Thursday, May 23, 2013

Planted evidence?

This post is a thenga to those who did not believe my photosynthesis theory. Here she is, admitting it herself. Ha!

Monday, May 13, 2013

My two cents

Today is 13 May 2013. The date is significant to us because this was my edd, my expected delivery date. It's a different matter though that li'l Xena had to be taken out two months early to save my life and hers. For babies born that early, the edd is still used as their medical birth date till they turn two. This is known as their 'adjusted age'. They are expected to catch up to their peers by the adjusted age of two. So, today is the day Xena truly turns two. So far, Viv, Xena and I have done good, and things have more or less turned out okay.

Viv has been asking me to document all the 'right' things we have done so far in raising her, and now is a good time. We are at the two-year threshold, a good time to look back, and prepare for the storm (if there is one) ahead. Of course, there are lots of things which have been less than ideal. Ideally, I would have delivered at full term, Xena wouldn't be in the ICU for two months, she wouldn't have had surgery at the young age of six days, she wouldn't have had a host of other health problems, such as bleeding in the brain, holes in her heart, and weak lungs. Ideally, she would be wolfing down her food, instead of being solely on milk for 15 months, before starting on puree very reluctantly. Ideally, she wouldn't be stuck in the 3rd percentile for growth, while her peers grew in all directions. But this post is not about all the things that went wrong, it's about all the things that went right. I won't go into the obvious ones like the importance of breast milk, and reading to/with your child etc. etc. I will just jot down some specific things we have done which have made managing Xena a relatively easier task. (Of course, if the terrible twos are as terrible as I have heard and read they are, I will need a whole new set of strategies to deal with it. Any tips from experienced parents?)

So here's my list of 'How we stayed sane for the first two years':

Read read read
And I'm not even talking about Xena's reading yet. I'm talking about my own reading. All first-time pregnant women read. A lot. And then as the kid grows, the reading goes down. I have seen it with myself too. But I still try to read about new research findings, new parenting approaches, etc. Some may argue that there is no point reading all that and it's just information overload and one should just follow one's instinct, and maybe the advice of the elders. I don't quite agree. Well, for one, we live in a different world now, we have access to many technologies, good and bad. There are new gadgets which can make our lives easier, but come at a cost. Our kids are exposed to new and different things, whether we approve or not. Our parenting instinct is simply not equipped to parent amidst all of these distractions. Researchers now know that TV is bad for kids, but the long-term effects of the iPhone and iPad on this generation of kids now will only be seen much much later when they're all grown-up (and hopefully not screwed-up). So I read a lot and I talk to everyone in my support groups and I gather all the information first. And then I let my instinct take over and pick what seems most scientific/reasonable/practical.

Support groups
I was never a big fan of support groups before I got pregnant. But now I am. They are not just an incredible source of support, they provide a wealth of knowledge and experience. Parenting is really really hard (I sense parents nodding and non-parents skipping this post) and sometimes you need more than just your primary support system. As a first-time mom, I had a thousand questions and not everything was on google. At the moment I am in three different support groups - the premature babies support group, a group of local mommies with the same edd (yes, there are 92 of us with kids the same age!) and another, comprising mainly expats, based in the east of Singapore where I live. So I get a great mix of eastern and western views and I can pick and choose the advice I want. I am still moderately active in the premature babies support group but more as a 'senior' now. From asking questions, I have graduated to answering questions of the 'freshies' whose babies are in the ICU. Most of the time, we 'seniors' just show them the before (when they were in the ICU, with all the tubes) and after pictures of our warriors, and that itself gives them a lot of courage. Pictures do speak a thousand words.

One-on-one time
My sister is a big advocate of one-on-one time with babies, and because of her insistence I went and read up half the internet on the topic. And I have to say she is right. I am glad I quit my job to be with Xena all the time and give her my undivided attention. It's not just good for their mental development, it is also critical for their self-esteem to have an adult who will only focus on them in their early years. Almost all of my mommy friends went back to work after their maternity leave. Some didn't want to ditch their careers. Some say they can't be a stay-at-home mom because they'd go crazy at home (it's true; I do go crazy at times), and others say they just can't afford to quit their jobs (again, understandable considering the living expenses in Singapore). Fortunately, Viv and I have relatively simple lifestyles and we are able to manage. For a start, we have slowed down our home loan payments. I don't buy as many shoes as I used to, and we take the bus everywhere. Besides, I work as a freelancer writer/editor from home and though the income (I call it 'diaper fund') is only a fraction of my fulltime job before, I have never once regretted quitting my job for Xena. Yes, it's true that I was crazy in love with my job, and at times, badly miss working in an office, but the one thing I don't feel is regret. Seeing what we have been through, it is likely she will be the only kid we will raise. If I'm going to do this only once, I want to do it myself and I want to do it right.

Blah blah blah
Because she wouldn't eat anything, her doctors were concerned that lack of chewing would cause a delay in speech as the muscles would not be exercised at all. Terrified of that possibility and determined like a tigress, I talked to her ALL THE TIME. I would describe everything around her, including the details of changing a diaper. When I took her outside, I would point at everything around and describe it in great detail, even though she seemed to show zero interest at first. But I see the effect of all the hard work now, when she speaks in full sentences and is able to process her thoughts into words very well. She has also picked up on how detailed I am with my descriptions, so when she sees a construction site, she doesn't just say "truck" or "uncle". She says "Big big truck yellow helmet and yellow shoes pehne uncle digging digging making road". When she sees a jogger with a dog during our walks, she doesn't just say "dog", she says "Big brown dog walking, aunty running running". When she sees two birds, she doesn't just say "birds", she says, "Two white birds walking". I'm also following my sister's advice (she's second only to google) in trying to make Xena bilingual at the very least. I speak to her in Hindi at home (Viv and I have different native tongues, neither of which is Hindi, but I figure Hindi will serve her well in any part of India if she were to travel there), and she's learning English and a bit of Chinese at school. Some say that learning too many languages will confuse the kid, but I have read that the challenge the brain faces in switching between languages at an early age just makes the brain more efficient. A forum on premature babies' development that I attended reinforced this view. The doctors there said that multilingual kids may not be proficient in all the languages they learn initially, but they will catch up soon, and will also have a better ability to focus and multitask in their later lives. So it's not just about how many languages they will learn, it's about sufficiently and appropriately challenging the brain at an age when their grey cells are rapidly multiplying.

No entry zones
As soon as she started crawling, she was all over the house as expected. But somehow, we managed to make her stay out of the kitchen (I do include her in the cooking process like making her peel boiled eggs, or letting her watch me chop vegetables, but she does all this while seated in her high chair) and bathrooms. If she tried to enter, I would immediately take her out and firmly tell her that she can't enter. To my total surprise, she simply stopped trying to enter these rooms. I never used a safety gate to keep her out, and even now, at two, she runs and goes everywhere, but if I'm in the kitchen or the bathroom, she waits at the door for me to come out. I'm still really surprised that this works so well. And I'm glad that she simply takes our word that limits are limits. Of course, she does get restless and then I just hold up my hand and say, "Patience, baby. Mommy is doing the dishes." Now she knows the keyword "patience". She says it herself and even holds her hand up like me when she says it. It's hilarious. This is also teaching her an important life skill - waiting. Studies show that children who are able to wait patiently for delayed gratification are able to handle stress and frustration better, now and as adults.

Bye bye
Long long before she started talking, we introduced certain important keywords to her, the most important of which has been 'bye bye'. When we wanted to take something away from her, instead of simply taking it away and making her bawl, we'd tell her that it was time for her to say 'bye bye' to the object. Whenever people left, we told her that it was time for 'bye bye'. I see the real benefits now. When I have to leave her and go somewhere, there is no crying fit. I simply say 'bye bye' and she says 'bye bye'. If she's in a shop and excitedly points to a toy, I simply acknowledge her excitement by telling her that yes, it's a nice toy and that it's time to say 'bye bye' to it. To our surprise (every time!), she says 'bye bye' to it and we leave. At some point, she completely stopped eating, and as much as we hated it, we had to resort to the iPad for a while to feed her (she's a 2-year-old who weighs as much as a 9-month-old; she's been stuck at about 8 kg for months now; she doesn't gain weight but loses weight at the snap of a finger every time she falls sick). To minimise the harms the iPad can cause, we avoided all flashy/loud/superinteractive apps, or anything that would make her zone out and just stare at the screen. She didn't get to work the iPad, we did. We basically used the flashcards app to take her through pictures of animals, etc. And we'd say 'bye bye' to the iPad as soon as she finished eating. She never protested. Thankfully, that was just a phase and we don't use the iPad anymore. Even though she needs distraction during meals, we use books and toys. And because we were particular not to teach her the word "no", she also uses "bye bye" as a substitute when she wants to reject something (mostly food, of course). She actually waves to the food and says "bye bye", which I feel is more polite and less infuriating than if she were to say "NO!" The 'bye bye' approach also helps when she misbehaves. If she throws a toy, we remove it with a 'bye bye' and she knows better next time. If she misbehaves at the playground, we remove her from there with a 'bye bye'. It also makes her more receptive to taking medicines ("Medicine se cough ka bye bye ho jaayega.") It also helped her settle down in school. Right from day one, she never protested or threw a fit about school. She simply said 'bye bye' and went inside. We have been successful in conditioning the 'bye bye' approach, which simply means that people and objects come and go and we just say 'bye bye' without a fuss.

Tidy up
From the time we introduced toys, we have demonstrated to her that we need to tidy up after playing. Now she knows the rules and follows them. She says "Tablap" ("Tidy up") after she's done with one toy, such as her box of blocks or play doh, and tidies up before asking for the next one. She does seem to try and break this rule when we have visitors though, when she realises that these 'new' grown-ups will probably tidy up and she won't have to. We have to reinforce the rules then, and she's okay after that. At times when she is very reluctant to tidy up, I tell her we'll do it together. That gets her excited and she tidies up almost by herself, saying, "Together tablap!"

Roni roni
I'm not quite sure how the words "roni roni" (crying) came about. I believe I was reading a story to her about some character who was "rone lagi" and she got "roni roni" from that. But she knows what it means. Roni roni means someone is sad or hurt and that is not good. Now that she's at the age when she's trying to assert her independence, I use the term to tell her what she can and cannot do. For example, she can't throw a ball at her friend's face because "it will hurt him and he will be roni roni", and she stops, knowing that roni roni is not a good thing. I also use it to tell her why she can't stand on the seat when she's in the bus because "when driver uncle brakes, she might fall down, hurt herself and roni roni" and most of the time she listens and sits down. I have realised that she reacts better when I get down to her level, explain the consequences of her actions, no matter how complicated they are, and whether she fully understands them or not. It's perfectly logical, isn't it? From their perspective, "Why is mommy snatching away the long pointy stick I found near the playground? It's so fun to swish it around!" It is much better to explain to them that they can hurt their friends with it and it is not nice if their friends get hurt and roni roni.

Apne aap
Just like roni roni, another pair of words that has worked wonders is "apne aap" (by myself). Whenever she attempts to do something herself, we always tell her how proud we are that she did/tried it "apne aap". Now she takes pride in it. After putting the blocks back in the box, she carries the box and puts it back in her toy corner and then tells me, beaming, "Strong baby! Heavy box! Apne aap!" This is also how we got her started on enjoying brushing time. It used to be a total war zone, with me pinning her down and Viv trying to clean her teeth because she would simply refuse and flee the scene. Now we give her the toothbrush and tell each other "Look, Xena's going to brush apne aap!" And she does. She brushes even the insides and her tongue. And then she gives us a dazzling smile and says, "Xena brush apne aap. Shiny shiny white white teeth!" Sometimes she also says hilarious things like "Uncle helmet pehne motorbike chalaya apne aap!!" ("Uncle is wearing a helmet and riding a motorbike.. by himself!!")

Almost there
Another key word I taught her is "almost". I have seen kids throw a complete hissy fit because a feather touched their hand or something. The thing is - the deal is only as big as you make it. Kids will fall, they will hurt themselves. It is a part of growing up and finding out about their surroundings. If we run to them every time they stumble, they will never learn and they will make a bigger deal of things than they actually are. Every time Xena would stumble or trip, she'd look at me for my reaction. I would stay calm or totally ignore it. Pushing her luck, she'd say, "Baby fell down..." with semi-tears in her eyes. I'd say, "No, baby almost fell down." She picked up from there and now even when she falls hard, there's hardly any howling. She just comes and shows me if she has any bruises and we fix it. We also show her Viv's cricket bruises (some of which are quite nasty because my wicket-keeper likes to dive a lot) and tell her very casually how they happened. She's now cool about them, she simply says, "Poppy playing cricket... fell down... bruises".

A friend of mine asked me how on earth I entertain Xena all day if I don't use the TV at all. She said she leaves the TV on all the time, even when her kid is not actively watching. Another friend told me that TV is very good for babies because they learn a lot of things from it. Yet another has bought a whole box of DVDs to make her kid as brainy as Einstein. The bottomline is: TV is NOT GOOD. Not even baby TV and baby DVDs. The AAP recommends no TV till the age of three. Read this article about how TV actually makes kids less intelligent than they can be. It may be very tempting to use the TV as a baby-sitter just to get a breather, but at what cost? It's hard, but not impossible to find better activities to keep the little ones busy. We have never ever shown Xena TV. We are sticking to no TV till three, and perhaps even after that. Even though we know that research findings may change from time to time, the point is -- what is the real need for her to watch TV? We have taught her the alphabet using flash cards, colours using play doh, numbers using foam stickers in the bathtub. We read books and go out to the play ground or beach every day and learn a host of new things. We have fun. This is the time for her to be out and about. She has her whole adult life to stay glued to a screen (though I hope not).

I was not a fan of putting kids in school too early. But her doctor and dietitian thunked their heads on the hospital pillars and told me that they are out of ideas on how to get some food inside her, and they can only advise us to put her in school to see if peer pressure will help her eat. So we did. We found a nice school and put her in on a half-day (morning) basis. On the third day of orientation, she was in the hospital with a stomach bug. The doctors said that she's too weak to be in school and we should reconsider. We had a long discussion and we decided to pull her out, give her a few weeks' break and put her in another school, one that was open-air with a lot of outdoor activities. Luckily, we found the perfect one. Though it's far away from our house and crazy expensive, it really is perfect, touchwood. The teachers genuinely care about fixing her feeding, there is a lot of outdoor play, they have water play every Wednesday and a sports instructor comes every Thursday to teach them new sports (yep, Xena plays rugby!). Yes, she has fallen sick in this new school too and has been in and out of hospital twice in the last two months, but we look at it this way -- kids will fall sick when they come in contact with other kids. It's inevitable. Even perfectly healthy, full-term kids with extra-strong lungs fall sick when they first go to childcare or school. We'd rather she fall sick now and build her immunity in the process than fall sick in later years when she can't afford to miss school. School does seem to help with her eating, and she's also become much more social than she already was. She readily shares her toys with her friends, and knows all their names, and comes back and reports everything to me. And by everything, I mean everything. I get a report on who pooped, who wore what, whose mummy came on a bicycle, whose poppy came in a car, whose aunty (helper/maid) came with a stroller, who fell down, who cried, who ate what, everything.

In the beginning, I was of the view that one should let the kid be free in what he/she wants to do. I would put her to nap whenever she looked sleepy, but I soon found out it was hard to work around such a random routine. Luckily, someone in my support group advised me very early that it's us who need to set their routines, and not the other way round. It's true. From the babies' perspective, everything is new. All it takes is one distraction for them to skip a nap and then become super cranky because they don't know what is happening and then drive you completely nuts. From the time I started to follow a set routine, it became a breeze. Brushing, bathing, milk, naps, play time, night sleep, everything was suddenly falling into place. Now she knows the routine. She naps at a fixed time in the afternoon and is off to bed by 8 pm. Yes, going to restaurants for late dinners is still a challenge (especially because she doesn't eat anything, she gets really restless in the high chair. We take turns to walk outside with her, while the other eats). However, we are able to host friends at home almost every weekend and we truly have a stress-free good time because she's inside, sleeping soundly.

It is never too early to teach them manners. She started saying "Please" very early because I would simply ignore her if she said something like "Mama, open!" when she wanted to open a play doh container. Then I would say, "Please?" and she would immediately say, "Mama, please open." and I would help at once. Now she says "please" on her own. She also says "hello", "bye bye" and hugs even our friends before they leave. We are working on "Thank you" now. Though it doesn't come naturally to her yet, she does surprise us sometimes by saying a big "Thank you, uncle!" to the cabbies before we alight. Just this morning, she said "Thank you!" to the bus driver who gave her a toffee. I suppose they learn what they see. Viv and I are now more careful about saying "Please" and "Thank you" even to each other. Because Xena is watching and learning. All the time.

No special concessions
Given what we went through, the fact that she is with us today is a miracle. Sometimes I look at her and find it hard to believe that she is right here, with me. I want to kiss her and hug her and protect her from anything that can hurt her. When something like this happens, it might be tempting to raise her into a little princess-child who gets everything she wants and never gets reprimanded, just to make up for all the rough times she went through that no baby should go through. But the whole point of trying to make her "catch up with her peers" is not just about size and growth and weight. Yes, the start was not a normal one, but we are trying to make her into a normal little kid eventually. Sure, she has been through very rough times and she was incredibly brave and strong, and some day we will tell her all about it. But there is so much more to life than merely looking at past struggles and glories with pride. If she wants to do truly extraordinary things in life, she needs to learn to be ordinary first.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Five little monkeys and an angry bird

Aaaand... Abhijeet is back at the bar! This bird is not just cross... it is cross-eyed as well. (Btw, I think I will actually be sad the day she stops referring to 'Angry Bird' as 'Abhijeet'.)

And here are my little monkey and I singing about five little monkeys (watch out for the part where she says "No more doctors" instead of "No more monkeys").