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Modern parents are repeatedly told that their stress has a lasting effect on their children’s development.


For example, this Daily Beast post, alarmingly titled “Stressed Parents Scar Their Kids:

“…when parents are under emotional, financial, or other forms of stress, it can alter their children’s patterns of genetic activity at least through adolescence and perhaps longer. And since some of the altered genes shape brain development, the effects of parental stress might permanently wire themselves into children’s brains.”

Or this Forbes article, “How Parents’ Stress Can Hurt A Child, From The Inside Out:”

“…there’s a small but intriguing body of evidence suggesting that beyond a child’s disposition, a parent’s stress level can affect a child’s very makeup, including his or her risk of mood disorders, addiction, and even disorders like ADHD and autism.”

Headlines claiming that parental stress “rewires a kid’s DNA” are scary, so they get clicks.

They also get clicks because stress is a fact of life. We’re all dealing with it. In America, 68% of all adults say they’re stressed. Meanwhile, 32% of parents say that their stress levels are extreme.

A 2007 survey of 1,000 from the American Psychological Association found that 90% of kids say they know when their parents are stressed – and it bothers them. It gives them feelings of sadness, worry, frustration, and annoyance.

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But research shows that in normal or even elevated amounts, those typically aren’t “scarring” emotions.

Not all stress is equal.

Headlines like “Stress Has Lasting Effect on Child’s Development” fail to mention the difference between normal and toxic stress.

“Stress is a complex psychobiological process with biological, emotional, mental, and behavioral consequences, all of which influence one another.” – Dr. Ross A. Thompson, Stress and Child Development

In a medical sense, “stress” is the body’s physical response to challenging or negative circumstances. The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child identifies three main types of stress:

Positive stress, which is short-lived, causing minor physiological changes such as heart rate and hormone level. This type of stress is a common part of life.

Tolerable stress, which is more intense but still relatively short-lived. For example, the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, accident, and family disruptions such as separation or divorce.

Toxic stress. Toxic stress can be extremely harmful to children. It comes from intense adverse experiences sustained over weeks, months or years. Abuse, severe household mental illness, deprivation, profound trauma, substance abuse, and neglect can trigger toxic stress. More on toxic stress and children from Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child. 

Parents dealing with normal stress feel guilty, assuming that their elevated stress is as harmful to their kids as toxic stress. But that’s not the kind of stress most parents deal with around their kids.  Statistically, the four most common stressors in parents lives are work, money, family and health.

Science shows that some stress has benefits. 

Researchers are starting to categorize the benefits of “good stress.” As NPR reports,

“… some scientists now argue that our usual narrative of stress — that stress is universally bad for health — is too one-sided and doesn’t reflect the reality that some degree of stress can actually benefit people. Stress isn’t always a bad thing.”

The Stress and Child Development publication from Princeton University describes how “stressful experiences that are mild or moderate, predictable, and of short duration are likely to enhance biological functioning and promote mastery and competence.”

The TED Blog article “Stress as a positive: Recent research that suggests it has benefits,” says that “stress can induce both good and bad habits.” 

Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal shares a fascinating idea: “that the harmful effects of stress may be a consequence of our perception that it is bad for our health.”

Teaching kids about stress is one of the most important responsibilities of parenting.

It’s been shown that “parents play a major role in teaching children about the expression, regulation, and experience of emotion.” (Eisenberg et al., 1998)

By teaching our kids how to manage stress – which is a fact of life – we can give them tools that help them for the rest of their lives.

Mitigating the impacts of stress

The all-consuming nature of stress makes it hard to manage, and even harder to turn into a “teachable moment” for your kids.

In an NPR interview, Dr. Eldar Shafir said that dealing with stress is “like driving on a stormy night. You’re focused completely on the thing that’s capturing your attention right now, and other things get neglected.”

Making it worse, stress is contagious. 17 % of children who say that their parents are always stressed are more likely to say they’re stressed themselves, vs 2% of kids who say their parents are never stressed.

This stress can then create a negative feedback loop between parents and children:

“Parents should be aware that not only do their own emotions and parenting style affect the emotional outcomes of their children, but if they are not aware of how their children’s tempers affect them, they could fall into a spiral of ineffective and indifferent parenting which further contributes to negative behaviors from the children.”  [link]

Episcopal minister and author David Code is well-known for his work on the effects of stress on parents and kids. His insights are useful though he can be a bit alarmist. (For example, I couldn’t find any evidence that normal parental stress gives kids ADHD, as he mentions here.)

He suggests that to deal with stress, parents have to get back to being social. He says, “I have never seen toddlers more satisfied or happy or fulfilled than when their parents are blabbing away with each other or with friends on the couch.”

Surveys also show that most people socialize to relieve stress.

Meanwhile, in this NPR Health articleDr. Robert Waldinger recommends exercise. He says, “If you could give one magic pill that would improve physical health, mood, reduce weight,” this would be it. For stress relief and antidepressant effect, 30 minutes is enough. More on fast stress relievers for parents.

Comforting kids in times of stress has measurable benefits for them.

As this Harvard article makes clear, “If at least one parent or caregiver is consistently engaged in a caring, supportive relationship with a young child, most stress responses will be positive or tolerable.”

Meanwhile, “Children who have the support of caregivers manage more successfully than children who must rely on their own resources alone.”  – Stress and Child Development

Other studies show:

“Supportive responses by parents invite children to explore their feelings by encouraging the child to express emotions or helping the child understand and cope with an emotion-eliciting situation.” (Eisenberg et al., 1998; Fabes, Poulin, Eisenberg, & Madden-Derdich, 2002).

“Supportive parental responses to children’s negative emotions have been found to be related to aspects of emotional and social competence including children’s emotion understanding and friendship quality.”(McElwain, Halberstadt, & Volling, 2007).

Even in situations of toxic, chronic stress  “the neurobiological response to chronic stress can be buffered and even reversed” with the care of an adult, writes Ross A. Thompson.

In those toxic situations, kids don’t “necessarily become immediately hard-wired to create dysfunction that cannot be changed.”

Don’t let headlines about the “dangers of parental stress” stress you out even more.

For most families, the long-term impact of normal and even elevated parental stress on kids is much more subtle – and much less distressing – than pop-science headlines would have us believe.

These articles tap into parental guilt (and societal blame) about how the stressful, modern work-life balance affects our families. But the shape of modern life itself is stressful.

Parents shouldn’t be blamed for that, nor made to feel that a normal response to stress will damage their kids.

Footnote: The Secret History of Stress 

Did you know that  the “inventor” of the idea of stress, Hans Selye, “was a shill for the tobacco industry?

From NPR:

“… both Selye’s work and much of the work around Type A personality were profoundly influenced by cigarette manufacturers. They were interested in promoting the concept of stress because it allowed them to argue that it was stress — not cigarettes — that was to blame for heart disease and cancer.” [link]

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No kid is born a picky eater, but there are plenty who will give you a run for your money come mealtime. Whether it's a selective eating phase or simply a natural resistance to trying something new, getting your little one to try just.one.bite can be easier said than done.

But sometimes your attitude about eating can make the most impact. A 2017 study found a direct correlation between "mealtime emotional climate" (AKA, how positive meals are for parents and children) and a child's consumption of healthy food―meaning the difference between your child trying their green beans or not could depend on how positive you make the experience.

Not sure where to start?

Here are 10 positive parenting techniques that can help overcome picky eating and lead to more peaceful mealtimes for all.

1. Make them feel special.

Sometimes just knowing you have a special place at the table can help kids eat better. Create a special place setting with dishes just for them.

Try this: We love OXO's Stick & Stay plates and bowls for creating less mess at mealtime. Not only will the kids love the fun colors and designs, but the plates also come with a suction cup base that prevents little hands from knocking plates to the floor (or in your lap). Trust us—we've tried it.

2. Take off the pressure.

OXO Tot's Stick & Stay Suction Plate

Think about it: If someone kept telling you to take one more bite during lunch, how likely would you be to go along without bristling?

Try this: Instead, use the Satter Division of Responsibility of feeding, which lets parents be responsible for what, when, and where feeding happens, while the child is left responsible of how much and whether. Besides promoting a more positive environment at mealtime, this method also boosts your child's confidence and helps encourage better self-regulation of food as they get older.

3. Serve a variety.

OXO Tot's Stick & Stay Suction Divided Plate

It could be that your child is bored with the usual rotation. Keep things interesting by regularly introducing new ingredients, or reworking a familiar ingredient in a new way. The familiar setting might make your child more likely to take a bite without a struggle.

Try this: Sub in spaghetti squash with their favorite pasta sauce, or add in a new veggie to a beloved stir-fry. We love OXO's Stick & Stay Divided Plate for creating a "tasting menu" of new flavors for little ones to pick and choose or using the center spot for an appetizing dip.

4. Don't bargain or negotiate.

Many kids resist trying new foods or eating at all because it gives them a sense of control over their lives. By resisting an ingredient―even one they have tried and liked in the past―they are essentially saying, "You're not the boss of me."

Try this: Instead of resorting to bargaining tactics like, "Just take one bite!" or "You can have dessert if you try it!" lower the pressure with a neutral statement like, "This is what we're having for dinner tonight." There's no argument, so you avoid tripping their "Don't tell me what to do!" sensor.

5. Serve meals in courses.

Even adults are more likely to eat something when they're really hungry. When their tummies are rumbling, kids will usually put up less of a fight even when they're uncertain about a new ingredient.

Try this: Serve up vegetables or other new foods as an "appetizer" course. That way, you won't have to stress if they don't fill up because you can follow up with food you know they'll eat.

6. Make it a game.

The fastest way to get a toddler on board with a new idea is to make it more fun. Turn your kitchen into an episode of Top Chef and let your little one play judge.

Try this: Use each compartment of the Stick & Stay Divided Plate for a new ingredient. With each item, ask your child to tell you how the food tastes, smells, and feels, ranking each bite in order of preference. Over time, you just might be surprised to see veggies climb the leaderboard!

7. Get them involved in cooking.

You've probably noticed that toddlers love anything that is theirs―having them help with preparing their own meals gives them a sense of ownership and makes them more likely to try new ingredients.

Try this: Look for ways to get those little hands involved in the kitchen, even if it means meal prep takes a bit longer or gets a bit messier. (We also love letting them help set the table―and OXO's unbreakable plates are a great place to start!) You could even let your toddler pick the veggie course for the meal. And if your child asks to taste a raw fruit or vegetable you planned to cook, go with it! Every bite counts as training that will ultimately broaden their palate.

8. Cut out unstructured snacking.

Not surprisingly, a hungry kid is more likely to try new foods. But if your toddler had a banana and a glass of milk (or a granola bar, or a handful of popcorn, or a glass of juice) an hour before dinner, odds are they aren't feeling truly hungry and will be more likely to resist what you serve at mealtime.

Try this: Stick to a consistent eating schedule. If your child leaves the table without eating as much as you think they should, remind them once that they won't be able to eat again until X time―and make good on that promise even if they start begging for a snack before the scheduled meal.

9. Model good eating habits.

Kids may not always do what you say, but they are much more likely to follow a good example. So if you want a child who eats vegetables regularly, you should do your best to fill your own plate with produce.

Try this: Pick a new food the whole family will try in multiple ways each week. For example, if you're introducing butternut squash, serve it roasted, blended in soup, cut up in pasta, as a mash, etc.―and be sure a healthy serving ends up on your plate too.

10. Don't worry about "fixing" picky eating.

OXO Tot's Stick & Stay Suction Bowl

In most cases, children go through relatively consistent eating phases. At age two (when parents tend to notice selectiveness ramping up), growth rates have slowed and most children don't need as much food as parents might think.

Try this: Focus on keeping mealtime positive by providing children with a variety of foods in a no-pressure environment. And remember: This too shall pass. The less stress you put on eating now, the more likely they are to naturally broaden their palates as they get older.


This article was sponsored by OXO Tot. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Learn + Play

It's been less than a year since Olympic skier Bode Miller and his wife, volleyball player Morgan Beck Miller, tragically lost their 19-month-old daughter Emeline Grier after she drowned in a swimming pool. Morgan had just announced a pregnancy a few weeks before losing Emeline, and gave birth to her little brother, Easton Vaughn Rek Miller, back in October.

Now, little Easton is taking Infant Swimming Resource lessons, something his proud mama explained in her Instagram stories this week.

"I cried tears of hope watching my baby boy learning this lifesaving skill," Morgan wrote in a series of Stories explaining that Easton is taking swimming lessons every weekday for 10 minutes.

Since losing Emeline, Morgan has been trying so hard to raise awareness of the fact that drowning is among the leading causes of death in kids under four.

In an interview with the TODAY show last summer the grieving mama asked other families to remember that pool safety isn't just an issue if you have a pool, but if you're visiting anyone who has one. Morgan and her children were visiting friends the day Emeline drowned.

"A child under 30 pounds can drown in 30 seconds. And I just keep counting to 30 in my head. That was all I needed," Morgan said.

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This week she wrote about her gratitude for Infant Swimming Resource lessons, which are designed to give very young children water survival skills. After mentioning how the sight of Easton learning to swim brought her to tears of joy, Morgan wrote: "and then tears of sadness because it was all I had to do to keep my baby girl here."

We hope she's not blaming herself because Emeline's death is so not Morgan's fault—and she's so not alone. That's important to know, and it's also important to know that the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't even recommend swimming lessons until children are a year old.

While ISR lessons like Easton is taking are popular with parents, the AAP states that "there is no evidence to suggest that infant swimming programs for those younger than 1 year are beneficial" when it comes to reducing drowning risks.

Still, parent-and-baby water like Bode and Easton are taking part in can be a fun way to get everyone used to being in pool together and prepare parents and babies for later swimming lessons, which the AAP says can reduce drowning risks.

The AAP wants parents to be aware that swimming lessons at any age can't "drown proof" a child and stresses the importance of constant adult supervision around water (we should always be within arms reach), pool barriers and CPR training for parents.

Tips to reduce the risk of childhood drowning from the AAP:

  1. If you have a pool, install a "4 foot, 4-sided, isolation fence that separates the pool from the house and the rest of the yard with a self-closing, self- latching gate". Also keep "a telephone and rescue equipment approved by the US Coast Guard (eg, life buoys, life jackets, and a reach tool, such as a shepherd's crook)" by the pool.
  2. When visiting a home or business with a pool or hot tub, parents "should carefully assess the premises to ensure basic barriers are in place, such as sliding door locks and pool fences with closed gates in good working order and ensure that supervision will be consistent."
  3. Learn CPR.
  4. During a pool party, parents and adults should take turns tapping in as the "designated watcher" and fully focus on the kids playing in or around a pool.
  5. If swimming at a beach or lake, choose a location with lifeguards and designated areas for swimming.
  6. Teach kids to stay away from bodies of water in all seasons, even winter when they are covered in ice.

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News

Thanks to the phones at our fingertips and the cars on our roads, today human beings can do so much in a day without actually moving very much at all, and we know this is having a negative impact on our health.

The World Health Organization is worried about the sedentary habits of today's children, and this week it released new guidelines suggesting kids under 2 should not have any screen time at all. According to the WHO, infants and 1-year-olds should not have any screen time at all, and 2-year-olds should only have an hour or less per day.

This is in line with the American Academy of Pediatrics' guidelines, which recommend no screen time other than video chatting for children under 18 months, but parents should view these guidelines as part of a bigger picture of childhood health, and not worry too much if their baby has seen a few episodes of Peppa Pig.

While the WHO report spawned a flurry of headlines focused on the elimination of all screen time for infants, the screen time suggestions are just one bit of 17-page report called "Guidelines on physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep for children under 5 years of age".

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This is not so much about taking away screens as it is about adding activity.

"What we really need to do is bring back play for children," says Dr. Juana Willumsen, an expert in childhood obesity and physical activity with the WHO. "This is about making the shift from sedentary time to playtime, while protecting sleep."

So before parents start feeling bad because they've breastfed their baby in front of the TV, or put on some Paw Patrol so that they could load the dishwasher, it's super important to have the full context. Yes, we should limit screen time, but we should also limit all kinds of sedentary time infants and toddlers are spending strapped into strollers, chairs and swings. Lifestyle patterns are established early in life, so we really do want to encourage our kids to move their bodies as much as possible (which will help them get better quality sleep at night).

This is about movement, not about demonizing screen time, and some doctors disagree with the WHO's guidelines, suggesting there should be more room for parental flexibility.

Earlier this year the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) in the UK recently released its first guidance on screen time, which did not take such a black-and-white approach to the issue.

The RCPCH didn't ban screen time for infants or young kids, but rather suggested that parents use their own judgment and take care to support an active lifestyle that values movement, socialization and quality sleep. The organization found it was "impossible to recommend age-appropriate time limits" because "there is not enough evidence to confirm that screen time is in itself harmful to child health at any age."

Basically, the top pediatricians in the UK recognize the need for nuance in the conversation about childhood screen time. We absolutely should not be plopping babies down in front of the TV for 8 hours a day, but don't beat yourself up if you didn't cut the cable the instant your baby was born, mama.

Parenting is about more than following rules—it's about doing what's best for your family. It's important to know why the WHO is making these recommendations so that we can make the best decisions we can, but it's also important to recognize that parenting isn't a one-size-fits-all deal.

For some parents, ditching TV altogether is the best thing for their family.

But if you felt like you had to put on Baby Shark today so that you could drink your coffee in peace, that's okay, too, mama.

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News

Every time Amy Schumer posts something to Instagram we're expecting a birth announcement, but in her latest Instagram post, Schumer let the world know she's still pregnant, and unfortunately, still throwing up.

Schumer made her "still pregnant" announcement in a funny Instagram caption, noting, "Amy is still pregnant and puking because money rarely goes to medical studies for women," suggesting that hyperemesis gravidarum, the extreme form of morning sickness that's seen her hospitalized multiple times during her pregnancy doesn't get as much attention as conditions that impact men.

She's made a joke out of it, but she's not wrong. Gender bias in medical research is very real, and something that the medical community has just recently begun to address.

And while more people suffer from erectile dysfunction than hyperemesis gravidarum, let's consider that five times as many studies are done on erectile dysfunction than premenstrual syndrome (PMS) when about 19% of men are impacted by erectile dysfunction but 90% of women experience symptoms related to PMS.

Schumer's point is important not just for women suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, but for women and vulnerable pregnant people with all sorts of under-studied and under-diagnosed conditions. The United States has the highest rate of maternal deaths in the developed world, and bias in medicine is part of the problem.

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“Brrrr… I guess winter's back!" I awkwardly joked with a mom at preschool pick up today. We'd had a few warm days this week, but March in Wisconsin means that's short-lived, and it was only a matter of time before our 19 degree mornings returned.

She and I were the first ones to arrive, so I saw it as a golden friend-making opportunity for me. Before the other moms came and distracted her with chatter about grabbing coffee and going to yoga and getting their boys together to play. I thought this was my chance to make a bridge.

As the new mom whose family just moved to town, I am not in that circle. My preschool son has no boys to play with, nor do I have a coffee dates lined up, or invites to yoga or to go for a run on warm days.

And that circle—as all women know—can feel like it's impenetrable. Like once it's formed, no one else is allowed in. Being the new mom has me feeling like I'm back in 6th grade. But instead, I'm a grown woman in my 30s.

I don't necessarily think it's intentional, either. Having just left a circle of mom friends back home whom I stood and chatted with and did this very thing with every day for years, I ask myself—did I isolate any new moms? Did I brush off someone who tried to make small talk with me, hoping to make a friend? And I honestly don't know.

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So I don't begrudge the mom circle that stands tightly knit, content with their foursome.

But they hadn't arrived yet today, and I saw my chance. The weather—an easy topic, right? I wasn't coming at her with politics or organic vs. processed foods or vaccines. I chose something easy and non-controversial. Something that wouldn't get me judged. Or get my kids judged as having “that mom."

But, unfortunately, she didn't bite. The one other mom standing with me at preschool pickup at my son's new school just smiled meekly at my generic weather comment, and then turned away.

Okay. I guess that's that, I said to myself.

So, I'm 38 years old. I've done the clique-y girl thing before. I know the game. I know the difference between “Yeah! I know! Brrrr! So you're new, right? Where are you from?" and a fake smile followed by the back of your head. Not interested. I get it.

Up until recently, I didn't really care that I didn't have friends yet. We've been in our new town, new state, new school, and new house for a few months. But honestly, it's only been the past week or two that the feeling of loneliness has hit me a bit. I've been too busy being Mommy.

All of my energy—every waking moment—went to helping my kids adjust. Helping them learn their new school routines. Ensuring they were happy and making new friends. Enrolling them in activities. Learning the bus schedule and memorizing the lunch menu. Figuring out which folder is the reading folder and which is the math folder. Where are the Boy Scouts meetings? Where should my daughter take gymnastics? What baseball team is best for my boys? We needed a pediatrician. And dentist. And eye doctor. And allergist.

On top of focusing on my kids, the last few months were spent researching electricians and plumbers and painters. When does the garbage get picked up and how do we dispose of our Christmas tree? Where can we get good Chinese takeout and get my car washed? Which grocery store has the best deals and where is Costco?

But now, all of a sudden, I feel like my children are all doing okay. The house is organized and we know how things work around here.

And now I've remembered that there is one more person who needs to learn her new world—me. I haven't had a hair cut in months. I don't have a doctor yet. Or a dentist. But most of all, I desperately need some girlfriends.

Maybe not the one who brushed me off at preschool pickup. And that's okay. I've met some friendly moms who've mentioned getting together in passing. I am now navigating that awkward “when is too soon to text and/or friend you on social media so you know I want to be friends but I don't seem stalker-ish" territory.

I guess it never gets easier, this making new friends gig. The one good part, however, of this experience—is that it's given me a glimpse into my children's world. I have gotten a taste of what their first few days were like back in December when we first arrived.

I was so busy unpacking and learning their school schedules and setting up their bedrooms that I didn't take the time to sit in that experience with them. To see it from their perspective.

Now I wonder, was my daughter brushed off by a girl she tried to befriend? Was my son kept out of the circle? I now know, what that must have felt like. And I'm so proud of them for standing tall, walking into their new world, and facing that challenge head on.

We are all going to be okay, though. This is our family adventure—the good and the bad—and we will come out stronger on the other side. We will be better at facing new challenges. We will be experienced at making new friends. And next time there is a new family in town, and the mom asks me how I feel about the weather, I will be ready to give her the response I was hoping for—not the one I got.

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Love + Village
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