Words: Annie Ridout
Illustration: Fleur Beech

“The earliest education,” wrote 18th Century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “is most important and it undoubtedly is woman’s work. If the author of nature had meant to assign it to men he would have given them milk to feed the child.”

While I don’t subscribe to Rousseau’s assertion that child-rearing is solely a mother’s job, far from it – my husband is taking care of our daughter Joni while I write this, simply passing her to me for feeds – I do agree that the early years are crucial for child development. And so it is that I find myself four months into our first-born’s life, asking: how do I give my child the best start in life? And do I have to sacrifice myself entirely in order to make her as happy, intelligent, worldly and all-rounded as can be?

The current trend for baby-focused activities – baby yoga, baby massage, baby signing, sing-along sessions, soft play, baby sensory, the list goes on – is leaving many a mother (and some dads) flummoxed and out of pocket. Libraries in the UK offer a handful of free, or cheap, activities but the rest cost anything from £6-£16. We’re all keen to educate our children in a fun environment but does a four month old really benefit from these classes?

Danni Bikhazi, formerly Head of Early Years at Springfield Primary School in East London, advocates structured play. “The rhyming songs help children with language development and it’s important to socialise babies and children”. So what about adult activities that welcome babies, I suggest hopefully, like parent and baby cinema screenings? I recently took Joni to see Gone Girl and she loved the big screen, plus she was, err, surrounded by other babies? “This is fine too,” says Bikhazi, “but it’s all about getting the balance right between baby and adult-led activities”.

Psychologist Lev Vygotsky adds that it is through cooperative play that children “learn to behave according to the rules of their cultures”. So when we’re at baby yoga and a toddling boy escapes from his mother, who is in a meditative shavasana, reaches two-week-old Joni and is about to whack her soft skull with his alarmingly large hand but is held back and told to “be gentle” – that’s a life lesson. But could equally have happened at Hackney Picturehouse at the Big Scream screening of Pride

I want to be a mum and feel like I’m still in touch with the adult world

You might see what’s going on here. I’m desperate to be excused from the library sing-song and to go to Tracey Emin’s exhibition at White Cube instead; to drop the Thursday baby yoga class and replace it with weekly trips to the cinema to see 15 and 18-rated films. Basically, I want to feel like I’m still able to be cultured and in touch with the adult world. But that’s bad mothering! Say the voices in my head. You’re meant to give up everything for your child. Then another voice reminds me that Joni takes great pleasure in gazing up at the trees when we go for walks, is delighted by the bright lights at that bar we took her to, and smiled non-stop as we wheeled her around Phyllida Barlow’s sculptures at Hauser & Wirth in Bruton. She loves the cinema. She’s never happier than when I take her to the supermarket. OK, the last one’s clearly a big fat lie. The others are true, though. So when did we start becoming so fixated on attending all these baby classes?

When I was a baby, I’d accompany my mum on her daily jaunts to the shops, or to meet a friend for tea, I’m told. There were a few library and church activities but they were mostly an opportunity to meet other mums. And that is important, as looking after a baby can be isolating. It’s just that we’ve now moved on from community meet-ups to expensive classes, which proclaim to aid baby development. But I can’t see how spending £14 on a baby pilates class, then feeding Joni for the entire hour, is beneficial for either of us.

We’ve moved on from community meet-ups to expensive classes, which proclaim to aid baby development

“What really matters is that play is spontaneous, and child directed and controlled,” says psychologist Penelope Leach. Swiss development psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget also believed that children should learn through self-directed play, as “each time that we try to teach them something too quickly, we keep [children] from reinventing it themselves”. We all know that you can spend extortionate amounts on a big, shiny, plastic toy for a baby but it will be the cardboard box it’s packaged in that they want to play with. Similarly, taking children to daily classes and forcing them to engage with whatever is being taught/sung/handed out that day is not necessarily as stimulating as watching over them while they explore the world in their own time.

I think most of us will agree that babies need lots of attention from a primary carer but perhaps the environment in which this care is received is less important than we’re lead to believe. Fresh air is good for us all, as is exercise, and there are so many natural stimulants for babies: the face of a stranger, shadows on a wall, birds and clouds in the sky. So it might not be necessary to spend so much time and money on helping your baby to develop physically and linguistically through classes. After all, Joni is happy to while away many a half-hour teaching herself to roll on a quilt in the living room, with Beyonce playing in the background.

The advocates of giving up your own life for your child might agree with Honoré de Balzac that “some day you will find out that there is far more happiness in another’s happiness than in your own”. But that quote can be countered by my favourite saying: you can’t make someone else happy unless you’re happy yourself. And the next time you see my name in print will be the publication of my ‘how to’ parenting book. It will be entitled: ‘The Selfish Mother: why forcing your baby to go along with all your favourite activities is in their best interest’.

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