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It all started the night I switched off the baby monitor. Oliver had been born early, and we spent eight months dealing with colic, reflux, and an underweight baby. Exhaustion did not describe it. I was the walking dead…when I could walk.


The little screamer had yet to sleep for more than 45 minutes at a time. Because of his low birth weight I wanted to get every drop of milk into him that I could, ignoring the fact that he would spew it out in his version of the Exorcist. I never missed a mew or a wail that might signal his hunger. Night and day I was sitting vigil to feed him. To my new mother brain hunger equaled death.

After months and months of this I realized that MY death might be approaching faster than his.

In one moment of clarity in the mushy mess of my brain, I realized that my proactive stance towards feeding might not be serving either of us. We both needed to sleep. So I unplugged the mechanical tether of the monitor and slept for 6 hours. I told myself that if he really needed me I would hear him down our short hallway. I’m not sure how many of those six hours Oliver slept, but he was less fussy the next day and then less and less with each day that followed.

This was when I learned the power of procrastination in parenting. My vigilance was fueling excessive worry, contributing to a negative cycle of sleeplessness, and taking away my kid’s chance to self-soothe. Luckily my husband agreed to try to work together to work less.

Ten years later we have a lengthy list of concerns that cleared themselves up with our concerted lack of intervention.

Reversing b’s and d’s – Of course there are many learning differences that can benefit from early identification. In our case our son’s teacher never mentioned it, so we didn’t either. One bay he knew how to write day, and that was the end of that.

Suffering from a clogged tear duct – The pediatrician suggested we press our pointer finger against my older son’s eye multiple times a day. We did it multiple times period. I’m not sure when the clog ended, but it did. I’d say it was a relief, and maybe it was to our toddler, but it was out of sight out of eye for my husband and me.

Holding up an oversized head – It wasn’t news to me that my younger son had a huge head. Off the charts, the doc told me with a smile. My mother was there for the checkup and managed to ask about our friendly bobble head for the next few years. Those repetitive conversations were the only time his head entered mine. Now he is proportional.

Wetting the bed – This one brought on a little more angst than the others. Our boy worried about it himself, so we did think and talk about this problem more than most of the bumps of boyhood. However, we didn’t restrict his water or buy the alarming sheets. We were confident he would outgrow it. He did. And we never had to treat it like a problem viewing it instead as a natural difference in speed of maturity.

Eating selectively – The reverberations of the reflux continued into Oliver’s early years. What I learned is that a child can grow and thrive on Pirate Booty, a glass of milk and a daily vitamin. Now he eats cabbage and pulled pork, broccoli and tacos. He welcomes protein and vegetables in all textures and colors. We never made food a battle. Despite his smaller size he was following his growth curve and had energy and a healthy attitude. We let that be our guide rather than the diversity of his plate.

Having almost no friends – This was tough to ignore. Yet we did. We never forced playdates or signed him up for teams. We allowed Leo to skip birthday parties as long as he offered a polite and timely decline to the host. As it turns out he now has loads of friends and invitations, he pops by neighbor’s houses and welcomes them in when they stop by ours. Without the awkward scaffolding that inserts a parent directly into his/her child’s social life Leo found his way to friends and can support those relationships solo.

Stuttering – There are many cases of speech differences that require a proactive approach. Our older son had a recurring and remitting stutter. We did consult with some speech-language pathologists informally and followed their advice about noticing and remarking on the times that he had “smooth speech.”  We also made sure to stop other conversations and give him our attention when he was struggling though sentences. It was minor and mellow and after three years of bumpy speech his stutter has been gone for the following four.

Waking at night nightly – Instead of drawing a hard line with the boys we allowed them to make “little beds” on our floor with their pillows and blankets.  After just a few nights of this they realized their own beds were cozier than our hardwood floor. They began to put themselves back to bed after a quick kiss. Now we don’t see them between 9pm-7am. Unless there is a stomach bug. But that is another issue.

Never wanting to leave the house – We did worry a bit about this. Our younger son would sabotage our family outings with resistance in the form of tantrums. He was a flopping fish, a stubborn mule, a screaming hyena. Finally, we just left him behind. At first we were hesitant, we worried that we were “rewarding” his bad behavior. It didn’t take long, though. A few missed adventures while he stayed home with a sitter, and he was opting in.

Not knowing how to hug or kiss – For a few years we contemplated the possibility that our son might be on the autism spectrum. He needed to be prompted to hug and kiss. He was a limp noodle in our arms, and his kiss was a dim press of his lips soundlessly against our cheeks. After setting aside our disproportionate worry, we simply modeled the hugs and kisses that we wanted to give him. And eventually we received them in kind.

Having a floor made of dirty clothes – After a renovation I wondered why we refinished our sons’ floors. They weren’t visible anyways. I spent my childhood being nagged to pick up my room and clearly remembered pretending I couldn’t hear my mother as she called up the stairs to get my attention. It was likely I was being taken to task for skipping my tasks. Steve and I vowed not to do this with our kids. Following the Parenting On Track philosophy, we simply acted out the natural consequence of no place to step and stopped entering their rooms. No tucking in. No good night kisses. We did less, and they did more. Now it is only yesterday’s outfit on the floor.

Of course, we have had some fails….Leo limped around on a broken femur for three days while we assumed it was a self-healing sprain. Perhaps a bit of proactivity would have helped here, but in the end we suffered only from a bit of guilt not a gimpy kid.

What about you?

What don’t you do?

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Unstructured play is play without predetermined rules of the game. There are no organized teams, uniforms, coaches or trainers. It is spontaneous, often made-up on the spot, and changeable as the day goes on. It is the kind of play you see when puppies chase each other around a yard in endless circles or a group of kids play for hours in a fort they created out of old packing boxes.

Unstructured play is fun—no question about it—but research also tells us that it is critically important for the development of children's bodies and brains.

One of the best ways to encourage unstructured play in young children is by providing open-ended toys, or toys that can be used multiple ways. People Toy Company knows all about that. Since 1977, they've created toys and products designed to naturally encourage developmental milestones—but to kids, it all just feels like play.

Here are five reasons why unstructured play is crucial for your children—

1. It changes brain structure in important ways

In a recent interview on NPR's Morning Edition, Sergio Pellis, Ph.D., an expert on the neuroscience of play noted that play actually changes the structure of the developing brain in important ways, strengthening the connections of the neurons (nerve cells) in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain considered to be the executive control center responsible for solving problems, making plans and regulating emotions.

Because unstructured play involves trying out different strategies without particular goals or serious consequences, children and other animals get to practice different activities during play and see what happens. When Dr. Pellis compared rats who played as pups with rats that did not, he found that although the play-deprived rats could perform the same actions, the play-experienced rats were able to react to their circumstances in a more flexible, fluid and swift fashion.

Their brains seemed more "plastic" and better able to rewire as they encountered new experiences.

Hod Lipson, a computer scientist at Cornell sums it up by saying the gift of play is that it teaches us how to deal with the unexpected—a critically important skill in today's uncertain world.

2. Play activates the entire neocortex

We now know that gene expression (whether a gene is active or not) is affected by many different things in our lives, including our environment and the activities we participate in. Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., a Professor at the University of Washington studied play in rats earning him the nickname of the "rat tickler."

He found that even a half hour of play affected the activity of many different genes and activated the outer part of the rats' brains known as the neocortex, the area of the brain used in higher functions such as thinking, language and spatial reasoning. We don't know for sure that this happens in humans, but some researchers believe that it probably does.

3. It teaches children to have positive interaction with others

It used to be thought that animal play was simply practice so that they could become more effective hunters. However, Dr. Panksepp's study of play in rats led him to the conclusion that play served an entirely different function: teaching young animals how to interact with others in positive ways. He believed that play helps build pro-social brains.

4. Children who play are often better students

The social skills acquired through play may help children become better students. Research has found that the best predictor of academic performance in the eighth grade was a child's social skills in the third grade. Dr. Pellis notes that "countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less."

5. Unstructured play gets kids moving

We all worry that our kids are getting too little physical activity as they spend large chunks of their time glued to their electronic devices with only their thumbs getting any exercise. Unstructured play, whether running around in the yard, climbing trees or playing on commercial play structures in schools or public parks, means moving the whole body around.

Physical activity helps children maintain a healthy weight and combats the development of Type 2 diabetes—a condition all too common in American children—by increasing the body's sensitivity to the hormone insulin.

It is tempting in today's busy world for parents and kids to fill every minute of their day with structured activities—ranging from Spanish classes before school to soccer and basketball practice after and a full range of special classes and camps on the weekends and summer vacation. We don't remember to carve out time for unstructured play, time for kids to get together with absolutely nothing planned and no particular goals in mind except having fun.

The growing body of research on the benefits of unstructured play suggests that perhaps we should rethink our priorities.

Not sure where to get started? Here are four People Toy Company products that encourage hours of unstructured play.

1. People Blocks Zoo Animals

These colorful, magnetic building blocks are perfect for encouraging unstructured play in children one year and beyond. The small pieces fit easily in the hands of smaller children, and older children will love creating their own shapes and designs with the magnetic pieces.

People Blocks Zoo Animals 17 Piece Set, People Toy Company, $34.99

BUY


This article was sponsored by People Toy Company. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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So many parents wish there was a way we could add more hours to the day. Unfortunately, we're stuck with just 24 of them, but we can try to make the most of the time we've got. One way more and more working mamas are maximizing the time we do have is by cutting out the commute and working from home.

It can add an hour or two back to your day, and (depending on your hours and circumstances) it can even make childcare arrangements easier. And with more big companies offering legit remote opportunities, it's easier than ever for parents to find these opportunities. As Motherly recently reported, Amazon is on a bit of a remote hiring spree ahead of the holiday season, and it's not the only one.

Williams-Sonoma is currently seeking Seasonal Customer Service Associates to work from home. It is looking for remote workers in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Phoenix, Reno, Tulsa, and near Raleigh, Columbus, Braselton, and Oklahoma City.

These work-from-home positions are part of Williams-Sonoma's plan to hire about 3,500 associates for its Customer Care Centers. The company says a "significant portion of positions" for the Customer Care Centers will be work-from-home. They're looking for remote workers who live no more than an hour and a half away from one of the Customer Care Centers as "on occasion our Work From Home associates must come to the Care Center for meetings and training with advanced notice," the company notes in the job postings.


The positions are very similar to what Amazon is looking for: Basically customer service reps who can take inbound calls to help shoppers with orders, returns and issues with finding products or deliveries of products. Williams-Sonoma is looking for people who can work 30 - 50 hours per week, and the pay is listed at $12 per hour.

Another perk is a 40% discount on most merchandise, which great because the Williams-Sonoma umbrella includes brands like Pottery Barn and West Elm as well.

Sounds like this could be a great gig for a mama with customer service skills and a high-speed internet connection.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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Plenty of modern motherhood paraphernalia was made to be seen—think breastfeeding pillows that seamlessly blend into living room decor or diaper bags that look like stylish purses. The breast pump though, usually isn't on that list.

It's traditionally been used in the privacy of our homes and hotel rooms in the best case scenarios, and in storage closets and restrooms in the worst circumstances. For a product that is very often used by mothers because they need to be in public spaces (like work and school), the breast pump lives a very private life.

Thankfully, some high profile moms are changing that by posting their pump pics on Instagram. These influential mamas aren't gonna hide while they pump, and may change the way the world (and product designers) see this necessary accessory.

1. Gail Simmons 

Top Chef's Gail Simmons looked amazing on the red carpet at the 2018 Emmys, but a few days after the award show the cookbook author, television host and new mama gave the world a sneak peek into her backstage experience. It wasn't all glam for Gail, who brought her pump and hands-free bra along on the big night.

We're thankful to these women for showing that breast pumps belong in public and in our Instagram feeds.

[Update, September 21, 2018: This post was originally published on May 31, 2018, but has been updated to include a recent Instagram post by Gail Simmons.]

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I was feeling off the other day. Something wasn't right, and I couldn't seem to put my finger on it or kick it for that matter. As the day progressed, it didn't get much better. It was a typical day for us, with the usual 2-year-old meltdowns and chaos that happens when you have two babies close in age.

Nothing was out of the norm, but I just wasn't feeling completely like myself. And right after getting my daughters to bed, when I was alone with my thoughts, the feelings intensified. Through the silence, I heard a soft and familiar voice criticizing my mothering, telling me "You don't do anything right." "You are failing your kids."

My anxiety was attacking me, knowing I am weakest on my own. But I knew what I needed to do. So I took out my phone and dialed, listening to the ringing on the other end.

Waiting for the person who always comforts me.

Who always makes everything better.

Who has the magic words when it comes to calming my soul.

"Hi." She answered the phone.

"Hi Mom," I said, as my voice cracked. I can mask my pain for everyone—but her.

"Everything is going to be okay," she reassured me from over the phone as I broke down to her. I hung up feeling so much better. Because—truly—there is nothing in this entire world like a mother's reassurance. I know that not everyone has this kind of relationship with her mother. That, I am indeed one of the lucky ones—but we can all hope to become this for our own children.

And you, mama, contract that magic right when you give birth.

This magic doesn't make you perfect and all-knowing. No, you don't have all the answers. No one has that. You just need to be you—your sweet baby's mama. That title comes with that last push or lift out of the womb. It could also come if your baby is handed over through adoption or surrogacy.

It doesn't matter the means, the magic comes the second your baby is placed into your arms. It comes with a force so strong it leaves a mark on your heart. It transforms you into a mother. You are enough just by being that person who opens her arms and accepts this baby as yours forever.

Your soft-skinned newborn is placed on your chest, shrieking, tears dripping down her cheeks and onto her pout. The little muscles in her chin trembling with such force, her face is on the verge of turning bright red. Then you cuddle her close and feed her. "Everything is going to be okay." She finds peace in the warmth of your body, her skin on your skin.

There is nothing like a mother's reassurance.

When your baby becomes a toddler, and he falls and gets his first scrape, screaming, because it's a new kind of painful sensation—an open wound. "Everything is going to be okay," you say to slow his tears and scoop him up into your arms. You clean that scratch out and apply Neosporin.

You put a Band-Aid on, sealed with a kiss, and wipe away his tears. You will always be there to pick him up when he falls—literally, now...and figuratively, in the future when he is grown.

There is nothing like a mother's reassurance.

When she goes to her first day of preschool, and you have to separate from each other. She cries as you hold your tears back, as you assure her, "Everything is going to be okay. Mommy always comes back." And of course, you do, and you hold onto those words yourself—repeating them to stay strong.

Because when you are together, everything is right again. You let her go because it's the right thing to do.

There is nothing like a mother's reassurance.

When he gets his heart broken for the first time, he will feel like the only person that truly knew him has abandoned him. He'll feel as if he will never find that again. He may not have the proper coping mechanisms yet to deal with that level of pain.

He comes to you in tears over losing the love of his life. You comfort him and assure him "Everything is going to be okay." Because you know this as fact because he is the love of your life. And, one day, if he has a child—he will feel the same way.

There is nothing like a mother's reassurance.

When life kicks her in the rear-end. When she is struggling to find her place in this wild world, feeling so alone. When she needs support. She doesn't ask you directly, but your mom intuition whispers to you, pulling on that mark on your heart, and so—you make the call.

"Everything is going to be okay," you say into the phone. The sky won't fall and Chicken Little will not witness the world ending because she can't figure it all out right this second. Finding her place in this world will take time, but it will happen. Right now, and for always, you are her safe place, her landing pad.

One day our babies may have babies of their own. When they are sad they will say, "Everything is going to be okay."

They will know that sometimes all our children need is reassurance from us—their safe place. Their soul-soother. Their heart.

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