Technology Use Is Harming Your Kids' Sleep

As electronics have become such a part of our daily lives, our kids spend more time watching screens than ever- a habit that comes at the cost of quality sleep.

Are your children having trouble sleeping and then dragging the next day? It might be from all the time they spend on their electronic gadgets. There’s no question that children and teens are spending more of their day using technology.

According to Common Sense Media’s report Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America 2013, the number of children who use mobile devices has doubled since 2001 from 38 to 72 percent, and the average daily use of these devices has nearly tripled. The organization also found in their 2016 report that teens use an average of nine hours of entertainment media per day, and tweens use an average of six hours, not including time spent using media at school and for homework.

Electronics have become such a part of our daily lives that more of us are using cell phones, computers, tablets, and e-readers right up until we roll over and try to go to sleep for the night. In fact, more than 90 percent of both teenagers and adults in the United States use technology before bed. About 72 percent of children ages six to 17 sleep with at least one electronic device in their bedroom.

The National Sleep Foundation, which is dedicated to improving health and well-being through sleep education and advocacy, warns that the quantity and quality of children’s sleep is being negatively impacted from screens before bedtime.

  • Children who use electronics at night have later weekday bedtimes, experience fewer hours of sleep per week, and report drowsiness during the day.
  • Adolescents with a bedroom television have later bedtimes, more difficulty falling asleep, and shorter sleep.
  • Texting and emailing after lights out, even once per week, dramatically increases daytime sleepiness among teens.

This pattern is troublesome because adequate sleep is essential for children’s health and happiness, including brain development, memory, mood, self-regulation, attention, physical growth, immune function, creativity, cardiovascular health, and weight control.

How technology affects sleep

There are three main ways that technology prevents our children from resting soundly.

Suppresses melatonin

Screens on cell phones, computers, tablets, and televisions emit what’s known as blue light. This light is picked up by photoreceptors in the retina that sense light and dark, signaling to the brain that it’s either morning or night. Typically, the sun triggers our photoreceptors, but studies show that even small electronic devices emit enough light to trick the brain into thinking it’s time to stay awake.

The problem is that blue light hinders the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls our sleep/wake cycle or circadian rhythm, the internal clock controlling biological processes, like body temperature and hormone release. At night, our melatonin levels are supposed to rise before we go to sleep, so reducing it makes falling asleep more difficult.

Several research studies have found how blue light impacts melatonin levels. In 2013, scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that people who used tablets while wearing orange goggles, which filter blue light, had higher levels of melatonin than those who either used tablets without goggles on wore blue-light goggles.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that e-readers not only suppressed melatonin, they also reduced the amount of REM sleep, the most restorative form of sleep we get.

Fortunately, research has narrowed down the amount of time that blue light causes a problem. After 1.5 hours of technology use in the evening, people reported feeling less sleepy and performed better on mental tasks. They also concluded that repeated use of a bright screen over five days can delay the body’s internal clock by 1.5 hours, which means people will want to go to bed later and sleep in longer.

Keeps their brain alert

Engaging in technology keeps our brain alert, so if kids are surfing the web, reading Facebook posts, or playing a video game late at night, their brain will remain active and cause them to feel as though they need to stay awake even if they’re tired. Additionally, kids and teens need time for their mind to disconnect and unwind after spending so many hours throughout the day engaged with technology.

Technology can also trigger stress and anxiety from reading an unsettling email or Facebook post, watching a disturbing television show, or playing a violent video game. Dr. Ben Carter, lead author of a study published in JAMA Pediatrics that analyzed hundreds of sleep studies between 2011 and 2015, suggests that online content may be psychologically stimulating and keep children and teens awake far past the hour when they turn off their devices and try to sleep.

Wakes them up

Finally, phones and other electronics can disrupt sleep with chimes and buzzing set to alarm us that a new email or text message has arrived. If we don’t turn off all these distractions, we will surely be woken up.

Ways to break the technology bedtime habit

So, what can parents do to ensure their kids’ sleep is not impacted by their technology use?

Power down

Devices should be put away at least 30 minutes before your child’s bedtime. More time is better.

Make the bedroom a gadget-free zone

To avoid your child from grabbing their device while they lie in bed, ban technology from their room at bedtime.

Dim the screen

Dim screens as much as possible for evening use. Just check out the settings for your device or download a free software program called f.lux that decreases the amount of blue light emitted by computer screens.

Limit daytime use

Because technology use has skyrocketed and it can impact how children and teens feel at bedtime, consider limiting their use overall. In addition, try to encourage interactive technology use (video-games, texting) earlier in the evening and more passive use (watching TV/movies, reading with an e-reader) closer to bedtime.

Choose calming alternatives

The last thing we need is for our children to be too stimulated when it’s time to hit the hay. Given that technology will keep them awake longer, try these quiet, calming activities instead:

  • Play cards or a board game
  • Read books (real ones, not electronic ones!) together
  • Do a simple art project like drawing or coloring
  • Work on a puzzle
  • Do some stretching, yoga, or mindful breathing exercises
  • Give your child a relaxing massage

5 Tips to Avoid Mom Burnout – Because Recovery Can Feel Impossible

There are few jobs more stressful than being a mom. It’s a 24-7 commitment to nurturing, playing, cleaning, educating, and so on. Avoiding burnout is imperative.

burn·out  noun

  1. physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.

A long, long time ago, I thought being a mom was all rainbows and happiness. I thought that every moment with my baby would be glorious. I thought frustration and anger would never be part of my relationship with my beautiful, perfect angels.

Then I actually had kids. Three of them, in the course of eight short years. That’s when things got real.

At first, they’re so cute and cuddly, you don’t mind the crying and the sleepless nights. Then you have another one and go through the same feelings. Then, suddenly, you wake up one day, and they all start having their own opinions and attitudes about things – the simple stuff that, at one time, you could just decide and be done with. Like what they want to wear, what they want to eat, what they want to do, etc.

They learn the word “no” and that becomes the only word they use. Gradually, you start to lose your patience and snap at them more often than you want to about really dumb stuff, like being too rowdy or too many shoes piled up in the entryway. You find yourself on edge and impatient more often than not.

Sometimes, I can hardly stand to be in the house with all three of them at the same time. I know that sounds terrible, but it’s the truth. To be fair, it’s not just the kids. It is everything else that goes along with being a mom: work, homework, bills, alone time, life stresses… You get the idea. I’ve got a serious case of “mom burnout.”

Raising kids is, hands down, the most difficult and yet most rewarding job in the entire world, all at the same time. The ups and downs are constant, and the laundry list of responsibilities is endless. You laugh, you cry, you scream, then back to laughing again, over and over, every single day.

Moms rarely have a second to themselves. We’re so busy wearing all the hats of nurturer, helper, playmate, cook, driver, house cleaner, and so on. And we’re expected to do it all in a patient, kind, understanding, helpful, loving way. I’m exhausted just talking about it.

What can we do? How can we prevent this from happening? Honestly, hell if I know. I am so far into this burnout thing, I don’t quite know how to get out. Is there anything we can do to avoid this?

Or maybe it’s inevitable, and every mom reaches this point at one time or another. I don’t have the answers, but I do think there are some things we can do to lessen the effects of “mom burnout.”

1 | Take time to rest

Easier said than done. Trust me, I know. But moms need a break. It’s as simple as that.

2 | Turn off the mom guilt

Or at least attempt to. There are no perfect moms. Pinterest wants you to think there are, but Pinterest lies. I repeat. There are no perfect moms. If you do ever find one, please send her my way. I want to cage her and learn her mysterious ways.

3 | Accept help

If you have someone who’s willing to help, let them. You can’t do it all yourself.

4 | Don’t ignore your feelings

If you’re overwhelmed, something needs to change. Talk to a friend, laugh, step outside, take a break. Whatever. Saying “I’m fine” can only last for so long…until you are no longer “fine.”

5 | Let your kids be kids

They will make a mess. They will throw tantrums. Just accept it. They’re kids, not soldiers.

Do Naps Make Kids Smarter?

Over the last several years, studies have continued to link napping with better memory and other learning skills.

When my children were infants and toddlers, nap time was a sacred part of the day – mainly because it gave me a much-needed break. I scheduled meals, playdates, mommy and me classes, and errands around their naps.

I dealt with plenty of pushback from friends and relatives for sticking to this schedule. They didn’t understand why I had to leave early or arrive late to some events. Deep down I knew that it was best for my children – they needed that nap or they’d be cranky, which would ultimately lead to chaos later in the day.

But another secret to my napping obsession was that I had read how naps can actually make kids smarter. What parent doesn’t want to do everything possible to help their kid get ahead in life, right?

The science of napping

The study that caught my attention was released in 2010 by University of Arizona. It found that babies who nap are more likely to show an advanced level of learning known as “abstraction.” This is the ability to identify a pattern in information. Naps actually help the brain retain new information more effectively, allowing infants to learn more about their surroundings.

During this study, researchers played the same phrase from a made-up language to 48 15-month-olds over and over again until they were familiar with it. Testing showed that toddlers who slept within four to eight hours of hearing the phrase displayed more abstract learning. This was not the case for children who did not take a nap within the same time frame.

Why does this happen? Infants have mostly REM sleep, which involves intense dreaming as a result of heightened brain activity. Children need to experience REM sleep within a reasonable amount of time after learning new information in order to process it. If they don’t sleep within four to eight hours, they will not be able to retain as much information.

Over the last several years, additional studies have continued to link napping with better memory and other learning skills. 

In 2012, scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder investigated the effects of naps on cognitive responses in two- and three-year-olds. They found that children who did not nap consistently did not learn and solve problems as well as those who napped.

Next, the University of Massachusetts Amherst released findings in 2013 that showed how a midday nap plays a crucial role in improving memory and learning in preschoolers. This boost was not found after a night of sleep if kids did not have a daytime nap.

The researchers studied more than 40 preschoolers at six different schools. They conducted two different experiments: the first one focused on a memory game and the second one involved observing brain activity of children during nap time.

In the first experiment, children played a memory matching game using various pictures very similar to the Memory board game we play with our kids. Every child learned the game at the same time in the morning. Researchers then split the children into two groups. One group took naps lasting an average of 75 minutes and the other group stayed awake. Then the children were asked to play the memory game again.

They found that daytime naps were associated with significantly greater memory recall. Skipping the nap led to a 10 percent decrease in the children’s accuracy in the memory game. Also, the children who performed best on the memory game had consistent daytime naps. 

Scientists believe that memories are processed during sleep in a way that makes it easier for the brain to access and retrieve information later. In order to make room for new memories, the brain continues to work while we sleep, processing what we learn into long-term storage to free up space for new information.

To confirm the findings from the first experiment, researchers then observed brain activity of a different group of preschool children while they napped. They found an increase in the density of sleep spindles, which are bursts of electrical activity in the brain believed to play a role in long-term memory. Researchers determined that an increase in sleep spindle density of kids who napped was linked to better memory skills. 

Finally, in 2015 researchers from the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom reported a link between infant napping and memory skills. After studying over 200 young children, they concluded that daytime naps of 30 minutes or more help infants retain and remember new behaviors.

They tested whether daytime sleep after learning helped babies remember new skills more effectively. The study focused on 216 healthy six- to 12-month-old infants. The children were shown how to remove and manipulate a mitten from a hand puppet and were given the opportunity to demonstrate these actions after four and 24 hours. 

Half of the babies slept within four hours of learning, while the rest either had no sleep or napped for fewer than 30 minutes. Only the infants who napped after the learning activity remembered what they learned, while those who did not nap showed no evidence of remembering the new behavior. In a nutshell, they found that those who sleep after learning are able to grasp the information better. Therefore, the researchers suggest that the best time to learn may be just before kids go to sleep.

How these finding impact nap time

Now that we know from several studies that naps enhance our children’s ability to learn and retain information, what changes can we make in how we parent?

Train your kids to nap from the very beginning. In order to get your children used to napping, set a routine for them from a very young age. 

Make naps a priority. Don’t succumb to peer pressure when friends and family give you a hard time about your children’s naps. Build naps into your family’s schedule and gently explain to people the importance of your children taking that break during the day to recharge their batteries.

Choose daycares and preschools that include nap time. In order for young children to function and learn at the optimal level, they really need a nap even while at school. Many schools are eliminating naps to make room for more curriculum. If your school doesn’t include a time for napping, consider sharing the science with them about the educational benefits of naps.

Read before nap time. The research shows that children grasp material better just before they fall asleep, so try to make a habit of reading to them before nap time as long as they aren’t too cranky.

No, Really, Your Kids Need to Do Chores

As a member of the household, and in the interest of building skills that they’ll need for a lifetime, your kids should be doing chores.

I tried something different the other day.

Usually, when it’s time to do chores around the house, I turn on Netflix, plop my son in front of the TV, and let Disney babysit for me. He is, after all, four years old, and four-year-olds are not particularly famous for their floor-scrubbing abilities.

I didn’t realize how much this was affecting him until we passed by a toy ship from his favorite show, Jake and The Neverland Pirates.

“It’s The Mighty Colossus,” my son told me, not so much speaking as shrieking. “I need it!”

I said no. He erupted.

He couldn’t understand why we couldn’t afford to buy every toy we saw. Soon he was in tears, thrashing wildly. My wife and I were, for the first time in our lives, one of those parents. We had that naughty, uncontrollable child in the store that made people tsk and think, at least that’s not my child.

The next day, we tried to do things differently. We planned to clean the whole house, and our son was going to help the entire time. It was supposed to be a punishment – but he loved it. It ended up being one of the best days of his life.

I didn’t need to plop him in front of the TV to do chores. He could help. More than that, he wanted to help. And, as it turns out, he’s actually pretty good at scrubbing the floors.

Children, I’m learning, need to do chores. A lot of us don’t ask our kids for contributions like that. In fact, only 28 percent of parents make their kids do chores. But it’s the best thing you can do for your kids, for a lot of reasons.

Children who do chores grow up to be successful

Part of the reason I put my son to work was because of a Ted Talk. Harvard University ran a 75-year-long study that followed people through their entire lives. It tracked their physical and emotional health, trying, in part, to find some kind of insight into what makes people happy and successful.

Chores, it concluded, were the key. When it came to their careers, the one thing that could predict whether a child grew up successful linked back to chores. Kids who had to help out at home were more successful in their careers as adults. The earlier they started the better.

It makes a lot of sense. According to Julie Lythcott-Haims, when kids do chores, they learn that they have to contribute to life to participate in it. When you do all the cooking, your kids grow up thinking that food is provided for them. But when kids help, they understand there’s work involved.

Chores are a chance to learn how things work

When I showed my son how to change the toilet paper when it gets low, I decided to work in a little science lesson. I cracked open the plastic that holds the toilet paper in place and showed him the spring inside.

“When you push it, it gets smaller,” I told him, “and when you let go, it gets big again!”

He was captivated. He spent a good 10 minutes just playing with the spring, squeezing it together, taking it on and off the toilet paper dispenser, and experimenting with an early concept in engineering.

He’d learned something – and he could apply it. A few days later, he called me into his room to show me a discovery he’d made changing out the batteries in a toy. “Look, Dada,” he told me. “It has springs!”

Kids want to do chores

A lot of parents worry that they’re ruining their kids’ childhoods by tormenting them with chores. They’re not. Kids love helping out around the house.

To a young child, everything Mom and Dad can do is mystifying. We are gigantic creatures with seemingly magical powers, and they are dying to know our secrets. They would love to know what sorcery we conjure up in the kitchen to make sandwiches appear, or how we get the vacuum to make the dust vanish before their very eyes.

Learning how to do a new chore is exhilarating for children. It means they’ve mastered some of the amazing tricks their parents can perform. It assures them that they will, one day, be as tall and as smart as Mama and Dada and be able to do all the amazing things we can do.

After spending a day cleaning the house with my son, he spotted me washing the dishes. He grabbed a rag hanging off the oven and rushed over.

“Dada,” he said. “Can you show me how to do that?”

Kids really can help

Life’s a lot easier when your kids help out, and they can help a lot more than we realize.

If they start young, our kids can learn how to do a lot. A Montessori chart has been making the rounds online that offers a list of age-appropriate chores for children. It really is worth following. Don’t be surprised if your child can do even more than what the chart suggests.

And don’t be surprised if your child actually likes helping you.

How To Help Your Kids Incorporate Mindfulness Into Their School Day

The practice of mindfulness is an effective educational tool. Help your kids bring mindfulness into their school day by adopting the practice yourself.

It’s a hot August morning at The Omega Institute in upstate New York, and Daniel Rechtschaffen is about to lead hundreds of adults in an opening meditation.

“Mmmmmmm,” Rechtschaffen hums, raising his pitch and his hands until his arms are stretched into the sky. At the apex, his lips smack together as his mouth forms an O: pop!

The hundreds of adults following along pop their lips and laugh at the playful ending to a quick meditation. That’s exactly the point: Rechtschaffen is demonstrating to hundred of adults attending a Mindfulness in Education conference how to keep mindfulness quick, fun, and engaging for kids.

“Sometimes mindful is taught in really boring way,” Rechtschaffen says. “Kids aren’t into it. There are different ways to get kids to have fun in learning these skills.”

Since mindfulness has become more mainstream, and scientific studies have shown the benefits of a mindfulness practice on student performance, more and more schools are integrating mindfulness into their days. Rechtschaffen, author of “The Way of Mindful Education” and founder of MindfulEducation.com, works with school systems and teachers to integrate mindfulness into schools.

Although his efforts are gaining traction, it’s still far from commonplace in the U.S. Many teachers at the Mindfulness in Education conference expressed frustration with administrators who were slow to adopt mindfulness practices and school systems that did not want to integrate mindfulness into the curriculum, despite proven results, including increased test scores for students.

Oftentimes, bringing mindfulness into the school day is something children can do on their own, even if their school systems are slow to embrace it. Here’s how parents can encourage the practice of mindfulness during the school day.

Grow your own practice

“The first thing I always say to a parent is to practice mindfulness themselves,” Rechtschaffen says.

Mindfulness is all about being attuned, and in order to be attuned to their children, parents (and teachers, for that matter), must first be attuned to themselves.

“When parents are attuned to the needs of the kid, the kid learns to be attuned to their own needs,” Rechtschaffen says.

As Rechtschaffen and other mindfulness teachers pointed out at the conference, kids – whether teens or preschoolers – are skilled at detecting impostors. So parents must really embrace a mindfulness practice if they expect their children to do the same.

Make it fun

“The last thing you want kids to think about mindfulness is that it’s like that game that isn’t actually a game to see who can be quiet the longest,” Rechtschaffen says. Mindfulness doesn’t have to mean meditation or stillness, especially for youngsters.

Instead, incorporate music, movement, and games to help kids understand mindfulness. Rechtschaffen teaches the five literacies of mindfulness: the physical, mental, emotional, social, and global. A dance party can help young kids understand the physical, while role-playing games can help children learn emotional and social mindfulness, such as extending empathy to others.

For teens, Rechtschaffen often shows videos of sports stars or hip-hop artists who employ mindfulness in their lives. “I give them experience of mindfulness that feels empowering and engaging.”

In turn, mindfulness can help kids defuse bullying, cliques, and other socially stressful situations at school by understanding that their peers are all similar to them.

“They can recognize that ‘just like me, I know this kid wants to be happy,’” Rechtschaffen says.

Pause at the beginning of the day

Any parent will tell you that getting the kids out the door in the morning is dreaded. Most mornings are whirlwinds of rushing that leave kids (and adults) stressed out before their day even really begins.

That’s why it’s so important for parents to carve out space for mindfulness in the mornings.

“As we see in our busy lives, we need to actually fight for ourselves to create the space [for mindfulness],” Rechtschaffen says. “Mindfulness is a self love practice. If we don’t schedule that time in, it gets eaten up. Create the space for yourself and your family.”

Morning mindfulness routines can be simple, like taking a moment of silence at breakfast or sharing an intention for the day. Anything that allows the family to create a ritual and slow down a bit during the morning rat race works.

“Not only will that stick, but it will become something that family loves and is hungry for,” Rechtschaffen says. “Soon, if you forget, the kids will remind you. Kids are hungry for a little bit of slowness.”

Give your kids tools to take to school

The foundation of any mindfulness practice starts at home, but it is also important that school aged kids have specific tools that they can use in the classroom.

“They have to be able to short circuit the self-critical mindset and attend to it in the body,” Rechtschaffen says. “Teach kids to recognize when the mind is spinning, which all of us do, and note that instead of getting caught in the spin.”

Interrupting runaway thoughts can help kids who become stressed about tests or those who notice their minds wandering during class. One of Rechtschaffen’s favorite exercises is subtle enough for children to do any time in the classroom:

“When they notice their mind spinning, they can raise their hand in the air as if it’s a branch, which represents the spinning, self-critical thoughts. Then, track the arm into the body, asking what is the correlating feeling in the body. Is there tension in the chest, or butterflies? What is the emotional feeling connected to spinning thoughts? Then, bring kind attention to that spot as if it’s your pet you’re holding in your arms.”

Encourage change in the school system

Although mindfulness can be used by individuals to cope with school stressors, like bullying and testing, our society needs to encourage change beyond that.

“Mindfulness can be utilized in a toxic school environment, to be resilient, to have self care, and to nurture the self in face of adversity, but we don’t want mindfulness just to be a way to get through,” Rechtschaffen says. “That’s not the end result. We need to work with schools and communities for cultural systemic change, because there is bullying, [excessive] testing and so many toxic things in our schools and school systems.”

Parents can encourage teachers and administrators to incorporate mindfulness practices at school, making healthier environments for all students.

“When a child feels balanced and regulated, their attention and executive functioning improve, which is so important for school. When inner balance happens, they are able to function better [in relationships] and pay better attention.”

Although systematic change can seem daunting, the results are worth it,” Rechtschaffen says. “I love working with school systems to try to shift the system.”

7 Easy Ways To Entertain Your Toddler While You Work From Home

Working from home with a toddler is like taking a test in school with a marching band playing in the room. Here are some tips and tricks to get it all done.

Working from home can be amazing. Many moms choose it so they can stay home with their kids while they’re little, yet still bring in some needed family income.

The rewards are many, but the two that stand out tend to be, 1) quality time with the kids, and 2) no childcare expenses. But there are some serious challenges, as well.

If you have a baby, they may demand more of your attention when they’re awake, but ultimately allow you to get more done since they nap several times a day.

Toddlers are different. They’ve started to stay awake for longer periods of time, have seemingly endless founts of energy, and have zero respect for boundaries. Working from home with a toddler can be like taking a test in school with a marching band playing in the room. Blocking out the sound of your toddler singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” 15 times in a row – and actually being able to produce quality work – is a very real skill.

So how does one work from home with a toddler running around? Since I actually do this, I’ve compiled a list of ideas that have helped me to entertain my son while I’m working from home. I hope they can help you, too!

1 | Construction play

With so many toys on the market, it may seem overwhelming for parents to find toys that both entertain and educate. A lot of the time my toddler wants me to play with him, and while I don’t mind that at other times, it’s obviously not what I want to do when I’m trying to get work done.

I’ve found the best toys to have out for him while I’m working are construction play or building toys such as Legos, wooden blocks, or K’nex education sets. Construction play is great for toddlers because it helps with hand-eye coordination, motor skills, spatial skills, and can even be incorporated into pretend play. In my experience, these types of toys have the longest staying power and allow me to get the most work done over an extended period of time.

2 | Interactive, educational apps and websites

Not all technology is detrimental to young children, and for the toddler over two years of age educational apps and websites can be extremely entertaining for lengthy periods of time. There are so many to choose from that you will need to do some research on what interests your child, but my son loves ABC Mouse.

3 | Bring your work outside

This is my go-to whenever I’m on a deadline and the boy is demanding my attention. Something about being outside instantly calms him and he could spend an hour or more exploring the great outdoors. We have a large back patio, so it doesn’t even matter the weather, as long as he can smell the fresh air, he’s happy. This change in scenery guarantees me some much needed work time, and I get some fresh air too. Win-win.

4 | Healthy snacks and mealtimes

What is it about boys and food? They can eat all day. This both drives me crazy and helps get work done. If I set out a healthy meal for my son, I buy myself an uninterrupted 30 to 60 minutes of work time. He just sits there munching happily away.

5 | Random bath time

Another brilliant idea that occurred unexpectedly was random bath time. My son wanted to take a bath at an atypical hour of the day, say 9 a.m. (we usually do baths at night), and my first instinct was, “No way.”

He probably melted down and so I gave in, huffy and irritated – until I realized that I could sit at the door of the bathroom watching him, and work at the same time. Whaaaa, amazing! I now feel like such a good mom because my toddler is like the cleanest kid in town. With three baths a day, he practically glows. Try toys such as bath paint or crayons to really hold their attention.

6 | A good old pile of books

I often set a stack next to my son while I’m working and this keeps him occupied for a while. Books are an easy clean-up option, too, so when he gets bored, I just stack the pile back up and move on to something else. He enjoys looking at the pictures and pretending to read the stories.

7 | Homemade games

Sometimes, when I’m really desperate, I’ll set up a simple ball or ring toss game, pillow fort, or obstacle course. I’ll give the game an impressive-sounding name like “Lightning Toss” and his eyes get huge as he bounces up and down with the excitement. I get some work done, he feels like something special is happening. I guess, in a way, it is. 

5 Things That Made Me More Nervous Than Planning a Home Birth

Having your baby at home means there are certain things you’ll likely not have to deal with. Thank goodness,

“You’re so brave! I could never do that.”

I hear this a lot. It’s not because I scaled Mount Everest (I didn’t). It’s not because my husband and I took a newborn and a toddler on a cross-country road trip and forgot the iPad (we did). It’s the reaction I often get when I say I gave birth at home.

Here’s the thing: You could do it – assuming the pregnancy is low-risk and the birth is attended by an experienced, professional midwife. Whether you want to have a baby at home is another matter entirely, and I’m not saying you should. I’m just saying that after I researched my options and weighed the risks of a home birth against the risks of a hospital birth, I felt more comfortable with the former. And that does not make me brave.

Bravery, to quote the late Susan Jeffers, is to “feel the fear and do it anyway.” I was afraid I might murder my husband for ordering Indian take-out while I was laboring with our first child (curry just doesn’t smell the same when you’re pushing out a baby), but I was not afraid of giving birth at home. Here is what I was afraid of:

1 | Hospitals

Hospitals are literally life-savers, but I only want to be in one in an emergency. Having worked in them for over 10 years, I’ve seen them from the inside and they are rife with germs. They’re also full of people who don’t necessarily wash their hands according to hospital protocol. And those people — despite their best intentions and no matter how much they know — do not know me.

Trusting strangers when I’m at my most vulnerable and not in need of emergent medical care is scarier to me than staying in my low-tech house with an experienced midwife with whom I’ve developed a trusting, personal relationship.

2 | Laboring in a car

I don’t remember how I felt about the idea of having contractions in a car when I was pregnant with my first baby, but with my second, I knew what I was getting into. I knew I didn’t want to be trapped in a vehicle (even our brand-new minivan) once I was in active labor. It wasn’t that I was worried about making a mess in the car; I already had a toddler. It was just that the primal urge to get on your hands and knees and moan like a dying animal does not exactly make you feel like hopping in the car and buckling up. Or maybe that’s just me.

3 | Epidurals

If I’d had my babies in the hospital I would surely have requested an epidural. I don’t blame anyone who does. An escape route when all you want is to be anywhere but where you are? You think your only options are dying or splitting open, and all of a sudden dying doesn’t sound so bad? I get it. I was scared of the pain of childbirth, for sure.

However I was absolutely terrified of the alternative. I didn’t want anyone poking a needle in my back. I was not willing to accept the risks of the rare but horrible potential side effects of an epidural. I just wanted a newborn when the delivery was over, not a pair of crutches, a catheter, a brain-rattling headache, or worse.

4 | A doctor’s appointment for a three-day-old

After my home births, my midwife came over for a well-baby visit within 24 hours of the birth. She came again at three days, seven days, two weeks, four weeks, and six weeks. Meanwhile, she put the fear of God in me; she threatened that if I failed to rest during the early postpartum weeks, my internal organs may never return to their rightful places.

I was lucky to have two healthy babies who did not need to see their pediatrician until the eight-week well visit. By that time, I was totally capable of being at a specific place at a specific time, leaky breasts and all.

5 | Talking about home birth

I am afraid that potential new mom-friends who delivered in the hospital will think I’m a self-righteous hippie – or worse, a judgmental jerk – if the topic of birth comes up. I’m a lot of things but I would like to think sanctimonious is not one of them.

My friends say they love my honesty, which I know is code for, “Pam has no filter,” but when birth comes up, I become self-conscious. I’m careful about what I say and how I say it because the last thing I want to do is hurt someone.

Also, I’m not a hippie. Well, not a total hippie. I may have babies at home and chickens in the backyard, but the chickens are in a coop and the kids are vaccinated. And I love a mani/pedi as much as anyone – fumes, tabloids, and all.

Our Tiny House, Full of Family Life

A mother shares her experience of small house living with her husband, 3-year old, and two cats. “More than anything, our lives feel happy and full.”

I never thought much about square footage until I bought a small house. Because I own such a little home, where every single inch counts, I am more mindful of living space than ever.

Thanks to the tiny house movement, I don’t have to look far for space-saving ideas. Everywhere it seems there are television shows, blogs, and books celebrating small spaces and highlighting all the perks of tiny house living: financial freedom, a simpler lifestyle, and smaller environmental footprint.

If you’ve ever watched the Tiny House Nation television series or read the Tiny House Talk blog, you’ll come across houses that are less than 500 square feet. Some are on wheels. Others are off-the-grid and eco-friendly. Many were built for a few thousand dollars.

To most people, my house in Burlington is shockingly small. We live in a tiny house – well, tiny-ish. Our house is not on wheels, and we are far from mortgage-free. Still, it’s tiny by most people’s standards. My husband Dave and I live in a four-room, 803-square-foot house with our three-year-old daughter, Phoebe, and our two cats.

Our house is a lovely, 100-year-old restored bungalow with nine-foot ceilings, cherry kitchen cabinets, and hardwood floors. We have an open living room and kitchen, two bedrooms, and one bathroom. There’s also a dry basement, front porch, back deck, one-car garage and small yard. From a practical standpoint, it’s big enough. But for most people I know (except for those die-hard tiny house dwellers – you know who you are), our house is extremely small.

A case for small house living

When it comes to house size, I’m clearly in the minority. In the United States, the average size of homes built in 2013 was 2,600 square feet, up from 1,725 square feet in 1983. While the size of the American family hasn’t grown in 30 years, houses in this country continue to get bigger. Still, there’s something to be said for living small.

A recent article in The Globe and Mail, “Squeezed, and Loving It: 5 Kids, 2 Adults in a 1,000-Square-Foot Condo,” mentions a study released by The Center on Everyday Lives of Families at the University of California.

The study found that regardless of the size of house, the families spent nearly all their time in a space of around 400 square feet, mostly in the kitchen, family room and dining room. The rest of the house was almost never used. The average backyard use by the children was only 40 minutes a week. Parents used the outdoor space 15 minutes a week.

Ultimately, researchers found that while we crave abundant space, we rarely use it.

A big, empty house

When Dave and I first started looking for a house in Burlington two years ago, we wanted to live in Burlington’s South End so we could be within walking distance to downtown. Of course, we could get more for our money living outside of the city, but we knew in our hearts that suburban living – even country living – doesn’t work for us. Neither does living in a big house with lots of space we don’t need. That was a mistake that we had made when we first moved to Vermont.

Nine years ago, we sold our 525-square-foot condo in Boston and bought a three bedroom, 1,800-square-foot farmhouse on an acre-and-a-half of land in Underhill.

The house in Underhill was old and charming – and bigger than we needed. For the three years that we lived there, we had rooms that sat nearly empty and unused – an office with crooked wood floors was a dumping ground for old tax returns, a den with cheap gray carpeting was our cat litter box room, and a small bedroom with peeling, green wallpaper was where we kept the ironing board.

Back then we lived paycheck to paycheck, and we struggled to fill the house with furniture or do any renovating. We didn’t know what to do with those unused rooms, so we basically ignored them altogether (except when the cat box needed to be changed).

For a while, we envisioned growing our family in Underhill to fill those hollow spaces. But children did not come easily for us. When we were expecting our first child in 2009, our daughter was delivered stillborn in my fifth month of pregnancy. The bedroom with green wallpaper and ironing board that we planned on making into her nursery sat empty in the months after her death up until the day we sold the house.

Underhill taught us a few lessons. We realized we didn’t want a big house or to live in a remote location. When we eventually became parents, we wanted to be a one-car family and live in a walkable community. For us, that meant settling in Burlington, where we’ve lived for the past five years (renting for three, owning for two).

While house hunting in Burlington with Phoebe in tow, I was also revaluating my professional career and longed for more flexibility.  I was working full time when Phoebe was an infant and toddler and desperately wanted to have more time with my only child. After months of searching for a home, I stumbled upon a for-sale-by-owner listing on Picket Fence Preview.

The house was an olive green bungalow built in 1913 in Burlington’s Five Sisters neighborhood. Even though the house was much smaller than we initially wanted, it was in a desirable neighborhood and considerably less expensive than our other options.  Rather than be house poor, we opted to buy our little house in May 2013. Three months later, I left my job and started working part time.

Tiny House Family Living

Embracing our tiny house

Since buying our home, I’ve learned that living in a small house forces you to get creative. We’ve installed drawers in my daughter’s closet so she doesn’t need a dresser in her room. We have bins in every room to store toys, books, Legos, and art supplies. We mounted our flat screen television on our living room wall, and got rid of our oversized coffee table.

We have a pull-out couch for guests, and durable patio furniture that spends six months of the year on our back deck to help us spread out. When my sister and her family visited us for Christmas, they stayed at our neighbors, who were away for the week and graciously offered up their home.

I’m the first to admit that living in an 803-square-foot house with my husband and daughter isn’t always easy. There are certainly days when I crave more space. A few items on the floor and kitchen counter can make the house feel like a cluttered mess. When I need alone time, there are not many places to escape for privacy. There are also the occasional jabs from friends or relatives who sometimes make our lifestyle choice feel mocked or misunderstood. But all in all, the good far outweighs the bad.

Whenever I wonder whether we made the right choice, I look around my little home and immediately know the answer. The emptiness is gone, and more than anything, our lives feel happy and full.


Erica Houskeeper is a freelance writer and communications consultant living in Burlington. She publishes a travel blog about Vermont, Happyvermont.comFollow her on Twitter