My daughter crawled into the middle of the circle and stood up, her legs bent like a snowboarder’s, her little arms stretched out for balance. A hush fell, followed by gasps. She was the first in the group to stand alone.
The other moms buzzed with excitement. I felt a thrill inside as I watched my delicate daughter bucking both inexperience and gravity to do the miraculous – holding herself upright for a full frozen moment, her plum dress draped softly around her, her bare feet planted on the wooden floor.
Against my own better judgment, trying to stop myself even as I did it, I mentally compared my baby to the others lolling about in their mothers’ laps, wondering if this spelled auspicious things for her future. My elation grew as I pondered the possibilities: Professional dance? Acrobatic jewel heists? The Olympics?
The mom sitting next to me leaned over and whispered, ”I wish mine would do that!”
I mumbled something about each baby doing things in her own time, but secretly I felt smug. I tried to dispel the smugness, but the feeling hung on for the rest of the day, surfacing again when I told my husband about what our daughter had done in the baby group, recounting that collective gasp in which an entire roomful of mothers paused for a beat to marvel at our daughter.
I thought my heart would explode when, one golden afternoon just like any other, some inner logic in her body told her to move from the spot where she was standing on the green carpet in the middle of the room toward me. Those few tripping steps felt like a bigger deal than the moon landing. All the air left my lungs and I hugged her, dizzy with the moment: the freshness of it, the fact that it could never happen again, that it had somehow even happened in the first place.
In our baby group, she sat serenely in my lap, hardly deigning to crawl into the middle with the other adventurers now that she had started her biped cruising around the house. I told a couple of the other moms that she’d started walking, but somehow it didn’t seem real until they’d seen it for themselves. A month after she took her first steps, she rose to her feet and wobbled around the group, but the reaction wasn’t as dramatic as it had been when she stood. Someone asked when she had started walking. I relished the reaction when I said nine and a half months, though I acted like it was no big deal.
I knew she was walking early; I had read the comment threads on the Internet. The earliest I walker had read about was 8 months. But I knew most babies don’t start walking until after a year. For some reason, this information made me feel even more smug, as though my baby and I were in a race with all the other moms and babies in the world, even though I knew rationally that each and every baby develops at his or her own pace, and comparing them is useless””they’ll all be able to do different things at different times.
I wished I could get rid of the feeling that milestones matter.
A study I recently came across has really helped me out with that. It turns out that hitting developmental milestones like walking early doesn’t predict higher intelligence or better coordination later in life. Scientists at University Children’s Hospital, Zurich and the University of Lausanne followed a group of 222 healthy, full-term babies over the course of 18 years. The study found that eighty percent of the children could sit independently between 5 and 9 months and could walk independently (defined as taking 5 steps without support) between 10.5 and 16 months.
Though previous studies had suggested that the age when these babies reached these milestones might correlate with later developmental outcomes, this more thorough study found that hitting milestones early had no predictive power of the kind that had previously been proposed. The study used standard neuromotor and intelligence tests as the participants grew into their teens to determine that hitting milestones early didn’t correlate with higher intelligence or better coordination later in life. (One author of the study does recommend consulting a specialist if a child has not walked by 20 months.)
The authors hypothesize that later developmental outcomes are governed by a complex interaction between a child’s genetic makeup and the patterns of movement that might predominate in a child’s experiential world.
All of which goes to say, I can kiss my smugness goodbye. And good riddance. I send a thousand apologies to all the mothers in whose general vicinity I felt smug. The next time I’m tempted to compare my baby to another baby, I’ll think of the Swiss and adopt an attitude of refreshing neutrality.