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Baby’s First Con: A Geek Parent Survival Guide

Make your baby one of us (one of us, one of us)!

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Going to conventions is one of the greatest aspects of nerd culture. Sure, they’re exhausting, crowded, noisy, and sometimes very expensive, but there’s also something lovely about being in a room with thousands of like-minded fans. It’s a celebration of creativity, cosplay, and brilliant writing and performances. It’s also like a giant extended family, which is why many fellow geeks probably want to take their little ones to experience their first con even before they can even fully realize what’s going on.

As Whovian parents of a baby girl (born August 2014), we saw the early lineup for the inaugural Heroes & Villains Fan Fest, put on by the Walker Stalker team in mid-November at the San Jose Convention Center. When we realized it had Karen Gillan and John Barrowman, we began to consider going despite apprehensions of bringing a baby. When the lineup reveal also showed Stephen Amell and the cast of Arrow, we were sold.

We didn’t have a regular babysitter, and we thought it’d be fun to bring our girl for photo ops. So, we faced one huge question: how do we pull this off with a 15-month-old?

The weekend came and went. We had a fantastic time, and more importantly, we survived. As for all of the things we wished we knew when we bought the tickets, well, I’ve gathered them here for any others worried about the same thing. Gather ’round, new geek parents, and take heed of our lessons learned.

Lesson 1: Plan, Plan, Plan

Before having a baby, you may have lived an ad hoc schedule, or at least one not as rigorously scheduled as newborn life. Now you’re accustomed to plans, but one for a massive weekend that involves all sorts of other planned events?

It may seem a bit overwhelming. But it’s feasible.

First off, take a deep breath. Your baby is changing quickly, and you’re probably buying tickets months in advance. Between the time of our ticket purchase and the actual con, nearly six months passed. In that time, our daughter went from two naps to one, became a pro at walking, and developed a highly opinionated personality. She also started to recognize many of the geek icons we exposed her to: Batman, Yoda, the TARDIS, etc.

It would have been impossible to create a game plan when we bought the tickets. Realistically, the best thing to do is to not even think about the con other than for adult logistical purposes (hotels, budget, etc.) up until about a month before. Then, assess where your baby is at and begin thinking ahead.

About 1-2 weeks before the con, you’ll get a tentative schedule for photo ops. If that’s your thing, then start planning around that, because you’ll definitely want your baby to be in the best possible mood to succeed. A day or two before the con, the panel and event schedule should go live, and that will give you an in-depth look at your weekend. You’ll know your baby’s nap and feeding schedule, along with how you can push or pull it; use that as the foundation for your con plan, but keep in mind that cons can be quickly overstimulating for a baby, so it’s best to prioritize the most important events for you.

Logistically, you’ll want to scope out things like parking and food, and give yourself buffer time (probably 30 minutes) for baby surprises. Also, check with the con organizers if they have a quiet area (Heroes & Villains did, which we used in between photo ops to regroup), and ask the convention center/hotel if they have changing stations in the bathrooms (San Jose Convention Center did not, so we used the quiet room).

Lesson 2: Consider Baby Transport Options

Depending on the size of the con, different baby-transportation options will work better for you. We were fortunate that Heroes & Villains was a mid-size con in a huge conventional hall—they estimated about 8,000 people per day. While we were prepared to baby-wear the entire time, the con organizers actually told us they thought a stroller would work. Even better, when I went to pick up the badges at Will Call the day prior to the event, they said I could leave the stroller there if it got too crowded to use it.

Fortunately, things never got too crazy for us to not use the stroller. During panels, we stood off to the side with it, and for photos/autographs, they let us roll through with volunteers cheerfully offering to watch it for us while we took care of things. We also saw a number of other strollers, though some baby-wearers were around, too.

This wouldn’t have worked at a denser con like PAX or NYCC/SDCC. The stroller would have gotten in our way and clogged up the paths for other people. Best thing to do: get a gauge from the con organizers about size and if they have any recommendations. Also, check in with the venue to see if there’s a check-in area where you can leave a stroller if necessary. Regardless of the method you use, bring some kind of cover in case of an overstimulation meltdown—and if you’re baby-wearing, try to get used to all of the carrier’s different configurations. Your back will thank you later.

Lesson 3: Prepare Line Distractions

Lines and waiting are a fact of life with cons. This is easy when you’re child-free and have access to your phone/book/daydreams/whatever. But with a baby, wait times are an event in themselves. Most parents—and hopefully that includes you—have some tricks that can be parsed out over time to try and keep the baby occupied. A good idea is to prep for the con like you would for a long road trip: have new toys/books to spring forward, and use whatever tricks you have up your sleeve. For example, our daughter is fantastic when getting hand-fed small snacks (Cheerio’s, Yums, etc.). We made sure we had an inventory of these and used them as our first go-to when she started to get impatient, albeit at about half the speed we’d normally feed them. We also got lucky in that our baby recognized some of the characters we’ve introduced her to thanks to the cosplayers, so we could point out Batman and catch her interest for a few minutes.

Those are the types of tricks you’ll need to utilize to get through lines. Keep in mind that not everyone around you will be amused, but we found most people to be understanding rather than annoyed, and that helped out quite a bit. The most important thing is to over-prepare and bring much more than what you think you’ll need.

Lesson 4: Bring Help

At Heroes & Villains, one mother had her two-year-old by herself the whole time. When we were in line to meet John Barrowman, she was right behind us carrying the exhausted tyke. This woman was a trooper (and her son, in his hand-made Green Arrow costume, was the star of the show), but if you can avoid flying solo on this, do it. In fact, the more hands you have available, the better. This is beneficial in a variety of ways: helping change/feed, holding places in line, or simply go on baby duty when someone wants to go to a particular event.

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Lesson 5: Go VIP If You Can

Most cons offer some form of VIP admission; in particular, Walker Stalker and Creation events offer a plethora of time-saving bonuses if you’re willing to fork over the cash. In the case of Heroes & Villains, we bought the Platinum package. A huge investment to be sure, but our logic was this—it was our staycation, and this was the extra money we’d spend on flight/hotel since the con was local.

It made a huge difference. The VIP model for Walker Stalker-run cons gives you early general access, faster photo/autograph lines, and guaranteed panel seats (for the Platinum level, it meant being first for literally everything and front-row seats at panels, along with a small-group concierge who helped you plan your day and keep you on schedule). This is an investment in your—and your baby’s—sanity if it’s available, ensuring minimal lines and maximum flexibility. Given the amount of uncontrolled variables facing new parents attending a con, if you can budget for this, then absolutely do it.

Lesson 6: Don’t Buy Too Much Stuff

For some people, their favorite part of the con is the vendor room—all that cool stuff, all in one spot. Of course, online shopping has helped minimize the necessity for the vendor room, but it’s still a unique shopping experience that delivers plenty of impulse options.

Now, if you’re a new parent, chances are you don’t have much of a budget for extra figures or artwork. However, if you’ve been saving up to splurge, take my advice: don’t. Instead, take photos of items you like, grab cards from artists in Artist Alley, and force yourself to buy it later unless you’ve got a nearby hotel room/car that you can use as a storage locker during the con.

Otherwise, you’ll already be dealing with a baby in a carrier or stroller, diaper bag, and probably a backpack or two of general con survival needs, from extra food to baby distractions. Not only do extra bags mean extra hassle when getting from point A to point B, they’re also hard to manage when you’re in the chaos of a line and your baby is melting down. Spare yourself the grief and save those vendor bucks for online purchases.

If you do venture into the vendor area, it’s best to either baby-wear or have someone else watch the stroller. Otherwise, all of those bright colors and cool characters will tempt your baby into grabbing stuff.

Lesson 7: Be Respectful of Others

You don’t need to bring your baby to a con. You WANT to—we certainly did—but it’s not a place you’d expect kids like Disneyland or another known family entity. Because of that, it’s important to respect the people around you. If you’re at a panel, sacrifice good views for an aisle seat where you can leave quickly. If your baby is melting down, acknowledge it to the people around you and try to handle it as quickly and efficiently as possible. If you’re using a stroller, be extra careful of the walkway space you’re taking up—and be especially mindful when curious toddlers grab at bags, cosplay pieces, or merch on a table.

You don’t have to apologize for being there, but it’s up to you to remember that a baby can impact other people’s enjoyment of the con. Be respectful of noise, space, and interaction, and don’t be afraid to pull out if things are heading south. The other con attendees will thank you for that.

Lesson 8: Enjoy the Adoration

On the other hand, lots of people love cute babies. There’s a good chance that most people will find your little geek-in-training adorable, especially if you have a themed onesie or cosplay going on. For our photo with John Barrowman, our daughter wore a baby-sized Captain Jack outfit (slacks, suspenders, shirt), and you can bet that the fellow Whovians noticed. This is especially cool when the adoration comes from the celebrities themselves (it also tells you who’s at the con for a quick buck and who truly appreciates the fans). Our daughter may not remember Stephen Amell asking to hold her (even though she fussed; that dude is awesome), John Barrowman posing with little Captain Jack, and Karen Gillan fawning over her in the autograph line, but we certainly will. If she follows our footsteps into geekdom, it’ll make for some great stories to tell her.

Lesson 9: Make It Memorable

If you’re doing autographs and photo ops, you can take advantage of having unique licensed merchandise that can turn into a memorable gift for your baby after he or she grows up. For example, DC has a number of board books available, and we thought it’d be a cool idea to get actors to sign a copy that our daughter hasn’t chewed up. We got Stephen Amell to sign the Green Arrow page, and hopefully we’ll be to get signatures on other pages over the years, then give it to our daughter when she’s old enough to enjoy fandom. Similarly, the BBC sells a really nice copy of River Song’s diary; we had both Karen Gillan and John Barrowman sign the opening pages to her. Hopefully, our girl will grow up to be a Whovian and this can be a bit of a nerd family heirloom.

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But if she doesn’t like these things, it’s still a cool thing for the parents to hold on to. So think about any geek-themed items in your nursery; they can quickly turn from novelty baby item to family treasure.

Lesson 10: Beware Con Crud

There are over 200 strains of the common cold identified. When you’re in a convention hall with thousands of people, particularly during the fall/winter, chances are there’s going to be some nasty stuff floating around that your baby hasn’t been exposed to. Hopefully, your whole family escapes the clutches of con crud, but it’s best to plan for the worst: take a day or two off following the con if possible, and mentally gear up for a cranky sick baby. Unfortunately, that risk is one of the realities of taking your baby to a con.

Lesson 11: Most Importantly, Prepare to Fail

You’ve finally made it to the front of the line and that panel or photo op you’ve waited for is just about here. Then your baby melts down. None of the soothing techniques are working. What do you do?

At Heroes & Villains, we dealt with this during the first afternoon, and we split up: we took our daughter home, then I went back to the con to pick up the autographs we wanted to get out of the way before the con’s second day. We simply had to cut our losses and work alternatives based on what we still wanted out of the con.

There’s a chance that your baby just won’t have it. You’ll have to pull out and adjust on the fly. For some people, that means leaving the con completely and abandoning ship. For others, it means enlisting your help and identifying the priority events that you absolutely must go to. In any case, your baby’s comfort is the most important thing, and there will be other cons. So if soothing/feeding/playing doesn’t work and your baby is simply running on fumes, it’s time to cut your losses. Just because it’s your baby’s first con doesn’t mean it’s the only one—remember, your little one has a lifetime of geekery ahead.

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Mike Chen is a freelance writer who used to cover the NHL for Fox Sports and SB Nation but now writes about geek parenting and video games. He also builds WordPress websites and writes novels that walk the line between mainstream and science fiction (repped by Eric Smith of PS Literary Agency). Follow him on Twitter.

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