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Babies are annoying. They cry on airplanes, they cry in restaurants, and if you bring one into a movie theater, you’re just asking to have a bag of Swedish Fish thrown at you. But one place they seem to fit right in is the office.
Parents used to bring their children to work only when there was a caretaking emergency: The nanny was sick, day care was closed, their school had a snow day, or it was summertime and they were simply out of options. That still happens, of course, but now some companies also allow kids to come to the office every day, completely bypassing the need for day care.
The concept took hold in 2008, as companies looked for ways to convince young mothers to return to work earlier—it was the recession, and maternity leave wasn’t cheap—or to make sure they didn’t quit after having children. “There was this shift in the cultural discussion, from looking at isolated companies as weird anomalies to a more general talk of logistical issues and the feasibility of this as a common practice,” says Carla Moquin, president of the Parenting in the Workplace Institute (PWI). According to the PWI, there are now more than 180 companies in the U.S. that allow children to come to work with their parents every day. They range from the Arizona Department of Health Services (110 babies) to W.S. Badger, an organic body-care company in New Hampshire (7 babies). Most of them restrict the program to young babies or older children who can come to work when they’re done with school. “The toddler age is really tough,” says Moquin. “Once they’re mobile, there are safety issues and liability—and it’s harder on the parents.”
But for the other co-workers in the office, working with a baby does take some getting used to. “It’s mostly women in my office so I was fairly comfortable breast-feeding,” says Denise Towne, production manager at the Cabot (Vt.)-based children’s clothing company Zutano, which allows parents to bring babies under a year old to work. “I’d do it in my office, in meetings, whenever I needed to. I learned to be very discreet.” Towne was the first one at Zutano to bring her child to the office. The 20-person company has since hosted 20 babies and has even equipped some empty offices with cribs; parents who don’t normally have their own offices can move into them for the year they have their baby at work.
“It’s been a surprisingly easy and cheap program to implement,” says Michael Belenky, president of Zutano. “We started it when we were a smaller company. It wasn’t easy for us to replace someone when they took significant time off.” Zutano still offers standard maternity leave—Towne says she took three months off for each of her three children—but it gives mothers an added incentive to go back to work when that time is up. And yes, fathers and nonbiological parents are able to take advantage of the program, too.
“It’s not as disruptive as you’d think,” says Joanna Caravita, a doctoral candidate in Hebrew at the University of Texas at Austin who used to bring her daughter, Ziv, when she taught a class. “I haven’t done it this semester, though, because she’s 19 months now and I don’t think I’d do very well at teaching a bunch of undergraduates and parenting a toddler at the same time,” she says. Caravita says she never checked to see if UT Austin had a formal policy that allowed babies in class, but no one’s had a problem with it—unlike the folks at American University, some of whom did have a problem with a professor who breast-fed her sick child during a lecture last month.
And neither do the babies. According to Moquin, the most common fear employees have when a company launches a children-at-work program is that the newborns will cry all the time. “They picture the screaming-baby-on-the-airplane scenario,” she says. “But on a plane, you’re locked in. No one ever tries to help you ’cause they don’t know you.” Moquin says tears aren’t usually a problem at work because the parent can tend to a child’s needs immediately. And when they do cry, a good company will supply a separate room for them to use until the crisis is over.
Unfortunately, nothing can stop the sulking when the child turns into a teenager.