Friday, April 6, 2012

Amazing Baby Brains

Babies are Amazing. And so are their brains. ; )

They start like this:
MaryAnn ultrasound
This is MaryAnn (**it’s NOT a new one**) at 20 weeks in utero.

I’ve only been studying brains (for fun) for a few years now, so even though I’ve marveled and oooohed and aaaahed at 5 other 20-week sonogram pics, my heart skipped a beat when I saw MaryAnn’s…because I’d learned that brains basically develop from back to front and from the inside out…and it felt incredible to see a live snapshot of this happening right inside my belly. (See all that black, empty space at the front of her head? Her prefrontal cortex neurons had yet to be developed even while her brain stem cells in the back were already humming along. And understanding that the prefrontal cortex region is the last and takes the longest to develop (well into our 20s/30s) is fundamental to why Brent and I raise our children the way we do (we made BIG changes awhile back and we’re all happier now)…it’s a beautiful phenomenon that I’ll try to explain in more detail as time goes on.)  

When the kids called the day after MaryAnn Emma arrived to see if I was ready to bundle her up and take her home, they said, “How’s MAES?”

“Who?”, I asked…and then they excitedly explained their clever nickname  (“It’s her 4 initials”) for our cute little angel. Now they’re thrilled when she turns her head at their high-pitched sounds of, “Hi MAES!” 

I think MaryAnn is a-MAES-ing.

Right after she was born when she just sat and stared off into space or jerked her little limbs around uncontrollably, the kids kept saying, “When is MAES going to look at us?!?” and “Why does MAES keep hitting herself?”

I grinned…and dug out my brain books. And we discussed MaryAnn’s billions of neurons while hunched over our frosted shredded wheat in the morning and how we’ll see her neurons wiring together a little more each day starting at the back of her brain (vision) moving forward (sides = hearing and language connections; top of head = touch and limb movement, front = personality and intelligence, etc.).
(Click HERE for some brain basics from a neuroscientist I like.)

“It’s a slow process,” I tell them. “We get to learn patience, practice lots-o-personal- sacrifice and experience the magic of human development (including our own) while MaryAnn depends on us to take care of her and help her grow.” 

**Smile and sigh** and on to grammar.

So, now that they know all about neurons and synapses, it’s like a 4th of July party at our house every time someone spots a new neurological connection taking place in our amazing MAES. (especially the time when her eye-hand myelination surprised us and MaryAnn deposited Kenny’s cereal bowl on his lap without her usual slow motion warnings…my baby’s growing up! *tear*)

A few favorite connection-detections:
(this takes lots of neurological skill, especially when excitement kicks in and sends all 4 limbs flailing again…so charming)
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Consistently grabbing Diggy’s ear when he holds her…she saves this grip just for him
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Bubbling with delight during piggy-back rides
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Paying closer attention to her “violin lessons”

Putting weight on those cute, chubby legs

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Enjoying the cool, fresh air and noticing the movement of the park swing
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Clapping…right and left brain coordination…BRAVO
Playing Star Wars
and her favorite…playing the piano. This one is for the grandparents (and Mrs. Opitz).
I must say, having a baby is much like having a puppy. MaryAnn gives unconditional love and does not yet know how to add to the congenial teasing and arguing of her older, more advanced siblings. Plus, with her eyes watching, 3-yr olds put away laundry piles, 4-yr-olds eat another bite, 7-yr olds practice violin, and big brothers melt into baby voices and smother her with kisses.
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My heart sings as I notice new connections, too: 2 months ago, I heard “ga” for the first time. Before, her brain had only connected a barking seal noise. And today, MaryAnn is 9 months old and her language neurons have her babbling away constantly (and protesting with a really loud scream when she loses her favorites toys, with the loudest screech coming after I reclaim my cell phone from her little hands…hmm).

Her window of opportunity for learning that objects have names is opening wider every day. I’m inspired by her intense focus as I share spoken language with her. She acknowledges her understanding of words like “book” and “drink” and “backpack” (because she sits in it nearly every day while I fix dinner) and her mirror neurons are preparing her to speak the English pronunciations for those objects…so very soon. 

But my favorite connection is that she knows ME now.

After nine months of growing in my womb and nine more cuddled in my arms, if she saw you and I standing next to each other, she would stare nervously at you (no offense) and reach for me. She has enough working memory to know that my face, my embrace, my scent, my whisper, my love is what fills her up with good feelings inside and reassures her as she starts exploring this wide world.

When she’s perched on my hip, her body is free from worry (life with 5 older sibs is a bit unpredictable or maybe predictably chaotic?) and her spirit is free to learn…so she spends LOTS of time there during this pivotal period (my right bicep rocks). When she’s playing on the floor, she loves to study her toys, but then looks for my eyes so we can share a smile together…every few seconds. As soon as my presence is absent, she notices (and screams nice and loud)…music to my ears (except when I’m grumpy).

“Smart Baby,” I say. I return as quickly as I can.

Now, she will forever look to me as her mother.

Knowing how eternally important this mother-child connection is, her longing for me, her squeeze around my neck, and her slobber on my shoulder fill me up, too.

It’s all simply a-MAES-ing. 
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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Roughing It

We visited Southern Illinois to go camping and rock climbing over spring break.
And. camping. is. rough.
We had to gather all of this:
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cram it into the 8-passenger Sienna,           find a nice, hard, flat spot to throw it on,
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sleep in it,                                                  roll it back up,
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stuff it back in…and drive 6 hours…again…with 1/2 of it piled on our laps,      Allison turns 5 and Camping trip 2012 063             
unload it (while plugging our noses…sorry no picture),
wash it…and put it away. *big sigh*
ps. the weather was perfectly springy (75-ish, yeah!!)…but it was not a break (and in fact much harder than staying home) and my thoughtful, patient husband didn’t even say a word regarding our dramatically different packing styles (to my credit…we didn’t starve or run out of socks and undies, but to Brent’s credit…90% of the food I packed enjoyed the car ride both ways).
We endured/participated in many episodes of grouchitis and comforted lots of cases of the heebie-geebies.
But then I was thinking…without all that rough ‘n tough blood, sweat, and tears (and lots of pairs of stinky socks), 20 years from now we would never be able to gather around a cozy backyard fire, roast marshmallows, and say:
Remember the time when…
8 of us squeezed into our tent on a beautiful, clear night with the stars shining bright and the sounds of nature captivating us…including that hard-working woodpecker at 6 am
or when we passionately chased butterflies with Allison’s new pink butterfly net and only caught these two cute creatures:
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or how we celebrated Allison’s 5th birthday at Giant City and when she bravely challenged the latrines on her own she happened to spy the only lizard in Illinois peeking its head underneath the latrine door…and as she staged an escape, it squirmed its little body all the way in, oblivious to the forever impression it made on an innocent little girl (Allison’s mostly over it, but Cienna keeps nervously rehashing her eye-witness details of the aftermath)
and that we discovered that people in our own state say, “Y’all” (meaning ‘all of us’—I think) and “Y’alls” (if referring to something we all jointly possess??…help me out on this one Texan friends…)
And when we watch the slideshows of old pics in 20 years (or next week), we’ll remember what it felt like to do this:
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and see this: (a “wild” turtle)                 (all the black dots are thousands of tad poles)
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and brush our teeth here:
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And if we ever return…we’d probably want to re-live the part about how we climbed the water tower and watched the sun set behind the trees…
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