A recent study confirms that it is true – children have a sixth sense to know when their moms are focused on something other than them. Okay, it’s not a study. It’s my own experience from the past 4.5 years, confirmed by conversations with every mom I know. We have enough evidence to make a compelling case.
This sixth sense seems to be innate. Even as tiny newborns, seemingly deep in sleep or content and entertained on the floor with the rattle chew toy, they can sense a loss of your attention as soon as you dial the toll free number for the phone company and hear the first tones of the hold music.
Sure, moments before you were just rocking them, taking a photo of them sleeping, sitting quietly in the room waiting for the moment to sneak out so you can finally make this call and resolve that $27 overcharge from your last bill. If you could have just stayed seated quietly, uncomfortably holding a statue-like pose on the edge of the bed, they could have enjoyed a restful three hour nap.
Sometimes you may even be able to sneak out of the room with ninja-esque agility, do a few mindless tasks (like finally go to the bathroom, make some tea, take a deep breath,) but the moment you set your mind to a responsibility and your focus shifts, silent alarms go off in your baby’s mind. Their ears perk up, they are suddenly uncomfortable, somehow even the temperature has changed and the air is thin. In their world, you’ve been gone for hours and they need you *now.* Perhaps it’s a survival instinct. Mom is home, mom is food, mom is comfort – mom MUST be available.
Anecdotal evidence suggests this sense peaks in intensity around 18 months. This may be due to the child’s recent advances in mobility and their acute tunnel vision for mom. And teeth, the source of pain and fussiness that can surface at any time during the first two years of life. It may seem unrelated but because it heightens overall irritability, it gets added to the list. After this stage, the 6th sense can be muted to varying degrees by distractions like legos, fruit snacks and swing sets. But the pre-communicative toddler seems to have not only the keenest sense, but the most creative tactics to secure mom’s attentions.
A baby only has one option – crying. Though I will not devalue its effectiveness, it is predictable. It is also usually quickly remedied. Often even though my concentration may be broken momentarily, nursing, rocking, using a life-saving device (talking about a ring sling, of course) can not only silence the alarm but occasionally allows me to multitask, continue with my work and still give baby the reassurance that the sky is, in fact, not falling.
An older child has the gift of (elementary) reason. Despite a short attention span, I can usually put the child’s mind at ease with words of affirmation that, contrary to their fears, I have not forgotten about them or their lunch request and I should be done with my task when the big hand hits the 5. I may need to follow up with a suggestion for fun activity/distraction, but overall its a small hiccup and I may actually be able to continue writing that email/talking with my mom/completing a thought where I left off.
But that 2 years and under stage – it’s trickier. Not only have they perfected the art of whining, they are also able to follow you around as you’re busy working or taking a shower. So every time the automated answering system asks you to “say or enter your account number,” you can’t outrun the sound of high pitched shrills.
This also enables them to go to drastic measures if necessary – sort your recently folded laundry, attempt to unload the open dishwasher, empty a box of Cheerios onto the floor, give the dog a yogurt bath, wake a sleeping baby.
Don’t discount their creativity. They’ve also recently developed strong opinions. Specifically about the color of their sippy cup. This is problematic when you try to fulfill requests absentmindedly without paying attention to the details. Perhaps most significant is the short but astute attention span. They are tuned in enough to be offended when you are multitasking, but even Daniel Tiger can only entertain them for mere minutes.
No progress has been made to create a method to block 6th sense receptors. The only defense moms have is the power of our own 6th sense – to know when they are being mischievous even when they are out of sight. Moms across the board agree that they plan to retaliate with this power through the teen years, at least.