by Julie A Cajigas
COVID-19 left me with a large helping of mom guilt. One of the major sources for that guilt has been parenting my 18-month-old, Galen.
Galen was an early walker, and he has achieved a lot of his motor, social and emotional milestones. The kid just isn’t talking.
When I say he isn’t talking, I mean he started saying “da da” at a year old, and as of his 18-month mark, he hasn’t progressed much further. Running up to 18 months, he added “daw,” which is definitely his word for the dogs. I occasionally heard a “bah” in there, and sometimes a “dee.”
Why the mom guilt? It’s not as if he’s that far behind, right?
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With my first two children, I had a full-time sitter, and though I worked, I maximized my at-home time with them. I would read to them, sing to them, play with them, bathe them, snuggle them for 30 minutes before bed and so on. They probably thought “gee mom, don’t you have something else to do?”
Since the pandemic began in March, we lost all sitters and daycare alternatives that we were comfortable with. I worked from home, full-time, along with a 6- and 4-year-old who were remote learning, and the little guy.
My days felt a lot like wake up after no sleep, gotta survive, gotta survive, gotta survive, chocolate yum, gotta survive, unconscious. I didn’t have a real break from March 10 through August 26. Phew.
Because the older two children needed so much support with their virtual learning and their emotional coping from being separated from family and the world they are usually so active in, Galen had more screen time than I think we’d all agree was healthy.
It didn’t help that Galen plays independently better than any of the other children. He will stack cups and play with his cars for a half-hour without a peep. Let’s combine that with some music, we thought.
We started putting on Classical Baby from HBO in the background while he played, which felt kind of OK. Of course, the small collection of songs and poems from that program are permanently burned into my psyche.
Then, somehow, it morphed into the world’s longest Trolls movie marathon. When the trolls come on the screen, Galen is mesmerized and filled with laughter. Thank goodness, I thought, we can entertain him longer so I can do a faculty meeting and my office hours.
How thrilled were we when Trolls World Tour came out so we could stop watching just the original and the holiday special?
So, I don’t really wonder why his speech is delayed. He’s had far less opportunity for interaction with adults and other children than his siblings, and he’s been cooped up for an inordinate amount of time during a key part of his development. Also, part of my survival technique has been giving him what he wants, when he wants it before he even has to ask.
What do you do when your baby just isn’t meeting milestones?
Well, it turns out we have a wonderful early intervention program in Ohio that is part of a larger program that provides in-home services and interventions for children under the age of 3.
I felt weird calling.
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Was I being extra? Should I just let him work it out on his own? Would he even qualify?
Both of my older children attended an integrated preschool, and I’ve seen the power of early intervention for children, so even though he probably has a little time to catch up, I decided to reach out.
I went to the Ohio Department of Health’s Help Me Grow Program website and filled out a self-referral form. It took just a few minutes and within 24 hours, I was connected with a case manager who began to walk me through the process of getting support.
According to its website, “Help Me Grow is Ohio’s evidenced-based parent support program that encourages early prenatal and well-baby care, as well as parenting education to promote the comprehensive health and development of children.”
Early intervention for developmental delays is just one small part of their offerings, which also include education, support and resource referral.
“Offered in every county of the state through a well-established network, Help Me Grow Home Visiting is an evidence-based program that promotes healthy growth and development for babies and young children,” their website explains.
Parents can self-refer for a Help Me Grow home visit (just like I did), where a trained professional will come to their home and offer services and/or information on topics such as healthy pregnancies, baby and child health, breastfeeding, nutrition, immunizations, child growth and development, discipline, toilet training, child safety, and finding local resources.
“When a parent schedules a home visit with Help Me Grow Home Visiting, they will have the opportunity to share their thoughts about parenting, ask questions, and receive reliable information based on their individual family needs or topics of interest,” the website says.
Though I’m sure I could benefit from continued parenting education, even with my third child, the services I needed this time were the early intervention services.
Help Me Grow is the state program that provides early intervention services for children with developmental delays or disabilities, who are not yet in preschool. Parents who have a child under the 3-years-old, who are concerned about their child’s development can self-refer and receive an evaluation for their child.
Parents who complete a referral for early intervention (EI) are assigned a service coordinator who will set up all of the meetings and evaluations to determine if their child is eligible for early intervention services.
What did the process look like for my family? First, my case coordinator set up a virtual visit to go over the process and do some paperwork. My family lives in Cuyahoga, so we were referred to Bright Beginnings, which is part of the Help Me Grow network.
My coordinator interviewed me at length about my son and took notes about his development and our support network. I was surprised by some of the questions.
Do my parents support us and assist with our children? Do we have other support? Do we have access to childcare? What is our bedtime routine like? Does Galen let you change his diaper?
My coordinator walked me through all kinds of parenting areas and created a profile of our family and for our son. We talked about the services he could potentially qualify for, the evaluation and the cost, if any. The state provides 55 hours of services for children who qualify, at no cost to the parent.
If you are worried about your child’s development but have avoided seeking help because of concern about cost, particularly with the pandemic, you don’t have to worry. The state funds everything from the initial assessment through up to 55 hours of intervention.
What a relief.
After the initial meeting, we scheduled a virtual assessment. I was nervous about the idea of an assessment via Zoom because it relies on the parents to interact with the child.
My worries were for naught. Galen played with us and demonstrated even a few more babbles than his typical repertoire of “da da,” “dee dee” and “daw.” The woman doing the assessment qualified him on clinical opinion and told us his other skill areas were strong, but that he was somewhat delayed.
After that, I had a meeting with the caseworker and speech therapist to set goals. They went through a very detailed report from the assessor, where I learned some things I wasn’t aware of. She actually noted gestures Galen was making that I myself hadn’t noticed.
Our first therapy session was last week, and Galen outdid himself. Not only has he started using more babble and exploratory sounds the past two weeks, but during the Zoom therapy session, he picked up my phone, held it to his ear and said “hi!”
Like most other groups, Help Me Grow is meeting with families virtually for some of their services during COVID-19, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well a virtual therapy session went.
Just beginning the process with Help Me Grow has made me 10 times more aware of how I can foster his language skills, and things are ramping up quickly.
With just his assessment under his belt, Galen started to say mama in reference to me. The sitter (that we thankfully recently hired to help while I work from home full time) sent me a video where she asked him who he wanted and he said “mama!”
What a beautiful sound. I ran up from the basement office to oblige him.
Whether you are looking for pregnancy support, parenting education, or like me, for early intervention for your child who is experiencing a developmental delay, Help Me Grow is a comprehensive resource offered to families free of cost.
For more information, visit the Ohio Department of Health’s Help Me Grow Program website, and fill out the referral form.
Julie is a mother of three and Professor of Practice at The University of Akron. Her hobbies include singing in the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, Instagramming her kids and sleeping standing up.
Photo: Galen Cajigas, 18-months, interacting with his Help Me Grow-provided therapist via Zoom