Friday, 28 January 2011

The big sleep

There's nothing better than a good night's sleep. It sets you up for the day, makes you more likely to be in good spirits, better able to face any challenges that arise and keeps you healthy. Some people underestimate just how important it is and yet a lack of sleep is associated with conditions such as depression, immune deficiency and heart disease. The Mental Health Foundation believe sleep problems should be regarded as a major health issue.

Lately I've been noticing that the quality of my sleep is very erratic. It seems like the slightest things can affect how well I sleep. The days I exercise I'm assured a good night's sleep and as a result always look forward to going to bed those nights! Factors that never seemed to affect me are now doing so (maybe that's a sign I'm getting older!). Even one small glass of wine in an evening causes me disrupted sleep.

With an energetic toddler, I need a good night's sleep every night! After reading a couple of articles, here are 4 steps I am planning on following and that you might find helpful too:

  1. Leave at least 2-3 hours after eating before going to bed.

  2. Do something relaxing to unwind before bed (listen to music, read, do some gentle stretching exercises...)

  3. Avoid caffeine or alcohol 4-6 hours before going to bed (that includes chocolate!!).

  4. Try to keep to a regular bedtime (this is supposed to help programme your body to sleep better).

In the same way most parents implement a structured bedtime routine for children, helping them wind down, making them comfortable,  relaxed and ready for sleep, I suppose we need to apply the same techniques to ourselves. It can be more of a challenge in the grown-up world especially if one or both parents works late. Getting home late pushes dinner later and bedtime later so having 2-3 hours between eating and bed doesn't always work. However, even doing one thing consistently like taking a few minutes to do something relaxing before bed is a good start and might improve your quality of  sleep. Being aware of the influences both good and bad on your sleep is important too, so that you can steer clear of the disruptive ones and do more of the things that help you sleep soundly.

Have you noticed anything that affects the quality of your sleep? Do you generally sleep well? Is there something you do every night before bed that helps you unwind?


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Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Playdough Recipes

I've always known you could easily make your own playdough at home but with the cheap easy pots you can buy, I didn't see much point in it. Now I've realised why it's so great. If your children enjoy playdough and they like cooking (or mixing ingredients) as my son does, then making your own playdough at home ticks both boxes.

More than just the preparation, stiring, combining that they get to do, your children then get to play with the end result so it's a great indoor activity to pass some time on a cold/wet afternoon. It's also a form of messy play that doesn't get too messy and can easily be cleaned up afterwards.

There are plenty of recipes online so this is nothing original but I was recently passed on a couple of variations that I thought I would share with you:

Easy dough - a great one for children to mix together themselves and keeps for a week if stored in an airtight container.

  • 2 cups of flour
  • 1 cup of salt
  • 1 cup of water (add half a cup at a time)
  • Food colouring (optional)

Cooked dough - this type stores well in an airtight container. Your children will need more adult supervision for making this one as some cooking is required.

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 cup salt 1 tablespoon of oil
  • 2 teaspoons of cream of tartar
  • 2 cups of water
  • Food colouring (optional)
Put all the ingredients into a pan and cook on a medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat when the mixture leaves the sides of the pan and knead it gently on a work surface.

Stretchy dough - this one will not keep so discard after playing is over for the day.

  • 3 lbs of self-raising flour
  • 1 1/4 pints of water

Shiny dough - a tough pliable dough ideal for cutting out shapes with pastry cutters.

  • 3lbs plain flour
  • 1lb salt
  • 2 tablespoons of oil
  • Water as needed

Clay dough - a non-sticky dough best suited for modelling. Dry hard in the oven before painting.

  • 1lb plain flour
  • 1lb salt
  • Water as needed
Do you have any other recipes to add? Do you and your children make playdough at home?
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Wednesday, 19 January 2011


We had a power cut last night as I was mid-nappy change, putting my son to bed. Being suddenly plunged into darkness gave us both a shock! I found us a torch which my son was very happy to hold whilst I finished off getting him ready for bed. Then I went (with my son in hand) and lit all the candles we have dotted around the flat. We read bedtime stories by torchlight which was rather fun for my son and after he was tucked up in bed, I sat alone in the candlelight.

It was too dark to read my book. We don't have a TV but even if we did, it wouldn't have worked. I called a friend for a chat to pass some time but there was no answer. I couldn't connect to the Internet. Dinner was already prepared. My husband was still at work. I was seriously stuck for what to do!

Inconvenient as it is, sometimes having things shut down is a good reminder of how reliant we are on the world's resources, of the level of ease and comfort in our lives that we take for granted and of the emphasis on external stimuli upon which we rely. If we still hadn't had any power by this morning (we were without it for just 2 hours), the novelty of the situation would have worn off fast but the reminder of the daily things we simply expect and depend on would certainly have been reinforced. If we are honest with ourselves, we have more than we need, we share none of the consideration for waste that perhaps our grandparents generation did and we are indulgent every day in one way or another.

Having everything we want and more is a nice way to live undoubtedly and we can enjoy the benefits of our heated homes, ready hot water supply, technology, money to spend on 'stuff', eating varied foods and whatever else. Yet, we can do ourselves a favour I think, by taking ourselves out of our easy comfort zone from time to time. Don't worry, I'm not suggesting you cut your power supply to do this! Here are 3 ideas for taking a step away from the path to all things easy:

- Go for a walk in the middle of nowhere. This is even better if the weather's bad. Being surrounded by nothing but nature and the natural elements is a good way to realise how we're just a dot on the earth's surface. Seeing the magnitude of nature around you is a humbling experience that's  good for the soul.

- Try a no-spend month. Not literally. I mean, try not to buy extra food or spend money on extraneous purchases. Use up all your storecupboard stock that's been sitting there for a while. No going out for coffee, no impluse clothes shopping for you or the children, no purchases that aren't essential for living day-to day. Even when you think you need to buy something, try to resist and figure out a way around it. You'll be surprised how much you save in just a month.

- Take an on-line break. This is a more drastic step perhaps but we've all heard about people who've done this recently (Stephen Fry, the Maushart family) and they all seem to have got stuff done that they usually don't have/make time for. Let your friends and family know you'll be off email/Facebook/Twitter for a month (or even start with just two weeks) and they can speak to you on the phone or face-to-face instead. Re-discover what you used to do and enjoy spending time doing things you don't normally do or seeing people more.

What other ideas do you have? How important do you think it is to challenge our everyday expectations from life every now and then?


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Monday, 17 January 2011

Comfort food

Most of us eat more in the winter. There are lots of reasons why but one is comfort eating. Maybe you want something to warm you up if it's cold outside, something to cheer you up if it's dull and dreary or something that gives you a nice feeling inside as you eat it. My comfort foods are soups and stews, hearty and warming but also on the less healthy end of the spectrum, homemade cakes and cookies to enjoy to with a hot cup of tea!

I was recently reading 10 Food Tips To Keep You Happy During Winter, over on the kitchn. Many of you will be pleased to know chocolate was featured in the list! Three of the ten tips I found particularly interesting and wanted to share with you:

Create a ritual meal. This is a meal you eat weekly and that has some significance to it. For the writer of the article, it's coffee and bagels on a Sunday morning whilst she and her husband read the newspapers, try the crossword and laugh together.

Develop a quest. This would be a food quest of course. The writer mentions that she spent one winter seeking out the best veggie burger in town and had fun trying them out at a different restaurant each week.

Eat something beloved from your childhood on a weekly basis. The idea is that by eating something you enjoyed as a child, it brings back fond memories and you can reflect on your younger years. It therefore tends to be a comforting snack or meal.

These three ideas are fun to think about for yourself. I think we have a similar ritual meal in our household, in that we enjoy egg bagels on a Saturday morning with a big mug of tea. The significance for us is simply that it's the weekend! Rather than a quick weekday breakfast, it's a bigger breakfast that we have the time to enjoy and savour.

The second two tips I need more time to think about. I struggle to remember a single food/snack/meal from my childhood that I could recreate weekly. I always ate lots of yummy things but nothing springs to mind as a regular childhood favourite. As for the quest, that could be a fun and different way to engage with food. I think weekly tests for my quest might be a bit ambitious and unhealthy if I chose to find the best cream tea or something similar!

How about you? What are your comfort foods? Do you have a ritual meal in your household? Is their something beloved from your childhood that you could recreate on a weekly basis? Finally, what ideas do you have for a (food) quest?


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Wednesday, 12 January 2011

A winning winter birthday party for a 2 year-old

Some of you will remember I asked what you did for your child's second birthday a while back. My son turned two in December and I took on board some of your helpful suggestions for his party and it turned out really well. I thought I would now share some of the things that made it successful and one thing I will do differently next time.

Maybe those of you who also have children with winter birthdays will find it useful, as not being able to take them outside is a challenge in itself. These were the main aspects of the party that helped make it work well: 

Space. I knew more than two energetic toddlers running around in our living room would soon feel crowded and would probably stress me out, as well as them feeling like they had nowhere to run. So I hired a spacious dance studio at a local gym. It was perfect, as there was tons of running around room for them all.

Numbers. The temptation with a big space is to invite more people. Yet, I knew my son doesn't like being in very big crowds and that to take advantage of the big space I hired, it made sense to keep the numbers down to the people we really wanted to be there. There were people who'd invited us to their birthday parties who I didn't invite to my son's. These are people we never spend time with, we just see around here and there so I didn't feel bad about not inviting them along.

Soft play. The gym where we'd hired the room provided soft play equipment at no extra charge so we had that set up for the children to play on. There were climbing blocks, steps up to a little slide, chunky mats and also things like balls and hula hoops to play with. They all had a blast running and jumping around on it all. It was a great way to have them safely expend some energy and allowed parents to sit back and chat in the meantime.

Music. My son loves his music, especially the usual 'Wheels on the bus' type songs so we had a bunch of those songs on our iPod playing in the background. We also concluded the party with a little sing-a-long in a circle, which was a nice wind-down after the vigorous play and excitement.

Art activities. In her comment on my previous party post, Urban Mums had suggested doing a simple art project. That was an idea I really liked. I had to be careful about any mess created, as a yoga class was following my son's birthday party!  In the end I kept it very simple and put out some PlayDoh, paper and crayons on some plastic mats on one side of the room. I was glad I did that, as a couple of the children prefered that to the soft play or would come and do a bit in-between the active play.

As for the one thing I will do differently next time....

Food. I spent ages making home-made mini pizzas and totally over-estimated how many I'd need. We had loads left over that I ended up giving some away to friends. It wasn't just the mini pizzas either, I made way too much food overall! So next time, I'll know better and will hopefully prepare a more sensible amount. For an afternoon party, I guess mums are not wanting to spoil their child's dinner by giving them too much to eat and likewise with themselves!

The main aim of the party was for my son to have a good time and he certainly did. Seeing his smiles and watching him run around, stuff his face with party food and generally have fun was very rewarding for mum and dad! Everyone else seemed to enjoy themselves too.

Thank you to those of you who left suggestions in my other party post. If you have a birthday party approaching for your nearly two-year old, I hope it goes well and that my shared experiences might help you out a little. If anyone has other tips for toddler party planning, please let us know in the comments.
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Monday, 10 January 2011

Beating the January Blues

This post was written and published last January but I'm re-posting it.  I think it's a good reminder to us all at this time of year....

The first month of a new year should have a sense of optimism about it but for some people, January can seem like a long hard slog of a month to get through. I have offered some tips at the end of this post to try to help you get through the rest of the month without feeling like you have the January blues.

The buzz and excitement from Christmas and New Year celebrations have died down. We’re still in the midst of winter so there’s cold weather, it gets dark in the early afternoon and going out can be more of an effort. It’s too far from the beginning of spring to be thinking of brighter, lighter days. Some of us who enjoyed a festive period surrounded by family and friends may suddenly feel lonely once everyone has gone back to their own homes or returned to work. 31 days in the month can seem a long time to those people who over-spent at Christmas and are counting down to pay day….. Now let’s start thinking about how to brighten up the dark days and lift our spirits at this time of year!

All the things that would make us feel better (exercise, fresh air, healthy food) are too often not what people turn to. You hear excuses that it’s too cold to go out and exercise, too dark for a walk, and a chocolate bar is just what we need to cheer us up. We all know of course that staying inside, feeling miserable and eating chocolate won’t lift our spirits. Here are some things to try:

  1. Go out in the morning for some fresh air and to get out of the house again before it does get dark. Get well wrapped up if it’s really cold out there, pull on an anorak and wellies if it’s raining.

  2. Eat warming healthy comfort food that’s tasty and filling – hearty soups & stews,  cooked fruit etc.

  3. Have some fresh flowers around the house for a burst of pretty colour.

  4. Wear something colourful or an item of clothing that makes you feel good (so many people in London wear black clothing, it’s nice to see a change)

  5. Do some exercise or vigorous cleaning to keep you warm and get your heartbeat raised. If exercising, try to enlist a friend for company and help with motivation during the winter months.

  6. Use the extra time you are spending at home to work on something you’ve been putting off, for even just 5-10 mins a day (adding photos in an album, updating your baby book….).

  7. Listen to upbeat, lively music to keep you in an upbeat mood.

  8. Make the most of the dark evenings and surprise your loved one with a cosy candle-lit dinner or snuggle up together under a blanket to watch a movie.

  9. Enjoy your Christmas gifts. If you got some nice new books, CDs, DVDs, pampering products, set time aside in an evening to relax and enjoy them.

  10. Plan fun activities. These need not be costly. Invite friends over for dinner or for a movie night, have a girly clothes-swap party, go to a late-night exhibition view at a gallery…It’s nice to have things to look forward to.

Do you ever feel a bit of the January blues? Do you have some other suggestions to add to the list above?


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Thursday, 6 January 2011

Parenting Taboos

I came across this great video by husband and wife team Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman where they discuss four taboos of parenting. As the founders of Babble, a website for parents that aims to present the honest, real side to parenting and being parents themselves to three boys, they believe in telling it how it is. The video lasts for about 15 mins but I'd really recommend you watch it when you have a moment. It's very relatable, humourous and touching.

Their four 'taboos' that they talk about as are follows:

1) You can't say you didn't fall in love with your baby in the first minute. Rufus explains from a father's perspective the immense affection he felt at the birth of their first newborn but explains that it was very different to the love he feels for him now, several years on. It's not a simple case of either being in love or not  but for some, the love you feel for your child evolves by means of a process.

2) You can't talk about how lonely having a baby can be. From the mother's view this time, Alisa talks about the isolation she was shocked to feel once she was at home with her new baby. When she asked her sister (a mother of 3) why she hadn't told her she'd feel like this, her sister told her that it wasn't something you wanted to tell a first time mum. Rufus and Alisa think it's exactly what you should tell a woman who's about to have her first child!

3) You can't talk about your miscarriage. Alisa describes her feelings after a miscarriage when they were trying for baby number 2 and the sense of shame and embarassment she felt, as if she had failed to achieve what she was genetically made to do. Once she started telling people about it, she was surprised to hear all the similar experiences from so many people around her and as she puts it, "I felt like I'd happened upon a secret society of women that I now was a part of". She describes miscarriage as an 'invisible loss'.

4). You can't say your "average happiness" has declined. We've all seen the articles about parents being less happy than their non-child bearing peers and indeed there's a lot of hard work and difficult situations to deal with as a parent. Of course, those reports don't take into account the moment to moment experiences. Parenting is very much about the highs and lows and in the midst of the tough challenges that parenthood presents, there's  the reward of smiles, speech, new skills acquired and tender moments.

I enjoyed the refreshing honesty and openess in this video. As parents, we can probably all come up with some of our own 'parenting taboos'. I'd love to hear some of yours in the comments!


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Monday, 3 January 2011

Your annual review

Happy New Year! Here we are at the start of 2011 and as with the beginning of any new year, there's lots of advice around about implementing new year's resolutions and sticking to them. I'm not going to write about resolutions, as there's plenty of good suggestions out there already. I want to talk about reviewing the year that just ended and giving some thought to the one lying ahead in order to get the most from the new year.

As most of us know, the month of January gets its name from the Roman God Janus, who is often represented by two heads, one looking back at the previous year and the other looking forward to the new year. It's a good image to think about. Looking back over the last twelve months and considering what were your achievements, things you were proud of, new people you met, friendships, relationships, how you spent most of your time and if you made new year's resolutions last year, reflect on how successful you were with those or not. If there were things you did not achieve or you feel disappointed with the progress made in particular aspects of your life, now's the perfect time to give some thought about why that was and what you can do to bring about change now.

Writing down some brief reflections on the past year can be a helpful tool to organise your thoughts. If you keep a diary or calendar, taking a glance at each month to remind yourself of specific events, habits and situations that might have slipped your mind can be a good way to review the year gone by. You don't want to spend a ton of time focusing on the past but a bit of meditation on what has passed can give some guidance for future actions and help establish some goals  for the year ahead.

Once you've reviewed the previous year, it's time to think about the new one and what you desire, hope and aim to achieve. This doesn't have to be in the form of resolutions. You could draw a diagram or picture. Get a blank piece of paper and write 2011 in the centre. Similar to a brain-storming diagram, have lines coming out of the central '2011' and write or draw pictures of things you'd like to do, see, accomplish in the coming months. These might be things you still need to work on from last year that you didn't pursue as you'd have liked or they may be totally new fresh thoughts. Having them on paper can be an effective way of visualising how you'd like your new year to be. It would be ideal to display the completed diagram somewhere you will see it each day. It doesn't need to be on the fridge in full of view of everyone, but on the inside of a wardrobe door that you open each day, for example.

A lot of us naturally do an annual review at this time of year but many of us do it too fleetingly in our heads and the thoughts soon pass. By spending a little more time and writing down some reflections for both past and present, those thoughts and aims are more likely to stay with us into the year ahead.

How do you tend to review your year past and new? Do you regularly make new year's resolutions each January?
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