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Carly Stasko investigates the quandaries of new parents

FROM ROUTINES TO RITUALS:

Having a consistent and fun bedtime ritual for your baby keeps everyone happy. It gives your little one important cues to help them transition from a busy day to a restful night. It’s a chance to wind down, to reconnect, to imagine, and take comfort in a predictable routine.

Mere months ago, my husband and I both fancied ourselves to be wild spirits free from the restraints of what we saw as oppressive routines. Being predictable seemed like a fate to avoid at all cost, dare we risk being sentenced to a life of boredom.

Since we’ve become parents an interesting shift has occurred. With the birth of our son we’ve enjoyed the introduction of an additional wild spirit into our lives and our days are filled with chaos, hilarity, relentless learning, play, poop and crazy, crazy love. As we surrender to the improv-act-that-is-parenthood we have found that a bit of routine can be a very welcome sanctuary.

Babies and kids thrive when caregivers provide the comfort of predictability in their lives. In a world where kids regularly feel powerless, the ability to read cues in a routine and know what comes next helps them feel more secure and confident.

I’ve made a deal with my wild side, and instead of thinking of these daily practices as a boring routine I see them as meaningful rituals. Bringing some mindfulness to the rituals you practice in your daily life (from the songs you sing when it’s time to get dressed to the ways you get ready for a bath) is a great way to consciously create your own family culture.  In my last post I talked about my practice of listing three grateful things each day when sharing a meal with family and friends. Today I want to talk about bedtime rituals – and in particular, story-time.

EARLY LITERACY FOR ALL

Early literacy advocates praise the importance of reading with your children from a young age.  And according to some experts it’s never too early to familiarize your baby with the habits of reading so they build positive associations with books and storytelling.

My husband and I got a kick out of reading poetry to our son in utero, but once he was born—and especially in the early days— we found ourselves preoccupied with caring for his most basic needs. The few times I tried showing him a book it was clear he’d rather bury his face in my boobs than a book.

INTRODUCING 3D STORYTIME

It was in those early days that I discovered the joys of creating my own three-dimensional story experience.  What is a 3D storybook? Simply put, it’s any arrangement of interesting objects designed to create meaning that you can return to regularly with your child. The simplest example is a collection of framed family pictures on the wall, or a mobile, or a shelf of stuffed animals.  You can go to these objects and interact with them, name them, or say “good night” to them.  If you do this every night you will soon find that you child, even very young babies, will begin to recognize and relish the ritual.

Because our son is named Forest, I created a little mobile-inspired “tree” for his room during my pregnant nesting days. I made the “tree” out of twisted branches (left over from our wedding), which I decorated with various trinkets such as earrings, Christmas decorations, discarded toys I found on the street, treasures from my own childhood and handmade felt crafts. Soon this little tree was full of curiosities for our little baby to gaze at.

RHYME AND REASON


I find that every day as a parent involves a bit of experimentation. It was during one such experiment that I discovered how Forest could actively interact with the decorated tree as part of his bedtime ritual. I noticed that he always got a bit agitated just before going to sleep. One night after his bath and after nursing him I pre-empted his protests and distracted him by spinning some of the decorations of the tree.  He stared at them intensely, captivated by the movement, and I felt him relax in my arms.  It was then that I knew I was on to something! Forest would wave hello or make chirping bird noises or just be hypnotized by the play of light and shadows caused by the glow of his night-light through the branches.  This nightly ritual had a lot of the same elements as reading a story, but it engaged and soothed our baby more than books did at the time.

Now that our son is older and loves reading books with us, he still enjoys the nightly routine of visiting his magic tree.

We also began to say a little prayer each time we visited the tree. I have always enjoyed the ritual of saying a bedtime prayer even though I am not particularly religious. As a young girl I learned a prayer that I adapted slightly, and that I now say every night with Forest while we spin a little felt angel on one of the branches.

Angel of Goodness,
My guardian dear.
To whom your love,
Commits us here.
Ever this day or night
Be at our side
To light, to guard,
To rule and guide.
Bless everyone and everything that lives and loves,
Amen

I can tell my son enjoys the rhythm and the rhyme of the prayer by the way he sometimes bounces, nods and babbles along.  If you don’t want to say a prayer you could easily say a little verse from a song or a poem. With time Forest has come to associate this process with being calm and cuddled, and so even on those nights when he’s a bit more hyper or grumpy this ritual helps stabilize him, which is perfect just before he goes to sleep.

YES YOU CAN!

So do you want to try to create your own 3D storytelling experience for your baby? First of all it is very likely you may already have something set up that could be used such as a collection of framed pictures or a mobile or a shelf of toys.  Look around your home or nursery and see if there is an area that already exists that you could use or adapt to be a 3D story telling spot. Also, now is a good time to bring a bit more awareness into the bedtime ritual you have already established, and to think about how it’s working for you and changes you might want to make. Then you can think about the best time to do this activity – though I find the best time is just before bed.

Is there is a prayer or poem or song you want to sing when you do this pre-sleep ritual? If you’ve never done something like this, a great place to start is to just look at what you have handy and think about what might suit you and your baby. You could easily make a tree (branches are free!), or perhaps hang some pictures together of people in your family and circles of friends. Then experiment and see what version of this ritual will work for you. You could start right now by walking around the room saying good night to various objects, like in the book Goodnight Moon:  “Good night brush, goodnight mush…”

8 HELPFUL TIPS FOR CREATING YOUR 3D STORY RITUAL:

MIX IT UP: rotate your story elements so that you can introduce some novelty to keep things interesting — but so that there remain familiar elements too.

INTERACT: come up with different ways of interacting with these elements.  The simplest thing you can do is say “hello” to them all. This is still our favourite.  You can also give them voices, songs, or animal noises.  Make the noise, and then give a long pause in case your baby wants to try out the noise.

BEG, BORROW, STEAL: Most of the story elements I use as decorations on Forest’s story tree were things I found, like a yellow monkey I found on the sidewalk, or the little prayer bell my neighbour put out in a free box in front of their house. One item, a silver butterfly, once hung in my nursery window when I was a baby. Don’t feel like you need to spend lots of money to create this.  See what you already own and what is already meaningful to you.

PLAY IS THE WAY: this is meant to be fun, and it will be an experiment, so you really can’t go wrong. It’s best to just try something out and go with what works until you find a ritual that suits you and your baby. In fact, the intuitive testing and playing involved is a very significant process. Not only does this process help to usher your baby into early literacy but it helps you develop your own parental literacy as you really tune into your baby’s cues.

LOOK, DON’T TOUCH: This can be tricky! It is good to establish a look-don’t-touch dynamic with the elements of the story (in my case the decorations on our tree).  This may seem cruel since babies want to touch everything (and usually put it in their mouths), but this is a chance for them to really practice observation. Instead of touching things you can encourage them to simply wave at them. It can be a good chance for baby to interact and observe objects that may be too small (choking hazards) or too delicate for them to play with. If you use an object your baby has already played with, it may be difficult to make this boundary stick, so I suggest just starting fresh with new objects they’ve never held before. By looking but not touching the level of stimulation isn’t too high and it can help your little one to mellow out.  BONUS: I found this to be a great habit to establish and now I use it in daily life, such as when there is something my son really can’t touch safely like a breakable object or things out of reach like an elaborate chandelier in a museum. I just wave hello to the object and name it (“hello chandelier!”) and this can satisfy some of my son’s curiosity — as well as my need to set some limits.  Now he waves at all kinds of things when he is curious about them and wants to know more about them. I love this because it is like he is greeting the world around him and forming relationships as he discovers new things (something at the root of many holistic theories of education).

STIMULATE YET SOOTHE:

The goal of this is to stimulate your baby enough to draw them into the experience but allow them to go into a bit of a trance-like state as they slow down and prepare for sleep. I ring a little prayer bell that hangs from one of the branches and have found this to be a great tool. If Forest ever seems a bit antsy or distracted I find that ringing the bell and beginning the rhyming prayer, as I set the different decorations spinning, will always capture his attention and manage to help him organize his emotions while at the same time help him slow down.

THROUGH THE EYES OF YOUR CHILD: If you are interested in getting a glimpse into how your baby sees the world, I highly recommend the book Diary of a Baby: What your Child Sees, Feels and Experiences by Daniel N. Stern. Reading this book is part of the reason I take such delight in creating sensory experiences for my son. It gave me some understanding of how the developing mind of a baby learns to perceive the world, and it really is quite a magical process.

ENJOY:

I know our ritual is working when I can see my son anticipate the various steps in this storytelling process.  When I’m finished nursing him and about to walk him over to his tree, I will say, “Where are your friends?” and he will point to the tree – sometimes already waving at them. Some of my favourite moments are when I look at him as he gazes at his tree, and I know that to him it is absolutely magical. Then, on really lovely nights, he will sometimes press his cheek against mine while he is staring and waving.  It is during those moments that I realize that these rituals have become just as important to me as they are to my son. Ultimately this is why I wanted to share this idea with you. Whether it’s this ritual or another, I wish you luck as you find and create your own magic moments with your baby and your family.

Sweet dreams!

Carly Stasko is a self-titled Imagitator, one who agitates imagination. She is also an artist/writer/producer/public speaker/cancer survivor/new mom living in Toronto. For more Carly Stasko, check out her radio stories on CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera and her blog, Imagitate the State.

Her series, How to Raise a Parent, appears twice a month.

All photos and images via Carly Stasko

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