Also known as:”Why does everybody DO that with my baby?”
Did you ever notice how when you have your first baby, most female adults interact with your baby the same way? They use the same funny voice and do the same babyish tricks. And they ask you the same questions? Have you ever wondered if there is a standard “baby curriculum” that somehow everyone else seems to be in on, except you?
I wondered this when I had my first boy and all my friends kept asking the baby playfully, “Are you telling me stories?” I was thinking… “Telling you stories? He’s just sitting there. What are you talking about?” Now I have not only heard a hundred or more people say that to my four babies, but I have used it myself!
My mother-in-law almost believed in a baby curriculum because she had a repertoire she practiced with all four of my babies. She would run through it almost continually whenever she visited… peekaboo, patty cake, This Little Piggy, “coughing” conversations, and rolling them on their backs so she could touch their right hands to their left feet and then the left hand to the right foot.
So this post is about cultural icons in baby development… why grown-ups choose certain token activities or scripts to teach them. This type of tokenism runs through all of childhood, but in later years tokens are often based more on fads than on development. The tokens that Americans use to teach certain skills may be different than another culture’s but that doesn’t mean they are subjective; each culture probably has its own way of teaching very similar things.
So if you don’t follow those cultural icons, will your child end up behind? I don’t believe so. But like it or not, there is a certain repertoire of behavior that doctors and experts look for your baby to exhibit, just to make sure they on track for development. And there is a common repertoire strangers will often use to communicate with your child. It is also true that finding undue resistance or inability to learn while you are working on these repertoires may indicate a problem. So it would behoove you to put your personal preferences aside for philosophy’s sake (i.e. “Peekaboo is SOO stupid!” or “Patty-cake is for sissies.”) and work on them anyway. Remember, as a first time parent, you probably don’t know what you’re in for in terms of baby development and assessment, so just follow the conformist route and then with your second baby, you can delete or switch things around with better discernment.
Early days (0-3 months):
“Telling stories”… Asking the baby if he/she is telling stories is basically about getting one on one talking time with your baby, which is important. It is about giving them time to process your face and process language/social skills such as recognizing a question, waiting for an answer, back and forth conversation, facial expressions, verbal intonations (i.e. friendliness), and concentration (attention). There are probably five hundred other things good about talking with your baby, but just know that what you’re doing is telling your baby right off the bat that you are his friend and the point of life is relationships, communication. You have to get him out of his isolated little world where he has no words, no facial expressions, no expressive abilities, into the social world where he has those things. If you start early enough, you will be amazed how fast the smile, recognition, and first coos will start.
Cooing. When the pediatrician first asked me if my first son was cooing yet, I had no idea what she meant. Cooing is the term for the first baby sounds where they kind of engage you or express happiness with something by making short little repeated sounds, sometimes with their gaze pointed up and a smile or concentrated look on their face. The sound may be like “ooh ooh” or it may be like “nngg nng.” It doesn’t matter. But it means you have successfully engaged their attention and, usually, pleased them. Mom’s face or a favorite toy is usually the first “cooing” object, and the first sounds will eventually be accompanied by outstretched arms, a grab, a kick, or appropriate facial expression.
Peekaboo. The idea of peekaboo is not just to make the baby laugh (which mainly it does), but to teach them that a hiding object is still present when they can’t see it. This doesn’t develop in a baby’s brain until after the first three months, but most adults start the game early just for habit and relationship. Be prepared for your baby to look at you with no understanding of what you’re doing for quite awhile. But eventually they will recognize you are playing a game with them and smile (sooner than they will pick up the concept of hiding or permanence). If you feel stupid playing or saying “peekaboo” do it anyway because eventually enough adults will do it that your baby will catch on. But they will catch on earlier (to their delight and to the pediatrician’s) if you do it too. I skipped Peekaboo with my first two babies and they suffered for it—thinking gregarious adults were upsetting. Plus, then they developed this strange affinity for it until they were preschoolers and I was embarrassed that the game still pleased them until they were four years old (probably because I didn’t expose them while they were younger). Also FYI, Peekaboo can be played a dozen different ways: you hiding behind your hands is the classic way, you holding a blanket up between you and the baby, you holding your hand in front of the baby’s eyes, you hiding a toy (or you) under a blanket, you hiding behind a wall, you peeping from between their kick chair toys or columns on your banister, etc. You can replace “peekaboo” with “I see you” when they can talk.
Tummy time... Ever wonder why marketers push the Boppy products so much? Probably because of the tummy time ideal. Once the baby is about a month old, it is good to give them some time on their tummy so they can develop some neck muscles. Not developing the ability to hold the head up is a red flag for certain congenital problems, and it is definitely a safety plus for when the baby is in the crib… he or she can lift his head or turn it if the blanket gets in the way. Tummy time helps the baby gain sensory awareness of his or her stomach and hips, which is responsible for a lot of the strength in gross motor movement. Sometimes motor-delayed preschoolers are asked to go back to tummy time where they practice laying, propping oneself up on the elbows, crawling, and other stomach/hip strengthening activities. But don’t keep a young baby on the tummy too long or it will hurt their stomach… their muscles and fat still aren’t thick enough to comfort their often full stomachs, especially if they are holding their heads up but without arm support.
Back time… In my mother in law’s case, this meant helping the baby to feel opposite and same sides of his/her body… touching different extremities together, helping the baby feel his or her own head, face, etc. Clearly this was for sensory input. And children with sensory or motor deficits often have less awareness of their bodies than they ought, so this is a good activity. Helping the child roll over or twist his body around is also helpful so they develop agility and strength.
Rattles. What’s the big deal with rattles? Aren’t they outmoded? They are, but a classic rattle is one of the easiest thing for a baby to grasp. The rattling sound is good to help them track sound/movement with their eyes, and then the sound encourages them to eventually reach out and grab it. Usually the handle is baby-friendly and somewhere around the 3 month mark, the baby will learn to hold onto something (not let it go intentionally, though). Also the rattle can be good for rhythm (brain development) and making music (social game). Obviously any colorful or noisy toy can be used for eye/sound tracking, but some toys are harder/heavier for the baby to hold. Sometimes a small maraca or hand bell is easy enough too.
Middle days (3-6 months)
“Singing songs”… Along with “telling stories,” another classic question is if your baby is “singing.” At some point after the cooing begins, your baby will begin to be able to hold a sound and modulate it a bit. This is commonly referred to as singing. Some babies actually do sound like they are singing or humming… the sound is constant and melodic. Other babies growl, grunt, or have a sort of high pitched modulating squeal. But as long as they are holding a tone or rhythm and experimenting with it a bit, it qualifies as “singing” and you can ask for the same purposes as asking if they are singing you something. It welcomes them to do it more and encourages sounds and modulation that precede actual words/inflection. Or you can sing a rhythm or line yourself (“bah bah bah”) and encourage them to repeat you… also a good preverbal skill.
Patty Cake/Gimme Five … No-one does Patty Cake anymore except grandmas, but they’ll still ask you at the pediatrician. For eye-hand coordination and more social skills, you should try it. It doesn’t mean expecting your baby to sit through an entire nursery line stanza as much as it means getting your baby to practice clapping… first her own hands, and then yours. Your baby may not be able to clap on her own until closer to the end of the year, but all games are meant to teach and encourage several months earlier… babies learn before they perform. So sing “Patty cake, patty cake, bakers man…” and just clap your hands slowly on the beat. Eventually your baby will beat her own arms in the air, or perhaps try to bang her own legs to the rhythm. Months later, she’ll get her own hands together, and you’ve accomplished clapping. When she gets skilled at this, you can take her hands and aim them for yours… Just have her practice hitting your hands on the beat instead of her own (hold yours up the whole time, don’t clap and hold them up or she’ll think she’s supposed to clap hers). Most males feel stupid doing Patty cake, so teaching “gimme five” is just as good except for no rhythm. You can start “gimme five” as early as you want, and you’ll be surprised how fast they’ll try to hit your hand. Then vary the position of the “five” and you’ll be teaching coordination too. Add “ten” and some adjectives “high five…low five” and you’ll have an entire education 😉
Coughing games. It’s probably the most annoying thing Grandma does with the baby, but it is preverbal so try to go with it. Babies learn to mimic and copy sounds before words, so a cough or “ah-CHOO” is as good as anything. It is fun and engaging, so your five or six month old may catch on to the game and voila, they have a “conversation” AND an attention-getting technique. Annoying but very purposeful. If the coughing continues into the verbal stage (12-18 months), start discouraging then but for babies, it’s ok. And if it drives you crazy after Grandma leaves and you need a substitute, try “woof woof” or “quack quack” which most babies love too. But you’d better have a pretty convincing “woof” or “quack” for the baby to want to leaving coughing for it 😉 And be prepared for it to stick around a LONG time if you have dogs in the neighborhood!
Waving Hi/Bye. Everyone waves to your baby and waits for them to wave back. While waving in itself is not very purposeful (there are only a few times in life that we depend on waving rather than on words), teach it to the baby anyway. It teaches how to pair gestures with words, which is a new thing. Plus, the wave at hi and bye will ensure it happens a lot, and the words “hi” and “bye” sound similar and are easy for a baby to learn early on. Plus it’s polite and cute, and will give the baby a way to engage new people and respond to them (if you are practicing saying “hi” and waving the baby’s arm for them, they will be distracted and probably not scream). Wave hi and bye always with new people, so they learn interaction. (i.e. an autistic-leaning child will not wave hi/bye, gimme five, or any of these things).
Mom/Dad. “Mama” and “dada” are usually first on the baby’s word list, or should be. While “hi” is nice and “woof” is cute, the baby needs to learn how to recognize and call people in the house. Practice starting around four or five months old, and you’ll be surprised how fast their babbling progresses. Make an effort to teach this even if you don’t explicitly teach other words. Also their own name is important (practicing pointing to you and him, “Mama”…”Johnny”…, even though they won’t say their own name for a long time.)
“This Little Piggie.” This Little Piggie makes even a baby smile, but it is actually also a sensory awareness activity. In a sensory challenged child, they cannot often feel their individual fingers or toes well. Or their reflexes may be slow. So This Little Piggie actually primes and stimulates each toe, which is good. You can even do it with fingers in a baby (older children practice “Where is Pointer?”). And the tickle feeling it probably produces is also good, causing the toes to sense the touch and reflexively contract.
Older days (6-12 months)
“uh-oh” Ever wonder why adults seem to say “uh-oh” so much around a baby? Other than the fact that babies are always making messes and mistakes, uh-oh is also a very useful concept… one of the earliest ones babies can learn. It is the concept of recognizing error… dropping things, falling over, forgetting, getting stuck, not being able to complete something. Somehow babies are able to pick up on this very early and say it very easily. It is also a good distraction tool, giving the baby an appropriate expression to keep them from crying… such as when you’re practicing walking with them and they are falling a lot. And it is a good teaching tool, giving them a just barely negative but constructive approach to something they shouldn’t do… such as when they knock something over or aren’t careful enough. This slightly moral tool helps teach a baby a lot as they align certain things as good and certain things as not preferable (better to avoid).
Pots and pans. Most grandmas insist on the stock activity of banging pots and pans while working in the kitchen. I’m not sure where they first got the idea… maybe it is as old as the prairie!–but banging on pots and pans is actually constructive not just obnoxious… it is good for eye-hand coordination and hand strength. Sensory dysfunctional children actually need to practice banging because they may not aim properly or bang hard enough. (Some kids bang too hard, and this is correctable too). And of course you can practice rhythm and control with babies if you put some effort into it (but most parents cooking or cleaning in the kitchen cannot). And some pots/pans can be stacked in different ways or placed inside of each other, which is also good cognitive development. But don’t use utensils that are too heavy or dangerous.
Pointing. Doctors and evaluators often make a big deal out of pointing. “Does he point?” is one of the first questions asked if the child isn’t talking yet. I have had mixed feelings about pointing in the past (not just because it is rude), but I have come around to the position that it is probably better to be on the safe side and encourage pointing. Somehow my first three children got through early childhood without it. But my fourth is a big pointer and as I have encouraged it, I have found it helpful in several ways. To begin with, she’s smarter about what pointing means when she loses an object or I’m trying to show her something. Secondly, she’s better at pressing buttons and other things which require pointer finger use. Thirdly, she is better at getting my attention for what she wants. In general, I still don’t feel pointing is as important as everyone thinks, but it is useful in some cases and probably good to be able to answer “yes” when the doctor asks.
Farm Animals. Did you ever wonder why all children’s stories are about animals? The vast majority of nursery rhymes, classic stories, and cartoons star animals instead of people. And teaching children animals is so popular… your child will know “flamingo” and “dolphin” before they can use the toilet, and may be able to tell you what they eat and where they live. Part of this is because of television, but it begs the question about why the TV does it. And why do you teach babies about farms, barns, and animal sounds so early? Part of the reason is because the ancients (from Aesop to Confucius to African provers) used them as moral examples. They believed each animal had certain characteristics associated with them (like lions being proud, wolves being sinister, and owls being intelligent), and then isolated these characteristics for narrative purpose. Children’s educators have exploited this ever since and isolate different animals for personality traits as well. They also believe children pay better attention to animals because they look interesting, are different from one another (whereas people appear the same on the outside), have different behaviors and habitats, and make funny noises. They are cute in real life but are probably used for fictional reasons more than realistic ones… so it’s good to go with the flow and accept that stuffed animals, Curious George, and Wonderpets will probably play a beloved part in your young child’s life.
Nursery Rhymes… Nursery rhymes sound so dumb to the adult ear, but children hear them differently. To begin with, their ear needs to be trained to hear rhyme. This will help them discriminate auditory input; many language delays are due to poor auditory processing. It will eventually also help them to discriminate their own syllables, when they are old enough to say them. It also helps them to hear rhythm, if you use nursery rhymes that have a meter (i.e. Peter, Peter Pumpkin eater). And it teaches them that language is flexible. Even a three year old learns how to “bend” words by making them into names (“Ok, Mr. Silly”), adding suffixes (“my bendy straw”), or making new combinations (“This is my phone hat”). To a child, the nonsense words often connote images which, while they don’t make sense, are vivid and help imagination skills (i.e. “The cow jumped over the moon.”) So while there are philosophical reasons to hate nursery rhymes, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Supply them the rhymes that are normal to know, complete with normal preschooler songs (“Here we go round the mulberry bush” or “Old MacDonald”), and you will have a very verbally literate child by the ripe age of two or three. This is worth it.