Do It Myself!

“Do it myself!” I could probably live happily without ever hearing those words again. Unfortunately, they – or some variation – are a crucial phrase in every toddler’s vocabulary, including Sprout’s. While I appreciate his need to be independent and all of that bullshit, they’re really annoying in practice.

The phrase arises most often when Sprout is supposed to be doing something that he can do, but isn’t actually doing at the moment. For some reason, it’s the most common in the bathroom. When he’s supposed to be washing his hands, he often just sticks his right hand under the water rather than rubbing them together. Other popular options include splashing in the pool of water or sticking his palm against the faucet so it sprays everywhere. For toothbrushing, he prefers to gnaw on it with his back teeth instead of actually brushing them.

In both of these cases, he knows perfectly well how to do the activity – as I’ve seen him do it correctly – but is utterly uninterested in doing so. He’d much rather mess around playing in the sink or delaying bedtime. However, when I try to help him, he flails his hands and yells, “Do it myself!” While he can, it doesn’t make his futzing any less annoying when dinner is getting cold or his official bedtime is long behind us.

Unfortunately, my options for hurrying him up are limited for both philosophical and practical reasons.

In theory, I could get him to obey by physically forcing him to do it the way I want him to. However, I try to limit my physical enforcement of rules as much as possible to only the most dangerous of situations (like running in the road).

Physical enforcement often goes hand-in-hand with “might-makes-right” and authoritarian parenting, messages that I try to avoid at nearly all costs. The more I can convince Sprout that he should follow the rules because he wants to – or at least feels he should – the more he’ll form a moral compass in the future.

On a sheerly practical level, physical enforcement seems more effort than it’s worth for the stress. In a power struggle between a toddler and an adult, the toddler will always win in some way or another.

For example, the dentist recommended if he wouldn’t let us brush his teeth that one of us hold him between our knees and the other force his mouth open. Because that’s a great way to calm a toddler down before bed! No thank you on the additional half-hour needed to bring him down from a massive tantrum.

In fact, forcing him to do these things can actually be pretty dangerous. When he brushes his teeth or washes his hands, he uses a small stool to reach the sink. If he freaks out, waving his hands and stomping his feet, he could easily fall off it. He’s fallen off “dancing” around, much less throwing an actual tantrum. Slightly cleaner hands done a couple minutes earlier isn’t worth head trauma.

Instead, I try to find alternative ways to motivate him. When he says, “Do it myself!” I tell him, “I know you can – so show me!” Sometimes that works. When he’s spraying water all over the place, I prevent him from getting what he wants by cupping my hands around it so the spray is limited. I’ll only sing the tooth brushing song if he’s actually brushing them correctly. When he does actually do things correctly, I congratulate and praise him heartily.

And sometimes I just breathe deep, put my head in my hands, and wait. Eventually, he’ll do it right if I just give him time. After all, it’s just a phase.

When does your kid (or one you know) say, “Do it myself!!”

A Stellar Second Birthday Party

I know I’m not a “Pinterest mom,” but my mom borders on being a Pinterest grandma. Thankfully, that came in very handy the weekend before last when we hosted Sprout’s second birthday party. Despite the fact that we had to change venues due to flash flood warnings, our Teddy Bear Picnic party ended up being a lot of fun for kids and adults alike.

Knowing this is probably the last year I can pick his party theme, I picked one he would like but wouldn’t choose himself, like dinosaurs or trains. As Teddy Bears’ Picnic seemed like it would be a common theme, I thought it would be easy to find ideas for decorations.

So like a stereotypical suburban mom, I searched Pinterest. While I found a few great ideas, I was rather disappointed. Instead of being overwhelmed by choices, I found two things: 1) the same cute ideas over and over and 2) photos of incredibly elaborate displays with no instructions on how to do them. After looking at several of the posts that fell into category 2, I realized the authors didn’t make the posts with the goal of helping others out. In most cases, the photos were of parties that were run by a party planner, catered, or at least had 90% of the stuff purchased from an expensive bakery. As I have neither the budget or inclination to take any of those options, these photos were pretty, but useless.

With that in mind, I talked to my mom and we chose a few crafty ideas that she could help with. Unsurprisingly, she did an awesome job. She made an adorable pair of bear ears for Sprout – because you better go in disguise to the Teddy Bear’s Picnic – that he actually kept on for a long time (aka more than one minute). While I just asked her to frame the lyrics from the Teddy Bears’ Picnic song in an ordinary picture frame, she went above and beyond by creating a border of picnic tablecloth. She also dragged some decorative old-fashioned picnic baskets out of the basement and her office. I can’t imagine how much paperwork she cleared out of the one.

 Unfortunately, as cute as everything was, it couldn’t change the weather. As early as Friday, with a 90% chance of thunderstorm, it was obvious we needed to relocate the party from the park pavilion to an indoor location.

So I took the decorations, red and white tablecloths from the party store, and every teddy bear in the house and headed down to our finished basement. This was part of the executive decision to stay the hell out of everyone’s way this year, as opposed to last year. Both Chris and my mom have exacting visions for their projects that don’t exactly match my areas of competency. While last time I had the excuse of Sprout waking up for hours on end at 2 a.m., I would rather avoid having a panic attack and being miserable to my family again. Instead, I picked up toys, laid out picnic blankets, and arranged stuffed animals and books as artfully as I could manage. With the blankets and camp chairs, it was an indoor picnic, but still definitely a picnic.

 Table with picnic food and picnic basket with framed poem 

In the meantime, Chris and my mom were whipping up delicious picnic food. Using a cookie cutter, my mom cut peanut butter and jelly and peanut butter and honey sandwiches into bear shapes, then drew mouths on with frosting.  

 Cars made out of Milky Way bars with M&Ms for wheels 
She also made little driving bears with Milky Ways, M&Ms, Teddy Graham’s, and melted chocolate chips. (For Americans, the Smarties referred to in the link are like giant M&Ms, not the hard little things everyone picks out of their Halloween candy.) Chris made a deconstructed eggplant parmesan salad with cubes of fried eggplant, roasted tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, basil leaves, olive oil, sherry vinegar, and shaved Parmesan cheese. He made it ages ago and I adored it so much I still remembered it seven years later. 

And of course, the cake. With this birthday cake recipe and the buttercream frosting recipe from culinary school, it was definitely the tastiest cake Chris has ever made. It was darn cute too. White frosting with lines of red colored sugar created a picnic blanket. Piping of green frosting around the edges made for convincing looking grass. And stuffed bears from Amazon (12 for $10!) around a piece of honeycomb, on top of a piece of Saran Wrap, made an adorable picnic. It was shockingly hard to find those little bears. We almost had to fall back on Care Bears, of all things. 

Before we started, I wanted to see Sprout’s reaction. Last year, he didn’t have a clue what was going on, but this year, he’s already well-versed in the concept of make-believe. I’ve drank enough cups of pretend tea to know that. When he turned into the room, transformed into a teddy-bear fantasy, a big smile spread across his face. He was happy earlier in the day, but this was wonder. It made every bit of decorating worth it.

Once everything was ready, we waited for our guests. And waited. And waited. D.C. guests abide by the “fashionably late” idea and getting little kids out the door is a fight against entropy anyway. Just as I was getting genuinely nervous, our guests started arriving. Even though we had far fewer people show up than invited, it was the perfect number. If we had more, it would have been too crowded in the basement.

As it was, we had 4 kids running around, 1 infant, and a bunch of adults, both parents and not. The setting wasn’t as exciting as a playground, but they enjoyed our toy kitchen and little slide. They were self-sufficient enough that the parents could relax and talk, which everyone appreciated. I always like being able to see my friends.

But my favorite part of the whole day was just before we cut the cake. I held Sprout up to blow out the candles. As the lights were off and everyone was singing, he smiled quietly, his eyes shining. He knew everyone was singing to him out of love.

Later that night, he kept saying, “Happy day.” Happy day indeed.

Gaining New Words Every Day

There’s a joke I tell about my own babyhood that although I started talking late, I’ve been making up for it ever since. At Sprout’s 18 month appointment, we thought he might be following the same path. He was a tiny bit behind on his verbal development – nothing to be concerned about, but significant enough to keep an eye on. My mom is a speech-language pathologist, so I knew if he needed an evaluation or services, I could get great advice and wasn’t worried. But it turns out we had nothing to be concerned about anyway. Lately, it looks like he’s closer to following Chris’s path, who was speaking in full sentences by his second birthday.

At the last doctor’s appointment, we realized that we weren’t entirely sure if he had reached the milestone or not because we hadn’t kept track particularly well. More importantly, we wouldn’t have any clue if he had reached the 2-year-old 100 word goal if we didn’t start some type of system. While some people do rather more elaborate methods (like this adorable “Word Wall”), we stuck with something simpler – a calendar. I took the free but beautiful calendar I recieved from the Nature Conservancy and started writing down every word he said independently (no repeating after us) on the day he said it. Although we could have just used a piece of paper, going slightly more complex was the perfect choice. Sprout really enjoys looking at the animal and landscape photographs, which themselves offer opportunities for introducing new words. He now can identify something on every page, from trees to water to monkeys.

While we were far from exact in writing down what word he said when, the calendar also offers us a way to look at patterns in his learning. We found that he tended to have “vocabulary explosions,” where he would suddenly start using 5 or 6 new words in a few days and then go back to a slower pace. It also helped us remember words that he used constantly for a while and fell out of use as he moved on to different ideas.

Besides timing, the most obvious patterns are in terms of subject matter – namely, his love of animals. In addition to the usual farm animals, he knows about different marine animals (sharks, fish, penguins, whales, octopus), flying animals (owls, bats, birds in general), insects (butterflies, or as he says it “flies,” bees), jungle and plains animals (lions that say “rowr,” monkeys, and giraffes). I think most of it comes from his books, the majority of which have animal characters. In addition, his cool wooden animal puzzles from Melissa and Doug have also helped reinforce those concepts. Other popular topics include body parts, household objects, and a few scattered verbs focused on how his body moves (jump, walk, march, hop).

Like most toddlers, he loves identifying everything he sees and knows the word for multiple times, especially cars, buses and birds. His joy at gaining knowledge and mastery over words is rather contagious.

In fact, we’ve actually stopped using the calendar in the last few weeks because he’s learning too many new words for us to keep track. He’s up to more than 200 and gaining new ones on a daily basis. While it’s no longer in active use, the calendar is a really nice (and compact) keepsake of this particularly exciting time.

With a solid foundation of single words, he’s started developing a larger vocabulary around concepts. He’s increasingly close to knowing the alphabet song, although he routinely skips letters. Hilariously, he recognizes when something is a letter, even when he has no idea which letter it is. He’ll go up to our Prius, which has the word Hybrid in raised letters near the door and say, “A…B…D…” He does the same thing with numbers. Occasionally when he’s babbling to himself instead of sleeping, he’ll count: “1…2…5….10.” It’s hard to both stifle my giggles (I don’t want to sound like I’m mocking him) and gently correct him while being encouraging.

He’s starting to link phrases together too, making it a little easier to have conversations. The other day, he said “Ow. Foot” to Chris. When Chris asked what happened, Sprout responded, “Hog. Sharp.” From that, Chris could figure out that he stepped on the dryer hedgehog (it replaces dryer sheets), which has sharp plastic spikes. Today, as he walked past the neighbors’ house, he said, “Dog. Scared.” They have a medium but very loud dog that barked at him the other day.

I know some people dread their kids learning to talk because it allows them to talk back. But I much prefer words – even sarcastic ones – to crying or whining. Plus, one of things that has always connected Chris and I is our love of good conversation. I hope that we can share that with him and have great things to discuss with each other in the years to come.

Teething Bites

Text: "Teething Bites / We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So" Picture: Cartoon shark holding up a fin

The scourge of teething has darkened our door once again. And if that sounds overdramatic, let me assure you that it is not at all.

Sprout started teething quite early, around five months. He showed all of the classical signs: drooling like a waterfall, chomping on his hands, and slight stomach crud. Every day, we would check to see if there was any progress made, if those little white bumps were any closer to poking through. We applied Ora-gel religiously, hoping to find a way to help him sleep better.

Unfortunately, it was more than two months until we saw the first tooth emerge. The others took their sweet time as well, sprouting from his gums like the world’s slowest, hardest seedlings. While there was some pain, especially just before they poked through, it didn’t affect his mood too badly. He was a little cranky here and there, but nothing vastly out of the ordinary.

Much to our relief, there was a brief reprieve.

Then came the molars.

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A Chair of One’s Own

Sometimes, the things that children are proudest of don’t show up on any milestone chart.

This past Christmas, my in-laws gave Sprout a little plastic, Toy Story-themed chair. He was too small to use it at the time, so we just put it in the corner of his room.

A few weeks ago, Chris texted me with the omnious words: “He’s plotting.” Sprout realized he could potentially climb up onto the chair, although he didn’t actually have the coordination to do so. More importantly, he also realized he could drag the chair from room to room, giving him a convenient but risky stepstool. As we would like to keep him from scaling the furniture for as long as possible, the chair was banished to our room.

Until I left our bedroom door open the other day. Noticing he was suspiciously quiet, we peeked in and saw him perched up on his new throne, grinning. He was so pleased with himself – and not falling off the chair – that we couldn’t help but bring it out.

Since then, he’s been obsessed with sitting on the chair, in only the way a toddler can be. He’ll climb on and off it over and over again, either crossing his legs or swinging his feet. Once he’s on it, he’ll smile and clap his hands, congratulating himself on his achievement.

In fact, he was so distracted by the chair the other night that he refused to drink any milk before bedtime. With the chair in his line of sight, he only wanted to be sitting on it. He was willing to drink his milk while sitting on it, but doesn’t have the balance to both stay upright and lift the sippy cup to his mouth. As some kind of accident was bound to happen, I put the kibosh on that idea.

His sitting preoccupation has even extended past his chair. This weekend, he loved climbing up on a short stone stoop in our downtown area and was frustrated at the one that was too tall for him.

While walking is obviously a much bigger milestone, this is just more proof of Sprout’s burgeoning independence. I think he likes the chair so much because choosing to sit on a piece of furniture without any help at all is something Mommy and Daddy do. That aspect especially revealed itself this weekend, when my parents, Chris, and I were sitting around on the couch and living room chairs. Sprout dragged his chair from across the room and planted it in our little semi-circle, ready to join in the conversation.

There’s also an element of ownership. While we think of the high chair and crib as “his,” they’re really tools for us, furniture that makes our lives easier. In contrast, his chair is definitively his – he can use it on his own without help, and no else can. He isn’t in the “Mine, mine, mine” phase yet, but I’m starting to see the start of it.

Who knew that a simple chair could mean so much?

The End of a Nursing Era

Breastfeeding my baby ended on Saturday, quietly and with no drama except a few sad smiles from me.

I didn’t plan to doextended breastfeeding and certainly didn’t want to draw it out to the point where Sprout could clearly ask for milk. While I respect every woman’s right to make those decisions for herself, the idea of doing it myself freaks me out a little. Sharing my body with my baby who needed it for his main source of nutrition was fine, but I definitely didn’t want a kid (albeit a little one) who can speak nursing essentially for comfort. But I also didn’t want to go cold turkey, which would be painful to me physically and Sprout emotionally.

Once I reached my one year goal, I started the process of weaning. First, I cut out one pumping session each week, which I was more than happy to say goodbye to. Getting back the time and headspace that I had devoted to pumping was definitely the best part of this process. Because I was producing less, Chris started giving him bottles on weekends (in addition to weekdays) to supplement my nursing. I tried to give him a bottle and he did not take kindly to it, throwing it across the room.

Once I stopped pumping, my morning and nighttime supply also dwindled. As he wasn’t getting enough from me to last through the night without waking up hungry, Chris also took the final leg of the bedtime routine to feed him a bottle. Spout also didn’t seem to protest Daddy putting him to bed as much he did me, since he saw him all day and wasn’t as disappointed about not being able to play with him.

Finally, there were just two feedings left – when Sprout woke up and right before he went to bed, special times for us. As I knew these would be the hardest, I gave myself another week before tackling them, to make the transition as smooth as possible. Also, possibly, to drag the process out a little bit longer. As A Benediction for Nursing Moms says, we both mourn and rejoice at the beauty of what we’re leaving behind.

As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about in terms of Sprout being traumatized. He actually became rather ambivalent about nursing. He would latch on when offered, but would only stay on for a few minutes. Rather than rejecting me (which he’s done before), he just seemed apathetic. If he had the social sophistication, I would say he was doing it out of a sense of obligation.

In fact, he didn’t even seem to notice when I cut out the morning feeding. Unlike the first time I offered the bottle, he accepted it readily, happy to be able to drink a lot of milk, fast. He even continued to play with my hair, something he always did while nursing.

I had planned to wait a full week and a half before stopping the evening feeding, but moved the calendar forward because of his lack of enthusiasm. I purposely chose the last night as a quiet one, with Chris at the movies and me putting Sprout to bed by myself. Of all the milestones, this was one I actually controlled and I wanted to give it the focus it deserved. I felt a bit sad, knowing that this would be the last time we shared this special bond. But I didn’t cry. Instead, I just watched him with special attention, lingering on the look in his eyes. When he finished, I hugged him, kissed him, and offered him a full bottle, the transition complete.

While so many things with him becoming a toddler are loud, the end of nursing was hushed, a gentle kiss goodnight to his babyhood.

I Would Walk Five Hundred Feet

I am all about allowing Sprout to develop at his own pace without pushing him. But on the last few weeks, that pace has picked up significantly. This week, Sprout truly started walking!

He first got on the move at around 7 months, when he started scooting backwards. While I thought it would be a short phase – surely he would get bored with going backwards – he didn’t seem to mind.

In fact, it took him almost two months before moving forwards appeared to occur to him. One day, something just clicked – Sprout got his hands and legs coordinated and was on his way. Once he started, there was hardly a learning curve. It was as if he had been practicing in private. Right around the same time, he started pulling up on everything he could get his hands on – the couch, the coffee table, the curtains, our pants, my hair (Ouch – I am not Rapunzel.).

Following the same pattern, he crawled and pulled up on things for a couple of months, showing little interest in walking until near his first birthday. He “cruised” by hanging on to furniture quite well, but didn’t try to bridge gaps he couldn’t reach across or stand on his own. He would walk from place to place if we helped him, but he didn’t seem that interested in it.

But then, about a month and a half ago, walking with our help was all he wanted to do. He’d sit on the floor and raise up his hand, indicating that he wanted a finger or two to grab onto. Once anchored, he would twist his leg out from under him, place one foot down, and then squirm a bit to get the other one in place. Soon enough, he was so solid with our help that he was walking both inside and outside, over all sorts of surfaces. Playing with any his toys paled in comparison to walking! Chris said that some days, his back started to give out from having to lean over so much.

Despite his new-found love, Sprout was totally uninterested in walking independently for several weeks. Just over two weeks ago, he walked for the first time on his own after we let go of his hand. But even then, he was very hesitant. He would only take “steps” if Chris or I were very close by with open arms.

Suddenly at church last week, he decided he had quite enough practice and it was time to strike off on his own. He was walking all over the place, now unafraid. While he still didn’t like falling, he could walk well enough on his own to actually get somewhere without tumbling every few steps.

Since then, he’s been practicing his skills every chance he gets. He still likes holding mommy or daddy’s hand, but lets go as often as not. Sometimes when he’s walking on his own, he keeps his right hand in the air, steadying himself with our virtual support. He was even chasing a little girl on the lawn at our Town Square yesterday afternoon. She looked more disappointed than he did when he fell, circling back and holding out her arms to help him get up.

While he falls very little considering how recently he started walking, it’s still a lot compared to an adult. His reaction really varies, ranging from not caring at all to wailing immediately. (We’ve already had some dramatic ones.) When he does seem distraught post-fall, describing his feelings for him (“Oh, that hurt to fall down, falling down is scary.”), a technique from The Happiest Toddler on the Block, has actually helped quite a bit. After a brief whine, he’s usually satisfied and waves his hands to request help getting up.

Although he can’t do them on his own yet, he’s obsessed with steps, both crawling and walking up them. On our way to the playground yesterday, he spent so long stepping on and off of the sidewalk curb that the kids that had been playing there left by the time we arrived. When we were in Peru, I joked that the Incas discovered the stair and said, “Yes, that’s what we will build our empire on.” I despise climbing stairs, but he would have fit right in.

Now he’s intently focused on his next skill – climbing. Before he started walking independently, he actually showed more interest in trying to climb – lifting his knees up in the air and trying to get footholds – than walking. In fact, he climbed up to the couch using my leg as a step-stool before he took his first steps.

For big steps or climbing up the rocks in our Town Square, he holds on to both my hands and lifts his foot up above his waist. If we don’t shift his weight for him, he’ll put all of his weight on our hands, making him near-perpendicular to whatever he’s climbing. He doesn’t seem to mind – he must have it in his blood from me rock-climbing while he was in-utero.

I’m both proud of and nervous about his passion for climbing. While walking is a big deal, he can’t really access any household items that he couldn’t previously. But once he starts climbing – especially if he progresses as quickly as he has with the other skills – we’re doomed.

Now, Sprout is definitively a toddler – there’s no denying it. I love walking with him now, despite the repetition, and look forward to walking all sorts of places with him in the future.

Happy First Birthday Party Sprout!

Happy First Birthday Party, Sprout!

A birthday – especially one as momentous as a first birthday – deserves a party. Of course, Sprout’s first birthday party was more for us than him, but getting through a full year as parents is also worth celebrating! It all turned out well in the end, but the party definitely confirmed that I am not a Pinterest mom.

I love hosting and having parties, but I’m not the fondest of preparing for them. Most of the time my main contribution is washing the loads upon loads of dishes that Chris dirties in his quest for culinary bliss.

But this party was fundamentally different from our former shindigs. Most of them have been in the winter and this was in the summer. We wanted to invite a lot more people than usual, so we could include not only our friends but also our relatives and church folks. As we can’t fit that many people in our small house, we rented the pavilion at a park across the street from our house.  Because we wouldn’t be right next to our kitchen, this (thankfully) limited Chris’ culinary ambitions.

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A Year of Love

One year and one day ago, our son came into our lives after 40 weeks and 5 days of pregnancy and 10 hours of labor. We welcomed him on Father’s Day, making space in our lives for this new little person. Yesterday, we celebrated his first birthday, looking back on a year of challenges, sleep lacking nights, learning and a lot of joy.

At his six month birthday, I said that babies distort time itself. While the changes over the first six months astonished me, the changes in the last six have been even more radical. Last weekend, our friends brought over their four-month-old. She was adorable and smiling, but so different from Sprout. In fact, he seemed to have more in common with our other friend’s two-and-half year old than her, even though they’re closer in age.

In the last six months, Sprout learned to scoot, then crawl, “cruise” with the help of furniture, walk with a helping hand, and as of yesterday, stand independently for short period of time. He was just barely starting solids then; now, he’s had nearly 50 different foods. Now, he eats well with his hands (unless he drops food on purpose) and has some skill with a fork. His spatial and social skills have evolved with his physical ones. He now hides behind me, shuffling back and forth from my left to my right shoulder, and giggling when I pretend I can’t find him.

We’ve certainly had our share of challenges over the past year. In the past week alone, I’ve been absolutely baffled at how to handle getting him to sleep (yes, again!), what to do when we have to skip naps, what to do when he spits out his food, how to put his bike helmet on without a meltdown, how to get his pajamas or diaper on without a wrestling match, and why he’s being mood swingy at any particular point in the day. I frequently think – or just say to him – “I don’t know what you want!” He insists on being the center of attention when I’m getting ready for work, which is alternatively annoying and endearing. His adventurous attitude is wonderful, except when he pulls tissues out of the garbage or literally eats dirt. He regularly amazes and confounds me.

But that’s the beauty of parenthood – it’s always full of change and opportunity. Even if one day has gone badly, there’s always another. While he’s learned so much the first year, so have I! As Sprout has developed his own personality, I’ve tried to teach myself as best how to relate to this little person with a radically different perspective in the world. As he’s developed needs beyond the basics, I’ve learned how to listen to someone who doesn’t have any language skills. (As I’m not a great listener to begin with, this has been particularly hard for me.) I’ve learned to play without expectations about what that may mean, just following his lead. Chris and I have both learned to discuss, compromise and teach each other more than ever, reaffirming our shared values.

Even though only a year has passed, it’s hard to process the memories of life before Sprout. I’ll remember doing things, wonder where he was, and then recall that it happened before he was born. He’s so woven into our lives that while some people see children as restricting them, he’s made our tapestry even bigger and more colorful. True, there are certain things I can’t participate in, like office happy hours or bar skeeball leagues and I do miss them. But there’s so much I get to experience with him.

While I was terrified before he was born – even though we planned everything – I realize now that we were as ready for him as we ever could ever be. That was the perfect moment for him to enter our lives and become part of our family. And I’m so glad he did.

The Play’s the Thing

Play is a curious thing. Before I was a parent, I would have never thought someone waving his arms randomly or shaking an object would be considered play. But after almost a year of playing with my baby, I have a much broader definition these days.

Playing “with” newborns is a bit of a stretch. Most of our non-feeding or sleeping activities with Sprout were limited to shaking things at him while he laid on his back. When you don’t have the motor control to reach for an object, the options are limited. Despite that, we tried to be creative. Even though we knew he couldn’t understand us, we made up songs and stories. We’d imagine personalities for his stuffed animals and have them talk to him. We’d read him books, even when it was obvious he wasn’t paying attention. I’d dance with him, cradling him in my arms and swaying to our collection of children’s music. In those early days, finding different activities entertained me and kept me sane, helping me feel like more than just a source of food.

With Sprout developing more strength, especially in his neck and back, we were able to play in a much more physical manner. We love playing “flying baby,” whether under our arms or above our heads. When I’m lying on the ground, he lies on my stomach, our faces nearly touching as we roll from side to side. My dancing has become much more varied, carrying him on my hip, waltzing or shimmying across the room with an occassional dip thrown in. We get the best laughs out of these activities, a high-pitched giggle that sounds a little like a cartoon character.

As Sprout’s mental capacity has developed so has his sense of humor, as rudimentary as it is. He no longer laughs just because we’re laughing; we have to work for our audience! Peek a boo became much more fun once he gained object permanence. Finger games like I Am Thumbkin started to make a lot more sense once he understood the idea of conversations. Recognizing when something differed from normal opened up a whole range of possibilities. I’ve greatly expanded my silly expressions and frequently resort to putting ridiculous things on my head. I especially like putting his monster or shark hooded towel on my head and making chomping noises right before I take him out of the tub.

Along with his physical and mental capacities, his ability to be engaged and proactive in playing grew. His first mode of play – and still a favorite one – was shaking things. If he could pick it up, it was bound to go in his mouth or the air. He also considers banging things totally awesome, as is knocking down or taking apart things, like my block towers. Once he got used to crawling forward, he started chasing objects. Now, his favorite toys are anything that he can scurry after, from a pullback train to four different large balls (squishy with tags, hollow with a rattle ball, mini beach ball and a bouncy ball).

Lately, the biggest leap has been Sprout’s ability to understand the idea of playing with other people. The first time it started to sink in was when he was just on the edge on crawling. One day, I got down on my stomach and mimicked his motions. When he hit the floor, I hit the floor; when he babbled, I babbled. After a while, he realized that what he was doing and what I was doing were related. He looked very intently at me, and then smiled. As we went on, he laughed and then inexplicably became upset. Obviously, I stopped, but do wonder what was so upsetting. More recently, he’s decided to play the classic toddler game of Dropping Things on the Floor For Mommy and Daddy to Pick Up. What’s particularly funny is that he doesn’t even look at what he’s dropping, as if we won’t see him drop it if he doesn’t see him dropping it. But Chris and I aren’t willing participants, so that game has a pretty short lifespan.

But the advance that really excited me was when Sprout really followed “rules” of a game for the first time a few weeks ago. All three of us were sitting on our living room floor and Sprout was playing with his new mini beach ball. He handed the ball to me, which is rare in and of itself. He thinks feeding us is hilarious, but doesn’t usually share his toys. Seeing an opportunity, I handed the ball to Chris, who then handed it back to Sprout. Who, much to my surprise, handed it back to me! We went around in a circle for about 15 to 20 rounds. Finally, Sprout either got bored or distracted and bounced the ball somewhere else. But I never knew I could be so impressed by such a simple game.

While all of this is fun, I can’t wait until Sprout starts playing imaginatively. I want to hear his stories and songs and puppet shows and everything inside that marvelous little head of his.