Q&A: balancing in-law demands

Jeanne writes:

"I have a question about in-laws.  Not only do I have them, but they want to be involved in everything!  My husbands father passed away when he was very young, so his family is small, consisting of only him, his sister and his mother.  When my husband and I first met, we hung around a lot with his sister and her boyfriend.  My MIL was around for everything.  She is single and lonely, so this didn’t seem wrong, just different.  We’d have dinner with her, I’d go shopping with her and all sorts of things.  It didn’t strike me as odd, since I am so close with my mother.  The difference is that my mother has my dad and they don’t NEED me the way I feel my MIL needs us.

So, my husband and I moved 300 miles away, so the distance has helped give us some privacy.  All was working out fine but then, my SIL called us one night when my husband and I were tending to our newborn child.  She was 4 months pregnant and just discovered that her husband had been cheating on her for a year.  This was so terrible, and seeing as I had a baby I felt even worse for her because I understood how important a partner is for this job.  We dropped everything and drove to be with her for a few days to offer any type of support we could.  We made this drive many times over the next 1.5 years while they reconciled and broke up many times.  We always went out of our way to offer support to my SIL and MIL.  They have finally called it quits and everyone is better off.

Here is the tricky part.  Both my MIL and SIL are lonely single women now. My nephew and son and 4 months apart, which is great for them to play and such.  Now it seem that every holiday, every vacation and every special occasion will be spent with them.  Neither my husband nor I want this.  We want Christmas in our own home with our three kids, we want vacations on our own.  The worse part is that it is just assumed we are going up there for Christmas and it is only July!  They are already planning it.

How do deal with this without looking like a heartless bitch?  I want to spend some holidays with them, just not all of them."

The obvious solution is to get on match.com and find new partners for both SIL and MIL so they have something else to do with their time and don’t want to spend so much with you.

OK, I’m 98% kidding about that. Well, maybe 95%.

I think you and your husband need to figure out if you want to be able to spend time alone as a family while still keeping MIL/SIL thinking you’re hanging out with them, or whether you need for them to know and accept that you need your space. Either option is valid and justified, but you have to know which one is important for you emotionally so that you can decide how to proceed.

If you need for them to know that you don’t want to spend every holiday with them, you’re going to have to sit down and have A Talk of some sort. It may not have to be one in which you tell them that it’s important to you not to spend every holiday with them, unless you need for them to know that. It could just be a talk in which you tell them that you’re going to have your own little family Christmas this year so that the kids can wake up on Christmas morning in their own beds, etc.

Whatever you tell them, it’s going to make everything easier if you have a definite plan to spend time with them at some other time. So, for example, at the same time you’re telling them you’re not coming for Christmas, you should be making plans for Thanksgiving or New Year’s Day. That way they know you’re not pulling away from them completely, and they know they’ll definitely see you over the holidays, so it may be slightly easier for them to accept not having you there for Christmas Day.

If you don’t need for MIL/SIL to recognize that you’re not spending every holiday with them, you can do a gradual weaning process. The first step is to wean them from having every holiday hosted by them in their town. Claim Christmas or another holiday as yours right now, and invite them to come to you. If they object or give you any version of "but we’ve always had it here" you can respond that as the family is growing you want to create some new traditions, and you also want to take your fair share of the responsiblity, and not make MIL do so much work. Somewhere in there they should give in and agree to do the holiday at your house.

The next step is to mix in a holiday every once in awhile that you spend at your family’s house instead of with your ILs. Once you’ve broken them of the idea that all holidays must be celebrated in the same way at the same location, you can miss one occasionally to be with your parents. There’s no way they can argue (without looking petty) that your son doesn’t need to spend time with his other grandparents.

Have you already planned a vacation for this summer for just your little family? If you have not, do so now. Even if it’s only for 2 days to someplace boring. Do it, and then tell your MIL/SIL about it, and do not invite them. Tell them you "can’t wait to show them the pictures" and that you’ll send them a postcard. In short, act as if it’s the most normal thing in the world to go on vacation without them, because it is. (If you really think they’ll try to horn in on the trip, wait until it’s too expensive for them to go, and then pretend that you and your husband each thought the other one had told them about the trip earlier.)

If you can get a kind of centrifugal force going of shifting the location of holidays away from their home area, going to your family every once in awhile, and taking separate vacations sometimes, you will be able to break the forcefield that’s keeping you at your ILs’ all the time. As long as you spend enough time with them to keep them reassured that you love and care for them, they shouldn’t respond so negatively that you have to confront the issue directly.

I hope this isn’t such an issue for long. It would be so nice for them if your MIL and SIL started making new lives for themselves so they could be a little less emotionally dependent on you.

Q&A: new bedtime routine after weaning

Kim-Anh writes:

"I have a 8.5-month old son who, in general, I feel is a good sleeper. My question pertains more to establishing a more consistent routine and how to get him to sleep on his own.

From the start, my son would nurse to sleep. This has been our routine for nap time and bedtime. He doesn’t ever seem to hit that drowsy, droopy-eyelid phase. Most nights, he literally goes from happily playing, sometimes getting a bit fussy, and then one last feed and BAM – asleep.

Starting at 4 months, he’d sleep from 11pm/midnight until 7am. Lately his bedtime has been moving back to about 9am, but he usually sleeps through until 7-8am with one night-time feeding anywhere from 3am to as late as 5am. For naps, I will often nurse him and he falls asleep, or if we’re out and about, he will fall asleep in the stroller or often in the car in his carseat. His nap schedule has not been very consistent in the last few months – sometimes he refuses to nap and only naps once a day, though he usually ends up being really cranky so I’m still try to get him to nap twice a day. It seems like his nap schedule is never really the same two days in a row, which means he never really gets to bed at the same time, nor wakes up at the same time. I feel like a bad parent for not having a better or more consistent routine, but I also feel like it’s common sense to push back bedtime if he really only woke up from a nap two hours earlier…

We try to establish a consistent routine – mealtimes at the same time, bathtime, playtime, etc. I have tried to watch for the sleepiness cues and put him in his crib when I feel he’s tired, but he tends to wake up as soon as he hits the crib mattress, because for him – that crib is a jumping gym! He starts crawling, playing, and whatever sleepy vibe he had going in seems to evaporate. Most of the time, he doesn’t even cry, he just plays and throws himself around in his crib without seeming the least bit tired. I haven’t tried leaving him there longer than half an hour (while I’m in the room). I usually am too tired to let it go longer, because at that point, it’s close to 10pm and I’m wiped. I’ll just put him on the boob and it’s game over.

I’m going to be weaning very soon, and I’m dreading the process because nursing is such an engrained part of our sleep routine. My plan is to substitute the daytime nursing sessions with a bottle of formula (assuming he takes it) and hope that it will replace the nursing-to-sleep nap routine.

However, I would really love to have a child that goes to sleep on his own after I put him in the crib, but I just don’t know how to get there.

Do you have any suggestions on how I can work towards getting my son to fall asleep on his own? I feel like if I could get him to sleep more consistently, we could keep a better schedule which would be better for both mom and baby.

p.s. I will also mention that he has been going through a terrible bout of teething lately so I don’t know whether all the inconsistencies in his sleeping/napping are attributable to that. He’s gone from having 2 teeth 2 months ago to having 8 now…"

Yes, I definitely think the teething has had a big impact on his sleeping. He’s also probably working on the 37-week developmental spurt right now. So you’ve been caught between two of the most sleep-disturbing forces in a baby’s life.

I, personally, don’t think it’s worth it to try to get your son to go to sleep without nursing until he’s through the 37-week spurt. Short of CIO or drugging him I don’t know what would make it possible for him to go down awake easily until his body and mind are through the spurt. Unless you have a hard weaning deadline, I’d wait another month or 6 weeks, and then start working on getting him to go down drowsy.

Once he’s past the teething and developmental spurt, all his sleep, naptime included, should settle down. You might even be surprised at how much more smoothly everything goes, from his sleep to his behavior to his eating.

If you do have a hard weaning deadline, you might have to switch the bedtime routine entirely and get your partner to do it, assuming you have a partner. Some kids stop falling asleep by nursing of their own accord around 10 or 11 months, but will fall asleep by being rocked by the other parent. You could try doing this now and getting your partner to rock your son to sleep, or give him a bottle of formula before bed. Even if he won’t accept that in lieu of nursing from you, your son might accept it from your partner. Then once he’s through the developmental spurt and takes a break from teething you can work on getting him to go down awake.

The other thing to know is that there are plenty of kids who can’t go down awake without some other assistance until they’re well past a year. This doesn’t mean that they need to be rocked, but it does mean that they might need someone to stay in the room with them, sitting in a chair or on the floor, until they fall asleep. Some experts will tell you not to do this because it’ll never end, but I think it’s just part of the process of learning to fall asleep on their own for some kids. The kids who really need it are also the kids who will be able to let go easily once they’ve learned to go to bed by themselves. But again, you have to do the cost benefit analysis for yourself. If sitting in a chair gets your kid to sleep in 5 or 10 minutes, but fighting to get him to fall asleep with you out of the room takes 30 minutes, sitting in the chair doesn’t sound like such a bad deal (especially since you know you won’t be sitting in the chair when he’s off at college).

I do wonder what would happen if you just established a regular bedtime for your son, no matter when he naps. It might make it easier for him to fall asleep because his body would be used to going to bed at the same time every night. Maybe you could try it for a couple of weeks and see if that stabilizes the nap times. It might, or it might not, but it’s worth a try just to see what happens.

The 8-12 month stretch seems to be so tough for many babies and parents, and your situation has even more tension because you have the added pressure of weaning. The good news is that thing will start to fall into place in a few months and get easier before you know it. Just try to hang in there until then, and work with the immediate situation. Good luck.

Q&A: toddler shoes

Amanda writes:

"Here’s my question: How much can you scrimp and save on toddler shoes
without stunting your kid’s foot development?  We paid $50 for a pair
of size 21 Eccos in April; her size 20s had lasted 4 months.  Well, a
scant 2 months later, our kid is a size 22.  The prospect of spending
at least $300 on baby shoes this year is daunting.  Now, I know that
most parents don’t buy overpriced little Italian sandals for their
kids.  But once you’ve started down this path, it’s hard to stop …
and the salespeople in the shops don’t exactly give impartial advice.
That’s why I’m turning to you.  What exactly do designer baby shoes
like Stride-Rite or Ecco do for a kid’s foot, and are non-designer
shoes going to stunt my kid’s foot?  Are other shoes OK once a kid is a
"seasoned walker"?  What exactly is a "seasoned walker" anyway —
someone who trots?  Runs?  Gallops?  Spins in circles until she’s
dizzy, then stands up and spins again?  Would I be a bad parent if I
bought her flip-flops or jellies at 18 months?  And what about buying
used shoes at the local consignment shop — is that an absolute no-no?
Bottom line is, if I can cut our mushrooming shoe budget in half, that
would be nice. I’m too embarrassed to leave a question like this on my
pediatrician’s voicemail, so I’m turning to you."

This American shoe marketing machine has been working for years and years. My mom remembers her MIL warning her that if she didn’t get "good, hardsoled" shoes for me when I was a baby I’d never learn to walk. So this baby shoe guilt thing has been going on for years.

But the thing is that kids learn to walk correctly all over the world all the time, even if they don’t have any shoes at all. (They may get pinworm or tetanus or other diseases from not having shoes to protect their feet, but they aren’t having stride problems.) What we were told by our pediatrician (and other friends also heard from their peds) is that shoes for new walkers need to be extremely flexible, as close to bare feet as you can get while still protecting the feet (see: pinworms). The test is whether you can bend the sole of the shoe in the palm of one hand. If you can’t, the sole is too rigid for a kid under 3 or so.

So, if you’re looking for a shoe that’s more flexible than supportive, you may be better off with cheaper shoes, depending on the style. Certainly Robeez/Bobux type leather-soled shoes (or the cheaper versions on Ebay) are great for learning walkers. We’ve had great luck with finding nice, flexible soles at Target. Payless seems to be hit or miss, with some styles with nice flexible soles and others with soles that don’t bend at all. (Light-up shoes have very rigid, heavy soles, so kids should probably wait until they’ve been walking for a long time to get those.)

Personally, I can’t imagine paying more than $30 for a pair of shoes for a child (winter boots excluded). The general rule is that kids go up a half size (American sizes) every 3 months. I think most kids have two pairs of shoes that fit at most times (a pair of sneakers and a pair of dress shoes, or a pair of sneakers and a pair of sandals, etc.). If you’re using a pair of shoes for 3 months in rotation with another pair, and you’re looking for flexible soles, that pretty much rules out expensive shoes for most families’ budgets. I realize that most girls have even more shoes than boys do, so that means more than two pairs in any given size. Unless at least some of those shoes are reasonably-priced, you could spend your child’s future inheritance on shoes.

The reason not to buy used shoes is that those shoes have probably already formed to the feet of the first owner. But if the shoes are hardly used, there’s no reason not to use them on another kid. But since there’s no real physical reason to get expensive shoes, you should only haunt the consignment stores if you actually enjoy it.

If it were me I’d bring on the jellies.

My two data points: My 4-year-old currently has a pair of hard-soled light-up sneakers from Target ($15) and a pair of somewhat flexible-soled Spiderman sandals from Payless ($12). My 13.5-month-old, who has been walking for a month, has one pair of mismatched Robeez knock-offs (he tossed one of each pair out of the stroller before I figured it out) from Ebay ($11 each pair) and two pairs of water sandals (flexible soles, easy to put on, and waterproof) from Children’s Place ($15 for both pairs).

Q&A: 9-month-old separation anxiety

Claire writes:

"We have one child – a 9-month-old daughter who is
at that yummy stage and is mostly as happy as a larrikin ["A person given to comical or outlandish behavior" –ed.]. She is also at
that crying big hot fat tears stage whenever her Dad or I leave the room (even
if the other one is still in it).  Is this separation
anxiety?  If so what do I need to know about it and what can we do to
help her through it with as little pain and as few tears as possible? We are
already playing lots of peek-a-boo with her and talk to her from other
rooms so she can hear our voice, etc. I now shower with her in the bathroom with
me."

Sounds like textbook separation anxiety to me. And I think you’re doing about as much as you can with her. The peek-a-boo is important, because it helps her play with the idea of object permanence. Talking to her and giving her a running commentary so she can hear you when you’re in another room is also helping her develop faith that you’re still there even when she can’t see you. You might also want to talk in the morning about your schedule for the day, just so she knows well in advance what’s going to happen next and what you’re doing at that moment.

Some people try to get their kids to "toughen up" at this stage by forcing them to separate more than they really can. They think that if they "give in" by keeping their babies close during separation anxiety that the kids will never learn to be independent. That’s the wrong way to approach this period, though, because it really is just a stage. It’s a normal part of the process of mental and emotional development for kids, and it means that they’re starting to understand that they are separate from their parents. Even though it seems like the kids are regressing, once they come through this stage they’ll be far more independent than they were before.

The only real cure is time. In another few weeks she’ll be happy and will run away from you without a thought. But in the meatime, it sounds like you’re doing exactly the right thing to make it as easy on all of you as possible right now.

Q&A: separation anxiety at daycare

A reader who didn’t leave a name writes:

"I run a family daycare in my home and I have some children
who adjust very well and others who come into daycare well some days and other
days they seem very upset to be here. What can I do to help? And what can I
tell the parents so they don’t worry and they can help? Their children are
always fine once they leave and they never want to go home when its time to
leave."

What you can do is provide steady, reliable care for the kids. A regular routine in a calm and relaxing environment that allows them to have fun and learn and play. It sounds like you’re doing that.

If an adult comes into work in a pissy mood, no one is surprised by it. People have bad days. They don’t sleep well, or they feel rushed in the morning, or they had a fight with their partner the night before, or they heard something on the news that they didn’t like, or the barometric pressure makes them cranky. Feeling bad is just as much a part of the human experience as feeling good is.

Kids are the same. They can be upset about any number of things, real or perceived. But they can’t or don’t know how to tell us about it. So they only way they can express their fear or anger or crankiness is by crying and throwing tantrums. And they’ll throw those tantrums at the point of most tension in the morning–the drop-off.

So maybe you can help the parents to understand that the kids are probably not upset about going to daycare, but instead are using this time to vent about whatever else is bugging them.

If you and the parents notice that a child gets upset in a pattern that you can recognize (every Monday, for example, or the morning after a parent leaves on a business trip), you can work on trying to come up with ways to help the child deal with those events so drop-off isn’t so stressful. Maybe the parents could do a special breakfast in the morning, or a massage before bed to release tension, or something like that. You might want to do circle time first thing in the morning to let the kids talk about what happened the night before, if they’re old enough to talk. I’m betting that you and the parents together can come up with ways to help the kids release their feelings.

If the children are happy and don’t want to leave at the end of the day, you must be doing a wonderful job. The parents are fortunate to have you as a partner in caring for their children.

Q&A: clothes for moms of toddlers

Amy writes:

"I need help with clothes.  My clothes.  I am living with a 15 month old
who is living it up for all she’s worth.  It’s great and I don’t care
a whit that her clothes are permanently stained with ground in mud,
cherry juice, smashed blueberries or tomato sauce.  We clean up hands
and faces throughout the day, but otherwise I let her muck about in the
same clothes all day adding on layers of grime (unless it’s really
really bad and we have to go somewhere respectable).  Maybe that’s my
mistake…. It seems impossible for me to avoid having her add layers
of grime to MY clothes.   I’m a SAHM, and I live in jeans and washable
shirts, but frankly, it ain’t all coming clean anymore.  I am on the
verge of buying all black shirts and a new pair of jeans (which would
be my toddler-free ‘good’ jeans).  My husband says I will regret going
all black because I won’t be able to avoid white spots from yogurt and
such (but vanilla yogurt isn’t staining my clothes so I don’t really
care so much), and everyone will think I’m a nut for doing it.
Once upon a time I was a fairly stylish dresser before the baby
arrived.  I’ve given up hope of looking like anything but a Mommy for a
few more years at least, but what the heck to Moms of toddlers do about
their own clothes???  I hope there is another way short of multiple
costume changes during the day…."

I never have this problem, because I live in New York and therefore I wear all black.

OK, not really. I do have this problem, which makes me wonder why I don’t (always) wear all black. Because you’re right–even if the yogurt makes a temporary white blotch, it washes out easily. And you don’t notice any of the other stains. (And if you did get something like mustard that causes your black to discolor slightly, you could always color over the stain with a black Sharpie like you did back in high school.) And people won’t think you’re a nut–they’ll think you’re an aging punk, a rabid Johnny Cash fan, or a transplanted New Yorker who hasn’t figured out yet that the rest of the world wears color.

Or you could buy a bunch of darker, but not black, clothes in the colors most likely not to come out–dark pinks and reds and purples and browns.

I think it’s a good idea to have a few things that are kid-free clothes (aside from work clothes or fancy clothes) so that you can go to your book club or out for a casual meal with friends without looking like you’ve spilled your wine before you even walk in the door. So go ahead and get the kid-free jeans just so you have them when you need them.

You could also go hardcore on the stain removal. I have a friend who can get any stain out of any piece of clothing. But she spends a significant amount of her life in the laundry room. I’m not willing to do that, so I stick with my basic arsenal of Bac-Out (for berry, wine, poop, and tomato stains), Zout (for chocolate, ink, oil and chemical stains), and Shout Gel with the scrub head (the best thing to get tempera paint out of corduroy). If one of those three doesn’t work, I consider myself beaten and wear those clothes as bottom layers in the winter.

You could spray your clothes with Scotchguard before you wear them, but then you wouldn’t want those clothes close to your body or your daughter (and the chemicals you’d inhale while doing the spraying would stay in your body for years). So it’s probably safer to resign yourself to wearing darker clothes for the next two years and designate some of your clothing to be worn only when you’re not with your daughter. Unless someone else has an idea that doesn’t involve hours of scrubbing stains, toxic chemicals, or a full-body stain-protector condom.

Q&A: restless infant sleeper

Kaz writes:

"I’ve been struggling for the past two months with some irregular sleeping patterns in my newborn and thought perhaps you might have some insight. He’s about five months now and only naps in 20-40 minute intervals. He will occasionally go back to sleep if I come in and help him, but often his waking is precedented by him repeatedly scratching the sheet with his fingernails. In fact, his hands seem endlessly restless when he’s trying to fall asleep and I typically have to hold them until he’s in deep sleep or he’ll wake himself up scratch his head, pulling out his pacifier, etc. He does sleep on his own in his own crib. We transitioned him there when he was about six weeks old. We swaddled him when he was an infant for about six weeks but then stopped because we’d read it was detrimental to his development to do it as he got older and also because he seemed to dislike it and fussed more when swaddled. He sleeps pretty well at night (asleep by 8:30/9 and sleeps until 4 am when he wakes to breastfeed and then sleeps again until 7/7:30am). He attempted to take away his pacifier cold turkey for two weeks but this did not help the catnapping and only made him fussy when awake. I typically put him to sleep by rocking and holding him on my chest, which usually takes about 20 minutes.He only started solid foods this past week and hasn’t shown any evidence of teething except maybe more drooling. Any ideas??? I’d appreciate any help you can give!"

Since this has been going on for two months, it’s not related to eating or teething. It’s something that’s been going on for longer than that.

The thing that leaps out at me isn’t that he’s restless, but that he scratches. It’s such an unusual detail that I think it must mean something. Unfortunately, I have no idea what it means, and can’t squeeze any info out of Lord Google (although this search did teach me how to do baby scratches–a.k.a. "Der Babyscratch"–to improve my DJing technique).

If the readers don’t have any insight, you should call up your pediatrician to ask about it. I don’t want you to get worried that it means his fingers are going to fall off. It’s probably something specific but easily-treatable like "restless finger syndrome" (I made that up) that means he needs more potassium, or something like that. But I’ve never heard of an infant consistently scratching, so you need to go over my head to someone with actual medical training.

Happy Independence Day

Happy Independence Day to all my American readers!

Everyone else, talk amongst yourselves:

What are the most popular names for boys and girls in your country right now? (Don’t forget to tell us where you live.) What do you think is influencing naming trends in your country? Pop culture? Politics? Some kind of national zeitgeist?

Q&A: sunscreen

Jesse writes:

"Since
we are on the topic of what to put on little kids— do you are readers
have ideas about safe sunscreen or alternative strategies?

I
am reluctant to put it on my six month old since my ped basically said wait until
she is at least one, if not two.  This makes me nervous, coupled with the scary
fact that beauty products/ skincare stuff is not regulated the way food or
drugs are and the skin is the largest organ of the body.  So slathering stuff
on a baby/child’s skin means they will get a big dose of whatever that
stuff contains."

My ped, when I asked him if I should really hold off until 6 months to use sunscreen, looked at me in horror and said, "You can’t let him get sunburned!" So I used the sunscreen. But I did look for a health-food store brand that didn’t have all the nasty, irritating, potentially dangerous stuff. My ped said to get the kind that was a physical barrier, not a chemical barrier. This post on Babycenter agrees, and recommends a sunscreen with zinc oxide* or titanium dioxide.

Sure, it costs more than a tank full of gas, but the hope is that you’re not exposing your teeny babies to the sun all that much anyway, so you won’t be going through tubes of it.

The best thing to do is to keep your kids (of all ages) out of the direct sunlight between 10 and 4 every day. Have them play in the shade if they can. You could also invest in sun protective clothing for them to wear. You can get those full-body surfer suits with SPF protection at SkyMall OneStepAhead.com (they also have plain cotton T-shirts with SPF protection) and LandsEnd.com. Make sure you have a good sunscreen for your stroller if you have an infant.

But if you can’t keep your baby out of the sun, you do need to use suncreen to protect them from burns. So much of parenting is about managing risk, and this is another example of that. You can’t be sure that even the most expensive, "natural" suncreen is absolutely safe in large doses, but it’s better than letting your child get burned.

Reader recs for "safe" suncreens?

* Remember the diaper rash discussion when we found out that zinc oxide can be bad for your baby? Titanium dioxide appears to be harmful at large doses, but nowhere near as dangerous as zinc oxide is even at smaller doses. Titanium dioxide dispersion is drying to the skin ("May cause skin irritation. Repeated contact may result in defatting and drying of the skin.") but doesn’t cause burns or pox like zinc oxide can. I look for titanium dioxide instead of zinc oxide.