No matter where you are in the world, having a baby radically changes your social calendar. Suddenly, you trade meeting friends and going out with activities for infants.
I can find listings for baby swimming, baby dance, baby massage, baby music, baby gymnastics and a plethora of language groups. But that is nothing dissimilar from what Luisa's North American counterparts are doing. However, what dominates the activities listings is PEKiP, and that is something whole-heartedly loved by many German mothers.
PEKiP, or the Prager-Eltern-Kind-Programm, is quite similar to Gymboree. For the uninitiated, Gymboree is the classic “Baby and me” activity. It consists of babies and their parents, singing songs and having all sorts of little “dance” moves that go along with it. It's a great way to get to know other mums, other babies and have time dedicated to the baby. PEKiP is similar, but with a classic German twist: Babies are encouraged to do it all in the buff.
PEKiP originated from theories by a Czech psychologist named Jaroslav Koch and was further developed by Dr. Christa Ruppelt and her husband, Dr. Hans Ruppelt, to create the programme it is today. According to the PEKiP society, more than 65,000 families attend to PEKiP classes across Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
It's activities are considered “group-work” between the baby and the parent to encourage the baby's independent development. It's main principle is that the baby should not be pushed into reaching milestones, rather the infant reaches them at his or her own pace.
During my sessions with Luisa, we would sing songs and play with toys that the certified teacher would bring in. Us mums would get a chance to talk about what was happening with our little ones, our concerns, and share advice. As each PEKiP class is based on babies of the same age, our kids get a chance to hang out with others their own age. There is little cuter than a room of 10 babies all born in the same month.
With our 90 minutes, the PEKiP group conductor would bring in things that are meant to encourage age-appropriate play. What's great is that these aren't necessarily toys that I would either have at home (like a pool noodle) or think of using for play (like a flyswatter). With balls, our babies rolled on top of them, putting their hands and toes down for necessary balance. Flyswatters were used to exercise hand-eye coordination. All the songs had actions attached, giving us mums a chance to really play with our babies. It's what German mum Fiona likes most about her PEKiP time with son Oskar.
“I get to give Oskar 90 minutes of my full attention. At home, there are usually other distractions that take away from our playtime,” she said.
For Swedish mum Jonna, while she was sure her daughter Vega enjoyed the time with the other babies, PEKiP was a place of reassurance for her.
“Since my midwife doesn't come over any more, I missed having a person to ask about growth, food and other things that new parents usually have questions about,” she said. “It was so great to have the time when these questions would pop up and the PEKiP teacher — or the other mums — would be able to answer them.”
The benefits of nudity
But enough of the benefits. You're probably still wondering about the nudity.
My PEKiP teacher explained that babies learn a lot about their bodies through contact with the ground below them. A new baby is not aware that hands are something he can control, but he will notice that he can feel the ground beneath his hands if they are resting on the floor. The same idea goes for the entire body, which is why its encouraged that babies bare all.
But its not the nudity that causes controversy: It's how fiercely enforced the principles of free-movement are.
In Germany, a bassinet on your pram is considered a “must-have.” In it, a small baby can freely wiggle around, but also does not prop the baby into any other position it cannot already do. In North America, it's common for a baby to spend most of his or her youngest months being ferried around in a car seat, even on a stroller.
I even know a few stories of expat mums being admonished by well-meaning German mothers for using a car seat instead of a bassinet on their strollers. Expectant mum Patricia was told by a friend that babies shouldn't spend more than 30 minutes at a time in a car seat, which are seen as a necessary evil for two reasons: They restrict movement and they prop a baby into a sitting position, neither of which promote natural development.
I was also subjected to a parental disciplining in our PEKiP course. One day in class, I put Luisa in a sitting position. All the other mums were quite amazed that she could hold herself so steady at the tender age of six months. But our PEKiP instructor told me: “You really shouldn't be allowing her to sit if she can't yet put herself in that position.”
She then proceeded to show how unless a baby has taught himself to get into a seated position, he doesn't yet understand how he comes out of it, or how to catch himself should he lose his balance. She also said that my putting Luisa into a sitting position will make her lazy and refuse to teach herself how to sit on her own.
Being Canadian, I gave a polite “oh,” and simply refrained from propping Luisa up during those 90-minute PEKiP sessions. Despite doing this at home, Luisa figured out how to back herself up onto her bum a couple weeks later, after which I switched out the bassinet for the seat of her stroller.
But I never did tell my PEKiP classmates that we used Luisa's car seat exclusively when we went to Canada to visit our families in order to save myself a good Teutonic tongue-lashing.