer for children under four.  We have taken day trips, we have schlepped about the city, and we have figured out all the hot-spots for the toddler and pre-school sets.  All without interrupting nap-time.  And, now, I am happy to pass it along to any hapless traveler or relocater who is trolling the internet wondering what the hell to do with the children once the thrill of the double-decker busses wears off.  First, some practicalities, later, specific sites.

Busses – But, let us begin with the busses.  As adult tourists to London, you have probably exclusively relied upon the Tube.  Let me tell you something, baby.  Most Tube stations have no elevators.  And lots of stairs.  Which is all well and good when you are nineteen with a backpack and a Rough Guide, but it sucks when you have a diaper bag, snacks, a stroller, a sleeping baby, and a whining three-year-old.  Go for the busses.  If you have two adults, one can take the kids up top to sit in the front and look out the window while the other can man all the crap and the stroller downstairs (I always gun for that job).  As our kids have gotten older (three-and-a-half and nineteen months), we have hit a point where we can fold the stroller and put it on the luggage rack so we can both go up top with the kids, which is such a thrill for them, but less restful for me. 

            Be advised, the busses can be slow during heavy traffic times.  But, they are often much more door-to-door, which is very helpful if you are not staying right by a convenient Tube stop.  Let me say it again: transferring Tube lines with a stroller is akin to the seventh circle of hell.  So, go to Transport for London’s website, put in the postcode (get the whole postcode because the second part is specific to the street) or location from which you will begin, and it will tell you ALL your options.  Anyone out there have more to suggest about getting around?

Breastfeeding – Let me tell you some places I have breastfed.  Walking to the Tube.  Entering the Tube.  On the train.  In Covent Garden.  Sounds lovely, no?  Well, not every mother really wants to show off her swollen ta-tas to a gawking tour group of teenagers from Maine or Italy or wherever.  And, not every baby is focused enough to feed in public.  Like my kids, who stopped breastfeeding in public at three months old because it was way too distracting.  In fact, come to think of it, they refused to breastfeed with anyone else in the room.  Benjamin sometimes got distracted when I turned the pages in a book.  So, even though I have no shame about baring the girls when it is time for my boys to eat, I am an expert on quiet places to feed.  Every now and then, it meant a bathroom stall at the Café Rouge in Brighton.  Usually, however, I was able to fare much better.

            You see, the British women I have met are far more squeamish about breastfeeding than were the women I knew in Philadelphia, which, let’s be honest, is just not one of the world’s most squeamish cities.  So, there are lots of quiet places designated for breastfeeding.  Almost every site you will go to probably has a “Family Room” or a “Breastfeeding Room.”  Windsor Castle, for example, has a lovely one.  Unfortunately, that was all I got to see at Windsor Castle, but my husband says it is an OK place to take kids.  (Skip the doll’s house with young kids – they just get frustrated that they cannot play with it.)  At any rate, most sites have these rooms, quiet places to feed and change the baby (very handy when the two-year-old has an accident in the middle of the Queen’s apartments).  Ask.  Just ask.  They are ALWAYS willing to help, if only to prevent those brazen North Americans from embarrassing everyone by lifting their shirts in public.

Diapers – As I mentioned above, the places for breastfeeding are usually in the same area as diaper-changing facilities (in the case of Harrod’s, too close and very stinky, so I insisted upon being given a dressing room to breastfeed in – more later).  Diapers are called “nappies” in England, although most people know the word “diaper.”  Diaper pails are not common.  Diapers usually go into bins but you are expected to have “nappy sacks,” plastic bags designed to hold the stinkers.  You can imagine how I feel about buying plastic bags just to throw away diapers.

Formula – Because London’s water is a little more, shall we say, alive than the water in Philadelphia, the formula canisters advise people to boil the water, then cool it, before making formula.  This process alone would be enough to keep me breastfeeding in London.  I suggest using bottled water to mix your formula if you cannot boil it.  Please, please, try to find it in glass bottles, which are better for the planet (and make sure it is STILL water).

13 responses to “London with children under 5 (part 1)

  1. here was how we did london with kids under 5:
    take kids to hotel
    eat at overpriced pub
    tube to westminster, take pictures in front of big ben and westminster abbey
    home to sleep
    next day:
    play at princess diana playground
    send children off to the country with their grandparents
    adults have a grand time in london childfree

  2. My fingers are crossed that I won’t need the really-young-kids information ever again, but this is great information for anyone who might.

    Looking forward to the rest of the series, and your follow-up (Where to go in London if you ever, for the love of god, get a chance to leave the country again, or even the state of Arizona. Yeah, I need a trip.)

  3. Monkey got to ride in a stroller for the first (and only) time when we were in London visiting my mother. Although we don’t mind hauling her around in her front carrier my mom was not so keen on the idea. She did try it once but just about threw her back out. So she borrowed a stroller from a friend. But there was definitely no Tube action for her, she stuck to the buses. So she cruised around the city with Monkey for 4 days while we went to visit a friend in Rome.

  4. I’m impressed that you’ve managed to do so much while you’re there–so often we ignore the “sights” because we live there and can go anytime (I’ve lived in Maine 10 or more years and have seen maybe one lighthouse…better get moving before I start that commune in New Mexico). And a guide for people with YOUNG kids is such a great idea. Maybe someday I’ll get a chance to use it…put that economic stimulus check to work.

  5. So London water is not good? That’s helpful to know. My husband has already filled me in on the bus/Tube thing (although I won’t have a stroller, so that part won’t matter). Let’s get to the sights now, missy. I’ve only got 4 more months until my trip. And I like to plan ahead. heh.

  6. Emily, I think that this is such a useful post. Your approach here is brilliant…wish we had one for our area, actually. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve searched area publications highlighting things to do and found myself frustrated over the lack of this sort of information. Make sure you do one for L.A. too! Bet you will got lots of newer visitors off of this….

  7. This is great information. I’m going to pass it along to my sister who lives in the UK.

    She just had a baby and yes–she uses the nappy sacks, and sterilizes the water.

    She is actually visiting at the moment, and also uses some sort of sterilization tablets that keeps the water sterile.

    She is beside herself because she cannot find them in the States.

    Great post, though!! Very informative!

  8. LOL…now THIS is the guide to the city. 🙂

  9. Hi Emily
    Hope you’re well! Anyway, to tack on to your travel advice, make sure you get an Oyster pass for bus and tube travel – it’s a lot cheaper for journeys. You can get details and apply for one on the Transport for London website that’s linked-to above, under the ‘Tickets’ link. Travel for children is free on buses.
    OK, I’m still at work…

  10. This is my first time reading your blog and I found this information great, because we will be moving to England for 3 years at the end of the summer. Any ideas for fun places to take the kids or restaurants that REALLY are kid friendly? My kids are older, 4 and 6, but still tough to take to restaurants or pretty much anywhere that doesn’t have a playground.

  11. I shall remain quiet! 😉

  12. This is my first time reading you blog Emily. Your story sounds very useful. We are going to London for my husband’s business about 10 days with two boys (3yrs and 1yr) in December. I have been researching what we could do in London while my husband is working, from either bringing single stroller to double, where to eat, where to nurse, where to change, and so on. Thank you for the useful tips!

  13. James Coutts

    Hi Emily. I’m coming to london, and I wondered what tips you have for travelling by train long distance with a 1 year old (!), and on getting to and finding a child-friendly hotel once at Kings Cross…

    Best wishes, many thanks, James.