Toddler Safety at a Lakefront Vacation Rental House
June 16, 2016 1:41 PM   Subscribe

Please suggest tips and gear for keeping an active toddler safe for a week's vacation at a lakefront rental house.

We will be staying in the rental house with my in-laws, and there will be up to six other adults. These adults have either never parented a toddler or have not done so in 30+ years. My husband will be there, and while he and his parents are all helpful and vocally supportive and concerned, they are also easily distracted by conversations with each other while the toddler is pulling floor cleaner out of cabinets.
The toddler will be nearly 2 at the time of the trip, and he is super active, fearless, exploratory, and speedy. I am now having regular anxiety attacks about his safety on this trip. I wake in the night terrified that one of these adults is going to accidentally leave a door open while I'm in the bathroom and my kid will run off unseen, jump in the lake, and drown.
At this point, I'm dreading the trip, but I can't get out of it. My strategy now is to overplan my way through my anxiety. Please help me overplan!

Pictures of the house on VRBO show that it's directly on the water with a large yard, small dock, and no safety enclosures of any kind. I cannot tell from the pictures what kind of doors they have, whether there is an unsecured staircase inside, or generally what kind of childproofing gear to bring for the house. Obviously all childproofing gear would have to be removed easily with no damage to the house since it's a rental.
We are driving up to the lake in a borrowed van which will give us plenty of space for baby gates, life jackets, a week's supply of toddler food, etc. I can overplan, overbuy, and overpack. Yay!

I would love to hear from people who have vacationed with young toddlers in a lakefront rental house! Do you have any tips, practical advice, or gear suggestions? Any thoughts or considerations? Can a child sleep in a Puddle Jumper? Just kidding, sorta.

I appreciate your help. I'm already in therapy. Please be kind.
posted by aabbbiee to Travel & Transportation around Okoboji, IA (35 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Yikes. That is a little alarming. You're going to have to baby gate the front door, I fear. As well as, obviously, the stairs. The child shouldn't be allowed to go outside (into the yard, obviously, I don't mean if you're driving to dinner) without a life-jacket on.

However you divide up child-care during the workweek, on a vacation, your husband should not merely be "helping" keep your toddler from drowning himself. That's a primary responsibility of both of you.
posted by praemunire at 1:45 PM on June 16, 2016 [10 favorites]

My husband will be there, and while he and his parents are all helpful and vocally supportive and concerned, they are also easily distracted by conversations

His parents get a pass, but your husband needs a come-to-jesus talk where the trip being cancelled is a consequence of his lack of adequate parenting right now. You absolutely can get out of the trip.

Maybe ask your husband to take child CPR and toddle swim classes between now and the trip. That way he hears the message from other people in authority, picks up new and valuable skills, and spends bonus time swimming with his child. You might also want to look into hiring an au pair to come with you as a set of eyes you can trust.
posted by saucysault at 1:51 PM on June 16, 2016 [24 favorites]

You are scared enough so that you shouldn't be: That is, you are hyperaware of the danger and therefore will be alert enough to prevent him from getting hurt. Now you just have to communicate that to the other adults.

Might be overkill, but you could get a door alarm. (Though it's not clear if that model would make noise if an adult reset it and left it open.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:52 PM on June 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

We did an oceanfront trip to OBX with toddlers, and what worked for us was budgeting caretakers for a couple hours apiece where all you did was keep an eye on thing 1 and thing 2.

One of the adults is going to be much better at caregiving/babysitting than the other five. Work that person like a rented mule.

Only Mom and Dad get to take the kids to the beach, or at least be present. Don't be shy with the sunscreen/babyhats.

From my experience, you and your SO are gonna be spending most of your time within eyesight of kiddo anyway. Don't overthink it, I grew up going on camping trips at lakes all over Minnesota and nobody drowned or even came close.
posted by Sphinx at 1:55 PM on June 16, 2016

Got it, re: husband. He is an active parent who actually takes our child swimming regularly, I trust him completely, and we've already had the come-to-jesus talk. He is going to have another talk with his mom this week about my concerns with the house, and maybe she'll be able to get some of the questions answered.
posted by aabbbiee at 1:56 PM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

Kid is always with, in the presence of, under the watchful eye of a parent. That parent puts the kid first and conversations second. Parent needs to go to the bathroom? kid comes with.
posted by zippy at 1:57 PM on June 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

Baby gates and door alarms. I have watched family members go through this and that is what they have done. Gate the stairs, gate the doors, add temporary door alarms (amazon) that alert when the door is opened. The adults will get used to the noise and stepping over the gates. If they balk, bring up the recent story about the 2 year old in Orlando. That story should get everybody on board. Accept that this will not be a vacation for you. They will have a good time and you will be watching that kid like a hawk.

The only good news is, at times you will have a wonderful time with your child while they experience things for the first time.
posted by cairnoflore at 2:00 PM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

I am pretty anxious and if you are like me you are used to keeping a very close eye on him in regular life.
My in-laws had the cautious kids that were too afraid to go on the dock and I had the kid walking straight off the dock into the water, so I know what you are going through.
You can do it. Half of the real anxiety is not knowing the set up of the place.
The good news is the kids not a bit older and can unlock doors, move furniture, etc. This will be a good trip to start out so you know you can do it!

There is a real danger when there are many adults - sometimes someone thinks someone else is watching since there's so many people there. And it's hard when lots of people had "easy" kids and you know yours is adventurous.

Bring 2 gates for the house and 2 life vests. Have a second so the other one can be drying out.

My talk with my husband would go something like: I know I can be especially anxious about water but I am excited to go on this trip. Will you just help me by making sure you and I switch off as primary caretaker? Just until I feel a bit comfortable. I know your parents can handle it but I want them to get a gist of just how active Mr.Baby can be.

It's stressful but things will be much better once you get there, see the layout of the house and know what you are dealing with.
posted by ReluctantViking at 2:07 PM on June 16, 2016

In this situation a friends place had jerry-rigged baby gate sort of thing across the dock.

Do you approach the water beach style, or is there a seawall sort of retaining wall? because gate on the dock + it just being beach was pretty easy to deal with, rather than a kid falling straight into deep water.
posted by emptythought at 2:07 PM on June 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Suggest gating off a section of the house and declaring that the toddler zone. One adult needs to be in the toddler zone watching the toddler at all times, while another adult provides backup and company. It doesn't have to be the entire house, pick a room or two and put up some baby gates.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:07 PM on June 16, 2016 [7 favorites]

Oh, hi. This was/is us. Kid BlahLaLa is 13 now but we've spent one month every summer of his life at a beach house on top of a cliff overlooking the ocean. There are no safety features of any kind -- ranging from no fence at the edge of the cliff to no baby gates or drawer locks. Bonus: the house is full of precious antiques and delicate, unwashable fabrics!!! Your basic nightmare, in terms of being there with a small child.

At times we've been at this house with 20+ family members. Sometimes it's just us. And right from the start Mr. BlahLaLa and I made the decision that the only way to make it work was for one of us to be with the kid at all times. All times. You can't rely on other adults (especially if they don't have children of their own) to know how much of an eagle eye you have to keep on a small child under these circumstances. The only possible exception was quiet indoor stuff one-on-one with grandparents, like watching Sesame Street in grandparents' bedroom with the door closed.

After a few summers I grew to learn which other family members could be relied upon for an hour or two of hardcore, no-distractions kid-watching. And then...eventually Kid BlahLaLa got older so I don't need to do the eagle-eye thing any more.

You can totally do this. It isn't relaxing, but it'll be fun.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:27 PM on June 16, 2016 [10 favorites]

Forgot to add: yes to the idea of setting up a small toddler safety zone somewhere in the house. Could be a room, could be a walk-in closet, whatever you've got available to you. Take away all the dangerous items, set up a blanket on the floor or whatever, spread out your books, toys, whatever else makes it a fun zone. That's your safe place. If the door closes, that can also be where a parent naps or dozes or just plain nods off for a few seconds while kid plays.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:30 PM on June 16, 2016

Tag team. Just you and your husband will tag team being on active child watch at all times. Get the gate for any stairs and door outside and make a toddler safe family hang-out area. Don't assume the other adults will be active child watchers (although in my experience, adult female family members have their antennaes out and working often, too).

That's it, really. Just an active watcher at all times not in the safe/cleared family zone. Try to have some fun, too.

(Mother of an almost-3yo and we have a summer lake cabin we visit often)
posted by jillithd at 2:36 PM on June 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

Lace bells on your baby's shoes. Kids will wear floatation devices miles from any body of water so buy a variety and allow your baby to wear them as he wants. When my son was small, I bought a puppy dog backpack that came with a leash, for my son to wear and me to hold onto, which is awful, I know, but he loved playing puppy and it kept him close. If you have an old iphone or an ipod that you don't love, use it to track him with the find my iphone app. Sew it into a pouch that you can attach to his shirt.

Even if he doesn't get out and drown, kids that age have a knack for getting into stuff. My daughter would slip away and put herself to sleep in odd places, scaring me until I found her. Never, ever, under any circumstances, let anyone play the 'I'm going to get you' game. Your child must know that being called means responding and it is not the beginning of playtime.
posted by myselfasme at 2:59 PM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

No need to overthink this; take turns with your husband where one of you is always on.
Who said vacations are supposed to be relaxing [as a parent(s) of a young child]...
posted by axismundi at 3:02 PM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

My kid is about the same age as yours, and has similar levels of daring-do.

My mom is a behaviour analyst who works with kids, and was working with a kid (with an intellectual disability) who kept darting into the street. She did something similar to below, and it would work just as well on any kid or toddler.

Part of the problem with real little toddlers is that "explaining" is good, but doesn't necessarily register and they don't remember. Also, as we've seen in the news lately they are fast and sneaky (at least mine is!). >>In addition to all the above I would flat out train him to
1) STOP at the water and
2) Find Mom or Dad or a grownup. (Tag in something kid likes... find a grownup and give a hug! find a grownup and...??)

Their brains don't remember reliably, but you can build muscle memory.

Like, go outside and run around and practice. Everyday, every time you go outside, spend a few minutes practicing. Really drill it in. Run around together... run around run around (so much fun!)...hit the water's edge...STOP and FIND a grownup! Every time he does this he gets a chocolate chip or a sticker or whatever. Along with a general "stay away from the water" message and constant redirection away from the water at other times, etc...

I also kind of like the idea of getting a length of really huge boat rope (3" diameter or so, white) and stringing it out across the lawn and practicing not going past the rope too. This is how some forest kindergartens in Europe operate without fencing... all the kids know not to go past the rope line, and as they get older it gets farther and farther out. (Rope could also be a good easy visual reminder for "all the adults" to herd kids on THIS side of it.)

No substitute for the babygates, door alarms, and constant vigilance... (I'd do all that too) but it's backup in that moment when you blink and lose sight of him for a split second and your heart stops.

We took ours on a winter beach walk just before his first birthday. We had him in a wrap, and took him out for a minute, and the second his feet hit the sand he was running gleefully toward the cold, large, choppy open ocean (full of sharks and bluebottle jellyfish, no doubt). We're doing a family vacation in Hawaii just before he turns two, and I picked the AirBnB and it is not on the beach and has a fenced yard, and I am concerned about well-meaning grandparents and aunties and such volunteering to babysit not realising how intensely they need watched every minute! You're not overreacting, and you're definitely not alone.

>>Oh, brightly colored t-shirts and hats! Specifically, orange (like a life vest). My kid wears a lot of blue and green, but my mom sent him a bright orange Halloween shirt - It was SO much easier to spot him! I was stunned. Orange shirts all the way!

Good luck!
posted by jrobin276 at 3:02 PM on June 16, 2016 [8 favorites]

There is a real danger when there are many adults - sometimes someone thinks someone else is watching since there's so many people there.

This. More adult watchers just make things harder because no one is doing it properly. If you aren't the one watching your kid, make sure you name the person who is taking over so they are 100% aware the kid's life is in their hands. Though I agree with the person above who said just to take the kid with you to the bathroom etc.

(I don't have kids but another leader and I would take girl scouts (age 7-9) swimming. Extra parent helpers were worse than useless because they'd distract us while we were obsessively counting heads and their attitude was 'my kid can swim, it's fine' whereas our goal was 'all ten kids are coming home alive, not just your little genius!')
posted by kitten magic at 3:58 PM on June 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

Turtle alarm as backup:

And if you have multiple life jackets for the child, always hang all of them out of reach and out of sight. Otherwise the child may decide, "I can grab the life jacket and go! I won't get in trouble because I have it!"

Cite: I used a big ass stick to pop the latch and the gate and take off through the neighborhood to play with other kids at a scarily precocious age similar to your toddler.
posted by tilde at 4:36 PM on June 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yep, when you get more adults, everyone just assumes someone else is looking after them. I actually wouldn't trust anyone else except for Mum and Dad. Non parents - or ones who haven't dealt with a little one for a long time - aren't used to constantly keeping an eye on a small child and think it's ok to chat to someone for five minutes before looking up and realising junior is nowhere to be seen. They won't mean to, but that doesn't mean it won't happen.

Tag team with your husband and realise your holiday will probably be more exhausting and less fun (for you) than if you just stayed home with your own safety devices and ways to entertain him. Having said that, this period won't last forever. I went on these holidays (the holiday home we go to is oceanfront, with no gate at all separating house from beach) not because it was ever a break for me - it was much more work than normal - but because it was an opportunity for extended family time and that alone was worth it for my kids.

I love the idea of a toddler zone but also know that my two are super social and they would never have been OK being in a segregated room away from the fun. Hopefully your kid is different because if you can make it work, it takes a lot of the safety issues away. Make sure your husband pulls his weight - not just 'helping' you, and that you get some non toddler, adult time too.
posted by Jubey at 4:45 PM on June 16, 2016

Shifts. You and your husband come up with shifts, what ever works for you guys-one hour, two hours, three hours at a time. I feel for you, I've been there too. Goodluck and I hope you can have fun :)
posted by 58 at 5:13 PM on June 16, 2016

Has he ever had a swimming class? If there's time, that experience might help you feel better! Our very active baby is younger but I have the sense that, by, two "and drown" wouldn't necessarily be the very first thing that happened if she got into a lake unsupervised. I'm not saying it'd be safe! Just that I've seen kids that old go from having no idea what to do in deep water to understanding that there might be an edge that one can hold on to, stairs that can be climbed, et cetera, such that they don't always immediately panic.
posted by teremala at 5:45 PM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

Bright clothing, like a neon orange rash guard, worn whenever outside could help a bit keep him visible.
posted by walkinginsunshine at 5:54 PM on June 16, 2016

You and your husband should get used to semiformal handoffs, as in "I'm going to the bathroom. You're in charge of Junior." "I'm going to the kitchen now. Keep an eye on Junior". It's too easy for everyone to think that someone else is watching the baby.

Can you email the VRBO owners about what areas would accommodate baby gates?
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 6:14 PM on June 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

This does seem like a stressful situation and I can see why you would have some anxiety over it. I just want to Nth the comment that the more adults you get, the less any one in particular feels responsible for your kid. I love the formal handoff between you and your husband.

I also believe it's true that "family vacations" right now are not going to be relaxing for you. The sooner I was able to let go of that expectation the happier I was all around. This WILL be more work than staying home, and everyone will probably sleep badly and that will suck. The time for your kids with extended family is worth it. If at all possible, book something for the weekend after you get home - a babysitter/date night or a couple hours getting a massage for you - so that you have a reward for all the awesome parenting you did.
posted by handful of rain at 6:35 PM on June 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

Okay, start by realizing that it is incredibly unlikely that anything bad will happen to your child. My family, as well as my wife's, are pretty much in the let-kids-run-around camp. We have taken quite a few vacations at lakefront houses and basically followed the guideline that "if the kids are outside an adult should be outside." With pretty lax enforcement, really. This basic mindset seems to have been passed down from generation to generation, and there are no family stories of anyone having drowned.

Now that said, I totally get that a percent chance of your child dying that rounds to zero is not comforting because you really don't want your child to die. But let's start from the assumption that the risk is mathematically close to zero.

So, you start by assigning a buddy system where each kid has a designated adult watching them at any given time. You explain this system to every other adult when you first arrive. So, if Kiddo is outside, then Adult-1 is outside with them in direct line of sight. If Adult-1 needs to go to the bathroom or go get a beer, they call for Adult-2 (without leaving line of sight from Kiddo) and tag out.

Now, some of the adults are going to be better at this system than others. You know what? Don't worry about it.

The vast majority of the time, it is going to be you and your husband tagging each other in and out. In those situations, you will be awesome at being vigilant and turn virtual-zero-risk into actual-zero-risk.

The times when you have to tag in a less reliable adult, they'll still be better than nothing. At absolute worst, they'll be like 50% as good as you (distracted half the time). So you will still have reduced your zero risk by half (actually, somewhat more, since noticing the problem just before or after it starts is usually as good as noticing it at the exact moment).

So now you are looking at a situation where you have taken your zero risk and eliminated it ~80% of the time, and reduced it by half or more the other ~20% of the time. I don't know exactly what 10% of zero is, but it seems pretty low.

Also, put a baby gate on the door of the bedroom when they are sleeping.
posted by 256 at 7:24 PM on June 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

sometimes someone thinks someone else is watching since there's so many people there

As someone with a metric ton of experience supervising children around water, I think this is the main risk factor. For this reason, practice a formal system of handoffs where you clearly designate someone as Watcher for a period of time. Don't do it casually. Make eye contact with the next person and say "I am handing off Toddler to you now - you're Watcher until X:00, agreed?" And make sure they know and agree. Don't take it casually and both sort-of watch the kid - have a point person at all times who's clearly bearing the responsibility, and knows it.

Change frequently enough that fatigue and forgetfulness don't set in. If the other parent is being distracted by family, relieve them until they can separate from the distraction.
posted by Miko at 7:54 PM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

If your kid does screen time, there's a Daniel Tiger episode that's worth watching. It's got an accompanying book too.
posted by snickerdoodle at 8:11 PM on June 16, 2016

I am about 20 months from needing to re-read these answers, so I'm glad you asked.

That said, I'll be taking baby to a lake that I spent weeks at every summer growing up with my many siblings and cousins. And my parent grew up spending a month there every summer with all of their siblings. And of all the crazy stories that get told, none relate to toddlers near-drowning in the water. (Most were their shenanigans from ages 8-16 or so.)

I can completely relate to your sense of worry, though, and hope this is a tiny bit soothing.
posted by slidell at 9:23 PM on June 16, 2016

Maybe get a ridiculous pink plastic bracelet or something for the formal handoff... A big fat blazing "You are on duty - Yes I am on duty!".

I think older kids (8 is nothing like 2) are a different kettle of fish.

I dunno. I like thinking I'm a let them run around type, but a two year old near a large body of water?! I was a lifeguard, for kids, for pools and natural bodies of water. Drowning can happen in so little water and SO quickly, and there's not much in between for so little a kid who can't swim at all. Ugh.
posted by jrobin276 at 10:54 PM on June 16, 2016

I had a similar experience going to a vacation house with a non-fenced swimming pool when my kids were tiny.

My wife and I had the following solution: We considered ourselves a life guard team that was on duty from the time our kids woke up until they went to sleep. Basically, as soon as we heard noises from the room where the kids were sleeping, one of us was either physically hanging out / playing with our son (who loves water) or was just sitting on a deck chair by the pool. We didn’t switch until relieved by the other. This system would have never worked if we weren’t both fully on board.

We were with a bunch of family, so we would have easily laid in bed and slept on, but nope. And the other adults… The only time I ever took for granted that another adult was watching our kid was if they were actually actively swimming with my son and daughter. We never considered that another adult was doing some other activity and also was resp. for watching our kids. We knew that the other families kids didn’t love the water and wouldn’t go in on their own and we also knew that our son loved to swim and we simply didn’t trust him not to decide to go swimming on his own. We never considered or asked the other adults to watch our kids or be responsible for them. This was 100% our job.

Just to let you know how quickly and quietly something could happen… I went swimming with my son and was in the water right next to him. My son climbed into the pool going down the ladder and then he let go (I was watching him the whole time). He just sunk. There was no splash, no moment where he swam a bit. He just went quietly down. Of course, it took less than five seconds for me to grab his arm and lift him up so there wasn’t a second of danger, but I’ll never forget how quickly and quietly he disappeared into the water.

Also, to let you know… I consider myself a parent who gives my kids a ton of freedom and the kids have a pretty big radius that they can travel and explore on their own. However, here I didn’t mess around for a second.
posted by jazh at 4:37 AM on June 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

You can easily and cheaply enclose part of the yard by using orange plastic fencing. Metal stakes hold it in place. It's more of a visual fence than anything.
posted by mareli at 6:08 AM on June 17, 2016

nthing those who say that it should be you and husband taking turns, forget the others. See if there is a spot by the lake that you can make into some comfy place for yourselves.

when our son was 2 1/2 we went to a family holiday in a group of 20+ relatives, including two families with children the same age or younger than ours. We thought surely we will take turns in watching them by th epool but quickly realised that all other family members including those with toddlers themselves, just let them run off to the pool that was at the bottom of the park-like garden and could not be viewed from the house/terrace. Not only were we worried our own son might drown when at the pool unsupervised but also found the prospect distressing that one of the others might drown if the children were at the pool all on their own, only "supervised" by the oldest who was then about 7.

So my husband and I set ourselves up at the pool, in deck chairs, and made ourselves comfortable there, and the rest of them sat on the terrace and we basically turned into lifeguards, taking turns, just enjoying being together by the pool or playing water games with the children. We have done this at every one of those family occasions since.
We are/were considered odd, and endure no little teasing for being so fearful. And then last year at a similar situation, we pulled out one of our son's small cousins (3yrs) just in the nick of time... so no, you are not at all wrong to be worried, and yes, just do the watching yourselves. We actually grew to enjoy it.
posted by 15L06 at 7:49 AM on June 17, 2016

I almost hate to say it - child leash?
posted by aimedwander at 8:03 AM on June 17, 2016

Someone thinks someone else is watching since there's so many people there
This is totally it. It's well-meaning people without recent toddler experience who are in vacation mode and visiting family they haven't seen in months/years.

My husband and I had a talk about doing the formal hand-off thing just between us, and not trusting anyone else to be up for it, so I'm feeling better (especially since y'all made it clear I am not overreacting).

One of the worst things about the setup of the house is that it's not just on a lake, but on a canal of a lake. There's a boardwalk flush along a full side of the yard and the edge of the boardwalk just drops off to deep water with no wall, fencing, nothing. If he fell in, I don't think he'd be visible from the house in the water next to the boardwalk. It's basically a nightmare scenario. But at the same time there shouldn't be any swimming around the dock at all for anyone, so that's at least a bright line.
posted by aabbbiee at 8:31 AM on June 17, 2016

He just sunk. There was no splash, no moment where he swam a bit. He just went quietly down.

This comment is important, and reminded me of this MeFi thread about the signs of drowning or potential of drowning. It doesn't fit the stereotype we see on TV. As a former lifeguard/kid swim supervisor, I can attest that it's crucial to realize that drowning doesn't look like "drowning." So whoever's going to be on duty should be aware of what to look for.
posted by Miko at 8:01 PM on June 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

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