Friday, December 30, 2011


Observing babies can tell a lot about our own evolution, says Desmond Morris in his fascinating book, Babywatching. How babies behave also shed light on how we behave and communicate as adults. Morris does an excellent job of digging out behavioral research studies, roots of our common traditions, and links many of our instinctual acts to our former avtars-primates!

The book attempts to answer specific questions from how do babies enter the world, why do they cry at birth, what makes them smile, how well can a mother recognise her own baby, do men and women react to babies in the same way etc etc? I share some of most interesting answers. Some answers seem too incredible to directly attribute the effect to that cause, but he does make a rational argument!

Babies cry at birth because we have significantly altered the way they have historically entered the world. From being born at home surrounded by family, in a vertical position and cuddled immediately by the mother, babies now are delivered in a brightly lit, noisely hospital surrounded by strangers, in a horizontal position and taken away to be cleaned and checked. His point is that a lot can be done in the hospital itself to make the birth a comforting and loving process, like making baby rest on mother's stomach for a while, bonding with the father, reducing the clitter clatter noises and slowing down as far as possible the post birth procedures.

How strong are new born babies? Well, in first few weeks of birth, they can clasp your finger and carry their whole body weight this way. Monkey babies had to possess this skill if they did not want to fall off their mother's fur while she leapt and swung from tree to tree. Similar to this a baby reacts to a loss of balance by its legs and arms clasping empty air, again a instinct in monkeys when they would do so to catch a branch to stop their fall.

He quotes many studies for some of these questions. An interesting one was where after 48 hours from birth, 12 out of 23 mothers were able to identify their own baby's cries out of a selection of no fewer than 31 different babies! Or studies where there is no artifical separation between mother and her baby following delivery, after only 45 hours, the newborn can tell its own mother purely by her body fragrance!

Another study showed how men and women react differently to babies by observing if their pupils enlarged or shrunk on looking at babies (a positive emotional response vs a negative one respectively). Females whether or not they had own children, all reacted positively with enlarged pupils. Only those males, on the other hand, who had children of their own, reacted positively. Males without children had a strong negative response! This is not to say that they would make bad parents, but basically that women have an instinctive positive reaction for babies and for men that comes from external experience.

Why do women usually cradle babies in their left hand? Morris suggests that this is because the heart beats on left side, thuse comforting the baby with a familiar sound she heard when she was in the womb. Why do babies love rocking? This could also be linked to the heart. Studies found that ideal rocking sequence was 60-70 in a minute, resembling most the 72 beats per min of our heart!

When the first pram or peramburator was invented by Dr. Charles Burton in 1848 in New York, it was quite a nuisance on the road and people did not take it too well, wait...until Queen Victoria ordered one conferring on it a "status" symbol! The birthday cake tradition comes from the ancient ritual of worshipping the moon with candled (hence the cake is round, white with candles!). The blue and pink stereotypes for babies come also from ancient tradition where blue was chosen as the colour of protection, heaven, the sky for the "more" important gender and the pink colour was more of a derivative taken from the colour of the baby's skin just for differentiation!

I loved this one, "a spoilt schoolchild may well be one who has been disciplined too little but a spoilt baby is one who has been disciplined too much.":) Babies are not schemers who deliberately want to make their parents' lives difficult, they have needs and have limited ways of expressing them and all they need initially is as much love and cuddling and interaction with parents to transform them into secure and loving individuals in future:)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What is in a name?

One of the most difficult things for us so far in these nine months (besides of course the leg cramps, heartburns and advice from multiple fronts:P) is deciding on a baby name (well two since gender will be a big surprise)!

We of course started with what criteria it should ideally fulfill.

First, it should have some meaning, something that signifies our way of life and living, that connects with who we are as people.

Second, should be unique, something different, something that creates this "aha" response for us everytime we say the name and for the child when she/ he says the name. Parth's benchmark for uniqueness has been that we should be able to get the domain with the full name:P.

Third, should follow the KISS principle! Keep in short and simple:) No more than two syllables, no scope for annoying petnames that haunt you for the rest of your life and not open to any mispronunciations!

Fourth, it should role beautifully and naturally on the tongue, like a musical tone that transmits you to a moment of serenity!

Ok, ok, I know there are a lot of "shoulds" in there. When I think about this, I realise this is probably the first element of control we exercise over the child! Deciding her name, her identity for the rest of her life. It is also a role of great responsibility. A bad choice and well those of you who are stuck with not so cool names, know what I mean. But of course, even the name you choose is not really permanent. Your child can choose to change it later:) Luckily Parth has some experience there!

But I wonder, how much does a name actually affect who you are, how you are perceived and treated by others, how you feel when you introduce yourself? The first letter of your name determines where you are on a roll call in school/ college (either first to get your result announced or the last...). The higher the chance of your name getting misspelled (Minali, Monali, Maanali, Meenali, Malini....), the greater the annoyance when your name is called out on a panel or speakerphone. Too complicated names also have a higher chance of being misrecorded in your passport, license, PAN card, etc. And of course names which sound different depending on the accent of person who calls out your name!! Oof, so many possibilities of not getting it right:)

Well Baby Shah, we hope that by the time you arrive, we would have just the right name for you which you will love and adore! Of course, there are no guarantees in life, are there?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Happy Child Guide

Children do not listen, they model!

One of the many interesting insights in Happy Child Guide by Dr. Blaise Ryan and Ashley Olivia Ryan. (Thanks Iris for sharing this!)

The book lists seven simple ways to transform misbehaviour to great behaviour! What made it interesting for Parth and me was how the strategies in the book were very different (sometimes even opposite) from what we had seen being used by parents around us. But the authors have been practicing this with their child and seen results. They admit that all the crying and tantrums did not completely stop, but they have reduced substantially.

The key message according to the authors is for parents to understand how to respond to the child's behaviour and instill the principles of connection, trust and respect so that the child listens and cooperates naturally. They see two ways of influencing a child: one is to develop skills that help us respond to her needs and behaviours (internal) and second is to develop lifestyle habits that affect her in positive ways (external).

As in SWOT, we now refer to weaknesses as challenges, the authors refer misbehaviour as challenging behaviour. As in different styles of leadership, there are different types of parenting: authoritarian or violent parenting; authoritarian non violent parenting (rewards and punishments), parenting (giving in to child's needs all the time, here parents usually switch extremes) and the last one....can you guess....yes, democratic parenting! The first three often leave the child confused, angry, disrespectful and alienated. The last one focusses on involving children in the process and setting limits which are gently enforced without anger or punishment or reward.

The skills to respond to needs and behaviour = INTERNAL
  1. Understand the reasons for the child's behaviour: a genuine need (food, sleep, etc), unresolved stress or missing information.
  2. Non reaction: respond to needs not behaviour (speaking and gently is the only way one can reach out to the child, "thinking state")
  3. Natural giggles: instead of inducing laughter by tickling (which the child actually does not like but just can't make us stop), better to make them laugh naturally through other means like games (hide and seek; acting dumb etc)
  4. Listening time: carve out a time when you only listen and be with the child, no phones, no TV, no other distraction...
  5. Connective communication: Using words and phrases, like..."darling, sweetheart", "Not right now" (as opposed to "no"), "we" or "us" (instead of "you"), "that is is a great idea, and I think" (instead of "but"), "I am right here with you" or "I see you".
  6. Limit setting: support the child to help express true feelings. A different approach here is to just let the child cry it out. Suppose you set the limit together for let us say playing in the playground and now the child does not want to go. You explain your need to go gently and ask them to come along. In case they do not and they start to cry, take them to the car and just let them cry it out. Do not abandon them or alienate them when they cry. Let them cry but be with them so they know that you love them and will not leave them, instead of giving in to their demand or offering a chocolate to appease them. Tantrums are part of the healing process and usually there are underlying reasons for the tantrums which as a parent you may need to help your child experience and express.
  7. Avoiding control patterns: the favourite blanket or soother or TV...holding on these makes the child repress their true feelings and just hides them till they explode again next time...
  8. Adult to adult listening time: getting the support for ourselves without being advised or judged
The lifestyle habits = EXTERNAL
  1. Cutdown sugar, use natural sugars
  2. Enough water
  3. Whole food diet
  4. Supplement rest
  5. Play till you sweat
  6. Go to bed early
  7. Turn off the TV!!
They quote numerous studies to support their suggestions.

Alternatives to punishment
  1. Prevention (do not keep those sugar cream cookies in the house!)
  2. Evaluation (how did this happen? could this have been prevented? what is the real reason for the behaviour"
  3. Ask a question (what are you doing? they may have very imaginative reasons for drawing on the wall...)
  4. Offer an alternative
  5. Express how to feel, make a request
  6. Freedom to choose: as parents, we often mirror what how our parents raised us or what we see around us. But there are choices we can make as well about how we would like to do it!
Let us see how this works:)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Much Awaited Baby Shah Baby Shower

My friends and family had been planning my Baby Shower for a month now and by chance I happen to come to know:) It was a good thing for me but not so for them. My nosy and skeptic self crept in much to their chagrin, but they love me for better or worse, right? But on the D day, which was yesterday, I chose not to butt in and stayed away from all the hustle bustle at my parents house, a very wise decision indeed.

When I walked in the house all ready, it just looked so beautiful! All the lovely decorations, the silver strings, the all time favourite colourful streamers, yellow gende ke phool and white carnations, the variety of shapes stuck to the walls, the hanging octopus (unique idea for a stuffed animal!), my photo collage (which my Mom meticulously made many years back and I just love looking at again and again!) and last but not the least Parth and Jyot Bhabhi's unusual diaper cake (yes a cake made with actual diapers!). Nidh had fulfilled her task of making the place light up 120% and we hope to leave it like this for Baby Shah's eyes:)

Mostly all my close friends from work, CCS, school and college could make it and it was such a high to see all of them together in one room!

The games were the fun highlight of the evening. Guessing my tummy size was actually was quite difficult than it seemed, only one person came close! In "What Baby Shah will look like" everyone had to guess which features Parth and I wanted from ourselves in Baby Shah (the "correct" answers: my eyes, ears, legs, hair, lips, nose, accent and Parth's brains, smile, sense of humour!). Some people said none to some of these, we tried not to be offended:). The mommies and baby sitters in the group won easily at fill in the rhymes and baby charades! With some time in hand, we also played the typical kitty party game: tambola!

Ahh the food...the other highlight of the evening was my sister Moni's specialty-Swiss Rolls-Vanilla cake with coffee cream filling and chocolate icing! Shreya brought our all time favourite-apple crumble. Wenger's lived up to its name and the quiches, patties and kebabs were lovely.

We also asked everyone to share advice for parents to be and also ideas for baby names...

My lovely nieces and nephews also sent their wishes, Prnu made an adorable video message and my darling girls send hand made cards....

A big hugs to the master minders: Rohi, Parth, Nidh, Mom, Dad, Moni and Pinks...and Swati (arranged for chocolates), Dipti (helped in shopping), Sunaina (the music bank) and Shreya (apple crumble)....Thanks everyone to making this such a fun and memorable evening:) We loved the useful gifts and your active participation! Baby Shah was super happy, as I could tell from all the post-party kicking!!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Monitessori Method: Who, What, Why?

When we heard of our friends looking for play schools for their children, we kept hearing the "M" word quite often. That led Parth to buy us, "How to raise an amazing child: The Montessori Way" by Tim Seldin. It is a fascinating read more so because of its interesting origins and its liberal undertones.

Maria Montessori, born in Italy in 1870, became the first Italian woman to become a physician. In her work with free clinics, she came across many children of the poor. Through her work she became convinced that every child had an amazing potential and all they needed was the right stimulation and environment to bloom in. To prove her point, she took over management of a day care centre in one of Rome's worst slums. The children were rowdy, irresponsible and very difficult to deal with. She delegated various day care management tasks to the older children, like helping with the cleaning, serving meals etc. And her techniques made them independent, responsible and courteous. Her methods gained popularity across the world and soon schools modelling her approach mushroomed all over, and that is what we call the Montessori Method!

In his book, Seldin shares these principles in detail and provides tips for simple things we could do to apply this approach in our homes as well. I liked one of his opening lines a lot, "while not every teacher is a parent, every parent is a teacher."

Montessori's basic approach to babies was:
  • respect all babies as individual human beings
  • allow them as much freedom of movement as possible
  • help them become increasingly independent by creating a safe, child friendly environment that makes it easier for them to explore.
Therefore in Montessori schools, you often see children playing on their own. They choose what they want to play, sometimes with the guidance of the teacher. They are given a specific space to play in, like a work mat on the floor or a particular corner designated for that activity. They are expected to put things back in place when they done. The book describes many such activities which we can do at home with simple materials available in the house itself. (sorting buttons, a treasure box of different types of materials, sorting different sounds..)

Children feel a lot of frustration in an adult sized world.
So another element of the Montessori schools is that its designed for the world of children. The table and chair, the bathrooms, the cupboards and shelves and plenty of play areas on the ground. This is something we can try and do in our homes as well to some extent. For example, instead of having the child play only in the cot or play area, we can create a larger open floor space with a low bed with blockages where children cannot cross.

Children also respond to a calm and orderly environment in which everything has its place. The schools have smaller reachable shelves with all the materials in segregated baskets/ boxes. In our homes, we can create storage spaces in a way which are easy for children to use and put back in place. For example, having many smaller baskets and open storage units rather than one large toy box where everything is mixed up and is too large for the child to use and organise on her own.

They can also be taught to help around the house. Like arranging the table, clearing up their areas etc. The way to teach them is the way we teach any skill in any work training we do. First demonstrate how its done, let them practice on their own, make mistakes, provide constructive feedback until they are able to do it on their own. The way we teach them to use the taps, or pour liquids, carry breakable items, etc. Investing time in teaching them can go a long way in building their own self confidence in being able to do things on their own.

Montessori also found through her work that the years birth to six years are the most fertile ground for learning, senses, music, language, maths, grace and courtesy, writing, order, reading, spatial relationships. Therefore, allowing children to be as free as possible can allow them to explore and learn more. Cutting nails rather than placing mittens to cover hands; allowing them to play on the floor rather in just in a cot, playing with different textured materials and not just plastic, playing with manual toys rather than mechanical etc can help parents make most of this opportunity.

One thing that struck me as I was reading the book was how similar this approach was to the ideal liberal society Parth and I believe in. Regarding every person as an independent individual being with freedom to explore her potential with the government playing the role of providing a safe and facilitative environment with basic ground rules that apply equally to all!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Project Baby Shah

One of the many things Parth and I have in common is how we deal with something new that has to be done. To us it seems akin to any other project we would be taking up. So it was not a surprise when we heard the big news, how we would start work on....Project Baby Shah!!!

Step 1: Internal and external SWOT
Logical beings as we are, we first thought a lot about what strengths we have as parents and what weaknesses can make our tasks difficult! This was somewhat doable as we both had some experience in handling nieces and nephews.

Step 2: Vision
Next came the big VISION questions to which we were quite stumped actually = what kind of parents do we want to be? what values do we want to instill in our child? So came the next step!

Step 3: Background research
What do we as a species understand about babies, children? What influences their behaviour? How do they learn? How do we balance being permissive and authoritative? How do parents help them become happy, independent, responsible, respectful and creative? What would we have to change about ourselves? We now are learning to be more curious about how our friends and family parent! Nothing helps more than learning from trials and errors (of others of course:), sorry people!) We also asked around for tried and tested tricks and new insights into parenting. So far, we have interesting reads including....
  • What to expect: The First Year by Heidi Murkoff (from what to expect when you are expecting fame)
  • The Happy Child Guide by Dr. Blaise Ryan, Ashley Olivia Ryan (fascinating approach to parenting different from the convention)
  • How to raise an Amazing Child: The Montessori Way by Tim Seldon
  • Teach Yourself how to raise Happy Children (yes the same teach yourself for languages!!, similar to the Happy Child)
  • Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (this was hilarious, many ideas on what not to do, but also some interesting contrasts between different parenting styles!)
As all parents have told us that it is a learning journey, so I guess this step will never end:)

Our purpose in documenting our journey helps us to reflect on what we have learned and also is a humble attempt to involve our family and friends as co-passengers:) Please we may annoy you sometimes, but we also know that you will take all this with a pinch of salt....for Baby Shah!

The Parents to be: Mana & Parth

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Power of a Checklist

Usually it takes me atleast a few days if not weeks to complete a book. But this one, took just a day.

Disclaimer: I am a firm believer and follower of checklists and todos to the point that my memory is completely handicapped without one!

So when I picked up Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto, I was pretty sure that I would understand his logic and reason for dedicating a whole book to a mundane thing as a checklist.

His book demonstrates the successes in terms of life-saving, effectiveness and efficiency across professions from those in which split second decisions can decide the fate of someone's life and time is a luxury to others where one can spend as much time as needed to create perfection. Medicine, aviation and disaster relief to architecture and construction, restuaurant business, music industry.... How does one build a 100-storey building without accident or how does one produce 300 mouth watering perfect dishes in four hours or how does one assure safety of passengers in a plane with failed engines?

Gawande's theory on checklists is that it is a reminder of those seemingly simple tasks which tend to get forgotten or overlooked. It is not a comprehensive to-do guide. Therefore it cannot be very long and tedious. It has to be short enough that it will be referred to and not add to the workload. Secondly, the secret of an effective checklist is that it ensures communication within the team. This takes cares of the unpredictable! Very often checklists cannot predict what will go wrong and something always does. So it ensures that the teams talk to each other at important junctures of the project and hopefully come up with some strategies to overcome the problems.

In the case of medicine, one of the things he has studied is central line infections before and during surgery which have emerged as one of the main causes of surgical failure. A checklist was developed and had to be read out loud in the operating room. Therefore he distinguished between DO-CONFIRM tasks and READ-DO tasks. One of the first was that everyone in the room must introduce each other. This somehow contributed in making the strangers in the room
feel like a team. Other tasks were checking if the antibiotic was given in the right time frame, or the gloves were changed etc. Studies later showed that after using such checklists, there was a dramatic drop in such infections and the hospitals actually saved millions in costs.

Another interesting example is from the music industry. Van Halen signed very detailed contracts with the organisers with some weird clauses-one being that there should be a bowl of M&Ms without the brown ones in the dressing room. This was a just a symptom of what else could be possibly wrong! If the organisers ignored a simple task as separating the brown M&Ms, they most likely also failed to follow instructions in other-often more disastrous tasks-like the stage or equipment etc.

I already put this in practice. One thing I realised with my checklists is that they are long and detailed. Now I wanted to keep it that way but what I did was that I added a last page with the "FINAL CHECK" where I listed the 5-6 key points which can make the campaign a success of a failure and one of the points was that the team has predicted the possible disasters and has strategies in place to deal with them.

Well will this work or not? I am not sure, but its worth a try. Sometimes the solutions to our problems need not be as complicated.

The Market for Local Guides

Despite all the pleasures of seeing new sites, one annoyance that I least look forward to is the rush of tourist guides that surround and hound you. Usually these would be young dudes who claim to show you all the sites at a very enticing price. Recently at Jaipur, we were also approached by "government approved" tourist guides with even a proper name tag. The dilemma facing the average Indian tourist seems quite serious: do you choose the government guide who has a fixed charge or you choose the unlicensed young dude at sometimes even half the price?

If you look at the service that these guides provide, its basically history of the particular monument and if you are lucky some additional stories as a value addition! The guides also differentiates their service as per language, we could hear guides rattling off Japanese, Spanish, name it. A new competitor on the scene-the audio guide-is also giving taking away some (not that much as audio guides are largely preferred by foreign tourists) clients. Since I am a big fan of the audio guide and Parth of the live version, potential guides often try very hard to persuade me to change my mind, my favourite one, "Madam, see the audio guide cannot answer your questions, you only listen!" So given the competition but just from other guides but also from this machine, one can understand that this is a market of the "survival of the most persuasive"!

Now the question is of authenticity of information and fair price. How do you know whether what you are being told is accurate and secondly what you are being charged is a fare price? One can say that competition can improve quality, but then how do I really know whether the information being shared is authentic or not? Also how does the government certificate ensure that the information provided is authentic or not?

Well wouldn't this make for an interesting research on your next trip?