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Before I had a child, it was the door to the unknown. It might as well have had a giant sign saying “Do Not Enter” or “Authorized Personnel Only Beyond This Point.” For all I knew there was a high-end lounge serving top shelf martinis and free hors d’oeuvres just on the other side of the door. But I dared not open it and subject myself to the criticism and judgmental stares of my fellow travelers who could clearly see I was neither a parent nor disabled. I’m talking about the family restroom.
Family restrooms are in many airports and large businesses, but unfortunately there are still many establishments and places of business that do not have these unisex restrooms.
This traveler’s guide to family restrooms explains what they are, who should be able to use them, family restroom etiquette and why they are needed in more public areas and businesses.
What is a family restroom?
Although it is nothing fancy (no martinis and hors d’oeuvres after all), the family restroom is typically quite a bit roomier than a single stall in a public restroom. The family restroom is a private restroom with only one toilet – sometimes two – a changing table for babies, and sometimes a separate chair.
While being able to use the family restroom is a great perk for families traveling with kids, it isn’t just for parents and their children.
Family restroom requirements
Most airports, shopping malls, and sports venues seem to have a public family bathroom. I’ve personally found it’s one of the biggest perks of traveling with children. This special restroom is reserved for those who need a little extra space and assistance, but that doesn’t necessarily just apply to families with small children.
Who can use the family restrooms?
While anyone can use the family restrooms which are available in many stores and areas frequented by large crowds, there are specific circumstances and types of people that these public facilities should be reserved.
Although most public restrooms have a stall that is wheelchair accessible, the space is often far too limited to accommodate wheelchair users, especially if they need someone to assist them. The family restroom or private unisex restroom not only gives wheelchair users more room, but also the additional privacy they might require or desire.
People who need assistance
Aside from wheelchair users, there are a variety of other medical reasons someone might require a private restroom instead of the public multi-stall restroom. For example, those who have an ostomy bag, a vision impairment, or those with sensory issues or special needs like autism may feel more comfortable using a family restroom.
Parents with children
This one somewhat goes without saying, as the name family restroom implies it is for families. But there are several reasons parents with children may opt to use a family restroom. They are especially great for fathers with daughters or mothers with sons who are still too young to go into the appropriate restroom unaccompanied but too old to go with their parent into the restroom of the opposite sex without awkwardness. Some parents may not be comfortable taking children of the opposite sex into a public restroom at all.
Additionally, not all men’s restrooms have changing tables for babies, so fathers with babies may require a family restroom to change a diaper. Both parents can even go into the family restroom for a diaper change if the situation requires more than one set of hands. Any parent who has ever experienced a diaper blowout in public will understand.
Another reason parents may need a family restroom is because young children may not be able to control their bladder if there is a line for a public stall. Finally, sometimes a parent may need to use the restroom but cannot leave their child unattended, so a family restroom allows them the space to bring their child or children into the restroom with them.
When a woman is pregnant, particularly in that last trimester, she constantly has to pee. Often, it is an uncontrollable urge that waits for no one.
In fact, the first time I ever used the family restroom while traveling was during my eighth month of pregnancy. I was far enough along that I was obviously showing. After attempting to wait in the line in the ladies’ room, it became painfully clear, I was either going to have to waddle out of that bathroom quickly and find a bathroom that was unoccupied or pee on myself right there while waiting for a stall to open up. I chose Option A. I stepped out of the line, left the ladies’ room and ventured into the family restroom.
Transgendered or nonbinary persons
The family restroom really should have a more all-encompassing name, because it really isn’t just for families. In fact, nowadays this gender-neutral, single-toilet, private restroom with its own locking door is a great solution for people who identify as transgender or nonbinary. It is a safe place where someone who is not comfortable using a multi-stall restroom can take care of their personal body’s needs without fear or judgment.
People needing a higher level of privacy
Finally, some people may need a higher level of privacy. Whether it is a new mom who is nursing and needs to pump or breastfeed and does not want to do so out in the open, or someone who’s attire or clothing requires more privacy when removed, there are a variety of reasons someone who does not fit any of the above scenarios might need to use the family restroom.
Also read: Traveling with expressed breastmilk
Why are more family restrooms needed
With so many reasons someone may require a private or family restroom, it is surprising how many businesses – including major stores and venues do not have these non-gender specific private bathroom facilities. As a parent, the family restroom has come in handy on multiple occasions. In fact, it is my “go to” restroom if it’s available. However, it often isn’t available – either because it is occupied or because there isn’t one at all.
Family Restroom Etiquette
Because family restrooms are not always an option, where they are available there is some simple etiquette to follow. First, don’t judge who is going in or coming out of the family restroom. You do not know their situation or personal needs. So, even if they do not look like they have a special circumstance that requires extra privacy, they very well might.
Secondly, do not linger. Typically there is only one family restroom compared to multiple public stalls. The family restroom is not the place to make a phone call or have a private conversation with your spouse. Take care of your business and get out. There may be someone waiting outside the door who really needs that restroom.
Finally, if you know you will likely take a while or there isn’t a pressing circumstance – maybe you are a nursing mother who needs to pump and you know that will take 15 minutes, or you just have to change your baby’s wet diaper – look around and make sure there isn’t someone else who may need to go in first. If there is, offer to wait and give them the restroom first, if at all possible.
Final thoughts on family restrooms in public places
Life changes a lot after you have children. For most mothers, going to the bathroom goes from a private moment to a family affair. There is always a toddler following you into the bathroom or even an older child whose story just can’t wait two minutes.
So parents, for all the trials and hardships that go along with traveling with children, I give you this one perk. From now on march into that family restroom unashamed. Pee happily while your toddler stares at you from the chair in the corner. Wash your hands, then walk out smiling as you pass all the other people still standing in line in the “normal” restroom. You’ve earned it. Because you are traveling with children.
Have a question or comment about family restrooms? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
This post on family restroom requirements and family restroom etiquette was first written in January 2016 but was updated in April 2022 for accuracy and current information.