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Early Childcare Techniques of One Blind Mother

Editor's Note: Kathy Nessner-Filion works for Statistics Canada and lives in Aylmer, Quebec.

If there are any books written for blind parents, by blind parents, I am not aware of them. The purpose of this article, therefore, is to share some of my experiences of how I, as one of many blind parents across this country, figured out some practical techniques for raising young children.

Our first child, Philip, was born in 1984 and our second, Alena, in 1987. Since my husband and I had very little experience in caring for babies, we made as many preparations as we could during my first pregnancy. Together, we attended Pre-Natal classes and read as much material as we could. We bought a couple of sleepers and a package of disposable diapers for newborns and, using an old doll of mine as a model, we practiced putting the diaper on the doll and dressing it in one of the sleepers. This proved to be a really useful exercise for me.

Not all the practice or reading in the world, however, could prepare me for the overwhelming joy, wonder and love I felt when I held my children for the first time. Probably like all new mothers, I examined their little faces, their fragile little arms and legs, and their tiny fingers and toes. The only difference between myself and most new mothers, I suppose, was that I did this all by touch. Furthermore, once I brought my babies home, I had to figure out some alternative techniques for caring for them.

Both of our children shared our room until they were a little over a year old, as I felt more secure knowing my babies were as close to me as possible while we all slept. When they were a year or so, the crib and change table were moved into another bedroom because of my problem getting a decent night's sleep. I soon learned that, if I could maintain a state of semi-consciousness while I changed and nursed them during the night, sleep often returned quite easily. During more serious bouts of insomnia, I find that my orientation and mobility, as well as my ability to concentrate, are severely impaired, which is serious enough for myself as a totally blind person, but more worrisome when there are tiny babies under one's care.

As with all tasks, preparing a work area and having the necessary tools immediately on hand are very important--and probably more so when one is a blind parent with a very young baby. Changing a baby's diaper, for example, is often a rather messy business for anyone. As a blind mom, some extra precautions were quite helpful to me. On the two shelves below the change table, for instance, I made sure I had a bowl that I could fill with water if needed, change pads, a bar of baby soap, baby facecloths and towels, diapers ready for use, Baby Wipes, a box of Kleenex, a tin of Penitin cream and extra clothing, if there was enough room. A covered diaper pail was also placed beside the change table, where I could easily reach it.

Through trial and error, I learned to change a diaper with a minimal amount of mess, and was usually able to keep diaper rash at bay. Another important thing I learned was to make sure the dirty diapers were placed in the closed diaper pail as soon as possible. As gross as this may sound, some guide dogs find dirty diapers very interesting. Thinking that you might be able to put the diaper into the pail after you answer the door or the phone, for example, is not a good idea. It is best to clean baby and the entire change table area first before doing anything else.

When bathing my children during the first few months, I found it much easier to use the regular bathtub than the baby bath that came with the change table. I would place a facecloth or hand towel on the bottom of the tub so that the baby wouldn't slip, fill the tub with lukewarm water, just enough to cover their bodies, and holding their head and neck just above the water with my left hand, I would wash them with my right. Once they were able to sit up more independently, I learned quickly that I could not turn away from the tub for even a few seconds. I did this once, and Alena fell face-first into the water. I never made this mistake again!

When my children were able to eat solid food, spoon-feeding them was, for me, another challenge as a blind mother. I made sure they wore their larger bibs and, in at least two of our homes where there was wall-to-wall carpeting, I put a square plastic sheet under the highchair to protect the carpet. The plastic extended out maybe two to three feet on each side. Now that little hands could reach and grab things (and swipe them right off the highchair tray!), I also had the food jar or bowl out of reach on the kitchen table. The trick was to get some food on the spoon, bring it towards the baby without spilling its contents, and introduce it to the mouth. Since I have never been very good at holding things straight so stuff will not spill, the plastic sheeting on the floor was there to protect the carpet from me as much as from Philip and Alena!

Holding the spoon in one hand, I used my free hand to find the baby's cheek and turn his or her head towards the front of the highchair, and also towards the oncoming spoon. I would not chase them around the highchair; they had to come to the spoon, which I held over their tray. If they wanted the food, they very soon learned to turn towards me and let me slip the food into their mouths. In a short time, both babies actually guided my hand, and soon I was able to place the dish of food on their tray for them to eat independently.

I also learned some general but very useful tips. Babies quite regularly spit up, and they also slobber a good deal as their teeth are coming in. I had a good supply of bibs that I kept on Philip and Alena all day. When one was dirtied, I removed it and replaced it with another. In most cases, this prevented me from needing to change their clothing so often. To protect my own clothing, I always laid a receiving blanket or a small towel over my shoulder when I was carrying them in my arms.

Receiving blankets were also one of the important items to be kept in their diaper bag when we were shopping, travelling or visiting friends. When they became hungry, I was able to lay the blanket over my shoulder and nurse them under it. People knew what I was doing, of course, but all they could really see were the baby's feet. I realize there are many opinions on nursing babies in public, but this method is the one that made me feel most comfortable, and Philip and Alena do not seem to have suffered for it.

When my children were young, I was not aware of any accessible thermometers, so I learned to find out if they had a fever by putting my lips on the top of their heads when they were babies, and when they had more hair, by touching my lips to their foreheads. I also found ways of having medicine applicators notched so that I could tell if I had the correct amount when drawing the liquid from the bottle.

Scraped knees and elbows and a few deeper cuts were as common an occurrence in our home, I imagine, as they are in families with two sighted parents. The best way I found to manage these situations was to get the child into the bathroom as quickly as possible and to calm him or her down enough so that they could take my hand and show me where the injury was. In this way, by touching it as gently as I could, I was able to figure out just how serious it was and usually how large a bandage I would need. Even while crying and screaming, they were always able to tell me how much it was bleeding and to help me trace the size of the wound with my fingers. Then it was a reasonably simple matter of cleaning the area and putting antibiotic ointment onto the pad of the bandage. I then asked them to guide my hands to the injury so that together we could cover it properly with the bandage. I believe this helped them to concentrate on other things instead of the pain.

For reading stories to my children, I was able to purchase and borrow a number of print/braille books and, in fact, I have kept a few of them for sentimental reasons--and for reading to my grandchildren, if I should have any!

If I needed to leave the house and my husband was unavailable to help, I would carry the kids in a snugly on my front when they were tiny, and in a carrier on my back when they were older. By the time Alena was able to sit in the back carrier, Philip was four years old and able to hold my right hand when we went out to do errands, while I held my guide dog's harness with my left.

My marriage to my children's father ended when Philip was eight years old and Alena was five. He is a sighted man. Driving the kids to Beavers, Cubs and dance classes, and helping me to get the weekly groceries were all ways in which his help made my life easier. When I became a single parent, it was important to organize my life in a different way. Although each of us had both children on numerous occasions, Philip lived mainly with his father and Alena lived primarily with me. Apart from those times when I could arrange rides for her, Alena became accustomed to travelling to and from appointments, ballet and art classes, and to Brownies with me on foot or on public transit.

Shopping trips had to be well organized and well timed, as, like most single parents, I no longer had another parent to fall back on for childcare when I left the house. I had an arrangement with a couple of grocery stores where I made a list of the items I needed, faxed it to the store, and then went with my guide dog and bundle buggy to pick up the order later the same day. This was a method that generally worked very well for me with large orders, and one I preferred.

When Alena began school, I established the best working relationship I could with the principal and her teachers. A good deal of print information came home in her backpack that she could not read to me, and I often had to take it back to the school to be read or have it explained over the phone. Volunteer readers who helped me with my mail were able to assist me to a certain degree with school-related correspondence but since it became clear to me that Alena needed some extra help with reading and math, very soon I needed the school's assistance to find a tutor. When this was arranged, her schoolwork improved.

The school years presented me with challenges quite different from those I experienced at home when my children were very young, but these are best explained another time.

Alena is now 19 years old and is attending her second year at the University of Ottawa's School of Management. She lives with me and my second husband. Philip is 22 and lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where his father also resides. He is the Assistant Manager of a store in West Edmonton Mall, does some contract work for Travel Alberta, and also some modeling for the fashion section of an Edmonton newspaper.