In your misty childhood memories of running across the beach, building sandcastles and splashing in the surf, you might not remember your parents worrying constantly, but they probably were.
Taking your toddler to the beach is stressful, and even at a lake you might find yourself imagining sharks lurking underwater. A day at the beach is worth the stress, though: your tot will be so exhausted he won’t fight bedtime.
Finding a Beach
Some parents won’t mind if some elderly tourists walk naked past their toddlers at a clothing-optional beach, while others would rather not have to explain that sight. If you’re traveling somewhere new, don’t just take a chance on whatever beach is closest. Ask locals for recommendations on family beaches, preferably those that are set into a cove or have sandbars that keep the waves gentle.
Consider water quality too; the local health department can help you figure out which areas are the least polluted. You’ll also want a beach with nearby parking, bathrooms and lifeguards. A snack bar is a plus, though you might find yourself saying “No” even more often than usual if you tot realizes there’s ice cream nearby.
If only beaches came with complimentary pack mules to cart your belongings to your chosen spot: it’s impossible to pack light for a beach trip with a toddler. Bring a beach chair for each adult and a blanket for the kids; if your crew is especially sensitive to the sun, a beach umbrella or canopy is a lifesaver.
Pack enough buckets and shovels for each kiddo to have one, and bring along some books or magnetic toys in case someone needs a break from the sand.
Stock a beach bag with towels, floating devices, hand sanitizer, sunglasses, water-resistant sunscreen, extra swimming diapers and wipes, a bag to protect your phone and electronics and a hat and dry clothes for each kiddo.
Fill a cooler with ice, water, juice, fruit and cheese and bring along dry snacks like pretzels. Don’t bother bringing a book unless you have another adult on hand to take turns with supervision duties.
On the Sand
Your toddler’s probably not going to understand a long list of beach rules, so you’re going to have to stick close to him once you set up. Pick a spot that’s at least 20 feet from the water so if he makes a run for it, you’ll be able to catch him. Slather him with sunscreen before leaving home and reapply it every few hours, and sit next to him while he starts digging in the sand so you can prevent him from munching on the stuff.
Toddlers have a tendency to be overzealous in their digging, so when you first hand him a shovel, place your hand over his for the first few scoops into the sand. Show him how to shovel sand in a way that doesn’t send it flying into anyone’s eyes, and say “Gentle, gentle” as he gets a feel for it. Enforce regular water and snack breaks; trudging through sand on short legs is exhausting work.
In and Near the Water
Some toddlers will be too nervous of the waves to go into the water. If yours is one those timid little guys, don’t push him. According to HealthyChildren.org, toddlers are one of the groups at greatest risk of drowning, so a tot who wants to stick to the sand isn’t a bad thing. If he does want to go in, make eye contact and say in a very firm voice, “You never go in the water without me or another responsible adult.”
Once in the water, keep him between you and the shore and hold onto him at all times if he’s not wearing any flotation devices. Keep an eye out for jellyfish, both in the water and dead on the shore. Cut his swim time early if the water feels icy to you, since his little body will have an even more difficult time keeping warm than yours, and make a run for shelter or home if you hear thunder or see lightning. He can finish his swim in a warm bath, if he wants to.