Our second blog on how to increase your audience engagement with babies and their families

July 6, 2020
Photo of the author - Ashleigh Hibbins

Ashleigh Hibbins

In our first installment of this baby engagement series, we explored why your organisation should offer more for this under-served subsection of family audiences. It was published in our last edition of The Learning Diaries, before the UK locked down as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In this second and final installment, we’ll be sharing some top tips for howto get families with babies through the doors, and keep them coming back. With large parts of the UK economy still on lockdown at the time of writing this article, we recognise that for arts and cultural organisations, nobody is coming through the door at the moment. Providing online content for babies and their families can also be particularly challenging, if not impossible considering the World Health Organisation recommends children under 2 should not have any screen time, and 2 to 4-year-olds should have no more than 1 hour per day. Arts and cultural organisations will, therefore, have had fewer opportunities to engage with this audience than older age groups during the closure period.

Although we don’t know exactly what post-lockdown will look like for our sector, we hope these tips and insights will give you some inspiration, motivation, and food for thought as you consider your youngest visitors in re-opening plans.

From why to how

As with all other audience types, adult-and-baby groups can’t engage with arts and culture if their basic needs aren’t met. Every organisational context is different, but we know from personal experience, and our research with families, that adults with babies are much more likely visit somewhere that provides the basic necessities for a comfortable visit, rather than eye-catching activities or events. This isn’t to suggest that early years provision isn’t incredibly valuable and important for family audiences, but rather to emphasise that the more practical aspects of the visit are often the key deciding factor.

We live in a world that is not designed for babies and small children (how wonderful it would be if cafes sold baby puree and public toilets had wet wipe dispensers!), which means these audiences need more facilities and support than most. Most of it isn’t rocket science, but it’s surprising how often many of the basic necessities below are overlooked:

Functional baby changing facilities

I personally was never impressed by fabric changing mats shoved next to a scary, loud hand dryer, or drop down tables squashed into a standard-sized toilet stall with no room for a pram or an adult, no matter how enjoyable the rest of the visit might be. Inadequate facilities give a clear signal to families with babies that they are an afterthought or an inconvenience. Functional changing facilities need to be large enough to comfortably fit a pram, adult, baby, and potentially another child, with space to safely manouvre. They also need to be well-stocked with hand towels, not just a noisy hand dryer. This seems insignificant but I cannot stress enough how valuable it is to adults with babies – they will take note of it. Hand dryers are very noisy and scary for most babies, but if your venue doesn’t provide any other way for carers and parents to dry their hands, they’ve no choice but to use them – likely prompting a baby meltdown and a quick exit from your venue. In my own parenting WhatsApp groups, I’ve seen warnings against visiting certain places because the hand dryers are too noisy.

Clean, comfortable, and free places for infant feeding

This is another simple but crucial game-changer; if visitors can’t find a good, free place to sit and feed their baby (whether breast, bottle, or solids) without spending a fortune at your cafe, they will just leave your venue to do it somewhere else – and they likely won’t be back for a repeat visit. Younger infants need to be fed every 1-3 hours, and even weaned babies can have 5 or more meals per day, so it’s practically unavoidable during any visit to an arts or cultural venue. Ideally, places to sit will be comfortable and spacious, with chair backs and arms – i.e. not a hard, narrow bench or stool. Feeding can take 30 minutes or longer, so think about where you would be comfortable sitting for extended periods of time, and apply that to your visitor seating plans. If you REALLY want to make young families feel welcome, you could even consider providing access to private feeding spaces, and a microwave or hot water for preparing formula. Cafés should be well-stocked with high chairs for older babies and toddlers. Museum of London Docklands has a fantastic infant feeding area for example, and they’ve gone the extra mile of creating signage to ensure its reserved for visitors with babies.

Baby feeding area at Museum of London Docklands.jpg

Simple but effective infant feeding area at Museum of London Docklands (February 2020)

Fully accessible entrances, exits, galleries, and shops which still feel part of the experience

Being forced to knock at a delivery door in a back alley doesn’t exactly make for a great first impression; neither does being locked out of the gift shop because they’ve installed anti-theft turnstiles at the entrances which won’t fit a pram, or a broken lift that is left unrepaired for months (yes, I’ve experienced all of these with my baby).

If your venue can’t be made more physically accessible, could you provide sheltered parking for prams and buggies? Consider how practical it is to carry around a baby (and all their supplies), for an entire visit – how could you make it easier? One great example is National Trust, who have invested in baby hip-seat carriers that visitors can borrow to make it easier to carry a small child around a large property. Keep in mind that these hip carriers won’t work for very young or small babies, who can’t hold themselves upright.

If your venue has a no-bags-inside policy, consider if exceptions can be made for families with babies, who will likely be put off by the idea of being separated from essential supplies during their visit.

Accessibility and baby-friendly information on your website

Families won’t bother to stop by your organisation and see if it’s accessible – if they aren’t sure in advance, they won’t risk coming in the first place. Travelling even a short distance with a baby can be stressful and time-consuming. If adult-and-baby groups are confident the venue they are visiting will have everything they need to be comfortable, they’re much more likely to bother making the trek in the first place. They’re much more likely to come back again too, and tell any other families with babies they know. Trusted word-of-mouth recommendations are gold dust for this audience.

Something that interests the adults

Although this is an important consideration for all family audiences, it’s even more crucial for adult-and-baby groups. Unsurprisingly, young babies aren’t very picky about what arts and culture they engage with, so parents and carers are more likely to choose an event or venue based on their own interests. They may also be less concerned with ‘age appropriate’ or ‘kid-friendly’ content compared to groups with older children, although this will vary between individuals.

A choice of schedules

This is a crucial deciding factor for all family audiences, but especially those with babies. In the audience research we do for our clients, young families consistently tell us that they decide what arts events to attend based on timing and location, rather than the actual content or activity. But because every baby has different napping and feeding times, families also tell us that they wish arts venues offered more choice of when to attend – for example, offering the same activity or class for babies multiple times throughout the day. In an era when social distancing reduces capacity, this will become even more important. Families with babies also value flexibility rather than having to commit in advance, so drop-in activities are particularly popular.

Acknowledgement that not all caregivers are female

It’s disappointing that in 2020 so many organisations still don’t seem to realise that men and non-binary people also look after babies, and that not all caregivers are biological parents. My husband did 4 months of parental leave with our baby, and it was incredibly frustrating for him to visit a ‘family friendly’ venue, only to find his gender excluded him from activities entitled ‘mum and baby’, or accessing baby changing facilities, which are often sequestered to women’s toilets. Make sure your organisation isn’t discriminating against non-female caregivers and promoting stereotypes by offering baby-changing facilities that anyone with a child can access, and inclusive activities that welcome all caregivers.

The bottom line

Not every organisation will be able to do all of the above, and there are many more ways to help families with babies feel welcome than are covered here, but even a few small adjustments can make a big difference. For those venues that can’t make any adjustments, it’s worth considering if families with babies are a realistic target audience, if their basic needs can’t be accommodated.

The most valuable thing about making your organisation more baby-friendly? It usually improves accessibility for other audiences too.