Category Archives: parenting

A-‘s moods

I’ve been thinking about A-‘s moods: what they’re like, what influences them, and what she likes doing when. If I can match my invitations and activities to her emotional state, then I can help her regulate her emotions and make the most of learning opportunities. Here are a few moods we’ve observed.

Reserved: When we’re outside, A- usually prefers to start by watching. If the place is busy, loud, or unfamiliar, it can take her some time to warm up. I don’t push her to interact. Instead, I might model playing with things myself, or simply sit with her and soothe her until she’s ready.

Quietly interested: Once A- has warmed up, or when we’re by ourselves at home, she’s usually calmer than many of the other babies I’ve seen. Most of the time, she’s quietly interested in whatever we’re doing. She has a neutral expression, and her eyes are bright and alert.

Playful: At home, A- often initiates play by doing something (throwing a ball, etc.) and looking at us with a smile or a laugh. She likes interaction, and will happily take turns or repeat actions to keep the game going. Sometimes she’ll be playful outside too, especially if we’re in a familiar place.

Laughing: I often hear A- giggling while W- plays with her, which is wonderful. I love the way he plays with her. He’s creative and energetic, and he usually gets her laughing and learning at the same time. He’s great at trying out new things with A-. When the chores are all sorted out, I like joining them for play – partly because it’s fun, and partly because W- is an awesome parent and I want to learn more. Sometimes, if I’m extra playful and silly, I can get lots of giggles from her too.

Afraid/upset: She’s got a good memory for places and people now, which is great when we go to the early years centres and a bit more challenging when we go to the doctor, the hospital, or the ocularist. When she’s afraid or upset, she cries and clings to me, and I try my best to soothe her. I remember having a hard time focusing when we were trying to soothe her after she woke up from anaesthesia. She was four months old and crying and crying, and my brain was fuzzing out. I’ve gotten much better at staying calm and holding her while she cries, trying to soothe her by rocking, singing, nursing, and talking.

Tired/hungry: When she’s tired or hungry, she’s usually pretty good at signaling what she needs. She’ll start with eye-rubbing, yawns, fake-snores, and babbles, and then cry if I miss those signs. For hunger, she’ll sign, and then push or cry if I miss those signs.

Resistant: When she doesn’t want something to happen, she’ll frown, wave our hands away, and protest vocally. This often happens when we try to brush her teeth or put her in her high chair, and it sometimes happens when we want to change her diaper or her clothes. Sometimes waiting is enough. Sometimes it helps to offer choices. Sometimes we just need to move on.

Pleased: She smiles and seems very pleased with herself when she figures something out or does something well. She often repeats the action many times, too. For example, when she got the hang of sitting down at the right time during Ring Around the Rosies, she asked us to sing it again and again, and she sat down smiling each time.

Snuggly: At bedtime or sometimes when she nurses, she likes snuggling up close. She also likes snuggling some of her stuffed toys. She used to hug one of our cats, too, but she hasn’t done that lately.

Hmm. Maybe I don’t have to be concerned that I’m not helping A- have as much fun as she does with W-, or that I’m not playful or creative enough. =) When she’s with me, she’s usually quietly interested in stuff, punctuated by plenty of snuggles and the occasional game. She seems to be developing well thanks to the different play styles she gets exposed to (yay, W-, J-, and Y-!), so that’s cool. Onward!

Notes on the Healthy Babies Healthy Children program

Back in May 2016, we were accepted into the Healthy Babies Healthy Children program because A- had a number of risk factors: A- was gaining weight very slowly, she had multiple congenital abnormalities, we were dealing with lots of uncertainty and medical appointments, and I was a first-time parent with no experience with little kids. We definitely needed all the help we could get.

The Healthy Babies Healthy Children program involved visits by a nurse and a home visitor. The nurse visited us every one to two months. The nurse helped us keep a close eye on A-‘s development using the Nipissing District Developmental Screens and the communication checklist. She also shared tips for interacting with A-, modelling the behaviours and explaining the ideas behind them. She used the NCAST Parent-Child Interacion Scale to closely observe how I interacted with A-. (The teaching scale involved a 73-item checklist!) With her guidance, I worked on giving A- specific positive feedback (“You shook the rattle!” instead of “Good job!”) and responding to signs of disengagement. It was also great to be able to ask her questions about the medical issues that came up.

The family home visitor came every one to two weeks. We often referred to the Nipissing checklist to plan what to do. She shared lots of activities that I could do with A-, and she even brought the materials. Thanks to her, A- got to try out things that it might not have occurred to me to start her on early: cruising along the sofa, scribbling with crayons on paper, painting with tempera paint, and so on. It was great to be able to ask her questions about parenting and community resources, especially since she saw A- regularly. It was also interesting to see A- gradually warm up to the family home visitor, despite the occasional reversion to staying close to me after a particularly stressful time.

Things have gotten much better over the past thirteen months that we’ve been helped by the Healthy Babies Healthy Children. On the medical side, we’ve learned more about A-‘s conditions, and they don’t seem to get in the way of her growth. Based on the checklists, A- has been developing normally so far. I’ve internalized many of the tips the nurse and home visitor have shared with me. Since there are higher-risk families they can help, it’s probably time to move on, although maybe we’ll wait until after the 18-month well-baby visit and the spate of medical follow-ups we have in August.

Even after we wrap up with the Healthy Babies Healthy Children program, I’d still like to keep a close eye on A-‘s development so that I can ask for help early if needed. Because we live in Ontario, I can get the PDFs for free from ndds.ca. I can talk to people about activity ideas and timing. The drop-in centre staff can suggest developmentally-appropriate activities. I can ask A-‘s pediatrician and Toronto Public Health questions, and the centres occasionally organize sessions with public health nurses too.

I’m glad we got to go through a program like this. I wish it were universally available. I learned a lot, and I’m looking forward to continuing to apply what I learned.

Notes on the Smart Start program at the Royal Conservatory of Music

We’ve been attending the Smart Start 12-24month classes at the Royal Conservatory of Music, which I chose because I like how the conservatory actively does research in the neuroscience of early music education. (More on that later.)

The 45-minute sessions are generally structured like this: free play, bouncing and tickling rhymes, walk/stop/run songs, instruments, listening to a short performance by the teacher, songs with scarves or puppets, and a goodbye song. Compared with the free circle times we’ve been going to at our neighbourhood drop-in centres, the music classes:

  • have small, consistent classes with a narrow age range and the same teacher: This is one of the benefits of a registered program. A- seems to warm up faster in a small group with familiar faces, and she’s gotten to the point of feeling comfortable walking around with me during the movement section. A narrow age range also makes it easier for the teacher to pick developmentally appropriate activities.
  • are longer: Circle time is generally fifteen minutes long, compared to about 35 minutes of music time (excluding the 10-minute free play to help the kids settle into the side).
  • repeat songs more within each session: We might sing the same song more than five times in class, while circle time usually does the same song once or twice before moving on. (The drop-ins might do a song  three times, if it’s a popular song with varying lyrics like See the Sleeping Bunnies.)
  • have more planned variety over time: Because it’s a registered program, sessions can build on previous ones to cover topics systematically. Repetition within sessions and across sessions allows the introduction of uncommon songs.
  • expose kids to good instruments: Small classes and good funding mean that every kid can try the same instrument, and they can go through different instruments over time.
  • expose kids to professional performances: The kids can watch the teacher perform on various instruments at a level much higher than I can do at home or that I’ve heard at circle time. There’s a baby grand piano in the room, and the teacher plays that and other instruments as well.
  • lead into other classes: There’s a clear path for life-long learning.

It’s awesome watching A- learn. She’s beginning to anticipate the phrases in the bouncing rhymes, although she’s still pretty blasé about tickling rhymes. She walks around with me during the segment where everyone walks around in a circle. She picks up the pace a little when the tempo shifts. She sways and bounces to rhythms. She imitates how we play jingle bells, drums, rhythm sticks, and shakers. She sits down and stands up at the appropriate times in Ring Around the Rosies.

I’m learning a lot, too. I’ve picked up a couple of new folk songs and rhymes. It’s a good opportunity to observe and learn a little about the ideas behind early music education, and it’s great to be able to ask questions. The textbook that the teacher recommended (Move, Sing, Listen, Play) will help me reinforce the ideas when we’re at home. I like the classes, and I’ve signed up for more next month and the fall term.

I’m not here to push A- to be some kind of musical prodigy. I’d like us to have fun with music – to nurture our musicality. I’d like her to grow up knowing that music isn’t just something you listen to, but something that you can enjoy creating. Not just something you play, but something you can play with. Since the best way of doing that would be for her to “catch” that kind of enjoyment from me, I’m happy to take advantage of group classes where kids need to be accompanied by grown-ups. At this age, the classes are probably more for us anyway. Independent classes start at three years old, so I may as well make the most of our shared music education opportunities.

We learned a bit about the ideas behind the Smart Start program when we went to the conservatory’s open house last weekend. Dr. Sean Hutchins (a neuroscientist, the RCM director of research) talked about how the Smart Start program focuses on developing attention, memory, perception, and cognitive flexibility, and shared some results from their neuroscience lab that showed significant improvements in musical ability and related areas such as literacy and numeracy. I asked him how his research influenced how he helped his kids with their music education. He told me about the value of starting early, and how music and movement are inextricably linked for young kids. I also asked him if the lab had developed any observation tools that parents could use to keep track of their kids’ musical development over time, outside the lab. (I’m a data geek, after all!) The lab has a short questionnaire for parents, but he didn’t have an inventory or scale that I might be able to use to document A-‘s growth. Ah well, I’ll just have to read textbooks on music education and take qualitative notes. The RCM Science blog and Resources page might be good starting points for more information. He also recommended Dr. Laurel Trainor’s work, as she does a lot of research with infants and toddlers.

Anyway, the drop-ins are great for adding more music and socialisation to everyday life, so we’ll keep going to those ones too. Music classes seem to be a good use of our resources. I’m glad we get to do both!

Notes from the parent advocacy workshop – my goals

I’ve been going to a workshop on parent advocacy skills. One of the sessions was about assertive communication: giving yourself permission to express your feelings and ask for what you want in a respectful, confident, and specific way. I’m familiar with the techniques (I statements, active listening), but it’s always good to practice and to see how other people might handle a situation. It also got me thinking about what I do want to learn when it comes to advocating for A-, and how to make the most of my strengths and work around my weaknesses.

I think there’s often a lot of leeway in how to solve a problem, especially if you try changing perspectives. Just like in tech, some ways are much easier and some ways are much harder. It’s easier to work with a system than against it. Asking different questions opens up other possibilities. That’s been my experience with tech. Human-centric fields are even more fungible. If you can get people to want to help you, they can bring their creativity and resourcefulness to the table. Conversely, if you get on someone’s bad side, they might drag their feet, or they might follow the letter of the law but not the spirit of it. And you can’t just keep testing until something works!

To make assertive communication easier, I like doing my homework. I research the possibilities and the trade-offs so that I can make better decisions and ask for specific things. I like knowing alternatives and having backup plans, because that takes the pressure off. I like reading policy manuals or getting the inside scoop from people because that gives me an idea of the structures that people work in, what tools are available to them, how they’re evaluated, what makes their day better, what makes them look good to their boss. I find systems fascinating, even when they don’t work perfectly well. We’re going a little outside the mainstream for a number of things, so it helps to know what’s out there and how to support any exceptions we want.

I’m working on getting better at dealing with different communication styles. Fortunately, this is rarely a problem. I minimize encounters with aggressive people, and I’m pretty comfortable disengaging from things I don’t like. I’ll dig into conflict resolution a bit more when I run into things I don’t want to work around, but in the meantime, there’s so much potential in yes-es that I don’t have to chase after any no-es.

Rather than conflict resolution, I mostly want to focus on understanding the systems here. What resources can I draw on? What’s easier and what’s harder? How can I work around any bumps? How can I give back and make things easier?

For A-, here’s what I anticipate needing:

  • tools to help me catch any developmental delays or learning difficulties, since early intervention pays off
  • minor accommodations in school: how to deal with the prosthesis if it’s out of her eye, seating adjustments, not sharing reading materials, eye protection and other safety precautions, possibly alternatives to ball sports (or realistic expectations for performance), help with social integration, and so on
  • good relationships with doctors, nurses, teachers, librarians, and other professionals

Based on the stories of other people in the microphthalmia/anophthalmia support group, it’s possible that she’ll enjoy school and develop a great sense of humour about her eye, but it’s also possible that she might have to deal with rejection or even bullying. I’m looking forward to learning how to work with or around whatever I can.

Thoughts on getting a membership to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM)

I’ve been building up a small opportunity fund for A- so that it’s easy to take chances on memberships, classes, books, and other good things. After some consideration, I decided to use some of it for a membership to the Royal Ontario Museum. We’ve been working on animal names and sounds, so I figured it would be good to point to animals in addition to pictures in books, Duplo pieces, and small models at the early years centres.

The ROM turned out to be a nice quiet place to walk around and contemplate the vastness of history, A-‘s thirteen months of existence a blink contrasted with millennia. I picked up all sorts of tidbits as I tag along on tours, too, and I’m working on getting better at identifying animals myself. (I could probably spend a few years in the bird section!)

What do I want from the ROM?

  • I want to develop a deeper appreciation of our place in history and nature, and I want to be able to share that with A- as she grows.
  • I want to train my eye to recognize and differentiate various things.
  • I want to pick up more words and share them with A-.
  • I want to learn stories and tidbits that I can share with A- and W-.
  • I want a quiet, sheltered, spacious place to walk with A- or hang out with friends. I want to have interesting things to look at and chat about.
  • I want to expose A- to different sights, sounds, and textures. Sometimes they have smellable exhibits, too.
  • I want A- to feel at home in the museum instead of it being just a destination for school field trips.
  • I want to have something to offer to other parents and friends.
  • I want to support culture.

The benefits are mostly for me at the moment, but I hope this will pay off when A- starts asking questions about the world or learning about history. It might be handy for helping her increase her vocabulary and see how the world is connected. I’m still going to prioritize hands-on learning for her, since she needs to exercise all her senses, but I think the museum might add something useful to the mix. That means I should take notes (and perhaps photos) so that I can jog my memory, and I should slow down and point to things while naming them multiple times, paying special attention to exhibits at her eye level. I’d like to make it out to the museum at least once a week, ideally inviting other people along.

Now is a good time to bring A-, actually. It’s still a bit cold and rainy, so it’s better to be indoors than at a park or playground. She’s not walking independently yet, so she usually doesn’t mind hanging out in the carrier and nursing on the go. That gives me an opportunity to join tours or read labels, and then I can think about those things when she gets antsy and wants to walk around while I hold her hand. She toddled around the Ancient Egypt exhibit quite happily, and I could still hear some of the tour guide’s stories even though A- sometimes took me around corners. Come to think of it, A- seemed to warm up to the place faster than she usually does at the early years centres. Maybe she prefers to be more reserved when there are lots of active kids. She’s still a bit hesitant to touch strange things, but that might pass in time.

The math: The curator’s circle membership I signed up for lets me take three guests and four kids, includes free coat check, and costs $189. The social level of membership allows one guest and costs $149, so +$40 gets you free coat check and the ability to bring two additional guests and four children (4 <= age <= 17). Half of a two-year solo membership is $86, so +$63 gets you the ability to bring in one guest each time you come. An adult ticket is $20 (+$10 for the special exhibition), so the solo membership breaks even after one visit that includes the special exhibition plus three visits without. The premium for the social membership works after three guest visits including the special exhibition, and the premium for the curator’s circle membership works after two extra guests including the special exhibition, or lots of coat check use. (The member price of $1 per item would’ve added up quite a bit given all these coats and diaper bags!) Yay math! And now it’s a sunk cost, so I can just treat it as an investment in cultural knowledge and potential social interaction.

Among the things I learned this week:

  • Blue whales are huge! Standing next to the skeleton of one is a great way to realize how tiny you are.
  • Noise pollution is a challenge for whales.
  • Whales have really big poop flumes which can be seen from airplanes. The poop is bright orange because they eat krill, and krill is bright orange.
  • Bootlace worms are very long.
  • Researchers solve interesting puzzles with incomplete pieces. I liked how they pieced together the evolutionary history for whales with the help of Pakicetus. They also have to deal with weird one-off fossils like the Toronto subway deer – cool stuff!
  • You can differentiate between mastodon and mammoth skeletons by looking at the lower tusks, the curvature of the big tusks, at whether the teeth are cusp-shaped or smooth.
  • Cartonnage (linen and plaster) gave the Egyptians an alternative way to encase their mummies, since wood was scarce.
  • Chinese roof tiles could be quite elaborate and well-preserved. The designs were strictly regulated in some places and more free-form in others.

I’d like to go again on Tuesday and/or Friday, depending on A-. More to learn!

Notes from the Let’s Get Started parenting series

On the recommendation of our family home visitor, we signed up for the Let’s Get Started program run by the Macaulay Child Development Institute. It’s a 6-week program for parents with kids who have special needs or are experiencing developmental delays.

A- is okay so far based on the Nipissing developmental screens, but we want to keep on top of things in case she needs early intervention for her monocular vision, the learning difficulties that affect maybe 20% of people with microphthalmia, or anything else that might come up.

At the first session, a speech pathologist gave a short presentation on teaching kids how to speak. Instead of questions (“What’s this? What’s this?”) and prompts (“Say ‘apple.'”), it’s more effective to label (“Apple.”), model (“Apple, please.”, as you hand the child the apple), and expand (“Red apple.”). I found it very useful to hear him model the kind of talking to do around babies (“Open door! Close door!”). It’s been much easier to fill A-‘s world with words, and I’m less worried about being too quiet around her. It was also reassuring to find out that gestures count as words when it comes to the developmental milestones, so A- is meeting those for now. At 12 months, she says “Mama”, and is reasonably consistent about gestures for nursing and no. She often uses the “more” sign to ask for water, but she also uses it for other things, and sometimes we’re not quite sure what she wants. Ah well!

We missed the second session because A- was sick. They discussed the Nipissing developmental milestones, which we’ve already been using because of the Healthy Babies Healthy Children program.

The third session had an occupational therapist from Surrey Place. She focused on one-on-one consultations with the families there. I asked about A-‘s monocular vision, since people in the Facebook support group for microphthalmia sometimes shared stories of how they were automatically qualified for early intervention and how useful the therapy was. From my research, I know I might need to adapt how we teach her to pour water from a pitcher, deal with stairs or curbs, thread things, ride a bicycle, and drive a car. She’ll probably also need a bit of consideration when it comes to where to sit in a classroom, deal with shared textbooks, and get through physical education classes. Then there’s the social aspect too – dealing with limited field of vision and accidentally ignoring people, handling any bullying or isolation caused by being visually different, and so on. It’s been difficult to find information on monocular vision. There are many more resources focused on blindness in both eyes. The occupational therapist didn’t know of anything off the top of her head, so she asked me to follow up with her by email to see if any of her colleagues might be able to help. A- will probably be all right, but it never hurts to learn as much as I can anyway.

In the fourth session, a speaker from Holland-Bloorview talked about visual routines. They’re great for helping kids learn words and concepts, transition between activities, stay on task, choose, express themselves, put things away, and go through multi-step procedures. By showing an object, picture, or illustration, we give children a visual anchor for a concept or task. For example, I could show A- the grocery flyer and tell her that we’re going to the supermarket. The speaker gave each of us a laminated “First… Then” board with everyday activities. We also got laminated guides for handwashing and going to the toilet. I had looked up visual routines when I saw how the centre staff used little laminated cards to help kids move from one activity to another, so it was nice to get a little kit already put together. I also liked how the speaker had a bunch of visual cards hanging from her lanyard (a selection of emotions and actions).

Looking forward to the next sessions! It’s a bit more of a hike than our usual programs – 45 minutes away by subway and bus – but it’s good to be able to talk to specialists and learn more about what to watch out for. I heard that even developmental assessments have waiting lists that take a few months to get through, and it’s even longer for therapy. Whatever I can do to learn and support A- will be good especially if she ends up needing a little help, but not being as high-priority as other cases that agencies need to focus their limited time and budget on. Anyway, it’s all part of what we signed up for!