Children: the User’s Manual
Chapter 3 Babies in Action!
Most childrearing books have a section labeled “six months to a year” and list all the things are listed that the child will do during that period. The problem is that the babies don’t read the book, and then the parents freak out if the baby hasn’t reached every developmental stage on schedule. Parents also get all competitive with one another, as if it were a matter of life & death when, precisely, the baby “pulls self to standing position” or says the first recognizable word.
Keep reminding yourself that this is silly. Your pediatrician will tell you if your baby’s development is within the normal range. But it’s a wide range.
Babies have a period where they do a lot of stunning physical development. They change, sometimes almost overnight. During this period they are also doing quite a lot of mental development, in that they understand much better what you are communicating to them.
The main thing is that at some time during the second half of the first year, two things will happen:
1) the baby will become mobile; and
2) the baby will start understanding things that you say to her.
There are two related implications to these changes. They are that:
1) if you haven’t baby-proofed the house yet, please put this book down and go baby proof the house right this minute; and
2) stop talking about the baby behind her back.
She understands more than you think. Understands tone of voice definitely, and understands her name, but she also begins during this period to understand words and ideas, and so if you have not been treating her with appropriate courtesy, respect, and consideration, start immediately. (In fact, I think it’s better to start respect at the age of 3 seconds out of the womb.)
One habit that some parents (particularly some dads, though I have seen it in moms) is to talk in a self-deprecating way about the kid—give them abusive nicknames, humorously ridicule them in public. If you are doing this with your kid, a good time to stop is about 4 months. Your kid is not your “self.” Your kid is a different, and unconnected “self.” If you say humorous things at the expense of your kid, then the kid grows up thinking (usually incorrectly) that you don’t love or respect him, and that is fatal to the development of self esteem. So from the age of four months it is, I believe, critically important to talk about the kid, when the kid is in the room, with exactly the amount of consideration that you would talk about your husband or your best friend if they were in the room. (And if you are in the habit of ridiculing your husband and your best friend in their presence, it is about time to stop that too. Junior high school is over now.)
Now the question many moms are asking themselves at this age is still the competitive one—“when will my baby walk? talk? sit up unassisted” or whatever the milestone du jour is for that particular kid. The pace of all of this development varies in part because babies interests and dispositions vary. Some normal babies will start rolling crawling and trying to drink the Drano at five of six months. Other perfectly normal babies will mostly sit around and look at their feet at five months, and may not walk until fifteen months, and may never try to get under the sink and eat the roach poison at all. (Did I mention about closing the book right now and putting a lock on that cabinet, even if it is up high? Once the little suckers DO start moving around, they have full physical mobility and no sense whatsoever. My mother found my sister eating cigarette butts at 9 months and at 14 months she found me standing in the bathroom sink “shaving” with my father’s straight-edge.)
The process most babies seem to go through is that, after spending quite a bit of time lying about, or occasionally rolling over, they get the idea that they could get what they want better, more efficiently, and faster if they could move around. So they start figuring out ways to move, and there are only so many ways, and some of them don’t work very well. They have a lot of time to think about the ways and so eventually they try them all.
If we go back the fundamental idea that our job is to do physical therapy with these babies so that they can get their needs met better, then the goal during this period is to figure out how to encourage the baby to become more physically competent. There are lots of ways we can help.
There is sort of a standard order in which babies acquire the skills—except that your own particular baby may decide to do it in a different order or skip a step entirely. Moving from one step to another may happen gradually, or the baby may just suddenly pick up a new skill literally overnight. Abandon your expectations.
By the time the baby is about 4 months old he can probably hold his head straight and grab things. From there on the standard skills include things like:
* sit without falling over when propped with pillows.
* move the legs one after another when supported by the parent
* sit unsupported
* reaching something by squirming or rolling
* lift the stomach off the ground in a crawling position
* walking around while holding on to the parents’ fingers
* pulling himself to a standing position
* standing up while holding onto a table
* standing up without holding on to anything
* first steps.
Let’s talk some more about baby proofing the house. There are two major reasons (beside our preference for living, un-maimed, babies) for baby proofing the house. The first is that if you don’t baby proof the house your baby will fall down on sharp things, bruising herself, and then people will give you funny looks when you take her to the grocery store, and if it happens too often they may call Child Protective Services. (Andrew chronically had a bump on his forehead from falling down one particular little step between rooms, until we figured out about putting a quilt down where he was going to fall.)
The second reason is that your baby will do all this physical stuff a lot earlier if you will put her down on the floor or on the rug and let her be. A baby can’t learn to walk if she is always held, and a baby can’t roam around and explore with you leaping up to assist her every two seconds. One of my friends was concerned because her baby was 15 months and not walking. My mother and I both noticed that she never put the baby down. We had custody of that baby for ten minutes or so while the mom was in the bathroom, and we immediately put her down and started encouraging her to explore and possibly walk to us. As the mom came back into the room, the baby took her first steps. All we did was give her an opportunity to try. The kid was fully ready to walk but simply hadn’t been left alone long enough to make some efforts.
The snag with this physical stuff is that if you are such a devoted mom that your baby never has an unfulfilled need, then your baby will have no particular reason to want to walk around the room in the first place.
So if you want the baby to learn to walk, you have to start by putting the baby down on the nicely baby-proofed floor and then go over and sit somewhere comfortable and within view, and put your feet up and think about the meaning of life. After a while, the baby will start thinking about how pleasant it would be to be able to come over and bother you so that you can get cracking meeting her needs again.
You can scatter toys around the floor (just one or two at a time, because babies have short attention spans and can’t think about multiple toys simultaneously) so that the baby is encouraged to wriggle over, crawl over, or eventually walk over, and get the toy. (But don’t be mean. This isn’t a torture session at Abu Ghraib. If the baby gets really frustrated about her inability to get the toy, then go get it for her. We’re presenting a challenge here, not an unreachable goal).
Don’t get so involved with thinking about the meaning of life that you don’t notice what the baby is doing. As she inches, crawls, or totters over to the toy, keep up a running commentary about what she’s doing. Remember, she is beginning to understand the words, so constant narration of her activities is helpful. And these are difficult feats they are attempting, so sounding impressed is good. “Oh, wow, look, Andrew is almost over to the Bear. Look, there’s the Bear! Hey you got him! Raaaayyyy!!”
You will be bombarded with advertisements for things that are supposed to help the baby develop physically: swings that the baby jumps in; rolling things that the baby stands in. I’m not against them (though check the recall information carefully, because some of them can be dangerous)—but I’m not that wild about them because I think they get in the way of the underlying goal of the whole first year which is for you and your baby to relate personally and closely so you can develop a relationship. I prefer physical development that either honors your relationship with the baby or honor’s the baby’s individuality.
Here are some ideas. 1) Model the things the baby might be doing. If you want the baby to learn to crawl, then spend some time where everybody in the house crawls around getting things and giggling and acting silly and chasing each other and has Lots of Fun with Crawling.
2) Make a big excited fuss about anything new the baby does. If it starts rolling, then whoop it up as if rolling was the most exciting thing you ever saw in your life. (If it is your first baby and if it rolling, say, off the counter while you have your back turned changing it, this will probably be one of the big days of your life, and may end up in the emergency room. Once the baby gets mobile you either need to have 3 hands while changing the baby, or you need to learn how to change the baby on the floor.)
3) Think of creative ways to give the baby more autonomy. This is pretty exhausting work for the baby—sort of like advanced yoga might be for you, and you want to give her some reasons for practicing, and some methods for practicing. When our kid learned to stand and to get from one place to another by holding on to things, we had poles and broomsticks lashed to furniture all around his room so that suddenly he could walk all around the room without our help. He was so delighted and just wanted to do that all day for hours at a time. He also thought the most fun in the world was to walk around the house holding on to the fingers of an adult. This is a remarkably uncomfortable thing for the adult, who has to bend way down in order for the baby to hold on. I spent whole evenings walking around the house with a very happy baby, & then had to calm my aching muscles with analgesics when he had finally gone to sleep.
4) Once she is a little mobile, take her to an outdoor place where there are flowers that it is OK to pick and put her conveniently close to one. Don’t make it too frustrating though. The point is that this should be fun for the baby too. So if she can’t get to the flower, have a toy in your pocket to distract her from the flower. And any time the whole thing gets to be too much and she gets weepy, just pick up that baby & cuddle her. This is physical therapy, not boot camp.
A lot of people get very invested in having a picture of the baby’s first step or the baby’s first time standing. This is ego driven and not much fun for the baby. Spend the “firsts” making a big fuss over the baby and praising the baby. You can always take a picture the next day. The baby isn’t going to forget how to do it, and you can put a picture in the album as ONE of the baby’s first steps.
Once the baby can go places in the house, use some creativity to reduce the number of “off limits” places & let the baby explore anything that is safe. There are going to be a lot of times when the baby has to be restricted, but if you work on guarding the baby and baby-proofing the house, you can give the baby quite a bit of flexibility. My husband once spent an entire dinner party crawling around a friend’s house with a ten month old baby who had just figured out that she could crawl up and down stairs (not very well). The baby had clearly spent the last 3 days being dragged away from the stairs, and she was just completely charmed that this middle aged grownup was willing to spend the whole evening on the step below her, so that she could do the whole stair thing to her hearts fulfillment By the end of the evening both of them were exhausted, but it was one happy baby that night. (And of course every woman in the house was wandering over to ask how my marriage was going and whether my husband might be available any time soon so that they could marry him next. Single dads take note that being a Good Father is an aphrodisiac for women in their 30s. I have even had friends ask me who I dated before Peter, since I seem to have good judgment, and also whether Peter has any brothers.)
When our baby was learning to go places I spent quite a lot of time crawling around under tables and behind chairs making sure that electric wires were out of the way and that things were not about to fall down—so that Andrew could explore (and exercise) and learn his way around the house.
Baby’s like cupboards. Once you have put the poisons in a locked upper cupboard, and cleaned out any remaining icky things on the lower level, it isn’t a bad idea to leave some cupboards open for exploration. Many babies are very happy clattering the cans on the floor or strewing the pots and pans around the kitchen and there is no early reason why they shouldn’t do that, provided they are watched. In fact, disembowling the cupboard that has nothing but cans in it can amuse the baby while you cook dinner or have a relatively uninterrupted phone call in the same room.
In addition to the gross physical motions, the baby is also beginning to get a good deal better coordinated during this period, and will move from batting feebly at her toys to actually manipulating them and interacting with them. Remember to get toys that are small enough that the baby can play with them. Inexpensive small stuffed animals and interesting rattles with shapes and noises are better than big fancy stuffed animals and toys that the baby can’t use. (A childless friend gave us two very heavy and rough covered stuffed rabbits that were totally useless until he was about 5 and we started a tradition of pillow fights with all the stuffed animals. At that point, we discovered they made excellent weapons and we re-christened them the “death bunnies.”)
Be sure toys and rattles are from a reputable source and pay attention to those labels—if it says “not for 3 and under” that means that when your kid sticks it in her mouth and tries to choke on it, which she will try to do, then she might be successful.
We spent a lot of time throwing a soft toy very carefully so that it would land near enough to Andrew so that sometimes he could catch it and always he could grab it. One day he threw it back. Pretty cool. We also tied a string to a ball toy and nailed the string to the ceiling so that he could bat the toy with his hands and make it move. He thought that was great and we kept it there suspended from the ceiling and used it to teaching him how to bat. (He’s right handed, but he bats left because I’m left handed and I taught him how.)
One rather stunning developmental thing that happens during this period is that the baby understands that when you go out the door then you will be “gone” and not available to meet the baby’s needs. The baby understands that he is “self” and that you are “other” whereas before he wasn’t quite clear about that.
There are both good and bad sides to this. The good side is that the baby begins to recognize and identify with other people. The baby will recognize people she considers useful—don’t be hurt if the baby recognizes the day care provider first. (Oh, you can be a little hurt if you want. Babies with uninvolved fathers, for example, are eventually fathers with uninterested babies.)
The snag to this separation problem is that the baby suddenly figures out that you could conceivably go away and not come back. This concept, when it occurs, is terrifying.
So, being very straightforward and extremely literal-minded, the baby may go through a period of trying to arrange it so that you never go away again, anywhere. This is the first of five or six sort of classic disagreements of childrearing (others include, in later life, things like how often the baby gets the car keys, for example, or whether she pierces her tongue.) But the reason this is a classic disagreement is that it is the first big one where it is important that your rights get recognized too.
What I recommend is going back to the fundamental ideas of childrearing which are that:
a) the child has rights which must be understood and respected;
b) you have also got rights which must be understood and respected.
c) your job as a parent is to rear the baby to a successful independent adulthood, maintaining his self esteem and rights, but not at the cost of trashing your own.
If this is the underlying basis for any decision that you make that is difficult, then you will be confident that the decision you make is in the best interests of the child, even if the child objects strenuously.
Here is what we did when Andrew went through the “separation” phase—which lasted, I am sorry to say, for two months from about month 9 to month 11, and which seemed completely unending.
The way it took him was that he sobbed inconsolably when we dropped him off at daycare—though we understood that he cheered up pretty quickly after we left. And he absolutely could not go to sleep at night unless we stayed in the room, often for over an hour.
We analyzed the issue. We talked about it. What we decided was that going to work for a living was non-negotiable and so Andrew just had to tough it out. We assured ourselves that the day care was good, and then we worked it out so that Peter dropped him off instead of me, because Andrew’s separation issues were not as intense with Peter. That is, he was willing to let me go as long as he was with Peter, but if Peter turned him over to day care, it was less painful for him than if I did.
So Peter did drop off at daycare; I did pickup, and for a month of so Andrew cried when he was dropped off, but then he got over it. (Peter also reported that other babies went through the same pattern at daycare—sobbed inconsolably during the drop off process and then perked right up within 90 seconds after the parent was out the door.)
At night, however, we decided that Andrew’s needs for security were more important than our need for an adult evening—however that Andrew’s needs did not dictate when “night” and “day” were.
So we continued the concept that after “night” began we didn’t talk. We brought a comfortable chair and table into Andrew’s room, and put in a lamp with a ten watt bulb. We would take turns sitting in a chair and reading silently to ourselves, but in the same room, for as long as it took, until he fell completely asleep. He would stick up his head every ten minutes to check if we were still there, and when he fell completely asleep (sometimes not for several hours) then we would leave.
After about 2 months we were able to get him down to a rather lengthy bed time ritual, but we let him edge very slowly into being comfortable with losing us at night.
And of course, during this two month period we didn’t leave him at night with a babysitter even once, which was a small sacrifice to make in order to get him to be non-neurotic about bedtime for the rest of his childhood.
Is bad for some kids. If you can remember how you felt when your wisdom teeth were coming in and then imagine having a whole set of teeth coming in at once and no vocabulary to complain about it, you’ll have a better chance of understanding how the baby feels. Check with your pediatrician about how to handle the physical symptoms. Get soft toys that are fun to put on achy teeth and let the kid chew on them. Listen to what other moms have tried and see if it helps with your kid. Some moms swear by teething rings that had been put in the freezer. It is very cool when you see cute little teeth coming in. I understand from some moms who were still breast-feeding at that point that there are certain drawbacks the first time the pearly little teeth chomp down on your left nipple.
When the baby has teeth she can chew new and interesting feeds and she wants to. This is another area where it is important to chat with the pediatrician about what is and isn’t OK. Remember that judgment comes along lots slower that teeth do, and that the baby may not be ready to handle dealing with foods that look good to her. So cut the foods up in smaller than choke-able bites.
And stay in the room. Remember that babies are much more squirmy now and they really want to be mobile. The high chair is not as safe a place for the baby as it was a while ago. In this six month to a year period you absolutely can’t rely on the baby to stay put. It’s like trying to monitor Houdini, particularly for active babies. And it gets even more interesting when they turn one. Also be sure that the high chair top is securely fastened. I forgot once and Andrew fell off with a huge bonk on the floor. Fortunately babies are still pretty bouncy at this age.
Parent as Teacher/Therapist. We can stop thinking of the baby as a mute disabled genius now, because she is not disabled any more and she’s certainly not mute—it is just that she doesn’t speak English. This is a period where it is particularly obvious that the baby is fully intelligent and just needs words and mobility and a little judgment. The difficulty now is that the baby has ideas and is starting to have opinions, but doesn’t have words. So from the standpoint of thinking of yourself as “therapist” the task is simple. Talk and talk and talk and talk to that baby. Explain everything. Show her everything. Point to the light every time you turn it on and say “light”. Point to the moon and say “moon.” Just babble your head off, and also start pointing to objects and identifying them, just as you would if they came from a different country. You are teaching English now, even though in this transition period you won’t get much of a response. But if, fifty times, you say, “here’s the milk. Let’s drink the milk now.” then some time not too far in the future the baby will look at you in an intelligent way and say something that could be milk.
It is really important not to get competitive about speech either. At this age, lots of moms will tell you that their kid is saying six words and understanding twelve, or whatever. What happens is that the child starts responding to you with word like sounds, basically two syllable sounds like “Baaaaa”, “Maaaa”, “Daaaa”, or “Kaaa”. It is helpful to tell the baby something, wait for them to respond, and look interested, whatever they say. Once they get the conversational pattern of speech by one party and response by the other, then they start trying to respond. It really doesn’t matter, in this period, whether their response makes any sense or whether they are using the sounds consistently.
It is very cool when the baby begins to recognize his own name and turn his head. It is very fun when there is a sound—whatever it is—that definitely means YOU. ( It drove me completely nuts during this period that Andrew called both Peter and me “Daaaaa”. He just didn’t get it about “Mama” for the longest time. He actually explained it to us a few months later when he learned the concept of plural words. He sat there and looked at us for the longest time and they pointed at Peter and said “Daddaa”, pointed at me and said “Mammmaaa”, pointed back and forth to both of us and said “DaddaaS . He had thought that Daaaa meant “Parent”, and it took him a year to figure out that two parents could have different names.)
Self Esteem. Be alert when you notice that the baby has understood something.. The baby always needs your love, and the frequent demonstration (verbal as well as physical) of your love. But in this period the baby also begins to need your praise. So when you say, “look at daddy”, and the baby turns her head and looks, then make a big deal about it. Any time that it is clear that the baby understands a word, it is time for a small celebration. Every physical milestone can be celebrated. This developmental stuff is incredibly hard for the baby. It is challenging, it is an achievement, and it is great if a room full of grownups is cheering. If you establish a tradition of cheering, your friends will get into it too.
Choices. One thing that is very frustrating for the baby at this period is the lack of choice. Think of it from the baby’s point of view. Here she has spent her first six months of life basically unable to move without help. Now she has finally gotten locomotion—she can either roll or crawl or creep—and she has also gotten an independent idea. Her independent idea might be to roll over to that interesting and strange smelling object that she has identified under the corner of the counter, and put it in her mouth. Or her independent idea might be to take that sharp metal thing that is on the floor and stick it into that black thing that is on the side of the wall. And just as she, with great physical exertion, is about to achieve her goal—her unfeeling and uncaring parent comes and swoops her up and says, often in an angry tone, “No!!!” and carries her off and puts her in the incredibly boring play pen.
No wonder babies cry a lot.
Now, it definitely is your job to keep the baby from eating trodden or rotting sludge, and it is also your job to keep the baby from sticking the paperclip into the light socket. But there are better mannered ways to exercise your power and more delicate ways to do your job without rubbing it in that you are bigger and have all the control.
As I said in the last chapter, invest in the purchase of a selection of small, but not small enough to choke on, rattly, bright colored, interesting toys. Lots of them. And don’t show them to the kid on a regular basis. Keep them accessible but up high. Then when you notice that the baby has just about reached the scissors that you didn’t realize were on the table, or that the baby has managed to climb half way up the drapes, or is about to knock over the fragile whatzit that you forgot to put away—you leap across the room and say in a bright and cheery voice, “Look at what I’ve got” waving a new toy that the baby has never seen before. Baby grabs the toy, you grab the scissors, and then you carry the baby off to play with the new toy, and nobody has to cry. There’s no point in saying “no” in a mean tone. They have no idea what you mean by that—you want them to explore, right? And for the first six months of exploration they don’t have enough memory or concepts to know what could be dangerous. Start telling them no when you can successful explain and they can understand why you mean it. They need more words first.
Babies have a very short memory at this age. In fact, the whole show is really short attention-span theatre. You don’t have to have more than seven or eight new toys. The baby won’t remember. Rotate them, so that the baby doesn’t get bored with them and they will last until the baby has language and is old enough to understand simple threats.
The good thing about this age is that, with your cooperation, the baby can start making all sorts of choices about all sorts of things. The more that you can see things from the baby’s point of view, the better. I seriously think that time spent by parents on the floor crawling around is good. If the baby wants to crawl under the kitchen table—why not. Crawl with her and see what life looks like from underneath. Take her to the park and crawl around with her. Get under beds—you need to anyway in order to baby proof them. Instead of limiting your baby’s horizons, let her expand yours. The more you can see how she thinks and understand it, the better shape you will be in to begin the next great adventure—which is when your relationship becomes a dialogue.
Knowing your baby is grand, but talking to your baby and understanding how she thinks is truly the great wonder and joy.