Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Travel with children

The newspapers have put out their 'school holiday activities' supplements and it's cold, sometimes wet, sometimes sunny, but generally cold.  It must be almost mid-year holiday time in Victoria.  In my long lost youth this was the worst holiday in the school year, its only redeeming feature was not having to catch the tram to school on mornings when the grass at the Shrine of Remembrance was while with frost.  As if to emphasise their difference, children from wealthy families used to return to school tanned, either from the snow fields or from a holiday in Queensland.  The rest of us passed our days reading, mooching around at home or at friends' homes and occasionally mustering up enough money for a trip to the 'pictures'.  We envied those who travelled and returned with the tales of their experiences which seemed exotic in those days when travel was a luxury only available to a few.

Today travel is much more affordable and much more common, but often those long road trips have been replaced by jetting off to Bali, Thailand, Hawaii for sun and warmth or to New Zealand for winter skiing or to Japan, the US or Europe in the southern summer.  Even holidays interstate these days often involve flights, but some families still opt for the long drive.

When I wrote the title for this post, my immediate thought was 'who would want to travel with children?'  Children are not designed to sit still and quiet for long periods and even the quietest, best behaved child is likely to be restless and bored at some stage. If you have more than one child, old issues between them are likely to find expression as a result of too much time cooped up in close confinement.  I well remember such complaints as 'she's looking at me', 'he's breathing' etc.  It's often fun to be with children at the destination, it's just the process of getting there that is difficult.  And it's not always easy to leave them behind with a grandparent or a live-in nanny because many parents worry about their children and fret when they are separated.  At the Agency we have heard of parents who travel in business and leave the children in economy, with the nanny to care for them.  On the other hand, one family all flew together, with the nannies in first class, which must have been an interesting journey for any other first class passengers!

5 tips for long distance car travel with children:
  1. Ensure all child restraints are properly fitted, straps are firm, and that all are worn correctly.
  2. Don't drive for more than 2 hours without stopping for a play/exercise break.  This is as important for the driver as for the children.  If possible alternate the roles of driver and supervision of children.
  3. Let each child pack a small 'in car bag' with activities like books, coloured pens or crayons (pencil leads always seem to break!), a snuggle toy, hand held computer games and a drink in a spill-proof container. 
  4. Take an adults 'in car bag' with snacks, small treats (eg sticker books), travel games, lotto and 'I spy' type games, hand wipes, tissues.
  5. Use children's music CD's (there are some songs I never want to hear again), ipads or DVD players with appropriate movies or games (preferably all these should have ear phones for the sanity of the adults in the car)
5 tips for short plane flights (ie those within Australia):
  1. While children under 2 fly free on an adult's knee, it is worth paying for a seat for any child over the age of 12 months as it gives you a break from nursing them.
  2. Many children (and some adults) experience ear pain when the plane is taking off and landing so it is worth giving children a drink or something to suck during these times.
  3. As with driving it is worth having a special bag for the children of  small activities and toys that they have chosen.  An advantage of planes is the drop down trays that make activities like colouring and writing is much easier than in a car, though 'steadytables' designed for bed use may help give a flat surface in cars. 
  4. While there are some food options available on planes, they often aren't appealing to children so it is helpful to take a small snack.
  5. Many domestic planes now have seat back entertainment free or for a small charge and this may provide some quiet time.  While travelling it is well worth sacrificing your rules about how much screen time children can have.
6 tips for international plane flights.  All the tips for short haul flying also apply to international flights, but because these last much longer, here are some extra ideas:
  1. Space is even more important on long-haul flights so seriously consider a seat for the toddler.  If you have a baby/infant make sure to book a bassinet which is helpful for sleep, although the child has to be nursed during take off and landing.  As bassinets are in the bulkhead row, there is usually a little more leg room and a toddler may be able to spend time on the floor without blocking the aisles.
  2. In your carry on baggage ensure you have an adequate supply of nappies, wipes etc.  There is usually at least one toilet where there is a nappy change station.  Also include a change of clothes for young children (in case of spills and sickness) together with plastic bags for soiled clothing, and a spare set of adult sized clothes in case you are the target.
  3. While airlines supply food for children, they may or may not like what is provided.  Snack foods are often available, although not necessarily listed on the menus, and these may be more tempting.  For infants, it is better to take prepackaged food that they have tried and are known to like.  Most cabin staff will warm food and bottles for you to make them more palatable, as well as trying to find snacks suitable for older children.
  4. Drinks on planes are often poured into glasses for passengers.  Make sure you take a spill-proof bottle into which the cabin crew can pour the children's drinks.  And not too much sugar or they'll be flying under their own steam!
  5. Ensure the children are not pests to other passengers by insisting on 'inside voices', keep them kept occupied by the activities and toys that they have packed, by the in flight entertainment systems and by regular, accompanied walks up and down the aisle, regular trips to the toilet and most of all by not bouncing on the seats or kicking the back of the seat in front.  Accompany young children to the toilets to ensure they don't lock themselves in, and that the toilet flush doen't frighten them.
  6. Try to ensure children are not in the aisle seats where they can be knocked by other passengers or by the trolleys or even have their fingers jammed between the arms of the seat and the trolley.
There are no easy answers to make travel more enjoyable for parents (and nannies) and their children, but there are many websites and books that offer ideas, so if you are going to get away from Melbourne this winter, it would pay to do some preparation.

And have a great time...whether in our own country or overseas, travel broadens the mind and piques our curiosity about our world.

Qantas has an excellent resource for family travel
Lonely Planet has some good reading on its website as well as a book, Travel With Children.
Better Health Channel has some general travel tips for travelling with children, and some specific to flying and international travel.
Thailand4Kids has some excellent general information about long-haul air travel with children.
Smartraveller has information on overseas travel for children (and a brochure you can download or order) about safe travel with children overseas, and about legal and Family court issues about overseas travel for children.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Sleep deprivation and crying babies

Sleep deprivation is no fun. As many people know, it has been used to torture prisoners for many years.  This is because sleep deprivation is known to affect cognitive abilities, judgement and the capacity to handle stress.  But it also has physical health consequences like increasing blood pressure and increasing consumption of food and appetite leading to weight gain.

 Sleep deprivation is no fun, and it is even less so if the cause of the deprivation is your crying baby.  The Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne estimates that a baby of 6-8 weeks cries on average for 2-3 hours in every 24, generally in bursts interspersed by being settled.  Thus crying is a normal, natural part of a baby's life, but that may be small comfort to the parents of a young baby that cries frequently and for long periods.

For first time parents this normal behaviour can seem quite abnormal and can lead them to question whether there is:
  • something wrong with the baby
  • something they are doing that is hurting or in some other way, failing the baby.
Either way, they can lose confidence in themselves and in their ability to parent.  I think this has worsened as families have become smaller and  we have had less exposure to babies and young children as we grow.  The loss of confidence has also been made worse by the growth of such myths as:
  • babies sleep best in a room that is silent and dark;
  • picking up a crying baby will spoil it;
  • babies should not be allowed to cry as crying indicates that they are in need;
  • allowing a baby to cry may cause mental health issues in later life.
So why do babies cry?  They use crying to communicate in the early months. They cry because:
  • they are hungry
  • they are tired
  • possibly, because they have a wet or dirty nappy, although this tends to be a later reaction
  • their tummies are uncomfortable: colic, wind, digestive problems
  • simply because they can!
If the baby has been fed and is comfortable, put it down to sleep and if it cries, soothe it gently eg by rocking, nursing and patting.  There are many techniques for soothing a baby but for them to be effective, parents and caregivers need to sooth themselves, reassuring themselves they are doing OK and that the crying baby is not their fault.  Once this is done, it is possible to handle the baby calmly and with confidence, and the baby will eventually 'catch' the calmness and relax, generally drifting off to sleep.

And when the baby sleeps, new parents need to take very opportunity to catch up on their own sleep rather than spending  time on the computer, catching up with friends and doing the housework.  A rested parent is in a far better position to respond calmly and confidently to a baby.

Useful references:
Crying and Unsettled Babies, a fact sheet from the RCH
Unsettled/Crying Babies, Clinical Guidelines from the RCH
The Period of Purple Crying, apart from excellent information and advice, there is a section aimed directly at fathers.
Controlled Comforting, from The Conversation
Crying Baby and Newborn Behaviour, from the Raising Children Network

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Welcoming a new baby into the family

With a new baby arriving in my extended family yesterday I've been having lovely baby thoughts!  I must admit I really love new babies: their little snuffling noises, their amazingly mobile faces, often contorted in pain as they deal with unaccustomed feelings in their tummies, their bleary slightly drunken look after being fed and their utter helplessness.  This time we welcome a little girl, and of course congratulate the parents on their first born child.  And great grandmother has yet another little one to love.

The birth of a baby is a time of great excitement for a family.  A first born is a great thrill, of course, but each one is special, especially as they are introduced, with varying reactions, to their older siblings.  I was watching a fascinating documentary on SBS about marriage in 20th Century Britain, and one poor farmer's wife had 16 children, and although she wasn't thrilled as her family got larger, and they often struggled to manage, she and her husband had a rule never to discuss adult things in front of the children so as not to worry them.  The children were put to bed by 8.30, and the couple would sit either side of the fire and talk over the day and all their concerns, frustrations, lost dreams and hopes for the future.  She wasn't a highly educated, well read woman, but she had found a simple and highly effective way to raise her children: ensure that they were loved and cared for to the best of both parents abilities and to maintain good communication with her husband.

Thinking about this, I can't help but wonder whether we make the whole notion of parenting far too hard. The growth of psychology has given us all sorts of information and theories about child development which are valuable, but alongside this has become a growing pressure to raise the perfect child.  Popular interpretation of Freud's work led to mothers being blamed for all the difficulties their children were having , and over the years this has extended to both parents being blamed.  The media report defence barristers detailing the terrible childhood their clients have had in an effort to explain that offences were not really the fault of their clients.  So how can the average parent react but to try to be the best possible parent.  But whose theory should they follow?  And what happens if the advice doesn't seem to work?  Anxiety, frustration and guilt, and possibly more deeper, complex emotions.

For years experts argued about nature and nurture... is it all in our genes or is it about how we are raised, before coming to the very sensible conclusion that it is a complex mixture of both.  There are obvious things that our children inherit: gender, hair and eye colour, skin tones, build, but there are also things like personality that develop and change over time, but seem also to have some genetic aspects.  I remember someone once saying to me that 'everything the first child is, the second one isn't, and vice versa' which at lest relieved me of the pressure of worrying about why they were different and just accepting that they were, and trying to find different ways of dealing with them.

One thing I do know is that every child is a unique human being, and that even with identical twins, there are some aspects of difference, with often one being more dominant than the other.  As I have said before, the search for a perfect parenting style and guru is fruitless.  Parents need to work on what suits their own personalities, and learn to really know their children, responding to each one in a way that works for that child.  That doesn't mean that there are no general household rules eg about rough or bullying behaviour, manners and general ways of interacting, mutual respect etc.  And it does mean modelling these rules and respecting each other as members of the family, and maintaining good communication between all family members.  It also means being sure to have time that is just for the adults, to discuss adult things, sort out their issues in private and having time to enjoy each other as partners in life, not only as parents, in other words parenting like that 20th Century farming couple.

Love and Marriage, a Twentieth Century Romance. Ep. 1, SBS Available until 14 June 
The Dance of Parenthood A very popular post from August 2012.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

"I need a new challenge"...career choices for nannies

This is an issue nannies sometimes discuss with me.  There is no obvious career path although experience often leads to positions with better conditions or to working overseas, possibly for the 'rich and famous'.  I can't help them find work in different fields because our agency specialises in the placement of nannies, but it is sometimes helpful to talk over options.

We have nannies who have worked part-time while studying for qualifications in another field eg midwifery, welfare and aged care.  Other nannies have gone on to work as personal assistants, in sales, and in recruitment agencies both for nannies and more generally, and of course, the field for which they are perhaps best trained, as mothers themselves!

It is helpful to look at some of the areas in which nannies excel, and  which can be applied to other occupations.  These include:
  • Ability to plan.  It is no easy task to look after one or two children, plan appropriate developmental and interesting activities for them as well as managing their physical care, sleeps, outings etc and still have the house looking tidy when the parents return from work.  Planning is a skill that can be transferred to most workplaces and means you should be able to undertake a variety of tasks and still complete them on time.
  • Good communication and relating skills.  As a nanny you are involved in communicating not just with the children in your care but also with their parents and possibly a range of other people also involved in the lives of the children: doctors, teachers, Maternal and Child Health nurses, other parents.  As I have said before, good communication skills are essential for nannies: listening, clarifying, explaining, negotiating, simplifying, stating your own needs and respecting the needs of others  With good skills in these areas, many occupations working with people open up, particularly in sales, and with further training most of the 'caring' professions eg nursing, teaching, personnel work.
  • Patience.  Being with children for 10-12 hours a day can be very wearing and really test your patience and stress levels.  If you can handle this with good humour and without becoming stressed, you are in an excellent position to work in high stress jobs like call centres, customer service departments and reception counter work.
  • Maturity.  Most nannies work alone with children which means that they have to have the maturity to make decisions when there is no one else to ask, whether it is about the everyday competing demands of the different children in their care or in an emergency.  This maturity and the commonsense it displays means that nannies are well suited to working in jobs where constant supervision is not available.
  • Honesty and reliability. These are primary requirement for working as a nanny in someone else's house and so that parents are free to pursue their careers.  These are qualities that most employers seek and roof of a good attendance record may help when you are looking for work. 
Apart from parenting, or working in a childcare centre or as a family day care provider, there are few jobs that a nanny can walk into without additional training.  Office skills including typing and IT skills may open paths into various forms of office work.  Entering the caring professions like various forms of nursing, teaching and social welfare work require a variety of certificates, diplomas and degrees so you will need to make a long-term plan if you want to move into these areas.

There must be many nannies who have made the transition to other occupations. Feedback from them would be very helpful for those starting to feel they need a change, and for me as I talk with these nannies.