Airplane Spirituality: What I learned from travelling with a one-year old

An airplane wing just after take off at Sacram...

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This holiday, Nica and I went to England, then Portugal, then travelled back to the US via London, again. That is four flights in three weeks. Nica is one. NinjaDad was only with us for the first of the four flights. While in the UK, especially, Nica was going through a growth spurt, was teething, she learned at least 10 new signs and took her first steps. That is a lot, all in a foreign country, in unfamiliar surroundings and with many new people gawping and fawning over you. Result – one clingy baby. And still, surprisingly, the flights went really well. How did we do it…?

Okay, first and foremost we have to acknowledge the role of luck (fate? good karma?) or perhaps just good genes. For one, Nica did not seem to have any problems with her ears which was a real blessing. The fact that she is breastfed and not vaccinated probably helps with that.

Speaking of breastfeeding, that was my secret weapon. Nursing was particularly useful during take-off and landings, as sucking and swallowing helps equalise the pressure in her ears. We also brought lots of entertainment and food. A little snack (a healthy one, of course) goes a long way with little Nica. ‘Entertainment’ was basic: things like books (including a photo-book – more on that in a future post), a soft toy and, you know, stuff. Nica like most babies her age, just loves bags full of stuff. My handbag works really well. She loves pulling out my purse and taking all the cards out of that – not ideal for a plane perhaps – but I let her have my make-up bag and the like. Other than that it was all about singing songs with her and walking her up and down the isle when that was what she wanted.

On the way there, NinjaDad had his iPad on him and we did pull that out ‘in case of emergency’ when Nica was getting a bit fussy (after I turned the TV I was watching off, when she woke up in the middle of the flight) and she enjoyed playing with the bubble app and the animal sound app – real treats. The other three flights was just me – no iPad.

On those flights, when I was alone with Nica, I found it turned into a kind of meditation. The only place to be was here and now. No point thinking about the future, either dreading it or preparing for it – you just don’t know what is coming next (will she sleep, will she wail, will she need me to sing, read, walk her ad infinitum? – you just don’t know). So, all you can do is stay present and react, respond to what comes up as and when it does. Planning, hoping or expecting just get in the way. I have found that often – unhappiness comes from unfulfilled expectations, which afterall are only thoughts. Let go of those thoughts and you are on a much easier path to self-contentment.

Sure, before you get on the plane you prepare, you try to anticipate your kid’s potential needs, of course – you do what you gotta do. For example on the last flight from the UK to the US (an 11 hour flight) with NinjaDad’s mom’s help, I made sure I had plenty of water, some fresh blueberries, a ripe avocado and lots of organic, gluten-free snack bars and the like. I also had ready-to-pull-out sections of my carry-on luggage for diapering, ‘entertainment’ and fresh clothes for Nica. So, yes, you prepare. But at the time, when you are in it, just stay in it – that is my learning. And that is what I did. On a minute-by-minute basis you can handle anything. In any case, I have most of what I have available at home, with me on the plane, that is: my breasts (and the milk within them), the songs in my head, my arms and legs for bouncing, carrying and walking Nica. I know I can handle most situations so I just see what comes. I read the need underlying Nica’s mood and respond to that. That is what I did, for 11 hours. Nica and I didn’t sleep much on the plane at all, only maybe 1.5 hours and this was after only 4 hours sleep the previous night (as we arrived in London from Lisbon late at night and had to travel to a different airport for the transatlantic flight early the next morning), so we played, we danced, we sung, we read books, browsed through Virgin’s kid-friendly e-books, etc.  And at the end of the flight, people congratulated us on such a successful (read: quiet-ish) flight.

This is attachment-parenting paying off. A year of being there with and for my kid, recognising her moods, needs, communications to me and knowing how to move with that – this, now on the plane, is where others see it in action and comment on what a ‘good’ baby I have. But again: hats off to lady luck and mistress karma.

I did not buy other people’s attempts to label the situation as difficult, ‘oh, it must be so hard, you poor thing, travelling alone with a toddler’. It was quite fun, actually, once I let go of hoping she’d sleep and I could just watch a movie or read a book like most of the other passengers. Once I sank into the reality of the situation at hand, then the dance of really being and seeing my daughter began.

Still, the flight was long and I did get very tired. At one point I looked at a clock and realised there were another four hours to go. The first thought that came was ‘I can’t do this for another 4 hours’, then another thought swooped in: ‘it is only four hours, anybody can do four hours with a baby’. So I ‘forgot’ I had already been keeping Nica amused for 7 hours and pretended I was fresh now and this was the start. ‘Four hours?! No problem I can do that, that is just like the first (and easiest) stint of the day from 7 to 11am when you just play with baby.’

My experience is also that people are extremely friendly and supportive of a mother travelling alone with a baby. I really appreciate that. This is one of the biggest, nicest perks of doing it on my own. Thanks everybody for your smiles and encouragement. That helped fuel me even further.

I literally arrived at the airport still dancing, singing songs for Nica and having fun naming (signing) things as we walked down the airport corridors at SFO, Nica in the ergo. It is funny what you learn and are reminded of in the most unexpected situations. Stay present to what is and open to what arises – was the teaching from my little one this day… if only I remembered that the other 364 days of the year!

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How my daughter continues to blow my little mind with her little hands

Mommy’s swelling pride means the first thing I want to share with you all is Anya’s signing progress. I just find this whole ‘human learning to communicate’ journey endlessly fascinating. Anya seems to pick things up so quickly. I have to tell someone or I’ll burst! I try not to go on about it (too much) in person, in mommy groups or the like… but yeah, with you guys I let it out, to get the bragging out of my system, so to speak. Anyway, we all know all babies are amazing and to each of us our own baby is the best – of course – and to each of us it is, of course, true. Here is my truth:

At one year old (yes Anya has turned one!! – awesome) Anya now has over 50 signs. She went through another cognitive-development spurt, clearly. For a couple of weeks she was picking up signs at a rate of up to 2 a day – just fantastic to watch. She has also been building her repertoire of ‘words’ (with sounds for sleeping, pig and, the old classic: fart) so that brings her overall vocab to about 60 concepts.

Baby sign language improves our life in a myriad of small and great ways. One of my fave signs is ‘music’. When I am out with Anya in the baby-carrier she’ll sign for me to sing to her and then, when I stop, she signs for ‘more’. I love it. It is like having an audience cheer and shout encore. I also really enjoy that she calls food ‘mmm’ (not a sign, I know, but cute). There are not many people who greet my food with so much enthusiasm. Got to love that. Other favourite signs include computer, ‘there is none’/empty, tree and sleep (as in ‘dada is sleeping on the bed and snoring like a pig’ – I kid you not, she has pretty much signed that whole sentence… or at least that sentiment).

Anya also now has combinations of signs like ‘more milk’. Or she’ll combine sign and sounds by doing something like sign ‘where is’ and add the word ‘dada’. Cute and clever, no?

The other thing I think is fab about signing is the insight it gives me into the thought processes of a pre-verbal baby. For example, if we are indoors playing and Anya suddenly signs ‘bird’ it can take me a few seconds to realise she is saying she just heard a bird, outside. Who knew babies can hear and identify things out of sight, even when seemingly concentrating on an activity at hand?

So you can see, I am more and more sold on this signing thing. It is a lot of work, or at least it was to get it going in the start. It kind of has its own momentum now and is just fun, so that keeps us motivated. But I really enjoy it and I can see what a kick Anya gets from it, each time we respond appropriately to a request or communication of hers. She gets a real glint of joy and recognition in her eye. I can’t imagine not signing now and I find myself wondering how other moms communicate to their babies: how do they know what they want, what excites them, what they are thinking about? I know they make do but it seems so much more practical and rewarding to sign, now that I am into it. I’ll fully admit I do it as much for me as for Anya but she is clearly getting a lot out of it and I have read the research results: this stuff has positive impact on learning for life, not just as toddlers. I am lucky I stumbled across signing and grateful I stuck with it. Thanks California for your crazy hippy parenting ways!

Having a conversation

Yesterday I had the first conversation with my daughter. It went like this:

Me: ‘Anya, it is time to go out, now’
Anya is super excited, smiles and bounces up and down.
Mom puts on Ergo and pulls baby into carrier.
Baby: ‘Aa-Aa’ (her word for dog – ão-ão means woof woof in Portuguese)
Mom: ‘Oh, you want to go see the doggy, when we are out? Sorry, right now we are going to the car. We can go visit the doggy on our way back.’

Sweetest thing ever. She knows that we are going out and knows that out there is the dog she loves to go see and, most exciting of all, she is now able to tell me (ahead of time, note) that is what she wants to do. Man, I love her so much!

We are having more and more of these incipient dialogues. She has ‘asked me’ for food (her word for food is ‘mmm’) in the car. Today she asked for water (‘aia’ – Anya’s attempt at ‘agua’). So sweet. Add to this her signs and we are definitely away. She signs ‘more’ with great enthusiasm when she wants me to read the book again or sing a song again (she likes my voice, bless her) or to bounce her on the ball again. So cool!

She now has a vocab (yeah, I am calling it that!) of about 30 ‘words’. She has over 20 signs and nearly ten verbal words – mostly sounds like ‘blah-blah’ for phone (my personal favourite) or rrrrrrrrrr (which stands in for ‘vroom-vroom’ for tractor or car. But it is clear, verifiable and repeatable that she uses those sounds for those objects or actions, so they count :)

Here is the flip-side, though. When she started using signs that were not just descriptive (like duck) but also prescriptive, if you will, like ‘milk’ or ‘all done’ I noticed she started having more tantrums. I checked with other mums and quite a few remember experiencing the same thing: more signs = more tantrums, at the start. This is what I put it down to: I reckon she got a taste for power. With first words and the ability to say what she wanted came Anya’s first realisation that she could ask for what she wanted and with that an expectation that she would get it (’cause at the start, she often did). She was developing a sense of self, an ego or an identity are forming. She realises she is a separate being with separate wants … and with that came demands for her wants to be met. She communicates that through not so cute screaming with occasional back arching. This was mostly about expressing her will: ‘I want to go to the swings’; ‘I don’t want to get into the car seat’, that kind of thing.

I have so far mostly dealt with it by, well, ignoring it. This was the best momma advice I got on the subject. Nobody had much else to offer on the subject. I guess the main thing is to be clear that screaming does not get you what you want nor does it get you more attention.

So far… so far it seems to be a little better. Meanwhile, I got over the ‘I don’t want to get in the car thing’ by giving her a treat once she sat compliantly in the seat (yep, bribes – another piece of mommy advice gold). I just had to do that a couple of times and now she has made friends with the seat again. Phew (otherwise I’d be virtually housebound). Nobody told me the terrible twos actually start at ten months (or perhaps around 15 months when non-signing babies get first prescriptive/request-oriented words?)!

But, overall, more language means more fun, more communication and exchange and I am really enjoying finding out about what Anya gets, what she likes and what she wants and I am ready (or getting ready…) to show her where the limits, the boundaries to her new powers lie. Mommyhood, real mommyhood, here I come.

What’s the baby sign for ‘this is awesome’?

Cover of "Baby Signs"

Cover of Baby Signs

We had our first baby signing class the other day. It was very sweet. I had read the Baby Signs book a couple of months back and got totally sold on the idea of signing to my baby. Why, you ask?

Well, a lot of parents around here sign to their babies which got me curious about it, in the first place. Originally, I thought I might do it with just a few words (like food, milk, toilet, water – basic stuff she might want to get my attention about). I thought it would help us bridge the few months between Anya knowing what she wants and being able to express it clearly and efficiently. My reasoning was that that would reduce the guessing for me and the frustration for her. Then I read the book and my view of what this could do for us expanding considerably.

It turns out teaching your baby sign language (which they can master well before then can speak) essentially teaches them the basic principles of communication (the give and take, to and fro, negotiation and the ability to describe, request, share, etc). And this, it turns out, has lasting effects on their ability to communicate throughout life (not just as toddling cuties). A study by the book’s authors Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn revealed that even when signing kids grow up and are fully eight years old they are on average a year ahead of their non-signing peers in terms of language skills. Outstanding. I never saw this coming – and neither did they, apparently. It seems having people respond to and validate their interests and desires from so early on only seems to increase babies’ appetite for learning and talking. By age two, signing babies already have on average double the vocab of non-signing children (as you basically add-in signs to their ‘word count’). But this means they are able to bring your attention to twice as many things – objects or actions. And as you know, already, if you have been following, I have really gotten into language development for my kid, so this is pretty interesting stuff to me, at this point.

I, myself, don’t know why I am so interested in language, suddenly. Perhaps it is because my mom is an English teacher (in Portugal) and has always had a love for words and language. Perhaps it is finally rubbing off on me. Maybe it is because it feels like the only part of Anya’s development I can have an influence on, at this stage, observably, at least. So much seems dictated by genes – when she’ll walk, her temperament, etc. and then there are all the immeasurables and the stuff so hard to control like personality, respect for authority, etc. Language appears to be the only area I can really pour myself into, which requires some skill and hence becomes a fun challenge.

So, we went to our first class. It turns out there is a big divide between baby signing schools. Both are based at least in part on American Sign Language (ASL). However, on one side are those who say go ahead and let your child make some signs up, encourage it even, and use others that are ‘made up’ especially for little hands and baby minds to manage. So, for example, the sign for dog with them is ‘panting’ with your tongue out, like, well, a dog. This is absolutely not an ASL sign.

The other camp teaches babies real American Sign Language. Their view is that you are giving your child an additional language which can serve them for life (and for which you can get credits at College or something – they keep referencing this, but not being American not sure I totally got it). These kids often remember being taught signing as children and want to go back and study it when they get older. Plus they say using real signs a) is totally possible for little babies (proven to be so) and b) ensures you do not make up signs which clash with or even offend the deaf community. Apparently this has happened in the past with some of the baby signs. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say you don’t want your kids doing that sign out in public where there are ASL signers!

The instructor also mentioned that often mothers who teach their kids ASL end up enjoying it so much they go forth and learn the whole system, some have even become sign language interpreters.

Having originally read the book that, though based in ASL, was all about following the baby’s lead and making it as easy as possible for them, I was quite sold on that approach. After all, as they say, the aim is only to get them through a few months (from about 9 or 10 months when they can sign to 18 months when they have quite a few words to communicate their needs). However, in the end, that final argument on the ‘pure’ ASL side swung it for me.

When I was in the UK I started learning British Sign Language (which incidentally is totally different from ASL). I was really enjoying it and then had to stop. Now, I get to do it all over again, learn sign language, but this time with my partner and for my kid. Sweet.

The idea of learning sign language is really appealing to me. It is not just ‘another language’, it feels like there is something special about it for me. Okay there are the basics, like K. and I will be able to sign to each other, when we don’t want to or can’t speak. More than that, though, it opens the possibility of speaking with a whole new group of people, not ‘foreign’ but somehow a completely different community. I am super psyched about this.

So, here I go, on my journey. Now it is fun and helpful to everybody: baby, daddy and me.

… And, just in case you are wondering, the most asked question is ‘won’t this slow down your child’s spoken language acquisition?’. The answer (according to leading research) is: no. In fact signers speak earlier than non-signers, on average. The motto is: ‘just like crawling makes a baby more motivated to learn to walk, signing makes a baby more motivated to talk’.

Now, at 9 months, Anya has her first signs. She signs ‘fan’ (her favourite thing, the ceiling fan) almost as soon as she wakes up, before we are even in the living room, where the fan is – such is her enthusiasm for things that spin. That is her best sign. She has also signed ‘light’ (she likes street lamps), ‘fish’ and ‘more’ (as in ‘more food please’) although all of those are still in the learning phase, I think. So much fun to see her able to ‘talk’ about things, both present and just stuff for which she wants to share her love. Bless…

The baby-haves and the baby-have-nots

Music

Image by BreckenPool via Flickr

As I bounce from music class to baby sign language group, give my child her organic baby-food and set up to spend half an hour ‘sharing focus’ with her to help improve her listening skills, attention span and communication I am struck by how soon the differences between the haves and the have nots start to surface. Some may say it starts even before that, in the womb…

I mean researchers have drawn correlations between IQ and:
– diet (particularly, but not only, Omega 3 consumption),
– exposure to certain types of music (most notably Mozart),
– learning baby-sign language,
– developing a healthy ability to focus (mostly through having a parent give one-to-one attention to the child, responding to and expanding their interests, etc),
– breastfeeding (including/especially night-feeding)
– less exposure to ‘ambient’ or background TV and distractions (which again impede the development of good listening skills
– early reading
– etc., etc.

As I bump into the same mums over and over in the different groups I attend, I can’t help but muse about just how lucky all our children are, how privileged. Conversely, I spare a thought for all the kids who don’t have all this attention lavished on them.

Hey, I know there is such a thing as too much doting, for sure. And I am also very aware that the second born child doesn’t get this level of one-to-one attention (though they usually get a slightly less neurotic, more experienced mom). But as you glance at that list above it is easy to speculate that most kids whose parents both work or who perhaps have a single parent caring for them and among those the kids whose parents have little education, know nothing and care less about healthy nutrition, books or Mozart… well, you can see the divide may start (or be perpetuated from) very early indeed.

College scholarship for underprivileged kids may be a good thing, an excellent thing, even… but it seems that the fate of so many kids is all but sealed by then. No, not just because they didn’t have baby-music classes – but because of a whole package of care that comes with having educated middle-class parents that they may have missed out on.

Then again you have to admire all the more the exceptions, the kids that came from rough neighbourhoods, whose parents gave them none of the advantages of interaction, stimulation, support and motivation that they might have got in other environments and they still make it. Some of them make it BIG. Is it their genes, their determination or something else that gives them an edge?

And I guess, there are as many (if not more) kids who were given everything and did nothing with it… ended up taking drugs and wasting away.

My point is only this, the gap is widening between the super-rich and the poor. The ‘raising tide that lifts all boats’ is failing our nations. And here I am seeing it from a new angle, from the seed up.