Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Real Light Bulb Moment: How Lighting Affects Children's Sleep Habits

I was so sleep deprived that I could hardly lift my head off the pillow in the morning. My hands shook at times and to say I was "edgy" was an understatement. My youngest son was 2 months old and I knew it was too much to expect him to sleep through the night; he was just too young. I would be happy if he would just sleep for more than one hour...and preferably that hour not be with him on my chest or me constantly bouncing him.

I was desperate for any help. I Googled every combination of baby sleep terms that I could think of. Then I ran across an article that mentioned the importance of the production of hormones, especially melatonin, in infants. It explained that babies' circadian rhythms are not well-developed at birth. Additionally, they don't really begin producing the sleep hormone melatonin until they are around 3-4 months of age. This really helped explain his sleep patterns and why I was struggling so much.

Okay this is fine, but how I can I use this information to help my situation, I thought. Well, some research has shown that exposing babies to natural light during the day and keeping things dark at night actually helps them regular their circadian rhythm and kickstart melatonin production. 

How Lighting Affects Children's Sleep Habits

You can guess what we did the next day. We spent as much time outdoors as possible, especially early in the day. It turns out April is a lovely time to have a baby in Colorado. By the time he was 2 months old, the weather was just warming up enough to bring out a blanket and lay in the grass looking up at the clouds. His big brother and I would gather snacks and head out to the sunny front lawn with baby brother.

I can't say there was a miraculous turn-around with his sleep patterns, but gradually by 4-5 months he was sleeping slightly longer stretches. Those sunny mornings, however, did wonders for me and big brother. The sun and bit of exercise really helped my mood and helped keep my older son occupied.

What happens, however, if your baby is born in December when the days are short and sunny mornings are hard to find? There is some evidence that babies born in the winter months tend to produce melatonin at a slower rate in those early months. However, by 16 weeks of age, these differences all but disappeared.

For those winter babies (and really all of us), scientists are learning new ideas that are influencing new products to help. We know that natural light can help with the establishment of circadian rhythms, but what about artificial light? We've all heard advice from sleep experts about not having brights lights, TV or cellphone lights on when you are preparing for sleep.

Why is this? It turns out that when our brains are exposed to the blue end of the light spectrum (which is most present in traditional light bulbs), it suppresses the release of melatonin. This has the potential to affect babies, young children, and adults.

Now new light bulbs, like the SCS Nite-Nite Light are aiming to help reduce this blue light and aid in sleep regulation. These amber-colored bulbs are designed to cut out most of the blue light and get your brain ready for sleep. This is the same type of technology that NASA used to help astronauts get some shut-eye while traveling in space.

sleep-promoting light bulb

We have been trying out a couple of these bulbs in our home for about a month now. I have one in my elementary-aged son's room for us to read at night before bed. I can't say that I've noticed a huge difference in his sleep patterns, but he was a good sleeper before this anyway. I will say it does emit a nice warm light that is dim but still possible to read by.

I gave another set of bulbs to a mom friend who has young children too. She put one in her toddler daughter's room. Before this, her daughter had had difficulty going to sleep at night and they would find her up out of her bed several times while they were still up in the evenings. They put the new amber bulb in her room and she really liked her "special light." This dim light allowed them to also close her bedroom door all the way (which had previously remained open to allow a little light in) but leave the "night-night" light on.

According to my friend, this new combination of lighting and routine has made a big improvement in her daughter's sleep. She now goes to sleep easily and has only rarely been waking up during the night. As with much science, there is no definitive way to know if the light bulb itself prompted these better sleeping habits or if it was the change of routine in lighting or some other factor. However, it is encouraging to see how refreshed and well-rested both mom and daughter are now with this new situation.

As parents we all know sleep is huge part of our lives--especially if we or our children are not getting enough. Sleep-deprived parents are more likely to lose their temper with their little ones. Kids who do not get enough sleep are more likely to struggle academically and trouble regulating their emotions. 

Although the science behind sleep-promoting light bulbs is still fairly new, it seems plausible that technology like this could help adults and children with establishing good sleep habits. Whether it be light bulbs or simply turning electronics off near bedtime, helping our children learn how to "power down" their brain for sleep is a lesson that will benefit them for a lifetime. 

*post contains affiliate links
*we received light bulbs in exchange for an honest review

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Why Your Facebook Feed Might be Making You Feel Like a Bad Parent

It was almost time for bed. Before I settled in, I thought I'd check Facebook just to see what was going on with my friends. Oh look, she just potty trained her daughter at 2 years of age (my kids were way older than that). Cue feelings of failure. My other friend just re-decorated her living room--it looks so great. My living room looks like a toy store exploded in it much of the time. Cue feelings of inadequacy. Wait a minute, wasn't social media supposed to be about making connections, not feeling inadequate?

Does this sound familiar? In the age of social media, it can seem like our whole lives and those of our friends are portrayed online. We love seeing pictures of our friends' families, kids and vacations, however, they can also be the source of some serious comparison. It's human nature to look at those "perfect" vacation pictures and consider what our last family vacation looked like. Did your last vacation include cherub-faced children building sand castles on the beach? Rather, maybe it included red-faced tantruming toddlers refusing to get out of the pool or throwing food on the floor.

For many of us, the picture in our head probably does not measure up to those we see on Facebook.

Why Your Facebook Feed Might be Making You Feel Like a Bad Parent

How does this comparison make us feel? Does comparison on social media sites make parents feel less positive about their parenting skills or does it make them feel happy and empowered? Can comparisons on social media actually make you feel less happy about your life?

A recent fascinating study considered just this issue.

Here's the lowdown on the study:

- 749 mothers participated in the study

- researchers assessed
      - how often the moms used social media
      - how much they compared themselves to others on social media
- researchers assessed parenting factors:
     - parenting competence (how well you feel you parent)
     - role overload (do you feel like you can't fulfill all the duties you have)

- researchers also assessed mental health measures like feelings of depression and life satisfaction

- researchers looked at relationship factors:
     - conflict with partner over social media use
     - social support
     - relationship satisfaction
     - how they felt about their co-parenting relationship

Well, it turns out that my experience of feeling inadequate after scrolling through my social media feed isn't unusual. The study showed that the more moms compared themselves to others on social media, the less adequate they felt as parents and the more they felt overloaded by their role as moms.

Furthermore, this type of social media comparison may also be influencing moms' mental health. Moms who spent more time comparing themselves to others also had higher levels of depressive feelings. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean they were clinically depressed, but it sure didn't make them feel happy and empowered about their situation either.

You know how you feel when you see a friend's picture of Facebook of their partner taking the kids to a museum or park. Or maybe they post a picture of their husband vacuuming the living room--does that make you feel like your husband is not pulling his own weight around the house? Turns out you're not alone. The study also indicated that mom's who compared themselves to others on social media were more likely to feel like they receive less support from their network and also feel worse about their co-parenting relationship with their partner.

That's what the study found, but what's really going on here? Do you think this adequately represents your experience? Is comparison on social media really that much of a problem for mothers today?

Personally, I think it does have the potential to cause real feelings of inadequacy if you are not mindful about what is going on. I know I have at times let comparison to others steal my joy for parenting and motherhood.

The key point to understand about social media is that it is just an image. Rarely do people post photos of their kid's last potty training accident or pile of laundry that's been sitting on the couch for a week. You never see the full story on social media--you always see the filtered story. This is why social media comparison is so easy to slip into and hard to trick your mind into avoiding.

How do you try to make yourself "immune" to this type of comparison that can be problematic? I think the answer comes back to true, authentic connection with other people. It may sound trite, but I have found that it works. If you can find friends that you can truly be yourself with (in real life), you come to see each others' faults, struggles, challenges. In being authentic and vulnerable, you come to realize that those pictures they post on Facebook are only half the story. You know that behind that perfect living room is a 7-year-old's bedroom that is covered with Legos. You come to know that after that cute picture of their toddler painting, there was a 10 minute tantrum that ensued.

Motherhood can be challenging, exhausting and emotionally trying. However, if you can build just a few real connections with other moms, you can come to see that all the other moms are in the process with you. In my experience, this helps us to find the real joy that can be found in motherhood too. You see that you and your friends are doing the best you know how to do. You begin to see that part of the joy is found is laughing at and sharing the challenges with other moms. I have found that in sharing just a bit of my real life with close friends, the messy, hard picture of parenthood becomes a lot more beautiful.

Now when I get ready for bed at night, I'm more likely to text a mom friend than scroll through Facebook. Or even better send a message to a friend that might need a little encouragement. Now, that's real connection.

I am reading Brene Brown's book, The Gifts of Imperfection, and it has really inspired me to look beyond comparisons on social media to a more authentic approach to friendships. It's really worth a look if you struggle with social comparisons.

*this post contains affiliate links

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Scientific Reason Why Yelling Doesn't Work

Have you ever wondered how the emotion used in your voice affects how your kids listen or understand what you tell them? No doubt most of us have had moments where we “lost it” with our kids and raised our voice or yelled at them. This expression of angry or frustrated emotion may have gotten your child’s attention rather quickly, but do moments like this really reinforce their memory of what you say to them?

The Scientific Reason Why Yelling at Kids Doesn't Work

A recent study of vocal emotion and memory may shed a little light on this topic. Although this topic did not specifically consider emotion in parents’ communication, I think the implications of this study could be applied to parenting situations. 

During the study, participants listened to words spoken in either a neutral or sad tone of voice. Later the participants were asked to recall the words from memory. Interestingly, results of the study showed that people tended to remember words spoken in a neutral tone better than those spoken in a sad tone. Additionally, participants remembered words spoken in a sad tone more negatively than the other words.

This research makes perfect sense based on what we know from previous studies. As most of us know, psychologists have shown that individuals (kids included) have a much harder time remembering things or functioning well cognitively when their brain is flooded by distressing emotions like anxiety or fear. This is why children consistently exposed to stress or trauma have a hard time learning. Scholars studying the impact of poverty on children have found that this emotional stress is a common hindrance to their learning. For children living in poverty, emotions such as fear or anxiety are all too common and they can ultimately interfere with their brain’s ability to process new information effectively.

The interplay between emotion and cognitive functioning may even be more relevant for relationships between young children and their parents. Depending on their temperament, young children may be easily frightened or made anxious by a harsh tone of voice used by a parent whom they normally trust and rely upon.

All parents occasionally lose their temper or raise their voice with their children. What all this research shows us, however, is that the potential anxiety provoked by this tone of voice probably undermines any message you try to get across to your child. When distressing emotions flood the brain, it is very difficult for children (or adults for that matter) to remember and process words or information very effectively. As difficult as it may be, a calm tone of voice may actually help your children remember what you are saying in the long run.

As important as this research is, it is hard to remain calm at times when your kids are pushing your buttons. One thing I have found helpful is to understand the developmental stage that you kids are going through that may be prompting the irritating behavior. Especially with toddlers and young children, their behavior is often a sign of an oncoming developmental change.

Another big step in remaining calm is having reasonable expectations of children's behavior. As one of my favorite child development writers, Janet Lansbury, says,
"During the toddler years, our most reasonable expectation is the unreasonable.  Expecting the madness makes it far easier to keep our cool."
I have found this type of approach to be helpful at older ages as well. Of course, it makes more sense to have different expectations for an elementary-age child, but it is helpful to understand that their behavior may have less to do with you and more to do with them just trying to mature and learn. At times, they may not be trying to intentional irritate you but simply do not yet have the emotional tools to express themselves in a more appropriate way.

These site offer other wonderful tips for dealing with children's behavior in a calm way:

9 Best Ways to Stay Mostly Unruffled with Toddlers

Two-Year-Olds Aren't Terrible; They are Just Learning to be Human

Friday, February 3, 2017

Beyond Our Own Front Door: What We Can Learn from a Multicultural View of Parenting

In the current atmosphere of parenting it's easy to feel overwhelmed by questions and worries. It seems that many parenting decisions have become the point of debate and competing sides these days.
  • Do I enroll my kids in a lot of extracurricular activities or do I allow them more time for free play?
  • Should my kids' education be highly structured with drills and worksheets or more creative and based around projects?
  • How much homework is appropriate at each age?

These are all questions that get debated in friend groups, schools and families every day. What we may not see underlying all these questions, however, are the cultural biases that guide them and our responses to them.

What We Can Learn from a Multicultural View of Parenting

Although I have never lived in another country, I have enough background in sociology to understand how the culture in which we live influences almost every decision we make, especially when it comes to parenting. Our cultural values seep into our children without us really even making much effort for it to happen.

This was brought to my attention even more while reading the book, Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age. The author has a unique perspective on this issue because she has lived, worked, and raised children in both Eastern and Western cultures. Born and raised in India, Maya Thiagarajan, then moved to the U.S. as a teenager. She completed her higher education in the U.S. and now lives in Singapore with her family.

Given her background, Thiagarajan has one of the best perspectives from which to help us understand the differences between Eastern and Western education and parenting philosophies. This book was really eye-opening for me, given my lack of experience with Eastern cultures. We all know the classic stereotypical understanding of the "Tiger Mom" who pushes her kids to compete and succeed in academics and extracurricular activities. This book helps us look beyond the stereotype to really examine not only how Eastern and Western philosophies differ, but what we can learn from each. 
Beyond the Tiger Mom

The other aspect of the book that was surprising was seeing how the debates we often see here in the U.S. about parenting issues are in some ways, a smaller scale version of this East-West paradigm. For instance, our society often debates the value of memorization and drills in education compared to a focus more on creativity, innovation and child-led learning. This book really helped me see that some component of this debate is really a cultural one--the approach we use in educating our children reflects the goals that we value as a society. 

In Western culture, we lean more towards valuing innovation, independence and creativity. Eastern cultures put more emphasis on structure, immediate results and memorization. However, this is a broad generalization. In each culture you see aspects of the same debate over what really should be valued in education. What this book helps us see is the beauty and effectiveness that can be gained by finding a middle ground. What if we could pick aspects of both Eastern and Western culture in educating our kids? What if the "creativity" and "memorization" approaches both have value and could both benefit our children?

This type of East-West thinking is what you find throughout the book and I found it refreshing. Thiagarajan discusses several topics such as reading education, math education, work-play balance, and technology all from this East-West perspective. Because this book is for parents, she also offers helpful tips and resources to find this balance between the Eastern and Western approaches.

Although I am steeped in the research of child development, I often forget how this research is largely culturally bound. This book reminded me once again that the decisions I make with my own children are a product of American culture. Children around the world develop in different contexts with different values, yet there are universal questions that all parents worldwide face. 

What is the best type of education for my child?
Is my child developing in the best way?
Am I putting too much pressure on my child or being too relaxed?

This book was a great reminder that we parents are all in this together in the sense that we all want the best education and future for our children.

*this book was provided to me in exchange for an honest review*
*post contains affiliate links