Good for you, Sean, for being a vigilant and careful father. In these days of “stranger danger” one can’t be too careful.
Before answering your question I consulted my wise daughter-in-law, a skilled social worker who has two little girls who always seem to have to go to the bathroom whenever they go anywhere. Pooling our experience, we came up with a recommendation for you.
First, before you go out, make certain your daughter goes to the bathroom. While she is there, say, “I wanted you to be sure to go now, so maybe you won’t have to go when we are (at the mall, a restaurant, etc.). But, if you do have to go when we’re out, I’ll tell you what to do at that time. Public restrooms aren’t like home bathrooms. They usually have one type for men and boys and another for women and girls.” Save any more specific instructions until you can see what the restroom situation is.
If the two of you go to a small restaurant or store that has only a unisex restroom, you’re in luck. If, as is most likely, it has separate facilities for men and women but only one commode in each, you might take her with you into the men’s room, carefully locking the door. Or, if that is occupied and you have an emergency, take her with you into the women’s room, again being careful to lock the door. If an inconvenienced woman is staring at you with hostility when you emerge, explain that you had to take your daughter to the bathroom in a hurry.
Now, if the only available facility is a large restroom such as one finds in airports, that procedure would not work. It’s a sad commentary on our society, but it is probably not a good idea to ask a strange woman for help. You would worry, and she might panic at the thought that this was some kind of “set-up” —you would disappear, charge her with kidnapping or sexual abuse, etc.
So you have to cope on your own, and here is our suggestion. Forget the men’s room. Even though many of them now have changing tables for babies, they are not set up to accommodate toddlers and preschoolers. Most large public restrooms are now “open” in order to decrease the likelihood of any sort of unwanted exposure or abuse. So we would suggest that you stand right at the door of the women’s room (even inside the first loop of the S-shaped entrance) and let your daughter go inside by herself. Tell her, “Men aren’t allowed to go inside this restroom, so I’m letting you go by yourself. Come straight out when you finish going; don’t even stop to wash your hands. I’ll be standing right here. And call me if you need anything.” Carry some wipes with you so you can wash her hands, and any other part needing it.
Sean, I can just visualize a “Saturday Night Live” episode built around your standing against the inside wall of one of the women’s restrooms at the Atlanta Airport, trying to explain to passengers, and the security guard someone alerted, that you have a small daughter inside. But you hang in there. It is very important for your young daughter to have the experience of going places with you. It’s worth the embarrassment.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.