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Oxford Mommy’s Guide to Washington DC

Our trip to America with the Baberoo began with 36 hours in New York, then continued on to Princeton, NJ. We left Oxford Daddy there for the week while he did his archival research, and the Baberoo and I took a train trip to Washington DC to visit my sister. I had never been to Washington before but I had heard good things about both its baby-friendliness and its amazing sightseeing opportunities. And of course, it was great to see my sister and also to be able to sleep and eat in a real house instead of being in a hotel and restaurants all the time.

Hands down, Washington DC wins the baby-friendliness award when it comes to transport. The Metro, its underground/subway system, is fully accessible to all strollers (and wheelchairs), with elevators at every single station so that you can get from street level to platform without folding your buggy, even if it’s a huge one or a double stroller. Are you listening, other cities? Every. Single. Station! Just look for the elevator entrance on the street (a dark brown structure with a big M) and you’re on your way down to start your journey. Sometimes it’s a little complicated, with a few elevator changes before you reach your chosen platform, but most of the time it’s straightforward and easy to use. The signposting is also very good and the fares are quite reasonable – most of the time they were $1.70 or so, depending on the time of day and distance travelled. There’s even a section on the Metro website that gives you elevator and escalator status, updated 24 hours a day, so you can see if there are any outages before you travel.

Washington DC Metro

With such a great transport system, I nearly didn’t try any other ways of getting around, but for the sake of thoroughness I decided I better check out the city bus and the taxi service. The city bus requires you to fold up your stroller – which I didn’t know before I attempted to get on, but it does say so right on the door of the bus. So I folded up, but it would have been an easier journey if I’d taken the Metro instead. Unless you’re travelling light and can fold your stroller easily, go for the Metro rather than the bus. Taxis were fine, and not very expensive. It was easy enough to hail one from the street, although by mistake we got one that had been pre-booked by someone else! One note about being in a taxi or walking on the street: drivers in DC are completely nuts and will drive into the intersection even though they have a red light. Be very careful when crossing the street.

Washington DC is a very pretty city, especially in April, when the cherry blossoms are out. We were lucky and picked the exact week when the blossoms were most on show, and we also lucked out with temperatures soaring as high as 26 degrees. It was so beautiful and sunny that everyone seemed in a good mood and the sense of fun was heightened. We decided to take a walk to see the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin, part of the National Mall and Memorial Parks. It was gorgeous, but there were so many people walking along the same path that it was also really crowded and slow. Lack of  sunscreen and pretty hot weather made us turn around before we even got to the Jefferson Memorial – but we enjoyed the short walk anyway.

Cherry blossoms

 

We took refuge in the National Museum of American History, one of the many Smithsonian museums (all free). Our exhibit of choice was the First Ladies, which was an amazing look at the contributions made (and the dresses worn!) by Presidents’ wives from Martha Washington onwards. As a fashion lover I found it fascinating, and the Baberoo seemed to like it too – although, as one of the museum docents pointed out when we asked, there is really nothing for under-5s at the museum. The museum has two Family Rest Rooms where you can change your baby. We didn’t manage to make it to any of the other Smithsonian museums, but if you are planning a visit, especially if you plan to stay all day and see many of the museums, your first stop should be the Smithsonian Visitor Center, in the Castle, which is open 1.5 hours earlier than all the museums so you can plan your day. The Smithsonian is great for children and families, but the Baberoo is still too young to enjoy most of it.

We did find a very baby-friendly activity, however, in the form of Story Time… at the Library of Congress! I was so excited to find that the Library has programmes for even the youngest of audiences. The free Story Time for Infants and Toddlers takes place every Friday (except holidays) at 10:30 am. Roll up early, because they only have 50 places (including adults) and they hand out numbered admission stickers on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 10 am. If you are there early and have got your stickers, you can browse the collection of children’s books and play with the toys in the Young Readers Center. The Jefferson Building, where the Young Readers Center is located, requires everyone entering to go through the security system, so leave time for that, especially since you’ll have to put your baby and your stroller through the metal detector separately. Storytime is a fun half-hour with sing-alongs and some books read aloud by the librarian. You get a handout with the words to the songs, so you’ll always know what’s coming up – the theme the day we were there was Springtime. The room was a little warm on the day we went, so the Baberoo got a bit hot and bothered, but she enjoyed most of the experience and if we lived there I’d be first in line every week for this lovely event.

Story Time at the Library of Congress

We mainly took a much-needed break from eating out while we were in Washington – I do love going out to eat, but not twice a day every day for a week! – so we only went to one restaurant. But it was probably my favourite meal of our entire trip to America. We ate an early dinner at Founding Farmers, a restaurant showcasing American cuisine (and owned by a collective of American farmers) in eco-friendly settings. I ordered the Skillet Corn bread ($5) to share with the Baberoo as a starter, and we were presented with a huge cast-iron pan full of the lightest, fluffiest cornbread I have ever had. It came with whipped butter in a pool of honey, with sea salt on top. What a revelation! It was so good that the Baberoo, a big fan of corn and anything corn-based, wolfed it right down, although it was such a big portion that you could actually order it as your meal and not be hungry afterwards. Luckily, I had ordered us a main to share as well, and it was equally good. The Founding Farmers take on Macaroni and Cheese ($14) includes Gouda, Gruyère, ham, peas, and apples, and is a very sophisticated dish for such a comfort-food favourite. We both loved it, and there was enough left to take home and eat for breakfast the next day. The only strike against Founding Farmers is the lack of baby-changing facilities in its bathrooms, which is a shame because they could easily modify the disabled bathroom to include a changing table. Still, they do cater well for babies with good booster seats (that strap onto a regular dining chair) made by Stokke, so I felt that the Baberoo was comfortable and secure while she was eating – more so than with your standard restaurant high chair. Note: the restaurant books up well ahead, so make a reservation!

Founding Farmers

We had a wonderful time in Washington DC, and it was very easy to get around thanks to the brilliant Metro system. There were some opportunities for baby-friendly activities, and I am looking forward to going back sometime when the Baberoo is older so we can really appreciate the museums together. For now, I’m just happy to be back home in good old Oxford, so we can resume our regular schedule of testing the city’s offerings for baby-friendliness.

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Oxford Mommy’s Guide to Princeton, NJ

Our family trip to America began with a quick 36 hours in New York City, then continued on to Princeton, New Jersey, where Oxford Daddy spent the week ensconced in Princeton University’s Firestone Library doing archival research. The Baberoo and I explored the lovely Princeton town centre and found as many baby-friendly places as possible.

Princeton Campus

Our first recommendation is the Princeton Public Library. Reopened 10 years ago in a state-of-the-art building, it has an entire floor for children that includes books for all ages, an exhibition area, a special play room with lots of toys, and a separate room for storytime and other educational sessions. We visited three times in two days and met some very friendly parents and their babies. The play room was wonderful; lots of parents and nannies were using it with their babies and small children and the Baberoo enjoyed all the toys, while I appreciated not having to chase her around the bookshelves and re-shelve all the books that she would be pulling out. We went to the storytime session on a Tuesday morning and the presenter, Martha, was wonderful. We had to step out a bit early due to a diaper emergency, but that was OK because there is a baby-changing facility in the bathroom on each of the library’s three floors (in the ladies’ rooms; I’m not sure whether there is something similar in the men’s rooms). The changing table is right outside the doors to the cubicles, so when it is pulled down it obstructs the entrance to some of the cubicles, but other than that it works fine. The Princeton Public Library also has a café and lots of comfy seating areas within the stacks, which came in handy when the Baberoo was napping and I wanted to sit and read for a while. It’s a wonderful resource and if we lived there we would be there almost every day. I think it may be the most baby-friendly public library I’ve ever visited.

Princeton Library

Another lovely baby-friendly place we found in Princeton was the Bookscape at the Cotsen Children’s Library, located on the ground floor of the Firestone Library on the Princeton Campus. The Bookscape is a reading space for children, populated with topiary animals, a wishing well, and a hollow tree full of books to read. There’s also an activity area for free education sessions. Lots of comfy chairs and whimsical furnishings make this a wonderful space for both children and adults. We were the only ones there when we visited, so we had the run of the whole place. The Baberoo loved exploring all the nooks and crannies and having some of her favourite books read to her. There is a baby-changing table in the nearest ladies’ room (just off the main entrance to the Firestone Library), although it’s a small room and you won’t be able to fit your pram inside. The Cotsen Children’s Library has a space at the entrance for you to leave your pram, which can’t be brought into the Bookscape. Don’t forget to also have a walk around the Princeton University campus, which is beautiful.

Cotsen Children's Library

Our third find in Princeton was the fabulous Labyrinth Books (can you tell that we love books in our family?). This bookshop has a great selection of both adult and children’s books, and it has a small space in the children’s section with beanbags and some wooden toys for children to play with. The Baberoo loves beanbags so she had lots of fun, but she’s also at the age where she loves whacking books off of bookshelves, so we only had a short playtime. Still, it’s great if you want to sit and read some books before you buy (you will definitely leave with at least one book!). They also have a baby-changing facility in the women’s bathroom; it’s in one of the cubicles and it’s big enough to fit your pram in.

Labyrinth Books Princeton

Princeton also has a few baby-friendly restaurants in the town centre. During our few days there we visited PJ’s Pancake House (where the Baberoo had some macaroni and cheese, plus some of Mommy’s spaghetti marinara), Teresa Caffe (where the chef made the Baberoo a special dish of peas in brown butter – utterly delicious and only $1!), and the Blue Point Grill (where the Baberoo had some buttered pasta and then ate the side dish of rice that came with Mommy’s hazelnut-and-cherry-crusted tilapia). Most of the sit-down restaurants in town have high chairs and baby-changing facilities.

Blue Point Grill crusted tilapia

There are definitely some baby-unfriendly elements to Princeton, though. In the downtown area, which has been kept very pretty and only has high-end shopping, there’s no supermarket. If you want to buy fresh food like fruit and snacks that a baby will like, there is very little available. There are some great delis (Olives and D’Angelo Italian Market, to name a couple) where you may be able to find a few things that appeal to babies, but if you want a supermarket it’s in another part of town.

Our biggest problem, though, turned out to be where to stay. There is only really one hotel in the middle of Princeton and it’s quite an expensive one, so we went for the less pricey Hampton Inn, which is one of a string of about 20 hotels outside of town that are located up and down the Brunswick Pike (US Highway 1 South). Although it was a fine hotel and we got an absolutely huge room, we realized we had made a big mistake in picking our location. The taxi ride from the hotel to the Princeton town centre is $25, which means $50 a day to get into town and back. This is no problem for most visitors if they don’t have babies, because there is always a hotel shuttle bus that can bring you wherever you want for free. However, we found out upon arrival that the shuttle bus doesn’t take babies. It doesn’t have any car seats, and being a private vehicle it can’t operate by the same rules that taxis do (where you can just seat your baby on your lap). The Hampton Inn were very nice about it and were even up for buying a car seat to use in the shuttle bus, but then discovered that the law required the parents to provide the car seat and even be the ones who installed it in the vehicle every time the baby needed to travel, just in case there was an accident. What a litigious country America is! I would have been very happy to sign a waiver form every time we travelled, but it wasn’t possible. Car seats being the price they are, it wasn’t worth buying one there and just using it for a few days. And there was no alternative to taxis, because there are no city buses that run along the highway (there are hardly any buses in Princeton at all).

So the upshot was, although Oxford Daddy got to take the shuttle bus for free whenever he needed it, the Baberoo and I had to take a taxi every time we went somewhere. On one of the days she was able to nap in her stroller in the afternoon, but on another day I knew she would need to go back to the hotel in the middle of the day to get a good two hours of sleep in an actual bed, so I shelled out an extra $50 to get us back to the hotel from downtown and then back downtown in time to meet Daddy for dinner. That’s $100 that I spent on taxis that day, folks. It was most unexpected and it really put a dent in our finances. We did meet a couple of lovely taxi drivers, though.

I had heard that in America, especially small-town America, it’s assumed that everyone owns a car. In Princeton that seems to definitely be the case. If you’re travelling to Princeton, either bring a car seat with you, drive your own car with a car seat attached (hard to do if you’re coming from across the ocean!) or prepare to spend lots of money on taxis, because there is no other way to get from many of the hotels to the actual town centre. I can recommend Princeton as a nice place to visit for families, but it’s pretty tough getting around with a baby. It was much easier in our next stop, Washington DC, as I will relate in my next blog post!

 

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Barefoot Books

Last week the Baberoo and I met up with my NCT friends and their babies at Barefoot Books (294 Banbury Road, OX2 7ED) for some tea and cake at the Storyteller’s Café. The bookshop’s ethos is global culture and diversity, and its independent publishing imprint reflects the founders’ love of storytelling. The café is a place where many parents come to chill out while the kids run around the bookshop singing along to animated videos on the big screen and playing in the storytelling area. It’s pretty much a children’s paradise.

On this visit, I ordered a chocolate brownie and pineapple juice (£5 all in). The Baberoo ate some cooked apple and toast brought from home. My brownie had a chilli kick to it, which was nice, although its cakey nature meant it was slightly on the dry side. The chocolate sauce that would have come with it might have mitigated this, but they had run out before I got there.

Brownie from Barefoot Books

So how does Barefoot Books rate for baby-friendliness? My rating system, which is explained fully on my About page, covers menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding. Here’s how Barefoot Books stacked up against my five criteria.

Menu: The Storyteller’s Café menu includes sandwiches, quiches, salads, soups, and other lunch dishes, as well as all-day breakfast, cakes, and other treats. There’s also a kids’ lunch pack with kid-friendly items, although I think probably most of the menu items would be enjoyed by children. You’ll be able to find several items that you can eat with one hand while holding a baby. There are also lots of high chairs (the most I’ve ever seen in one establishment – and they are the lovely Stokke Tripp Trapp ones) that you can use for your baby if you want to be hands-free.

Space: On most of the occasions I’ve been here, the place has been jam-packed with parents and children. You won’t have any trouble manoeuvring through the bookshop, but once you get to the café you may find yourself trying to squeeze through rather tight spaces. Since it’s such a family-friendly place there are usually lots of baby carriages everywhere, but if you’re stuck people will move their carriages out of the way for you. Our NCT group chose to meet during the school run hour, which meant that we enjoyed more space to ourselves since there were fewer families there. Bonus!

Barefoot Books Storyteller's Cafe

Ambiance: Colourful, fun, and geared towards children. Activities abound in the bookstore, including storytime, arts and crafts activities, and the animated video wall that kids can sing along to. There’s also an events calendar with bookable events such as pilates (for parents), ballet, tap, and yoga (for children), and sessions in French, Spanish, and German, many of which take place in the upstairs studio. The staff are friendly and obviously very welcoming towards children. It’s all so bright and interactive that you may find it grating after a while – or perhaps I’m the only parent who’s allergic to too much colour all in one place – but the kids will love it. I think as far as babies are concerned, the child-friendly stuff isn’t as attractive to them now as it will be in a year or two.

Activity Station at Barefoot Books

Facilities: The baby-changing facilities are just as colourful as the rest of the store, which makes a change from the usual dull gray or cream fittings. There’s enough space to get your carriage in comfortably, and there’s a toilet for parents to use. The room has an unusual, highly-curved changing table, which works well to prevent exploratory rolling. There’s natural light from a window and the room smells fresh, although the bin needs to be emptied more frequently; on this visit it was overflowing.

Barefoot Books baby-changing facilities

Feeding: I’ve breastfed the Baberoo here on a few occasions and have felt right at home doing so, although the chairs aren’t terribly comfortable. There are comfier benches in the storytelling area, although you may not get to use them if there’s an activity going on. This is the kind of place where you might see several other mothers breastfeeding at the same time as you, so it’s very welcoming. I’ve also fed the Baberoo with snacks from home without feeling guilty for not buying her food from their cafe, although when she’s old enough and hungry enough to eat from a kids’ menu she’ll have some excellent choices here.

Barefoot Books gets an 8.0 out of 10 for baby-friendliness, but I would still say it’s more geared towards children rather than babies. However, if you, like me, are encouraging your child’s love of books early, you’ll have a nice time perusing their bookshelves and finding stories to read to your little one.

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Rhymetime at the Oxford Central Library

Lately I’ve been taking the Baberoo out to many more activities around Oxford, all designed for babies and their parents. We have enjoyed Rhymetime at the Oxford Central Library (Westgate, OX1 1DJ) so much that we go almost every week.

As a veteran attender of library activities myself (my mom started bringing me to storytime at the Ottawa public library when I was just a few months old), I was really looking forward to watching the Baberoo experience the reading-aloud and interactivity that I always loved so much. I’d already brought her to the library many times to borrow books, but I only started taking her to Rhymetime when she was about six months old.

Library books

As the name suggests, Rhymetime is a session of chanting and singing well-known nursery rhymes and songs. I say well-known, but I actually only knew about half of them and was somewhat dismayed on our first visit to find myself humming along, pretending to know the words to songs such as ‘Horsie, Horsie’, ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’, and ‘Wind the Bobbin Up’. I chalk my ignorance up to the fact that we’ve got totally different tunes and chants in Canada so I didn’t learn these when I was growing up! (And I bet you don’t know the words to ‘Pomme de reinette et pomme d’api’.)

Rhymetime takes place twice a week at the Oxford Central Library, from 10:30-11:00 am on Wednesdays (led by two library staff members) and 10:30-11:00 am on Thursdays (led by volunteers), and is for children under 5 and their parents. The Baberoo was certainly not the youngest child there – I’ve met babies who were three months old when they came to their first session. Both sessions have the same content: rhymes and songs (but no storytelling), including some that have the kids shaking jingle bells and noisemakers, as well as playing with animal puppets.

So how does Rhymetime rate for baby-friendliness? On this blog I’m rating all non-food-related activities on a scale of 8 points rather than my usual 10-point rating scale, since out of the five criteria (menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding), there’s no menu. For a full explanation of my criteria see my About page.

Space: Rhymetime takes place in the dedicated under-5s room in the children’s section of the library, which is spacious and well laid out. There are usually more than 25 children (plus 25 to 30 parents) at each session, so the room really fills up. The space has a lot of benches, beanbags, and chairs, but by the time everyone has squeezed in, it’s standing room only for latecomers. My suggestion is to arrive a bit early so you avoid the queue for the lifts, which can be quite long right before a session begins. Baby carriages can be parked within the other room of the children’s section.

Oxford Central Library children's department

Ambiance: Colourful, interactive, and loud! The presenters are very welcoming and so are the other parents. It’s a fun environment and kids love to participate. In addition, each time we’ve attended I’ve noted how much the session is enjoyed by the presenters themselves. This is the kind of activity that keeps families coming back for more; there are many devoted regulars.

Facilities: The Oxford Central Library has a baby-changing facility in the lobby outside the Children’s department; it requires an entry code, which is obtainable from any member of staff. It’s a serviceable room with a handy desk to put your bag on and a pull-down changing table. The room is long and narrow, which means you may not be able to reach the sink until you’ve put the changing table back up again. The way the room is laid out in relation to the regular toilets is somewhat awkward, so you need to make sure you have opened the exit door before you wheel your baby carriage into the tiny entrance space; otherwise you may find yourself stuck!

Oxford Central Library baby-changing facilities

Feeding: I have fed the Baberoo in the library (not actually during Rhymetime, but afterwards when the crowds have cleared) and can say that it’s a very welcoming space for breastfeeding. You also have your choice of seating (benches, chairs, or beanbags) so you can make yourself as comfortable as possible.

Rhymetime at the Oxford Central Library scores a 7.25 out of 8 for baby-friendliness; it’s a fantastic activity and I urge any parent with children under 5 to try it out. We are now regulars!

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