What's a man to do with a wet nappy?

One man and his baby go shopping in Cambridge. Natural it may be, simple it isn't. By Tony Kelly
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I used to think shopping was easy - an hour on the pay-and-display and a quick dash from shop to shop. But since my son, Adam, was born last August I have started to see things differently. As any parent will know, a trip to the shops with a baby can soon turn into an obstacle course as you try to manoeuvre a push-chair up narrow steps and through heavy, unwilling doors. Becoming a parent certainly opens your eyes to the problems faced by people in wheelchairs.

Babies have other needs too - they have to be fed and changed regularly. For women this means finding somewhere to breast-feed in privacy and warmth; for men it means a search for a changing-room that is not women-only. You start to plan your shopping trips, not according to what you want to buy but to where the best facilities are. So the week before Easter Adam and I set out for Cambridge (our nearest large town) on a highly unscientific survey to discover which shops were the most father- and baby-friendly.

We started in Woolworths, chock-a-block with people buying Easter eggs. At eight months Adam is too young for chocolate so I decided to look at the toys on the first floor. In trying to get the push-chair upstairs we encountered a forbidding notice: "Under no circumstances may customers use the lifts without a member of staff". Why not, I asked the attendant once I had managed to locate her. Apparently it's because the lift goes to the store room as well. Wouldn't it be easier simply to lock the store room and not make customers feel such a nuisance?

Boots is always high on the shopping list these days - nappies, baby food, cotton wool. I bought some toothpaste and decided to investigate the arrangements for parents with babies in tow. "Fathers are welcome to use this facility," said a note on the door of the Mother and Baby Room. "Before entering please check with a member of the Baby Department." A quick sniff revealed no urgent need, so rather than disturb a breast- feeding mum purely in the interests of research I moved on.

Robert Sayle is the Cambridge branch of John Lewis, the co-operative department store known for its enlightened approach. For weeks I had been planning to buy a new wok, and with Adam heavily into pureed vegetables we needed a new liquidiser as well. The kitchen department is in the basement, and when I found three difficult flights of stairs but no lift I asked an assistant what I should do. "The building is too old to take a lift," she said. "I'll give you a hand down the stairs if you like. Or you can leave the baby behind the counter, or leave the chair and take the baby." An impressive range of choices, and helpful personal attention. But I wasn't going to leave my baby with a stranger and I didn't feel like carrying a baby, a liquidiser and a wok.

By now nature was calling us both so we headed for the public toilets beside the library. The baby-changing facilities were in the Ladies' so I asked the attendant in the gents' how I could use them. "You can't," was his blunt reply "but you could try the disabled toilet at the bus station." When I got there the disabled loo was locked and you needed a RADAR key (issued to registered disabled people) to get in. Once again there was a changing-room inside the Ladies', but despite a notice warning of a male cleaner in attendance I didn't feel like charging in to investigate.

I'd never been to a McDonalds but I'd heard you could change your baby there. This being Cambridge, where there was long resistance to the very idea of a McDonalds, it has a wood-panelled shop front and fake Gothic pillars inside. Baby-changing was advertised as being inside the disabled toilet, but the door was locked, there was no-one around and since I had no intention of buying a BigMac and fries I didn't want to draw attention to myself. Increasingly desperate, we sneaked away.

Around the corner we found what we wanted. Eaden Lilley is a department store with an Italianate cafe on the top floor. Dad was ready for a cup of tea, Adam was ready for a clean nappy and this seemed just the place. At last, a baby-changing room for mums or dads, separate from the toilets, with a large changing-mat and rolls of clean paper. But why, oh why, do you have to go down some steps to reach it?

Back in the sun, Adam was getting thirsty and fortunately we had arranged to meet his mother in the Grafton Centre. It's funny how your priorities change. A year ago I kept well away from this American-style mall, preferring the unpredictability of the city centre with its market and small shops, its buskers and Big Issue sellers, sunshine and rain. But now child-friendliness is what matters and the Grafton Centre is as friendly as you can get: automatic doors, ramps instead of steps, and parent-and-baby rooms in every shop from BHS and Debenhams to the Early Learning Centre. Plus, of course, no cars.

Inevitably, there is a Mothercare. If any shop should be baby-friendly it is this one - and despite the name, it is father-friendly too. Mother disappeared into the "mummy's room" to feed Adam in peace; then father took him into the large, lockable "parent's room" with its changing-mat, bottle-warmer, and a toilet which solves the eternal problem (for women especially) of how to squeeze a push-chair into a tiny cubicle.

This seems the perfect answer for both mums and dads, one that respects the rights of women to breast-feed in private and of men to go shopping with their babies. My only complaint is that you have to put up with a talking tree and a series of infuriating jingles to get there.

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