100,000 welcomes, except to hungry children

In Victorian times, children were to be seen and not heard

In Victorian times, children were to be seen and not heard. Nowadays they seem to have graduated to being viewed as irksome nuisances who should not even be seen.

Perhaps I am just a tad tetchy because of my experiences recently in an Irish bed-and-breakfast. My husband booked a family room for our three children and ourselves. When we arrived, we requested a cot for our baby of 18 months. The owner looked none too happy, but the cot arrived. Just the cot, though, without a sheet or a blanket.

When I asked about bed clothes, the owner said grumpily: "We didn't discuss this on the phone. If we had, I would have told you to bring your own sheets and blankets. I don't like giving sheets to babies because of what they might do to them."

Because of what they might do to them? Was he expecting toddlers to rip the sheets, plait them, and then abseil to freedom over the cot sides? If he was merely referring to laundry problems, adults are scarcely exempt from that, either.


That evening we decided to eat in the B&B, with the usual understanding that one of the adults would retire to base with any or all of the kids if they became obstreperous.

We asked for a high chair. More sighs from the owner. When it arrived, it was without straps, which the baby thought was only wonderful, as she proceeded to stand up and perform a dance for the indulgent, if slightly alarmed, other diners. (Many of whom had children, by the way.) So back on to Mammy's lap went the disappointed dancer.

When I inquired why the chair had no straps, I was informed that it was for insurance purposes, because if it had straps, the B&B was liable if the child fell out. If it was strapless, any falls were the parent's responsibility. Lovely. Increase by a hundred-fold the chances of a small child damaging herself, but that's all right so long as the parents are the ones who are liable. Incidentally, when I got home I rang the Irish Insurance Federation and they told me that they were not aware of any such instructions given by insurance companies.

Then there was the food. Needless to say, the adult menu was delicious, but let's all chorus together, Mums and Dads, what was available for the children - chips and nuggets, chips and sausages, chips and burgers.

Frankly, after two weeks holidaying in Ireland, I expect to see one of the offspring transmogrify into a gigantic French fry at any moment. I know, I know, children are notoriously picky and conservative eaters. However, some restaurants manage to offer more than a cholesterol fast-track for kids. For example, Mitchells, in Clifden, offers a kid's portion of their justly famous Irish stew. Other restaurants, please note.

Back at the B&B, we ordered our meal. The adults' meal arrived within 30 minutes, but after an hour of parental corralling of hungry children the waitress wandered back. "Did you order something for the children?" When, with extreme restraint, I noted we had done so an hour before and it was a long time for small children to wait, she got visibly cross and practically banged the plates down when they arrived.

At that stage the husband, wisps of steam curling out of his ears, decided to abandon our meal, dessert untouched. As we left, a nice English woman leaned over to us sympathetically. "Not very child-friendly, dear, are they?"

Obviously, there are many warm and welcoming places in Ireland where children are not treated as an unnecessary evil. But when I mentioned my experience to friends, a veritable torrent of similar complaints ensued.

Children of school age are just barely acceptable. But aside from burger joints, small children are scarcely catered for when it comes to food. One mother's pet hate is being handed a tall, brimming-over glass with a narrow base when she requests a drink for a small child. What about a half-full plastic cup with handles? Or child-friendly cutlery, instead of offering a toddler a choice between stabbing or spearing himself with adult knives and forks?

As for breastfeeding and changing nappies, it becomes at times a challenge of mammoth proportions to do so outside the home.

One friend, old enough to remember when we had trains in Ireland, wondered where you were supposed to change a nappy on one. The toilets are barely big enough for an adult. Are you supposed to kneel on a corridor, holding down a wriggly baby as other passengers step over you? Or do so in the carriage itself so that other passengers can view and smell the baby's latest offering? And what about disposing of the nappy? Are you expected to hand it to the person trundling the tea trolley up and down the carriages?

Changing facilities in general are a disaster, especially after six o'clock. Once the shops shut in towns and cities, where are you supposed to change a nappy, except in a public toilet? As for breastfeeding, the wonderfully hygienic surroundings of a toilet are often the only option, too. Most breastfeeding mothers prefer not to draw attention to themselves, but the most discreet mothers can be subject to dirty looks if they attempt to feed even a tiny baby in a public place.

Wheeling a child's buggy gives many people their first insight into the difficulties experienced by people who are wheelchair-users. There are the obvious problems with steps and access, but even once you are inside the troubles continue. In clothes shops, the aisles may be all right, but manoeuvring between clothes rails is often impossible, without your child being slapped in the face by swinging clothes.

Some people may consider all of this mere whinging, particularly those who are childless or who have children who have grown up. I am fully aware that people have the right to have a meal or to shop in peace, but are parents of small children to become hermits for three or four years?

La Leche League, one of the organisations which offers support to breastfeeding mothers, manages to run conferences for adults with dozens of children present, and it all works beautifully. There is a simple rule - happy child sounds are fine, but a child in distress should be taken out to be cared for. That seems like a good rule of thumb. And we might have a lot more "happy child" sounds if a few simple child-friendly practices became the norm. Not to mention a lot more repeat custom from satisfied parents.

With reference to last week's column, Medb Ruane wishes me to clarify comments that I made, as she believes they could be taken to imply that she was at one stage in favour of late abortion, or ignorant of the stages of gestation. Since it was never my intention to imply either of those things, I am happy to make this clarification and regret any hurt she may have felt.