The One Piece of Unsolicited Parenting Advice You Won't Mind Hearing
Veteran parents love to tell parents-to-be and first-time parents what to expect and what to do.
Their unsolicited advice and admonishments cover topics ranging from sleep- You're going to experience a new level of exhaustion! to feeding- Make sure you get your baby taking a bottle as soon as possible! to discipline- You have to ignore the tantrums and then they'll stop.
What these well-meaning veterans neglect to tell us is that, even more important than learning the proper sleep, feeding and discipline practices is, learning to be a mind-reader!
The guesswork involved in figuring out what our baby/toddler/child needs is arguably the most difficult aspect of parenting. Multiply that if you have a child with extra needs.
My first son, H, cried incessantly throughout infancy and toddlerhood. Figuring out the cause of his discomfort and how to soothe him was a never-ending experiment in trial and error that left me feeling exhausted, anxious and overwhelmed. On a daily basis, I fantasized about having mind-reading super powers!
When H was flagged with sensory processing challenges at 6 months old, my constant guesswork was taken down a notch. But, even with this explanation and newfound awareness, it still took me another year to figure out that one of the reasons he cried so much, especially when he was outside, was that he was (and still is) abnormally sensitive to light.
I remember the exact moment it hit me.
It was another sunny and beautiful day in Southern California and H and I were getting ready to head out for a bike ride. He was calm and happy as we got ready to go and then, the second we got outside, he started crying.
Accustomed to his seemingly out of nowhere meltdowns, I picked him up and started bouncing him and rubbing his back. He immediately buried his face into my shoulder. When he finally calmed down, I tried to put him in the bike seat, but he wouldn't budge. It was like his little face was surgically attached to me.
I took him inside, opened up my laptop and ordered a pair of toddler sunglasses. Needless to say, we aborted our bike ride and opted to play inside.
When the sunglasses arrived a day later (thank you, Amazon!), I was eager to test out my theory. Lo and behold, we had a meltdown-free indoor to outdoor transition and were able to have a nice, long, enjoyable bike ride.
I couldn't believe I'd missed this sensory signal. Hello Mom Guilt. Damn, I lamented, it really was quite a big oversight that moms weren't given mind- reading superpowers.
A year later, H was attending a toddler playgroup at our local YWCA. The first hour was indoors, then after snack, they had the choice to play outdoors. For the first several weeks, every time I came to pick him up, he was standing by himself in the same shaded corner of the playground. It broke my heart.
I assumed his lack of engagement was due to his sensory-related social delays, until one day it occurred to me that he didn't have his sunglasses on. Since I'd dropped him off inside, I'd neglected to bring them.
Mom Guilt, reporting for duty. Seriously, how could I have missed this? I felt like I'd failed him.
The next week at pick up, I held back tears as I watched him running around with a group of kids, sunglasses on and happy as a clam.
The incident gave me pause- maybe his light sensitivity was more extreme than I realized. At his next OT session, I consulted his therapist. She agreed that his sensitivity was abnormal and referred us to a developmental optometrist, something I'd never heard of before.
I'd always had perfect vision, as did everyone in my family, so I literally knew nothing about light sensitivity or vision issues and had never even been to an optometrist, let alone a developmental one. I went in to the appointment thinking we'd be leaving with a pair of high-quality polarized sunglasses.
At the time of our appointment, H was about to turn three. I watched unsuspectingly as the doctor conducted several tests. When he was done, he said, "well, I know you weren't expecting this, but your son has a severe vision impairment."
I stared at him, frozen and confused, not comprehending what he'd just said. He continued, "you are very lucky you brought him in and that you've caught this early, otherwise he would have gone cross-eyed. In fact, I'm surprised he hasn't already."
Cross-eyed? Surprised? What the...? I was still frozen and truly in shock.
He paused and waited for me to respond. "I... I had no idea," was all I could muster. Then, tears.
A severe vision impairment? How in the world did I not see any signs? What does this even mean? Is he going to be ok? How is this going to affect him?
Then I flashed on something. Through my tears, I offered, "But, he's so good at finding Goldbug in the Richard Scarry book!"
If you're not familiar with the book, Cars and Trucks and Things that Go, Goldbug is a little character who's "hidden" on each page for you and your child to see who can find first. H was amazing at finding him and would often beat me to it!
The doctor explained that it wasn't that H couldn't see, but it took him five and a half times more cognitive output to bring things into focus than it did an average child. Yet another meltdown trigger revealed.
He informed me that H would need prescription glasses immediately and when he was a bit older, he'd be the perfect candidate for vision therapy.
As I took all of this in, I couldn't help feeling like, once again, I'd failed H. Mom Guilt jumped at the opportunity to chime in, but this time, instead of letting her put in her two cents, I took a deep breath and just let the rest of my tears come.
The doctor assured me that, at H's age, it was nearly impossible to detect his type of vision impairment. Then, he said something that I really needed to hear: "Being a parent is hard. We do our best to tune into our kids, but there are certain things we're just going to miss. It's not your fault."
Now, this is the unsolicited advice I'm talking about.
If you're a struggling parent of a child who has sensory processing challenges and/or other developmental issues, take our doctor's advice to heart. When you feel like you're grasping at straws, know that you're not alone.
Keep advocating for your child and the answers you're searching for will eventually emerge. When they do, rather than beating yourself up for not finding them sooner, give yourself a giant dose of compassion and recognize that while you may not be a mind-reader, you actually do have a super power: You're a loving and devoted mom who will stop at nothing to get her child the support he needs.
You're doing your best and that's enough.
Stay tuned for more on visual processing and its link to learning. In the meantime, if your child has sensory processing issues and you want to rule out a vision impairment, it's important to schedule an evaluation with a developmental/behavioral optometrist.
Unfortunately, the standard vision screening provided by your child's pediatrician only detects five percent of vision impairments in children. A developmental optometrist will conduct a comprehensive eye exam that will give you detailed information about your child's vision and his visual processing, both of which are necessary for ruling out a vision impairment.
As always, leave your comments below and/or email me if you have any questions and need additional support. You've got this, Sensory Moms!