x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

From baby to child, one step at a time

As anxious as we are to see our children grow, there is also an unavoidable sense of nostalgia as they exit one stage for the next.

First injections, first swim, first tooth, first solid food, first flight on an aeroplane, first tentative crawl: the first year of life bristles with premieres. Since Astrid's arrival in April, we have been marking these occurrences on a chart that was given to us at the hospital after she was born. It has lots of stickers for significant events in her development. These moments have created a different calendar that sits alongside the Gregorian.

Time moves quickly in this realm. The distance between firsts is never fixed. Sometimes it can be days, sometimes weeks. As a result of this elastic time frame, diurnal rhythms seem to quicken. Weeks pass by in a blur and before you know it things have changed forever. Astrid is seven-and-a-half months old. She eats solid food and crawls across a room at lightning pace. The baby has vanished, never to return. A little person has appeared in our midst.

Perhaps Abu Dhabi is partly responsible for Astrid's calendar of firsts holding such sway. Seasons melt into each other, and there are no sudden or stark contrasts. Nature gives no signals of impending change - or if it does I am not tuned in to them. Perhaps tower blocks cast longer shadows. Or a fresh breeze wafts through the stagnant fug of exhaust fumes. The difference between hot and less hot is no doubt welcome but it is not as distinct as the change from sunshine to rain or snow, which happens in other places. In the cooler months, Abu Dhabi's sky loses some of its glare and takes on a deeper hue, but it is still the same clear blue sky overhead. Time passes. The view through the tinted windows of our air-conditioned apartment stays the same. Inside, the temperature hovers around 24.5°C.

Of course, the city has its own markers of time. Without exception, they are man-made. Buildings have been constructed on patches of dusty ground. Tower blocks have risen and bridges have been finished. The city evolves like a forest. Astrid is standing up. She grasps a chair leg with one hand and waves with the other. Her legs are firmly planted on the ground. Her knees are slightly bent. She seems very stable. She has another first lined up in her sights: walking. A date has already been set according to family lore. I took my first steps at nine months and three weeks, as did my stepsister. So within a few weeks of her standing up, I find myself looking forward to Astrid's first steps. No wonder time seems to be passing quickly.

In the face of the ceaseless lurch of progress, it is easy to become nostalgic about nostalgia. The rapid changes between newborn baby and one-year-old child can lead to an occasional yearning for the feeling of a particular time or place. They can lead to the desire for things to stay the same, for a moment at least. "But at my back I always hear/ Time's winged chariot hurrying near," wrote Andrew Marvell. His poem may have been an incitement to seize the day, but it sums up the feeling of having kids just as well.

News from beyond the womb door: babies develop accents before they are born. According to a recent study at the University of Würzburg in Germany, foetuses pick up on the inflections of voices outside the womb and adapt the melodic patterns of their cries to mimic these patterns when they are born. The study looked at neonates of French- and German-speaking parents and found that the cries of French babies rose at the end, while the cries of German babies fell at the end, matching the contours of their parents' voices.

I'd always assumed accents were formed much later in childhood, when the vocal cords had developed and been brought under control. Coherent speech seems like a prerequisite of an accent, yet this study suggests that cries play an integral part in shaping the way we utter a language. The results also highlight our longing to belong. Even before we are born, we have the desire to blend in and try to be accepted. We are hard-wired to want to fit in. We try to conform by copying the speech and mannerisms of others. It is remarkable that we develop the ability to use imitation before we are born.