Brian, Cassandra, and Maeve on the Humber River for Maeve's first canoe paddle.

How to go paddling with a baby

Paddling down the Humber River, I’m looking at the familiar sight of my wife’s back in the bow. But another voice babbles away in front of her, and out of my view. I crane my neck to the starboard side and catch a glimpse of my daughter as she looks down at the water gliding by. “Hi Maeve!” I call out. She turns to me, peering out from under her bucket hat, and responds with one syllable – “Dah!” – as her face lights up with the realization I’m also in the canoe.

My daughter is the youngest person I’ve ever paddled with. Not that she’s “paddling” yet per se, but she does like to reach down and splash the water with her hands when she can so we’ll count it. When Cassandra and I started our journey to become new parents, long before we ever had Maeve, we set a goal that we’d get her in the canoe as soon as possible. Turns out that was 11 months after she was born. She was born in the spring, and that first summer of caring for a newborn was also our first canoe-free summer in many years. So there was no way we were going to miss another one.

It’s incredibly satisfying to see our little Maeve become a fully-fledged member of our Urban Paddlers family. Since that first outing on the Humber River, we’ve paddled with her several more times, including camping trips to the Massasauga Provincial Park and Haliburton Highlands Water Trails. We want to share our approach for safe and fun paddling with a baby or toddler in this post, and in future posts, we’ll elaborate more on overnight camping trips.

Before you put your boat in the water

a baby lying on the floor, wearing a neoprene wet suit. A coat hanger sits on top of the baby's torso.
Putting a baby in a wet suit isn’t easy, but necessary if you’re going to be paddling on cold water.

Planning for a safe trip is key to giving yourself the right confidence for taking to the water with your baby (or for that matter, someone else’s kid!). We knew that paddling in the spring meant colder water and the risk of hypothermia for Maeve if we tipped over. So we invested in a used wet suit for her to wear over wool and fleece layers. A lifejacket is also necessary and we made sure to have Maeve wear her lifejacket in advance to help her get used to it. She’d been swimming in her lifejacket many times since she was about three months old, so that helped build up her comfort level. Maeve also wore sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat for protection from the sun.

We talked over our plan for where we’d go and picked a familiar spot to paddle. We knew the Humber River has an easy access point at King’s Mill Park. We also invited our friends to join us with the canoe, so we’d have extra support on hand if anything went wrong, and for more fun out on the water.

The other main concern was to prepare to keep Maeve calm and happy in the boat. That meant timing the paddle to match up nicely with her nap schedule – we had her sleeping in the car on the way to our boat access – and packing lots of accessible baby-friendly snacks.


Sharing a canoe with a toddler

A baby inside a canoe at the very front adjusts her pink bucket hat.
Maeve sometimes sits in the bow but more often prefers to stand.

Wearing a wool base layer, a neoprene wet suit, a lifejacket, and a bucket hat, Maeve was ready for her first paddle. We prayed that she wouldn’t require a diaper change until after the paddle at least and headed out for the Humber River with our canoe on top of the car.

We put Maeve in the bow of the canoe, in front of Cassandra’s legs. Cassandra also keeps a backpack with her, tied to the handhold, which is full of Maeve’s snacks, pacifiers, water bottle, and some other necessities. Maeve tended to like standing in the canoe, clutching the gunwales for support. She liked to look down at the passing water, and reach out to splash it at times. From our first outing, we saw that the floor of the canoe was uneven and became slippery when wet. So we bought anti-slip tape and applied several strips of it to the floor to help Maeve get traction.

Since our first outing, I’ve also had Maeve sit in front of my stern seat for a brief paddle. We also installed the anti-slip tape in that spot so we have the option.

Don’t plan on going particularly fast or particularly far when you’re paddling with a baby. Maeve is all over the place while she’s in the canoe, and Cassandra has to constantly manage her in the bow, which of course prevents her from paddling. Aside from leaning towards the water, Maeve will sometimes reach for the paddle as if she wants to help move us forward. Other times she’s looking to sit on Mom’s legs. Or she gets cranky and needs some soothing. A good mindset is to keep your paddles short and simple, never getting too far away from your access point. Just appreciate that you’re on the water and your little person is experiencing something new. Over the summer, each time we bring Maeve in the boat, she seems to be a bit more comfortable and at ease with the experience and we’re already improving our average paddling speeds as a result.

Things we could still improve

The bow of the canoe lacks any shade or shelter and leaves Maeve exposed to the conditions. Having an option to block the sun or the rain would be nice and might open up the possibility that she could even nap in the canoe. We’ve seen other canoeing parents seem to be able to attach some material to the deck of their canoe, or maybe their gunwales near the canoe’s front tip, but we haven’t figured out how to install this effectively in ours just yet. It may not really be necessary as Maeve gets older and we can always dress her for the conditions. Or else, perhaps we can try what an old acquaintance of mine advised that she did with her baby – building a fort out of extra lifejackets to create shelter. Whatever works!

The main thing for us is to keep our paddles in the water and keep bringing Maeve along for the fun. My hunch is that she’ll benefit from it in the long run and in a few years, she’ll be helping out with a paddle of her own.

Maeve, Cassanda, and Brian sit in a canoe floating on a lake on a sunny day.
The Urban Paddlers family in their natural environment.
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Brian has been canoeing his entire life, going on his first multi-day backcountry out trip when he was 13. Brian worked at summer camps as an out trip leader and canoe instructor, and now lives in Toronto and works as a technology trends analyst. He escapes to go canoeing whenever possible.

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