Sunday, June 16, 2013

Being verbal

A friend just said to me yesterday, "I can't wait until our baby starts speaking!" I can relate to this sentiment, though I did respond by saying speech is a blessing and a curse. It's great to know what my child needs; it's difficult when something she needs, like milk, isn't something she can have that second because we're stuck in traffic and have run out of milk for that trip. Still, I will take a verbal child over a crying baby any day.

Some friends have asked what we've "done" to "make" Natalie so verbal. I'll say the following:

1) She's female. That gives her a leg up on boys. Boys and girls really shouldn't be compared when it comes to verbal ability just like boys and girls shouldn't be compared on growth charts. It's really an apples to oranges situation.

2) I'm not convinced our child is any more verbal than any other 17-month old. Maybe she is, maybe she isn't. She's probably at least average, though, as at the present moment she does not demonstrate any speech delays.

3) She was born to two reasonably verbal parents who teach humanities in high school, so if she's more verbal than the rest there's probably a genetic factor there.

But, for the sake of sharing, I thought I'd address some environmental factors and routines that may impact her verbal ability.

1) Extremely limited TV viewing. Matt and I love us some TV. We spend many evenings after Natalie is asleep pushing through many TV series (most recently Homeland seasons 1 and 2). During the day, though, the TV is hardly ever on. I will sometimes have on the Today show for about 15 minutes in the morning while Natalie is drinking her milk. She only pays attention if there's something on screen she loves, such as a dog. I tried recording an episode of Sesame Street for Natalie to watch as an experiment, but it only held her attention for about three minutes. It really seems like Sesame Street, at least, is geared toward older kids. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children two and under, we have not specifically avoided all screen time for our daughter; she's just genuinely not interested right now.

2) Lots of reading time. I remember after Natalie was home from the hospital when she was about eight days old we read Guess How Much I Love You, her very first story. When I think back to all milestones, this one holds a special place in my heart. I kind of teared up reading to her then, I think because I knew it was the beginning of a long road. (On a side note, this is why I still tear up every single time I hear "Pomp and Circumstance," signaling the end of a long road.) In those early few months when she spent almost all her days and nights sleeping, I had a goal of reading three books a day to her. I think we almost always met that goal. As her schedule became more consistent with three, two, and now one nap per day, we've tried to keep a routine of reading as a wind down activity before every nap and before bedtime. Some days are better than others and we might read five books before a nap or bedtime; other days, we're lucky to get through one book before bed. I figure there's no point in forcing the issue when she's clearly ready for bed, but fortunately, we've been able to have some nice consistency most of the time. Having books available throughout the house is also key to keeping reading at the forefront. Most books are in her nursery, but we also keep a basket of books on top of the toy box. This makes the books almost like toys, and so during playtime Nat will come sit on top of me while we read a couple books.

3) Lots of family time. Teaching is a job quite conducive to family togetherness, a big reason my husband and I chose to go into this field. Natalie is really fortunate to spend her hours with Matt or me or both of us, and once a week or so with her Nana and Pa. I think there is something to be said for family time and one-on-one interaction with a baby/toddler/child to stimulate language development. She's also probably lucky to be the first born because anecdotal experience suggests firstborn children thrive under that highly individualized attention.

4) Naming things. I fear I am probably at fault for being one of those obnoxious parents who narrates her child's life to her child. I will own up to it. I haven't tried to do this, but as Natalie talks more and more and points to things I just find myself telling her about every object in our house. Obnoxiousness aside, I think it's another environmental influence on linguistic development. Having your child know the names of the things she wants is better than the alternative guesswork. Her ability to name objects and people started around 10 months with the obvious (dog, mama, dada, bottle) and moved on around her first birthday to other objects important to her (bird, cat, shoes, socks, head, nose [my favorite of her words], toes, hat, fork, cup, ball, car, slide, diaper, shirt, flower, tree, bag) and then in the last couple months started to get a lot more specific (clock, straw, top/cap, chalk, pool, truck, Max [dog 1], horse, snake, duck, door, carrot, mac ['n cheese], pizza, pretzel, cracker, cookie, corn, plane, trash, floor, star, heart, camera, fan, neck, back, purse) and even include a couple verbs (sit, close, fly, share, clean [YES!]). We also get berry (for strawberry) and cone (for pine cone).

One fun aspect of watching emerging language development has been noticing how Natalie makes sense of new objects. For example, she learned "chalk" before "crayon," so up until this week any writing instrument has been chalk. Now she's starting to understand how crayons are for paper (and how the mouse in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, her current favorite, draws his picture with crayons). Additionally, any large body of water is a pool. Not a beach, not a river. All circles are balls. We've been helping her distinguish these things, but I know that's something we'll be working on for years.

At this moment I'm not convinced baby signing, in our experience, did anything to help with language development. Of course, we did an extremely light version of baby signing, really only using signs for "more," "all done," "please" and "thank you." Right now the only one of those words Natalie can say out loud is "please," but she'd much rather sign it than say it. Sometimes I even wonder when she'll say "thank you" out loud. I know it'll happen, but I wonder if it will happen later than it would naturally because she knows and uses the sign. And she really uses that sign. This week every time a plane flies overhead while we're outside she signs "more." We just look at her and tell her we can't help. This isn't a satisfactory answer.

I know this is just the beginning of fun mixed with a little frustration, but this is one aspect of watching a little person grow that I've been excited to watch. So far the experience has not disappointed.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Early terrible two's

So I hesitate to write a post that sounds very complain-y because I'm trying to be conscious of how much I complain (especially when compared in ratio-form to how grateful I should be for all the positive aspects of my life). But, so I don't forget, I think it's important for me to share a little bit about the hardest month I've had as a mom so far.

I had heard that the Terrible Two's can start as early as 12 months. I think in our case they started practically the moment our daughter turned 15 months old.

It was like one morning she woke up and didn't want to do anything. Everything set her off.

Diaper change? Time to scream.

Time to eat? No, time to scream.

You're telling me you want to play on the playground across the street? I take you there, and then you immediately scream?

You get the idea.

I felt like for the six or so hours that she'd be awake in the morning before her nap (she's been down to one nap per day reliably since about 13 months) I spent the whole time trying to figure out what I could possibly do to make her happy, what I was possibly doing wrong. Every question was met with a "no" head shake. (Now she can at least say "no," which is oddly cute.) Every time I put her down for a second, or went to get something from the kitchen, I had to deal with at least 20 minutes of whining.

I tried being super attentive to her every need, talking to her in the sweetest, softest voices I could muster. I'll admit I lost it a couple times, screaming something along the lines of, "What could you possibly need!?"

Now that I have a little distance (a month and a half, to be exact) from those four weeks of unpleasantness, I now realize I really wasn't doing anything "wrong." My child was clearly going through a major, major developmental milestone. All I could do was stand by and keep her safe.

Just days after she turned 16 months old she became the new and improved version of the baby/toddler I've known and loved. My suspicions that she had been going through a major developmental milestone were confirmed by her explosion of language and her much further advanced fine-motor skills. Now she tells me the names of all her body parts and points to all the objects in our house that don't have a direct impact on her life (the clock, the trash can, the umbrella on the deck). Now she spins around in circles and feeds herself with her spoon and fork and pushes her tricycle down the sidewalk. A bunch of new behaviors immediately followed the dark month we endured with her temper.

The parenting lessons I need to hold on to from this experience involve the obvious one -- patience, young grasshopper -- and the reminder that sometimes, no matter what we do, there are some things our kids just have to work out on their own.