Play at 3-6 months – Age appropriate toys

Your baby is on the move. He is crawling, rolling, looking for new possibilities and opportunities to explore. We have found this a little challenging in terms of providing the right, age-appropriate toys, that would not ruin our budgets, or limit the curiosity of our boys. Here is what seems to have worked for our little explorers.

Having spoken about swings and bouncers or activity centers and suggested to take those away in our recent post - what could you place there instead?

Maybe nothing? 

Remember that movement is play. Practicing to sit, to crawl or stand up is not just hard work. It is play after all. Nothing else is needed to help your child train those muscles or movements.

Maybe something simple?

Your child is moving around much more, this is play in itself, but there is also time when the interest in objects comes in play – right about now . You might see much more curiosity than before in reaching out and grabbing objects, checking out their different qualities, trying what can and cannot be done with them. First you may notice interest in one particular object – the simpler the object the longer time your baby is likely to spend with it. Open-ended toys, those with no purpose stimulate imagination. The toys you placed around him when he was still tiny are good for a start here!

Pick something simple and spend some time with it yourself – play! You might be surprised, but the longer time you give yourself, the more amazing and creative things you will discover about a simple wooden ring. Is it heavy or light? How does it feel in your hand? What sound does it make on the floor? What about on another object? Does it taste good? Is it pleasant to suck on it? Can you roll it? Can you thrown it? Oh look, here is another one – are they the same? Can you put them together? What if you bang them? What if you try to put one on your foot? What about the shadows it makes on the wall…….

Possibilities are endless!

A box (or laundry basket)

A very low wooden box allows children to follow their need to crawl onto or into things. The wooden box can be placed both ways around. First we would recommend to have it (in our eyes) upside down – so the baby can try and crawl onto it. Once she achieved that she will face the challenge to get back down. Therefore the box should be not too high. It can be an old drawer or an easily timbered box. Whatever you have on offer. The box can be extended with a ramp where the child can crawl up (and down). All these movements are simple play.

Later you can turn the box around so the child can crawl in. That way she can experience space and how to fit in (or not).

The box will be interesting for months. Even years. The child will then walk onto it, jump up and down. He will roll objects up and down the ramp extension if you have one (a good plank will do the job as well – safely attached). And you will be surprised what else your child comes up with when playing with, on and in the box.

The need to climb is a very strong one, and it is developmentally appropriate. It would be counter-productive to stop your child from doing it – instead try and provide something she can safely climb onto.

Other ideas we have used include:

  • Cups, bottles, baskets etc. – everything that can be stacked, things can go into it, some are bigger and some smaller. The discovery that two things are identical is an astonishing one as well – have more than one of something and see what happens in time.
  • Things that move – in our households cars have been the biggest hit for a long time. They will last forever, too.
  • Household items – no need to buy much, you can pick the safe things you have at home. This way also makes the baby feel like he really is part of the house – he gets to help with the real stuff!

„Do less. Observe more. Enjoy most.“ (Magda Gerber)

Have you learnt anything watching your baby play? What were the most exciting moments for you? What toys or play objects were among the favourites in your house?

We would love to hear you thoughts!

Nadine & Anna

Learning to live

In their play, babies 6-12 months acquire a range of skills we know are necessary for them later on in life. A range of movements is one of them, but there are other, less obvious skills our babies are working on – ones that might have a huge impact on how they deal with different tasks later on, things that might impact not only the way they play, but the way they socialize, work, discover, and deal with failure. We have observed two amazing things our boys are mastering when they play – how to struggle, and how to self-regulate. Both of these are vital, and both come along as part and parcel of free play.

Play as struggle

Observe your baby’s hard work and the constant practice of arm- and leg coordination to move around. He will try and get on hands and knees. He will swing back and forth. He will fall down. Most likely – he will not like this. He will face struggle. And frustration. YOU will face struggle and frustration too. Because you know how it could work. You could jump in and try and help. But you can’t teach him. And so you will have to learn to sit on your hands and watch. Watch your child struggle, and watch yourself struggle as well – notice that it is not only his journey, but also yours. Both together and separately, you are learning how to struggle. Each of you on a level that is suitable for your own stage of development.

Our first impulse might be to pick the baby up and hold him. Comfort him. Maybe walk him around a little. Feed him. Anything that will make him happy. Alternatively we could give him a chance to practice a bit more. To try a little harder. How? By sitting nearby saying: „You are really upset because you want to move forward.“ Well. Both ways the baby will eventually learn to move around. No matter how and when, right? Right?

Right. But what do I tell my child when I pick him up as soon as he struggles?

“You are struggling. You can’t achieve what you are trying to and that frustrates you. I don’t think you can do it right now so stay here with me and focus on something else.” You might not choose those words and surely this isn‘t the message you want to send. But this might be what your child is hearing in you helping him out of his dilemma too early.

Instead you can trust your child to handle not just the struggle, but also the frustration. To be able to deal with it. You also give yourself the chance to endure those moments. In the end they are not just part of the process of the gross motor development. They are part of a person’s life. The earlier we learn that anger and frustration are ok and not “bad” (http://everymomentisright.blogspot.nl/2011/09/my-feelings-are-real-or-day-all-hell.html) the earlier we will learn to handle and overcome them. Some of us, adults, are still working on that – and that’s ok. Maybe this is our chance to learn along with our children, that age-appropriate struggle and frustration are part of the journey?

And yes – in the end – all children will move around one day. Some earlier. Some later. They may be struggling with their journey, and we as parents are also learning not only to let them struggle sometimes – this is our learning experience as well. Wouldn’t it be easier to just pick them up and teach them about the world? Without all the struggle?

And some might enjoy a long stretch on their back in their play area. In fact when you carefully observe you will find out that children tend to go back and play while lying on their back. Because that is their safe place; their comfort place. They feel safe and secure in that position (if they have experienced the first months on their backs as relaxing and enjoyable). So when learning a new ability that takes times and effort it is important to rest. To take breaks and relax. Children are capable of doing so much more than we do. They naturally don‘t do more than is needed. Heinrich Jacoby actually said that children are appropriate. By that he meant – economical. They would not use any more muscles to sit or crawl than needed. IF they had the chance to develop all those milestones themselves. In their own time. At their own pace.

Play as self-regulation

Letting our children play as they want to, how long they want to, and letting them be the leader, we will soon notice that children know when to stop. They quickly learn when they have had enough and need a break, and you might see them going back to their most comfortable position, stopping the action for a moment. It might be tempting to step in and offer something to do right then – instead try to stop and observe. We are living in a world where we are constantly on the move, we have long since lost touch with the regulation nature offers us (who goes to bed when it gets dark?), but we still have the chance to listen to our own bodies. Our children know when they need time to recharge, let them do it. They need it to be able to go on. Here is another thing we might learn from babies – self-regulation.

Observing their play over a long period of time you will find that there are different phases. One of them is called the relaxing phase – where they relax from what they have just done. This can be rolling onto their back watching the shadows on the walls after practicing crawling for a while. This could also mean running around the table like crazy after having solved a puzzle (in older children obviously).

So when we see our crawling baby lie on their back, our walking baby crawl – that‘s ok. More than that – it is important. It shows that they still have abilities most of us adults have lost over the years.

What are the skills you think your baby is learning in their free play? We LOVE to hear your thoughts!

Nadine & Anna

Play as movement

Having looked at what helps uninterrupted play and what might hinder it we now want to look at the fun side. What DO children at the age range between 6-12 months do? What are they interested in? What keeps them busy? In this post we will talk about different movements and positions you may have observed in your child, different ways of understanding play at this stage, and age-appropriate toys or objects. Happy reading!

 

 

A child at the age of 6 months is getting mobile. You might notice he is spending much less time now lying on his back observing his fingers. Your child will roll onto his belly. And back. Suddenly the world is upside down – or as they will soon find out – the way it really is. The neck strengthens and he will keep his head up for longer and longer times. That gives him the opportunity to look around more, follow you and your movements more. But also follow moving objects, which makes him want to follow with his whole body. And this is the challenge that will keep him busy for another while. Some children start creeping, others crawling. Some won’t do this for months.

Fact is – your baby is in motion. He needs more space, a wider area to practice all those new movements.

This is what you can expect to see or have seen (as far as movement and coordination is concerned) once your baby gets to this age range:

Movement (a.k.a. milestones – there are many more than you may have expected)

  • Lying on their back

Babies can spend an enormous amount of time on their back – try it yourself, lie down, get an object (or not) and give yourself enough time to explore everything around you. You might be surprised at how much you can see. We often have the idea that babies don’t see enough when on their backs (sometimes people place cushions under their head to help them see better) – but have a look yourself, and notice that if you use your head, neck, and shoulders enough you can actually see everything you need… and maybe more! One of the bonuses of letting babies lie flat on their back for as long as they want to is the intense neck exercise they set up for themselves in that position – if you do this, no tummy time is definitely necessary to strengthen their neck.

  • Lying on the side

This position is often missed at this stage if a baby is put in tummy time (read Lisa Sunbury’s excellent article on tummy time here and Janet Lansbury’s wise words here), as they do not get the chance to move into and out of that position on their own. It will probably be learnt later, but at this stage in development, a side-lying position is excellent for practicing balance (try!) and a little later for playing with objects

  • Moving from the side to tummy and back
  • Turning from back to tummy and back

In all those turning and moving positions you will see a lot of struggle and effort. That is because it is difficult. It is a challenge. Trust that your baby is capable of doing it, and trust your instinct on when to step in and help: ‘It seems like you have had enough. I will put you back on your back’. In the Pikler home, the nurses never rolled the babies onto their backs from the tummy position – they picked them up and placed them gently on their backs. This was so as to allow the babies a chance to learn that movement by themselves.

  • Lying on their tummy

Lying on their tummy using forearms for support (head up).

Lying on their tummy with arms stretched for support (now try doing that for a longer period of time and play at the same time – wow!).

Lifting head, arms and legs up from the floor (who said babies need more exercise?).

From this position (or any variation of it) you may see your baby pulling up to a half-sitting position (supported with one arm stretched out), and later to creeping on their arms and knees.

  • Rolling
  • Crawling

What some of us have some to call ‘crawling’ Dr Emmi Pikler has termed ‘creeping’ (using hands and knees), what we will refer to as ‘crawling’ here is borrowed from Pikler’s terminology and means your baby moving forward in a lying position, using their arms to pull the body forward.

Here you can see your baby using their arms to pull, or their legs to push their body, alternating between right and left or using both at the same time.

  • Sitting

This usually comes later than crawling, creeping and all those positions we mentioned above. We are often being told that babies should be able to sit when they are 6 months old. In our experience, if a baby is not sat up they will sit by themselves between 7-10 months, but don’t take that as a guideline.

Pulling a baby up to sitting is not how he would naturally learn to sit. Most babies learn to sit from a side position (half-sitting), or by pulling up from crawling. Lie down on your back and try getting to sitting in different ways – which one is most natural to you? Which one comes with least effort.

  • Kneeling and moving on their knees
  • Pulling up to standing
  • Standing
  • Walking

There are many many transitional positions, which we have not mentioned here. But as you watch your baby grow and play with their movement, you will see the growing competence, self-confidence, and joy. Learning to play through movement is the first time they are also learning to learn.

So this is it. A few milestones. A bit of going back and forth in development. A bit of struggle in between and some relaxation here and there. That‘s not too hard is it?

Well. We are aware that this is a learning process for all of us. In all aspects. But in the end this is what your baby does most of the time in his first years on Earth. This is what really interests them. This is part of their foundation they build on which they then keep developing. So make it possible for them. Be part of the process. And gain a good chunk of it all for yourself.

What have you observed your baby do in these positions? Was there anything that surprised you? We LOVE to hear your thoughts!

Anna & Nadine

 

Some more reading around the subject:

‘Unfolding of infants’ natural gross motor development’ Dr Emmi Pikler and Klara Pap, RIE.

‘Pikler Bulletin’ Dr Emmi Pikler (also includes and article by Dr Judith Falk). Sensory Awareness Foundation.

 

The deal with baby walkers.

Most people we know have had a baby walker. Or a Bumbo seat. Or a swing. Or a bouncer. They have become so omnipresent in the lives of our growing babies, we don’t question them anymore – are they good? Do they support our babies development? Do we need them?

What’s the big deal with…

… baby walkers

Walkers have been banned in Canada since 2004 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/3609723.stm). Due to a high number of injuries walkers are no longer legally available in Canada, and anyone who has one is advised to ‘destroy it and throw it away so that it cannot be used again’ (http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/cps-spc/child-enfant/equip/walk-marche-eng.php). As far as we know, this is the only country so far to have banned walkers. Are they crazy? Is this too much? What do you think?

Some time ago there was a huge recall on Bumbo seats (http://www.usatoday.com/money/companies/story/2012-08-15/Bumbo-infant-floor-seat-recalled/57068158/1) – a safety issue, similar to the one often raised when assessing the safety of walkers and other devices that keep babies in a position they are not yet ready to be in by themselves (like standing or sitting). The solution to the Bumbo seat issue was adding straps, to keep the child even more securely placed in a position, which his skeleton and muscles are not yet ready to support by themselves.

The problem that is raised (the same that led to banning the use of walkers in Canada) is that these devices tend to be misused, placed on high surfaces, or that children are left in them without supervision and accidents happen all too often. While we agree these are the immediate dangers, we would suggest that the reason for abandoning equipment that places a child in a position into which she is not yet able to get independently is much more long-term.

So, while we cheer the Canadian government for banning the walkers, the idea that they be replaced by stationary activity centres is not exactly what we would have in mind when designing an appropriate environment where your child can thrive.

So really, why not?

First of all, why do we go for the walker? Because they are there. Because once our babies start crawling, their world expands, sometimes dangerously (playpens and gates are a great antidote to that). Because our neighbour’s child has one and seems so happy in it… There are probably many reasons why we go for the walkers, bouncers and swings.

And here is what their manufacturers tell us, just to make this decision even more difficult:

“Learning to walk has never been this much fun.”

“[…] activity walker will guide your baby towards his/her first steps…”

“maximises your baby’s development”

“keeps little ones entertained for hours and encourages their first steps”

Now, let’s have a look at those claims:

  • Baby walkers are usually recommended for the children between 6-12 months. This is when you will see your child learn to roll and crawl, move from crawling to sitting and back from sitting to crawling, learn to kneel, and then pull up to standing. All you need for this to happen is your baby and the floor. None of this happens in a walker.
  • A study reported in the Journal of Developmental Pediatrics (http://journals.lww.com/jrnldbp/Abstract/1999/10000/Effects_of_Baby_Walkers_on_Motor_and_Mental.10.asp) shows that out of 109 babies between 6 to 15 months, those who were placed in baby walkers sat, crawled, and walked later than those who were not. (That’s just for those who are concerned with the idea that baby walkers ‘maximise your baby’s development’ as suggested above, or that they will ‘guide your baby to their first steps’).
  • The same study suggests that due to the placement of legs in the activity centre – below the surface so that babies cannot see them – the use of baby walkers should be ‘conceptualized in terms of early deprivation’. Because this kind of experience prevents the baby from seeing his legs while moving them about, it does not provide a situation babies would be in normally.
  • How do we learn to walk? Let’s think for a moment about the claim that walkers can help your baby learn how to walk. To be able to walk, we need to be able to have both feet flat on the ground with no support. We need to be able to balance on one foot lifting the other one up. We need to be able to move forward, changing the position of our feet. None of this happens in a walker, where a baby is dangling in a seat with a whole lot of pressure on his spine rather than on his legs.
  • And finally, going back to Canadians – injuries… do we need to say more here?

So, is it worth it? We don’t think so, but we are fully aware that not all of you will agree.

While walkers in our opinion in fact hinder gross motor development, there is another problem that makes us want to ban them in all countries in the world. They hinder the ability for a child to engage in free and uninterrupted play.

But it‘s not just the walkers. There are more devices we think are rather cheaply bought coffee breaks for parents, than long-term enjoyable play items.

These are swings and baby door bouncers.

  • With the bouncers we don‘t want to go into the injuries and health and safety talks too deeply. A baby that is not yet able to sit up by herself, has no strength or sense of gravity for the kind of position s/he is in while in the door bouncer.
  • The spine is not supported enough, but bounced up and down uncontrollably. After your baby has been lying on her back or stomach for most of the time, seeing the world not just upside down but bouncing up and down in front of her might seem like fun. But it can result in even longer times of uneasiness and distress. The child can simply not process what has been happening and therefore will likely seek support from his parents. Which means longer and more intense times of looking for comfort after all the ‘fun’ spent bouncing. We are not sure if that is what parents, who “need a break“ and place their children in bouncers have in mind when doing so.

The real problem we see with bouncers and swings is that they take the chance of the baby to engage in independent playtime BY HIMSELF. They are simply devices we (adults) use to “have a minute“. To shower, do some cooking. Have a coffee.

All of this is fine since we are human beings and not 24/7 entertainers. But what we actually create is a spiral that makes us become exactly that entertainer. Because children grow. They grow out of swings and out of bouncers, out of walkers and activity centres. They need bigger and more age appropriate entertainment. We can‘t strap them into some seats or devices any more. They want fun. Fun that moves around and satisfies their need for action.

What they have never learned by then, is how to satisfy their need for play and entertainment themselves when Mommy says: “I am really tired and need to sit down for a second. I will be with you later, ok?“ or “I feel really sweaty after that night, I need a shower and then we can go outside.“

So yeah. Everyone has a swing. And yeah – it works. Parents can cook, have a coffee, take a shower without interruption. But these are moments we enjoy. And in all honesty – like with all moments, they don’t even last all that long. Instead we should make sure that we can create times for everyone to enjoy. At all ages. By allowing free play from the very start. The swing won’t always be there for our child, and the ability to independently play, create, explore and examine is the one thing we can allow our children to develop that will last them forever. We don’t even need to buy anything extra to do that – all we really need is some space, a lot of trust, and time.

Now, we know this was a very long read, but we would love to hear your thoughts!

Anna & Nadine

More reading:

http://www.dynamicchiropractic.com/mpacms/dc/article.php?id=15476&MERCURYSID=8380b16ce0247e70f6c705c50cc4a92f

http://www.vancouverspinecarecentre.com/childrencentre/23/

http://www.janetlansbury.com/2012/04/sitting-babies-up-the-downside/

http://consults.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/the-dangers-of-baby-walkers/

(Free) play and (free) movement – How does it happen?

In this post we will talk about what helps uninterrupted play, what are the necessary conditions and what we found useful with our 6-12 month-olds. In the following posts we will talk more about what kinds of things hinder free play. And maybe badmouth baby walkers. Just a bit.

We want our children to play freely. We all want them to be able to engage in an activity for a longer period of time. We want them to be able to do it for their sake – to develop creativity, critical and analytical thinking, concentration span – but we, as parents, also want this to happen, so that we can sit back and relax, rather than constantly feel like the entertainer. If we create an environment and conditions where free play can happen – it’s a win-win situation. By allowing our child to play without interruption (our interruption as well), we are empowering him to be the leader, the inventor, the discoverer, the explorer. So how can we do it?

How does it happen?

What has changed? Well, not much, except your baby is getting bigger, and his space should be getting bigger accordingly. So what does he need to help him develop in his play? Here is what we think, though in no particular order.

  • Space: By 6-12 months, if your baby has been allowed to move freely, you will see a lot more movement than before. The mastering of rolling back and forth, as well as rolling to get to places; crawling; maybe pulling up to standing (we say maybe because some children are faster than others. Please don‘t get the imagination that a child that age SHOULD have developed those milestones.). The safe space for your baby needs to be big enough to let him practice all these movements, but secure enough not to have you worried what will happen if you go to the toilet. We have already suggested playpens, you could gate off some parts of the room if you are not keen on the playpen itself – this way the more dangerous places will be safely out of reach. This creates a good place for exploration, but without the need to constantly keep guard, and significantly reduces the use of ‘no, don’t…’. If you feel confident that your baby can explore the space you have created for him, chances are he will feel the same way about it. If you do decide to use a playpen, it has been suggested that once you notice your baby pulling up all the time instead of crawling, it might be that the space she has for exploring is not big enough.
  • Stuff: Now what ARE appropriate toys your child enjoys during this period? That encourage him to develop in their own time? We are going to mention these in an upcoming post where we talk a little more about WHAT free play at this age really is.
  • Emotional security: We have talked about it and this part does not change for a long, long time. Focused attention in times of care allows the baby to be filled with it and ready to let go of you in times of play (though remember that we need to learn to let go as well…).
    But emotional security is not just about those intense care moments during the day (and night). A baby that has engaged in an activity for almost an hour yesterday might not enjoy it today. Because something is different. Teeth might be coming. Mom and Dad might be in a different mood and the baby is sensing it. She might have had a bad dream or the world is just completely upside down. Remember: „Every child is different. Every day.“ (Lienhard Valentin)
    Plus – if the baby needs you apart from those care moments. Be there. Even if you are cooking and the baby needs you right now. Acknowledge and explain, understand the feelings, do what you need to do and then provide what he needs. „I hear you are upset. I am right in the middle of this task and then I will be right with you.“ And then BE right with your child. A child that can trust you in being there if he is upset but is not constantly interrupted when struggling with a task that she might be able to handle herself will be able to engage in free play much easier than one that is scared of being left alone for the whole time now until Mommy is back.
  • Self-confidence and the ability to play: Learning how to play takes time. Lots and lots of time. Good news here is, that it is not an innate feature of character, we can watch our babies build it, and we can help them on the way. Apart from the three important aspects of free play mentioned above, we believe that one of the key factors here is free movement.

Movement and play

There is a sequence of movements you will see your child go through as they grow and develop (we will talk about this a bit more next time, but for those who have not yet seen Baby Liv does a great demo – you can check it out here.

Each of these movements is unique, each needs to be mastered to go to the next stage. Each of them comes at the time when your baby’s bone and muscle structure is ready for it, but also when his confidence in mastering the previous step has ben fulfilled. Pushing him to go to next level when he is not yet satisfied with what he has just learned (like sitting him up before he can do it, or ‘walking’ babies before they are ready) might send this message: “You are not doing enough”. Surely, none of us would want to say that to our baby, who is not even one year old! Instead of waiting and anticipating, enjoy what he is doing – it will come (all too soon most likely).

Learning about movement is like learning a language – you need the letters, to form the words, to form the sentences, to build a metaphor, to tell someone you love them (and know what it means), to write a book about it. It is less important when you will master which step, but much more important that you have enough time to practice it, and that the order remains unchanged.

Movement as play can still be seen in 6-12 month-olds. But from now there is an additional layer to the importance of free movement in the development of play – children start using movement to get to play with objects. We have all seen this scene, when a baby is sat up and plays quietly with an object, which suddenly rolls away. The play is over – he is stuck in the sitting position, he didn’t get there himself, he can’t get out. He cannot continue playing. The parent needs to come and rescue him. Instead, if we allow babies to develop in their free movement, their ability to play freely will be developing alongside of this. Gaining more and more confidence in their movements, babies learn how to get to places they want to get to, and how to get the things they need. Even when the ball rolls away, they know how to roll, crawl, or creep to it. Free movement is therefore a necessary prerequisite for free, uninterrupted play.

I think when we put it that way, it makes sense, would you agree? Of course they have to learn to move by themselves to play by themselves, right? And while we know we should trust our babies to do all that by themselves, and we know they will learn (after all, there is no child that crawls to school on their first day, right?), the industry makes it really hard on us, parents, coming up with millions of things our babies absolutely need to … play, learn, move. We will talk about it in our next post.

In the meantime – enjoy your babies play!

Nadine & Anna

* Big thanks to my friend Elena Marouchos for the talks where the idea of movement as language was created… (Anna)

** While we support free movement with all our hearts, and believe that all healthy children will get there in time, we understand that the concern is very different when it comes to babies with delays. However, the wonderful work of Monika Aly and colleagues in Germany has been consistently showing that giving babies with delays the freedom of movement brings huge improvements.

Talk to me

In our series of posts on respectful parenting we would like to continue with a post about communication. Communication with the infant from birth until the age of 6 months. An age where the language and speech development is not first priority. But an age where communication, information and familiar voices are essential for the baby‘s feeling of security, safety and trust.

(We are not going to talk about the development of speech. This is simply a post about the early communication with your baby.)

Why is communicating so important for a baby? He can‘t respond anyway. Or can he?

We do nowadays know a lot about baby‘s ability to already hear and feel while still in utero. Therefore many parents take the chance to read stories to their unborn child, talk to him or sing. And they continue doing this once the baby is born. Which is great and necessary. But there is a little more (or in fact: much more) that can (should!) be done when raising a child lovingly and respectfully. While a lot of people talk to their babies before they are born, it is interesting that this direct communication often stops when the baby is born. Why? It might be strange in the beginning to talk to a tiny infant, who does not respond with words. We might find it awkward. We might need time to get used to it.

We know that babies can hear us, what we don’t really know is how much they understand and when this understanding begins. And the choice we are making is this: do we assume they do, or at some point will understand us and therefore communicate with them from the start, or do we choose to assume that they don’t understand in the beginning and therefore we do not need to communicate with them directly.

We believe the ground for building respectful communication begins at birth. Because babies do respond. They do communicate with us. We just have to be careful, observing and patient (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/great-kids-great-parents/201201/children-talk-they-understand-lot). Read their signs and in return – respond to them again. It might not be obvious at first, but with time you will learn to read his signs, and see how hard he is trying to understand yours. He is trying hard to communicate with us – first through crying, facial expressions, movement. It is much harder for him to communicate his feelings than it is for you. But he is trying, looking for new ways to tell you what is going on.

Our first talks with Antek happened over diaper changes – most likely this is true for a lot of parents. I tried very slowly telling hime what will happen. I stopped and waited. I waited for the response. It felt like waiting for something that might never come, but over time it became second nature – I said what I would do and stopped for a moment. Once I got used to it, I stopped waiting for the response to actually happen, I just gave him time and moved on. He was about four months old when I realized he was listening very carefully and started trying to cooperate with me. It was an amazing discovery to see this. „I will lift you up now“ I would say, and his whole body would suddenly tense in my arms. He understood what was about to happen. This was the beginning of our dialogues. (Anna)

When a baby is born he is thrown into a world full of sounds, smells and all sorts of senses he can‘t possibly handle all by himself. So it‘s important to not just limit the stimuli but also explain what is just happening. And why. Especially in those situations where a lot is happening. For example during diaper changes or bathing times which – in the world of a newborn – are very active moments. And no – we are not saying that a newborn will understand every word you are saying. He will not know exactly what you mean by „I‘m going to pick you up to change you‘re diaper now.“ or „You have just been asleep and now you are hungry. I will feed you now.“ But he will realise the sound of those sentences, the voice of the mother which is familiar from the uterus.

Imagine watching a couple of people talking in a different language you don‘t understand. You will still be able to make out if they are being friendly or if they are arguing. You can watch their body language and faces and make out if friends or strangers have just met.

This is exactly what your baby is doing too. He watches you and closely listens to what you are saying, how you are saying it. And he will try hard to respond. May it be screaming, giggling, later smiling or fighting with all his body movements. The earlier we talk to our children and do what they are doing – closely listen and observe – the earlier we will understand every response we are getting. Even those we didn‘t know existed. So again – careful observation is the key. The key for a close relationship but also the key to a child that feels safe and secure in this world.

How do I talk to an infant ?

I do admit that in the beginning, right after Leander was born, it felt strange to talk to him, tell him everything I would be doing. In the end he WAS this little person who just didn‘t seem to hear me or understand me. But I was so curious, I heard so much about Pikler and the importance of communication – I tried to talk more and more. And while I was explaining what was going on, what was going to happen, the more I felt an You and Me becoming a We. It wasn‘t just about him getting to know me and the world around him. It was about me getting to know HIM too. I kept stretching the diaper changes, kept talking to him. And slowly he started responding to me. 

But that wasn‘t it. While I startled with my first „talks“ I also realised how unorganized I was. I kept looking for things while I actually wanted to stay focused on him. I held my left arm on his belly while my right one crossed underneath his legs to find a diaper in the depths of the changing table. And I had trouble explaining this and that  way I figured that I needed to change these situations. This is how I got organized and we developed OUR routine. Not mine. Not his. We grew together. (Nadine)

When babies are small they are trying to make sense of the world, like we are trying to make sense of them. Our explanations, our voice, our tone are all soothing and are all important parts of their daily life. And as much as they want to be a part of our lives, we want to be a part of theirs. If we communicate with babies, it is important to try and talk about things that are relevant to them at that moment – remember babies live in the here and now.

So how can we build this sensitive, respectful way of communicating?

  • Talk during care moments: it creates a unique atmosphere and might turn a mundane task into a wonderful dialogue involving words and bodies. Be slow and patient. Inform your baby of what is about to happen or what you are about to do. Imagine yourself in that position for a moment – that you are fully dependant on someone else, that you are in their care. Imagine even that they are speaking a language you don’t understand. Wouldn’t it be more comfortable for you if they tried communicating with you nonetheless? If they informed you before taking your clothes off, or putting them on? Before touching you?
  • Wait for a response. Don’t expect one, but just give time. Stay close. After a question or sentence – stop. Watch the response. If there is one – narrate it: „Oh I see you are really upset. You must be very uncomfortable. I‘ll change you right away.“ But it‘s not always about getting a response – it‘s about having the opportunity to give one. Or not. This time is not only important for a response to happen, but for the baby to process what you have signalled – remember it takes them much more time to process information, even when they are slightly older (http://networkedblogs.com/zXFvE) . Allow it if you can. And if you are in a hurry – acknowledge that you cannot give him time right now, but next time you will.
  • Allow the dialogue to happen. When you start communicating in this way – talking about things that are directly relevant to the baby and giving time for a response (or time to process) – your baby is learning what the words you are using mean, but also turn-taking (http://www.janetlansbury.com/2011/03/10-secrets-to-raising-good-listeners/) . She is learning about communication with another person, and is learning to listen to you and to talk to you. She knows this already from birth – studies have shown that humans are the only mammals that suck in a rhythmical way, and that this rhythm is created by the mothers and babies together while feeding. This is the first sign of communication.
  • Check what your baby is interested in and talk about it. It might be her foot, the sun (or rain) outside, it might be something you did that has drawn her attention. She wants to know the world, and you have the power to explain it to her! Isn’t that magical? When you do that, your baby is getting a very powerful (and empowering) message: You are important to me, so whatever is important to you is important to me as well.
  • Talk to babies directly, not over their heads or about them as if they were not there – even though it’s a common culturally accepted practice, it is not kind or respectful. Practice that from the very beginning and it will become easier over time. Also very young babies listen, even when we are talking to others and not to them – you would not talk about your husband, wife, or friend that way, and probably would not like if someone did that to you. They might seem focused in their play, but their ears might be with us. Remeber too, that your baby is not only learning words and their meaning, but also the power they have.
  • Say what you want to say, not less but not more. Don’t let communication become background noise. Babies have a lot to process, they are interested in the world, but it is all new and difficult for them. Talk about things that are relevant, not about everything and all the time. When you do this, it is hard for the baby to follow, and eventually she might tune you out. Your voice is important. Keep it that way.
  • Be authentic. Be yourself. When your child is asking for you for the 7th time and you are tired and exhausted – don‘t be all happy and pretend that‘s ok. It‘s not. You need sleep too and there is a way between being falsely happy and madly angry. Just let her know you are tired. When you are sad or in a bad mood- that‘s ok. Children have a fine sense for emotions. They feel how you feel sometimes before you do. So if you then speak to her in a pretend happy voice she will get well confused. And might demand you a little more. Because she really wants to know what is going on with you. Right now. In being honest she will not only understand you better – she will also be able to put her own emotions into words some day. And on top of that – she will feel trusted because you are open and clear. Another big stone in the foundation of a mutually respectful relationship.

Good for them, good for us

Although it might feel awkward and strange in the beginning, there are a number of important things you are giving your baby if you communicate with him directly and respectfully from the beginning. But it is also helpful for us as parents – we have found that talking during care moments makes us slow down and focus more than without talking. It makes us be fully there for our babies, giving them the undivided attention (http://www.magdagerber.org/vol-i-no-2-spring-1980.html) that will later allow them to play freely.

Especially during routine situations (bathing, dressing, changing diapers) talking to our babies allowed us to focus on what we were doing and really see our sons and their first attempts at communication. During those familiar moments it is easy to tune out and do things automatically – talking to our babies helps us be fully there.

Have you found it easy or difficult to talk to your infant directly? Have you noticed their attempts to communicate or answer before the words came?

We would love to hear your thoughts!

A fresh look at play

This post is a continuation of our musings and reflections on play. Last time we talked about the importance of uninterrupted play for the age of 0-3 months, and about when and how play happens. The information in that article we believe to be of importance for all age groups. But there are things that change, things that shift and develop as the babies grow. Have a look at our previous post to see what we mean by play in this very early age, and continue on reading to see what play can look like in infants 3-6 months old.

“Play is the highest form of research” (Albert Einstein).

If we understand play not as the action itself, but an approach to action, and if we consider it to be research, the important think to ask ourselves at any given moment is this: What is my child researching at the moment?

To understand this we need to observe. There is no other way to understand the researcher at work, but to observe his actions, try and see his thought process, and not let ourselves interrupt. ‘A journey of observation must leave as much as possible to chance’ (Tahir Shah). To be able to really observe we should put our expectations aside, and rather than guessing what is going on, we should simply let the things unfold in front of our eyes.

Try not to anticipate, expect, suggest. It’s hard. It’s hard to just look, without expectation or judgment. But it is also incredibly rewarding for us as parents to know that we, too, can grow and learn in this experience – we can learn to really look. And by learning to look at the child, by allowing ourselves to be challenged, we too can again experience what our child is experiencing every day: the challenge of discovering and learning something new. As our child is learning new skills, we are learning the skill of observation. And we can maybe begin to understand that the only way we can truly learn this new skill is by trial and error, by allowing ourselves to fail and allowing ourselves to sometimes take a step back into our comfort zone without anybody pushing us to keep going, by learning about our limits, and by learning how to push those limits by ourselves. The wonderful thing about this learning experience is that the child is a patient teacher.

One trick to the way of observing a child we are talking about here this is admitting to ourselves that more often than not we don’t know what he is working on (http://www.janetlansbury.com/2012/07/the-infant-need-experts-dont-talk-about/), so it might be futile (or even sometimes disturbing) to offer our help or a solution. Is he reaching for that toy or is he stretching his arm? Is she trying to turn to her belly, or is she practicing rocking from back to side? Does he want to sit up, or is he working on the balance? Since there is no way we can know this, rather than help our child practicing whatever he is working on right now, let’s focus on practicing our own skill of sensitive observation.

Coming back to play and research the 3-6 month old children are busy with, some things we might expect are these:

Play as…

… movement

“Nothing is more revealing than movement” (Martha Graham)

The 3-6 month-olds are not mobile yet in that they do not crawl or walk (though whoever thinks that babies on their backs are immobile should look carefully). A lot of smaller movement happens around this age: turning from back to tummy (and sometime later, turning from tummy to back), working on the side-lying position, balancing on the side with the use of arms and legs.  You will see a lot of stretching and trying to understand how to change positions, and how to get back to the original position.

The amazing thing you will notice is that it is movement itself that is the motivation, not getting to a certain goal or reaching for something. This is the development of intrinsic, self-directed motivation that, if not interrupted, will serve your child for life. Playing with small, and later also bigger movements, is the challenge, this is the game for babies this age. Allowing the child to move freely helps him develop the awareness of his body, its position in space, but also at the same time allows him to regulate his own strength – he knows best when to stop, when to rest, when it’s been enough. Be sensitive to these signs, but don’t anticipate or guess them in advance. Observe your child’s “dialogue with gravity” (Anna Tardos) in action.

… experiment and discovery

“It is in playing, and only in playing, that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self”  (D.W. Winnicott)

If we allow the child to freely experiment, we will see the amazing discoveries taking place all the time. This is the time, when the infant slowly begins to discover his hands. Mobiles hanging above his crib, or too many toys places around him might distract him from this important step in development. For now there is no need for too many objects – the body needs to be discovered first, before it can be used to play with toys. This is the time when babies get familiar with their bodies, they discover their arms and legs and experiment with what can be done with those.

You may see first the uncertain wave of the fist in front of their face, and the moment when the fist is in front of their eyes. ‘What is this?’ he seems to be saying. Soon after comes the discovery, that the arms are his and that he can influence how they move – this is very powerful and will occupy him for a while. Only after that is no longer a novelty will he engage more with the objects around. Surely, you need to know yourself first before you can get to know the things outside you 

… learning

So what does all of this have to do with play? We believe, following Teacher Tom, that play is life. That play, learning, discovery – can all be synonyms if we choose to see them that way. But if we want to see our children playing, we need to let them develop in their play, and let them develop the skills that will later help them play, work, live and create. Therefore, once we begin to understand that for our smallest children play is everything, we will be more likely to see it when it happens. Because surely, all parents want their child to play happily…

In these first months of playing with movement the child is beginning not only to learn how to move, but also learn how to learn. With mastering of each new movement he begins to learn how things can be mastered. This process has nothing to do with getting to certain milestones, but rather mastering each small movement to perfection to be able to later use it for other purposes. Like learning alphabet to be able to learn how to read, in a similar way the child is learning about balance (losing and gaining it), gravity, positions of his own body and how to effectively use the body to support him – all those seemingly small steps will later help him learn how to crawl, sit, walk, run and dance.

The more we let him experiment with his own learning, without guessing the next move and helping him get to it faster, the more confident he will be in his dance. But it’s not just that. Failing, falling, trying, playing with loss of balance and gaining it back, playing with his hands and feet to later understand they can be used for holding, catching, walking – all of these are pieces of a puzzle. All of this play he is doing now, will later prepare him for all of the learning that needs to be done along the way. In playing with movement he is learning about how to tackle a challenge, how to deal with failure, how to be proud of his own success. We will see all of this on his face if we choose to quietly observe, giving only as much support as necessary, rather than guiding him through the steps only to make his success ours.

Playing, working, experimenting, learning, discovering… you can see your child do all of this (and more) if you allow yourself to observe without interrupting. Try and let us know your thoughts. How is your baby playing? What is he working on in his play? What is she trying to discover?

We LOVE to hear your thoughts!

Nadine & Anna

How to make PLAY happen

Play is movement. Play is self-regulation, learning. Play is… life. In our last post we talked about looking at play with fresh eyes and figuring out the millions of things we put in one bag, and then call it ‘PLAY’. But for babies 3-6months, as much as play is a natural state of being, there is a need to set up conditions for it to happen. How can we help our babies play freely, and help ourselves enjoy it? Here is what we have learnt so far.

How can we facilitate this play?

A lot happens at this age (wow, this seems to be true for just about every age group once we start thinking about it), and for the child to play he needs certain conditions. Good news is – it’s not that difficult, it does not require specialized equipment, and anybody can do it. So, what do babies need to be able to play freely?

  • Emotional security
  • Care
  • Quiet, peaceful environment where they can play, learn & discover

Since you could probably write a book on the tons of aspects of each of these points, let’s take one step at a time. Today, we will focus on the environment, and specifically – the playpens.

Playpens

Only pictures show me that when I was little I was playing in a little playpen. I obviously can’t remember. What I can remember though is visiting friends of my parents who had a baby when I was about 6 or 7 years old. They had a wooden playpen, rectangular and just the right size for a baby that can’t move around too much yet. I always wanted to climb in it with the baby. In fact – I did. Because I liked the cosyness of it. I liked being away from the adults who bored me. I enjoyed just being in there, watching this little baby. In this small comfortable world of his. (Nadine)

Nowadays most parents think of playpens as of little prisons. Many refuse to buy them because they don’t want to place their little baby behind gates. And we say – it’s a matter of perspective.

A child does not know what a prison is. A child has no negative connotation of the bars around him with being locked. More importantly – if you use the playpen from early on it will become your child’s safe space. So he won’t necessarily feel “locked away“. As in Nadine’s case – he might actually feel safe and secure. Comfortable.

Try and think about it. You have those gates – preferably a few flexible ones to form a safe area that fits into your flat furnishings. Your baby has just been fed and changed. You have given him all your attention and had a wonderful time together. Now you need a coffee, maybe a snack or just a moment for yourself. So you put your baby into this safe play area that has a few toys in it. There is a chair nearby where you can sit down and relax. While your baby explores… well – his own body? The world around?

If something bothers him – you are there. You are not out of reach, not ignoring him. But you don’t have to constantly keep your eyes fixed on him – he is safe, his needs have been met. And he knows that. Because that’s the way it has been for a while now.

How does that sound?

  • But why is a blanket on the floor not enough?

Take a moment and imagine this: You are lying on a mattress in the middle of a football stadium. You can barely make out the walls, everything seems endless. Could you feel safe? Could you focus on a book or any task without having the feeling of looking around, making sure everything is ok? It may sound a bit excessive, but considering the fact that distances are still a bit vague for little children, you might imagine what it feels like to lie in a room with no close borders around.

  • When should I start using a playpen?

In the beginning the baby is usually close to you or in his cot or pram. But as soon as he starts moving around – may it just be rolling onto his side – he needs space to freely do that. The sofa or bed become dangerous because you never know, when he will roll over (and over) fort he first time. With flexible playpens you can build a small one for a start. Then extend it with the baby’s gross motor development.

  • How long should I use the playpen?

When your child starts moving forward you may either extend the playpen even more or take it away. The latest moment to put it aside is when your baby starts walking. This is the time when the whole flat should become safe and secure because stopping your child from entering areas he physically could reach will just be an unnecessary core of frustration. For all of you.

We love to hear your thoughts!

Anna & Nadine

The Fuss about Feeding

This post is a continuation of our thoughts and reflections on the day-to-day respectful parenting practices. We started with diapering, and now we move on to feeding. We will only focus on infant feeding here, and will try to write about feeding older children later on. Before we go on, there are some things we need to say.

We have nothing to say about the choices you make with regards to breast or bottle. Or both. We have made our decisions, you have made yours. We respect that. There have recently (again) been a flurry of various posts and articles on one or the other side of the fence. We believe you have chosen, as we did, the best possible option for your family. If you are still thinking about it, the only advice we have is this: make an informed choice about the feeding option that you think will be best for the whole family. Yes, your baby is number one, but you are no less important. Look for information and support you need. If for some reason your choice is not working out, be open to other possibilities. Seek support, you deserve it and might need it. Look for the community that will value your choice and honour it, ignore the one that will judge it. Yes, we are aware of the issues that have been raised with regards to breastmilk and infant immune system. But one option that seems to be best, might not be best in the long run and for everybody. Basically, we believe that feeding your baby goes well beyond the whole fuss about bottles and breasts. That it is not about what you use to feed your baby, but about how you do it.

We believe there are two key issues that are involved in feeding an infant: nourishment and connection. And, putting breasts and bottles aside, we will focus on connection and relationship with your baby, which seem to be left out of a number of feeding arguments and debates (luckily, not all ). Because essentially, we believe that these two things are more important than any debate over anything regarding feeding. Also, they can be provided and enjoyed by any family member, anytime. Isn’t that a powerful thought?

As you may have guessed, we will not have much to say about nourishment. This issue needs to be discussed with your doctor, if you have any concerns. Instead, we will focus on the connection you can create during those intimate moments when you feed your infant, and the respectful relationship you can build in those moments.

Throughout this post we will talk about ‘feeding’ meaning breast or bottle, and ‘parent’ meaning anyone who is feeding the baby.

There is one thing about feeding, which makes it similar to diapering – you have to be there. Both of you. There is no other way. Which is why, in our opinion, it might be worth making it meaningful for both of you. Feeding gives us an opportunity to create a time for bonding, a time for feeding your infant with food but also with your attention. It will make feeding times more pleasant, and will make it easier for your baby to play on his own afterwards (and for you to have a moment of rest, or to do those things you need or want to do – in our opinion much more efficient than doing them while feeding). But it goes both ways – we, parents, want that quality time with our kids too. We also want their attention. And feeding is the time that we can all experience it. Maybe, then, apart from filling our babies with our attention, attentive feeding times can also fill us with their attention, thus letting us leave them to play afterwards…

Comfort – for both of you

You will feed your baby often. Sometimes the feeding will be long, for some babies it takes more time, some babies feed more during the night. If, like us, you believe that feeding is a great opportunity to spend quality time with your baby, it will work best if you can be as comfortable as possible. We have all probably done the weirdly-hunched-over feedings, or the barely-even-sitting feedings. If you are not comfortable, chances are the only connection you will be making is with your spine, or your arm.

There are lots of ways you can feed, lots of positions you can try out. We have found trying an important part of this journey – tell your baby you were not too comfortable last time, and you would like to sit with your feet up today. It also lets your baby know that while satisfying his hunger is your priority at that moment, it is also important that you do it with respect for both of you. One minute to find a comfortable position or a pillow will not make that much of a difference for him, but it might for you. Communicate and explain, and then sit down and enjoy 

If you are comfortable and relaxed, he will be as well. It will also make it much easier to find pleasure in those wonderful moments.

One thing that is important in finding a position for your baby to feed, is to always make sure he has an option of letting you know he’s had enough.

Being present and attentive

Nowadays we tend to use every spare minute to interact with the world. We‘ve got laptops, tablets and mobile phones that let us fill every moment that could possibly filled with boredom. I dare to say that most of us find it very difficult to just sit down and relax. Not doing anything. Not watching anything. An evening with no TV, no internet, no telephone. Can you imagine this?

Well. Nature is pretty awesome. It gives us the chance to get back to those precious moments. It gives us a baby that needs to be fed. Often. Sometimes for long periods of time. And while feeding this baby we can practice the not doing anything bit. Why?

Maybe because it is healthy to relax all your senses. To not think. Not interact. Maybe because motherhood is an incredibly busy time, and moments of peace are precious. But maybe – and you already guessed that this might be our reason behind – because your child will feel the difference. He will feel you are there. Just with him. In deepest connection. You‘re feeding not just his stomach but also his soul. Doesn‘t this sound wonderful? It’s a different way of staying connected (the older meaning of the word ), without the use of any connecting devices. It’s just about the two of you.

Be fully there

We’ve all been there when someone is serving us in the shop, selling us something, helping us fill in the documents, or helping us find the right person to talk to in the office, while all the while talking on the phone. Not a pleasant feeling, and often leaves us feeling as if we were a nuisance. Worse still – have you ever been out for dinner with someone and they constantly kept checking their phone? You know how it feels… Mealtimes together are great, not only because the food tastes nice. Sure, there will be times when you need to do something. To make a call. To answer an e-mail. But if you delay doing it until after the feeding, your baby will feel he got your full, undivided attention, and will be more likely to let you do your thing while he plays alone for those few minutes.

How many parents love to watch their sleeping baby? Adore it. Love it to bits. Well great news: you can do this while he is awake. While he can feel you adoring and loving him. And once he‘s asleep – you can watch TV, check on the internet. Or simply close your eyes too.

It does sound simple and we agree it isn‘t always that easy. But it’s worth a try. And you will see how deeply addicted you can get to it. So while feeding your baby try unitasking  And leave the multitasking abilities for other occasions, when you need them more.

Creating a peaceful moment of connection

If you are in a loud or crowded place, move away a bit if you can. Turn your back to the crowds, and your face to your baby. If you’re having dinner with your friends, this time fully focussed on your baby might make a world of difference for everyone – your baby will be satisfied, and filled with your attention, you will be able to turn back to your friends and give them the attention they need.

Will my newborn really care if I read messages on my phone while he is nursing with his eyes closed? We say yes. Because when will you see if he‘s opening his eyes for a moment? And while they might not see that far they can feel so much more. Remember how you can feel a person staring at your back. Why should newborns not be able to feel that way? And even if the baby is tired and half asleep and does not realize what you are doing – this is a great chance to practise. Because when they get older, they will ask for your attention. During mealtimes, during play. They don‘t always want you to interact with them – but they want you to be there and observe. And it does not have to mean you are glued eyeball to eyeball all the time while you’re feeding – but respect their need for connection, as well as yours.

Undivided attention is one great part of the RIE principles / Pikler approach. It means to be with your child 100% while feeding, changing or bathing him. During those intimate and very precious moments. It gives you the time to fill up emotionally as well – let’s be honest, not only babies need our attention, we need theirs too. And it also gives us a chance to fill our babies’ attention needs, so that for those times when we need to do something else, like make a call, answer an e-mail or take a shower ) we can, because they know we will be with them again for the next feeding session.

Feeding a baby is a basic need you are responding to. It is part of the bonding process. And as we said before – here you have the chance to feed more needs than the obvious one.

What your baby will learn:

That he is important and that his health is important to you
That mealtimes are pleasant and are not only about eating, but a great way to spend some time with each other (probably much appreciated later on in life as well!)
That it is important to pay attention to the other person when engaged in a task together
Respect for the body: his own – when you don’t ask him to eat more than he needs or wants, and that of other people – when you explain that it is important for you to be sitting comfortably
Lots and lots of language!

Further readings on this:
http://piklerexperience.blogspot.co.at/2012/02/breastfeeding-with-love-and-respect.html (Mama Nadine)
http://www.janetlansbury.com/2010/04/beyond-bottles-and-breasts-the-key-to-whole-baby-nourishment/ (Janet Lansbury)
the picture above was kindly provided by: http://lindsaymitchell.blogspot.co.nz – thank you !

Starting the toy revolution

Our views of the play area and things infants can play with have been evolving quite a lot over the past two years. Please read this with an open mind – these are our thoughts, conclusions we have come to, and general musings on the subjects. We are going to talk about the most popular baby things, and suggest that maybe we (and our babies) don’t really need them all. Maybe, actually, they don’t need any of it. Just a possibility…

A lot of these things are so engraved in our image of childhood, we no longer question whether we need them, wonder what they actually really do to our baby’s development, or whether they are appropriate for a given stage of development. Our wallets are taking a hit as well, which, for new parents, is really really not necessary.

It seems much easier to imagine simple play objects for older babies and toddlers – there is mud, sticks, boxes, all the fun stuff. But for infants it is hard to think of something simple, and toy makers pour their products through our mailboxes and windows. We don’t want to deprive our babies of the necessary experiences, when all we hear is how crucial these first months are, and how important it is to provide the ‘right’ kinds of toys and environment.

And if you do end up questioning how necessary these toys and all the equipment really is, you may end up as ‘the weird parent’, or ‘oh, you’re one of those’. So, for all of you who do not fear being ‘one of those’ – we salute you. For those, who do – we understand you!  And for those who need some encouragement in thinking critically about the eternal truths of marketing gods – we intend to provide some food for thought. Here goes.

So, what are these things ‘everyone’ takes for granted? Let’s have a look.

Baby mobile

We had the baby mobile from day one, practically. It was hanging above Antek’s cot like a giant insect, a very cute one, given to us by thoughtful friends. Everyone had one. Seriously. How many people with babies do you know? How many of them don’t have a baby mobile? It didn’t even really cross our minds not to get one – amazing, isn’t it? The second we take something for granted we don’t even question it anymore. It doesn’t occur to us that we could question the status quo. Hmm…

We started reading more into Pikler & RIE philosophies, and came across a post by Janet Lansbury (http://www.janetlansbury.com/2009/10/blue-sky-thinking/) where she recalls Magda Gerber’s words: ‘Take the mobile off the bed, take care of their needs and leave them alone’. Take the mobile off the bed? I started wondering. The same evening a friend came over, looked at the baby mobile and commented: “Man, it’s like a giant TV above your bed. One you can never switch off. Cool!” Ouch. Actually, I remember thinking the same thing. In the before-baby world, that is. Back when we questioned things a bit more. Maybe because we had more sleep…That evening our baby mobile found a safe home under our bed. Over the next couple of days the same fate was met by a number of different things. The room was decluttered. So was Antek’s line of vision. Suddenly, he started wriggling and moving much more, started exploring his limbs, trying out new moves. It was as though the baby mobile immobilized our baby a little bit. (Anna)

Baby mobiles are cute, they can be a lovely ornament in the room, and they keep your baby entertained. All the time. So…

Why not?

Baby mobile keeps your baby entertained all their waking hours – with the sounds, the movement, the colours and shapes. But look around the room – your baby has just arrived here from nine months in the darkness, surrounded by constant muttered sounds. Does he need more stimulation than he is already getting? The day and night, the light and darkness, the sounds around, voices of people that care for him, the fly that has just passed above his head, the sound of the kettle, the breeze, the feeling of his own body, the feelings of hunger, being wet, pain… With this much stimulation already in the air, the quiet time when your baby is not stimulated even more allows him to absorb the already complicated world around.
With the mobile above the baby’s head, your baby has no choice but to look at it. Very young infants cannot yet turn their heads. Even if the stimulation gets too much, they cannot choose to look away.
Introducing 24/7 entertainment can tire us (parents) out in the long run – once we accustom the baby to being entertained all day long, it will be very hard to change that habit. On the other hand, if we provide our babies with some time and space to explore on their own and play according to their own ideas, we are preparing a rich ground for future independent and creative explorers. “…[E]ntertaining kinds of toys (such as mobiles or, later on, wind-up toys or battery-operated items) cause a passive child to watch an active toy. This trains the child to expect to be amused and entertained and sets the scene for later TV watching” (Magda Gerber, ‘Dear Parent: Caring for infants with respect’)
Babies’ attention works differently than ours. Alison Gopnik’s (among others) research has shown, that they do not focus on one thing and disregard everything else around them like we often do. Therefore when they are looking at the moving, revolving, musical baby mobile, they are also, at the same time, taking in everything else that is going on in the room. It can be a lot to take (http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/gopnik09/gopnik09_index.html).

If you bought, got or made a lovely baby mobile and really want it in the room – place it slightly further away, not directly above your baby’s head. So that, once he is capable of doing that, he can turn his head or body and choose to look at it, or not. So that he is not forced to look at it the second he wakes up. You can choose when to enjoy looking at it (or TV ) – why not give your baby the same possibility?

All-in-one toys

The toy industry is actually quite smart. They are nice enough to make things easier for parents. So it seems. Because instead of buying one toy that is bright, one that rattles or plays music and one for the baby to chew on when teething you can by them all in one! But by now you can probably imagine what our thoughts are on that. Don’t buy them 

These toys might make our life easier in the short run – seeing your mesmerised baby’s eyes staring at the blinking, rattling, flashing wind-up rabbit might let you sneak out to the toilet and lets you have a bit of a well-deserved breather. But if, like us, you want to be able to have that moment of calm also in the future, simple toys might be a better solution. So…

Why not?

Children are easily overstimulated. They discover the world step by step. In their own time. They want to understand what is what, what does what and what results do their actions have (don’t we all)? They can only learn and understand these things when they have a chance to discover toys or daily things one after another. And only when they are as simple as can be. Something that rings, blinks and shines in 3 colours at once is far too much to take.
Too much excitement might mean less sleep. When babies are overstimulated, they might have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep. Calmer toys and environment make for a better nights’ sleep – for all of us.
Toys that are easy to understand allow for curiosity to develop. The ‘busy’, complicated toys, that are not easily understood by babies, can quickly trump their inner need to discover and explore. After all, what is the use of a toy that does all the playing by itself?

If you want something that makes sounds get a rattle that is easy to understand – from your baby’s perspective. Something the child can follow, and see where the sound is coming from. Maybe a wooden stick with (a) ring(s) around it? That way the child can see what is making the noise (rather than with those rattles that have some sort of material inside which only we – adults – understand as the “soundmaker”). So again – same as with the mobile – the child chooses when to play with something that jingles or rings. He understands what makes the sound (and how), and he can make it happen when he wants to. This also sets him up for being able to understand the world in the future – rather than the idea that the things around are mysterious, and there is no way of understanding the workings of the world surrounding him, providing simple objects to play with at the same time provides your child with something akin to what Gever Tulley of Tinkering School describes as knowability. A sense that it is possible to understand things around you and know how they work.

So, if, like us, you are keen to let your baby have simple play objects, get a simple wooden ring, a plain one, if you can find it. And see what your baby does with it. Babies are just starting to grab things. This action itself is their interest, their intention. It is their play. Watch the exploration and the possibilities of that simple thing. And pay attention to the time he enjoys playing with it – because of their simplicity, toys like that don’t go out of style. Sometimes they are put aside, but soon enough there will be new uses for them, as your baby develops new skills and abilities. Our sons still enjoy playing with toys from their early days, though, of course, in a very different way.

Now, we are not asking you to deprive your child of any experiences, on the contrary! But if you’re still unsure about toys (or play objects) that might be ‘too simple’ or ‘boring’ imagine every time you flip the page in a book it makes a loud noise. How long would you continue reading that book?

Baby gym

Also known as activity centres. Don’t these names make you smile? Look at your baby. Observe him for just a minute. Now lie down next to him and imitate EVERY movement he is doing. At the same speed. With the same intensity. And now think again about the purchase of a baby gym or activity centre. Does your baby really need a work out?

Why not?

As with a mobile those activity centres create rather passive babies. Surrounded by toys that they can barely grab but not take, not taste, not smell they will become frustrated and again possibly rather passive TV watchers.
Maria Montessori had already discovered the importance of “learning through our five senses, and particularly through the relationship between hand and the brain. In recognition of the building of the intelligence through this feedback loop of information from the hand to the brain and back again, Montessori stated that nothing should be given to the brain that is not first given to the hand.” (“Montessori from the Start”, page 60)

The challenge of simplicity

We are coming from a bit of a different view. We have been reading and thinking about the Pikler/RIE approach so much before Leander was born, that we didn’t place any toys near him at all in the beginning. It was difficult though. I kept wondering if that way I could be missing the moment for him to have those toys? That he would miss out? If everyone has it – is it really that bad? Should we not have it too? (Nadine)

Where do these thoughts come from? What do they say about us? In a time we question everything experts tell us and join every discussion on every major topic concerning our baby like breastfeeding, bottle feeding, vaccinations, co-sleeping… the list is endless

So most of the time decisions on mobiles or rattles seem minor. What harm can it do to my child if he has a mobile with cute bees dancing above his head? Sure, it will not be damaging. It might though be, as Janet Lansbury put it, counterproductive. Considering that early play creates the path for a child’s ability to play, to concentrate, to maintain a longer attention span, and to learn – maybe all of these obvious toys are worth giving a second thought? We are not planning to start a revolution… yet  But just imagine this for a moment: Your baby is happily lying on a blanket on the floor, exploring the soft piece of cotton you have provided for him. The house is peacefully quiet, and so is your baby. He is learning through all of his senses, his toys are simple. You know his attention span is increasing, his problem-solving skills are growing every minute, he is engaged, focused and his brain is developing at speed you cannot even imagine. You know you have provided the best possible environment, without spending all your savings (there will be time for that). And you have not given in to the marketing gods, who claim that all the stuff out there is exactly what your child needs to be this or that. Is that so bad a vision?

So maybe we should not just question every vaccination a doctor is suggesting. Maybe we should also question EVERY toy in the store? Wink, wink 

And now let’s play!

Now having spoken so much about what not to buy – let’s have a look at the fun side. We are parents after all. We want to have toys for our children because we want them too. What can we get? What can we play with when our child is engaged in shadow plays on the wall once again?

Here are a few things we would recommend – again – from our own experience:

Safe area
Your infant needs a safe place, where he can comfortably play. Consider gates, or a space where you can leave your infant when you go to the toilet. Some babies like playing in their cot. If it is true that infants in the beginning cannot distinguish themselves from their environment, it is especially important that we provide a safe and consistent environment – try not to change all the objects everyday. Keep some things the same, so your baby can get used to his own space, and feel comfortable to explore – it is the work they do all the time, and we need to provide a good environment for them to safely do just that. Again, imagine coming to work and finding your desk rearranged every day. Would be quite hard to do any work.

Cuddly blankies, pieces of cotton, cotton scarves
These are the best first toys for little hands. They are safe and can be used in a number of different ways. Provide your baby with a few cotton toys, and see how many different uses he will find for them, and how long he can manipulate them for once he begins to be able to grab and hold them! They are also good because there is no way ain infant can hit himself with it. Make sure the pieces of cotton are large enough not to fit into their mouths, and not long enough to wrap around their necks.

Net balls or Oballs
Those are balls a baby can grab. He won’t get frustrated that it rolls away the second he touches it. They are light and allow transferring it from one hand to the other without dropping it. Again – toy industry has been very creative and found a way to build a rattle in those Oballs. So make sure you get one without!
The Oballs are also good for teething since the material is very flexible and babies can squeeze them and chew on them.

Plain wooden rings
These are really just great for teething. Make sure the rings are simple, not painted, not varnished to avoid toxic materials. Get a box of them in different sizes – your child will love those for a loooong time.

And just to give you a taste of how wonderfully an infant can play with such simple toys, have a look at Leander!

More great reading:

‘Dear Parent: Caring for infants with respect’, Magda Gerber.

http://www.janetlansbury.com/2010/10/better-toys-for-busy-babies/