June 28, 2009

When there is a baby that won't stop crying in a restaurant, what's the etiquette for asking the parents to do something about it? Last Sunday I was enjoying a peaceful breakfast in a café in Notting Hill when an infant began howling. It was like a car alarm had gone off. Everyone in the restaurant was disturbed by it. Even the other babies, the quiet ones, were annoyed.

The parents did nothing. They continued to eat their scrambled eggs, immune to the judgmental looks and head-shaking from people at the surrounding tables. I overheard the couple next to me discussing the situation. "They must be Americans," the woman said. Why? Because only Americans would have such a rude baby?

Or maybe they were referring to the parenting practice of letting one's infant cry it out and not wanting to disrupt their own meal.

I'm all for babies crying but when that happens in a restaurant, why should everyone else be subjected to it? There are laws to protect people from second-hand smoke - why not second-hand noise?

I understand there are certain places where it's difficult to take a crying baby outside. Like on an airplane. But in a restaurant where other people are paying for a meal, what's wrong with asking them to respect the other diners?

When the waitress approached, I asked her the policy on this. "There's nothing we can do," she said, sounding resigned. "You have to live and let live."

Live and let live is always the answer but it only goes so far. If I decided to strip off my clothes and started singing, I'd just be living. Or lit up a cigar, that's living too. But no one would let that happen. People would go berserk. It's different, I know, because it's a health hazard. But what if someone has high blood pressure and the stress from a wailing baby puts them at risk of a stroke? That can't be healthy.

When it comes to how parents handle their children, it's never a good idea to interfere. It's okay if you interrupt to tell them how adorable the baby is, but anything else is risky. People have no problem asking a stranger to go outside to talk on a mobile phone. But asking a parent to take their baby outside? You'll be stoned.

My friend Laura, an avid New York restaurant-goer, has a strong opinion on this issue. "Don't bring your baby to a restaurant unless it's a quiet baby." She states.

Good idea, but hard to enforce. As a parent, at what point do you decide your baby is too loud to go out? If the shrieking is shattering glass?

Another friend suggests calling ahead of time to see if it's a restaurant that permits infants. I can hear the conversation now. "What sort of fish do you serve? Oh, and do you ban babies?"

What I can't figure out is that certain parents have no awareness of how it's ruining the meal for other people. "What do you expect?" My friend Louise said. "You're in Notting Hill on a Sunday morning."

She's right What was I thinking? Going to a maternity ward would have been more peaceful.

I'm not sure what the best thing to do is, but I know what doesn't work. The disapproving look. This look does nothing. I should know - I get disapproving looks in restaurants all the time. And I don't even have a crying baby.