By the time we moved to Atlanta, home of Dragon*Con, I’d been itching to go to a con for years. When we were living in middle-of-cornfields-Indiana, it wasn’t really an option, considering all the travel expenses it would have entailed, so I was thrilled at the prospect of living in the home city of one of the country’s largest conventions.
Of course, by the time we moved to Atlanta, I was also pregnant with our second kid, and due two and half months before Dragon*Con.
Extreme introvert + first con ever + baby = terrifying (especially since I’d be going with Wil alone–my husband would stay home with our two-year-old). But…there was still a part of me that still really, really wanted to go (largely due to some of the posts about cons on my favorite blog). And I was afraid that if I let something get in the way this year, I’d do the same next year, and maybe the next.
I did my research first. I read some helpful blog posts on Dragon*Con tips (this one and this one were the ones I found most helpful), but I couldn’t find much online about handling a large con with an infant in tow. I began wondering if people even really do that, or if I’d be breaking some unspoken rule of etiquette by dragging a baby along with me. So I called the phone number on the Dragon*Con contact page with a list of questions, and to get a general feeling for whether or not I’d be welcome with a baby. The guy I spoke with was super nice and very helpful, and left me feeling like this definitely could be done! So I bought my membership and began planning.
I’m still a newbie at the whole con thing, but I thought I’d chime in with my own tips on doing Dragon*Con with a baby, since I wasn’t able to find much help online myself. So here are a few things I’d recommend thinking about before attempting a con with a baby in tow.
1. Plan out what gear to pack in advance.
Unless you’re staying in one of the hotels where the con is being held, you’re going to need to bring a lot of gear to keep your bases covered. Babies need a lot of crap.
Wil was two months old when we did Dragon*Con, so I was exclusively breastfeeding. A lot of people will tell you that breastfeeding is the easiest and simplest way to feed, because you’ll already be bringing your breasts, right? But breastfeeding was a challenge for us. There were a couple times that I was able to breastfeed him under a cover while sitting in line for a panel, but most of the time, he preferred to be bottle-fed pumped breastmilk (which meant I also needed to pump during the day). So I brought:
- a nursing cover (made from this tutorial–great because it covered my back, so I could sit anywhere while I breastfed or pumped)
- a battery-operated pump (and extra batteries)
- two small coolers with icepacks
- plenty of bottles and nipples (I used these bottles, which I’d gotten in a sample bag at the hospital where I delivered–they worked with my pump, and fit four nicely in each cooler)
- a bottle brush and a travel-size bottle of dish soap (in case I needed to wash bottles, though I always ended up packing enough that I didn’t need to)
- burp cloths
Every morning, I packed one cooler with six to eight ounces of refrigerated breastmilk to start the day with, and filled the other cooler with empty bottles to pump milk into during the day. I also kept a couple of those pre-mixed formula samples (along with a disposable nipple) in the bottom of my diaper bag, just in case (never a bad idea to have those on hand in case of emergency!). Even if you are breastfeeding (or planning to breastfeed), be prepared for there to be times that it won’t go smoothly, especially if your baby hasn’t experienced much chaos and commotion during feedings. Have a contingency plan, whether that’s pumping and bottle-feeding, using formula, or going home early.
I know it’s becoming more acceptable to breastfeed in public, but I was still worried about attempting it (even by kid #2). I used a cover every time (I’m a very private person), and no one ever gave me a hard time or even looked at me funny (or at least I never noticed). The guy I spoke with on the phone ahead of time assured me that if anyone hassled me for it, I could go to one of the volunteer staff and they’d back me up. Most of the time, I was able to breastfeed or pump in the hotel lobby between panels.
You’ll also need all the standard baby stuff:
- diapers (bring extras!)
- changing mat
- change of clothes
- blankets (one for the floor, and one to cover baby–hotels are air-conditioned!)
- toys (quiet ones for during panels)
- gas drops (especially if bottle-feeding)
- …and whatever else you usually pack in your diaper bag,
- plus, a STROLLER (bring one you like, with lots of storage space)
You’ll also need stuff for you:
- water bottle (there are usually water stations to get a cup of water near the line for the panel, but there were quite a few times that the water jugs were empty)
- snacks (it’s hard to fit meals in; don’t count on being able to get to the con suite–where there are supposedly free snacks–with a stroller)
- book to read (I got through quite a chunk of Wheel of Time: Memory of Light while pumping during an extra-long nap Wil took)
- badge and lanyard for it (I used a ribbon)
- pocket program (unless you have a smart phone and can access the app)
- …and whatever else you think you might need
Think about what you’ll need to pack weeks before the con, in case you need to buy or make anything (like coolers or a nursing cover). Make a detailed list, and add to it as you learn your baby’s routine in the weeks leading up to the con.
2. Plan your panels.
You can find panel schedules for each track on the Dragon*Con website (or linked) ahead of time. Look through the schedules for each track you’re interested in and make a list of panels you might want to attend. Figure out which ones conflict, and which ones you must attend. Don’t plan for more than three panels in a day, and try to avoid back-to-back panels (especially if they’re in different hotels).
Schedules may change as the con approaches, so if you start planning a couple weeks out, don’t forget to check your schedule for changes in the days leading up to the con.
I’d also recommend planning to end your days on the early side. One of the things the guy on the phone told me when I called ahead of time was that con-goers tend to get rowdier in the evening, as the drinking starts. Since most of the panels I was interested in were morning and afternoon panels anyway, it worked well for me to leave sometime in the afternoon or early evening every day. That way, I could also spend a little time with my two-year-old at home, get Wil to bed on time, and take a shower before going to bed at a decent hour, too.
3. Pick up your badge and pocket program on Thursday.
If you can pick up your badge on Thursday (Dragon*Con starts Friday), do it. The lines were awful on Friday morning, and I talked to a number of people in line who had friends missing panels because they were still waiting to get their badges. Also, picking it up the night before the con starts gives you the opportunity to explore the con hotels, which I highly recommend doing. Glance through the pocket program to see which hotels will be holding your must-see panels. Your pocket program will also have maps of each hotel; I recommend highlighting elevators, bathrooms, and bridges between hotels.
Walk through each hotel, while you’re not fighting through hordes of people with a stroller, and familiarize yourself with the places you expect to spend your time. Find the elevators and the bathrooms, figure out which levels the bridges connect on (Hyatt to Mariott to Hilton), and look for good places to breastfeed and/or pump. (The Mariott is crazy. Most of my panels were in the Westin, and there were plenty of seating options in the lobby for me to find a place to breastfeed and/or pump without drawing attention to myself.) If you’ll be attending panels in different hotels, or if you’re using MARTA, walk the outdoor routes between hotels (and MARTA) so you won’t be digging out your map while being shoved along the crowded streets the next day.
4. Get in line for panels early.
Most of the panels I attended were the ones with stars from my favorite shows, and famous people tend to draw a crowd. You’ll want to get in line as early as possible for two reasons: 1) you’ll want to make sure you get a good seat (on an end for a quick exit if necessary, but not so far back that you’re missing all the action–and panels do often fill up to capacity); and 2) depending on the layout of the hotel, lines often extend up or down stairs (not possible with a stroller) or outside (in extreme heat). Panels are scheduled an hour and a half apart; lines queue for one panel as soon as the line from the previous panel as cleared. So, try to be there to get in line a full hour and a half before your panel.
Once you’re safely in line, you can sit on the floor, spread a blanket out for baby, breastfeed, etc., and relax while you wait. It’s not so bad spending time in line–you’re surrounded by people interested in the same thing you are, so you’re likely to make some friends to pass the time.
5. Avoid the vendor halls and all basements.
The vendor halls are ridiculously overcrowded. Don’t expect to be able to navigate them well with a stroller. In fact, I had to haul my stroller down a few stairs to even get to the elevators in that building (AmericasMart). It’s just not worth it.
And basements…when you are dependent on using the elevators, it is unfortunately very easy to get stranded. I got stuck on the bottom floor of one hotel for half an hour, as dozens of elevators came down full of people who had gotten on on floors above me intending to ride down to go up. Eventually a hotel manager happened to walk by, and he offered to let me use an employee elevator to get back to street level. Another time, I was stuck for a good twenty minutes or so, along with a lady in a wheelchair, as we watched elevator after full elevator go by, until we were finally able to squeeze onto a couple less-packed ones. It’s ridiculous. Don’t go below street level unless you’re really, really interested in what’s down there, and you have time to get stuck.
6. If you have questions, ask.
The volunteer staff are amazing. I cannot rave about them enough. The guy on the phone was very nice, helpful, and welcoming. I stopped by the help desk after registration to ask some of the same questions, just to make sure I was okay, and they were very helpful. When I arrived to get in line for my first panel, I asked one of the volunteers about bringing a baby in with me, and if there was anywhere in particular I should sit, and he was super nice and helpful. On the one hellish day I attended a panel in the Mariott (SO. CROWDED.), I planned ahead and arrived two and a half hours before my panel, so I could try to find a way to get in the front of the line when it began forming an hour later; apparently I wasn’t the only one with that idea, though, so in the end, it was going to be a free-for-all once they started letting the next line queue. I’d heard the line would extend onto stairs as well as outside in the extreme Georgia summer heat, so I spoke with a couple volunteers, who hooked me up with some other volunteers, and someone found me a place to sit with Wil near the head of the line, and they even let me in early (after the disabled, but before everyone else) to find a good seat on an end near an exit.
Follow the rules, listen to instructions, and don’t make yourself a special case unless you have to. Be respectful and polite to the staff–they work hard, and unfortunately take a lot of crap–and you’ll find that they’ll usually be more than willing to help you in any way they can. (Point in case: Most of the panels I attended were in the Westin, in the same ballroom every time, so I’d interacted with a few of the volunteers there several times. There was a panel on the last day that I wanted to attend that was immediately after another panel I wanted to see. It was in the same room, but by the time the first let out, the line for the next had already extended up multiple flights of stairs. I asked one of the staff, when they weren’t too busy, if there was somewhere on that level where I could wait to join the end of the line once it started moving. He pointed me to an out-of-the-way spot, and I waited for half an hour for the queued people to be allowed into the room. It was a packed panel, but in the end, when they determined it was full and the staff were turning newcomers away, one of the staff quietly told me to stick around for a few minutes. They found an empty seat on the end of a back row, and let me in anyway. I’m convinced it was because I’d spent all weekend following the rules, being nice to the staff, and responsibly arriving early–and also because the staff are genuinely very nice people!)
Also, most of your fellow con-goers are good people who are happy to help you out if you have a quick question about where something is or how something works. There are going to be a few people who seem to think you brought your baby and stroller just to inconvenience them personally, but on the whole, I found the other attendees to be very nice. (With the exception of hogging the elevators. But then there were other times, while waiting for an elevator on a main level, that someone would see me and shout “Let the stroller on first!” so I could actually get on one before everyone else made the mad dash to load first.)
7. BE CONSIDERATE.
Yes, you paid to attend, and you deserve to enjoy it. But so did/does everyone else. Don’t let your decision to bring your baby get in the way of others enjoying their con experience. Be prepared to leave panels early if you need to. Get a seat on an end, know the route to the exit, and keep your stuff as packed together as possible, so if your baby freaks out and you need to get out fast, you can. If you need to give your baby toys to keep him happy, give him quiet ones. If you need to stand and rock him to keep him calm, make sure you’re not blocking anyone else’s view of the stage.
Wait your turn, follow the flow of traffic, and do your very best not to run over people’s toes. Apologize when you should, and say “excuse me” a lot. Use your manners! Other people are going to be in your way, but you’ll be in theirs, too. Be pleasant, and most people will be pleasant back.
8. Remember that your baby is more important than your con experience.
Wil was the perfect baby to take to a con. At two months, he was still sleeping a ton, he could sleep anywhere, and he was perfectly content to just chill in the stroller or on a blanket on the floor, and be held during panels. He was the sort of rare baby that only cried when something was wrong, too, so as long as I was keeping him fed and in a clean diaper, he almost never cried. We managed to make it through the whole con without ever having to leave a panel early!
But…I was prepared to leave a panel if I had to. And I would have. And there was one day I headed home before I panel I’d hoped to see, because it had been a long day already and I felt like it would be better for him to get home early. Listen to your baby’s cues, and cut your own fun short when that’s what’s best for him. If you don’t, he will make you miserable for it anyway, so you might as well enjoy what he lets you and let go of what he won’t! Be flexible (if this is your first baby, that’s a lesson you’ll have to learn eventually anyway; if it’s not your first, then you already know that).
If you’re thinking about trying to attend a con with a baby in tow, be assured that it can be done. But temper your expectations: you will not have the freedom to get the full con experience. As long as that’s okay with you, then I’d encourage you to do it! I did see a few other parents with babies and children tagging along, so you won’t be alone.
(By the way, I made all of Wil’s onesies for the con, since I didn’t really feel much like dressing up myself at two months post-partem. I also made him a couple ribbon tag blankets–one “Firefly” and one Star Wars–which are similar to what I now sell in my Etsy shop.)
If you do it, I wish you the best of luck! And if I run into you, I’ll give up my spot on the elevator and hold the door for you. 🙂