When I got on the bus the other day I noticed a baby in a buggy. She was somewhere around eighteen months old. Her mum (I will assume as she seemed very much used to the child) was somewhere between sixteen and twenty. I get to see a lot of young mothers on the bus. I try my hardest not to be swayed by Daily Mail prejudices - and often see lots of lovely interaction. I am a baby watcher ever since we had kids of our own. I have a particular fascination with young toddlers. I love the way they are so inquisitive and also how they understand and communicate when they have little, or no, language.
This baby was sitting in a buggy facing me. We have mostly accessible buses now, with lots of space for buggies. Her mum was alongside her, facing me too, and staring out the window. She looked sad. Maybe she wasn’t, maybe she was just thinking, but she did look sad – gloomy. Her baby was just looking around for the start of the journey but after a while she grabbed her shoe and started to fiddle with the Velcro. The bus stopped for a little pause at the garage while the driver nipped out to the loo. She left the engine running but shut the doors. So we all sat there waiting. With a little cry of delight the baby ripped open the Velcro and waved her shoe in the air.
My heart was in my mouth at this point, nervous that her mum would be cross – it was an expensive looking branded trainer. But she wasn’t. She smiled and did a fake gasp of shock – and the baby smiled. The baby was happy for a while then. She tried to fit her shod foot into the other shoe, and found she couldn’t. Then she waved the shoe again and hurled it to the floor of the bus. The mum picked it up and I thought all would be well – a little game to pass the time. I looked out the window to see if the driver was coming. Suddenly there was an outraged scream. I looked back to see the baby, barefoot and furious, writhing in her buggy straps – tears running down her face. Her mum was tucking her two shoes into the top of the buggy.
We were all still waiting for the driver to return and the baby cried on. She pulled at her straps and her mum said:
“No! You’re not getting out.”
Baby screamed all the louder.
After a few minutes the driver came back and the bus went on. The baby’s cries became less angry and more sad – sobbing. She stopped for a moment when someone got up nearby and she watched them get off the bus. She looked over towards me. I was drinking some water from a clear plastic bottle. I held it up in the window, so the sun shone through it – and she watched that for a minute or two and stopped crying. But she was very sad, frustrated and tired too – yawning.
A few minutes later, as she cried on, her mum leaned into her face and said,
“Be quiet! You’re not getting out.”
The baby flung her head back against the buggy.
Then they got off.
I felt miserable, watching them go.
I don’t underestimate the challenges involved in taking your toddler on the bus. We didn’t do it often when P was little - we were nervous that we wouldn’t be able to keep our little mobile creature safe on the bus and she hated being confined. But sometimes we did. And, when Leo was little we went on the bus more often, because we had P and she couldn’t always walk where we needed to go.
Sometimes our little ones did get upset on the bus. If you’re a baby or toddler the bus is littered with tempting things you can’t have – other people’s shopping, dogs or hats. The floor is dirty and dangerous and you can’t crawl or toddle about. There are tempting red buttons on every pole and you mustn’t press them. But we had lots of strategies for managing.
The baby on the bus was clever to find something to do when she was fed up in her buggy. She had nothing in the way of toys, so she played with her shoes. Toddlers love shoes, don’t they? But when our kids were little we always had a bag with things in. When Leo was a similar age to the toddler I saw on the bus, he had an old mobile phone that he loved. He would take any mobile phone he could find (!) so we gave him an old, real one to play with. I can remember him sitting in his buggy, on the bus, pressing buttons and making calls. If all else failed I’d give a grumpy child my keys! Risky, but pretty much foolproof as a distraction. Later on we usually had a book or two. Leo had favourite illustrations that he would happily sit and study for ten minutes – mainly ones involving big teeth!
We also, always, had food and drink with us. I usually do now! But, especially when the kids were pre-verbal I was always aware that they might be hungry or thirsty. If anyone had been crying I always offered them some water. A little pot of chopped, mixed fruit is a fabby distraction. We always had rice cakes in the bag – and sometimes a whole meal worth of food, especially for P who was often too busy to eat at home.
But most of all, we communicated. If the bus was very quiet I might not talk out loud, but I was always communicating – looks and touches. P had quite of a lot of signs. If the child was old enough not to get down and wander off then I’d often stand them on my lap so they could see out the window – without dirtying the seat. I’d give them lots of warning about what was going to happen when we got off the bus. I’ve often seen children hysterical when they’re suddenly plonked back in a buggy and whisked off the bus, with no explanation. I think people often assume that a child who can’t talk can’t understand. I am often amazed at young toddlers who are following every word of what you say though they have maybe only three or four words of speech. Lots of telling about what will happen was great.
Of course, sometimes babies and toddlers will have unavoidable ‘do dahs’ as they are called in our house. I’m not a TCS mummy and there was never any way I was going to let my child crawl about the bus. And sometimes we needed to be on the bus – and that was just the way it was. If I couldn’t make the experience bearable then sometimes it just had to be endured – by all of us.
But the whole baby episode I saw the other day might well have been avoided, or calmed, with a few things done differently. I’m not a great fan of un-solicited advice. I know, full well, that if I’d suggested anything to that mum, in that moment, her likely reaction would have been one of indignation. I got the feeling that her insistence on a negative message to her child, “you’re NOT getting out”, was something that she was pursuing as an active strategy. It was like she had been advised, or had decided for herself, that her baby needed to accept an unexplained “No” from her. I think that a lot of people think that that is part of toddlerhood – that the baby will want things and you must resist those demands and show them that you are unshakeable.
I hate being witness to such interactions. I have sometimes tried smiling at the parent, in an encouraging way, but people tend to think you’re mad if you smile at them on the bus! Equally, I’ve interacted with the child, but that is often unwelcome too – parents can feel undermined. I’ve been told, “ignore him, he’s having a tantrum.” So, I don’t think there’s anything much you can do. What do other people think?