Milestones: don't let comparison rob your sanity
When it comes to baby milestones, comparison is definitely the thief of joy – and parental sanity, writes Hazel Squair.
As I watch my squealing, giggling 16-month-old daughter scramble down the hallway, chased by her dad who’s down on all fours, it’s hard to remember that just a couple of months ago we were anxiously wondering if she would ever decide to get moving.
I’m sure any parent with a child who is ‘behind’ on milestones can relate. You tell yourself there’s nothing to worry about, that kids aren’t robots and that milestones are just guidelines, not deadlines. Deep down though, you can’t help wondering if you’ve done something wrong, or if there’s something more serious going on with your child’s development.
My daughter Andie didn’t start crawling until she was around 13 months old, and now at 16 months, is not even close to walking. I’m hoping my story will help parents in a similar situation to feel less alone, and somewhat reassured.
The curse of comparison
One afternoon when Andie was around nine months old, she, my partner Giac and I were enjoying lunch at a local café. We started chatting with a friendly older couple who were looking after their eight-month-old granddaughter. We commented on the girls’ similar ages, cooed over their growing hair and swapped notes on teething progress. When the woman commented that Andie “must be crawling”, I smiled, saying, “No, not yet”. There was a pause. “Oh, really?” the woman said, awkwardly, “Well, I’m sure she’ll be off any day now!”
Back home, I began to feel that hollow mum-guilt feeling in the pit of my stomach. Up until this point, we hadn’t thought twice about Andie’s lack of crawling. But now it seemed glaringly obvious. How could I have neglected to notice that my child was ‘behind’ on such an important milestone?
A second-guessing game
Oh, the insecurity of being a first-time parent! I found early motherhood terrifying. I had expected my own common sense and mother’s intuition to just kick in from day one. But instead, I found myself second-guessing every decision I made. I’d never felt this heavy mix of responsibility and vulnerability before. The remedy? Arming myself with information. I read voraciously, trawling forums and blogs. I joined online groups for issues that we hadn’t even had a chance to experience yet. And I talked to A LOT of people.
While it can be reassuring to hear other people’s experiences, it can also be easy to get caught in a trap of constantly sizing ourselves, and our beautiful babies, up against others. For me, struggling to process an unwanted C-section and disappointed by my breastfeeding issues, these comparative conversations with other new mums often left me achingly aware of my less-than-perfect motherhood experience. On the flip side, I felt guilty hearing other parents complain of the endless crying and sleepless nights when our little babe was sleeping great.
Discovering your baby
One day I came across the work of Thomas Berry Brazelton, an American paediatrician famous for championing the newborn baby as an individual. In his book Touchpoints: Birth to Three, Berry Brazelton warns about the dangers of trying to keep up with the Joneses, saying, “What worries me is that so much anxiety about these comparisons can be so draining. Instead of accepting the baby they have, some parents want to press him into the mould of an ‘ideal’ child. If I could do one thing as a paediatrician, I’d hope to help parents relish the individuality of their own baby.”
This idea really struck a chord with me. I didn’t want an ‘ideal’ baby — I wanted my baby. So, just like that, I ditched the constant research and unhelpful conversations with other parents, and instead focussed on enjoying and getting to know Andie.
Celebrating the little things
It worked a treat! Giac and I were suddenly having a ball as new parents. We were infinitely amazed by our baby, became experts at reading her cues, and were delighted to see her develop into a happy, content child. It seemed like every day she learned something new — how to kick or bat at the hanging toys on her play gym, how to grasp for things she wanted. Sitting surrounded by pillows, and then steady on her own. Exploring with food. We celebrated every new achievement but made a point of not assessing any of them against any yardstick.
This was, of course, right up until the moment I realised she was ‘behind’ on her first major mobility milestone.
Once you notice, it’s all you see.
So now, after one comment from a stranger in a café, it was all I could think about. Why wasn’t she crawling yet?
It became something of a hot topic with well-meaning friends and family who seemed to constantly ask how Andie’s crawling was coming along. They didn’t mean to add pressure, but I felt it, and often pre-empted their questions with an almost apologetic disclaimer: “Erm, so she’s still not crawling…”
We had several visits from our Australian family over this period and each time someone came to stay they seemed to make it their mission to get Andie crawling. Her Nonno would lie on the floor trying to entice her forward with a just-out-of-reach iPhone. She’d giggle, kick her little legs and try her hardest to reach the phone, but then give up. She found ingenious ways of getting things she wanted. She pulled on the edge of rugs to bring toys within reach or hooked things with the edge of a book. It was almost comical; the harder we tried, the more content she seemed with not moving.
I took my concern online, demanding Google deliver me the answers with an ever more pointed list of questions:
When should a baby start crawling?
How can I teach baby to crawl?
Why is my 9-month-old not crawling?
What are development issues in baby mobility?
You get the picture. But the mummy blogs and forums just drew me further into their web of collective anxiety and I quickly remembered why I’d stopped visiting them. The ‘expert’ websites and resources I consulted were less than definitive; I know that should actually have reassured me, but to an anxious mind, vagaries leave too much space for unhealthy rumination!
We had a Plunket visit when Andie was around 10 months old. The nurse was lovely and very complimentary about Andie’s social skills, her communication and her fine-motor skills. But when the conversation moved on to her crawling — or lack of it — I felt myself growing defensive and prickly. The nurse’s perfectly valid questions felt, to me, laced with judgement. “Have you been doing plenty of tummy time? Playing games to entice her towards movement?”
Whose problem is this, really?
We went home after Plunket and I sat on the floor with Andie, watching her play. She was so happy. I felt defeated. Should I interrupt her play to do some more tummy time? Then, it struck me. This situation was ridiculous. Andie couldn’t care less whether she was behind on a milestone. And if Andie is h appy not crawling, and I am positive she is totally fine, then why does it matter? I realised, on some level, I was attributing Andie’s lack of crawling with my own failing as a mum.
It was as if a light snapped on. Suddenly, it seemed so obvious that what I’d really been battling was my own insecurity — driven by the same ‘less than’ shame I had often felt as a brand new mum. My desire for Andie to get moving wasn’t for her sake, it was for mine.
A few nights later Giac and I were watching the Netflix docu-series, Babies, the episode on crawling and walking. It profiled several families with babies who ranged from early crawlers to straight-to-walkers. Some of the parents had invested a lot of time on mobility exercises, and some none at all, but it really didn’t seem to make any difference to how early the babies got moving. The scientists shared their amazement over how little we really know about how it all happens, and were genuinely enthralled by the magic that is human development. There was no focus on milestones, and no ‘right’ way things were supposed to happen. It was gorgeous to watch.
I started looking at Andie with renewed appreciation. My beautiful daughter will crawl when she is ready. Or not at all. The thing that truly matters is that she is happy and loved and encouraged to be herself as much as possible.
When Andie was ready, it happened all in an instant. She went from falling into the crawl position to stretching out and shuffling commando-style over just a few days. At first, she propelled herself by pushing with just one leg, then both together, and then suddenly she was up on all fours and crawling fast and confidently. This whole transition took around two weeks. And of course, none of the games or training we had tried with her seemed to make any difference — she did it in her way, in her own time.
Andie is just clicking over to 16 months now and we had another Plunket visit last week. When the questions about walking came up, I jumped in. “Oh, we’re not concerned about that. Andie didn’t start crawling till 13 months and she’s nowhere near walking — she’s not pulling herself up or trying to cruise furniture yet.” And then I added, “But that’s Andie. She’s such a chiller. She’ll do it when she’s ready.”
All in good time
So, for my child, it is much more about temperament than ability. She’s a happy and observant little girl who’s fascinated by the smallest details. She’ll inspect a toy closely, turning it over in her hands, pointing out tiny scratches or dents to me. She’ll entertain herself in front of a mirror for hours, trying to put on a hat, or watching herself flip the pages of a book. She might not be walking for another six months (or more!) but I’ll remember that all the while she’ll still be developing in a range of other unique ways. I’m so proud of who she is and am going to do my absolute best to always relish her individuality, and to encourage her to do things her way, in her own time.
Writer, first-time mum and recovering research-a-holic Hazel lives in Te Uku with partner, Giacomo, and daughter, Andie. She’s learning to let go of comparison and go with the flow.
Images: @masharotari via Twenty20
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 51 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW