Theatre performances aimed at the very youngest audiences – babies from birth to three – are really taking off. Around the UK, venues are putting on more and more shows suitable for newborns, babies and toddlers, but for many parents, the idea of being in a theatre with their baby is slightly worrying – what if he cries? Won’t she want to run around? What about feeding, or changing a nappy?
I’m a PhD researcher looking into theatre for the very young, and during December 2014, I tweeted 25 tips for ensuring that your first visit to the theatre with your child is a success:
1) Book ahead! Baby shows often limit the size of the audience to make sure everyone has a good view, so they sell out quickly.
2) Make sure the show is suitable for your child. Age ranges are usually given in the brochure, or call the Box Office to confirm. Some shows are designed for very specific ages, like birth to six months, so it’s best not to take older siblings to these performances.
3) Time your visit right. Most shows are on twice or three times a day, so pick the best time for you and your baby – not their regular naptime!
4) Give yourself plenty of time. You can usually go out if you need to change a nappy, but it’s best to allow time to feed, change and grab a cuppa.
5) Go with friends – the babies will love to see one another and you can take advantage of group booking offers.
6) Use images from the performance to help prepare your baby: trailers, downloadable colouring books or image galleries are often available on the theatre’s website. It won’t spoil the surprise. If anything, they will feel calmer and more comfortable knowing what to expect.
7) Don’t worry if they fall asleep just as the show starts – a warm theatre and lovely music can do that sometimes! Simply being in a theatre is a new experience for them, and if they feel comfortable, your next visit is likely to go well.
8) Ushers are there to help – don’t be afraid to ask if you need a cushion or want to know how long the show will last.
9) Be ready to play – many Early Years shows have moments for you and your baby to participate if you like. Maybe they will hand out objects or share food. It’s not like traditional theatre where you sit silently in the dark!
10) Some children are sensitive to loud noises. You can buy cheap and colourful ear defenders for children which will help them feel calm. I recommend Banz Mini Earmuffs for babies, or Edz Kidz for toddlers.
11) Ask for aisle seats – you don’t have to worry about disturbing anyone if you leave and you get better legroom. Some shows put cushions on the floor for little ones, and you can sit behind them.
12) Call the Box Office if you have any questions – do they have a buggy park? Will they warm baby food? How long is the show?
13) Bring a favourite toy – it will entertain your baby while you wait for the show to start, and help keep them calm during the play.
14) The UK makes world-class theatre for babies. Check out Polka Theatre, Oily Cart and Unicorn Theatre in London, Starcatchers and Catherine Wheels in Scotland, Tell Tale Hearts in Yorkshire and Sarah Argent in Wales.
15) Talk to your toddler about what to expect: lights (and darkness), music, applause, people telling a story. Let them know it’s OK to laugh and clap!
16) Behaviour is a real concern for parents – will my child behave? The best shows accommodate everyone, but being respectful of others is still key. Remember that everyone else is there with young children too, so they’ll understand.
17) Artists who make shows for the very young expect children to laugh and shout out and cry sometimes. It’s OK if they want to do that – you’ll know their limits best.
18) Toddlers like to ask questions. It’s fine to whisper to each other during the show but try not to explain everything – let them come up with their own interpretations.
19) Some shows, like “White” by Catherine Wheels Theatre Company, have extra digital / online content. Check out “White: The App” for iPad and iPhone.
20) If your child gets scared, reassure them that something new and exciting will come along in just a minute. It’s quite normal for children to be a bit nervous at the start.
21) Don’t rush your child out at the end. Many baby theatre shows let you explore the set or meet the performers. There’s no need to hurry.
22) Talk to your baby about the event afterwards. If very young, try singing songs from the show; if older, ask them what they liked and disliked. Try to avoid questions with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers – “what was your favourite bit?” will help them to reflect on what’s happened better than “did you like it when…?”
23) Look out for ways to extend the experience when you get home – drawing pictures, finger puppets, or acting out your favourite moments.
24) Ask your child to tell you the story when you get home. Toddlers love to recreate what they’ve seen – it helps them to understand new experiences.
25) Enjoy the show! It might be the start of a lifetime of going to the theatre.
Image from Scrunch at Unicorn Theatre / Theatre Iolo, by Manuel Harlan