It was my first day back at work following maternity leave. My boss invited me to bring my baby along to a breakfast meeting at a restaurant. At the time, I simply appreciated her thoughtfulness.
I dressed Alyssa in a classy pink onesie and headed off with high hopes and just a shred of anxiousness.
The meeting was an instant disaster. Within 10 minutes, Alyssa arched her back in protest of the highchair. Seconds later, she started crying. I picked her up. Standing to hold and bounce my baby, I craned my neck to listen to my boss's words.
Moments later, Alyssa calmed enough for me to hold her on my lap. Then she upended a plastic container of syrup, which spread across the table in a sticky goo that reached at least one colleague's notepad.
Cheryl Wright tells me I'm not alone. While dining out can be relaxing for adults and older children, many parents place themselves in stressful situations hoping their baby or toddler "will make it through the meal," said Wright, chairwoman of the family and consumer studies department at the University of Utah.
Heidi Baker, director of the Child and Family Development Center at the U., agrees.
"When we take children out to eat, we often have unrealistic expectations," Baker said. "We place them in an adult environment and expect them to behave like an adult."
Wright explains that such expectations are not realistic.
"It is not the child's fault," she said. "Many restaurants are not geared to entertain very young children. The whole setting is not set up to be childproofed and there are many ways children can get in trouble in a restaurant."
The food itself, the restaurant atmosphere and the lengthy socializing aren't as important to a child as they are to adults.
For children under 3, Wright suggests choosing fast food or restaurants designed for young children, ordering take-out or getting a baby sitter. Taking a baby or toddler to a typically adult restaurant is simply unrealistic.
"Stress is happening and nobody enjoys their meal," Wright said. "Often one person is standing with the baby while the other one eats. It can be anxiety-provoking and not relaxing in the least."
Marilyn Macumber, volunteer coordinator for the Erin Kimball Memorial Foundation, says children under 3 can't sit long because they feel a need to move around. She recommends a continuum of restaurant environments, beginning with fast food and progressing to a casual family restaurant without a playplace.
"More upscale restaurants often require more waiting," Macumber said. "Parents can start when the child is little with a fast-food restaurant, then move to more complex settings after the child is successful in enjoying a fast food meal."
Don't be afraid to repeat a successful experience, Baker advises.
"In the beginning, consider sticking with two or three family-oriented restaurants that the child is familiar with," she said.
Dec. 24: More tips for dining out with kids
— Carolyn Campbell