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Why kids need unstructured time (especially during the school year)

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The pencils have been purchased, the backpacks are packed, and our kids are officially back at school. Classes are now taking up a big chunk of kids' days, and our days are increasingly filled with school drop-offs, pick-ups and other school-year commitments, not to mention the extracurriculars that are starting to fill up our calendars.

If you find yourself, someday soon, carpooling your kids to gymnastics or soccer after school and missing the lazier, less scheduled vibe of summer break, you might want to consider giving your kids (and yourself) a little bit of a break every day, says Dr. Robert Murray.

He's a pediatrician, lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics' The Crucial Role of Recess, and vice chair of the board of directors of the nonprofit organization Action for Healthy Kids, and he says kids and parents can benefit from scheduling time to simply do nothing.

"We all need to be reminded to slow down, find calm, lower our stress, and 'play' more to find the balance that is so important in our lives," Murray tells Motherly. He doesn't recommend going straight to an after-school activity like ballet or baseball right after school. Instead, Murray says parents should consider 30 minutes of unstructured, nothing-planned time (away from screens).

"Parents are often concerned about their children being bored or 'doing nothing,' however that is often when children are most creative and open to exploring new things," says Dr. Murray, who says parents shouldn't feel the need to influence and control exactly how the kids spend their half hour.

They wanna play basketball, cool. They want to color, cool. This is kid-directed time, and mama doesn't have to get down on the floor and participate in the play for it to be valuable. "While it's important for parents to play with their kids regularly, it's more than okay for kids to play on their own and make their own choices. Both types of play contribute to a strong sense of self among developing children," says Murray.

So consider 3:30 to 4:00pm your coffee break mama, and tell the kids that they've got 30 minutes to just do whatever.

Unstructured time doesn't mean screen time

One caveat to Dr. Murray's advice—unstructured time and screen time are two different things. This 30-minute break is for old-school playing, not for playing on the iPad.

According to a recent survey by GoGo squeeZ, a lot of parents find it tricky to prevent unstructured time from becoming screen-time with 73% of parents surveyed saying that they schedule structured activities for their kids in order to minimize screen time. According to Dr. Murray, filling a kid's schedule with extracurriculars so they won't have time for tablets or TV doesn't give kids the balance they need.

"Excess pre-planned, adult-controlled time hampers children's ability to develop and practice their social skills, problem solving, creativity, and interpersonal communication skills. These are critical life skills," Murray explains.

Getting rid of an extracurricular (or just choosing to sign up for fewer activities this year) doesn't have to mean more time in front of a screen. We can specify that our 30 minutes of what Murray calls "Be Time" is screen-free time, and put away the remotes, phones, tablets and computers. If that's hard to pull off at home, you might want to start with a trip to the park or playground, or another space where your kid can direct their own screen-free play.

"Parents can help provide alternatives to screen time that still allows the time to be unstructured. New environments, such as taking kids to the playground, museum, farm, or other places can help allow kids to find new ways to be creative," says Murray.

Make the most of the moments you do have

Our kids aren't the only ones with jam-packed schedules. As Dr. Murray says, this is kind of a problem for all Americans, regardless of age. So if your own schedule doesn't allow for a 30 minute trip to the playground every day after school, or a half-hour of doing nothing at home before dinner, don't worry.

We can still incorporate elements of unstructured time into our family's schedule by simply letting our kids be kids, even on the days when we are the busy ones.

According to Dr. Murray, this could be as simple as "inviting them to touch and smell interesting fruits or vegetables at the grocery store while running errands with you." Letting our kids interact with their environment and make their own choices can be a bit of a mini-brain break, even on the afternoons when mama's got her own to-do list.

Let go of an after-school activity

If you're already feeling like the school year is off to an over-scheduled start, consider ditching an activity for more unstructured time.

Dr. Murray suggests looking at your child's schedule and ranking extracurricular activities by how happy they make your child. If there's one that your kid only kind of likes, or a sport or class that has them feeling bored or anxious, let it go, and don't feel guilty. "By removing the activities that don't bring your child joy, you can focus on the ones that make them truly happy, including their own personal 'Be time,'" says Murray.

The bottom line

"Parents shouldn't feel like they need to be constantly directing their kids' time," says Dr. Murray, pointing to the American Academy of Pediatrics recent statement on The Power of Play, in which "pediatricians, parents, and care-givers are encouraged to develop opportunities for children to have frequent unstructured time to play."

It's okay (and even beneficial) for our kids to just have some downtime to just be kids, and it's nice for us mamas too.

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While breastfeeding might seem like a simple task, there are so many pieces to the puzzle aside from your breasts and baby. From securing a good latch, boosting your milk supply and navigating pumping at work or feeding throughout the night, there's a lot that mama has to go through—and a number of products she needs.

No matter how long your nursing journey may be, it can be hard to figure out what items you really need to add to your cart. So we asked our team at Motherly to share items they simply couldn't live without while breastfeeding. You know, those ones that are a total game-changer.

Here are the best 13 products that they recommend—and you can get them all from Walmart.com:

1. Medela Nursing Sleep Bra

"This fuss-free nursing bra was perfect for all the times that I was too tired to fumble with a clasp. It's also so comfy that, I have to admit, I still keep it in rotation despite the fact that my nursing days are behind me (shh!)." —Mary S.

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2. Dr. Brown's Baby First Year Transition Bottles

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3. Multi-Use Nursing Cover

"When I was breastfeeding, it was important to me to feel like a part of things, to be around people, entertain guests, etc. Especially since so much of being a new mom can feel isolating. So having the ability to cover up but still breastfeed out in the open, instead of disappearing into a room somewhere for long stretches alone to feed, made me feel better."—Renata

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4. Lansinoh TheraPearl Breast Therapy Pack

"I suffered from extreme engorgement during the first weeks after delivery with both of my children. I wouldn't have survived had it not been for these packs that provided cold therapy for engorgement and hot therapy for clogged milk ducts." —Deena

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5. Medela Quick Clean Breast Pump Wipes

"Being a working and pumping mama, these quick clean wipes made pumping at the office so much easier, and quicker. I could give everything a quick wipe down between pumping sessions. And did not need a set of spare parts for the office." —Ashley

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6. Earth Mama Organic Nipple Butter

"This nipple butter is everything, you don't need to wash it off before baby feeds/you pump. I even put some on my lips at the hospital and it saved me from chapped lips and nips." —Conz

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7. Medela Double Electric Pump

"I had latch issues and terrible postpartum anxiety, and was always worried my son wasn't getting enough milk. So I relied heavily on my breast pump so that I could feed him bottles and know exactly how much he was drinking. This Medela pump and I were best friends for almost an entire year" —Karell

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8. Lansinoh Disposable Stay Dry Nursing Pads

"I overproduced in the first couple weeks (and my milk would come in pretty much every time my baby LOOKED at my boobs), so Lansinoh disposable nursing pads saved me from many awkward leak situations!" —Justine

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9. Haakaa Silicone Manual Breast Pump

"This has been a huge help in saving the extra milk from the letdown during breastfeeding and preventing leaks on my clothes!" —Rachel

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10. Medela Harmony Breast Pump

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12. Lansinoh Breast Milk Storage Bags

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13. Kiinde Twist Breastfeeding Starter Kit

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

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There's nothing more important than the bond between a newborn baby and their parents. And while an emotional bond and attachment between parents and a child happen overs years of development, the first year is the most important because a baby's brain grows most rapidly in the first 12 months of life.

In fact, According to Scientific American, paid parental leave benefits baby's brain development. Research shows infant's brains form up to a thousand new connections per second, but those connections form best when the babies are exposed to the kind of stimulation parents on paid leave can provide.

Every parent in America should have the chance to bond with their newborn child, and America deserves a national paid leave policy that supports families.

While the nation works on a single policy, there are some very special workplaces stepping up to the plate and leading the way when it comes to helping parents do what they do best: parent.

Here are 11 employers who get it.

5. Starbucks

After some employees felt overlooked by Starbucks' previous maternity leave policies, along came the company's VP of global benefits to make things right. In 2017, the coffee giant started offering birth mothers in its corporate offices 18 weeks of paid maternity leave and non-birth parents 12 weeks.

In 2018, they extended it to all retail workers to have six weeks paid leave for a new child. That's where Ron Crawford comes in. Last October, he started the Care@Work initiative, which provides subsidized backup care for children, adults and the elderly. Now, citing the importance of family, the company provides 10 subsidized backup-care days per year, making it one of the largest companies in the country to provide the benefit.

[This post was originally published July 8, 2019. It has been updated.]

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In a now-viral story, the International Cesarean Awareness Network (ICAN) of Huntsville, AL and Exposing the Silence shared that an OB/GYN in Huntsville, AL will no longer allow women to have doulas with them during their birth.

People are outraged, and rightfully so.

Doulas are trained professionals who are hired to provide support to women and families during pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period.

According to this photo, the new policy of Dr. Edith Aguayo of All Women's' Obstetrics and Gynecology states,

"Please let us know if you hire a doula during your pregnancy as Dr. Aguayo has decided not to collaborate with doulas or other lay support. We hope this strengthens the relationship between your physician, hospital care team, and yourself. Please feel free to discuss any questions or concerns at your appointment."

Motherly contacted the office but they declined to comment for this piece.

But the issue goes far beyond this particular office. For starters, this policy disregards evidence-based research which overwhelmingly demonstrates how impactful doulas are. Women with doulas have shorter labors, with fewer interventions (including fewer Cesarean sections), and report more satisfaction with their birth experience overall.

Doulas may also be key in improving the disproportionate rates of maternal morbidity and mortality for black women in the United States.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) supports the use of doulas, writing in a 2018 position statement that, "Evidence suggests that, in addition to regular nursing care, continuous one-to-one emotional support provided by support personnel, such as a doula, is associated with improved outcomes for women in labor."

And, this new policy does not seem to reflect that of Crestwood Medical Center, the hospital where Dr. Aguayo attends births. According to their website, doulas are welcome. "Share your birth plan with us. If you have specific requests or opinions about your care, we'll be happy to do all that we can to help facilitate your labor plans. Crestwood Medical Center's Maternity Center also welcomes birth coaches and doulas."

All of these factors make it hard to understand the reasoning behind Dr. Aguayo's decision.

But it is actually not my intention to admonish this obstetrician or her office for this decision. Negative reviews are pouring in. They are aware that people are angered, and I am sure Crestwood Medical Center is too. Women for whom this policy does not work will transfer their care if they are able, and the doctor and hospital can make a business decision about whether this policy is worth it.

My concern is with the culture that got us here.

The birth culture in this country continually sends women the message that they are not in charge of their births, that birth is somehow owned by care providers or hospitals and not women.

That we need permission to have our desired support team present.

That we have to tolerate mistreatment in labor.

That our self-knowing and intuition are not to be trusted, because obviously, someone else knows what's best for our bodies.

It is evident in the way little policies like this creep up, and glaringly obvious in the way huge disparities in maternal outcomes exist.

So while I am not interested in addressing this particular practice, I am very interested in addressing the people giving birth. If that is you, here is what I want you to know:

Attending your birth is a privilege and an honor. There is this moment just before a baby is born (however a baby is born), that everything goes still with the hushed anticipation of a world about to change. It is a moment so powerful it cannot be described, only felt—and mama, you are at the core of its power. To be in your presence at this moment is a gift, and I am sorry if you have ever been made to feel otherwise.

Please know that this is your body, your baby and your birth. No one can ever take that away from you. Listen to your health care team, because it is their job to keep you safe. But listen to yourself, too. Your intuition is so wise. If it's telling you that you need a doula, find a provider who welcomes them. If it's telling you that something isn't right, keep pressing the call bell until somebody pays attention.

You own your birth. Please don't less the world tell you otherwise.

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If you're at all worried about how to prepare your young child's math skills before school starts, you can relax, mama. Teaching the early fundamentals of math is something you can do just by playing games and pointing out math in everyday life.

"You can be really impactful doing very informal, playful experiences that are math-related," Erica Zippert, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar of developmental science at Vanderbilt University, tells Motherly. "These skills are important because they predict later academic achievement, and not just math domain, but in reading as well...You have to have a strong foundation in math in order to learn more challenging things."

In her research into how parents lay the groundwork for their children's understanding of math, she found that many assume it's just about the numbers and counting. But math is also about patterns, shapes, and spatial relations, which parents might not be consciously teaching to young kids.

"Spatial knowledge is important because it early-stage projects later math," Zippert explains. "There are spatial concepts where you have to be able to juggle a lot of things in your head."

Zippert, along with her postdoctoral advisor Bethany Rittle-Johnson, PhD, are currently looking into why studying patterns early helps kids with math, but she has some theories. "There's something about shared reliance on rules and structure in both math and patterning, the idea of predicting what comes next."

While teaching your children skills is important, you don't have to force your 4-year-old to sit still while you instruct her.

Zippert has found that once parents have these guidelines in their toolkit, they can bring them up in a way that engages their young brains:

1. Play games.

Classic board games, like Chutes and Ladders, and card games like War are perfect for combining number cues with space.

2. Use blocks and puzzles.

This is one of the easiest ways for children to learn spatial dimensions, locations, and directions.

3. Point out numbers, patterns and spatial relationships in everyday life.

Ask your child to fold the laundry with you and arrange the socks in a simple pattern (such as, red, blue, red, blue). Notice the patterns in a nursery rhyme or a song. Talk about the direction you're driving, the spatial features of household objects, and the numbers on street signs.

"There's different little ways to entertain your kid and entertain yourself that can really focus on math," Zippert says.

Parents don't actually have to call these concepts "math." But if they can cultivate a child's curiosity and give them a good introduction to these concepts, they might find themselves with a kid who will enthusiastically embrace that term later in life.

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News

Ashley Graham is having a baby! The supermodel recently shared the exciting news on social media — and it didn't take long for her to make an important statement about pregnant bodies.

Ashley shared a beautiful photo featuring something nearly every woman on the planet has: stretch marks. The photo, which features Ashley nude and seemingly unfiltered, is kind of revolutionary—because while it's completely normal for a woman to have stretch marks (especially during pregnancy), we don't often get to see celebrities rocking this reality on magazine covers or even in social media posts.

That's probably why Ashley, who will welcome her firstborn with husband Justin Ervin, is earning so much praise for the photo, which she posted on Instagram. The images shows the model's side with the caption "same same but a little different".

One follower who is loving this real look at a pregnant body? Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum, who writes "My Lord, THANK YOU for this."

Ashley's post touches another user in an unexpected way: "I'm such a wimp. I'm pregnant, hormonal, and going though so many body changes. This made me tear up. I really needed this today," she writes.

Another user adds: "I showed my husband this photo and he said, 'See! She's just like you' I am almost 21 weeks pregnant and I've been struggling with my changing body. I love how much you embrace it. I've always looked up to you and your confidence. ❤️ Congratulations on your babe!"

Yet another follower adds: "This is what girls need to see. We need this as a reference for real and relatable. Women young and old. Thank you!"

Of course this is social media we're talking about so a few hateful comments make their way into the mix—but Ashley's many advocates shut that down. We have to applaud this stunning mom-to-be for showing the world how pregnancy really changes your body.

Women everywhere can see themselves in this photo of a supermodel (and how often does that happen?). That's powerful stuff—and it just might make it a little bit easier for the rest of us to embrace the changes we see in our own bodies.

One follower sums it all up best, writing: "I CANNOT WAIT for you to be a mother and teach another human being that ALL bodies are beautiful. You're going to be such an amazing mother."

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