Big City Toddler

Further Adventures with A Small Child in the City

by Phil Hollenback


A lot has changed since I wrote my first article about having and raising a baby in the city. For one thing, we now have a independent three year old son instead of a tiny helpless baby to take care of. One key thing has not changed however: we still live in a city. That city happens to be San Francisco now instead of New York, but our basic lifestyle is the same. We don't own a car and we live in a minuscule one bedroom apartment. Everything in our lives is shaped by these two constraints. While this can at times be frustrating, we feel the advantages outweigh the inconveniences. In this article I will try to outline a few of the things I've learned as we have transitioned from having a Big City Baby to having a Big City Toddler.

So Toddlers are Different Than Babies?

On the other hand, you get to witness your child's first tentative steps into the world, and this is absolutely an amazing thing. I am still completely enthusiastic about choosing an urban life for our son and I hope this article illustrates that the negatives of this living sitaution are far outweighed by the positives.


Babywearing is absolutely critical once you have a toddler in an urban environment. Note that my wife and I disagree on this point: she mainly moved our son around in his stroller. That works fine too, but realize you will be limited in what you can do when you have a stroller to lug around. The NYC subway system with it's many stairs is particularly difficult to navigate with a stroller. I think the main reasons that carrying my son in an Ergo worked well for me are first that I'm a large guy so I can wear a baby relatively easily. The other key to my success was that I committed to babywearing from the start and stuck with it religiously. You absolutely must start carrying your baby from the beginning to build up the necessary muscles. If you decide to start by carrying a 25 pound 18 month old you will be miserable.


As I've already mentioned, I'm a complete Ergo devotee. For the first 8 months or so I carried my son in a Baby Bjorn, and when he got too heavy for that I switched to the Ergo. I carried him on front with the ergo for a few months and then transitioned to the back around 14 months. He continued riding in the Ergo until around 26 months, when he finally decided he wanted to walk all the time. I frankly miss the ease of carrying him instead of chasing him, and it's an interesting bonding experience I wouldn't trade for anything. As I mentioned in my earlier article, Dad doesn't have a lot to do when the baby is first born, but one thing he can do is hop in and start carrying the baby right away. I have a weirdly sexist take on baby transportation: I absolutely despise pushing a stroller, but carrying a baby on my back feels somehow 'manly' to me. That probably says more about my hangups than anything.

A few thoughts about the Ergo. At first, it is intimidating because the thing has a bunch of confusing straps. Luckily putting it on your front is relatively straightforward, although someone will need to help you the first few times. You can't put a small baby in the the stock Ergo so you might want to consider staying with the Bjorn for the first six months (a newborn insert is available for the Ergo but I haven't tried it). The Bjorn is also very simple and that's a real plus when you are completely sleep deprived. However if I have a second child I will seriously consider buying the optional newborn insert so I can use the Ergo from birth.

One great thing about the Ergo is that once your child gets a little more used to it and a little taller, you can start using the flying trapeze artist mount technique. You belt the Ergo in place on your waist on the back but leave the shoulder straps down and free. Then taking your child from a facing frontal position, throw him over your shoulder in a rotating movement, so he ends up on your back with his arms around your neck, like a monkey. You can then reach down and put your arms through the shoulder loops to bring them up and lock everything down. This is a great party trick and you will get comments from bystanders all the time. I don't recommend trying this until you and your child have have several months of experience with the Ergo, and your child has enough strength to hold on to you without falling.

Sidewalks are Scary

I've found that the number one concern that my suburban friends and family have about city life is the fear that my son might run out in to traffic when he is walking on the sidewalk. Truthfully this is a scary thought. With a younger toddler this is not much of an issue because they are always holding your hand, in the stroller, or in the carrier. There are two things you have to drill with them continually even at this early stage:

  1. Never cross a street without holding hands
  2. Don't run in front of garage entrances

I'm not going to lie, you will have some scary moments as your child learns about freedom and adventure. All you can do is stay vigilant and make sure your child always clearly understands the rules. On the plus side if they are always walking on city sidewalks I guarantee they will learn how to do so safely. My son is now a very confident sidewalk walker and he absolutely never steps off a curb or in front of a garage entrance on his own. The only way to deal with this is constant vigilance. The alternative is to trap your child in the house or car at all times, and that seems to me a singularly depressing way to live. The point of growing up in a city is learning how to interact with people and the best place to do that is on the sidewalk.


The carseat industry is a complete disaster. The main problem is that manufacturers have focused all their efforts on maximizing perceived baby safety in an SUV mentality. The result of this is carseats that are impossible to switch between cars, and that are incredibly intimidating to the new parent. My absolute top advice for carseats is talk to people who have gone through the same experiences. Obviously the first division is between car owners and non-owners. If you own a car almost any carseat will do. You just need to secure it in your car and forget about it.

If you don't own a car, you have a totally different set of needs. You will either be rarely in a position to use a carseat (if you live in Manhattan) or you will be constantly moving your carseat between different rental cars (if you live in San Francisco). In both cases, you need a convertible carseat that does not come with a locking base (or just throw away the locking base if one comes with your seat). You need a seat that sits directly in the car and can be easily attached with just the seatbelt. I strongly recommend the Evenflo Tribute 5 seat for the following reasons:

  1. Lightweight and relatively easy to carry outside the car.
  2. Cheap: around $60.
  3. Enough room behind the back to reach in and secure the car seatbelt.

In fact if I were starting from scratch I would strongly consider just using the Tribute V from birth since you can use it rear-facing with a newborn (up to 30 lbs, then you switch to front-facing).

One other distinction I did not understand before all of this is how car seatbelts work for carseats. There are three types of belt mechanisms. First you have fixed lap belts, often found in the middle seat on older cars. These work fine as-is - just adjust the belt before snapping it down.

Second there are free-floating lap/shoulder combo belts, often found in the rear side seats on older cars. These belts never fully lock up, except in a crash. For maximum safety, you need to use the weird little metal buckle in the pocket on the back of your carseat. This forces the car seatbelt to lock in place so you can then treat it like a fixed belt.

The third type of seatbelt can be found on all modern cars. I call it the full travel locking belt. To use this type of belt, you run it through the back of the carseat and connect it, same as any other belt. Then however there is a trick: you pull the shoulder belt out slowly until it reaches the end of it's travel, at which point a locking cam engages. As you let the tensioner take the slack back up on the shoulder belt you will find that it no longer extends freely and instead only tightens. You can then yank hard on the belt (before you put the baby in the carseat!) and crank it down so the belt is holding your carseat in place very firmly. It stays this way until you release the buckle and allow the belt retract fully.

As for where in the car you put the carseat, you should always try to put it in the center in the back seat. The front seat should be avoided in particular because of the risk of airbag deployment.

The reason I am writing this detailed description of carseat mechaniscs is I never found a clear explanation of all of this anywhere, or at least I didn't understand what I was reading until I spent a lot of time moving my carseat between various friend's cars, rental cars, and Zipcars. Based on that experience I have now become an expert in a very specific topic and I hope I can help you understand this very bewildering part of having a child.

Something I have experimented with only briefly is the GoGo Kidz Travelmate carseat trolley system. The idea here is you attach a handle and wheels to your carseat and turn your kid into a rolling suitcase. If you do a lot of airplane travel in particular this would be absolutely invaluable. I tried one of these for a few days and found it to be very sturdy and usable.

Car Rentals

If you choose to not own a car and live in a city with a defective public transportation system (San Francisco) you will be forced to rent cars on a regular basis. For example, most pediatrician offices in San Francisco are extremely inconvenient to get to via an expensive cab ride or a very long bus ride.

You may have up to three rental options depending what city you live in. First there are traditional rental agencies such as Enterprise or Avis. These services are geared towards business travelers so first off they tend to be near airports. The offices that they have in the city typically are open only regular business hours so you have to structure your rental needs around that. On the plus side particularly for weekend rentals they often have very attractive rates (since they are focused on business travelers during the week). I have found Enterprise to be particularly good for this in San Francisco, especially since they will bring a car to you.

For shorter trips on more flexible schedules, you currently have two choices (late 2009, San Francisco). The big commercial operation is Zipcar. Zipcar has cars parked all over the city and availability has never been a problem for us. You go online to book a car and walk a couple blocks to pick it up. When you are done you put the car back where you found it. Gas is included but you have to fill up yourself (via a gas card in the car) if you are below a quarter tank. If you rent a Zipcar for a whole day you get a reduced rate and 180 miles per day (you pay a per-mile fee after that). In practice that is enough to take a day trip to anywhere within an hour drive or so of the city, and still have miles left when you reach your destination.

In a year or so of frequent use I have found Zipcar to work very well, as long as you understand how it operates. You have to clearly understand the downsides of Zipcar. For example, if you get in a major accident and it is your fault, you will be dropped by Zipcar. That makes sense from their perspective, but if you rely on Zipcar you will be left hanging. There's no way for example to pay a higher insurance rate to stay in the program.

The third alternative is City Car Share, which works similarly to Zipcar. I haven't used it so I can't comment too much but by understanding is that City Car Share operates more like a co-op nonprofit. Thus conceptually City Car Share seems like a good idea. The downside is there are far fewer City Car Share cars in the city. We don't live close enough to one of their cars, so it doesn't work for us. If you do live close to a City Car Share car I encourage you to check out their service.

What Goes In And What Comes Out

Feeding (What Goes In)

Feeding a toddler is all about compromise. You try to put food in their mouth and some of it ends up there. Most of the food however will end up on the floor (or the ceiling). While this is frustrating, it is also rewarding as once again you get to see your child learn about new foods and experiences every day.

If you live in a small apartment, my first advice is to forget about buying a dedicated highchair. They take up way too much room when not in use. Instead, get a booster seat like the Fisher Price Healthy Care Deluxe.

Once your child is old enough to generally sit up straight on their own you can put the chair on the floor, sit down next to him or her, and start feeding! You definitely want to use a floor mat like the Sugar Booger Splat Mat while this mat is a bit more expensive, it is very sturdy and can go through the wash. Other cheaper plastic mats tend to tear and wear out fairly quickly.

A nice feature of the deluxe version of that booster is it has extensible legs so you can get your kid a little higher off the floor. The tray also comes with a separate eating tray that you can put through the dishwasher. Just remove the separate tray and tray cover and throw them away. The design of the tray makes it really easy to pinch your child's skin and its generally just useless.

After a few months of feeding on the floor (or right away, depends on how much your child throws food) you can move the booster seat onto one of your dining room chairs. Then put the feeding mat on the floor under the chair. If your chair is at all valuable then also put a protective cover on it underneath the booster seat.

This is the only way our son has been eating at home over the last year or so and it works great. Now he is almost three and he just uses the seat as a booster without the tray table so he can sit right at the table with us.

The Curse of the Sippy Cup

Sippy cups, oh how I hate you. Such a simple thing gone terribly, terribly wrong. We tried a bunch of different cups, then the BPA scare came along so we had to get new ones, then we had to buy larger ones... the cycle never ends. No matter which cups you buy you will always lose some critical piece. My advice is to try to just buy one brand of cup and stick with it.

You should own at least one Playtex Coolster insulated cup. These aren't good for younger kids as they don't have handles. However these cups have the wonderful property of being almost spill and chew proof. The only downside is you have to remember to install the rubber seal properly.

Other than that, just find a basic cup that works well and stick with it. Try not to accumulate an entire cupboard full of different cups, each with different missing pieces. I've been generally satisfied with the Nuby.

Diapering (What Comes Out)

We remain big fans of the premium Pampers disposable diaper lines (Swaddlers for infants, Cruisers for Toddlers) but they are expensive. I would seriously consider trying the Costco brand diapers as a cost-saving measure because you will be buying a lot of diapers.

Another thing that changes dramatically with toddlers is the diaper bag. With an infant the diaper bag serves as a general purpose safety net. There's no telling what could happen, so you need a large bag that you stuff full of everything. As you child gets older you don't need to carry so much stuff. We ended up moving from a dedicated diaper bag to ultimately just a little Mimi the Sardine throw bag holding a couple diapers, wipes, hand sanitizer, etc. Keep in mind that the useful lifespan of a big, fancy shower gift diaper bag is thus very short. In a few months that bag will end up in the back of your closet, never to be used again (but also off-limits for throwing out or giving away, due to sentimental attachment!).

I continue to stand by our decision to not purchase a separate changing table and just change or son on the bed with a piddle pad. This gets a lot easier as your child gets older, and the risk of accidents declines dramatically. Note again my wife disagrees on this point and would prefer to have had a changing table.


Toddlers start to make their own play decisions very early on, and will tell you very clearly which toys they like and which ones they don't care about. This is a critical time in your child's development, and one in which living in a small apartment will work to your advantage. See this NY Times article for an example of the pitfalls of excessive gift giving. In your tiny apartment you have a built-in excuse: we don't have the room! I cannot emphasize strongly enough how you must stick to this mantra when discussing gifts for your child with others.

The odds are good if you have a boy that they will be interested in trains, especially if you live in the city and ride the subway or light rail frequently. Encourage this by viewing some 'Thomas the Train' episodes together, and try buying a couple wooden Thomas trains for your son. If this sticks your gift problems are over for at least a couple years. Our son is a complete Thomas fanatic. The great things about wooden Thomas:

  1. No noise
  2. No batteries
  3. Very compact
  4. Expensive

There are literally hundreds of wooden Thomas trains you can suggest people buy for your son. Do what I did and set up an Amazon wishlist with all the trains and sets he doesn't have. Aunts and uncles will be glad to have a clear gift giving guide. Throw in a few train-related books and you are all set. If you play this right your expenses will be minimal. I suggest purchasing used wooden track on ebay and waiting for others to supply the trains after you buy one or two initial trains. Note that this applies to the wooden Thomas trains, not the other metal or plastic ones. If you stick with wooden Thomas you will very shortly have a very compact toy set that your son will spend hours playing with, and will last forever. The only downside is the trains tend to get lost frequently at the playground.

I apologize to those of you with daughters out there as I can't offer a similar recommendation for girl's toys. I'm sure there is some similarly small and expensive toy that they can get involved in as well. The reason in both cases that expensive toys are better is it encourages people to just buy you one small item and not a huge space-consuming collection.

Another play product I recommend strongly is pretty much anything made by the Crayola company. I don't know what is going on at that company but they keep inventing incredible products. I just got my son the no drip washable paintbrush pens for Christmas and they were a complete hit. Stock up on a few of the similar washable Crayola products and you have another excellent toy that takes up little room, makes no noise, and provides a healthy artistic outlet for your child.

Around The Home


Another advantage of apartment living with a toddler which I have discussed before is the fact that they can't get too far out of your sight. This is a double advantage when they are fully mobile. We went the usual route of babyproofing our apartment with outlet covers and latches on the cabinets with anything dangerous in them. In practice this worked pretty well and by the time our son was two we no longer had to worry so much about the cabinet latches (although we still use them for the sink where the cleaning supplies reside).

A particular apartment concern we struggled with was locking the front door. A two year old can easily open most standard doors and deadbolts, particularly of modern construction. We ended up installing a small bolt high on the front door. It's nothing that would really stop you from forcing the door open, but it is sufficient to prevent a toddler from wandering out. The same goes for windows and patios, particularly on higher floors - get window guards and make sure your child can't open the patio door. Few things are more horrifying then those stories of toddlers who fall from fire escapes.


After about 15 months we switched to bathing our son on the floor of the tub with a detachable shower head. I cannot recommend detachable shower heads strongly enough. They make it so much easier to bathe your child. Around the age of two a kid can be generally trusted to sit and play in the tub although you have to remain right there watching them at all times. Don't waste your time on the various contraptions for bath time like separate tubs you place in the tub. Just make

If you have just a stall shower then the only logical thing to do is get a detachable shower head and take showers with your toddler. I'm actually not sure how well that will work in the early stages but once a child is standing and walking comfortably it should be no problem. This requires the use of a bath mat such as this Bathtub Bubble Mat. Obviously any other sharp edges or hard corners in the shower should be cushioned somehow as well.

Potty Time

We are still working on potty training and it is proving to be frustrating. Again, my goal is to avoid as much extra equipment as possible. Thus, don't get a separate training potty for your child. Instead, get a small stool and the Bjorn Toilet Trainer. That combo can be easily maneuvered by a two and a half year old so they can be involved in the process.


Yes, even disciplining your child can be done in a way that maximizes your enjoyment of the urban environment. We don't believe in physical punishment, and studies seem to bear out the fact that it doesn't really work well in the long run. We decided to use a time out system and it has generally worked well (but can be exhausting). I include this in this article about urban child raising because the size of your apartment means that you have to work very hard to get discipline right. If you don't you will be living with a monster with no place to hide for a very long time.

When our son was old enough to move on his own and start making his own decisions we instituted the naughty spot. Do something naughty and get put in the spot for a short amount of time. We just picked a relatively out of the way corner for this. Now with say a 9 month old this method of discipline doesn't really do too much. If your kid knocks over his food because he is mad, you put him in the spot. Start with brief timeouts and increase them as your child grows. At first you will have to sit down in front of your son and make him sit there for the duration. Later with a three year old you can tell them to go take a timeout and require that they explain to you what they did wrong and apologize before they are released.

We've stuck with this system diligently with our son and it is working well. He generally has a clear idea of what he has done wrong and after he calms down he will apologize. You have to commit to this one hundred percent. If you threaten your child with a timeout and they don't stop, you have to always give them one, even if that means interrupting what you are doing. Consistency is key. Bear in mind that you will have at least one session where a two year old will test you as far as possible. One time I had to sit with my son for a solid hour before he finally got the message and apologized. This sort of parenting is incredibly tedious. However since that one major test my son knows I will enforce timeouts and we've never had to go through that again.

To recap: I strongly recommend you implement a rigorous non-abusive (and non-physical) discipline system such as time outs as soon as your child begins to develop a knowledge of right and wrong, and stick with that plan. It will make your apartment life so much easier.

Cribs and Beds

Our son slept in a portable crib at the head of our bed until he was just over two years old. At that time he could easily climb out of the crib if he chose to. A traditional large crib would probably delay that by a few months. Once we got to that point we decided it was time to move to a toddler bed. Luckily our friends had one we could use, and it replaced the crib next to our bed. In practice toddler beds are slightly longer that portable cribs, but we were still able to fit it next to our bed. Obviously at some point he will need his own room but a two-bedroom apartment is expensive so my advice is to delay as long as possible.

Note that we went through several weeks of our son not staying in bed after we moved him to the toddler bed. He would get out of bed literally a dozen times after we put him down. Finally this ended but it was a stressful time.


I've been wanting to write this article for over a year, but I'm glad now that I've waited as long as I did to finally set it down. My son teaches me something new every day. I remain committed to city living with a child and I would not trade it for anything. The obstacles can be daunting at times but you can always overcome them with a little work. Never let fear rule your life - there is a wide-open urban experience awaiting you!

Copyright 2010 Philip J. Hollenback

Special thanks to Scotto for his feedback on this article.


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