The Wednesday morning sessions began in September.
Since then, judging by the atmosphere in the convivial Baltic Front Room after this morning’s music and movement session, friendships have been formed.
Kate Etherington gave birth to Isaac, a brother for Oliver and Oscar, in May 2020, during the first lockdown.
“It was hard, to be honest, because you couldn’t bring your partner to your appointments. Because I can’t give birth naturally, I had to go for a caesarean, and I was doing that without the support of dad.
“He was allowed an hour or two with us and then had to leave. We weren’t allowed to see anybody for three days.
“You were in a room on your own whereas with my other children I was on a ward with other mams so you could talk.
“The nurses would put on masks, gowns and gloves before they came in. It was weird, to be honest.”
Nina Brent, from North Tyneside, who will be Mrs Houlison when she gets married later this year, heard about 20 Babies from a friend and was welcomed into the group.
She gave birth to Elliot, her first child, in June 2020.
“We had quite a good experience, to be honest, judging by what I’ve heard from others.
“At the hospital in Cramlington my partner was allowed to be there the whole time because it was individual rooms. We were home within a day.
“You could meet up to six people in a garden at that time, so we had visitors but only outside. It wasn’t too bad. My partner was working from home so was there more than he would have been.”
But what about the all-important bonding during those lockdown days?
“The issues Florence mentioned to me about the lack of social time and connections was something I felt strongly about with my daughter,” says researcher Jessie.
“I had family and friends around when I gave birth but then it was suddenly cut off, so my experience is a bit different. I don’t know how or if it will affect these children developmentally.”
Kate Etherington admits to having been concerned about “the social aspects of building bonds”.
“It’s so important for them, like getting that skin contact with dad. I think it was hard for siblings too. Oliver and Oscar didn’t meet Isaac for three days.”
With many baby groups suspended during the pandemic, it seems some 20 Babies parents approached the project with a little trepidation, exacerbated by not being wholly familiar with Baltic.
“I’d been here a few years ago but I never thought it was somewhere to bring your children for fun activities. I thought it was all contemporary art,” admits Gateshead resident Kate.
Smiling, Nina says: “I knew there was a restaurant and that was it, although I may have come years ago to see an exhibition.
“I didn’t know they had a sensory room or children’s books. I didn’t know how well set up it was with the play areas.
“We’ve really enjoyed it. Everyone has been so welcoming and friendly, and the kids have got to know each other which is lovely.
“It was difficult for the kids in lockdown. They’ve not had as many opportunities to meet other children.”
Kate admits to having been nervous at first, venturing to Baltic after a period in which “a trip to Asda was the most exciting thing of the week”.
“Literally, I thought Baltic was pictures on a wall; and children… well, they’re noisy, aren’t they?
“But it’s been brilliant. We love it. I was saying to someone on the bus, ‘It’s all free. You can give a donation for a hot drink but it’s a really good place to go’.
“You can bring your own packed lunch which is so good. Some places don’t let you do that.
“Isaac loves it. He’s good friends with Elliot, Nina’s son.
“We go to church in Gateshead and we had to raise some money so I got all the children to do a sponsored walk to Baltic. They put some snacks for them behind the counter.”
So far, so good. Friendships have been formed that should outlive the project, the 2020 babies appear to have become little social animals and, no small point, Baltic’s audience has swelled.
Florence Darling laughs when she says the 20 Babies babies – toddlers now – have acquired seven baby brothers and sisters since the project began, while lots of relations have come to witness the Wednesday sessions.
“Grandparents, aunties, uncles… it has grown into quite a community,” she says happily.
Also happy is Tina Gray, head of regional marketing at Mayborn, who has been watching the project with interest.
“Every child and parent is different but the conversations we’ve had here have enforced the idea that having a baby during a pandemic really was a unique experience for everyone.
“It’s absolutely amazing, the things that have been thrown at them. They have coped and they should be proud.”
Jessie Kelly is due to submit her findings at the end of May while the 20 Babies project runs on until September.