Marking Milestones: How Millennial Parents’ Resources Can and Cannot Change the Speed of Development

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By: Melissa Schenkman, MPH, MSJ

Congratulations! You’re going to have a baby. Now what? As you know, the world is a very different place than when our parents got the good news.

As millennials, we face the battle of constant connectivity to everyone, including our employers. And across the socioeconomic spectrum there are more households where both parents work full-time jobs, and one parent doesn’t focus solely on tending the home—cleaning, making dinner, running errands, and raising kids—which requires us to leave our children in the hands of caregivers at daycare or with in-home nannies.

With this comes a different expectation of what family life can or should look like.

And we are definitely changing that picture. Just look at the numbers. The latest U.S. Census Bureau from 2016 shows millennials are 71 million strong. In fact, this year we are expected to out number our baby boomer parents.

A 2013 report from Barkley, the independent ad agency, entitled Millennials As New Parents: The Rise of A New American Pragmatism found that 9,000 millennial women give birth everyday. In 2016, we accounted for 82% of births in the U.S. and that same year the National Center for Health Statistics reported that 17 million millennials had become moms.

As the numbers of millennial parents continue to rise, so too does the number of options available for raising our kids. Between the amount of baby gear we have to choose from, the massive technology at our fingertips, and our nutrition knowledge (organic versus non-organic foods), it can be easy to find ourselves at a crossroads.

How does all of this play into our parenting and our children’s ability to reach their milestones? Does it give today’s children an advantage? After all, we turned out just fine (relatively speaking) in a world without the iPad and organic food.

Overwhelmed by Gear

If you’ve made a trip to a baby store lately, whether for your own child or to buy a gift for a friend, you know what I’m talking about. You are greeted by shelves with an endless barrage of items to make life easier for parents and their babies. Or so they say.

“It’s really hard to sift through what you need, what helps, and what you are getting suckered into spending your money on,” says 32-year old, Jennifer Smith who is the mother to a toddler and expecting her second child.

One popular item these days is the swaddle. Of course, there are several kinds to choose from. While at first glance, it can look like a straight jacket for a baby; it actually gives them a sense of support and helps them sleep more soundly—a great thing for sleep-deprived parents.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, swaddling your infant in a soft blanket can prevent it from startling itself and waking up from its own movements or from another trigger such as a bright light. When a loud sound or movement startles a baby, his or her body responds with the Moro reflex. It causes them to cry, extend their arms and legs, and throw back their head. Then, they pull their arms and legs back in.

For more information on the correct technique for swaddling your baby, visit www.healthychildren.org

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents stop swaddling by the time a child is two months old before they start rolling over. The reason being that if infants are swaddled and roll over, they can accidentally suffocate or have sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

The academy also cautions that swaddling a baby too tightly can lead to hip dislocation or hip dysplasia, which is where the hip joint forms abnormally and the top of the thigh bone is not held firmly in the hip socket. It can happen from straightening a baby’s legs and tightly wrapping them.

But even before two months, can’t confining an infant’s limbs in a swaddle stunt development?

Chicago-area pediatrician Benjamin Kornfeld, MD, says that swaddling in very early infancy during sleep does not lead to delayed gross motor skills. However, continuing to swaddle a child into middle infancy or swaddling them when they are awake and should be playing, can limit opportunities for them to learn and develop.    

Benjamin Kornfeld, MD
of North Suburban Pediatrics in
the suburbs of Chicago.

“We encourage families from the get go when a kid is not sleeping to put them on their tummy as much as possible,” Kornfeld says. “Tummy time is important because being in a prone position provides a kid with the opportunity to practice lifting his or her head, or eventually pushing off and rolling.”

As for all the other baby gear out there, many millennial parents are also limited on space, living in apartments in major cities. So, buying things in advance may not always be feasible.

For example, Kornfeld points out that there’s no reason you need to take up space in your home with a high chair until your child is old enough to begin eating solid food. This typically occurs no earlier than 4 months old, which happens to also coincide with when most infants are developmentally ready to sit with support.

“Your baby is the best teacher for when you need things,” says Kornfeld, who’s been in private practice for five years.

So, follow your baby’s lead.

Conquering the Digital Divide

The pressure is on when it comes to technology, and people have strong opinions about the level of screen time that your child should have.

For example, the choice to bring technology to a restaurant or not is hotly debated.

“There’s the pressure of judgment if we let her use the phone to keep her occupied versus the judgment from other diners if she screams in the restaurant,” Smith says. “We typically bring an arsenal of other activities, like coloring supplies and stickers, to help get through a meal.”

In general though, she chooses to limit her daughter’s use of technology as much as possible, which is exactly what Kornfeld recommends. He encourages families to be careful about what they allow.

He notes that exposing your child to a platform like YouTube can teach them they can have whatever they want, whenever they want it. Not a good lesson to learn, and one that can make setting boundaries later on difficult. But something like the PBS Kids app, which has content that is better defined in terms of its scope and age appropriateness, he says, is different.

In April 2019, the World Health Organization released new guidelines on screen time, recommending that babies and toddlers up to the age of 2 have none. It increases to no more than an hour each day for children ages 2-4 years old.

Source: Happy Living’s Facebook Page

Smith doesn’t let her toddler ever play on her phone, and only allows her to watch TV under special circumstances―for example, on a tablet during a long car trip, or when she needs a few minutes of distraction on the weekends.

“Kids today don’t know how to be bored, and honestly as adults we don’t know how to be bored either,” Smith says. “I don’t want my daughter to lose the ability to have imaginative play.”

However, like many fellow millennials who don’t live in the same city as their families, Smith has found FaceTime to be hugely beneficial in relationship building.

It’s helped her daughter develop a relationship with her great-grandmother, who lives in a different state, which she would not have had to the same extent otherwise. By seeing each other on a frequent basis, it helps to combat stranger anxiety during in-person visits, too.

It’s all about finding the right balance. After all, today’s children are born into a technologically advanced world, and they will need to be comfortable using it in their lives.

“People have a picture in their minds of millennial parents being on a cell phone or looking at their phone and ignoring their child. I’m sure in a by gone era, like in Victorian times, people were reading a book, or a mom in the 1980’s was reading a newspaper. There’s always been a certain degree of distraction,“ Kornfeld says.

“The difference is no matter what you are doing on your device—reading the newspaper, briefly checking your calendar, or something mindless like scrolling through social media—it all looks the same from your child’s viewpoint, as they are staring at the back of your phone.”

Getting a Healthy Start

It’s no secret that as a generation we have completely turned the concept of diet on its head compared to when we were children. According to the Organic Trade Association (a business association for organic agriculture and products in North America), as of 2016, among U.S. parents more than 5 in 10 buyers of organic food were millennials.

Many millennial parents fall into one of three groups: feeding only store-bought organic baby food, making baby food from scratch, or buying a variety of food with no dietary restrictions.

At the beginning, Smith tried to stick with only organic store-bought purees for her daughter, but once she slowly transitioned back into real life with work, she had to make compromises.

”We started out buying store-bought organic foods since I couldn’t make her food from scratch,” Smith says. “My husband and I both have full-time corporate jobs. For us, it came down to the fact that we didn’t have enough time to make her separate food once she started eating solids.”

For certain fruits and vegetables, Smith purchases organic. She also tries to limit processed foods—basically following the same dietary recommendations for adults.

“In my opinion, it all depends on the relationship you, yourself have with food. If you as a parent have a healthy relationship with food, you can help teach your child to do so as well,” Smith says.

And she’s right. But if a parent’s relationship with food involves a more restrictive diet, it can have negative consequences.

While many millennials can move in and out of different types of diets, such as being vegetarian or vegan, without becoming truly deficient in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), children cannot.

Take Vitamin B12, for example. It’s a nutrient that keeps the body’s blood cells and nerves healthy, along with preventing megaloblastic anemia (which reduces the oxygen our red blood cells can carry to our bodies’ tissues and makes us tired).

Even if an adult chooses to go vegan (no eggs or dairy) for two years, and then decides to switch back to eating animal-based foods and protein, they won’t ever suffer a vitamin B12 deficiency because of the lifetime of stores of the vitamin, which they’ve built up.

Kornfeld points out that there are ways to safely lead elimination diets of all kinds, such as gluten-free or dairy-free, for infants and young children. These include supplemental vitamins to replace what the diet is lacking, additional screening for micronutrient deficiencies if the diet is in place for an extended period of time, and having ongoing conversations with your child’s pediatrician.

“Being transparent with your pediatrician is important with any sort of elimination diet so that appropriate steps can be taken to ensure your child remains healthy,” Kornfeld says.

There is very little high-quality research that clearly supports or refutes either a positive or negative role that organic foods play in brain development.

Overall, focusing on foods you would typically associate with a healthy diet—lots of fresh fruits and vegetables (frozen if that’s more affordable), lean proteins, and whole grains—will provide your child a nutritious path.  

A Final Note on Milestones

Just like everything else in parenting in a millennial world, we face pressure when it comes to when our children reach their milestones. But milestones are just a guideline.

These include mastering the social smile at 6-8 weeks of life, rolling over at 3-5 months, sitting at 5-8 months, and pulling up to stand at 8-12 months.

Smith was worried when her daughter wasn’t sitting up at 5 months, but a month later she was doing just that. She says that having a good relationship with your pediatrician and trusting his or her guidance can really help manage your own concerns as a parent.

Kornfeld agrees and advises parents, “The range of normal is still normal even if your child does something early on the precocious side or on the late side.”

A lot of child development is about opportunity, he points out. For example, when parents provide their child the opportunity to have tummy time, they can influence physical development milestones. An infant’s time on their tummy allows them to strengthen the muscles in their back, legs, arms, and neck, creating the opportunity to explore new movements like lifting their head and using their arms to lift themselves. 

Another area of development parents have influence over is how much they speak and read to their children from early on. Research has shown that the number of words infants and toddlers hear has a huge influence on their language development. It’s an opportunity for parents to impact childhood literacy.

“Overall, babies grow and develop best when they are raised in a nurturing, loving, safe environment for learning where they have opportunities to do new things at developmentally appropriate windows of time,” Kornfeld says.

As you make decisions, here are a few thoughts to consider:

  1. Baby gear: Has my child reached a milestone that necessitates I buy this item? Do we really need it?
  2. Technology: Time aside, does the screen time I’m allowing my child to have serve an educational or developmental purpose? Or, is it simply acting as a source of entertainment to fill time?
  3. Diet: If I intend to exclude a food or category of foods from my child’s diet, have I discussed with my pediatrician whether it will entail monitoring micronutrient levels and/or providing vitamin supplementation?
  4. Milestones: Did my child reach his or her verbal, gross motor, language, etc., milestones within the range of time considered normal? If not, have I talked to my pediatrician about it?

And above all else remember this: “The most important thing you can give your child is as much attention as you have energy to give, as they are only young for so long,” Kornfeld says.

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