Time to learn

I love Penelope Leach. I’m going to come right out and say it. My love affair started long ago when I was in my early teens and I found one of her parenting tomes, cracked spine and well-thumbed, on a shelf in my parents’ junk room. Once I’d discovered it, I often snuck in there in unguarded moments (somehow I felt this was an illicit activity) to find out how to bring myself up.

When I was about to become a parent myself, I randomly decided to read everyone but her. I think the memory of the seventies-style cover of the book my parents owned made me think she must be Old and Out of Date. So I read Gina Ford (talk about out of date!) and the Baby Whisperer and Dr Miriam Stoppard. It wasn’t until I was seven months pregnant with baby number 2 that I found “Your Baby & Child” by Penelope Leach (in a very modern-looking binding) in a charity shop for the appealing price of £1, and decided to see what she had to say. I have been dipping in and out of her book every since, mainly reading about toddlers, and everything she says just makes such perfect sense.

Here is something I read in a section on how to join in with toddler play that made me rethink my life:

“Try, sometimes, to arrange unlimited time for [your toddler’s] games. Many toddlers have to nag ceaselessly in order to get a grudging game from an adult and then they spend most of the 10 minutes allotted to them waiting for the dread words: “that’s enough”. You cannot play with him all day but […] do try, sometimes, to seem willing or even eager, to play yourself, and let him have the luxury of going on until he is ready to stop. He learns by continuous repetition. If ball-rolling is on today’s agenda, he may need to roll a ball for 20 minutes at a time.” (Penelope Leach, 2003, Your Baby & Child, p. 408.)

(The fancy referencing and the elipsis and such are for you, Dad.)

I read this and realised that I am always limiting my playtime with the Toddler. I will play with him for a little bit, but I am always plotting an exit strategy to get back to Important Things like the washing up or Twitter. As an excellent parenting course I attended put it: I am always half-busy. Never with my mind completely on my children, or completely on something else, but always doing both at once and not giving my best, full attention to either. This is not something to beat myself up over, though of course I do, because it is normal. There is not enough time in the day to spend every second completely focused on either the children or the house work or being self-employed, because something will end up not done. You have to multi-task sometimes.

However, I decided that I can, once a day, give the Toddler my unlimited time and attention for something he wants to do, and not stop until he wants to stop. I have tried it with playing his favourite game, Doodlebugs, which is actually very enjoyable. It is no hardship to spend 20 minutes playing Doodlebugs, or playing football, or drawing numbers on the pavement with chalk. And the thing I secretly fear – that he will never ever want to stop – is not true. He does eventually tire and want to do something else. Just not as quickly as I do. But that is okay.

I am not just telling you about all this to show how I am growing as a parent and a human being. There is something in particular that struck me about this passage from Penelope Leach’s book: “He learns by continuous repetition. If ball-rolling is on today’s agenda, he may need to roll a ball for 20 minutes at a time.” (Leach, 2003, p. 408) (for you, Dad) The reason my Toddler – and, it turns out, any toddler – wants to play or do the same thing for hours on end is not because he is obsessed, not because he is a bit boring, but because he is learning. 

A case in point: This weekend, the Toddler was playing in the garden while my husband was cooking on the barbecue – this was a fascinating new phenomenon. To observe it better, the Toddler ran inside to get an apple and installed himself on a garden chair with a good view of Daddy.

“Doing, Daddy?”
“I’m doing the barbecue. What are you doing, S?”
“I’m doing apple.”
[pause for munching]
“Doing, Daddy?”
My husband said they must have had this exact conversation about twenty times in a row. When the apple was gone, our son ran inside, got a pear and carried on where he had left off, except now he was “doing pear”. Daddy, being a good sport, was very happy to keep going for as long as the Toddler wanted to. What was he learning? I imagine he was learning about chatting, about turn-taking, about how you can use the verb ‘to do’ to describe an activity, but primarily about how you ask and answer questions, which is a relatively new feature of the Toddler’s language.

A while back, I wrote about the wonders of self-education. I have been looking on, in awe, as my son has taught himself to count and to recognise letters and their sounds, while I have spent my professional life witnessing British teenagers come out of secondary school unable to spell or do simple maths. The question I asked in that post was: what has gone wrong between the joyful self-education of the pre-school years and the antagonistic reluctance to be educated that you find in schools? Now I ask it again. It would seem that toddlers are built for learning. By instinct, they know what to do. They find something that interests them and they are not quite competent at yet, and they explore, experiment and repeat repeat repeat until they have mastered it. We don’t need to teach them how to learn. They know. In fact, we’re mostly the ones trying to stop them doing it.

So, let’s start the debate once more. What do you think? If we start from scratch and invent school as if it had never existed, what would it look like? How can we use what children are born with to help them learn? Should we have listened to Socrates? Or Montessori? Or just Penelope Leach? Tell me what you think in the comments and let’s re-imagine education!

PS: If you haven’t already, watch this amazing TED-talk by Ken Robinson on the subject.

Learning is taking place: even exciting new moulds could not measure up against the joy of just getting Mummy to make more numbers out of Play-doh

Learning is taking place: even exciting new moulds could not measure up against the joy of just getting Mummy to make more numbers out of Play-doh


The Big Fat Yummy Book

I was a terrible eater as a child. My favourite dish was plain pasta with grated cheese on top. I would also have meat, potatoes and veg, provided there was no sauce involved and none of the foods were touching each other. Everything needed to be just so: my porridge quite runny, my slices of cheese neatly tiled on my bread, orange not apple juice, not too much milk with my cereal, and definitely nothing spicy or new.

My Mum was at a loss. She would attempt to get me to try new things by using Jedi mind tricks on me: “You will like this.” Unfortunately, I was of strong, sound mind and eager to prove my mother wrong. She tried shaming me – “I can’t take you anywhere” – but I was impervious. I went everywhere anyway and just asked the waiter to bring me a plate of chips while my mother cringed in a corner.

My father tried playful encouragement. My limited diet made it tricky if I went to stay with a friend or relative, so he made the “Big Fat Yummy Book” for me. It was a homemade notebook with an optimistic number of pages on which I could write all the food I did like. I could show this to my host to help plan the menu – and I think my Dad hoped I would try new things because I would want to fill up the book. This also sadly failed to do much good.

I am loathe to admit it, but this is how I ate until I was nineteen years old. What happened then? I moved out of home and had to cook for myself. Cooking plain pasta and grating some cheese on top got old fast, so I learned to cook and eat more interesting things to avoid dying of boredom and/or starvation.

Having gone from being a very picky eater to someone who enjoys food – cooking it, eating it, experimenting with it – I am determined that my children will not spend the first eighteen years of their lives going on sleepovers with a hopefully named Big Fat Yummy Book under their arm.

When it was time to start our son on solid food, my husband and I decided to try something called Baby-Led Weaning, which basically does away with purees and jars and encourages babies to eat with the family from the start. The thought is that babies are designed to feed themselves: the maturation of their digestive system, ready for solid food, coincides with them learning to sit up, grab things and bring them to their mouths. They naturally want to try to chew and eat everything they see. So you provide them with easy to grab titbits from your plate and let them get on with it. It takes a month or two for them to start actually swallowing some food and realising that it is not just a plaything but that it fills you up and stops the hunger-feeling. Then they are away and you can start dropping milk feeds.

Part of the idea behind baby-led weaning is that you provide them with a wide range of different types of food but let them decide what they want to try. You don’t put any pressure on them, there is no “here comes the aeroplane” or “just one more bite, darling”, they munch what they want to munch. And because it is like playtime for them, they really do want to try everything.

My son took to baby-led weaning like a duck to water. By eight months, another mum at a toddler group was gaping at him as he munched on a piece of toast and said: “I have worked in nurseries for ten years, but this is the best eating I have ever seen a baby do”. He devoured everything: he was eating hummus and tzatziki, mango, trout, avocado, chickpeas – you name it. I was really hopeful that he would avoid being a picky eater altogether.

But no. It appears picky eating and what they call ‘neo-phobia’ is just a natural stage of toddler development, and now my son likes eating plain pasta with grated cheese on top. It is seriously his favourite dish. Oh, and he loves pancakes.

I keep offering him other types of food and I am told that he will return to them. He has already discovered that actually, meat balls are quite nice and chicken is good too. Also, if he refuses to eat dinner we don’t offer alternatives, just an extra beaker of milk. Hopefully in time, he will broaden his repertoire again.

I’m sure that was what my parents kept telling themselves as well.

So, what will we do with the Baby? We will definitely be doing baby-led weaning again – to me it seems more natural, easier and it really helps foster independence. But I won’t hold out hopes that it will avoid picky eating. That is just a phase we will need to weather.


For more information on Baby-Led Weaning, I can recommend this book. As with all parenting books, do read it with a pinch of salt. Spoons are not as evil as the book makes them out to be.

Sleep – and lack of it

Parents of newborns are boring. All they talk about is sleep: when the baby sleeps, for how long, how often, how little sleep they are getting, who they would kill to get some sleep. I remember a friend warning me before I had our son that me and my husband would inevitably get into bitter arguments over who had had the least sleep. She wasn’t wrong.

When people meet our baby, they will often ask: “Is she good?” Bizarrely, that turns out to mean: “does she sleep at night?” – as if this were a behaviour the baby had much control over. Well, our baby is pretty good, but she likes to surprise us. First, she surprised us by sleeping through for three nights in a row when she was only six weeks old. Then she surprised us by waking up in the night again after that, and sleeping through again every third or fourth night, just to keep us on our toes. After settling into a nice sleeping-through pattern around Christmas, she has most recently surprised us by waking up every two hours or so from her last feed at 11pm. This is not a popular trend, as I am sure you can imagine.

In situations like this, when you are sleep deprived and a little bit desperate, and also foolishly trying to stay off the cake and chocolate, you start to look for magic solutions. I see parents searching for answers everywhere I go: on baby forums, in toddler groups, in the Netherlands, in the UK – why is my baby doing this and more importantly, how do I make it stop?

Gina Ford enthusiasts debate the wisdom of pushing the morning nap (MN, on the forums) later in order to combat early morning waking (EMW). Gina herself warns you not to feed your baby when she wakes up in the night if she has previously not needed milk at that time – you will just be making a rod for your own back as she will start waking up at that time expecting milk. Her dire warnings echo through my head as I breastfeed my daughter at 2.30AM to get her back off to sleep quickly.

Then there are those in the opposite camp who prefer to combat the waking by sharing their bed with the baby (co-sleeping, this is called), so that the baby can feed on demand in the night while you drift in and out of sleep yourself. Personally, I prefer to keep the bed for grown ups, plus my baby seems to like sleeping in a darkened room on her own. This of course also causes fear and guilt, as the more evangelical proponents of this method will tell you that it is unnatural and even cruel for little babies to be separated from their mother in this way.

What really scares me – possibly because it goes against my own fervently held opinions – is when parents decide to start weaning their babies early to make them sleep through the night, say at 12 weeks old. How far will we go to get some sleep? Surely this is compromising their baby’s health? Their tiny stomachs are just not ready for solid food at that age. When I hear these kind of stories my blood boils and I want to shake people. Then again, advice on weaning has varied widely over the ages and even over the past few years. Before there was formula, mothers unable to breastfeed their children would make pastes a little like baby rice now and feed them to infants barely a few days old – and still the human race has survived. There may well be people reading this who feel very strongly about either Gina Ford or co-sleeping who are quite ready to give me a good shake based on the previous few paragraphs and tell me that I myself am compromising my baby’s health. In fact, you may already be on the case, finding me links to articles online that will prove conclusively that I am Wrong.

When the Toddler was a baby, I spent hours reading parenting books trying to work out what I was doing wrong and how I could make him sleep through again when he stopped being “good”. With our daughter, I plan to just ride it out and do whatever seems best at the time. As it is unethical and entirely impractical to do scientific research into which baby-care method is most effective, we all just find our way through the conflicting opinions and do what seems to suit us and our babies best, and as long as they are happy and growing well, we can pat ourselves on the back and say Good Job Well Done.


I’m not messing about on the early weaning though. Stop it. Wait till they’re about six months, sitting up and can bring food to their mouths themselves.

Routine: my guilty confessions to Gina Ford

Before my son was born, we decided that we wanted to get our baby into a routine. My husband, who prefers underlying principles to rules, read Gina Ford and said: “Great, let’s apply the general ideas but not try to follow her timings to the second, because this woman is clearly insane.”

I, however, am one of those people who navigates their way through the flood waters of life by clinging on to rules like a life raft. I am not saying this is good. In fact, I would say this is one of my big failings, as I am prone to getting so caught up in the little details that I fail to spot the big picture, like, say, the reason you are actually following the rules in the first place.

When my son was a baby I tried not to get too hung up on Gina’s precise timings, but she was so adamant that unless you followed her routine to the letter, things would go wrong, and if your baby was not content it was your own fault for not doing as she told you. Aside from rules, I am also a bit of a sucker for Experts. So the Toddler, a baby at the time, got into a lovely routine that looking back I am more than happy with, but along the way I did nothing but stress and beat myself up and clock-watch and shed the occasional tear of frustration at a nap that was too long or too short etc. etc.

With the Baby, I still can’t make up my mind what to do. I am not trying to Gina Ford it. I am trying not to Gina Ford it. Instead, I decided I’d go with a more general ‘rhythm’ rather than strict timings – as suggested by the Baby Whisperer, because I am still a sucker for Experts – of eat, play, sleep in 3 to 3 1/2 hour blocks. I try to watch her and put her to bed when she seems tired. I want to let her sleep for as long as she wants to, up to the next feed. Then I try to keep her awake for about 2 hours before bedtime. That is what I want to want.

In reality, I cannot help clocking how long she has been asleep for and comparing it in my head to Gina Ford’s advice. This morning I let her sleep for an hour and a half before I woke her up, 45 minutes before her next feed was due. That was me incapable of making a decision for either my own plan or Gina Ford’s: Gina would say no more than a 45 minute morning nap is needed, so it was too long. My planned approach would have said: you woke her up well before her feed and it was difficult to rouse her, she obviously wanted to sleep for longer, so let her. In total, today, I let her sleep for four and a half hours. Gina would say that was too much daytime sleep at this age, especially if I then guiltily admitted that I had let her sleep until 8am that morning and that she was more than ready for bed by 6.15pm.

Something in me says: if she wants to go to bed, let her. If she wants to sleep until 8, let her. If she wants to nap for ages, let her. There will be plenty of times when she won’t want to do any of that and you’ll wish you’d taken the opportunities to have a break and some one to one time with the Toddler when you could. She sleeps quite well at night, she feeds, she is happy and content, she settles herself to sleep without rocking, singing, white noise, hand holding or anything. All she wants is a quiet, dark room, and her fingers to suck. This is not a baby who needs more regimenting. This is a baby who is quite happy and self-sufficient.

Eventually, I am hoping I can gently encourage a reliable routine that I can plan my work around. And I also hope this reliable routine will include a lunchtime nap that roughly coincides with my son’s, so that I have time to do some work in the middle of the day. But at 12 weeks, I’m sure my son was no further in being ‘reliable’ than my daughter is now, even though I had put a lot more hard work into his routine and shed many more tears over it.

In the meantime, I will be the one in the corner with a clear view of the clock, pretending not to watch it.

Rated 18: Blood, nipples, pain, teen pregnancy and changing the world

It happened when my son was little as well, but it doesn’t make it any less distressing when you know the reasons and you’ve seen it before: blood on the sheet and on your baby’s sleep suit. She’s 8 weeks old, breastfeeding has improved a lot, but I am still in pain and still bleeding. In fact, just the past week or so, the open wound – sorry! – looks like it is getting bigger again.  And now there is blood in the milk she spits up.

I hate it. I know I went to a fancy dress party when I was pregnant as Bella Swan, but I didn’t really want a vampire baby.

I hate being in pain. I hate worrying about whether and when that nipple will heal, and whether I really will come out the other side like with my son and enjoy breastfeeding.

I hate the thought that I might put people off breastfeeding. If I feed the baby in public, carefully putting aside the wound dressing, wincing as I latch her on, I think: I may be the only person some young pregnant mum-to-be sees breastfeeding in public. What about this picture is going to make her think: “Hey, that doesn’t look too bad, maybe I’ll give it a go!”

Thankfully, my husband is very sensible. He pointed out that no teenage mother was ever going to be swayed to try breastfeeding by seeing me feed in public, pain or not. Not because of me, but because that is not what was holding her back.

“But, but, role models! Don’t they need role models who breastfeed?” I splutter.

“A random stranger feeding a baby in a shopping centre is not a role model,” my husband replies, leaving the rest unsaid. The rest being that if I seriously want to be a role model and inspire teen mums to break the mould and breastfeed, I need to go and get to know some teenagers, build relationships with them that involve mutual trust and respect, preferably before they become Pregnant Teen Mums and while they are still just girls, and maybe then they might think something I believe in might be worth believing in too.

I’m glad he didn’t say all that, though. Because I would have come up with millions of excuses not to, and now I can keep all those embarrassing lies in my head, safely unchallenged and unexamined. Changing the world is far too much like hard work. I’d much rather be inspiring just by feeding my baby in a shopping centre, which I was going to do anyway.

Perhaps next time I do, I should wear a sign round my neck:

“I know it looks like I’m in pain and not enjoying this. I am and I’m not. But it will get better soon and in the meantime this is still the best thing for my baby. It’s great and give it a go, really.”

Do you think that would do the trick?  

Health visitor

The idea of the health visitor is that he or she keeps an eye on the development of your baby and provides an easy to access, local first port of call for your questions and concerns.

That is the idea, I believe. But after two years of tightly planned expeditions to their baby clinic in a nearby school, now with two children, I think it is time to face up to the truth. First of all, they are not health visitors at all. If anything, they are Health Visitees. They have come to see me at home twice: once for each child in the first two weeks of its life. Now I visit them. So let’s give up the pretense that this is a service that conveniently comes to your house.

Secondly, the ones I see seem incapable of doing anything other than weigh the baby and put a dot on a line in the growth chart. If I ask them anything else, the most usual response is: “Hmmm yes, I see. Well, if you’re worried you should go and see your GP.” I could phone a friend and get the same advice.

On Thursday I got a Health Visitor who couldn’t even put the dot on the line. I may just stay at home from now on and weigh my baby on the bathroom scales. It is really quite simple. You weigh yourself, then you step on the scales with your baby in your arms, subtract your own weight from the number you see. Then open the red book and put the dot on the line. Hey presto, you are a health visitor!

The Truth about Breastfeeding

This is what I would have wanted government and NHS, Breasfeeding Network and NCT, midwives and friends to say before my son was born:

Breastmilk is amazing. It tastes different every time, depending on what you have eaten. It contains all sorts of vital antibodies and nutrients, especially tailored to your baby. It changes as your baby grows up, adjusting to his or her needs at every stage. You can keep it at room temperature for up to 6 hours, because of its antibacterial properties. It is free. It is always at the right temperature. It doesn’t require any preparation or washing up. Babies and mothers were designed for breastfeeding, it is your baby’s natural source of food, it is what breasts are for.

It is natural, but not easy.

You will struggle in the beginning. You and your baby are both beginners. You have to learn to latch the baby on properly, and when you make mistakes, which is natural when you are learning a new skill, it will hurt and you may end up with very sore, even damaged and bleeding nipples for a while. This could sort itself out within a week or so, or it could take a month or two or three or more.You will probably have times when you are stressed beyond belief by feeding your baby. You might be in pain, worried about whether the baby is getting enough, dreading every feed.

All this will pass. It will. It won’t feel like it, but it will. Your baby’s mouth is only small, but it will grow and then latching on will be easier. You will both learn how to do it, and it will become second nature until you can feed while walking around and drinking a glass of water. It will be easier, hopefully painless and it will become something special between you and your baby, as well as just being an excellent portable source of food for him or her.

So persevere, because it is so worth it, and Get. Help. There is plenty of free support out there. Make use of it. Go to support groups and baby cafes. Meeting with experts and other mums going through the same thing helps keep you going.
This is the true story of breastfeeding. The smiling, idyllic pictures are only half of that story and raise expectations that are not usually met. If you want women to try breastfeeding and keep at it, they need to hear how hard it can be, but also that they will get through it and that there is help to be found.

O – or self education

The Toddler is like a sponge. He repeats everything we say and takes an interest in everything around him. He wants to know how things work, what things mean, where they go, what you can put in them and particularly what else you can do with them: the skin off a bit of pepper becomes a flag, a tube of soaps becomes a truck and his crayons can be rearranged to become a racing car.

His main love at the moment is numbers and his favourite is number 8. He will gleefully shout out any number he spots around the house or in the supermarket or anywhere else really, but number 8 deserves an extra dose of toddler-volume: “EEEEEEEEEIIIIIIGHT!!” he roars gleefully when he sees it anywhere. He also has very sharp eyes, as it can take Mummy and Daddy a little while to see where he’s spotted it.

It never ceases to amaze us what he is learning at this early age, and all with great enjoyment, prompted by his own interest. He can count up to ten and is working on eleven and twelve. He can count backwards from ten and adds “Blassoff!” for good measure. He recognises the numbers up to ten.  Best of all, he can make the number seven from Found Materials: he will nibble on a square of toast until only two sides are left, hold it up reverently and exclaim: “Seven!” He is also practising counting objects. Sometimes he is very good at it: this morning he pulled three of his books off the shelf and counted: “One, two. Three books.” Straight after that, he jumped from book to book and counted them again, but this time he got to nine. So not quite there yet.

And now, he is starting to discover letters. He knows that letters make sounds, though up until recenty not which sound belonged to which letter. He would scribble on the steamed up shower enclosure with his finger, spelling out: “m-a-m-a: Harry!” or “e-m-a: Maisy Mouse!” But suddenly, last week, the Toddler picked up one of his Cheerios and held it up for me. “O!” he said proudly. Since then he has been finding “o” all over the place. At lunch today, he curled a slice of red pepper around so the ends met and said: “o, Mummy!”

What strikes me most about all this, other than that my son is clearly a genius, is how much he loves discovering all about letters and numbers, in other words: reading, writing and maths. These are subjects that schools and colleges are battling to teach their students, from age 3 up to age 16. I used to work in a college, and the number of students who would come through the door at age 16 or up with shockingly poor maths and English skills was astounding. Yet my son, at 2 years of age, is going around educating himself. I’m sure he will be reading before he gets to reception.

I am not trying to say that my son is anything special – although clearly he is in the eyes of his doting mother. Lots of toddlers I meet are interested in numbers and letters, colours and animals, but also science: how things work, what they are for and what else you can do with them. My question is this: what has gone wrong between the unbridled enthusiasm for learning of the toddler years and the painful apathy of the school years? Why can we not harness the thirst for knowledge that our children show early on and channel it into learning Maths, English, Science and goodness knows what else they might be interested in? I think it is time to scrap everything and start with a blank page. It is time to re-imagine education.

I’ll get back to you once I’ve done that.