Saturday, December 20, 2014

Survival Guide: Activities for Babies in the First Year

Nicolas celebrated his first birthday. If this photo looks a little fuzzy, that's because that is how this little guy was probably feeling. His selfish parents decided to take him on a 10 hour red-eye flight on the eve of his big day. Regardless, we celebrated with lots of naps and a failed attempt at eating a mini-cupcake. Nico's first birthday also means that David and I celebrated our first parenting anniversary. Therefore we are now certified experts on this whole first year of life, infancy phase--right? Maybe not. 
Happy Birthday Nico! Thanks for being such a good travel buddy. 
It wasn't long ago that David and I were staring at each other blankly asking---now what? I could only shake a rattle in Nicolas' face so many times before he was just as tired of it as I was. We quickly knew that we needed some purpose or direction in our interactions with him. Maybe for our sanity more than his. Cuddling with babies never gets old, but let's be honest. Playing with them can be monotonous. 

We know that babies learn through play. As parents, we are their first teachers. It is important that we try to provide some "enriching experiences." So I crafted this list of activities for the first year. I laminated it and put it near his play area so whenever I was feeling uninspired I could grab it quickly for ideas. Almost everything can be done with some objects and items that you have on hand. 

Do you have any good play activities to add to the list? 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Food Pouches: Can they cause picky eating?

I regularly peruse the baby food aisles. How we feed babies with solid food is my area of research. I am infinitely fascinated with the gadgets and food options that are available today. Loadable pacifiers and stands to prop bottles up "hands free" are devices which have recently caught my eye. But the number one product that dominates this market is the pouch.
Some popular organic "green" pouches. How green are they? Stay tuned for a taste test. 
Historically, baby food has been served in small jars with spoons. In the past five or so years, we have seen a rapid influx of food pouches enter the baby food market and beyond (grown-up pouches anyone?). I say "baby" food, but frequently children are consuming these pouches well into elementary school. Due to the fact that pouches are new to the market, we do not have any research on how eating this way may effect eating behavior later in childhood. Let's take a look at some of the factors we should consider when feeding our children pouches. 
As you can see, the baby food aisle at Whole Foods is about 75% pouches.
Preventing Picky Eating: Hiding vegetables isn't the solution.
When it comes to preventing picky eating, we know that exposing kids to a variety of foods, multiple times is necessary to expand their diets. Variety really is the spice of life. When it comes to exposure, it is two-fold: tasting it and seeing it. 

Contrary to popular belief, hiding vegetables in food does not make children more likely to develop health eating behaviors as they grow older. On the flip side, merely putting fresh veggies on the table at dinner exposes children to the sight of them. Visual exposure has been seen to increase vegetable consumption. The more they see it, the more likely they are to eat it. 

So where am I going with this? Food pouches don't allow children to see what they are eating. They do not see the color of the food, let alone what the "whole" food it is made from looks like. Not to mention that exposure to texture is virtually non-existent. While they might get a hint of the flavor in there somewhere, it will not be enough to turn anyone on to blacklisted-veggies. 

Evolution and Food Laziness
We have evolved to eat the easiest foods possible--it is a matter of self-preservation. Our ancestors figured out how to hunt and gather the most calories dense foods to decrease the amount of energy it took to seek nourishment. They could easily distinguish between a high calorie fruit and a low calorie vegetable without a handy nutrition label. This is on par with babies who begin to prefer the bottle over the breast. The bottle is easier and takes less energy (a.k.a. calories) to get the milk. So if you start the bottle too early, you risk the baby preferring "the easy way out" and refusing the breast. Which leads me to the ease of pouches. 

Pouches are definitely easy. No spoon, fork, napkin, or chewing required. Pop the top, and you are on your way. I pose the question, does continually feeding children in this quick and easy method put them on the track to seek similar types of immediate gratification foods in their futures? Think fast food and frozen entrees. The jury is out on this one due to the lack of research, but I believe these are valid questions. 

Mind your Manners
Pouches do not provide much practice in the table manners department. Eating utensils are optional, and typically you do not even need a napkin to wipe the mouth. Even if you are squirting the pouch on to a spoon, babies are missing out on seeing and practicing the hardest part of spoon use: dipping the spoon, loading it up with food, and getting that food to the mouth. With Nicolas, we skipped purees in favor of starting with whole solid foods and self-feeding starting at 6 months. At 11 months, he is close to using a spoon independently and getting the hang of a fork. Practice makes perfect--and we need to give kids as much practice as possible.
Spoon feeding himself a snack of plain yogurt + almond butter. I did say he is close to doing it himself. #makingamess
Nutrition
Most of these pouches are organic. Which means no pesticides, Yellow 5, preservatives, or aspartame. That part is great. But have we looked at the ingredients lately? The vast majority have the first ingredients are apples or pears. As we know, the first ingredient listed is the most prevalent ingredient in any food. So although that food might be called "Spinach, Peas, & Pear," it is actually mostly pear. Pears are great (who doesn't like pears?), but they are not nearly as nutrient dense as spinach and peas.

The overwhelming amount of apples and pears in these foods does a great job of "covering up" the more bitter vegetables that children frequently reject. 

Everything in moderation. 
With all things considered, we do use some pouches. Stay tuned for a blind-taste test of some popular organic "green" pouches and for an easy recipe for the green smoothie pouches we make at home.

Read more in the research:
Heath, P., Houston-Price, C., & Kennedy, O. (2011). Increasing food familiarity without the tears. A role for visual exposure?. Appetite, 57(3), 832-838.

Maier, A., Chabanet, C., Schaal, B., Issanchou, S., & Leathwood, P. (2007). Effects of repeated exposure on acceptance of initially disliked vegetables in 7-month old infants. Food Quality And Preference, 18(8), 1023-1032. 

Mennella, J., Nicklaus, S., Jagolino, A., & Yourshaw, L. (2008). Variety is the spice of life: strategies for promoting fruit and vegetable acceptance during infancy. Physiology & Behavior, 94(1), 29-38. 

Story, M., Neumark-Sztainer, D., & French, S. (2002). Individual and environmental influences on adolescent eating behaviors. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 102(3), S51.

Friday, October 31, 2014

How to keep your baby out of the dog food bowl + other useful tidbits.

With a mobile baby on our hands, Nico's first big exploit was to dump the dog's food and water bowl. Next up, the kitchen cabinets and drawers. Sound familiar? Generally speaking, I anti-babyproofing. We stuck some plugs in the electrical outlets and called it a day. With some decent supervision and solid boundaries curious babies can be taught what is off-limits. Here are some behavior strategies to make it happen:

Be consistent. 
The baby can either play in the kitchen cabinets, or not. Allowing them to do it "occasionally," or only while supervised is confusing. Remember, babies think very concretely. Black or white. Wrong or right. Decide as a family what is off-limits and stick with it. 

Avoiding the big "N-O"
No. Stop it. Don't do that. Get out of there. Don't touch that--Do you catch yourself saying any of these statements? The problem is that these expressions tell babies what not to do, however, they do not give them another option, or teach a lesson in what they should do. If you use these statements you are going to find yourself dealing with the same issues. Over.and.over.again. 

Use Replacement Behaviors
Here's the trick. If you want to eliminate a behavior you often need to "replace" it with another. If you have ever seen a kid who is jumping on the couch being told "knock it off," you can attest to what happens. They stop jumping for exactly 3 seconds, and then begin again. The energy within a child doesn't just disappear on command. It has to go somewhere. So rather than saying "knock it off," ask them to go jump on the trampoline. Or to jump on the floor. Or whatever energy-sucking behavior you can dream up for them.  

Check out some replacement behaviors which we have found success.
The dreaded kitchen mischief. We have a "no playing in the kitchen" rule at our house. Mainly it is for safety reasons. But also because I make enough of a mess in the kitchen by myself--I don't need any help. I do however think it is important that Nicolas gets to explore and practice opening and closing cupboards and drawers. He also needs practice smashing his fingers in cupboards and drawers that are not going to result in a digit being severed off. 

Therefore, we added one set of drawers, and one cupboard to the Ikea Kallax system we use in his playroom. Whenever he decides to explore the kitchen, I redirect him to his drawers. And because we rotate his toys, I hide new and fun things behind the doors for him to "discover". Gotta keep it interesting. 
The dreaded "hands down there" during the diaper change. Anyone with a boy, or a curious little one knows this fun. Sometimes replacing behaviors is not so literal (such as a drawer for a drawer, or a cupboard for a cupboard). In this case it is about finding a "competing behavior". By that I mean if he is smashing cymbals together with both hands, it is physically impossible for him to be sticking any one of those hands in his dirty diaper. Can't do two things at once! The trick is that the "competing behavior" has to be something really good. A block or a ball probably is not going to cut it. Hence the reason we have a one-man band during diaper changes.

The dreaded food and water bowl.  Some kids are just attracted to certain things. We have a water baby. He would splash all day long in the tub if given the opportunity. He would also splash all day in the dog's water bowl if given the opportunity. Therefore we have strategically placed a towel with a 9x13 pan, and about 1/4 inch of water. Just enough to splash, but not enough to spill or make a mess. When he shows interest in the dog's water, I redirect him to his own. It the dog food is of interest to your little one, you could try filling a container or dried lentils or beans for exploration.
Do you have any good replacement behaviors that work for you? It does take some creativity!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Learning Tower Hack: 8 uses in 1

I am a big fan of Ikea Hackers. If you are not familiar, basically they take a mainstream Ikea product and "hack" it by turning it into something fabulous. Amazing, check it out. So, when I scored a used Learning Tower, I was inspired to do some hacking of my own.

A learning tower is a stand that you can use in the kitchen. It is a stable step stool designed for kids 18 months-6 years to comfortably and safely reach the counter. This allows little ones to help with food preparation in the kitchen, wash their hands, and maybe even clean some dishes (wishful thinking?).
www.littlepartners.com
I spend a decent amount of time in the kitchen. I figured rather than having a little one running under my feet, I can put him to work...or at least keep him engaged and occupied in one place. The main issue was the size--I do not have room for this thing to live in my kitchen.

Unfortunately David rarely shares "my vision", especially when "my vision" barely fits in the back of our SUV, let alone our kitchen. So when I found one secondhand, I made a secret trip to a house in the 'burbs to retrieve it--after all, I am pretty sure Craigslist doesn't have a very good return policy. It's a done deal, "no take backs". For the record, I don't often do sneaky Craigslist deals, and I did give the address and contact information to my brother for security measures.

After rescuing this tower from a nice family, we made a few modifications. And David got onboard with this little idea. With the addition of a wheel, a few towel racks, some red velvet, and an easel--we have a souped up Learning Tower that has already provided hours of fun before ever entering the kitchen. In addition to its "step stool" use, check out 7 more ways to get the most out of a Learning Tower. Do you have any other innovative ways for using your Learning Tower?

We added a playground wheel and drilled a hole to mount it.  

Remove the standing platform and add two towel bars + red velvet fabric to make a removable curtain. 
The artsy options are endless with this easel attachment available from Little Partners. Animal magnets from Melissa and Doug.


Friday, September 12, 2014

Should you play with your kids?

Last month Nicolas and I attended our first outdoor children's concert. Think hundreds of tots and parents spread out throughout a park--a lot of good people watching material. Mostly, the parents sat on blankets swaying side to side or flicking through their Facebook feeds. All the while, the kids jumped up and down, dancing enthusiastically. However, one family in particular did catch my attention. A mother of three school age girls was dancing with reckless abandon. When she stood up and threw her hands in the air all three girls did the same. When Mom ran in a circle, and the three girls followed. At the end of a song, Mom collapsed on the blanket, and all three girls piled on top.
Enjoying some parent-friendly baby tunes at the Caspar Babypants concert. 
At first glance, I thought she should have been been awarded the "Mom-of-the-year" medal because all that dancing in the summer heat looked straight up miserable. But on second thought, it made me begin to wonder about the role parents should have in "playing" with their kids: leader or follower?

Today, the trend towards hyper-parenting (re: parents trying too hard) has more Moms and Dads getting hands on with their children. While this increased dedication and attention has developmental benefits for children, but it is important to give consideration as to how we play with our kids. Because, afterall--children learn through play. Parents can be great "players" but they can also be  great "interruptors".  Try the following tips so you can learn to stay involved without hindering children's play.

  • Avoid overcorrection. Despite the airport being right in front of him, Johnny chose to park the plane at the train station. So what? Maybe his trains transported planes today. There is no right or wrong when it comes to unstructured, exploratory play. Resist making corrections. Dwelling on what your child is doing wrong will stifle creativity and could have a negative impact on self-esteem.
  • Don't bring your own agenda.  You may believe it is of utmost importance that your two-year-old can identify all 26 letters in the alphabet puzzle (news flash: it's not important). When really, all she wants to do is put all the pieces down the front of her shirt. Find toys and activities your child is interested in, and build educational lessons into that. 
  • Encourage unstructured playtime. Gymboree, Kindermusik, Baby Yoga, or Young Chefs? The opportunities are endless. Try to minimize the time you spend in highly structured activities. When your son decides to spend the whole 30 minutes playing with his feet in the corner rather than singing and dancing to the songs--you are likely to feel disappointed. It is important for children to spend plenty of time in self-directed, unstructured play. At the rapid rate they change and develop, it is impossible to know where their interests may lie on any given day--so leave things more open-ended.

Unstructured learning at its finest: Nicolas explores physics by rolling different objects
  • Watch for growth and adjust your role. As children become more competent at playing, they will be more capable of constructing and executing their own agendas for play. They will pick the toys, the pretend scenarios, and the names of their own stuffed animals. Sit back and enjoy watching them become independent thinkers. 
Lastly, it is great to be enthusiastic, but don't steal the show. Let them make up their own dance. 

For more good reading on the role adults have in play, check out "The Play's the Thing."

Friday, April 25, 2014

Why I buy boring toys.

Imagine for a moment this is your work environment: You have an office chair with a trampoline under it which leads to constant bouncing. Alternatively, you can opt for one that has constant vibration. Pinatas the size of your head are swinging down from all angles. Strange mechanical music is playing on repeat, mixed with the voices of your coworkers carrying on conversations. To finish it off, you have a few disco lights that flash different colors.

And you are expected to work. You must productively absorb and process material coming in from all directions. How do you feel about this? A little overwhelmed? I know I am.

We do this to our kids all the time.



The office scenario is how I imagine these toys are processed by young children. When I was completing my baby registry, I tried to imagine things from Nicolas's point of view. As you can imagine, a baby is going to be significantly more overwhelmed by their environment. The reality is, infants in particular need less stimulation than adults. After all, they have spent their entire lives living in a dark, quiet place.

When picking out toys and baby gear for my home, I try to follow this rule:
If it looks boring, it's probably perfect. 
We know that kids learn through play. They cannot multi-task. Actually, numerous research studies show that adults cannot multi-task either. At around four months old infants begin to develop cross-modal perception (Fogel, 2011). Which is the ability to understand that more than one sense--whether it be sight, touch, taste, hearing, or smell--go together. An example of this is when you lean over to a child and speak to them. They are hearing and seeing you at the same time. Cross-modal perception is the ability for them to understand that you are just one thing, even though you are coming at them from two senses.

While they are refining this ability, it important that we do not bombard them with too much sensory stimulation all at once. They need calm space to focus and engage carefully with items that stimulate one, maybe two senses at a time. This is how they learn, engage, and process the world. Next time you have the opportunity, crawl under one of those baby activity gyms and lay on your back to see what I mean.

Fogel, A. (2011). Infant development: A topical approach. Cornwell-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

8 Ways to Improve Family Meals Today

I am sure most of you can agree, it's easy to figure out what to feed children. Vegetables, fruits, protein, whole grains, and more vegetables. The real question is: how in the world do you actually pull this off? As a part of my research and consulting work, I have had the opportunity to observe and learn from many families and schools. Here are some practical tips I have picked up along the way that I plan to incorporate into mealtime with our family as Nicolas joins us at the table in a few short weeks.
  1. Give them the breakables. Children will rise to the occasion and our expectations of them. This starts with how we serve the food. Adults give children plastic plates because we expect them to be thrown. If we give them glass or porcelain, we expect them to be treated carefully. Not ready to risk broken dishes? Try Corelle or Stainless--the more they resemble the family kitchenware the better. 
  2. Take a seat. Select a comfortable highchair that grows with the child and can be pulled up to the table (sans tray) with the family. Also, consider choosing a chair that the child will be able to climb in and out of independently. We love our Keekaroo which holds up to 250 pounds, although we plan to retire it before that point. 
  3. Start small with new foods. If a friend had you over for dinner and was serving liver, would you want them to serve you a heaping or one small piece? Sometimes new or not preferred food can be overwhelming--for children and adults. Rather than a scoop of peas, try just serving one pea. Make it approachable. The research shows that multiple exposures to new foods make kids more likely to eat them--this could be either exposure through taste or simply seeing it on the plate (Heath et al., 2011). 
  4. Serve courses. Some kids will eat a variety of foods...but tend to fill up on bread without "saving room" for vegetables. Research shows that serving a plate of vegetables before the main course increased vegetable intake over 40% (Spill et al. 2010). 
  5. No multi-tasking. The table is for eating.  Not toys, phones, or tablets. Be consistent with this to prevent begging. 
  6. Be engaged in conversation, but do not nag. When you put a plate of food in front of a child (or animal for that matter) they know exactly what to do. Eat it. Turn your conversation to something other than the food. 
  7. Give them a sign. Even before they can speak, children need a way to signal when they are full. This could mean using a bib that can be easily pulled off, using sign language to say "all done", or just screaming (Skinner et al., 1998). Figure out what type of communication works best for your family.
  8. Last but not least: Remember the cardinal rule of feeding children. Parents select the foods and children choose how much to eat. Resist the temptation to encourage three more bites. No coercing to take a taste, or flying the airplane into the hangar. Just do your job, which is to provide good, healthy food. The children will do the rest (Satter, 1986).
Read the research: 
  • Heath, P., Houston-Price, C., & Kennedy, O. (2011). Increasing food familiarity without the tears. A role for visual exposure?. Appetite, 57(3), 832-838.
  • Satter, E. (1986). The feeding relationship. Journal Of The American Dietetic Association, 86(3), 352-356.
  • Spill, M., Birch, L., Roe, L., & Rolls, B. (2010). Eating vegetables first: the use of portion size to increase vegetable intake in preschool children. American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, 91(5), 1237-1243. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.29139
  • Skinner, J.D., Carruth, B., Houck, K., Moran III, J., Reed, A., Coletta, F., & Ott, D. (1998). Mealtime communication patterns of infants from 2 to 24 months of age. Journal of Nutrition Education, 30(1), 8.