Judith Atkinson shares some thoughts on designing for babies, young children and their caregivers.

Since becoming a parent, I have gained a new perspective on how people with differing needs experience a leisure building, and a deeper understanding of some of the perceived and real obstacles that people face when they are a caregiver for a young child. I hope to use my experiences to better inform our designs at GT3 Architects and to encourage a discussion about other accessibility issues that users face which could be greatly improved with a more considered approach at design stage.

I learnt some new skills while I have been away on Maternity Leave, namely, sleeping for short periods of time and how to change a nappy in under ten seconds! I also now have a new understanding and perspective on accessibility in leisure buildings.

I hope to share my experience with you now in an attempt at raising awareness of the challenges that caregivers face when visiting a building with a young child or baby.

On a recent trip to a leisure centre which has just been refurbished, I was confronted with a few challenges which made me think about the way that we design buildings and what we could do to improve the quality of the experience for people who are looking after a baby or young child.

This was the first swimming trip I had made which was just the baby and I as I have been reluctant to ‘take the plunge’. I love swimming and I am confident in the water, but it is getting ready to go in the water and then getting dried after which has made me really anxious about taking Thomas by myself. It is much easier with the luxury of two adults to one child.

Firstly, I had to take the buggy into the wet change area. Thomas is too wriggly and heavy to hold whilst I am getting ready to swim so he must sit in his buggy whilst I do this. Once I was ready, I could then get him ready, however there were no baby change units in any of the cubicles, they were all in the main circulation zone. In the chaos of getting a baby (who will not lie down on a baby change unit, he will always try to stand up) my buggy was getting in the way of people trying to make their way over to the pool. I have also learnt more about the importance of the height of baby change units. Too low and you break your back whilst bending over, too high and you cannot use your full strength to keep you baby as still as possible whilst you change them. Anyone who has looked after a baby before will know they can summon the strength of The Hulk when they are in the mood.

I then had the task of getting my things in a locker whilst carrying Thomas and folding down a buggy which by some miracle fit into a bottom locker – lucky, as there was no buggy store that I could see. Some of our projects locate the buggy store outside of the wet change village, but in my experience, you need the buggy with you until the very last moment. I would take it into the pool with me if it was socially and hygienically acceptable!

It is quite impossible to hold a baby whilst also getting in and out of swim wear – especially if this baby is screaming its little adorable head off, as they so often do. If the buggy store in this particular leisure centre is located outside of the wet change village there is a zero percent chance I would have ever found it as I was absolutely not taking my mum bod outside of the relative safety of the area where everyone else is also in swimwear.

The swimming experience in itself was fun. I appreciated the attempt at the child friendly atmosphere that was created by some toys on the walls, slides and splashy water features. This is a big U-turn from my pre-child feelings about swimming pools. I used to like straight lines and 25m lanes, but now I am learning that there sometimes is a time and a place for some fun design ideas especially when it comes to stimulating and entertaining babies.

After doing a quick google search on the matter it seems as though there is a lot of research and guidance on what you would expect to find, designing spaces for children’s emotional and physical needs, designing for behavioural issues, designing for safety… All of which is (rightly so) aimed at designing spaces to positively affect a child. From this point, I will spend more time searching if guidance is available for the caregiver’s physical needs when experiencing a space with a baby or small child.

It is the finer details in our designs that really can make all the difference for all types of caregivers and it is imperative that we work together to share our own experiences to allow us to design buildings that better serve the community.