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How to have a very merry Christmas with kids for $200 or less—seriously

For as long as I can remember I’ve started to get excited about Christmas as soon as the weather began to cool and the leaves began to turn. I’ve always loved the sparkly lights and the at-home coziness of the holiday season, but the day itself has taken on a new significance now that I have children.


Over the past few years I’ve loved seeing my son’s eyes light up as he opened his presents and, each year, wooed by holiday ads and the thought of my child’s smile, I’ve ended up spending a lot more than I intended.

This year, out of necessity, I’ve decided I’m doing things differently.

Since last Christmas, my husband and I have had a baby, taken a partially-paid maternity leave and an unpaid paternity leave, bought a new home and started our older son at a full time preschool. We’ve also made some intentional decisions about how we want our children relate to money.

The average American family is planning to spend an average of $983 for gifts this holiday season. But they don’t have to.

This Christmas, we’ve decided to opt out of going above and beyond and, instead, stick to a strict $200 budget for our little family. If you’re considering (or being pushed by circumstances) towards a budget Christmas, here’s how we have an amazing holiday together—without spending much.

The Baby

The baby will receive gifts this year mainly because it would seem suspicious for Santa not to bring him anything. As a 13-month-old, his interests are limited: he enjoys napping, nursing and getting into the kitchen cabinets. Under the tree he’ll find:

A television remote: $7

Again, not a very Instagrammable gift, but something that I know my child will love. As of now my tot totes around our real TV remote, come Christmas time he’ll have one of his very own.

A soft duck: $25

My baby is the classic second child, born in the same season as my first, he has hand-me-down everything. Almost all of my baby’s possessions, from books to clothes to toys were once used by my first. As my babe enters the phase of his life when he might become attached to a comfort object, I plan to get him a brand new and very soft stuffed duck.

A large ball: $4

A big fan of chasing and rolling, my baby will be unwrapping a brand new ball on Christmas morning.

Baby total: $36

The Preschooler

A personally curated art kit: $20.00

My preschooler loves art and, while the quality of the supplies might matter to a more seasoned artist, I’ve found that my boy simply loves the feel of paint on his fingers and the sensation of cutting paper with “real scissors.”

For less than $20, I’ve created an on-the-go art box that my boy can haul around the house and explore over the next few months. The art kit includes the box itself ($5.99) a pack of construction paper ($3.99), 3 mini-sets of paint ($2.99) a pack of paintbrushes ($1.99), markers ($2.99) and 2 pairs of silly scissors ($1.99).

A pair of character pajamas: $19.99

Pajamas are a practical gift that are also incredibly fun. My son is a big Daniel Tiger fan so he’ll be getting a trolley adorned set under the tree this year.

An E.T. Poster: $7.99

This past summer my son stayed a weekend with his grandparents and, despite our Daniel Tiger only decelerations, my parents gave in to nostalgia and let my son watch E.T. Ever since, he’s been obsessed. This Christmas he’ll be getting an E.T. poster to hang next to his bed.

A kids wheelbarrow from the neighborhood list serve: $10

While we buy a lot of our children’s clothes and supplies second-hand we typically shop new for toys simply because it can be really hard to find what you want. This year we started looking early and scored an almost-new wheelbarrow that my boy will love.

A set of pre-cut 2x4’s: $8

My son loves to build in the backyard and, as un-instagrammable as plain old 2x4s are, I know my boy will be thrilled to have something he can use to construct.

Two books: $12

As an avid reader, my son will be more than happy to receive a couple of new books he can read with me or my husband and that he can flip through as he drifts off to sleep.

A “movie night” bundle: $2

At our house, movie nights are a real treat. This Christmas we’ll be gifting my son a movie night by wrapping up a bag of microwave popcorn, a hand drawn movie ticket and a pack of Sweedish Fish.

A flashlight: $2

While a flashlight might not seem exciting to a grown up, to a preschooler it’s the key to after-dark adventure. I know my son will be thrilled opening up this gift and look forward to hours spent reading under the covers and creating shadow-puppet shows on his bedroom wall.

Preschooler total: $82

The mom and dad:

While it’s always nice to receive a little something, my husband and I typically buy what we need for ourselves and aren’t big spenders. This year, because we had a few major expenses, we’re opting out of getting each other anything big and, instead opting for a few small gifts.

A Handprint ornament for each child: $6

We love honoring our kids and plan to make handprint ornaments as gifts to each other. In the future I’m sure we’ll look back at their tiny hands and wonder how our sons ever used to be so small.

Two $10 Chipotle gift cards: $20

Throughout the week my husband and I each pack our lunch for work. Giving each other gift cards is really giving the gift of being lazy one evening and skipping the chore of packing lunch.

A gift card to the movie theater $26

Date nights are hard to come by in our house but, because we have full time childcare for both of our kids, afternoon dates are a little more possible. A gift card to the movie theater will give us the chance to sneak out of work a couple of hours early and head to a matinee showing.

Assorted teas: $15

My husband enjoys hot tea each evening and, this year, I’ll shop for an assortment of teas he may not yet have tried yet.

Assorted chocolates: $15

As the chocolate lover of the family, I’m counting on my husband to pick up a few nice truffles from the local chocolate shop.

The mom and dad Total: $82 (split)


Holiday Cheer (free)

While presents are fun, we all know that the holidays are really about spending time with the people we love the most.

This winter, we’ll work hard to create holiday magic without breaking the bank by planning ahead and engaging the resources we already have. As the holiday’s approach we’ll:

Listen to holiday music

Nothing says “Christmas” like the jingle of familiar music. This year we’ll sing along to the classics on our favorite Pandora station as we wrap gifts, bake cookies and decorate our tree.

Check out the local lights

Some of my favorite childhood memories involved peering at Christmas lights from the back of my parent’s car as we cruised around town and sipped on vanilla milkshakes. This year, I’ll map out the best displays in town, suit my sons up in their pajamas and take a long cozy ride.

Create homemade holiday cards

While professionally printed holiday cards can be pricy, my family has enough art supplies lying around to create beautiful, homemade cards I’ll be proud to send out. This year I’ll let my preschooler get in on the fun by helping me paint, draw and craft our holiday notes.

Cook our holiday favorites

As the holidays approach I’ll be pulling out my grandmothers recipe cards and baking my way though her favorites. Engaging seasonal recipes won’t cost us any more than our regular groceries and will ensure our boys have cozy memories of their favorite holiday foods.

Watch the classics

This year, most popular cable channels will be showing a variety of classic holiday movies. While I’ve seen most of the classics at least a few times, I’m looking forward to watching the joy spread across my child’s face as he watches one of my old favorites.

If your family is interested in opting out of going overboard, consider setting a limit that seems reasonable and sticking to it.

In our family, the keys to our shopping success have been focusing our spending on our kids, selecting gifts that will make our kids happy (even if they don’t appear on any top-toys list) and choosing not to compare our gift piles with those of other families.

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When a baby is born, for many families, the vacations stop. And while it can be intimidating to get out and just go with a little one in tow, with the right preparation, family vacations can be a rewarding, memorable experience for everyone.

All it takes to make your next adventure a success is a little planning―and a great, grab-and-go carrier like a BABYBJÖRN Baby Carrier One Air. Simply pop your little one into the breathable mesh carrier, secure the straps, and you're ready to take on your destination like a pro―all while providing a fresh perspective for your baby or toddler (it's suitable for children up to age three!).

Next, pick your destination. Thanks to easy-to-access beaches, a host of incredible museums, and a variety of outdoor and indoor activities, Chicago is a popular vacation hot spot for families year-round.

Not sure where to start? Leyla Tran, Chicago native and blogger behind Second City Mom, filled us in on her favorite kid-friendly spots around the Windy City.


Do

Leyla Tran, with her husband and twins at Chicago's Garfield Park Conservatory in front of one of her favorite features.

Chicago Children's Museum
Sure, you'll have to battle a throng of tourists to get through Navy Pier most times of year, but it's worth it to reach this gem. From a dinosaur dig to arts and crafts areas, there's something to satisfy every interest at the Children's Museum. Plus, you can face baby out in the BABYBJÖRN Baby Carrier One Air so there will be plenty to hold their attention while they ride along! Check the museum's calendar to find out what special events and exhibits are open during your visit.

Garfield Park Conservatory
If you're visiting during the colder months, the Garfield Park Conservatory is the city's largest botanical conservatory. It's a great place to explore, play, and learn indoors during the Midwestern winter months. To get around hassle-free, check the stroller and take in the sights hands-free with the Baby Carrier One Air. You can carry bigger babies on your back starting at 12 months old. "My favorite thing at the conservatory may not be all the plants but the mosaic fountain in the Horticulture Hall, which was gifted to the city of Chicago from sister city, Casablanca," Tran says.

The Sod Room
Speaking of indoor activities, The Sod Room is another great indoor playspace located in the South Loop neighborhood where the design, toys, and activities are all put together with the Earth in mind. "The play space teaches kids to be creative to reuse things and the importance of being eco-friendly," Tran says. "There are so many different events for parents, caregivers, and kids to enjoy throughout the week such as baby yoga and music concert."

Galt Baby

While you probably won't get to do as much shopping on the Miracle Mile as you might without littles in tow, you should try to squeeze in a visit to Galt Baby for any must-haves. From travel gear (like the Carrier One!) to replacement sippy cups should yours get lost (the horror!), Galt Baby has you covered on the go.

SEE

Leyla Tran with her family in front of the iconic Cloudgate at Millennium Park.

Millennium Park

A trip to Chicago isn't really complete until you've taken a family selfie at the Bean. And while you're there, take advantage of the cultural events, exhibitions, and landscape design (hello, wide open spaces for toddlers to run!). Many events are free, so be sure to visit the park's website to find out what's on the calendar. "Although it is a tourist destination, we love it as locals because there is so much to do here from summer concerts to fun kids events," Tran says. "From the iconic Cloudgate (AKA, the Bean) to Crown Fountain to the Lurie Garden, there's something for everyone in our family. Our six-year-old son loves Crown Fountain, with the changing faces on the LED screens waiting for the water to spray out."

Harold Washington Library

The Harold Washington Library is a book worm's dream, no matter your age. Explore the Children's Library, which is broken up into "neighborhoods" based on age with an interactive puppet stage, STEAM-based activities, a digital media center, and more. Parents will love the indoor Winter Garden (with free wifi!) and taking in the local art throughout the library. Let your little one fall asleep in the Baby Carrier One Air while you enjoy the interior architecture—quietly.

Seasonal festivals

From holiday markets to beerfests to parades, there are seasonal activities to take advantage of year-round in Chicago―and many are free! Check the city's calendar during your trip to find out what's available. With so many wearing options on the Baby Carrier One, little ones from newborn to 3 years can stay close while you stroll, sip, or shop. Partner it with the Cover for Baby Carrier and baby will stay warm in all seasons.

EAT

Little Beans Cafe

All the best family vacations start off with a little caffeination. We love Little Beans Cafe because it doubles as an indoor playground for kids, meaning parents get to enjoy a good cup of coffee while kids get to play and learn. "We've had so many fun playdates here with our first child that we're looking forward to more playdates with the twins," Tran says. "It's a great place for new moms to meet during the week."

Giordano's
If you go to Chicago and don't eat deep dish pizza, did you ever really go? Don't take the chance. Book a table at Giordano's and indulge in a slice of Chicago's finest slice. Besides, how often is the local delicacy something you don't have to beg your kids to eat?


Making the time for travel is one of the greatest gifts you can give your family―and yourself. And thanks to BabyBjörn, now everyone can come along for the ride.

This article is sponsored by BabyBjörn. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

The temperatures are dropping and that can only mean one thing. Whether we like it or not, winter's cold chilly months are upon us. As a born-and-raised Alaskan, and mama of three, I've got a lot of cold weather experience under my belt, and staying inside half the year just isn't an option for us. As my husband likes to say, "There's no bad weather, just bad gear."

Here are some of my favorite picks to keep your family toasty warm this winter.


1. Bear bunting

This sherpa bear bunting wins winter wear MVP for being a comfy snowsuit for your littlest babe, or base-layer under another snowsuit for the chilliest of winter outings. Bonus: your baby bear will never look cuter!

Sherpa Hooded Bunting, Carter's, $15.20

BUY

2. Patagonia Capilene base-layers

Speaking of base-layers, for any prolonged winter activity outside in the cold, it's best to layer up to create air pockets of warmth. These moisture wicking base-layers are a family favorite.

Baby Capilene Bottoms, Back Country, $29.00

BUY

3. Arctix Kids limitless overall bib

These adjustable snow pants keep kids warm and the bib style keeps snow from going down the back of their pants. Bonus: the price is excellent for the quality and they can grow with your child. The Velcro strap also makes bathroom breaks for kids so much easier.

Arctix Kids Limitless Overall Bib, Amazon, $14.99-$49.99

BUY

4. Hooded frost-free long jacket

Keep your little one warm and stylish in this long puffer jacket. Great for everyday outings.

Hooded Frost-Free Long Jacket, Old Navy, $35.00

BUY

5. Patagonia reversible jacket

This jacket is windproof, waterproof and the built-in hood means one less piece of gear to worry about (or one more layer for your little one's head). It's a best buy if you live with cold winter temperatures for many months of the year and still love to get outside to play. It also stays in great condition for hand-me-downs to your next kid.

Reversible Down Sweater Hoodie, Nordstrom, $119.00

BUY

6. Under Armour Decatur water repellent jacket

Made of waterproof fabric and lined with great insulation, kids will no doubt stay warm—and dry—in this. It features plenty of pockets, too, so mama doesn't always have to hold onto their items. We love that the UGrow system allows sleeves to grow a couple inches.

UA Decatur Water Repellent Jacket, Nordstrom, $155.00

BUY

7. Stonz mittens

Ever tried to keep gloves on a 1-year-old? It's a tough task, but these gloves make it a breeze with a wide opening and two adjustable toggles for a snug fit they can't pull off! Warm and waterproof, and come in sizes from infant to big kids.

Stonz Mittz, Amazon, $39.99

BUY

8. Sorel toot pack boot

Keep their little toes warm with these cozy boots from Sorel. With insulated uppers and waterproof bottoms their feet are sure to stay warm. They're well constructed and hold up over time, making them a great hand-me-down option for your family.

Sorel Kids' Yoot Boot, Amazon, $48.73-$175.63

BUY

9. Stonz baby boots

These Stonz stay-on-baby booties do just as their name says and stay on their feet. No more searching for one boot in the grocery store parking lot!

Stonz Three Season Stay-On Baby Booties, Amazon, $29.99-$50.29

BUY
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We make a lot of things this time of year. Gingerbread houses. Christmas cards. New traditions. Babies.

Yes, December is peak baby making season. It's a month filled with togetherness and all the love felt in December is what makes September the most statistically popular month for American birthdays.

According to data journalist Matt Stiles, mid-September is the most popular time to give birth in America. He did a deep dive into the birth stats from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Social Security Administration collected between 1994 and 2014 and found that the most common American birthdays fall on September 9, 19 and 12. In fact, 9 of the 10 most popular days to give birth fall in September.

If we turn the calendar back, we're looking at Christmas time conceptions. Stiles illustrated his findings via a heat map, which presents the data in a visual form. The darker the square, the more common the birthday.

The square for August 30 is pretty dark as it is the 34th most common birthday in America. It's also 40 weeks after November 23, and the unofficial beginning of the United States' seasonal baby boom.


And while the Christmas holidays are common times to conceive, they're not common days to give birth, for obvious reasons. Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Day and the fourth of July are all represented by light squares on Stiles's data map, meaning they're among the least popular days to welcome a little one into the world (Boxing Day is just a smidge darker, still a pretty rare birthday).

OB-GYNs are not likely to schedule C-sections on major holidays, so that might point to the low birth rates on these special days.

As for the September baby boom, it probably has less to do with the magic of the holiday season and more to do with the fact that many Americans take time off work during the holiday season. It's not that mistletoe is some magic aphrodisiac, but just that making babies takes time, and at this time of year we have some to spare.

This Christmas be thankful for the time you have with your loved ones and your partner. That time could give you a gift come September.

[A version of this article was originally posted November 21, 2018]

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When I gave birth the first time, I had two doulas—one for me, and one for my husband. (I wasn't messing around!) They worked hard to support me in what ended up being a long labor. About 20 hours in, I remember hearing my doulas whisper to my exhausted, hard-working husband, “Go lie down. We can take care of her."

This was absolutely true. They were more than capable of helping me through contractions, which up to this point I'd been handling really well. So upon their urging, my husband walked about three feet away and lay down on the daybed in the labor and delivery room. And then the strangest thing happened—

I completely lost my rhythm and my ability to breathe through contractions. It was as though I'd lost my way. The next handful of contractions were unbearable and caused me to cry out in anguish. My husband hurried to my side and held my hand once more.

And then, just as quickly, I found my rhythm, my breathing returned, and I was able to to handle my contractions until I gave birth several hours later.

In a recent study published in Nature, it was discovered that when a partner held the hand of a woman during labor, the couple would begin to synchronize their breathing and heart rate patterns, otherwise known as physiological coupling.

In addition, the women reported that their pain lessened while holding hands with their partners. If they were just sitting next to one another, but not holding hands, their pain levels weren't affected.

This study has obvious implications for the families I teach in my Childbirth Preparation classes, and it's important to share this news far and wide:

Everything you do for your partner while she's in labor makes a difference. Even if all you do is hold her hand.

Labor is not just something that a birthing woman experiences. Her partner experiences labor too, just in a very different way. For far too long, we've either diminished or ignored the partner's experience of labor—to everyone's detriment.

I realize that it makes sense to pay close attention to how a woman moves through her pregnancy, labor and birth. But if we're not paying equal attention to her partner's experience, we're not setting this new family up for success. In fact, we might be doing the exact opposite.

If partners don't realize the importance their words, actions and touch can have on the laboring woman's experience, many may freeze up and feel helpless as they witness the power and intensity of labor and birth. They may end up feeling as though all of their efforts and suggestions for comfort measures are without any effect. But this couldn't be further from the truth!

Every little thing a partner does to make the laboring woman more comfortable matters immensely. Every sip of water offered, every new position suggested, every word of encouragement, every reminder to breathe, every single touch, provides comfort to the laboring woman. And partners need to know this and believe in the power that their undivided attention and connection can bring to the laboring woman.

Here's why I think the findings from this latest study are so important—it's that feeling of shared empathy between the laboring woman and her partner that causes the physiological coupling and pain relieving effects that help a woman when she's experiencing pain.

That's why I've always told the partners in my classes that even if they hired an army of the world's greatest labor doulas, their unwavering, focused and empathetic attention during birth, is the reason why she'll tell everyone that she couldn't have made it through labor without her partner! Even if all they did was hold her hand.

It's a conundrum many parents wrestle with: We don't want to lie to our kids, but when it comes to Santa, sometimes we're not exactly giving them the full truth either.

For Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard, lying to daughters Lincoln, 5, and Delta, 3 just isn't an option, so everyone in the Bell-Shepard household knows the truth about Santa.

"This is going to be very controversial," Shepard told Us Weekly earlier this month. "I have a fundamental rule that I will never lie to them, which is challenging at times. Our 5-year-old started asking questions like, 'Well, this doesn't make sense, and that doesn't make sense.' I'm like, 'You know what? This is just a fun thing we pretend while it's Christmas.'"

According to Shepard, this has not diminished the magic of Christmas in their home. "They love watching movies about Santa, they love talking about Santa," Shepard told Us. "They don't think he exists, but they're super happy and everything's fine."

Research indicates that Shepard is right—kids can be totally happy and into Christmas even after figuring out the truth and that most kids do start to untangle the Santa myth on their own, as Lincoln did.

Studies suggest that for many kids, the myth fades around age seven, but for some kids, it's sooner, and that's okay.


Writing for The Conversation, Kristen Dunfield, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Concordia University, suggests that when kids come to parents with the hard questions about Santa, parents may feel a bit sad, but can take some comfort in "recognizing these challenging questions for what they are—cognitive development in action."

Kids aren't usually the ones who are upset when they figure it out, researchers note. Typically, kids are kind of proud of themselves for being such great detectives. It's the parents who feel sadness.

Some parents may not choose to be as blunt as Shepard, and that's okay, too. According to Dunfield, if you don't want to answer questions about Santa with 100% truth, you can answer a question with a question.

"If instead you want to let your child take the lead, you can simply direct the question back to them, allowing your child to come up with explanations for themselves: "I don't know, how do you think the sleigh flies?" Dunfield writes.

While Dax Shepard acknowledges that telling a 3-year-old that Santa is pretend might be controversial, he's hardly the first parent to present Santa this way. There are plenty of healthy, happy adults whose parents told them the truth.

LeAnne Shepard is one of them. Now a mother herself, LeAnne's parents clued her into the Santa myth early, for religious reasons that were common in her community.

"In the small Texas town where I grew up, I wasn't alone in my disbelief. Many parents, including mine, presented Santa Claus as a game that other families played," she previously wrote. "That approach allowed us to get a picture on Santa's lap, watch the Christmas classics, and enjoy all the holiday festivities so long as we remembered the actual reason for the season. It was much like when I visited Disney World and met Minnie Mouse; I was both over the moon excited and somewhat aware that she was not actually real."

No matter why you want to tell your children the truth about Santa, know that it's okay to let the kids know that he's pretend. Kristen Bell's kids prove that knowing the truth about Santa doesn't have to make Christmas any less exciting. Pretending can be magical, too.

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