Attention, Attention! Why all play is hard work.

Did you know that you’re supposed to talk to your baby? Well, you are. You should talk and talk and talk. All the time. At every opportunity you should be spouting forth nonsense in order to stimulate those tiny synapses. Or something.

Seriously, dude. Go and TALK TO YOUR BABY. DO IT NOW! Why are you still reading this? I don’t care if she’s asleep, go and whisper your shopping list into her little ear.

Of course, I jest. But it sort of feels like that sometimes doesn’t it? All the leaflets and webpages and well-meaning suggestions on engaging with your small, and perhaps as yet uninterested, person; it can be a bit daunting. There are pages and pages of this stuff. I came across one article whilst researching this post called ’50 simple ways to make your baby smarter’ (Google it if you like, I’m not going to dignify it with a hyperlink). It’s like, WHAT? Seriously? Make your baby smarter? Your BABY? The implication here is that you can also make your baby more stupid, by not following all 50 ‘helpful hints’. Bleurgh to that.

I kept seeing those articles about making sure your child was getting enough stimulation in the early days. It’s. Really. Important. *hyperventilates* One health visitor told me to talk to Bubs constantly. She used that word. I’m sure she didn’t actually mean constantly, but, you know, I was sleep-deprived at the time. Nuance wasn’t a thing.

So, I endeavoured to talk constantly to my baby, giving him a running commentary on nappy changes, shopping lists and antibacterial wipes. Let’s face it, I haven’t got much good chat these days. But still, we do as we’re told don’t we?  One NHS guide tells us

“When you cook, show them what you’re doing and talk to them as you’re working.”

Cooking is always used as an example. “Now, Bartholomew, I’m just sauteeing these onions and then I’ll tomatoes, thyme and a dash of salt.”  It’s a bit like being on Saturday Kitchen, except without make-up artists, an appreciative audience or getting paid.

Sometimes I just want to make some pasta. In silence. Who’s with me?

Continue reading

Advertisements

Pincer Grips and Cheerios #2: Test or guide? You decide!

“It’s not a test, it’s just a guide.”

These were the first words of the lovely staff nurse who was about to go through my son’s 9 month health check. I had sat down mumbling something about not knowing what to put for some questions in the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (which I rant about here) . I was supposed to be able to say if Bubs did the random things listed such as poke for a Cheerio in a clear bottle (again, see previous rant). The options are ‘yes’, ‘sometimes’ and ‘not yet’. But the thing is my son hadn’t fancied playing with the blocks I wanted him too in order to make it all into a game “that is fun for you and your baby”. I surround him with stimulating and creative baby activities and he decides whether or not he’s up for them. He can sniff out a remote control/phone/ipad at 20 metres so something like that usually distracts him. That or climbing around the furniture.

Well, it didn’t matter any way, because it’s not a test. Not a test, not a test, not a test. Aaaaaand breathe…

As she went through the form, all of the ‘yeses’ I’d ticked were passed over quite quickly. One section she read over herself and said, almost to herself,  “that’s perfect”, which is obviously good, except that I didn’t really know what she was referring to. However, any time she got to a question for which I’d ticked ‘no’ or even ‘sometimes’ she’d stop and say something like “so, we’ve not got 3 words yet?” and I’d confirm that we hadn’t. Obvs. She always responded to this with the phrase “that will come”, which was lovely and I am sure meant to be reassuring. But the thing is I didn’t think I needed reassuring, because there’s nothing wrong! Of course immediately the irrational anxiety fairy pops up on my right shoulder and starts to whisper “are you sure there’s nothing wrong? I mean you’re not exactly a baby expert are you?”. Shut up anxiety fairy! Shut the F up! 

Then we came to the ‘problem-solving’ section of the guide-not-a-test. I hadn’t ticked ‘not yet’ at all, I don’t think, but I had ticked ‘sometimes’ a lot. Mostly because my son doesn’t often hold two toys simultaneously for a minute or poke at crumb inside a clear bottle. ‘Sometimes’ seemed the most accurate. He’s actually a pretty good problem solver. For example the other day my mum brought round some figs in a plastic box for him to try. She put them on the ground in the garden whilst I went inside to cut up a fig up nicely for little Bubs. Meanwhile, had got into the box and bitten and squeezed the fig until he got at the fruit himself. Pretty nifty I thought. But still, that was not such a ‘perfect’ area according the ‘guide’.

 

Problem Solved

Problem solved, biatches.*

 

I am open to the possibility that there are some really good medical and psychological reasons to test ‘problem-solving’ at this age, but I am not sure I like it. They can say ‘it’s not a test’ til the cows come home but it feels like we’re already assessing children’s ability/intelligence against each other before their first birthday. I’m a bit like, can you not?? Okay, I know comparison is not the objective here, it’s more about catching any developmental problems as early as possible, but some of the stuff it’s looking at is quite advanced (in my humble opinion) so a mum does start to fret. I mean, does the fact that my son only ‘sometimes’ plays ‘pat-a-cake’ with by banging two toys together really point to any significant developmental issue? I don’t think so. O do I? I said SHUT UP, anxiety fairy!

Any way, I think all would have been fine in this “not a test” scenario, except that when we’d gone through the questionnaire the nurse went to get the scoring sheet, and totted up all of my baby’s totals for the different categories. Right…

Sorry if I’m being a bit dense but I thought ‘questionnaires’ that are scored and assessed were, well, you know, tests. The score sheet looked like a bit like this…

 

Yes, you get the idea. I've cropped this image so that my fellow obsessive mothers can't start doing self-assessments on their children.

Yes, you get the idea. I’ve cropped this image so that my fellow obsessive parents can’t start doing weekly self-assessments on their children.

So she adds up it all up and then she says that, yeah, everything’s great and he’s doing really well. All of his scores are ‘in the white’, it’s just problem-solving that is in the ‘grey area’, so can she get in touch about that in a month or so? ‘Yes, that’s fine.’ I reply meekly, despite the fact that I actually think it’s over the top and will just worry me. I then tell her about some other ‘problem-solvingish’ tasks that he does regularly and she agrees that that’s great and says that the questions are specific so there are other examples you can use. But she’s still going to call me to check up. I don’t feel particularly listened to at this point. Breathe, Aileen, breathe.

Does anyone else get this weird thing when they’re with health professionals that they become meek and mild and eager to please? It happens to me all of the time. I mean, I am gobby to put it mildy. I can rant on with the best of them (oh, you’d noticed that?) but when there’s a nurse or a doctor there I lose my nerve. What if I’d said ‘I don’t really see the point of you chasing this up, I’m sure you’re really busy and we are very attentive to our son’s development so I’ll call you if I need to.’? It would have been perfectly polite and within my rights. But I am inexplicably drawn to agree with whatever the person who has the ticklist and the medical training says. Now, yes, this is partly because they have the medical training, fair dos. But these professionals will be the first to say that you’re the best ‘expert’ on your own child.

No, I think I’m afraid. Not quite sure of what. Of being told off I suppose. Of being seen as something less that a perfect, attentive, give-my-all sort of mum. I don’t think I’m the only one with this feeling. There are thousands of mothers out there who can talk the talk of relaxed parenting but, ultimately, can’t bear the thought of not being seen as Supermum. We really do need to chill out, guys, like, seriously. Or even, God forbid, have enough confidence in our own parenting to be open to a bit of criticism without it destroying our very being.

I don’t think the anxiety I experienced was the fault of any of the health professionals I encountered. I am quite capable of whipping myself up, not to mention what happens when that pesky anxiety fairy gets involved! But I do think it was partly the fault of that bloody questionnaire. It is sent out so long in advance you have plenty of time to ruminate over any ‘not yet’ you may have ticked, wondering what the answers to these questions, which are frankly bizarre at times, all mean. Someone may well be screaming at their computer screen right now, saying ‘Well pull yourself together woman, the checks are for your child, it’s not up to them to look after your precious little feelings’. Fair point, except that it sort of is. Especially as this particular centre were key in supporting me through PND. Healthy mother, healthy baby, right? In the dream scenario all parents would look at the questionnaire objectively and not fret on any level about their own child’s strengths and (more pertinently) weaknesses. But that ain’t gonna happen any time soon, so let’s work within the a-lot-of-parents-are-easily-worried parameters.

So, I have two suggestions:

1) Don’t send the questionnaire out in the post. I know it saves time, but you go through it all any way and Health Visitors et al have a MUCH better idea the real issues that the questions are actually getting at any way. (Dear Mr Stupidface Health Minister, this will involve actually funding preventative children’s services, grr).

2) Don’t show the parents the bloody score sheet! The nurse I saw (who was lovely and good at her job, just to say again) pointed at the grey area she had marked next the problem-solving section. This was not the mental image I needed. Then I got to thinking that, actually, what if all of his scores were in grey? Or a few were in black? There are a lot of 10 month olds that don’t do all the crazy malarky on those lists. I know people who didn’t crawl before they were one, or speak before they were two. Guess what? They are very clever and can stand up on their own and everything! So, yeah, we just don’t need to see that. Tot it up after we’ve gone on our merry ways. Because, let’s give credit where credit’s due, these people have trained for 3+ years, they will know if they need to follow anything up with having to look at a score sheet.

Actually, on second thoughts, I just have one suggestion:

1) Scrap the questionnaire! Bin it! It’s a stupidface!

The nurse we saw made a few jokes like ‘who wrote this questionnaire, hey?’ with the accompanying comedy eye roll. She also said this check used to be a more informal chat but that now it’s more ‘thorough’. I have worked in the public sector, ‘more thorough’ may well have been code for ‘a crapload of extra paper work’.

The thing is that when you put a list of questions between two human beings it automatically shuts down any natural conversation. You’re both focussed on the piece of paper and not so much as each other. It can leave parents feeling like they haven’t been listened to, though this is often not the fault of the Health Visitor.

Apparently the Ages and Stages Questionnaire is now being rolled out UK wide. I’d like to read the evidence that says it picks up things better than the previous system of letting trained health professionals talk to and spend time with families. I haven’t had any luck googling it so far (please comment if you know about these things). But I have a horrible suspicion that has more to do with the governmental obsession with standardisation and stats. Oh no, we can’t just trust professionals to do their jobs well and their managers and colleagues to flag up any problems, no no, what they need in more forms! 

And then of course, there’s the fact that sending that getting parents (who are more likely to over- or under-estimate their children’s abilities for varying reasons) to fill in the form and having a more ‘ticklist’ approach in the meeting saves time. Which saves money. Which means you need less health professionals. Which means you can make more cuts. Bleurgh. Boo. Naughty naughty Tories. Etc.

So, parents of Britain. Don’t worry too much about the ‘not yets’. You and your Health Visitor will know pretty quickly if there is a glaring issue. And maybe think about raising the ‘what the F is this ASQ business about???’ issue with your MP. People power and all that.

But, most of all, just bloody chill! It is possible you have produced a child that will not be ‘top of the class’ in every arena at every stage. That is OK. They will still love you. And it takes a lot more than the lack of a pincer grip for social services to be called. 

 

Just to drive the point home, I think Sure Start centres are, like, well good.

Just to drive the point home, I think Sure Start centres and Health Visitors are, like, well good.

 

 

 

*I feel both heartily amused and slightly ashamed that I have captioned my 10-month-old son using a swear. Ah well…

Baby development checks: Pincer grips, Cheerios and a thousand more things to worry about.

Be afraid, be very afraid.

Be afraid, be very afraid. 

Through our letterbox this morning arrived a very important document. It was the letter notifying us of our son’s 8-9 month health and development check. I had been eagerly awaiting this as he is already 9 months old and, you know, I think he’s pretty well developed. However, I was not quite prepared for the Spanish Inquisition that lay inside the envelope.

Now, before I go any further lets just get one thing straight. I am eternally and overwhelmingly grateful to live in a country where my son receives a health and development check, free at the point of delivery, as standard. The NHS is quite a wonderful thing. I have been to hospital 3 times since my son was born (including the birth) and I have never had to worry about anyone handing me the bill. This is a brilliant part of our society and one that I’m scared will be eroded over the next decade if bloody ‘Dave’ and his school friends have anything to do with it (grr, arg). So I will proceed to have a good long moan with the proviso that you know I really really really love the NHS. Good.

So, the 9 month ‘Health and Development Review’ letter arrives. The title is enough to instill fear into the heart of any previously employed mother. Review? That’s what they do at work to see if you’re doing your job right or not. You know, they get you to fill in that crappy self-assessment form, which you always lie on because your boss is going to read it, and then there’s the meeting. *shudder* It’s hard not to immediately jump to the conclusion that my parenting thus far is about to undergo a performance review. And guess what? There’s even a self-assessment questionnaire attached.

If you are a parent who has not yet received a questionnaire like this then I just have one piece of advice: DON’T LOOK AT IT. Leave it neatly folded in it’s envelope and put some time aside the day before your appointment to go through it with your baby. Granted, that will still give you 24 hours to obsess over the weird and wonderful list of accomplishments your baby doesn’t have but but you will marginally more sane than if you had been thinking about it a fortnight in advance. So, just ignore it as long as you can. It’s either that or be an uncommonly balanced individual who has no care for what health professionals think of their child and feels completely secure in their parenting abilities. Though, if you are that person I’m really not sure why you’re reading this blog. Can I read your blog please?

The reason I give out this sage advice is that a) the questionnaire is about what your baby can do at the point of the ‘review’ and b) because the amount of things that it asks if your baby can do is insane. I shall give you a few choice examples (if you are easily prone to my-baby-is-underdeveloped-paranoia look away now):

Does your baby pick up a small toy with tips of his thumb and fingers? (You should see a space between the toy and his palm.)

Well, that’s oddly specific for a start. I don’t if the person who compiled this questionnaire is aware of this but babies have quite small hands. How exactly am I supposed to observe said space? Should I crouch on the floor and crane my neck? Won’t that just freak him out? Also, have you ever tried to get a 9 month old to pick up the specific toy that you want them to have? Unless you complete this task in an entirely white room with no objects or furniture, I guarantee that they will charge off to play with a table leg as soon as you place the item in front of them. And believe me, I tried it today. Oh no, I am not above getting irrationally anxious about whether or not I can see a gap between a building block and my son’s palm.

Next question:

Does your baby say three words, such as “Mama”, “Dada” and “Baba”? (A “word” is a sound or sounds your baby says consistently to mean someone or something.)

Well, thanks for clarifying what a word is. Those brackets are really starting to irk me. And the answer is no, my son doesn’t have THREE WORDS at the age of 9 months. And even if he did, how would I know? He says “dadadadadadadada” a lot and, less frequently he says “mamamamamama” (encouraged enthusiastically by yours truly). Who’s to say when that random babbling suddenly turns into words? Not me. I know babies who haven’t had any language til they’re closer to 18 months. So, back off survey, alright? (Actually, I had words at 9 months and am still perversely proud of the fact, bleurgh).

And last but not least, the pinnacle of randomly specific infantile feats:

Does your baby poke at or try to get a crumb or Cheerio that is inside a clear bottle (such as a plastic soda pop bottle or baby bottle)?

Again, thanks for clarifying what a clear bottle is, would have struggled with that one. And, more importantly, what the fudge? In what scenario would I know the answer to this question? Why am I taking food from my baby’s hand and putting inside a vessel that he has no hope of retrieving it from? I’ve got it! They’re trying to trick us into doing this and then, when they see we’ve ticked yes, they will point their fingers in ours faces and say “Aha! So you torture your child with food they can see but have to hope of eating??” Enter social services.

Okay, maybe not, but what’s all this Cheerio business? There are actually three questions that refer to a “crumb or Cheerio”. What’s that about? You better not try this out with a Cornflake, mate, or the whole exercise will be null and void. You’ll have to start all over again. Crumb or Cheerio. These are your only options. I feel like Nestle paid someone somewhere serious money to get their branding on the Ages and Stages Questionnaire. I really wouldn’t put it past them. I have visions of mothers rushing out to buy the ‘multigrain Os’ just so that they can make double sure their child has that prefect pincer formation that the Health Visitors will be looking for. And if you think the supermarket own brand will suffice for this activity think again, cheapskate. 

Oh and by the way, you’re not supposed just fill in this form based on your existing knowledge of your own child; you’re supposed to observe your child doing all of it and “make completing this questionnaire a game that is fun for you and your baby”. Fun? Fun?? In what universe is attempting to get a 9 month old to complete a series of specific tasks fun? “Reach for the Cheerio darling, no, no, not the remote control, come back here!”

What makes this whole process even less fun is the dawning realisation that you will have to tick ‘no’ several times. It’s like someone is coming into your home and pointing out what your baby can’t do yet. “Oh, he can’t hold onto the sofa, bend down to pick up a toy and then return to standing?” Awkward.

The thing is that my rational mind knows that no one is expecting my Bubs to be able to do everything listed on the survey. I’m pretty sure that no baby can ever do all of it. They must put extra-advanced stuff on, you know, just in case. But if that’s true then I think there should be a little note stapled to the front of the questionnaire that reads:

Dear parent, we would like to reassure you that you’re baby is in no way supposed to tick all of the following boxes. In fact, if they did then it is likely that they would be one of those weird genius children* who take their Maths GCSE at the age of 8 and never truly fit in with their own peer group. Rejoice, therefore, in your own child’s uneven and average development; it bodes well for their future social interactions. Yours sincerely, the NHS.

Or something like that. Just a suggestion.

 

 

 

 

 

*Apologies if you have a weird genius child. I actually think that’s pretty awesome. But you know, comedy value and all that.