Sunday, April 03, 2011

The baby boom - activities for babies and toddlers (feature)

HAVING left it a whole seven years after the birth after my first darling cherub before I could face sprogging again, I have found the wealth of activities, events and temptations available to West Berkshire mums and babes in 2011 to be quite overwhelming. Of  course the old stalwarts existed way back in the dark ages of 2002 - the NCT with its frankly terrifying (but oh-so-worth-it) nearly new sales, my family’s favourite Monkey Music, and the local toddler group (still an excellent way for any new mum to make friends with other parents in her area) - but it was a fairly select choice, and much of it I missed out on entirely owing to a return to work before young George was old enough to participate in much that was on offer. Nowadays you can have your newborn baby signing, singing and performing bendy yoga positions before you’ve left the maternity ward - I’m joking, of course, but there are now a host of classes that you can start attending with your little one long before maternity leave ends.

Of course baby-centred activities in those early weeks are as much about benefiting Mum’s sense of wellbeing as well as her newborn, getting her out and about, meeting other new mothers, and giving her confidence in her parenting skills. The Breastfeeding Support Group is a free weekly drop-in session at Speenhamland Primary School, Newbury, on Thursdays from 1pm to 2.30pm, while the NCT’s monthly Bumps and Babes group, for pregnant women and those with babies up to 12 months is relaunching on May 17 at its new regular venue, Ace Space in Newbury. The first session will include a talk about cranial osteopathy, and costs 50p to attend. New parents are also well catered for by West Berkshire’s thriving network of Government-funded Sure Start centres, where for a nominal charge they can attend sessions for newborns or crawlers and walkers, or sign up for the 10 week Parents As First Teachers programme.

Once Baby is interacting a bit more, there is a host of classes to choose from, with only the cost and number of days in the week limiting the choices available. As well as Monkey Music, there’s Music With Mummy and local group Little Quavers Music, which runs its sessions in Thatcham and Cold Ash on a turn-up-and-pay basis, rather than signing up for a term at a time. Many classes are held in community halls, while others are based at dedicated play centres, such as Eddie Katz in Newbury and Thatcham’s Krazy Klub. In recent years, some established organisations aimed initially at older children have expanded their programme to included younger babies, such as Tumble Tots, which now runs Gymbabes to introduce pre-walkers from six months upwards to its active physical play programme.

Newbury children wouldn’t have access to the much-loved Tumble Tots programme at all if it wasn’t for Sharon Browne, a Tumble Tots mum who bought the franchise after it closed suddenly last summer after 26 years, leaving more than 350 children bereft. “I am so convinced of the benefits that children gain from Tumble Tots that I felt compelled to be a part of it,” explains the former nanny. “What is so appealing is the whole atmosphere. The children are happy, the parents are happy and the staff are happy. I am enjoying the satisfaction of seeing children develop in such a positive way.”

Tumble Tots may have been running since the early 1980s, but more recently other businesses have sprung up to attract the “parent pound”, such as the Baby & Children’s Market, which holds regular events at Newbury Racecourse, offering a slightly more sedate shopping alternative to the crazy (but fun, and oh-so-worth-it) NCT nearly new sales which take place several times a year. In addition, there are thriving car boot sales in Newbury and Thatcham which are a fabulous source of second hand baby equipment and clothes for parents on a budget.

For mums and dads with a bit more cash to splash, there are a host of gift ideas available that will preserve those precious early days for eternity, such as the finger and hand prints cast into solid silver jewellery by Newbury mumtrepreneur Penny Daly who set up her Smallprint franchise in 2009. “Not only is it a beautiful product, it enables me to balance my work with being mum to my two boys - there are very few jobs that offer both. I thought life would get easier as they got older, but now they are both at school they want even more of my time.” She now spends her days attending various toddler groups and events, meaning she can be at the school gates at home time, and choosing the hours she spends at home creating the handcrafted jewellery.

For a very unusual gift to be treasured, Basingstoke-based poet and comedian Jan Jack  offers Perfect Verse Toddler Tomes, a business she started 18 months ago after being asked to write a poem for a mum from the point of view of her two young sons. “During a phone chat with her husband, I asked him about the boys’ special relationship with Mum, nicknames, sibling rivalry, funny things they said. I then created a page of verse written from their viewpoint and telling Mum how much they loved her.” Since then, Jan has written many children’s bespoke poems, and says they are now her favourite type of verse. “Putting yourself in the mindset of a sometimes indignant four-year-old can be great fun. They are also guaranteed to make mummies - and sometimes daddies - cry. They really seem to touch a chord.”

Many local baby-centred franchises are run by mothers who decided they wanted a business which fitted around their homelife, such as Sarah Sunthareswaran from Water Babies, who trained as a baby swimming teacher after taking her daughter Sophia to lessons from the age of just 12 weeks and being “absolutely blown away”. “I have such amazing fond memories of watching her very first underwater swim, and it created an amazing bond between us.” When the local Water Babies franchise became available she “snapped it up”, and now has a team of 10 teachers working with nearly 1,000 babies throughout Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire - giving Sarah time to have two more water babies of her own, while still running the business she loves.

Similarly, Sandra Scaplehorn of TinyTalk discovered the joys of baby signing - a form of pre-verbal communication that allow babies to communicate before they can talk -  along with her own daughter, Kara, soon after her birth in 2008, although at that time she had to look further afield than Newbury for classes. “Having attended TinyTalk classes a bit further afield, my daughter started using sign language, and after a bit of perseverance on my part, hey presto - she could tell me when she wanted milk! By the time she was 18 months we did the ultimate test - we went to a restaurant with a baby in tow. It was an eye-opening experience. She sat in her  highchair, signing ‘drink’, ‘bread’, ‘water’, ‘enough’ and ‘home’. She even signed ‘thankyou’ to the waitress!  truly believe that signing strengthens the vital parent-child bond and empowers the babies.”

Lovely as it would be to sign your baby up to all the classes on offer, most parents just pick one or two to attend every week - but which ever you choose, it is clear that there are developmental and bonding benefits, such as those offered by Monkey Music. Franchise owner Val Stephenson welcomes babies from three months old to her classes at venues throughout West Berkshire. “I always find it amazing how babies even this young are transfixed with different sounds, and ho they learn through singing, cuddling, rocking, talking and clapping, all of which stimulates the baby;s brain and encourages new developmental pathways. Very quickly babies anticipate what is going to happen next, and the excitement when Monkey appears is immense.”

Val also believes that such classes are beneficial for the parents who attend - it’s mostly mums, but dads are welcome too; Take That’s Mark Owen caused great excitement when he turned up with his child at a class in London a couple of years ago. “It’s a lovely way to make new friends and enjoy some special time with their baby. It forces them to sit down and take pleasure watching their baby respond to a huge variety of interesting sounds.” Parents are expected to join in the singing, but no one is expecting operatic standards, so most mums are happy to take a full part in the fun.

For classes that offer babies a taster of all sorts of exciting and stimulating experiences, Baby Sensory involve a wide variety of action rhymes, baby signing and massage, mixed in with with use of puppets, fibre optic lights, bubbles, balls, bells, scarves, water play and more. As well as a regular programme of classes, Newbury franchisee Jane Doyle runs occasional free sessions at Newbury Library - these are ticketed events promoted in advance at the library’s own free Rhymetime sessions, which take place at 11am on the first, third and fifth (if there is one) Tuesday of each month. “One of the best arts of my job is watching the babies’ sheer enjoyment, and over time their growth and development. the sessions encourage parents and carers to play with their babies and show them things that can be made at home at very little expense for their little ones to play with and explore. Another fantastic thing I have noticed is the confidence the babies have. They are more than willing to fetch their own equipment and get involved.”

Just starting out in the wonderful world of baby business is Judith Saunders, who has been running Tatty Bumpkin yoga classes for children for six months, and has just launched Baby Bumpkin for babies and toddlers. “The classes are a wonderful way for parents and carers to bond with their children while learning massage techniques for the younger babies, and adapted yoga moves for the older ones, all designed to encourage their natural development. The benefits of massage and yoga for babies are improved sleep and digestion as well as encouraging correct muscle development and stability required for crawling and walking. Mums get some nice stretches too, and the chance to make new friends and relearn some forgotten nursery rhymes!”

  •  The Breastfeeding Support Group at Speenhamland Primary School is run as an outreach project by North Newbury Children’s Centre (Sure Start) at Victoria Park Nursery School, telephone (01635) 31143.
  • Details on community baby and toddler groups, local Sure Start Centres and other activities are available from the West Berkshire Family Information Service, visit or freephone 0800 328 9148
  • Information on Bumps and Babes and other parent and child groups run by Newbury & District NCT can be found at, and the date of its next Nearly New Sale can be found at
  • For parents thinking of starting their own baby-based franchise, the websites Mum and Working, Netmums and Female Franchise are good places to start.

Other contact details:

  • Monkey Music -, tel. (01635) 860959
  • Music With Mummy - (run by various franchisees in Newbury, Hungerford, Kintbury, Thatcham, Tadley, Burghfield Common and Mortimer)
  • Little Quavers -, tel. (01635) 200112 or (01635) 863495
  • Tumble Tots -, tel. (01635) 241201
  • Baby & Children’s Market -, tel. 07881641614
  • Smallprint -, tel. (01635) 35262
  • Perfect Verse Toddler Tomes -, tel. 07917 127381
  • Water Babies -, tel. (01869) 325499
  • Tiny Talk -, tel. 07525476486
  • Baby Sensory -, tel. 07738969358
  • Tatty Bumpkin -, tel. 0845 680 8461 or 07780996064
First published in Out & About magazine, March/April 2011

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