A Day in the Life With Hazel
Early Childhood Special Educator Sarah Szuminski On Raising Her Daughter Who has Down Syndrome.
By PJ Feinstein
Sarah Szuminski was working full time when her daughter, Hazel, who has Down syndrome, was born. But that first year and a half was tough for the family; Hazel endured a long NICU stay, open heart surgery, and repeated hospitalizations for illnesses. After a bad respiratory illness landed Hazel in the PICU for a month, Sarah and her husband, Matt, decided to make some big life changes, including a move to a different state so Sarah could stay home with their daughter.
“My background is early childhood special education, and I’ve worked hard to create a predictable routine filled with small learning opportunities and lots of play, music, and art,” says Sarah. “Our days are full and sometimes very long, but I’m so grateful to be with her when she is so small!”
Here, Sarah shares what a typical day for her and Hazel, who is almost three, looks like.
Every weekday morning, I wake up early to teach English to children in China for a couple of hours. I throw on a hoodie and a little bit of makeup and head to my classroom in the basement.
Hazel is awake, and Matt gets up and brings her downstairs. He takes care of the pets and gets Hazel set up with a small snack and drink. She usually dances to her favorite songs, plays in the kitchen, or watches a show while he makes breakfast and gets ready for work.
I’m done teaching, and we sit down as a family to eat breakfast. This morning we’re having green smoothies and oatmeal. Hazel had an NG tube when she was a baby and has had lots of feeding therapy over the past couple of years. She’s become a pretty great eater, and I think our emphasis on family meal time has helped a lot with that!
Matt is off to work, and Hazel helps me clean up breakfast and then plays while I load the dishwasher before we head upstairs to get ready for the day. While I shower and get dressed, Hazel plays in her room independently for 15-20 minutes. Once I’m mostly ready, I head into Hazel’s room. Routine self-care tasks make her feel independent, and she loves to brush her teeth and wash her face with a washcloth before helping me pick out her clothes. She also loves playing dress up with my jewelry and head scarves while I put on makeup and do my hair.
We spend a short time working on therapy play every morning. This is the only time during the day that is set aside to do specific work on speech, occupational therapy, and cognitive goals. Today we worked on her See and Learn Language cards from Down Syndrome Education International, lacing beads, matching bears, and some pre-writing skills (imitating strokes on paper).
Play time! Today Hazel is giving her farm animals a bath in warm, soapy water. She loves water play, and this keeps her engaged for a while so I can tidy up around the house before a home visit.
Hazel has weekly speech therapy, music therapy, and a special needs playgroup. This morning, she has an hour long speech therapy appointment. Her speech therapist works on oral imitation and sound production with Hazel. We also chat about her upcoming IEP and transition out of early intervention, since Hazel’s third birthday is quickly approaching.
On days we don’t have therapy, we head outside to play, have playdates, or go on a small adventure (like the library or grocery store). Today Hazel is sleepy, so we play and read stories until it’s time for lunch.
Today’s lunch is an organic hot dog with ketchup and a little bit of cheese, smashed avocado with a bit of sea salt, sliced peppers, and grapes. I also roasted a big batch of cauliflower for my lunch, and Hazel gets a small portion to dip in her avocado. She touches the cauliflower but says, “Nooo!” about eating it. That’s ok! I’ll keep sharing mine with hopes that she’ll give it a try eventually.
Hazel still takes a decent nap every day, and I spend this time catching up on teaching work from the morning, creating my daily post for Instagram, and responding to comments and DMs. This is also my chance to read for pleasure, watch TV for a bit, and sometimes even take a quick catnap. This quiet time is so necessary to my sanity!
I always get Hazel by 3:30 p.m. if she doesn’t wake up on her own. She usually needs some cuddles and a small snack before she’s fully awake and ready to play. I used to let her watch a show to help wake up, but I found that using screen time as a transition led to less engaged play and learning the rest of the afternoon. Now, I try to set up a small art or play activity after naptime like watercolors or paper scraps and a glue stick.
We bundle up and head outside. Even though it’s almost March, we still have a foot of snow in Michigan, and Hazel LOVES playing in it. I try to make it out most days regardless of the weather. Once we head back inside, I leave Hazel to play in her playroom with some of her favorite music. I’ve been encouraging independent play since Hazel was one year old, and some days she plays amazingly by herself for a while. Today she needs me to sit nearby while she plays.
The 30 minutes before Matt gets home always feel like the longest part of the day. Hazel wants to be right underfoot or “helping” me in the kitchen. I often put on a short show like “Sesame Street” or “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” so I can get things done. Matt gets home from work around 5:30, and he takes over Hazel duty. She is always so happy to see him, and they head off to play. This is when I cook dinner.
We try to eat dinner as a family as often as we can, and we have a “no phones at the table” rule. Tonight is leftovers, nothing fancy, but it’s still nice to just be together! We all clear the table, and Matt does dishes while Hazel and I color at her table.
We spend our evenings playing, dancing, cuddling, and just being together. Tonight is bath night, and Hazel could play in the tub for ages, bathing her baby doll and playing with tub crayons! Matt and I trade off bath and bed duties, and when it’s my night for bath, I usually sit and read while she plays.
It’s time for stories, milk, and snuggles on the couch. Matt takes Hazel up for bed, and I tidy up from the night. Once Matt is done with bedtime, we curl up on the couch to watch a show. We’re currently catching up on Season 3 of “True Detective.” Sometimes, after Hazel goes to bed, I spend time preparing a sensory bin or art materials for the next day, but usually this is my time to chill out, watch TV, and play on my phone! I’m almost always in bed by 10 p.m. because that alarm goes off early!