A parent's baby group survival guide
If going to a baby group feels like the first day at school, Cathy Winston's playground survival tips are just what you need
Yes, on paper it sounds perfect: singing, puppets and play, my daughter's three favourite things rolled into one session at a local children's centre. In practice? As all the regular mums caught up with each other's news, the only conversation I managed was with a chatty toddler.
Sadly, I'm not alone. A University of Bristol study found that a quarter of mums were put off returning to baby groups after their first visit. And just the thought made one normally assertive friend confess, 'This is one of the things I'll be most scared of when I have kids.'
But if this sounds like you, don't resign yourself to staying at home – just read our survival guide to help you through that tricky first time. You might even have fun...
Act like a toddler
They don't sit there agonising about whether people will like them – they jump right in and start making friends. After all, what's the worst that could happen? Besides, although it's probably best not to throw a tantrum if things don't go according to plan, you can always blame sleep deprivation...
Milk your baby
Not sure what to chat about? You have ready-made conversation-starters crawling, burping and wailing their way around the room. Compliment another mum on her baby's skills, outfit or even just their smile and she'll be putty in your hands. Instant ice-breaker.
Find the daddy
Feeling like a fish out of water? Bet there's someone there who's feeling even more uncomfortable than you are. Yes, these days it's an unwritten law that every baby group must have one dad. It's also a good sign – it means that the group isn't run by a close- knit gang of unwelcoming and intimidating women all busy plotting to scare away anyone they disapprove of.
Mind the nanny
Ever wondered how that group of women already seem to know each other so well? The answer is probably that they're all child-minders – so they'll have spent years getting to know all the other nannies in the area. It does mean they know all the local insider tips as well, but as baby groups are their equivalent of the office water cooler, just keep an eye open for the other new recruits and you can form your own 'group within a group.'
Tell the truth
Repeat after me: it is not just you who's feeling nervous. Really. If so many mums have a tale of feeling unwelcome and ignored at baby groups, that means at least half the room will be sitting there fretting that no one wants to talk to them. Admitting that you're feeling anxious is far more likely to provoke someone into taking you under their wing than to point and laugh at you. After all, we've all been there.
Ditch the fantasy
You can see it all now – your eyes meet across the room and you discover your parenting soulmate. Your children will play and grow up together, you'll set the world to rights over endless bottles of wine... Snap out of it! If you walk in expecting to find your new BFF in the first five minutes, it's likely to be something of a letdown. Start small: a quick hello and a smile here, a playdate there, and who knows where it may lead?
Stack the deck in your favour and find a group where you've already got something in common – apart from babies. Nappuccino groups are perfect for eco-conscious mums who use cloth nappies. Sites such as meetup.com let you track down people with similar interests in your area, and mumamie.com does the same thing but just for mothers. If you don't fancy traditional playgroups, take the focus off small talk by learning a skill. From baby massage and swimming to signing, you'll be starting classes afresh with a new group of people. And if there is an awkward silence, you can always practise your newfound skills until it passes.
Or make it perfect
No groups seem quite right? Start your own. 'I wanted to talk about things other than babies, particularly work,' says Rachel, mum to Maya. 'So I started my own group for freelance parents. It turned out to be an absolutely lifesaver and some of the women I met through it are now among my closest friends. It's definitely worth a try if you don't feel welcome at existing groups.'
Follow the leader
First impressions count. It's not just the other parents – the organiser has a huge influence on the group's atmosphere. So skip the one with a dragon lady barking at your toddler to sit down and make a beeline for the one where the leader scoops you up at the door, introduces you around and offers biscuits. Get in touch beforehand if possible, so they know to look out for you (and to stock up on biscuits). That's one friendly face guaranteed.
Hate the thought of wandering into a room full of strangers on your own? So don't. Take a friend. Take your mum. Take your mother-in-law. But only as moral support to start you off – don't simply talk to them the whole time or you'll be back to square one next week. Or check online for a forum for mums in your area and arrange to meet one of them there.
...not a smartphone safety net
It's tempting to hide behind a screen until you feel more comfortable. But while you see it as sending a few quick texts, everyone else interprets it as 'do not disturb.' Until your baby does something that's too cute not to photograph, keep the phone in your bag.
try, try, try again
If at first you don't succeed, persevere. Stick it out for a couple of weeks and the quick 'Hi' you shyly said to another mum on your first visit could progress to full-blown nattering as you become a more familiar face. If you feel you've made a connection, swap numbers/ become Facebook friends/ arrange a coffee straight away before the moment's lost. There are no dating rules to follow here.
Tried your friendliest smile, best conversation starters and confidence-boosting mantras without success? There's no law saying you've got to stay. Not all baby groups are created equal so move on until you find the one that clicks. In fact, if you test out enough, you'll become the familiar face people recognise when they walk in. Next stop, primary school.