Childcare at conferences: guidelines

I have been talking so much(*) about childcare at conferences that someone may think this has become a parenting blog. This post aims at summarising why organisers should offer support to parents working in academia and how exactly they can do that.

Why you should do it

I can give you plenty of reasons why. First of all, I personally find it weird that in today's academia, where a lot a mobility is required, we still avoid to acknowledge that most people have kids. Many of us - myself included - have children and it's crazy hard to fulfill parenting responsibilities - which require routine and stability - with all the travelling academia demands. All the trips and visiting periods (not to mention moving for a temporary position!) throw a great burden onto families and a lot of hard decisions must be taken. Offering childcare at conference does not solve all problems, but it certainly offers some practical help.

My first point was completely gender-free, but some situations occur more frequently or exclusively to women. Notice that for women the most popular (and better from fertility point of view) age to have kids coincides with the years of your PhD studies or your postdocs. In other words, the years when you are supposed to travel the most to present your work and network. Also, consider breastfeeding: OMS suggests to breastfeed for one year, and many people now go on even further. This is a long period to give up travelling, career-wise.

And what if one is a single parent and has to bring kids along? Or if both parents work in the same academic field?

We should keep it professional and not have kids around

I understand this worry, but I am convinced you are being pessimistic. Few people choose to travel with kids anyway. Taking the family along is stressful and expensive for everyone and people will try to avoid it every time they can. As an example, during AIP2015 we welcomed families and with about 500 guests, less than 10 kids came along with their family. There were spouses looking after them and they did not interfere with the conference at all. In the "worst case scenario" when one comes along with a small baby and the baby starts crying, it sounds implausible that they will not take the baby out, doesn't it? As any change, this also may bring some bad surprises, but it will mostly be positive to participants.

How can you do it

I am practical person, so I will now give practical guidelines on how you can help.

First of all, name a responsible person or group. One needs also to be the contact person on-site during the conference, so that child-carers know who to contact in case of difficulties or in search for advice. Also, make sure you choose the conference venue, the excursion and the conference dinner restaurant accordingly with the fact that someone may bring kids along (in particular, consider the "stroller-friendly" aspect).

Low-budget initiatives

  • Info page on the conference website (cost: only time). Make visible all information about the childcare services you will offer. Will there be grants?A nursing room? Also, make a section with useful information: emergency numbers, pediatric clinics nearby; children-friendly restaurants near the venue; kids facilities at the location (amusement parks, outdoor and indoor parks, libraries, ...); information on where to rent a stroller/carseat/baby items; highlight the children-friendly hotels; contact details of babysitting agencies or similar; the contact details of the responsible person you nominated.
  • Nursing and childcare room(s) (cost: the rent of a room at your venue). Mothers who are breastfeeding may need a quiet, private place that is close to the conference rooms. Provide a comfortable chair (make sure she can rest her arms, not having to hold the baby up air). Other important things are: a microwave oven to heat up toddler's food; a changing table (this can be arranged in the toilets as well); a couple of highchairs; a potty in the toilets (both genders!). You may borrow many of these things from colleagues. Bonus items: extra nappies; extra babyfood; care products (soap, creams); table, chairs, some pictures to color (find them free online if you don't want to buy books) and pencils; if most participants are local, books for kids in the local language. Bonus premium item: some screen from which the parent can follow in streaming the conference talks she/he is missing.
  • Offer a suitable registration fee for accompanying spouse and kids (cost: none). The fact that you are considering that family comes along brings already relief to a family. Make sure to specify how much the registration fee is for spouse and kids.
  • Free lunch for kids (cost: depends on the cafeteria, estimate 15 euros/kid during the whole conference. In my experience you can expect 1-2 kids every 50 participants). This is a little something that sends a really positive message.
  • Offer web-streaming of all events (cost: low). You don't have to do this for free! You can offer the option of paying a special fee and follow all events in web-streaming. This is good not only for people who have family limitations, but also for scientists from developing countries or junior researchers with limited travelling funds. It's good for organisers who get further fees and speakers who get more visibility. Going in person will always be better, because you can ask questions and network with other people, but this can be a good plan B for parents and not only.

Medium-to-high-budget initiatives

  • Childcare on site (cost: depends on various factors). If you offer this, you definitely go in my hall of fame with honours. For this service you need to find a suitable space and some caregivers. If the conference is held during the school period, you can expect only kids under 7. If the conference is during the summer, that may be a different story. First of all, make sure people state clearly if they are bringing their kids and/or spouse during the registration process. Ask for the age of the children.
    You can decide along with the caregivers how to arrange the groups, according to the ages. If a professional agency is a too expensive option, get creative. Many countries offer ways to pay occasional workers and you may find students or young people who may want to have the job (many have previous babysitting experience, being it a popular side-job for young people).
  • Grants (cost: depends, but you can set a maximum easily). Offer childcare grants to pay for care of the kids one leaves at home or for the expenses derived from taking a caregiver and the kids along. I never handles the bureaucracy of grants, but you may ask some advice from people who do (check my hall of fame). The hall of fame is good to check also to find the monetary source of such grants, since associations may offer grants to your organising boards or direct you to third parties. You have some choices to make regarding how much you offer. Is it better to give a grant to more people or fewer heavier grants? It's up to you.

Good luck with the planning!

(*) See my hall of fame of institutions and events and a previous post on the topic.

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Paola Elefante

Technical Project Manager working in Supply Chain Management solutions at Relex Solutions Oy. Proud mother with the best husband ever. Shameless nerd&geek. Feminist. Undercover gourmet.

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