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Tuesday, 29 June 2010 02:00

Baby Steps

By  Andie Miller
"The scariest thing for me, with both my daughters, was as soon as they've got their balance they want to run because - Independeeeeence! And at the same you're chasing after them because, at any point they miss a step and, oh my gracious!" Sheila is the mother of 12-year-old Chelsea, and 2-year-old Rebecca.

"The thing when you're learning how to walk is you're made out of rubber. And I think it's also a bone thing, once you're up on your feet, and you want to go forward, you throw your head forward and your feet kind of follow, so it does become a running thing, because of your weight. And ... and ... and ... then ... you kind of regauge it, and then occasionally they land on the bum."

It's the kind of confidence we sometimes lose as adults. I recall a time, crossing a log over a river, that I was hesitating, and a friend pointed out that "you just don't trust your centre of gravity".

"Yes, because you're actually thinking about falling and not about walking," says Ruth, 3-year-old Raphael's mom. "If you think about falling you're not going to be able to keep your balance.

"Their ability to fall," says Sheila, "they can fall on their faces, on their bums, because they don't think about it, and they're limber when they do it. They're not tensed up about it ..."

"Meanwhile you're thinking of them falling, so you're going 'Ah ah ah!' laughs Ruth.

"On no, we run!" says Sheila. "Oh god, parents can run. And we try so hard to catch them before there's a graze on the nose or a ... But when your nose has bit the tarmac, you don't want to do it again, because it hurts, so when she's running out of control and I'm saying, 'Rebecca slow down baby, slow dooooowwwn ...'. And the next time she's running down the road, and I go, 'Rebecca ...,' she's like, Okay, last time my mom shouted at me I got a really sore nose, so maybe I should balance a bit more backwards, maintain the balance, and I can still run forward, but ..."

"And they ruuunnn ...boom!" Ruth tickles Raphael, who seems to see this as his cue to get up and go. "Where are you going? Come back. You can't go home, there's no-one there. Come." But he's determined, and we lose her from the conversation as she runs after him.

"He's learned to break his fall though," says Ros of 11-month-old Griffin, "'cause he used to fall straight to a lying position. He falls backwards, and he'll be holding onto something and he loses his grip. He was falling headfirst, doosh, headfirst, doosh ... But now he's learnt to break his fall by bending his knee, so he falls on his bum, as opposed to falling straight back onto his head."

"With Chelsea," Sheila recalls, "her first walking was against the wall. So she'd get up against the wall, and then all I'd hear coming was, ggghhh, gghhh, down the corridor, gghhh gghhh. I'd hear the nappy scraping on the side wall. And she'd realised, Oh okay ... She was holding the wall with two hands and walking, moving herself down the passage. There was nothing else to hold onto, because with the baby there's minimalistic anything around.

"Chelsea was walking at nine months, but I think that was from needing to get things, because I was making movies, and she and her nanny were on the set with me, so if she wanted anything it was like, get up and go kid.

"A lot of the books say that your first born walks faster than your second. I think there's a need to walk, to get there, but if there's an older sibling it's more like 'Eh eh eh,'" she whines, "and the older sibling can help you."

"And they can also see what their brother or sister is doing," adds Ros, "it's on their level. Whereas if they're seeing an adult, they have to get up to see what's going on."

"It can also work the other way." Ruth is back. "Like if they've got a sibling who is talking, they talk sooner than the first born."

"I used to look after a three-year-old with cerebral palsy," says Ros, "and he couldn't walk, he was on crutches, and his mental development was mind-blowing."

"Mothers shouldn't panic either way," Sheila stresses. "The thing with moms is they read too many books and magazines ... Children develop at their own pace. The crucial thing is, you have to crawl. It doesn't matter when, but you have to crawl. That's one of the reasons why overseas those walking rings are banned." Canada outlawed them first, and then Australia followed. Though there is debate about whether or not they cause developmental problems, they have been responsible for many serious injuries, most often babies falling down stairs.

"When they're born the left side of the brain controls the left side and the right side of the brain controls the right side. The crossover happens when they're crawling ... The most important part of having coordination, and the ability to read and write, is crawling."

"It's crossing the midline," Ruth explains. "The two sides of the brain learning to work together."

"I heard from a woman that I met," says Ros, "who said that her daughter, at five years old they realised that she wasn't able to do certain things and they took her to a therapist, and one of the things they did was give her a puzzle, and they saw that she was picking up the puzzle pieces with her left hand, and giving them to her right hand ..."

"There are also other things that crawling is important for," says Ruth. "When you crawl you strengthen your wrist muscles and your hand muscles ... You need a lot of strength in your arms to crawl."

"With babies, their legs are stronger so they can balance, and you can walk along ... but then you want to get there," Sheila points across the patio, "so you actually need to go onto your hands and knees to get there."

"Eventually they get so frustrated they just do it," says Ros.

"That's one of the reasons they say put your baby on its tummy," says Ruth, "because seeing the world around them makes them want to move forward."

But apparently many babies don't like being on their tummies. "Rebecca screamed blue murder," says Sheila. "Rolled onto her back and said take your putting me on the tummy and stick it."
"The nurse told me to just put him on his tummy for five minutes a day if he hates it," says Ruth.

"That's all the screaming I could take!" says Sheila.

"To strengthen the neck muscles," says Ros. "And then one day I walked into the room and from lying Griffin was sitting."

"From lying on the tummy they push themselves up, and they realise, Hey!" Ruth smiles, looking at the world around her, "I can actually do something."

"And then they tuck in their feet, they realise there's another part of their body they can use," says Ros. "And literally, within five minutes, he started crawling. And I was sitting there, watching this going, Omygod!"

"Raphael just pulled himself along on his tummy, for about two months ..."

"Like a little leopard crawl," says Sheila.

"And then two days before his first birthday he started walking."

"And then, my baby's not my baby anymore," Sheila wails, "and, oh god, she can walk!"

"I can't wait for him to be able to walk properly," says Ros, "so I don't have to hold his hand all the time."

"Also, before walking comes getting off things, and getting onto things," says Sheila. "You have to teach them about the edge of the bed. You can't go head first, because if you go head first," she claps her hands together, "you fall on your face. You have to turn them around. And then going down stairs is either backwards or forwards. It depends on their personality."

"I showed Griffin how to get off the couch, on his tummy," says Ros, "but his instinct is he just wants to do it, and he's learnt, because I've let him throw himself off, and now he climbs ..."

"I taught both my daughters ..."

"I'm talking now," says Ros, raising her eyebrows at Sheila in a mock reprimand.

"He climbs up the stairs on his knees, and now I'm showing him how to get down the stairs the same way, tummy down ... I've tried to show him how to slide on his bum, but he hasn't got that yet."

"Both of my daughters, I tried to show them how to go downstairs backwards, but they can't see where they're going, so both of them turned around and said, no Mom, this is how we do it, we go down on our bum.

"The thing with moms," Sheila reiterates, "is they read too many books, and then they panic because 'James Jones did this at ...'"

"The only book that I absolutely love," says Ros, "is Baby Sense. It's a fantastic book because it explains how, because they can't communicate with words, and everything is new, it's all about their sensory world, and what happens when they get sensory overload ... After Griffin has his supper and his bath, then it's quiet time, and we play on the bed, and I always give him a massage."

"We roll our eyes in horror," laughs Ruth.

"Ja, I wish, I wish," says Sheila. "I get home at 7 o'clock at night, and Rebecca's almost asleep and she sees me, and it's 'Mommy!'. She's eaten and dressed for bed, and when Mommy comes home it's like another two hours of running around in the street." Of course when she says street she means the driveway between parking garages in the gated complex in which we live. No children play in the actual street.

Actor Paul Lückhoff, 6ft 5 and an intrepid walker who walks across Johannesburg for about two hours every day learning his lines, tells me the story of how he began to walk: "Apparently I refused to walk. I did not even crawl ... My mother later went to the doctor with me, and he said there's nothing wrong with me ... I started walking only at about 18 months ... And she said one winter evening she sat there, there was a big fire, my father was out and I was lying there, and as she looked at me she thought - obviously a bit exaggerated, but you know that old saying: 'Don't kill a good story with facts', ? - she thought, 'What is going on with this child?' And a minute after that I started to get up. And we had a long corridor going out of the sitting room, you know those old houses, die ou klipgeboue, sandsteen, and she said the next minute I was on my feet, and a bietjie gestagger-stagger, and sssssshhhhhhwwww - there I go down the corridor."

I imagine him lying in his cot for months, playing with his toes, plotting how to walk. "And they say since that day I just walked around." Living in the small town of Kestell, in South Africa's Free State, "I walked the whole town flat." At the age of about three or four, "the pharmacy would phone and say: 'Dominee,'" his father was a minister, "'Paul is hier'. And my father would say, 'Yes it's fine, he walks around.'"

One day, fed up with his family, "I said I'm not living with them anymore, and there were fabulous farmers about 10 kilometres out of town, and I said, 'I'm going to Tant Hettie now', and I packed a little suitcase, and my mother said, 'Yes, goodbye, go'. And I was apparently just out of town and then my father got worried, and he drove up and stopped next to me and said: 'Ag, we'll go to Tant Hettie over the weekend. Come back home now'. En toe't ek huistoe gegaan. But since then I've just loved walking."

Listening to him I almost become nostalgic for small town life in the Fifties, before I was born.

"Children have got to learn boundaries," Ros reflects, "so Griffin's fallen umpteen times and he's learned from that. But you keep them out of overt and serious danger."

"When they're running," says Sheila, "and you can see the rise in the hill, and you know when they're going to hit their face, you run after them, and they hit their face on the dip down, and you pick them up and you console them. The next time you go to the park, and they run up the rise and down the hill, they're slightly more tentative because they know what's coming."

"The thing is, in our day," Ros considers at 29, "we played on jungle gyms and swings; that's what we did all day, we played, we weren't cooped up. But now in Jo'burg, as a mom on her own, I would feel quite apprehensive going to a park by myself with my child. I just wouldn't do it."
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1 comment

  • Comment Link Dervala Hanley Thursday, 18 November 2010 02:00 posted by Dervala Hanley

    Lovely! Thanks for sharing.

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