Tag Archives: infants

The Best of Intentions

The best and the worst aspect of my classroom is that it is located at the front of our facility. We have walls of windows that overlook the courtyard and our play yard faces the lobby. This is the best because we have an environment that is positively flooded with sun all day long, we have lovely views of trees and leaves and butterflies and birds, and we can observe the comings and goings throughout the day (we especially enjoy the daily “parades” of half-day preschoolers). It is, at the very same time, the worst because we can sometimes feel that we’re in a fish tank or a zoo, as everyone who passes by is compelled to stop for a moment and admire the infants and toddlers like puppies in a pet store. “They’re so cute!” they squeal, peering over the fence as the toddlers climb the slide, ride their scooters, and glance in puzzlement at the strangers on the other side. One year there was a mom of a preschool student who was enamored with one of the infants in particular, admiring his golden curls and blue eyes and wide smile each day. One day she asked his caregiver if she could hold him. His caregiver shook her head and explained, “He doesn’t know you.” A smile from a baby doesn’t make you friends. When his parents leave him with us, they’re not anticipating that he’ll be passed over the fence into a stranger’s arms like a loaf of bread. This baby, this person, feels best in a safe and secure space. This baby, this individual, may prefer some privacy as he works. This baby, this human being, is not here for your entertainment.

We can stop other people’s disrespectful movements towards the children in our care to some extent. We field their comments as best we can (for example, countering, “They’re so cute!” with, “Yes, we are really enjoying water play today!”). (This is not to say that they’re not so cute. They are, of course. They’re ridiculously cute. It just doesn’t always need to be articulated. They’re really so much more.) Sometimes, however, our well-defended and intentionally constructed borders are breached. For example, one day a member of the staff rushed into the room because through the window she had observed a baby’s nose running and felt the need to wipe it. What happened instead is that her arrival in the room startled and upset a handful of other children who then generated enough tears and mucus to keep us busy for (what felt like) hours. When my aggravation had subsided, I tried to explain to the staff member why this was not okay and how it was not really about the baby or the nose but about her, the adult. “I was there to help!” she said. “I know. I think we all appreciate your intention,” I said, “but it can’t happen again. You can’t wipe the nose of a stranger.”

I believe that nearly everyone has nothing but the best of intentions towards infants and young children and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the elderly and infirm, when they seem to be in need of help. I also believe that there are very few situations that warrant jumping in and helping someone without assent.

We don’t tend to think of babies or young children that we don’t know as “strangers,” do we? My co-worker was offended by this word choice. We seem to have the idea that babies belong to the world! If they seem to “need” something, anyone with good intentions could provide it. The reality is that infants, young children, teenagers, adults, and stray dogs and cats are individuals all. They may not need or want what we have to offer. It’s generally best to slow down and consider what you’re offering. In this example, rather than grabbing a handful of tissues and rushing towards a baby, perhaps hold out a tissue and observe, “It looks like your nose is running.”

Another staff member looked through the window one day and observed an infant crying on the floor. She opened the door. “Can I come in and pick her up?” she asked. The baby’s caregiver explained, “She’s feeling frustrated because she is working to roll over and she hasn’t gone that way before. We are giving her time.” Not to mention that this baby, as an individual, is very wary of people she does not know and an offer of arms from a stranger would be far more distressing than the moment of struggle she was working through (and did work through). Again, the intention was wonderful (and that she stopped and asked was outstanding) but completely adult-based, stemming from this woman’s distress at hearing a baby — any baby — crying.

The other day I was outside with a few infants in our garden. The same baby mentioned above, now a master of rolling over, was deeply engaged in digging her fingers and toes into some mud. To me, it was a wonderful moment to witness, as she explored the texture of mud for the first time. Another infant sat nearby, dipping a finger in the mud and smearing it on her bare leg. Both babies were busy and content. A staff member stopped by, alarmed, and cautioned me, “Oh! She has mud on her finger! Don’t let her put it in her mouth!” The infant who had been smearing mud on her leg stopped her work and stared at the staff member, then looked at the mud on her finger. I acknowledged her acknowledgement, “H. was noticing the mud on your finger. I saw you were putting it on your leg. I wonder how it felt on your leg.” She resumed her work. I smiled at the staff member and reassured her, “They’re okay. They’re busy exploring the mud. I think it feels good.” She walked on. A few minutes later, a preschool parent was passing by and stopped to mention, “That baby has some mud on her.” I smiled again, “Thank you.”

Some of us have ideas about how babies should appear: faces wiped clean (noses not allowed to run); fingers scrubbed; socks on. I have many parents request that their children be changed into “clean clothes” before they are picked up to go home at the end of the day. I understand these desires. We encourage our toddlers to clean their faces after each meal, passing them a washcloth and talking about “cheeks, chins, mouths, and noses.” When they have done their work and food residue remains, I ask, “Can I help to clean your chin?” and when they agree*, I wipe them clean. This keeps their sensitive skin from becoming irritated, ensures that they don’t rub the residue off elsewhere in the room, and makes them both look and feel cared for. When we have played in the mud, we always clean up afterwards. And when a nose runs, we address it with tissues. Together. We don’t do these things to the babies, but with the babies. It makes all the difference.

* In general, when toddlers don’t “agree” to have their face wiped by an adult, we take a look in the mirror together and talk about where else on their face seems to require wiping. We encounter little resistance when it’s not made into a battle and it’s being done in a matter-of-fact rather than a directive manner.

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Favorite Sensory Books

As a follow-up to my post about reading physical books, here are a few of my favorite sensory books for all ages.

Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg. This book is so much fun to read and explore, and it also demonstrates a powerful lesson about mistakes and resilience. It’s pretty irresistible for ages 3-103.

Scanimation books from Rufus Butler Seder amaze me. They have won awards, are sold in museums all over the world, and continue to dazzle adults just as much (if not more) than children. I advise you to start with Waddle, then Gallop, then Swing. Or vice versa. Try them all. You’ll come back to them again and again.

Fluffy Chick and Friends by Roger Priddy is a perennial favorite in my program, along with the others from the same line: Fuzzy Bee and Squishy Turtle. When my friend Anelie visited from Germany with her baby (now toddler), Finn, he had the book in German and we compared notes on how the verse, which I had read so many times that I had it memorized, differed in the translation (turns out the German version is less poetic). Cloth books can be pricey to buy, but these particular ones hold up very well to repeated machine washings and all the brutality groups of babies can inflict on them. Take my advice and never run Squishy Turtle through the dryer by mistake, however.

I really can’t say enough wonderful things about Sandra Boynton’s books for children of every age. They make people happy and they’re always a lyrical, enjoyable read. They’re designed for reading aloud, which puts them in the sensory book category, I think, along with the likes of Shel Silverstein and Dr. Suess. Your Personal Penguin is one that I know for certain comes with a digital song download to enhance your experience. Perhaps some of her others do as well?

Roger Priddy and Eric Carle teamed up to create a series of “Slide and Find” books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Slide and Find, which adds a level of interactivity to the traditional story that can’t be beat for toddlers. This book has been tried and tested in my program and it’s a hands-down success. I recommend it for both shared reading experiences and solo discovery (great for a car trip, when little hands are big enough to support the fairly heavy book). We have tried a few of the other “Slide and Find” books and also enjoy Priddy’s Trucks, which will hold attention and appeal through preschool.

Another delightful Eric Carle sensory experience is The Very Quiet Cricket, recommended for ages three and up. My preschool class never tired of the surprise of hearing the cricket sound at the end of the book. It prompted many thoughtful discussions about crickets, insects, and sounds. As a result of discussions started by this book, we spent one lovely afternoon relaxing to an insect sounds CD, eyes closed.

I’m not a huge fan of the “Play-a-Sound” books, with the panel of sound buttons to the right of the story. In my experience, they distract (like an enhanced e-book) from the book a little too much. I like my books a bit more simple. However, this version of Puppy and Friends is not too offensive and provides a great tactile experience as well. Recommended for toddlers, rather than infants (there is a little too much happening at once for the younger audience, in my opinion). Priddy offers a whole line of “Touch-and-Feel” books, sans sounds, which appeal to infants, including On the Farm and Mealtime.

Tails by Matthew Van Fleet has become a really popular sensory book — I see it everywhere! With good reason. It’s a wonderful concept (children are drawn to animal tails) and beautiful execution. It’s not as sturdy as a board book, which is something to be aware of with infants and young toddlers, but it’s a very tactile experience.

Was this post helpful to you? Let me know and I will follow up with more reviews. Please share your own in the comments below!

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Own Up.

“Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” -Rita Mae Brown

This past week, I lived through one of my worst nightmares in the workplace. Fortunately, I can report that everyone has emerged on the other side relatively unscathed, but it is hard for me to stop rewinding and replaying the situation in my mind, inserting the potential alternate endings.

When you live with or work with children, sometimes you live in a world of worst-case scenarios. This is what prompts us to cover electrical sockets so toddlers won’t put their wet, sticky fingers inside; to use baby gates and childproof locks; to keep children close by our sides near roadways and in crowds. These are all good instincts for many people, but for many others, it’s conditioning and societal pressure that leads us in these directions. When it comes to safety in group care situations for children, we’re often doing what we’re doing because we learned from the mistakes of others. With many policies and practices, we’re doing what we have been told and taught and regulated to do. And when it comes to safety in group care settings, we adhere to certain protocol even though we might as individuals choose to do things differently in a different setting (at home, say, with our own children) because we need to not only follow certain steps to protect children but also to protect ourselves. The responsibility of caring for other people’s children is a very heavy weight.

When I first accepted my current position, four years ago, a friend of mine who also works in the field of early care and education told me that she was scared for me, that she didn’t want me to do this job, caring for other people’s infants and toddlers. Not because, she emphasized, she thought I couldn’t do it or wouldn’t be good at it, but because there were too many things that could go wrong in the blink of an eye. Careers and lives have been ruined in infant care (I have seen it firsthand, where cases of SIDS are concerned). At the time, I told her, “This is exactly why I have to take this job! Because I am going to do things properly, in a way that children and families deserve.”

And I do things properly. Slowly and carefully, with respect for children and families, with respect for all of the rules and regulations in our state, and with respect to what we understand to be “best practice” at this time. I spend time making sure that my assistants not just know but also understand why we do things the way that we do and I try to empower them to explain to families why, in a group care setting, certain policies are not choices but hard, fast rules.

This is not a story about SIDS, thankfully. I won’t go into detail about the mistake in question because it was not my mistake, not in the moment that it happened. I had not yet gotten to work that day and my assistant, who has had the responsibility of opening the infant program for four years, made a regrettable decision. She told me about it as soon as I arrived at work and my heart immediately sank to the floor. My mind immediately began processing the situation, listing what steps I would need to take to deal with it.

As the lead in our program, I take ultimate responsibility for every mistake that is made in my classroom. I have spent this entire week thinking about how I could have prevented this incident from happening. I should have trained my assistant “better”. I should have trained our families “better”. I should have been there. I should have honed my psychic abilities to anticipate and prevent all possible contingencies! On some level, I understand that mistakes do happen. Big mistakes. Terrible mistakes. Sometimes life-altering mistakes. Sometimes I even believe that mistakes happen for a reason and that what really matters is how we handle it and move forward from that place. I will be honest, however, and say that this is really hard for me. It’s really hard to stop beating myself up, to stop being angry with my assistant, and to stop being paranoid and go back to being mindful and intentional and appropriately cautious.

One thing that I can do to move towards a more positive frame of mind is to look at what was done right, in addressing and “fixing” this mistake, and what growth it has prompted (generally, things that are scary and uncomfortable are leading us towards growth and development).

Prompted by what was done wrong, here is what was done right:

We owned the mistake. As soon as I had collected all available information on what had transpired, I informed my supervisor and began phoning parents. This was not easy. (I wanted to give into my anxiety attack, throw up, and go to bed.) One parent that I called was (justifiably) furious and the conversation that ensued required every ounce of humanity and professionalism I possess. I was honest, calm, apologetic, and proactive (“Here is what we are going to do and here is what you are going to do…”). Honesty was, as always, our saving grace.

We had a plan. As soon as I had an understanding of what had happened, I saw things that needed to be changed and we changed them that day. Not all of the changes were easy to implement and not all of them will be easy to maintain, but they were necessary both to keep this from happening again and to let the families in question know that we take this seriously and we take responsibility for it.

We worked together. My supervisor, our executive director, and myself collaborated on what steps needed to be taken to prevent this from happening again. We supported each other in communicating with the families and with my assistant. We also helped one another in processing and reflecting on the events so that we could learn from what happened. We didn’t point fingers or assign blame or attempt to hide from what had transpired.

In light of this mistake, I can see highlighted other changes that need to be made in the weeks ahead. I have more training to do with my staff and I need to look at our communication and make sure that the points that need hearing are being heard. For this mistake to have happened, I dropped the ball somewhere along the way with my assistant and I need to make sure that I am doing everything I can to help her be successful in her job. We got too complacent. We think we know what high-quality care looks like, but this is what I know: it looks like working as hard as you possibly can to do the right thing every single time. Even when you’re tired. Even when you’re stressed. Even when it’s inconvenient. Even when it’s not the most efficient way. Even when your mind demands to be elsewhere. We owe this to the families that entrust us with their babies.

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Alternatives to Distraction

Now no more smiling mid-crestfall
No more managing unmanageables
No more holding still in the hailstorm.
– Alanis Morissette

I recently wrote about the way that we unconsciously (through no ill will) invalidate the strong feelings of infants and young children by shushing them when they’re in distress and telling them, “You’re okay!” when they’re feeling anything but. I worry that when we devalue their (very real) feelings, we encourage children to swallow them down. Over time, there is a risk of children being unable to recognize, label, and communicate effectively about emotions.

It can be intensely uncomfortable to be around crying babies and young children. Their emotions are powerful. They don’t always respond to “reason”. We often feel tremendous urgency to settle them, quiet them, and put an end to what feels like impending chaos. Their cries are meant to alarm us!

The first step in being able to help and support them is to calm our own response. If we know that there is no real emergency to attend to, we can consciously slow ourselves and support children in reaching their own place of calm. Calm is often (delightfully) contagious. We must be aware of how sensitive children are to our harried pace and the underlying stress we may feel. I like this piece from Dr. Sears on babies’ cries:

Responding appropriately to your baby’s cry is the first and one of the most difficult, communication challenges you will face as a mother. You will master the system only after rehearsing thousands of cue-responses in the early months. If you initially regard your baby’s cry as a signal to be responded to and evaluated rather than as an unfortunate habit to be broken, you will open yourself up to becoming an expert in your baby’s signals, which will carry over into becoming an expert on everything about your baby. Each mother-baby signal system is unique. That’s why it is so shortsighted for “cry trainers” to prescribe canned cry-response formulas, such as “leave her to cry for five minutes the first night, ten minutes the second,” and so on.

In the course of my job, I actively practice my responses to children in distress. There are days when I am up to my elbows in fussy infants and my blood pressure threatens to shoot through the roof when one of my toddlers melts to the ground in pre-tantrum mode. When people remark on how much patience it must take to work with young children, I always think of those moments and how much I long for a bottomless well of patience. What I have instead is decent self-control (developed over the course of my childhood with the support of nurturing adults) and enough experience under my belt to have a deep bag of tricks.

I mentioned before that I don’t think it’s always appropriate to attempt to distract children (especially infants) from their distress. I think it’s disrespectful. Consider whether you would pull a rattle from your purse to shake in the face of your girlfriend if she burst into tears over coffee.

I have compiled a list of alternatives to distraction that I would like to invite you to try with the young children in your life.

  • Sit with it awhile. Be in the moment with that children and their distress. “I’m sorry you’re feeling upset. I’m right here with you.” Model empathy by simply being there — a hand on their back or arm if they seem to want to be touched. Have you ever needed a good cry? Sometimes children do too, especially infants. Hopefully we can all call to mind a time when we were in distress and someone was simply there with us, without asking or taking a thing. Think of how comforting it was for you and channel that back into the world.
  • Talk it out. In the early education field, we call it “sportscasting,” when we simply talk through our observations of a situation. It’s a way to be there with children without interfering in their process, trusting that with our support (but not control), they can work things through. An example would be when a child is distressed about falling down or hitting their head. You might say, “I saw you fall! That hurt your knees. Your knees hurt. I see you looking at that block on the floor. You tripped over that block.”
  • Get a change of scene. While I don’t advise hurriedly whisking babies up into your arms and rushing outdoors at the first sign of distress, a change of scene can be beneficial to all involved. If the baby agrees to be picked up, ask them if they’d like to walk outside. Walk outside and perhaps narrate what you see, feel, hear, and smell. “The wind is blowing. Do you feel the wind blowing? It’s ruffling your hair. The wind feels good on my skin. I feel better outside.”
  • Breathe. I observed a particularly chaotic preschool morning the other day. Their regular teacher was out sick, the children were testing all the limits with the substitute and assistant teacher, and they could best be described as off the wall. Gathering a small group of children around her, the substitute teacher said in a very quiet voice, “I’m going to take a biiiiiiiig deep breath. Will you take a deep breath with me? Here I go!” She demonstrated breathing in deeply, then out slowly, sighing with relief. “Let’s try it again together,” she said, and all of the children quietly breathed in and out, in and out. The teacher then observed, in a quiet voice, “Oh, I feel so much more calm now. I’m ready to sit down and read a book.” I’ve been with infants during times when it seemed to me they were never going to calm down, and when I inhaled and exhaled deeply, I felt their bodies respond as well — it’s important to be aware of the tension we’re carrying and communicating outward.
  • Background music. When I’m in for the long haul with a fussy baby, I’ll often turn instrumental music on low and turn off the overhead lights. Sometimes I’ll open a window, or close a window, or turn on a fan. Subtle alterations like this to the environment provide the soothing atmosphere I’m going for to relax myself, rather than provide active distraction.
  • Troubleshoot. It may seem like the most basic idea possible but is the infant hungry? Are they tired? Too hot? Too cold? Do they need changing? Is something irritating their skin? Are they sick? Do they need to be burped? (Nine times out of ten: yes.) It can help to consciously run down your mental inventory. I don’t suggest trying different solutions willy-nilly at a pace to alarm the baby, but give thoughtful consideration to the environment, the child’s basic needs, and what else may be impacting them.

One thing I’d like to make note of is how important it is for those who are taking care of young children (or taking care of anyone, full stop) to take care of themselves. When you begin to feel frayed around the edges, take a break. Put your baby down, walk away, and put the kettle on for a cup of tea (your baby will survive those few minutes as you regroup). Whenever possible, don’t be afraid to call in reinforcements. The beauty of working with two other women like I do in caring for infant and toddlers is that when something isn’t working and I’m feeling depleted, I have backup. Use your village. Remind yourself that sometimes babies cry without us knowing why, but you’ll get through it together. It’s not a bad thing — it’s always a learning, growing, bonding experience for you both. And it will pass.

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This week I have had the honor of welcoming a new baby into my program. She is the youngest baby we have welcomed in some time, joining us at just nine weeks old.

Sometimes at work I am able to take a few steps back and pretend to be a fly on the wall, observing the infants and toddlers in my care without them feeling my eyes on them. This is magic — to watch children at play, undisturbed. This is beauty. Today I was able to observe this little one, laying peacefully on her back on the floor, watching a cloth bee toy that was dangling near her.

She lifted her arm and brushed it, quite by mistake. She watched it swing.

baby on back

Then she lifted her arm again, quite deliberately, and brushed the toy again. She watched it swing. When she lifted her arm the third time, she couldn’t quite connect with the toy. She lowered her arm. Then she lifted it again, ever-so slowly, and connected with the toy. She watched it swing.

baby on back2

This went on for several minutes before she lowered her arm and lay at rest.

After a few moments, she turned her head to the left and again raised and lowered her arm, observing it. She pulled it closer to her face, then lowered it again. She was occupied in this way for more than five minutes, while I watched in silent awe. In awe of her amazing learning process and in awe at being able to observe it and learn from her.

What was this baby learning? She was learning about her body, her control over her body, her place in space, and she was exploring cause and effect. She was figuring out the very building blocks of math and science. She was focused. She was persistent. She was absolutely amazing. All this, just nine weeks out of the womb. Think of the potential!

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