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It's no secret that teaching a child to read is a pretty big deal. Research has proven again and again that children who grasp early literacy skills by the end of first grade become strong readers for the rest of their lives, while those who struggle early on continue to do so throughout their schooling. So, no pressure, right?


This is exactly why, when it came time to choose a focus for my career in education, I opted for the upper elementary grades. Multiplying fractions? Thesis statements? Identifying the author's purpose? Those I can handle. Reading? No, thank you.

But as the mom of two preschoolers, early literacy skills are back on the table now.

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Last year, I sat across from my son's preschool teacher as she calmly shrugged and told me that he wasn't yet showing interest in letter recognition nor writing his own name. On the surface, I copied her even, close-mouthed smile and nodded as she assured me that this was not unusual for a boy his age. On the inside, I felt my heart pound while I mentally outlined the things I should have been doing at home to encourage his early literacy.

A year later, though, with no interventions from me or his teacher, my son began to write his name and became obsessed with letters, letter sounds and letter recognition. He just needed the time and space to come to this understanding himself.

We were lucky that his fall birthday meant he narrowly missed the kindergarten cut off and had an extra year in preschool. We were lucky he was given the time and space to come to his own understanding in his own time.

But what happens when time and space aren't available? What happens when children in kindergarten are pushed towards early reading, even if they are not developmentally ready?

A 2010 article in the Harvard Education Letter points out that modern children are still meeting developmental milestones at the same ages as children studied in the 1920s. That is, children's abilities have not changed over the past century. The educational standards they're held to have, however.

With the introduction of Common Core Standards, kindergarteners are now required to read, write and even participate in research projects. This is a stark contrast to the play-based kindergarten of the 1980s. Is the emphasis on sight word memorization and explicit reading instruction misguided?

A new study seems to point to yes.

Published in the January 2017 issue of the journal Developmental Psychology, the study concludes that the most valuable early literacy skill to encourage in kindergarten is neither alphabetic knowledge nor memorization of key sight words. In fact, it's not a reading skill at all.

The best indicator of future success as a reader is actually a child's ability to use invented spelling as he writes.

Researchers assessed 171 kindergartners on measures of oral vocabulary, alphabetic knowledge, letter-sound association, word reading and invented spelling. The same students were assessed a year later, and modeling revealed a causal relationship between invented spelling and increased literacy skills.

Simply put, children who used invented spelling developed stronger reading skills over time, regardless of their existing vocabulary, alphabetic knowledge, or word reading skills.

So, what exactly is invented spelling?

Invented spelling refers to a young child's beginning attempts to spell words. Using what they know and understand about letters and writing, children who use invented spelling are encouraged to create their own spellings based on their own phonetic knowledge. As their phonetic knowledge grows, their invented spellings become more and more similar to actual word spellings.

For example, a very young child might begin writing words by using a series of non-letter scribbles. As that child progresses, he or she will begin to use random letters, and then consonants consistent with the first sound in a word. Eventually, the child will grasp both the first and last sounds, and finally the vowels or other syllables in between.

A child writing the word PEOPLE might progress from random scribbles to:

P

PPL

PEPL

PEEPL

PEEPLE

before finally reaching PEOPLE.

A recent article in Psychology Today underlines the importance of this process, pointing out that “reflection about how to spell a word allows the child to actively practice making decisions, rather than passively memorizing." In this way, students internalize letter-sound associations rather than simply attempting to memorize the rules as instructed.

How can we help our children develop this integral skill?

To encourage development and progression of invented spelling, children should simply be encouraged to write. While writing has previously been thought of as a skill separate from reading, and one that can only be applied once a child has a basic grasp on reading, the new study suggests that writing and reading skills emerge concurrently, and that reading may actually rely more heavily on writing, rather than vice versa.

Dr. J. Richard Gentry, who writes the column Raising Readers, Writers, and Spellers for Psychology Today, suggests that children should be allowed the time and space to piece together invented spellings using their own knowledge of letters and sounds. Gentry then suggests that “having the child read back his or her own writing in conventional English written by the teacher [or parent] integrates the child's invented spelling into a reading and fluency lesson."

In other words, rewriting what the child has written, and allowing them to read it again will help deepen their understanding of the letters and sounds used.

So, the next time you're tempted to correct your young child's spelling, instead encourage him or her to read back what has been written and praise the attempt.

From time to time, rewrite the sentence in conventional spelling for your child to read back to you, but don't make a big deal out of pointing out the differences or correcting the misspellings. The key is for your child to internalize the letter-sound associations as he or she learns to write.

With a solid understanding of how letters and sounds combine to make words, your child will be on the path to reading success.

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Pop quiz, mama! How many different types of car seats are there? If you guessed three, you're partially correct. The three main types are rear-facing car seats, forward-facing car seats, and booster seats. But then there are a variety of styles as well: infant car seats, convertible seats, all-in-one seats, high-back booster seats, and backless boosters. If you're not totally overwhelmed yet, keep reading, we promise there's good stuff ahead.

There's no arguing that, in the scheme of your baby and child gear buying lifetime, purchasing a car seat is a big deal! Luckily, Walmart.com has everything you need to travel safely with your most precious cargo in the backseat. And right now, you can save big on top-rated car seats and boosters during Best of Baby Month, happening now through September 30 at Walmart.com.

As if that wasn't enough, Walmart will even take the carseat your kiddos have outgrown off your hands for you (and hook you up with a sweet perk, too). Between September 16 and 30, Walmart is partnering with TerraCycle to recycle used car seats. When you bring in an expired car seat or one your child no longer fits into to a participating Walmart store during the trade-in event, you'll receive a $30 gift card to spend on your little one in person or online. Put the money towards a brand new car seat or booster or other baby essentials on your list. To find a participating store check here: www.walmart.com/aboutbestofbabymonth

Ready to shop, mama? Here are the 9 best car seat deals happening this month.


Safety 1st Grow and Go Spring 3-in-1 Convertible Car Seat

walmart-best-baby-carseat

From rear-facing car seat to belt-positioning booster, Grow and Go Sprint's got you covered through childhood. Whether you choose the grey Silver Lake, Seafarer or pink Camelia color palette, you'll love how this model grows with your little one — not to mention how easy it is to clean. The machine-washable seat pad can be removed without fussing with the harness, and the dual cup holders for snacks and drinks can go straight into the dishwasher.

Price: $134 (regularly $149)

SHOP

Baby Trend Hybrid Plus 3-in-1 Booster Car Seat in Bermuda

walmart-best-baby-carseat

When your toddler is ready to face forward, this versatile car seat can be used as a five-point harness booster, a high-back booster, and a backless booster. Padded armrests, harness straps, and seat cushions provide a comfy ride, and the neutral gray seat pads reverse to turquoise for a stylish new look.

Price: $72.00 (regularly $81)

SHOP

Baby Trend Hybrid Plus 3-in-1 Booster Car Seat in Olivia

walmart-best-baby-carseat

Looking for something snazzy, mama? This black and hot pink car seat features a playful heart print on its reversible seat pad and soft harness straps. Best of all, with its 100-pound weight limit and three booster configurations, your big kid will get years of use out of this fashionable design.

Price: $72.00 (regularly $81)

SHOP

Evenflo Triumph LX Convertible Car Seat

walmart-best-baby-carseat

This rear- and forward-facing car seat keeps kids safer, longer with an adjustable five-point harness that can accommodate children up to 65 lbs. To tighten the harness, simply twist the conveniently placed side knobs; the Infinite Slide Harness ensures an accurate fit every time. As for style, we're big fans of the cozy quilted design, which comes in two colorways: grey and magenta or grey and turquoise.

Price: $116 (regularly $149.99)

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Disney Baby Light 'n Comfy 22 Luxe Infant Car Seat

walmart-best-baby-carseat

Outfitted with an adorable pink-and-white polka dot Minnie Mouse infant insert, even the tiniest of travelers — as small as four pounds! — can journey comfortably and safely. This rear-facing design is lightweight, too; weighing less than 15 lbs, you can easily carry it in the crook of your arm when your hands are full (because chances are they will be).

Price: $67.49 (regularly $89.99)

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Graco 4Ever 4-in-1 Convertible Car Seat

walmart-best-baby-carseat

We know it's hard to imagine your tiny newborn will ever hit 100 lbs, but one day it'll happen. And when it does, you'll appreciate not having to buy a new car seat if you start with this 4-in-1 design! Designed to fit kids up to 120 lbs, it transforms four ways, from a rear-facing car seat to a backless belt-positioning booster. With a 6-position recline and a one-hand adjust system for the harness and headrest, you can easily find the perfect fit for your growing child.

Price: $199.99 (regularly $269.99)

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Graco SlimFit All-in-One Convertible Car Seat

walmart-best-baby-carseat

With its unique space-saving design, this 3-in-1 car seat provides 10% more back seat space simply by rotating the dual cup holders. The InRight LATCH system makes installation quick and easy, and whether you're using it as a rear-facing car seat, a forward-facing car seat, or a belt-positioning booster, you can feel confident that your child's safe and comfortable thanks to Graco's Simply Safe Adjust Harness System.

Price: $149.99 (regularly $229.99)

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Graco Snugride Snuglock 35 Platinum XT Infant Car Seat

walmart-best-baby-carseat

Making sure your infant car seat is secure can be tricky, but Graco makes it easy with its one-second LATCH attachment and hassle-free three-step installation using SnugLock technology. In addition to its safety features, what we really love about this rear-facing seat are all of the conveniences, including the ability to create a complete travel system with Click Connect Strollers and a Silent Shade Canopy that expands without waking up your sleeping passenger.

Price: $169.99 (regularly $249.99)

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Graco Snugride Snuglock 35 Elite Infant Car Seat

walmart-best-baby-carseat

With just one click, you can know whether this rear-facing car seat has been installed properly. Then adjust the base four different ways and use the bubble level indicator to find the proper position. When you're out and about, the rotating canopy with window panel will keep baby protected from the sun while allowing you to keep your eye on him.

Price: $129.99 (regularly $219.99)

SHOP

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

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Before becoming a mother, I had a film reel running in my head of the type of mom I would be. I would nurse. I would make organic baby food. I would set strict and loving boundaries: no screens before two, no co-sleeping, binky gone after the first birthday. I laugh as I type this up.

Our son is 14 months old now and he eats store-bought squeeze packs and goldfish crackers, he sleeps in our bed almost every night, he occasionally watches a show when I am overwhelmed and his binky is his best friend.

The mom I thought I would be in my head is not exactly the mom I am when the realities of life set in.

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When it came to breastfeeding, this was something I assumed I would just do. I knew it would initially be something I would have to figure out and learn in the hospital, but after that I thought it would be natural and comfortable. I was not overly concerned. I didn't even take a breastfeeding class. I heard stories of the initial challenges and pains early breastfeeding brought on, but I wrongly assumed that proper latching and sore nipples would be my biggest obstacles to overcome.

I was absolutely unprepared for the anxiety that breastfeeding brought on.

To say I struggled with nursing my son is an understatement. It was a battle I faced every couple of hours. There were tears and frustrations on both of our ends. I blamed it on a lot of external things: tongue tie, nipple shape, extra milk supply. It was so easy for me to externally justify why this breastfeeding thing was so challenging for me.

While some of these reasons may have been true, there was a bigger issue: my own head. Especially when it came to nursing in public, it almost always ended in disaster. My heart rate would increase, my mind began to tell me all types of lies and he would become frantic. My great challenges when it came to nursing went far beyond latching issues. Even an experienced lactation consultant cannot fully diagnose an issue when it has to do with your internal fears and deep insecurities.

This is something that not enough people talk about. I felt extremely alone and isolated in my anxiety with nursing in public.

I frantically Googled all day long in hopes of finding more women that also struggled with feeling uncomfortable feeding their babies in public. But most of my research made me feel like there was something wrong with me. So much of what I read revolved around embracing nursing in public, not even worrying about using a cover, and the pride other moms had in the ability to nurse wherever.

I read these articles and my heart longed to be like them, but I was stuck still feeling incredibly shy when it came to nursing in front of anyone except my husband. What was wrong with me? This is a totally natural thing. All those other moms seem to nurse out in public with such grace and confidence. Why can't I be like them? Why do I have to get so awkward, insecure and unsure? These were my constant thoughts in the early days of nursing.

Breastfeeding, for me, was much more than just learning the basics of how to correctly feed my sweet baby. It was a lesson in confidence. Even more, it was a lesson in embracing the fact that I do things differently. I am a slow learner. It takes me a while to warm up. I need time. I am shy, modest and slightly insecure. I so wish I could go back and fill those early months with more grace and patience. I wish I could tell myself it would be okay and that I would get there.

I did get there, eventually. I went from needing to find a hiding place each time my baby became hungry to nursing with confidence wherever we were: the park, the beach, an airplane. Part of this growth came from my son's own development, but a large part of overcoming the deep anxiety I once had was learning to be confident as a mom.

It took me a while to fully feel like I was made to be a mom. I had so much self-doubt and insecurity, which ultimately got in the way of something as natural as feeding my baby. I felt like everyone's eyes were on me when I attempted to nurse in public. I made up so many lies about what they thought about me. It's sad to admit, but when I breastfed in public, I was more concerned with how others perceived me than just focusing on my baby.

As I gained confidence in motherhood, my care in how others perceived me slowly lessened. My focus was finally on where it needed to be: my baby.

Gaining the confidence to nurse in public definitely did not happen overnight. It was a long and slow process. There was not one thing that suddenly granted me with courage. It was many little wins that overtime allowed me to be the mother I pictured I would be. The one that nursed her baby with grace and confidence wherever she may be.

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Words are so powerful and so are images. That's why photographer Melanie Paterak combined the two in her now-viral portrait series, "Positive Words."

In a series of stunning photographs, Paterak shows mothers who have suffered a loss holding a chalkboard with the worst and best things people said to them in the wake of pregnancy and infant loss.

"We titled this project 'Positive Words' in hopes of not only putting out there what stuck with us in a negative way, but what stuck with us in giving us hope. The images in color represent things said that gave us hope in the darkest days," she explains, while the black and white images represent comments that pushed grieving moms further into the darkness.

"She's in a better place" 

"I want people to see that we completely understand that during a time of loss, people are generally not sure what to say. Sometimes you can have the best of intentions, but when you're hurting, things may be interpreted differently than how you meant them," Paterak tells Mother.ly.

In one image a woman holds a chalkboard with the words, "She's in a better place," followed by her own thought when she heard that comment: "Was I not good enough?"

The series reminds us that sometimes well-meaning comments can do more harm than good.

So how can we be more mindful when trying to comfort someone who has suffered a loss? Paterak's participants suggest focusing on the present and the positive.

"I want people to see that we completely understand that during a time of loss, people are generally not sure what to say. Sometimes you can have the best of intentions, but when you're hurting, things may be interpreted differently than how you meant them," Paterak explains.

"She is beautiful"

The same participant who was told her baby was in a better place was also told that her stillborn baby was beautiful and that was the comment she held onto.

It was about the present moment, not about trying again, and it focused on her baby in a positive way. By paying her baby a compliment the person who uttered the words on this chalkboard helped this mother hold onto her positive memory of her baby girl, who she carried for 36 weeks and 3 days and who was perfect.

Paterak is proud of the project and the women who participated in it. This photoshoot almost didn't even happen, she tells Motherly. "We started planning this project a month or so before shooting it, and then most of the women canceled less than 48 hours before we were set to shoot. I posted to my Portraits By Melanie [Facebook} page with 24 hours to go that we needed women to come, and they did! I met many of them for the first time that day. It was a powerful thing. We cried together, we hugged, and we talked about our experiences of loss."

Her advice to anyone who wants to offer kind words to someone going through pregnancy or infant loss: "Sometimes a simple 'I'm here for you' is just best."

More portraits from "Positive Words" by Melanie Paterak

"At least you're still young...you can try again," someone told this mother. Being told that they could "try again" was common for the participants in the project, and most found that comment was not comforting, but dismissive of their very real feelings of loss.

To see the full project visit Portraits by Melanie on Facebook.

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For most English, Australian or Canadian parents the cost of healthcare doesn't add any weight to the mental load of parenthood. But for Americans the cost of healthcare is top of mind all the time and it is weighing mothers down.

As Motherly previously reported, the cost of medical care in America means some mothers go into debt for giving birth and it was a hot topic on Twitter last week after Elizabeth Bruenig, an opinion writer at The Washington Post, tweeted a photo of her $8,000 birth bill.

Parents flooded Twitter with stories of shocking hospital bills, and politicians took notice of the viral moment, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez retweeting Bruenig and Senator Bernie Sanders tweeting that the average cost of childbirth in the United States is $32,000, a number he hopes to reduce to zero with Medicare for All.

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Bruenig was happy to see politicians taking note of the stories flooding her mentions. "I think the response indicates that lots and lots of parents experience anxiety and stress over this particular set of costs. And I'm definitely heartened by the response from politicians like AOC and Bernie. I think hospital bills are some of the most politically interesting documents of our era, and I'm glad to see them getting attention as we debate how to fix our broken healthcare system," she explained in a statement to Motherly.

Over the weekend Sanders continued the online conversation by posing a question: "What's the most absurd medical bill you have ever received?"

Many of the stories in those replies were horrifying, and the stories of the financial costs associated with pregnancy and infant loss proves how there is no room for compassion in the current system, and how grieving parents are burdened by bills that take a toll not only on their bank accounts, but on their mental health.

The stories are similar to one shared recently by Business Insider's Dave Mosher. He tweeted the receipts for his family's both costs, which came in at more than $54,000, despite it being a healthy pregnancy and uncomplicated delivery, according to Mosher.

Dr. Jen Gunter, a social-media savvy OB-GYN who's been called "Twitter's resident gynecologist," replied to Sen. Sanders with her own personal story showing that even those who work within and understand the system can be blindsided by hospital bills—and that even a small bill can be devastating.

Years ago Gunter gave birth to three sons, triplets. It's a heartbreaking story Gunter has recalled on her blog, in her book and in a recent piece for the New York Times. Only two of her three boys lived. The oldest, Aiden, was born 24 days before his brothers, at a gestational age which his parents and medical team knew he could not survive.

"As Aidan's parents we had decided that invasive procedures, like intravenous lines and a breathing tube in a one-pound body, would be pointless medical care. And so, as we planned, Aidan died," Gunter wrote in the Times.

This weekend on Twitter Gunter explained what happened when she was finally discharged from the hospital after her traumatic births. "When I got home this $600 bill came for Aidan. It was addressed to "Parent of Aidan XXX"...and for a second I thought his death was a dream and I got very hopeful he was alive and then confused. And then very sad," she explained.

She continued: "I had sepsis and was just home maybe 3 days. My other two were in the NICU. I really thought for a moment he was alive. Sigh."

The $600 wasn't insurmountable, but it wasn't a fair amount as her son did not get medical care. Soon Gunter was on the phone, arguing with her own hospital with people who "didn't believe me that I let him die without medical care."

This was before Twitter, so she "wrote a very threatening e-mail to the hospital CEO" and threatened to go to the newspaper.

Aiden's brothers are in high school now, Twitter is a thing and their mom is an internet star. So much has changed in the years since his death, but sadly, the medical system that burdens and bankrupts Americans has not.

We are grateful to high-profile women like Bruenig and Gunter for sharing their birth bill stories. Birth should not bankrupt parents, and grieving parents should not be burdened by bills reminding them of their loss. New mothers have so much to think about, the cost of healthcare should not be one of them.

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News

How well do you really know your mom friends? The question sounds like the ominous introduction to a Dateline special. But it's one I had to start asking myself recently as I discovered the true identities of some of the women in my innermost circle.

I talk to my mom friends constantly, whether through group texts that number in the gazillion range, at book club meetings where the books never actually emerge from our bags or while juggling kids on the playground/birthday party/swimming pool circuit. We talk about parenting quite a bit, of course, but we also branch out to the other relationships in our lives, our current jobs or hobbies, and important discussions about global politics and Big Little Lies.

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What's missing, I've come to realize, is in-depth conversations about our "pre-mom" selves. Sure, there's the offhand tidbit here or there—a reference to one mom's years of ballet in the context of her own child beginning lessons, or an admission that another mom used to spend hours making gourmet meals before she birthed children who only eat chicken nuggets.

For most of us, this gap in our personal histories isn't intentional; some of those topics just haven't come up. The question I have now is: Why not?

My family recently joined forces with another family from our kids' school for a weekend getaway near our Northern California home. I count the other mom as one of my nearest-and-dearest mom friends, and yet I was shocked to find out over dinner one night that she was an accomplished actress and singer before pivoting to the healthcare field in her late 20s (the career she had recently left when we first met in our 30s). I had no clue.

Naturally, I immediately demanded to hear her sing, and the result blew me away—actual tears, and I don't even cry at This Is Us. It was a revelation that made me wonder what other talents, achievements and fun facts I had yet to discover about the moms around me.

Before kids, I had a very different standard for what defined a "close friend." The idea that I might call someone a good friend and not know all her siblings' names, her college major or her natural hair color seemed preposterous. But then I became a mom, and those details were overshadowed by information that relates either directly or indirectly to people's kids ("Do you work right now?" "Do you have relatives in the area?" "Do you have any clue how to raise happy, well-adjusted human beings and send them out into the world?").

I don't feel in any way less close to my newer friends than I do to the friends I made before I had kids—they are both vital to my sanity—but it's a different kind of closeness. One set of friends is intimately linked to my present, day-to-day existence (they just get it), while the other might know less about my everyday life but perhaps also sees me more three-dimensionally.

As I cried my way through a recording of my friend's singing the other day, it occurred to me that there doesn't have to be such a large gap between these two types of friendship. There isn't always time to dig deeper into the pasts of my mom friends, but when those quieter moments do arise, I'm going to try to remember to ask more questions that have nothing to do with our present selves and our identities as parents.

The moms I know amaze me already. I can't wait to learn more about the women behind the moms.

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