It’s a rainy Monday in March and the library is half full. There’s a lady of about fifty in a mauve jumper and spectacles carefully arranging books on a metal trolley. An elderly man with a white moustache and a sheepskin coat is reading The Daily Telegraph in a low chair. Two teenagers in school uniform perch together on a stool at the computers. I look at the young, the middle-aged and the old and wonder, did they all learn how to roll over at exactly five months? At four weeks old, did all these humans – so different in shape, height and heritage – miraculously break into a smile, just on cue?
The words Baby Milestones are a familiar sight on the iPhone search history of new parents. During the first six months, we stare at our babies willing them to do countless things so we can tick them off the list we have mentally created. From what their eyes are doing – are they looking at me or through me? – to the exact angle at which they can hold their head (apparently, it should be at 45 degrees by four weeks), we are encouraged to chart the developmental trajectory of our babies, measuring his success against an imaginary perfect baby (the one pictured on the front of baby wipes, presumably), who hits his targets, bullseye, every time. There are Apps, books, websites and BaBy milestones Hannah Shuckburgh ponders whether baby milestones are a useful guide or just another thing to obsess over.
Concerns about whether my baby was ‘normal’ regularly tried to stifle the joy of those first six months of motherhood... ” Mumsnet forums at your fingertips (not to mention the opinions of health visitors, mothers, friends and well-meaning strangers on the bus), who will tell you what your baby should be doing TODAY if he is to live a remotely normal life. Concerns about whether my baby was ‘normal’ regularly tried to stifle the joy of those first six months and the subject of milestones was my first entry pass into that most tedious of all parenthood territories: comparison. When my first baby was tiny, a friend told me her cousin had a neighbour whose six-month-old could talk. Apparently, he would lie on his changing mat, point his chubby little finger at the box of Pampers on the shelf above him and say, in the clear tone of a polite question,“Nappy, Mummy?” It’s the kind of third-hand story that seems humdrum but has the power to stick in the mind for years. My six-month-old did not say nappy. Every time I lay him on the changing mat I would be reminded of the fact. In fact, he would continue to stubbornly not say nappy for a further 18 months.
My grandmother, who had four children in the fifties, long before the age of the bossy development Apps like The Wonder Weeks, says she can’t remember ever worrying. “I suppose I knew they’d all get there in the end,” she says, “and if they hadn’t, well, I wouldn’t have loved them any less, so why obsess about it?”
But of course what we all know, and fear, about baby milestones is that our baby’s failure to reach certain ones might be indicative of something serious. Stories about children with serious illnesses always start with the same scenes: “She seemed such a happy little girl until we noticed she wasn’t reaching her milestones.” What we’re not told often enough is that the variations in when babies do things are so wide, the charting of these milestones can be a pointless exercise. Some babies learn to walk at seven months, some not until they’re nearly two – that’s a difference of seventeen months between two perfectly normal and healthy children. You could get pregnant, have another baby and it also learn to walk in that time. But none of us ever feels completely immune to the urge to compare our babies with others. NCT groups and their ilk, for all their brilliance in other ways, often force us into an unhelpful measuring of our babies (often, quite literally). I remember feeling despondent each time I met up with Beth and little Johnny, who smiled practically the day he was born, could walk at seven months, talk at one, and is probably now at Cambridge aged three and a half.
But perhaps those milestone charts aren’t all bad. In those first twelve months of life as a parent – in a land where days and nights blend and worries flood in with every moment – a focus on your baby’s milestones can perhaps help make sense of this strange miracle. A milestone chart says: it’s all going to be ok, I promise. He’ll get there. He will talk eventually. He won’t always flop over when you let go of his hands. One day, he’ll walk, he’ll go to school, he’ll grow up; he won’t always be so helpless. A milestone chart says, firmly, babies have always developed in the same way. Almost every single one of us once slowly, wobblingly, pulled ourselves up on something, took a tentative step and looked up and smiled for the first time. It is a comfort to know that whoever we are now, whoever we’ll become, at the beginning as in the end, we really are all the same.