Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Baby Development: Don't Stress Yourself Out!

If you have friends or siblings who have babies that are about the same age as your own, or if your baby belongs to a playgroup with other children who are about the same age, then you probably know by now how quickly a normal conversation can turn into a somewhat competitive developmental tale of what actions baby can perform. Grandparents, too, seem to enjoy getting in on the fun of inquiring whether or not baby can do certain things yet. While this sort of questioning might seem pretty harmless, it can lead to a lot of unnecessary stress for moms and dads.

Baby development is very important, of course. Any baby reference book you see on the shelves in bookstores contains a developmental timeline with various milestones listed so that you can make sure your baby is progressing "normally." Indeed, if your baby can't do some of the things he or she is supposed to be able to do within a certain time frame, it could point to a problem with motor skills or, in extreme cases, perhaps even a serious medical problem. But, more often than not, there is absolutely no problem at all just because baby didn't sit up the day he or she turned eight months old or just because baby didn't start crawling exactly at nine months.

The truth of the matter is that all babies develop differently. They go at their own pace, and are completely unaware of what they are "supposed" to do just so grandma can brag about their latest accomplishments to her friends at work! Moms and dads should try not to get stressed out if baby is not developing right on schedule. This sounds easy enough, but often it's not -- especially for new parents who lack experience with these issues. It sometimes seems that no matter how hard you try not to fret about what baby can't do yet, you inevitably find yourself checking books or websites that offer tips and tricks (most of which turn out to be nothing but old wives' tales) that supposedly lead to faster development.

I have to admit that I fell into this awful parental trap not too long ago. My baby was developing "normally" and hit all his milestones within a few weeks of the dates that the books spelled out. Sometimes he reached a milestone earlier than expected and sometimes it was a little later than expected, but he always got there within a few weeks. That is, until it came time to walk. Most books say that babies will start taking their first steps before one year of age, and will start to walk longer and stronger a little while after that. Well, my baby didn't follow that timeline. He didn't take his first steps until he was almost 16 months old, which earned him the label of "late walker" according to my baby book.

As the one-year mark came and went without my baby taking his first steps, I didn't really give it much thought. But my mother and a few of my friends kept asking about it. I couldn't get through a single phone call, email, or in-person conversation without the dreaded "So, is he walking yet?" question coming up. When I answered "no", I would invariably be treated to tons of advice about how to get him to walk. Eventually, these kinds of conversations got to me. I started looking at my baby differently, wondering if something was wrong with him. I started looking at myself, wondering if I was a bad parent. I checked books and websites to learn how other parents dealt with this situation. I discovered that there were all sorts of exercises and games that I could be trying that were supposed to encourage babies to walk. Even though I hadn't done anything at all to aid development in other areas, I was so stressed out by my baby not walking that I started trying these (sometimes very strange) activities recommended by other parents. My mother bought a walker and insisted that it would help because it "worked for you when you were a baby."

About two months after trying a bunch of different exercises, games, and devices, my baby started to walk. I doubt that his walking had anything to do with any of the things I tried. There wasn't anything wrong with him, either. I think it was just his time to start walking, so he did it. And even though he was slow to walk, his development in some other areas has been noticeably faster than other babies. For example, he has a much bigger vocabulary than the other children in our playgroup. I think this just reinforces the notion that all babies develop at their own pace in all areas.

So if your baby is not developing according to the usual timelines, don't worry. There's probably no need to buy special gizmos and gadgets or rush to the nearest pediatrician. Everything will happen -- eventually!

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