Confessions of a Baby Whisperer

whisperer3

What does it mean for someone to be good with babies? I have gotten that flattering feedback from families that I have worked with (and several friends and family members), and it always makes me smile and wonder a bit. It’s true that I know better than to pinch a baby when I hold them, but I don’t think that there is anything in particular about me that would make me good with babies.

Some people are surprised to find out that I don’t even have a baby of my own. I adore my nieces and nephew, but I honestly haven’t had any of them in my care for more than a few hours at a time. So, most of what I’ve learned about babies, I have learned through spending time with families in our programs and being curious.

Large-scale population studies have lead to schedules of developmental milestones for babies. And some of the most popular parenting guides break these findings down into a week-by-week, or even day-by-day, guide of what to expect. These can be helpful to get a general idea of when behaviours and physical changes are likely to first appear. However, if your baby is not developing “typically,” those resources can become a source of stress for many people. I recommend talking to your family doctor, pediatrician or a public health nurse if you have any concerns about your child’s development.

No matter how much outside research you do, or who you talk to, your baby will surprise you. Each baby is unique. If you ever meet a parent of twins (or triplets) who suggests otherwise, I would be very surprised. This can be incredibly humbling to people who have spent years working with babies in health care and child care settings, or to parents who have a number of older children.

As perplexing (and sometimes infuriating) as it can be, getting to know your baby on a person-to-person basis is one of the most valuable and rewarding things that I can imagine. And when it comes down to it, it’s that specialized knowledge that parents and caregivers get from forging a relationship with a baby that will be invaluable if any kind of outside help is needed. We can get hints of what to expect from friends, family members, and all sorts of other sources, but being good with babies, in my opinion, has more to do with having a sense of wonder and respect for these brave little creatures.

And for the record: I’ve never actually called myself a baby whisperer. If I were going to brag, I would only say that the babies who smiled at me when we met outnumber the babies who cried.

We have Books for Babies programs starting soon at various locations around Edmonton. I hope to meet you and your baby there.

Program schedule:

http://www.famlit.ca/programs_and_projects/programs/babies.shtml

hashtag: #books_for_babies

Books for Babies for Dads

Among the programs that we offer across the city, in partnership with an incredible group of community agencies, there are a few Books for Babies programs that we advertise as Dads groups. I don’t want to give anyone the impression that the rest of our programs are Moms groups, or that fathers aren’t welcome at all of our programs. We see dads in all of our locations, just not all of the time. Let me paint you a picture.

Imagine you are a new father looking for programs you can attend with your baby. Maybe you see a posting online or hear from a friend about a program that you would like to try out. You clear your schedule, bundle up your baby, and take a stroll down to your local library or community centre. You come into a room with blankets spread on the floor, snack ready on a side table, families with infants all around, and not another dad in sight.

We know there are dads who wouldn’t even blink before making themselves comfortable on the blankets and striking up a conversation with the people around them. They are outgoing people who thrive in any kind of social situation, and when the program wraps up they will probably invite everyone to meet at the park next week. And they’ll bring snack!

On the other hand, we know there are lots of dads who don’t want to be the only father in the room, and won’t come back a second time if they are. It can be uncomfortable in the same way that being the only mom in a room full of dads can be uncomfortable. As facilitators we try to make our programs welcoming and comfortable for everyone, but even though all parents have something in common and can learn from one another, sometimes dads just want to talk to other dads, just like moms will sometimes jump at the chance to talk with other moms.

That is why we offer these programs – so that all dads can come and feel comfortable in the group. It is the same Books for Babies program in the same format. And just like always, you can meet other families with young children, pick up a few tips about book sharing, sing some rhymes, get free books, and if you have any questions there are lots of us there to help.

We have a program for dads starting at the beginning of November and it is already close to capacity, but if you look at our program schedule (see link below), there are already a few booked for the new year. If you are a father with a baby, I hope to see you there.

http://www.famlit.ca/programs_and_projects/programs/babies.shtml

hashtag: #books_for_babies

School for Babies

I like it when 3-BLOGThe fall season signals back to school for children and adults of all ages and in all sorts of schools. And while it’s probably true that someone somewhere is making lots of money running a school for babies, I am not that guy.

I don’t want to intimidate you with frightening statistics and insist that you need my help. I’m also not about to tell you an elaborate story about how I’ve divined the secret to making your baby a genius. Those would be lies, and I want to encourage you to think very carefully if you meet anyone who tries to sell you a story like that.

The things that we discuss in Books for Babies are pretty tame by comparison, but no less amazing if you think about what babies learn and how much there is to learn about babies. Babies are born into a life they know nothing about, and you are almost perfect strangers to one another. It’s pretty incredible if you think about how well you know them, and how much they understand about their world, by the time they are only a year old.

The trick, if you want to call it that, is that almost everything babies learn, they learn through relationships with the people they care about and who care about them. This is why we can say that parents (and other family members) are children’s first and best teachers. Babies are born wanting to understand the things around them, and they learn by watching and interacting with the important people who share their life.

Everything you do with or near your baby helps them learn about the things that are most relevant to them. If books are a part of your life, babies will want to understand them and want to be part of that experience. It’s the same reason you often see babies reaching for their parents cell phones, and why so many parents have that fond memory of the brief period when their toddler loved nothing more than to vacuum the carpet.

If you’d like to chat about how book sharing can benefit you and your baby, sing rhymes, get free books, and meet other parents, then I welcome you and your baby to join us at Books for Babies, or leave a comment below.

There is more information about the program and a full schedule of upcoming groups on our website: famlit.ca

 

hashtag: #books_for_babies

Another Way to Enjoy Books

There is something very special about hearing a story. For many people, it summons warm memories of snuggling up with mom or dad and a book at bedtime, overhearing adult family members share stories around the kitchen table, or telling ghost stories around the fire.

What’s more, hearing a book read aloud can go a long way to making the many benefits of reading accessible to even struggling or “reluctant” readers. Vocabulary can improve, comprehension goes up, and a book can be enjoyed that might have been too challenging for them to read alone. Even for fluent readers, there is a lot to like about hearing stories out loud.

I can only remember hearing a few books on tape as a child. But a few years ago, I discovered that the wait list for audiobooks is often significantly shorter than the wait list for print copies. Ever since then I’ve enjoyed listening to dozens of short stories and novels. I still like to sit with an actual book when I get the chance, but here’s a list of a few more things that I especially like about audiobooks:

  • I can listen to books in my car, on my phone, online, on cd (yes, I still own and use a Discman)… so, just about everywhere.
  • I can listen to books at times when it would be impossible (or super dangerous) to read them (while driving).
  • On nights when I am too tired to even read a few pages before I go to sleep, I can still put on my headphones, close my eyes and listen to a story instead.
  • Some books are performed as a radio drama with a full cast of voice actors and sound effects. Sometimes authors narrate their own stories, that’s pretty cool too.

So, whether you are considering things that you can do together as a family, or if you’re tired of the long commute into work and back everyday, consider trying out an audiobook. And if you’re feeling up to it, grab a glass of water and read a book to someone you love.

 

 

It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose, It’s How You Play the Game

Games are a wonderful way for families to play and learn together. Unfortunately, not all games are well suited for young children and even the “Junior” versions of some board games are not intended for toddlers or preschool aged children. Patience is a fine virtue, but if you can get young children involved earlier, it can be a wonderful opportunity for them to build motor, social, emotional and intellectual skills.

Your first consideration should be safety. A lot of games come with small pieces, and you want to think about what your options are before the pieces in question are swallowed. Can you switch out the pieces with something bigger that would work just as well? Can you switch up the rules or how the game is played so that the pieces aren’t even necessary? For example, you might be able to keep score with a pad and paper instead of moving placeholders.

In terms of motor skills, a lot of games have a hands-on element that is perfect for developing fine motor coordination. Playing Dominos or Jenga by the rules might work well for an older child, but a younger child can still use the blocks and tiles for building, stacking, and balancing. For older children with better motor control, Scrabble tiles and playing cards provide a more challenging building experience.

The very act of playing with the physical pieces helps children to make connections with a lot of abstract concepts. Dice can be a great way to practice counting. Playing cards can be sorted by colour, suit or face value. Recognizing the labels on game boards or building words with Scrabble tiles help children to learn and practice spelling. Learning to think abstractly comes with time, and it starts with concrete real world experiences.

Speaking of which, rules can be tricky, and ideas like sportsmanship and fair play take some time to learn. You can expect most children to go through a phase where they only want to win. They will either want to ignore rules or make up their own on the fly. That’s normal, and they are learning how rules work in the process. In a similar fashion, older children are often incredibly strict about the rules, which can be very frustrating for their younger siblings. Be patient, and try to emphasize the fun and excitement of the game. Being the first across the winning line is exciting, but if you’re just as excited about your “2nd winner” and “3rd winner” you can encourage them to keep trying. If the game is only fun when you win, then it can be hard to convince anyone to play again. On the flip side, if they are having fun they will be very engaged, want to keep playing and learn all kinds of skills and information in the process.

Why Lullabies Work

Parents and other caregivers have been using lullabies to sooth babies and put them to sleep for generations, because, usually, they work. They are not magic spells but there are a number of things going on, when we sing lullabies, that help to soothe and comfort babies.

  1. Your beautiful voice – you might not like it, but babies are in love with the voices of their close family members. It won’t last forever, but at least for a few years your baby would rather listen to the voices of his parents, siblings, and other caregivers than anything else.
  2. Your rhythm – babies can actually hear before they are even born, and the steady rhythm of mom’s breathing and heartbeat have made a big impact on your baby. Any regular rhythm (especially ones similar to a heartbeat) will put babies at ease, perhaps reminding them of simpler times before they were born and everything became strange and new.
  3. Your excellent taste – when you sing the songs and rhymes that you like, your baby can hear it in your voice and see it in both your facial expressions and your body language. If you are happy with your repertoire, your baby will love the experience.
  4. Your love of “the classics” – babies really are not trendsetters; they tend to like hearing the same things over and over again. If you are consistent in what you sing to your baby, they will appreciate the familiarity and feel more comfortable as a result. When you want to relax, you fall back on your favourites; you don’t charge into new and unfamiliar styles, and babies are no different. Speaking of which, if you regularly sing a song to an unborn baby, they will remember the song after birth and you can bet they will be fond of it.
  5. Your expert delivery – this is not rocket science. Gentler, slower, quieter tunes are usually more relaxing than songs that are aggressive, fast, and loud. I say “usually” because if your baby is used to hearing something loud and fast, she might be soothed by that instead.

So whether you sing traditional lullabies, the latest pop favourites, or the jingle from that terrible commercial that you just cannot get out of your head, you can probably make them work for you and your baby if you keep even a few of the above in mind.

And on those nights when lullabies don’t work, when you’ve sung everything you can think of, and tried everything that you can imagine to calm them down, and they just keep screaming… that’s when you need to sing for you. Your heart will slow down to match the beat of the song. Your breathing will slow down and your body will relax. It won’t solve everything, but you will be calmer which is good for you and for your baby.

Brains for Literacy!

  1. Halloween is coming.
  2. Zombies are popular.
  3. Let’s talk about brains!

This is a very exciting time to be alive. For thousands of years what went on inside a persons’ head was a mystery. And over the last hundred or so years there have been a number of breakthroughs that gave us a better and better idea of what the brain we carry around in our heads is actually doing.

The history of brain research is full of gruesome accidents, war wounds, dead bodies, and brain surgery. But even though Halloween is coming, I’m going to skip that part and get straight to the point: the advancements made in the last ten years have given us an increasingly sophisticated picture of how brains grow and develop in the very early stages.

So, why exactly is that exciting?

  1. It helps explain why so many of the traditional activities we have done with children for generations are so effective: person-to-person interaction is one of the most effective ways of forming connections in the brain.
  2. It shows us how stress can derail healthy development and compromise healthy brain functioning.
  3. It gives us very good reasons to hold off on expensive programs and products that promise to make babies into geniuses, because babies clearly don’t need any of those things.
  4. Seriously, there a lumpy organ behind your eyes that makes everything you think, feel and do possible with a system of squirts and splashes. That’s pretty close to miraculous in my mind.

I could go on and on, but there is a new video from the folks at the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative and Norlien Foundation that paints the picture of why this is helpful quite nicely in less than 5 minutes:

How Brains are Built: The Core Story of Brain Development

And if that video whets your appetite for more brains, Dr. Bruce Perry and his organization, the Child Trauma Academy have made a 13 minute video introduction to the brain. If you’re interested in how the brain works, this is an excellent place to start. You might have to watch this a few times, there’s a lot going on in that dark place between your ears:

Seven Slide Series: The Human Brain

So, if you ever catch a glimpse of a family literacy program, remember that while we spend a lot of time crawling on the floor with babies, and squashing play dough with pre-schoolers, we are hard at work building healthy brains!

 

Everyday Scavenger Hunts

I’m sure there are many sticklers who would argue that what I’m suggesting here is not a real scavenger hunt, but let’s skip past the dictionary definitions and focus on how you can incorporate the fun of a scavenger hunt into everyday activities.

You can search for anything

You could make a list of specific things to find, or try to see how many things you can find that fit a certain category. Personally, I’m a fan of categories and descriptions because they are great for developing vocabulary and they require a lot less preparation. Here are a few examples:

  • colours
  • sounds
  • shapes
  • words or letters (or things that start with a letter or sound)
  • movements (things that roll, fly, bounce, walk, slide, never move…)
  • sizes (what things are huge? what can you find with a magnifying glass?)
  • textures
  • groups of things (things found in pairs, 3s, 4s, 5s…)
  • things that fit a theme (tools, animals, plants, wet things, things that rhyme…)

 

You can search anywhere

Really, anywhere:

  • outside (what do you notice: walking down the street, on the bus, in the park, around a pond, at the zoo…)
  • at home (in a particular room or searching the whole house)
  • in other buildings (the garage, the grocery store, a greenhouse, the library, the post office…)
  • in books, magazines, and newspapers (newspapers are great for finding words and letters, and you might be amazed how many things they can remember seeing in the books you have shared together)
  • in your imagination (very handy when you run out of things to spot on long car rides)
  • in the garbage (maybe you’re learning about recycling or composting?)

 

You don’t need a “list”

While traditionally you start by handing out copies of a written list, a lot of young children will not find that very helpful. More often you will be reading the list to them. You can also use pictures with or instead of words, but that takes time, so you are probably only going to do that for special occasions or with things you use all the time (like turning your grocery list into a scavenger hunt).

Some people like checking things off in a list, but I never understood the appeal myself. Instead, if you want to keep track of what you find in your search, you could draw together, take pictures, use the voice recorder on your phone, collect the items themselves in a bag/box/backpack/basket (half the fun is remembering where the things you collected came from), or scribe for them (they will love seeing their words in print).

Or, you can skip the list altogether. Just pick a category or theme and go exploring together to see what you can find, or take turns deciding what you’re going to look for next.

 

Consider your audience

It’s easy to be overwhelmed if you think that a scavenger hunt needs to play out like the script to a blockbuster movie or an episode of a reality TV show. I’m not saying that wouldn’t add to the appeal, but young children are natural explorers. They will notice all kinds of things that you never thought to look for, and they bring a level of excitement to “let’s go find things that are red” that you rarely get from us older folk and our teenage friends.

 

Why are we doing this again?

  • It’s fun!
  • You can encourage them to be more observant and methodical. Often children forget to look everywhere or take a running approach to everything. By looking for things together, you can teach them some helpful strategies, like how to slow down or form a plan before you start looking.
  • We are building vocabulary! If your little one is starting to read, then circling all the words they recognize by sight on a newspaper page is great practice.
  • As exciting as it can be, this can also be really relaxing. How often do you take the time to look for shapes in the clouds? Or really listen to all the sounds in your neighbourhood?
  • There are all kinds of categories, themes, and ideas that you explore with these kinds of activities, so you’re helping them develop a broader, deeper, and more coherent worldview.
  • If you are missing a few things (your keys for example) this can be a sneaky way to recruit some help. I’m kidding, but not really. If you approach everyday tasks in a playful manner, you can keep the kids engaged, help them learn, still get everything you need done, and have fun doing it.

Books You Can Play

Let’s say that you’re walking through the woods on your way to school. All of a sudden your lunch box is yanked out of your hand, and you spin around to see a wolf running away with your lunch in one direction and a friendly looking bear with a picnic basket in the other direction. You hate to skip lunch, so you’ll have to choose: will you chase after the wolf, or will you stroll over to see what that bear is up to?

It’s one thing to read about a character making a decision, but when you get to choose which path the story takes you have a lot more invested in finding out what happens next. It’s a simple idea, and some might even dismiss it as a gimmick, but it‘s a powerful motivator. I read every book like this that I could get my hands on in elementary school. I also loved puzzle books (they usually had more visual problems to solve), and books that posed mysteries for me to solve based on the clues in the text.

I would bet that many teachers have passed these sorts of books to the more reluctant readers in their classes over the years, but I think they have a lot to offer for even them most avid reader. For example, they are great for:

  • Introducing a genre of story: mystery, romance, adventure, fantasy, horror, and science fiction are all represented
  • Practicing important skills: problem solving, math, logic, and reading comprehension
  • Bonding: read them together for fun, they are a kind of game after all.

I could go on and on about the “Choose Your Own Adventure” and “Two-minute Mysteries” that I read as a child, and these books are still out there. Some are even in electronic form, and I recently discovered that there are many written for adolescent and even adult audiences.  Some of them even offer an experience closer to playing a board game than the “turn-to-page…” adventure stories that I remember. There are even tools to help people write and create their own game books online. So, if you do want to play with your stories, there are lots of options out there for you to choose from.

         

Reading a Place

I have always found it interesting how often I am asked for directions. Maybe I look like someone who knows where they are going, or maybe I look especially non-threatening, but whatever the case I find myself pointing down the road, explaining the turns to take, and describing the buildings they will see on the way.

It goes without saying that children need to learn how to get from one place to another, and one way you can do that is by drawing a map with them and following it together. This can be a wonderful way to introduce them to their community or learn what is important to them in your neighbourhood.  All the while you will be practicing a wide range of skills, including:

  • recognizing environmental print (like street signs)
  • drawing or describing what we see (size, shapes, colours, symbols)
  • measuring or describing distances
  • imagining how other people see the world (we notice different things)
  • imagining a different visual perspective (maps often take a bird’s eye view)
  • following directions in order (start with a few steps, they will be able to handle more and more with practice as they get older)
  • reading and writing (directions or labels on a map)
  • listening (to directions, or you could even include sounds in your map)

I find it fascinating how many different ways you can explain how to get from one place to another, and how much someone’s directions can tell you about how they see the world.  Consider how much of the world an 8-year old can explore on their own and how that has changed since you were that age, or when your grandparents were that age. There is an interesting article that explores that here: The Great Indoors, or Childhood’s End?

If you cringed or laughed when I mentioned describing buildings to people who are lost, you might enjoy this: The Irrelevant Show: Stuart McLean Gives Directions