Making Thank You Cards with a Toddler

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Last Christmas, we probably spent £20 on sending Thank You cards. I didn’t resent the money (most of it was stamps), but I thought that for the amount we could probably do something a bit more fun this year.

I really like sending Thank You cards. If a person has gone out of their way to buy, wrap and deliver a gift, they deserve a Thank You card. And who wouldn’t love a splodgy, painty, glittery Thank You card from a one-year old?

I braved the sales on Saturday to go to Hobbycraft, and purchased blank white cards, finger paints and the glittery stars. Then we came home to have some fun! I hadn’t done much finger painting with Ben, and not at home at all, but he has done lots at nursery, and knew exactly what to do.

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The set of paints only contained red, blue and yellow, and Ben loved mixing them together and spreading them across the card.

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When finger painting got boring (and when Ben tried to eat the paint), we introduced the stars. He loved sticking these onto the card. My original plan was to get him to paint first, let the paint dry and then stick the stars on, but it didn’t go to plan. We got him to embellish some of the stars with felt pen, and the rest of the stars we stuck on when the paint was dry.

Here’s our collection of finished cards!

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Reflections on Maternity Leave

It’s the last day of the school year. For the last 26 years of my life, this day has been a huge source of celebration and often, relief. Last year, it meant the start of a whole year away from work: my maternity leave.

As the term has drawn to a close and I’ve seen my teacher friends counting the remaining get-ups, I’ve been reflecting on this past year, and how I’ve spent it. I know I’m lucky and privileged to be able to spend a whole year on maternity leave; we did make some sacrifices to allow me to do that, and it helped that Ben was born during the summer holidays. Many people take 6 to 9 months. Some don’t go back to work at all. In the UK, we are particularly well-supported; many countries don’t offer any maternity leave.

Very few of us will get another opportunity to take months at a time off work, through choice. But while you’re looking after a new baby, and getting used to the concept of being a parent, do you get the chance to use that time wisely? And how would the concept of ‘wise’ change with the demands of parenting?

Maternity leave pre-baby

Personally, I knew I would really enjoy being at home – I am a bit of a homebody at heart, and find being at home refreshes me in a way other things don’t. The start of my maternity leave was shaped by our kitchen, or lack of it, as we were having an extension built and a new kitchen fitted. The work was running hugely behind schedule, and my visions of spending time sorting out the new kitchen, stocking up the cupboards and freezer, baking, and generally cleaning the layer of plaster dust that covered everything came to nothing. In the end, when Ben was born, we had no kitchen altogether, and it took until he was nearly 8 weeks old to get finished.

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38 weeks pregnant and a building site for a kitchen.

However, in some ways, this was good for me. I spent the last two weeks of my pregnancy pottering about, swimming, drinking frappuccinos at Starbucks and putting my newly-pedicured feet up. As someone who tends to keep myself very busy, it was probably helpful.

I have done a bit of research for this post, and here is what a selection of other new mums have said about ‘Pre-baby maternity leave:’

“My advice for people would be enjoy the weeks before the birth and rest up (the hospital bag does not need re packing 8 times!!) and to not worry about clearing up for visitors!”

“I had planned on doing a million jobs around the house before baby arrived. The reality was I lay on the sofa with as little on as possible watching tv or mumsnetting.”

“I second what everyone says about making the most of the prebaby maternity leave – I was so frustrated and spent all my time (three weeks in the end as I went two weeks over) grumping about and feeling hormonal. Boy, if I could have that time now!”

Looking back, I think the most useful things to do in those pre-baby days would be:

  • Stock up your freezer with meals, the cupboard with staples and learn how to do an internet grocery shop.
  • Clean through the house – many women report that they have a ‘nesting’ phase. If so, make the most of it!
  • Do all the things you won’t be able to do easily for a while: go out for a meal, have your hair done, buy a few birthday presents for birthdays coming up.
  • Rest as much as you can.

Maternity Leave: The Early Days

In some ways, this is the loveliest time of maternity leave. You can sit on the sofa most of the day (probably feeding) and watch television. You can get people to come to visit you. You can take the baby out and about and he or she will generally sleep the whole time.

It can also be the scariest time as you get used to having the baby around. It’s also exhausting, as you will be doing night-feeds. It can feel like the baby will never stop crying, and consulting Dr. Google at 3am is commonplace. If reflux or colic is a problem, you may feel like you are facing a huge uphill struggle, and an hour can feel as long as a month when you’re so exhausted.

In addition, you may still be healing after the birth, particularly if you’ve had a caesarean, and pregnancy, delivery and then breastfeeding all place huge demands on your body.

I found these few weeks really quite difficult. In hindsight, I think I was putting too much pressure on myself to establish what ‘normal life’ now looked like. I loved having the time to bond with Ben, and to find out about his moods, his likes and dislikes, but it wasn’t instantaneous, and I expected it to be. I also didn’t want to ‘fall into traps’ (as I saw it) of only letting him sleep on me, or never sleeping in his moses basket. Some days he would seem like a completely different baby to the previous day. It was only when I allowed myself to think that it was okay to watch tv, to cuddle the baby, to go for a walk just to get him to sleep and to give him a dummy at night that I started to relax and enjoy it.

This time is all about bonding with your baby and getting to know him or her. It’s also the time to get support, and to call in all those offers of help – meals, babysitting (get willing friends to take the baby for a walk for an hour while you do whatever you need to do), company. If you’re struggling with something, particularly feeding, get professional help from the NCT or similar.

This is the time to treat yourself gently, and not to start on those projects you daydreamed about when you were working. Your baby won’t have any set pattern or routine, and in some ways this can be frustrating, but it can also be liberating. You can take a tiny baby out and about without worrying if it will clash with nap times or meal times. Enjoy it if you can, but don’t feel pressure to enjoy – it’s difficult being a new parent.

I loved these words of wisdom from a friend:

“I didn’t realise that I would really want to spend time with my baby. That sounds silly – I knew I would adore him but I think he is an amazing human being and I find him funny and a pleasure to spend time with.”

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Established maternity leave

For me, I think I really started enjoying my maternity leave when Ben was around 4 months old, and then it kept getting better and better. Part of this was his routine – his naps got longer, which meant that I had some time to myself. Part of it was getting over those initial fears and adjustments, and realising that I could make it work.

From January (when Ben was 5 months old) I became quite structured in how I approached my ‘free’ (i.e. nap) time. I got fit again, training to run a 5km. I started a blog. I baked, cooked and slow cooked. I met up with friends frequently. I even started doing some planning for school.

I also started going regularly to some activities – swimming lessons, courses at the Sure Start centre, baby cafes and playgroups. Some were good for a little while, and then they clashed with his nap times. Some were only short courses. Some were much more informal. We had the additional challenge of being limited to buses on many days, and so some activities were just too hard to get to.

I found I really needed to do ‘something’ every day, and to get out of the house every day. Others felt the same:

“I never imagined the feelings of being trapped, unable to just go somewhere when I felt like it despite having the luxury of time!”

“I just get so BORED if we’re home alone for very long stretches!”

The sense of loneliness and isolation can be overwhelming at times, particularly if you don’t have many friends with babies:

“The worst bits were the lack of money and the isolation.”

Despite seeming to have a lot of time, it’s very difficult to get much done with a baby awake – especially one which is moving!

“I too manage to get far less done during the week than expected – but DH has majorly stepped up to the plate to cover that.”

“Mat leave was MUCH busier than I thought it would be and I totally underestimated the always-something-that-needs-doing feeling I had.”

I can completely relate to this final comment. I can count on one hand the number of times I have slept or even just sat down and read a book while Ben has been asleep during the day – there is always something that needs doing! But I do feel as though I have tried to make the most of it. I’ve made new friends, learned new skills, and, most importantly, established an incredibly precious relationship with my son. Ultimately, that is what maternity leave is for.

Interestingly, for me, it has reaffirmed that I want to go back to work. I’ve missed teaching, and I’ve missed being in a working environment. Although I’m only going back 3 days a week, I am sure that Ben will love nursery, and I’m looking forward to it. Before that, though, we’ve got the summer to enjoy!

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Maternity Leave Finances

I think one of the biggest worries for me before having Ben was the financial strain of taking a year’s maternity leave, having some months unpaid, and being on SMP for a lot of it.

We did make some big sacrifices, the biggest being to sell my car (sob!), and I would be lying if I said that it has been easy without a car. But it has made a massive difference to us. However, we’ve also been able to go on holiday 3 times throughout the year, and we haven’t exactly been living on lentils and baked beans.

The financial aspect of maternity leave cannot be ignored:

“The worst bit was the lack of money.”

“I didn’t follow my friend’s advice which was as soon as you find out you’re pregnant save as much as you can. Wish I had.’

But it’s not all doom and gloom:

“Actually though I didn’t find mat pay as crippling as I was expecting. My husband and I both expected to be straight into Asda value beans and unable to afford to go out for dinner more than once a month but its not like that at all.”

Saving does make sense, and having a baby is expensive; there’s no getting away from that. But we found that our lifestyle became less costly with a baby around – we don’t really go out for meals often now, because that means getting a babysitter; I don’t have to have a separate wardrobe for work, or petrol costs for commuting. I wonder if we’ll feel poorer when we have to pay for childcare, even though I’ll be back at work.

Making the most of Maternity Leave

Having been a teacher for almost all of my working life, I have loved the freedom of maternity leave. The joy of going on holiday during term time was great! I’ve been able to visit family without being limited to certain weeks or times, and I’ve definitely been able to enjoy the recent heat wave.

At times, though, I have felt limited – by meal times or Ben’s need for a nap, and I personally think that this is just something that comes with parenthood. I’m sure the feelings of being limited will change over the course of Ben’s life, and then when he heads off to University or work, we’ll enjoy the freedom again!

I know I’ll never have a year like this again, and I honestly do think it has been the best, most amazing year of my life. And the kitchen did finally get finished.

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Book Review: French Children Don’t Throw Food

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This book was published in January 2013, and its title echoes the previously popular ‘French Women Don’t Get Fat.’ The premise is the same: the way the French seem to do things is so much better than the way the British or Americans (generalised with the term ‘Anglophone’) do it.

The author, an American journalist, lived in Paris while her children were small, and observed how Parisian women raise their children. She then turned these observations into the book.

There’s actually a lot of sensible advice in this book. I particularly liked the chapters on food, on childcare and on sleep. The general premise of it is: be calm, observe, remember that you are in control, but also that you are teaching your child to become independent. I loved the sense of ‘let children be children;’ let them discover the world, rather than hovering about anxiously monitoring whether they have reached the expected milestone by the expected date.

The chapters on feeding and food were interesting. Some particularly sensible advice, which in hindsight supports my own experience, was along the lines of feed on demand for the first three months, then ease them into feeding every three hours. Then move onto 4 hours as you introduce solid foods and gradually decrease milk feeds. Now, that sounds so simple and obvious. But a health visitor will never say anything so obvious to you. And for a sleep-deprived, anxious, new-mother, obvious rationality doesn’t come easily.

Yes, it does acknowledge that many Parisian women don’t breastfeed for long, if at all (they are more interested in regaining their figures, it seems). But we all know the benefits of breastfeeding, and in my experience, most women would if they could successfully. I will keep my thoughts on breastfeeding for another post. And possibly another blog altogether.

Some of the cultural observations were interesting. Her observations from the planning meeting for a nursery menu were amazing – the chefs spent hours discussing the different vegetables on offer to the babies. One dish should not be repeated from one month to the next. This led to the very sensible advice that children should be encouraged to try everything, even if they don’t like it.

Another observation which made me laugh was the description of parents describing everything that their child does – to the child! “You’re climbing up the steps, up you go. Now you’re at the top. Are you going down the slide? There you go, down the slide, weeee!” I’ve seen something similar myself, and have to stop myself from doing it.

Personally, I think the French thing is a gimmick. There are plenty of wise and astute anglophone parents doing exactly the same thing. But at the moment, parenting advice either seems to be strict Gina Ford-esque rulebooks or the complete opposite: respond immediately to your baby’s every demand until they are at least 5 years old. Neither of these will lead to happy parents, or happy children. This book strikes a happy balance between the two. Love your children, nurture them, encourage them, but don’t smother them with your attention or let them rule the roost.

I got my copy from the local library; I probably would have purchased it if they didn’t have it, so it’s worth checking.

The bedtime hour

The Adventures of Abney and Teal

Some days, 6pm is my favourite time of the day. Ben has had his tea, I’ve cleared up and Tim is just home from work. We’re usually all pretty tired, irrespective of whether we’ve had a disturbed night. But by 6pm, I can start to relax.

6pm marks the start of Ben’s bedtime routine; the end is almost in sight. When you’re looking after a small baby all day, the days can seem very very long. (My parenting mantra is that ‘the days are long but the years are short.’) Once you hit 6pm, you know you can get through.

One of the rituals that we have developed is to watch 10 minutes of CeeBeebies at 6pm. This marks the start of The Bedtime Hour, a lovely collection of programmes which are more subdued than some of the live-action content of earlier in the day. This is usually the only television that Ben watches, and he usually gets distracted and starts wriggling away when it is on, so I’m not too worried that it’s frying his brain.

The Bedtime Hour starts with a song: Good bye sun, hello moon. I admit, I love this song, probably more than Ben. Sometimes, the programmers shorten it or even leave it out all together, which incenses me. I like to sing along and show off that I know all the words. This is what becoming a mum does to you.

After the presenter (probably the bit that Ben loves the most), the first programme is Abney and Teal. Most parents will recognise Peppa Pig and Mr. Tumble, but Abney and Teal are the most gentle, kindest of cartoon characters. Living on an island in an inner-city park, with magical creatures who dig holes and blow bubbles, Abney and Teal are the best of friends. Abney prefers knitting, dusting and making porridge (a man after my own heart), while Teal loves a good adventure, and Toby Dog accompanies them all with a folksy tune on the accordion.

Occasionally ‘real-life’ infiltrates their world – a washed-up ladies handbag reveals a mobile phone, which is called ‘the buzzing thing,’ which keeps them all awake at night; a rock concert inspires Abney’s poetry. But most of the time, they eat porridge, grow cabbages and create things out of cardboard boxes. A slightly nostalgic look at childhood, perhaps.

Once Abney and Teal has finished, bedtime is all go: bath, bottle, songs, bed. At some point, we’ll introduce a Bible story and prayers, but I’m not sure when yet. Usually, that goes fairly smoothly, and it is a rare night when Ben isn’t snoring by 7.00pm.

That moment, as I’m sure all parents know, is a moment to treasure.

Baby’s Routine at 8 months

Ben has fallen into a fairly predictable routine at the moment, so I thought I’d try to record his routines each month. I hope that this will be a useful document for other mums, but also, it will be a good reference point for me.

All times are completely flexible; Ben can wake up in the morning any time between 6am and 8.30am, so I tend to adjust as necessary. 7am is a more normal wake-up time.

7am – Milk feed

8am – Breakfast

10am – Nap: Ben will normally nap for 1 1/2 hours approximately, but this can be longer or shorter.

12pm – Lunch

2.30pm – Milk feed

3pm – Nap: Ben will nap for around an hour; this might be longer if his morning nap has been shorter.

5pm – Dinner

6.15pm – Bath

6.30pm – Milk feed

7pm – Bed

One of the issues I’m having is when to go out and get involved with activities. He really needs his morning nap at home in his cot, so I like to stay at home in the morning. However, playgroups tend to be on in the morning. His afternoon nap tends to hit any activities in the afternoon – we went to a party on Saturday which started at 2.30pm, but he couldn’t really enjoy it as he was too tired. Activities which start at 1pm are good, but organised activities don’t often start at this time!

Have you noticed a similar pattern with your babies?

Weaning: The Second Steps

Ben broccoli

I’ve already written about starting weaning in Weaning: The First Steps. That post deals with straight fruit and vegetable purées. Once your baby is happily accepting a wide variety of fruit and vegetables in purée form, you can move on to introducing protein and carbohydrate into your baby’s diet.

I was very keen to get meat and carbs into baby Ben’s diet, as I had heard that this would help him sleep better. In fact, his sleep became worse after weaning, as it coincided with him becoming very distracted during breastfeeding. He stopped taking enough milk during the day and made up for it at night. This seems to be quite common at around 6 months.

One of the first protein forms I fed him was beef. I made a simple stew using the following recipe.

Beef, carrot and potato stew

2 tsp olive oil
1/2 an onion
80g stewing steak
2 carrots
1 large potato

1. Finely chop the onion and sauté it gently in the olive oil in a medium size saucepan.

2. Cut the beef into small chunks and add to the pan.

3. Peel the carrots and potato and cut into small chunks. Add to the pan.

4. Cover with water and bring to the boil.

5. Reduce to a simmer and cook for around 1 hour. You may need to add more water.

6. Allow to cool, then purée.

Other combinations that baby Ben enjoyed were chicken with sweet potato and peas, salmon with carrots and peas and lentils with carrots, leek and sweet potato.

Around this time, I also started introducing finger foods. To minimise waste, I’d suggest cooking 1 or 2 extra pieces of vegetables with your own dinner to offer the baby. Ben just sucked them and threw them on the floor to start with. Broccoli florets and carrot sticks were good, but he didn’t really get the hang of it until we introduced bread. Toast soldiers, strips of pitta bread and even pizza crusts were a massive hit. Rice cakes and bread sticks were sometimes more convenient when we were out and about.

Once we’d established protein and carbohydrates into his diet, Ben did start dropping his daytime feeds. I’ll report back on his sleep when it improves!

A new baby: 3-6 months

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Before Ben was 12 weeks old, I really looked forward to him meeting that milestone. Everything I read seemed to suggest that at 12 weeks, things would click. He would be ready for a bit of a routine. He would feed less, and more efficiently. He wouldn’t need to be held close all day every day. He would start to nap somewhere other than on me or in his pram.

Looking back, I can pinpoint two points in those early weeks when things suddenly seemed to get easier. The first was at 5 weeks. All of a sudden, Ben didn’t always cry when I put him down for short periods of time. He could sit in his bouncy chair for five minutes while I made a sandwich. This was a revelation. He also started to take a dummy and a bottle at this time.

The second point was at 11 weeks. This was when Ben caught his first cold. It might sound silly, but this cold went on for what seemed like ages. In the first week, I was quite blase about it and took him to baby massage and to meet friends and things. In the second week, I was fed up of having a snotty baby. To avoid him catching anything else, we spent the week at home.

This was actually one of the most helpful things I could have done, as it allowed me to really observe his routine. I had not done anything to encourage a routine except to create a bedtime routine of bath, feed, bed. I loosely thought about following The Baby Whisperer plan of Eat – Activity – Sleep, but Ben was more like Eat – Activity – Eat – Activity – Eat until he falls asleep – Eat… and so on. However, when our day wasn’t structured around outings when he would inevitably fall asleep in the car or the pram, I realised he did have tired signals, and that I could follow them and put him to bed when he needed it.

At around 12 weeks, Ben could stay awake for a maximum of 2 hours. Some babies can do more, some do less. He would then sleep for exactly 45 minutes. Then he would feed and play for another 2 hours, when he would need to sleep again.

It was as simple as that. However, all the books I had read seemed to suggest either that my baby could stay awake for ages, would go 4 hours or more between feeds at 12 weeks, or would sleep in 2-3 hour stretches during the day. I didn’t want to force him into a routine; instead I found that he had a natural routine.

After speaking to lots of other mums, I found that most babies sleep in 45 minute stretches. I don’t know the theory behind sleep cycles, but that seems to be one sleep cycle. When Ben had slept for this long, he would be refreshed and hungry. He was ready to start again.

I didn’t mind the 45 minute stretches at all – he would generally nap 3 or 4 times a day. Observing this helped me to stretch his feeds out to every 3 hours, so he did start to eat more efficiently at each feed, and I wasn’t feeding him constantly. In the ‘Activity’ times he would spend time playing with his baby gym, doing tummy time, observing and generally discovering the world. He discovered his hands, and then learned to hold objects. Then he learned to put everything in his mouth.

Usually, I timed walks or journeys to coincide with his naps, which was fine. I knew that I wanted him eventually to be able to nap in his cot at home, so I tried to make sure that at least one nap a day was at home. Sometimes he cried a bit as he went to sleep, but never for more than 5 minutes. If he didn’t seem to be able to settle, I would get him up and try again a bit later.

As he moved closer to 6 months, his nap times gradually lengthened, and he was able to stay awake for longer stretches. I think introducing solids probably had a lot to do with this.

I really loved the age from 3 months to 6 months. Your baby’s personality starts to appear, and they become much less of a mystery. Some days are really hard, and you wonder if it will get easier, but most days are brilliant.