16 JUNE 1990, Page 41

New life

Understandably rattled

Zenga Longmore

0 ne of the gravest humiliations life has yet dealt to Omalara occurred last week. While her mother held her down, a doctor jabbed a needle in the fleshy part of her thigh. 'And you call yourself a mother,' her streaming eyes seemed to be saying. How could I explain to her that inocula- tions were only the beginning? Syringes in the thigh were mere pinpricks compared to what was to follow ā€” a routine develop- mental check-up.

As I understand it, doctors have been paid by the Government to check that children can perform certain tasks at the appropriate age. Dr Fonteyne, fresh from medical school, was taking no chances. With an anxious glance at his medical manual, he whipped out a rattle, marked `A', from his desk.

`Now then, young lady, what can you do with this?' Ignoring the proffered toy, Omalara glowered darkly at the GP. `Don't you want to shake it or boggle it or any of that sort of thing?' Omalara didn't. Instead she emitted from the back of her throat the low rumbling sound that a tractor's engine sometimes makes before it explodes.

`She usually plays beautifully,' I piped up.

'Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear,' and with a worried shake of the head, Dr Fonteyne turned to write in his book. I didn't go so far as to sneak a look, but I imagine he was jotting down something on the lines of, `Dā€“, could do better'.

Next on the developmental agenda came waving. I smirked. If Omalara's skill with the rattle did not shine under stress, I knew her waving ability would not let me down.

`Bye bye! Wave to the nice doctor,' I urged. Omalara merely rubbed her thigh in a baleful manner.

`Can't wave, uh hmm,' and solemnly Dr Fonteyne turned to note down this fresh evidence of backwardness in his awesome book. As he did so, Omalara fluttered a pathetic hand at him. 'Look, doctor, she's waving!' By the time the doctor had turned back, Omalara's hand was lying limply by her side. In vain did I attempt to operate her hand ventriloquist-style. At just ten months old, Omalara will forever be on record as a developmental failure.

If there is a point to these check-ups, then it remains the medical profession's best-kept secret. How is a baby with a sore thigh expected to rattle rattles intelligently in a room where a mother and a doctor are staring at her in silence? A baby who can respond chirpily, oblivious to the tension that surrounds her, is probably far more developmentally suspect than a child who is understandably abashed at strange adult ways.

During such a test, a three-year-old cousin of mine, so I am told, managed to convince a doctor that he was devoid of the powers of speech and reason. 'This is very serious,' the doctor exclaimed to his mother. The frown would have melted from the doctor's face had he known that the perplexed three-year-old regarded the doctor with equal concern.

`He was mad, he was! He showed me a picture of a dog and said, "What's that?" Well, if he didn't know, I certainly wasn't gonna tell him!'