How to go to the movies with your infant.

06/04/2008 By Shawn Burns

Now that Erin is a big, tough, 1-year old…

"Almost 14 months, guys."

…yes, almost 14 months. Anyway….now that Erin is a big toddler it is becoming increasingly difficult, and almost impossible, to bring her to the movies.

This is a real tragedy for me, because for her first year we went to a ton of movies. In fact, I probably saw more movies in the last year than in any other year.

It’s hard to bring a baby to the movies, and knowing this some theaters in some cities have begun offering Diaper Days, showings during which parents can bring their infants and young children to see movies that aren’t kids’ movies. Everyone knows those showings are baby-friendly, so no one has to feel intimidated into leaving the theater if their kid is making noise.

Because that’s really what keeps parents away from the movies when they have a baby: the theater is a special house of silence; there is even a crying baby in the "please shut the hell up" blurb before the movie starts. Message to parents: You are not welcome with your baby. So it’s no wonder that parents stay away unless they are offered a special viewing. Also, it’s not a whole lot of fun to watch a movie while your own baby is crying and demanding attention, and if you are any kind of movie lover, as I am, you don’t really want to be too distracted for your $10 admission.

I have never gone to a Diaper Days showing of any film, and I’m kind of proud of that. They are an excellent concept, but I figure I’ll avoid them for as long as I can get away with it.

A big part of my success has been luck. Erin has never been all that fussy, and she can sleep in some ridiculously noisy environments and seemingly uncomfortable situations. She took a 45 minute nap once in the middle of a huge party; she sleeps in the backpack as we walk. Unfortunately, your baby mileage may vary, so what follows is (obviously) not a prescription for success in any case. Honestly, these tips don’t even guarantee that we’ll be able to sit through an entire movie; I’ve had to walk out of a few. But maybe some of these tips will help make going to the movies with an infant less intimidating a prospect.

An Old Friend is a New Friend.

While your baby is really young (under 5 months) it is really hard to predict when she will sleep. So getting her to sit quietly in a theater for two hours is probably not going to work. However, there is a newfangled invention that you may not have heard about that is perfect for those unpredictable sleepers: The Drive-In is your friend.

That’s right, the old staple of date-night from your parents’ and grandparents’ heyday is the perfect place to see a movie with your young, spotty sleeper. Even though the shows start later, with a young baby you probably aren’t enforcing a bedtime anyway. If you’re going to be awake with your baby at 11 or 12 anyway you might as well take advantage of that couple of hours beforehand while she sleeps to catch a flick. Also, any crying or fussing your baby might do will be confined to your own vehicle; your neighbors probably won’t hear a peep. Emily and I saw every summer blockbuster of 2007 at the drive-in, while our daughter slept in the infant car seat in the back or had a bottle with us in the front seat.

On nights when we were especially lucky the drive down to the drive-in on Capitol Expressway in San Jose was just long enough to knock her out, and then she’d stay asleep for the entire movie. Those nights were awesome.

For the Nappers

When Erin arrived at 5 months or so I started carrying her around in the backpack. This was also around the time that she started taking pretty regular naps. Also, I found that she would take her naps anywhere (a necessity, because I was always trying to go somewhere and I did my best to put her on my own schedule; I’m a bad, selfish parent :} ). So, being able to predict naps came in handy when going to the movies.

I’d arrive about 10 minutes before the previews began, and about 15 or 20 minutes past when I would normally put her down for a nap if we were at home. I would get a bottle ready and once the previews started I would pop it in her mouth. More often than not by the time the film itself started Erin was sacked out. Being a predictable napper I could usually count on an hour and half of sleep, though this could vary.

Now, apart from the bottle tip (which isn’t much of a tip now, is it? "Hey, my daughter would sleep really well, so I could take her to the movies. You should too" :} ) I actually do have some helpful suggestions:

  1. The Multiplex is where it’s at: Even if your baby is a great napper there is always a chance that she will wake up in the middle of the movie and start crying. If this happens you most certainly do not want to be in an art house theater. Chances are those places manage to stay in business because they get a minimum number of people into even their afternoon shows, and with their operating costs their minimum is probably more than you would be comfortable with overhearing your babbler.
  2. Timing is Everything: At a big multiplex they always have a movie playing on every single screen once they open their doors, but guess what? They need a certain minimum of people to make it worthwhile to open the doors, but they are going to calculate this minimum as an average over the whole week and open at the same time every weekday. This means that even though, for example, Wednesdays might be really packed even in the afternoon, Mondays might be almost totally empty. Erin and I always go to the showing that begins after 1pm or 3pm. 1pm is late enough at our Multiplex that they’ve been open for a while and the early bird moviegoers have filtered into other screens. 3pm at our theater is late enough to miss the Lunch & Movie crowd without picking up the after school crowd. Wednesday is the best day at our theater, especially now that the Multiplex near us began Senior Monday, which draws people in like flies to honey on Monday afternoons. With the right timing you could end up in an entirely empty theater, and then who cares if your baby wakes up?
  3. Screen Clutter=Good Times: Erin and I live in an area where there are a lot of people who speak Spanish. The huge Multiplex knows this, and in an attempt to snag some more diverse dollars they will target some screens at this segment of the population. But it’s too much work to dub movies into Spanish, so usually the Multiplex will show the movie in English with Spanish subtitles. And they will tell everyone that they are doing so. This probably draws people in very well for the evening shows, but during the middle of the day these screens are all but empty. The mid-day movie-goers around here don’t want to see anything else on top of the screen, so they will actually choose to go to another showing just to avoid seeing writing. Not this guy. I have seen movies in entirely empty theaters in the middle of the day because I’ve figured out which were subtitled in Spanish.
  4. The Stroller is Like a Pantry on Wheels: If you do bring your napper to the movies, and you bring a stroller, make sure it’s one of the huge SUVs of strollers. The little McLaren umbrella stroller that is so compact and awesome and lightweight also doesn’t recline enough for a good nap, and your baby’s legs will hang down in front in a position just uncomfortable enough to keep her awake. At least, this is what happens with Erin. If I don’t take the backpack and let her sleep in it (which is an awesome trick if you can get it to work :} ), then I bring the huge stroller. Not only for it’s more dramatic recline and more comfortable leg positioning, but because I can smuggle a ton of crap into the theater with me in the storage compartment. So, if I don’t feel like spending $10 on popcorn and a drink I can spend $2 and bring my own snacks. Some places don’t care if you bring food in (the AMC in Santa Clara let’s you bring in whatever you want…including pizzas), but some places are staffed by food nazis, so the stroller is a must.
  5. Don’t Get Too Comfortable: I know, you are trying to relax at the movies. But if there are other people in the theater and your little monster darling child wakes up you want to be able to beat a hasty retreat to the hallway. And this means not having things strewn about around you. Unpack as little as possible at a time, and put things back in the stroller (or backpack) after you use them. Don’t get caught having to pack things up while also shushing your baby and maneuvering the stroller one-handed.
  6. Patience is Key: I know you want to see that new teen comedy with the eggplant-fellatio and the fart jokes as soon as it hits theaters. But give it a week or two. Chances are fewer people are going to be in the theater with you if you wait to see something than if you go during opening week, even if you are going during the day.
  7. It’s Just Like Buying a Car: You have to be willing to walk away. This means not investing so much in the movie that you feel like you can’t leave without seeing the entire thing. Early shows are cheaper than later shows. Weekday shows are cheaper than weekend shows. And bringing your own snacks and drinks cuts your movie investment in half. So if it comes right down to it you have, maybe, spent $7 or $8 and you can just get up and leave if it really comes to it.
  8. Don’t see any movie with Paul Giamatti in it: Erin hates Paul Giamatti. His voice is so grating that it woke her up no fewer than three times and eventually I had to leave the theater. It was my first unsuccessful movie-watching experience. (All right, I admit it. I spent money to see Fred Clause. You can all de-friend me now.) A more general lesson here is to try to guess beforehand how even the sound in the movie will be. Even frantic sounds can be soothing or turn to background noise for babies. It’s the sudden changes in volume (or Giamatti’s sandpaper voicebox) that will jar your kid out of her slumber. Unfortunately, this means that most action movies are probably not going to be good bets for Multiplex viewing (save these for the drive-in, where you control the volume).
  9. Avoid Senior Days: Not only will there be more people in the theater on Senior Days, but you’ll be less likely to snag one of the wheelchair companion seats on Senior Day. This is an important spot, because these seats are not too close or too far away, have a space next to them perfect for your stroller, and also provide easy access to the exit if you have to beat a hasty retreat. Another reason to prefer the Multiplex for our purposes is that they generally have several of these seats, so you don’t need to feel too guilty about taking one for yourself.
  10. Have Your Distractions Ready: Even though you should keep things pretty well-packed for the purposes of a quick exit, you also want to be able to access some things very quickly if your baby wakes up. So keep any dolls, blankets, baby-snacks, or pre-mixed formula within easy reach. Pack them on the top of the diaper bag; keep a pre-mixed bottle in the cup-holder of your SUV stroller (it will be fine for a couple of hours, so the most you’re out is some formula if you don’t end up needing it).

Now that Erin is older it’s harder to get her to fall asleep in the theater. There was a brief period during which even if she was awake she would sit quietly and just watch what was going on, but at one year ("14 months, guys") she talks, laughs, and screeches when she is awake. So, now that summer movie season is upon us, and Erin has a bedtime that she usually zonks out at pretty well, we have started going back to the drive-in. The shows start after her bed-time, so we jammie her up after dinner and then drive down to San Jose.

Having a baby doesn’t mean you can’t give hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year to the movie studios. You just have to be willing to put in the effort to do your part for Hollywood.