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Child Development Expert Penny Tassoni Answers Your Questions

Missed our Wednesday Lunch Club with development expert Penny Tassoni? Don’t worry, you can read all of the advice she shared here

Every week at Mother&Baby we bring you the Wednesday Lunch Club – a chance to get brilliant free advice for your fertility, pregnancy and parenting questions from a top expert. 

This week, child development expert Penny Tassoni was on board to answer your questions.

Penny is a leading early years consultant and author of Getting It Right for Two Year Olds. Penny’s also the current president of Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY).

If you missed the chat, here’s what happened…

I've just had my first baby and she's ten weeks old. How long should she sleep in the same room as me? My health visitor told me six months but my husband works shifts, so is already disturbing her by getting up in the night – I don't want to chuck my hubby out of our bedroom!

Penny: The current advice in terms of preventing Sudden Infant Death (SIDS) is to keep babies in a separate cot or Moses basket in the room where you’re sleeping for the first six months. While cot death is rare, do try to hang on in there. Babies do murmur and wake in the night and this is good practice for them to learn to self-settle. In terms of your husband getting his share of the sleep, he could try earplugs. Look out too for very low lighting so that when your husband gets up, he does not use strong lights. For more information about preventing cot death visit Lullaby Trust.

For more on safe baby sleep, click here.

My partner travels a lot and is struggling to bond with our five-month-old baby. He wasn't able to get much paternity leave so has never spent a huge amount of time with him. Do you think our son will remember this/will this affect him when he's older? I want him to have a strong father figure but at the same time we need my partner's income!

Penny: This must be tough for you both but can be quite reassuring about whether or not your son will remember this – the answer is no. Babies are still very flexible about forming relationships and you are providing great stability and love.

For your partner though, it might be hard to come back and see your lovely bond and break into the 'coupledom' that you have created with your baby. You may also find that from seven or so months, your baby may show a clear preference to be with you and so now is the time to get them to know each other a little better.

I would suggest that your partner creates little routines such as singing a certain song or sharing a certain book every time he’s home. These routines will become familiar to your baby and will help them to connect with each other. The other thing to remember is that you are now the 'expert' parent as you have spent the most hours with your son, so be patient with your partner if he is not as responsive to your baby as you are – he has not had so many of these type of flying hours.

My baby's 11 months old and not yet crawling – is that bad? All other babies I know have been crawling for a few months already...

Penny: There are several skills that your baby will need to learn before being able to crawl. First of all, he or she will need to be able to sit up unsupported as well as have developed strength in their arms, legs and back. Make sure that your baby has plenty of time on his/her front on the floor – this is sometimes called 'tummy time'. Many babies don't like this so get down on the floor and join in so that you can make eye contact. If you can increase time on the tummy and lessen time spent in a bouncer, car seat or pushchair this might help, although if your child is not yet sitting, make an appointment to see your health visitor.

There are several skills that your baby will need to learn before being able to crawl

I'm worried that my three-year-old son may have autism. I've read a lot about it and he seems to have lots of the same symptoms – doesn’t make eye contact often and has huge tantrums sometimes. Is it time to get him tested? Is he too young? And what will it mean for us as a family if he is autistic?

Penny: If you have concerns about your child, it’s a good idea to seek a referral. This is because if your child does need support, it is always better to have it as early as possible. As a parent you will also have access to plenty of advice and support.

Autism is on a spectrum and so children who do have it are affected very differently. Take one step at a time and begin by making an appointment with your health visitor or GP and ask if your son could be assessed. There is a range of reasons why children have tantrums or may not always be able to make eye contact – including temporary hearing loss, so see what they say.

I'm starting to potty train my twin girls, and they just aren't co-operating. What can I do to make the process easier for twins?

Penny: Potty training is all about timing. You need to make sure that your girls can hold urine for at least an hour before releasing it – preferably closer to two hours as otherwise when you are shopping you will be constantly hunting for a loo.

Even if your twins are identical they’re likely to achieve bladder maturation at different times. The best way to check this is to put him in cheaper nappies and see whether they are dry for an hour or two before they sit soaking wet. However keen you are, it is hard to train children unless their bladders are sufficiently mature and if the timing is not right, everyone will end up stressed. The usual range for children being out of nappies is anything from 15 months through to three-plus years.

My 13-month-old daughter will only go to sleep with a bottle of milk and when she wakes during the night I have to give her another bottle of milk to get her back to sleep. I have tried not giving her a bottle and letting her cry it out but she becomes hysterical and makes herself sick. How do I break this habit and get her to lie down to sleep independently without a bottle?

Penny: You have identified the problem, which is that your daughter has not yet learnt to 'self-settle' and has become reliant on sucking to fall asleep. Later, during lighter sleep she is waking up and the thing that is helping her to fall asleep is not there.

You will need to tackle this one when you feel strong because it will probably mean a night or two when you are up a lot. You need to stop when you begin to change her habit.

Your local children's centre should have leaflets and some also have a sleep clinic where you can get further advice on how to help your child self-settle. Also talk to your health visitor. It is worth tackling this now as otherwise the problem can go on for many more months or even years.

My daughter is almost 15 months old and isn’t yet walking or saying any recognisable words and I'm really worried. I know I shouldn't but I do compare her development to other children – many of her friends, most younger, are walking and saying some words, like ta, mama, dada etc. She does walk with a walker but has no interest in trying to walk independently. Is there anything I can do to encourage her walking and talking?

Penny: Children do vary with their development e.g. normal development for walking is anything up until 18 months but I do know what you mean about comparison. It is hard when friend's children seem to be ahead especially with physical development.

When it comes to language, the milestone at 18 months is around 10 or so words

When it comes to language, the milestone at 18 months is around 10 or so words but many children have a spurt and three months can make a huge difference. In terms of what you can do, try the following:

Walking: Make sure that she is having plenty of time on the floor to crawl or bottom shuffle. Have stable furniture that she can pull herself up on to strengthen her legs.

Language: Make sure that you leave plenty of gaps in your speech when you are talking to her. Create some simple routines where you say the same thing e.g point everyday to a photo of a family member or a page in a book. If you are still worried, have a word with your health visitor.

My daughter is 32 months old and while she can count items up to 12 and is showing a great interest in numbers, she has no interest in letters. How can I start to introduce these to her in a way that she will understand?

Penny: Don’t worry yet about introducing your child to letters as there are some other skills that she will need first. To be able to read, children need to be able to recognise and match shapes as part of their visual discrimination. Jigsaw puzzles are great for this as are books where there are 'spot the difference' type pictures.

The key to reading is fluent speech, which normally comes in at about four years. Aim to share a story a day with her (or more if you have time). See how much she can say and if she has a favourite book, just run your finger under the print so that she can learn that words in English run from left to right.

Children also need auditory discrimination skills too so put on music and clap to the beat. Look out too for nursery rhymes as there is plenty of research to suggest that children who know many nursery rhymes go onto to make great progress with their reading when they start reception.

For more on development, check out M&B's development section.

Does one baby tend to develop faster than another? I have twin boys and one seems to progressing a lot faster than the other. They're coming up to a year now and one still isn't very confident moving around while I can't stop the other.

Penny:  Yes, even identical twins can develop at slightly different rates. Sometimes, twins can also take on different roles too – with one becoming the talker.

There is a wide variation of when children walk, with anything from nine and a half months through to 17 and a half months with bottom shufflers being later still. All you can do as a parent is to make sure that each child has some time to play and explore without being in competition with the other.

Look at gaining information and support from TAMBA (Twins and Multiple Birth Association).

I'm really struggling with potty training my three year old – he still has quite a lot of accidents. Do you have any helpful tips?

Penny: The starting point for toilet training is bladder maturity. My first thought is whether or not your child is actually ready. Your child needs to be able to retain urine for at least 90 minutes at a time and then be able to release it in one go.
While many children are out of nappies by three, there are plenty of children who are not out of nappies until they are three and a half, especially those who were late to walk. 

The second question is whether or not you both need to take a break for a week and then re-start the process. Do think about this if you or your child have become stressed. The third thing to think about is whether you are constantly reminding your child to go.

One reason why some children have accidents is that they have never learnt for themselves to interpret the messages from their bodies that their bladders are full

One reason why some children have accidents is that they have never learnt for themselves to interpret the messages from their bodies that their bladders are full. If children are continually reminded to go, they may not actually be experiencing these signals and so when they are not being reminded, they tend to have accidents because they have not learnt to connect going to the potty with the full bladder signals. 

Finally, it is possible that your child has a bladder infection or there is something else at play and so do think about getting further advice from your doctor or health visitor.

My husband has a (bad) habit of swearing around my five-month-old baby and I'm worried she'll pick up on the bad words – will she?

Penny: Unfortunately I have some bad news. As you suspect your husband's swearing will eventually be picked up by your child. Children do repeat what they have heard and unfortunately swear words are easily acquired for some reason. You have around a year to train your husband – you might introduce a swear box. Fines can be used to save up for your child!

Do you think there's much good in doing baby signing? A couple of my friends have recommended it but I've heard it may cause delays in my baby's speech later? He's only eight months old at the moment.

If you do decide to do some baby signing, do remember that you must always have plenty of talk time, too

Penny: While baby signing can be helpful to speed up communication, the reason that it is controversial is that for some babies it removes the incentive to learn to talk and some parents forget to talk and sign instead. While this is a decision that only you can make, if you do decide to do some baby signing, do remember that you must always have plenty of talk time, too.

I want to take my baby to a class but I’m not sure which one. Are there any that are particularly good for development? She's two months old.

Penny: See what is available at your local children's centre. There are a range of classes available including baby massage and music sessions. While babies have survived and developed well for centuries without any baby classes, the advantage of going is partly that you can meet up with other mums and dads and that your baby gains new experiences. Don't bother going to any classes that you do not enjoy too!

When's normal for a baby to start crawling. My eight month old hasn't started yet!

Penny: Anything between five to 11 months is pretty usual. Physical development follows a sequence although do make sure that your baby has plenty of time on his or her tummy which will help the muscles in the arms, neck and back to develop. These muscles are needed to support your baby's weight when he or she starts to move.

What topics would you like covered in our Wednesday Lunch Club? Let us know in the comments box below.

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