11/12/2013 12:11 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Why Do We Push Our Babies?

Four moms with our 3- and 4-month-old babies, we sat on a big beautiful blanket in a local park on a delightful, spring morning. One mother began to demonstrate how her charming little cherub had already mastered "objective permanence." Object permanence is achieved when babies know that objects still exist even when they are unseen. A simple example of this is when a parent puts a toy under a blanket and the baby knows that it is still there and looks for it, rather than believing it has disappeared. We were parenting during the late '90s, when the child development community still believed that Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, was correct. The cognitive milestone of object permanence wasn't reached until a baby was at least 8-months-old. That baby girl was practically a member of Mensa, and she wasn't even walking yet.

I can remember the sinking feeling that my 4-month-old was already developmentally delayed.

Plans began to percolate in my mind: "I'll begin playing 'peek-a-boo' with my son; surely this activity will stimulate him to master object permanence!" My professional knowledge and experience was very familiar with this precursor to language development. "Will John be a late talker?" I had gone from witnessing a boasting mom to thoughts of contacting a speech and language specialist in two seconds flat.

And so it began. The incessant comparison of my firstborn's progress to other infants, whose parents seemed to be constantly crowing about their baby's behavioral breakthroughs.

Had I simply listened to the advice so wisely delivered to me by the maternity nurse after John's birth, all of the obsessing about his developmental milestones would have been averted.

"Every stage is the best stage," the seasoned mom and accomplished health care professional had sagely stated a few hours after my first child's birth.

Unfortunately, I didn't listen to the advice until much later. Rather, I immersed myself in baby books and jotted copious notes in my baby's diary. Behavior documentation had been a daily practice while working in the field of early intervention of developmentally challenged children. I was raising my infant as if he were one of my former students.

The problem was that John was never delayed. He drove himself when he was ready. My son was experiencing his world and was stimulated by the kind of naturally occurring experiences that have been part of that precious primary period in babies' lives for thousands of years. Parents intuitively know when to play peek-a-boo, pat-a-cake, and counting games. The interesting aspect of this concept is that the intuition is really driven by a baby's "intuitive physics" knowledge of his/her environment. Simply stated, this means that babies are not born as blank slates. Rather, they enter this world with an intact cognitive system which is stimulated to develop through typical parent-child interactions.

My baby did eventually develop object permanence, enjoy following along as I counted objects, and played endless hours of pat-a-cake (at his urging, not mine). He grew naturally month-by-month. He was happy doing things "his way," rather than mine.

I believe that the two reasons we push our babies are:

  1. Fear (that they may be lagging in maturation)
  2. Competition (they must surpass their peers to be superior, or we are a failure)

Rather than pushing them, we need to be interacting naturally with them. They need our undivided attention rather than the latest educational toy to stimulate their development.

That maternity nurse was spot on; every stage IS the best stage. However, for baby and parent to enjoy each developmental period, the time needs to be savored rather than spoiled by attempting to rush to the next stage.

If you have any concerns about your baby's development, by all means, see your pediatrician.