The squeal thing: how a little stimulation can go a long way
I've taken our baby, Tom, to a new playgroup. To say he loves it is an understatement. He's never been so vocal in all of his short life.
'What a responsive baby,' one woman says, which clearly translates to 'noisy little thing'.
Half an hour later, the squeals are still coming thick and fast. 'He's enjoying himself,' says another mum, looking at me askance. This is code for 'I wish he'd be quiet'.
We recently moved from Hong Kong Island to Mui Wo on Lantau. I'm a country girl at heart, and I feel really liberated by the space and greenery. City life was so much harder with a baby - trying to negotiate the busy MTR and escalators with a pram, endless turns round Victoria Park, the constant sound of construction interrupting baby sleeps, and getting in and out of taxis. I was feeling more and more trapped in the urban maze.
Now we're a hop and skip from a beach, a small but great little playground, hills and mountain paths, and - to my delight - three fabulous baby groups.
Until now, I haven't been that fussy about baby groups for Tom. We occasionally went to a mums' group on Hong Kong Island, but the babies didn't really pay one another much attention. I have always known that it was far more about me than him: getting out of the house, socialising and being able to discuss all the stuff new mums want and need to know - how much to feed, how to deal with ailments, sleep advice, and so on.
However, at 10 months, Tom is beginning to take some interest in other children - particularly older ones. I want to know at what point this type of socialisation becomes important for children as well as mums. Hulda Thorey, co-owner and head midwife at Annerley, a maternity and childhood consultancy, says: 'Children who have older siblings usually don't need many extra social activities with other kids, as they get so much stimulation at home. Similarly, when there is a child-friendly dog in the home, this is often equal to plenty of human-to-human stimulation.'
But Tom has no brothers or sisters, and, though he is extremely interested in dogs, we don't own one.
As I suspected, she also says: 'Mothers, however, are much earlier in need for interaction and socialisation with mothers of children of a similar age, so many mother and baby groups in the first year are - and should be - more for mums than babies.'
This is true. Looking after a small baby can be an isolating experience.
Liesbeth Krebbers, a paediatric physiotherapist, agrees that the groups provide vital support for mums and don't provide much benefit for young babies.
'In the first year, a baby's socialisation is all about interaction with the caregivers,' she says. 'Babies are far too busy with themselves to really engage with a playmate. When they get more mobile and learn to communicate and talk, at around 12 months, they start to enjoy the company of friends and even start to imitate - although it's still often solitary play and onlooking, not playing together.'
Both, however, see the value in the right kind of playgroup. Thorey advises mums to go to one where the babies aren't too overwhelmed with vast numbers of toys or other children. Krebbers suggests 'groups that offer sensory-motor play or infant massage, groups that are more focused on interaction between caregiver and baby and give a better understanding of early development'.
This all rings true. So far, Tom mainly focuses on the toys and me, and I am loving the opportunity to interact with some local mums.