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The dirty diaper dilemma: Should restaurants be forced to provide changing tables?

young mother feeding infant daughter in cafe

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Toronto blogger Maya Fitzpatrick has changed her three boys – two of them currently in diapers – on grungy bathroom counters and floors in restaurants and other businesses. "It's not ideal," she said. "In fact, it's kind of gross."

Still, she believes that an Ottawa woman went too far when she changed her child on a dining room table in a restaurant a few months ago. The woman, Candice Pouliotte, drew harsh criticism online for her actions. "You have to think about the other patrons of the restaurant as well," Ms. Fitzpatrick said.

Food writer, blogger and mother of two Emma Waverman concurs. There's a "yuck factor" associated with having a naked bum – even a baby's bum – on a dining room table, she said. "But I sympathize to a certain extent. Parents are kind of stuck. They want to change their baby. They don't want to have a soggy, wet, crying child getting a diaper rash. And that isn't always easy."

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Currently, there is no legislation in any Canadian province that requires businesses to have baby change tables in washrooms, said Kimiko Pocha, a women's and gender studies student at the University of Alberta. Ontario does require newly built businesses of 6,400 feet or larger to include accessible bathrooms with an adult change table, which could also be used for children.

Ms. Pocha, who has no children, recently launched a Twitter campaign to demand that companies and public spaces provide such facilities. She believes parents have a right to know there's going to be a sanitary place to change their children's diapers when they leave home.

What's more, she said, "It's an equality issue, because where there are change tables, they tend to be almost exclusively in the female washroom." There are plenty of men who do diaper duty, too, she points out.

But installing changing tables in public places is often more difficult than you'd think, said Tony Elenis, chief executive officer of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association (ORHMA). "For some restaurants and other establishments – especially those in downtown areas – it can be very tough to modify the infrastructure to incorporate change tables, he said. But that doesn't mean business owners can't accommodate families in other ways, perhaps by offering a partitioned area where kids can be changed or an unused room.

Nathan Hynes, owner of the Auld Spot bar and restaurant in Toronto, said he sympathizes with parents. "I have a four-year-old myself," he said. "I can't believe people get bent out of shape by women breastfeeding or changing a baby. It doesn't bother me in the least."

Nonetheless, he said he couldn't possibly fit a changing table in his postage-stamp-sized washroom. Instead, Mr. Hynes tries to be flexible.

He said he's fine with parents changing their kids on the seats of his restaurant. "If they want some privacy, I offer them the office," he said. "Parents tend to be very respectful of the place when you're respectful of them."

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Mr. Hynes draws the line, however, at allowing parents to switch a dirty diaper on a dining room table. "It just isn't sanitary."

Sylvanus Thompson, a spokesman for the Toronto Board of Health, agrees. Changing a child on a table "should not be allowed," he said, noting it could result in the contamination of food or food-contact surfaces, potentially causing a food-borne illness.

"If observed by a public health inspector during an inspection, action would be taken [against the restaurateur] for failing to protect food or food-contact surfaces from contamination," he said.

For many restaurants, especially those that cater to families, the great diaper debate is a non-issue, Mr. Elenis said, because they already provide change tables.

"Some restaurants might have crayons or games for children at the table because that is their market," he said. "And they often provide changing facilities as well. In the hospitality industry, you go out of your way to ensure that everyone is happy."

Ms. Waverman admits that she has changed her kids on a lot of bathroom floors over the years. "And my husband and I mastered the 'trunk change' in our car," she said. "We have an SUV, so we can open up the trunk and it's at change-table height."

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Nonetheless, she's sympathetic to small establishments. "There should be some kind of balance," she said. "I hate to think that the only place a family would feel comfortable going is a fast-food restaurant, because they know there are change tables there. But I would also hate to think the little family-run, Asian restaurant that we frequent would have to renovate their bathroom to get a change table in there. That would be really difficult for them."

Ms. Waverman suggests it might make sense to require restaurants and other businesses of a certain size to provide changing facilities. "If you are able to fit three stalls in your bathroom, then you're able to have a change table," she said.

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