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a row of colorful umbrellas at the beach

Baby & The Beach

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

You helped me out about a year ago when I was planning for my baby, and obsessing over crib mattresses, and what they were made of, and all of the terrible things that they might do to my baby. Thank you – it was very helpful, and we decided to go with the regular mattress (and so far, so good – he seems to sleep well on it, so I guess we can call that a success? I don’t have time anymore to worry about the rest of it). Well, now that the baby is here I have a new question!

My husband and I are taking our almost one year old to Florida in a few weeks for our first family beach vacation. As I started thinking about packing, I came up with all sorts of questions about what we might need to keep him happy and un-sunburned, and thus us all having a good time. I was muddling about in the internets getting utterly lost and confused. Then I saw your pictures about your recent trip and realized that you probably have some fantastic thoughts and advice about all of this.

Here are my specific questions:

1. Swim diapers – I’ve heard these actually don’t work out of the water, just hold the poop in while in the water? Is this correct? So…. if we take our son to the beach, do we have to think about changing him there to go into the water? I think there are disposables and non-disposables. Which are better? We’re a cloth diaper family (although not when traveling), so we’re up for non-disposables. What did Ezra wear in Jamaica?

2. Shoes – our son is not walking yet, but loves to be “walked.” It occurred to me that the sand might be hot on his feet, or there might be lots of pointy shells (we’re headed to Sanibel). Should I get him shoes? What kind? Aqua socks? Baby Crocs? Is this all just silly? Obviously we want him to experience the sand on the feet thing.

3. Sunscreen – last summer our son was too young for it, so I have yet to buy it. What kind should we get? Is there something to avoid (like parabens or something)?

4. Equipment – should we try to rent one of those beach tents? Is that much better than an umbrella? I can’t imagine my son being happy all cooped up when there are things to crawl to and people to watch, but I am still new to all of this.

5. Any other advice on ensuring a fun-for-all trip to the beach?

Thank you, thank you.
– G

Great question! In that I don’t have to think too hard about the answers. We’ve been taking multiple trips to multiple beaches since the first of our multiple children was about nine or 10 months old. We’ve got this all pretty down, I’m happy to say.

The first thing to do, before packing, is to revise your expectations for YOURSELF. Trips the beach with babies and toddlers (sans family members or sitters to help out) are so drastically different from any pre-baby vacations you’ve taken that you might feel like you’ve run a marathon by the end, rather than relaxed for a week in paradise. It can be exhausting. Your baby might hate the sand or water and there’s nothing you can do about it. He might insist on staying in the water hour after hour. He might shove sand in his mouth at every occasion, or demand constant walking up and down the shoreline all. Day. Long.

In other words, going to the beach with a baby or toddler is just like LIFE with a baby or toddler, only it’s not baby-proofed and you might feel a little resentful because you were hoping for at least one peaceful hour in a chair with a trashy book.

This is NOT to say it’s a bad idea, it’s just…different. I remember that, though not as much as I remember Noah’s face when his feet first touched the ocean, or wrapping Ezra up in a towel and snuggling under the umbrella. And that’s really what you’re going for, in the end.

Now! Your questions.

1. Swim diapers.

The disposables work outside of the water. Sort of. They’re just okay. They absorb pee just fine, but lose their shape and sag a lot. One good poop and the diaper is practically hanging around their knees. You need to change them quite often, at least every time you leave the water. I also find them to be terrible hard on a baby’s bottom, particularly combined with sand. And I hate how expensive they are and I hate hate HATE that they pull on like underwear, because trying to get those up and over a sunscreen-y, sandy, slightly damp wriggling toddler is a huuuuuge pain in the ass.

That said, they’re convenient (who wants to carry balled-up dirty diapers back to a hotel room?) and serve their intended purpose just fine. That’s all we ever used for Noah, though we often just let him run around naked.

In Jamaica we brought half disposables and half reusables — four Bummis Swimmis, to be exact. The resort’s nanny, unfortunately, wanted NOTHING to do with the Bummis and preferred the disposables. (Ezra wore disposables off the beach as well, because I am not that hardcore crazy.) He developed a wicked diaper rash (later turned out to be yeast) from the disposables and I switched him to the Bummis. They were GREAT for the water. Way more comfortable, super easy to change (TABS!), very cute and the real elastic is about a million times better than the disposables. I rinsed them off in hot water at the end of the day and hung them up to dry with our suits. Big thing though: We never ended up testing the Poop Issue in them, so I have no idea how they perform in that department.

If you don’t plan on going back to the beach or pool before your son would outgrow his current size (Ezra seemed on the high end of medium size chart, but they run pretty big, so he’ll use them again this summer), and won’t have any laundry access during your trip, disposables are the more economical, convenient choice. For a summer pool membership in your hometown, go with a small stash of Bummis, for sure.

2. Yes, get your son a pair of water shoes.

Doesn’t really matter what kind, just something that’s easy to get on and off and sturdy enough to protect his soles from rocks. We’ve always just grabbed a generic pair of Speedo-type knock-offs at the local Big Box Baby Store (since they’re all but guaranteed to be too small by the next time you need them). Crocs work too — they don’t always stay on as well as the fabric shoes but are easier to rinse off, and fit better if your baby has wide or extra chubby feet.

3. Sunscreen.

Whatever you buy, TEST FIRST. Not for sunburn protection, but for skin irritation. We once bought a near lifetime supply of some California Baby sunscreen for a vacation, only to find that my son Noah erupted in a rash every time we used it. (He’s also HIGHLY allergic to the Burt’s Baby Bees buttermilk lotion, just to prove that “natural” doesn’t always means it’s better for everybody.) And I admit I dislike a lot of the natural sunscreens because they use physical blocker ingredients (like titanium dioxide). There is nothing WRONG with titanium dioxide, except that it’s crazy messy and doesn’t absorb and leaves white film on your skin. If your child won’t stand still very long for sunscreen application or fights you on it, this can be extremely frustrating.

For Jamaica, buying sunscreen was on my husband’s to-do list, and instead of reading ingredients like he usually does, he just grabbed a bunch of bottles and tossed them in his cart. So we ended up with synthetic sunscreens with parabens and fragrance and all sorts of unpronounceable ingredients: Neutrogena Waterguard Kids, in both cream and spray (update: in the summer of 2021 Neutrogena recalled many of its aerosol sunscreens for us of “benzene” though its kids line was not). And I loved them. I used them on myself. Goes on quick, absorbs easily, and nobody got even a HINT of pink after days in the tropical sun. So, there you go. I’m not thrilled with everything on the label, but skin cancer trumps potential yet-not-definitively-proven danger of parabens, for now. (Related: Best Sunscreens for Kids)

Sun hats and UV-protection shirts are super good to have as well.

4. Equipment.

We bought a small pop-up sun shade for Noah’s first beach trip, and it rocked. Noah took NAPS right on the beach in it! I loved it! I thought it was beyond essential! And then I had Ezra! Who is completely different! I couldn’t find the same cabana in the stores and bought a slightly bigger, more expensive one last summer…and he wanted nothing to do with it. He’d fall asleep in my arms but would scream bloody murder every time I tried to put him in the tent. Same went for my brilliant idea of bringing a small pop-up wading pool and filling it with water. Neither of the boys liked that, not even Noah, who liked pools but hated the ocean. Other people’s kids? Had the time of their lives in our pool.

So…give yourself a day or two to decide whether you need additional “stuff.” Streamlining at the beach is soooo essential with kids — you’re so exhausted by the end of the day that lugging him and 20 pounds of gear and accessories will be hell on earth. If your son seems pretty chill at the beach or is bothered by the wind blowing sand, a tent might be nice. If he just wants to GO GO GO and play in the water and sand and everything, don’t bother. Bring a beach ball and some plastic toys. (Some baby-sized stacking buckets that he can manipulate are better than oversized big kid pails and shovels.) A stack of swim diapers and some wipes. Lots of water and a snack. And every piece of camera equipment you own.

Photo by Barefoot In Florida

More Summertime Parenting Advice from Alpha Mom:


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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