Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Woo Her with Insight: Gift Ideas for Geek Moms

Coming Soon: Mother's Day (May 13)

Geek moms can be pretty low key about recognition. However- this does not apply to Mother's Day. Your first words to your household geek momma should be "Happy Mother's Day!" (and they could quite fabulously be accompanied by breakfast in bed).

Geek dads, if your kids aren't old enough to express thanks, then the entire job falls to you. If they're older, then you may just play a supporting role.

For those moms who are more drawn to the hardware store than the jewelry store, a Leatherman Micra may fit the bill. I use mine every day for kid-oriented things and get the geek credibility for being a faster draw with the multi-tool than most men. There's also massive mom credibility for always having scissors and tweezers. The Micra even has a small blank panel which could be inscribed with a succinct phrase by most engravers.

Capturing the Moment:
Your kids won't be young long (even though some days feel like forever). Commemorate their size, expressions, and personalities.

Jim made me a very cool life poster collage using photos from Ranger's early infancy. Here's a good example of a finished life poster and instructions from its creator, Mike Matas on how to make one. He uses iPhoto software, but many graphics programs could be substituted (Jim used Gimp). Your technical concerns are getting the same DPI quality and size for each photo. The poster can be printed at most office supply stores or print shops for a reasonable cost. Check out frame sizes before you start if it will be framed and leave adequate margins.

Again, I am going to recommend commissioning a portrait from an artistic friend, a local artist, or my friend, the very talented Maggie. You will need to work fast to get this done by Mother's Day, but some artists may still have enough time.

Take some special photos of your kids. These can be great gifts for grandparents, too. For beautiful kid photos, steal ideas from Dutch of Photojojo has great general photo advice on how to make cool things like flip books. Their blog Photojojo Uncut offers more great photo tips and techniques- like how to make this incredibly tasty pinhole SPAMera.

Use your kid to create art:

For tiny babes, do not underestimate the sentimental power of a footprint/handprint captured on something useful. (Tip: you will need a second person to get a good infant footprint- and infant hands may take a team of experts. Practice on scrap paper a few times before making your final print.)

Plate kits from Makit or ceramics from a local paint-it-yourself pottery place allow you to commemorate your child's size in a functional, artistic memento. We have a great plate with Ranger's baby footprints and lyrics to one of the songs we sing him every night. It makes me smile to serve food from it. Choose colors that are similar to mom's favorite dishes. You can do the same type of hand/foot printing with a Makit kit (melamine rather than pottery) by using water soluble ink to get foot or handprints. Older kids can do cool custom art for mom.

Goody blog offered a cool suggestion for older kids. Get some large pre-stretched canvases and acrylic paint at an art or hobby store and let your kids make individual portraits of the family. Acrylic paint is pretty determined and affixes itself to fabric and hard surfaces, so choose a good location for cleanup and dress your children accordingly. One of Jim's broadcloth shirts got acrylic paint on it circa 1993 during a really amazing art school egg drop project, and the paint seems like it may outlive the shirt despite regular washing and wearing.

A good option for toddlers through elementary school is making plastercast handprints. The materials are cheap and easily obtained. My mom still has a set of these hanging on her wall from when my brother and I were youngsters. The heart shape may be too much for some moms, but you could always make any geometric shape. If you use a bowl or box to shape the plastercast, line it with plastic wrap (so you can lift it out later) or use a container that you can break and/or peel off if necessary. We pressed shells into the plaster and you write in the wet plaster with a straight object. This process actually, is enough fun that you might want to consider doing it on Mother's Day with mom. Just don't stick her with the clean-up or the task of keeping the kids from messing with them as they dry.

There are commercially available kits for 3-dimensional lifecasts of baby hands & feet but these disembodied appendages always give me the creeps. (Tip: lifecasting takes some time because the plaster has to set fully before it can be removed- I don't recommend it for infants who are awake or will wake easily.) Bellycasting may be the right gift for some pregnant moms, but it's definitely not for every mom. Ask yourself "Where will this hang later?" and "Will my wife want anyone to see it?" If you're not sure, throw out some test questions and she doesn't enthusiastically respond- DO NOT PROCEED; FIND ANOTHER GIFT IDEA. You don't want her to begin crying and say "I hate my pregnant body, you freak!" That's no good. Absolutely DO NOT try it while she sleeps.

Wherever a geek mom works, she probably would appreciate services. Most of the moms I know LOVE spa treatments: massages, facials, manicures, and pedicures. Jim can attest that I am completely miserable at the mere thought of a professional massage or spa visit. I don't like being touched by strangers and make-up is not my thing. I do however enjoy a fine, overpriced haircut and style every once in a while.

Is there any service or activity your geek lady has jettisoned due to the logistical problems since childbirth? Whatever it is, it might be a fine gift option for a gift. Plus, a gift like this means you have been paying attention (which is a gift in itself).

Lots of moms are not into material things, so an outing or ongoing experiences (like an organizational membership) can be great gifts. I love an annual zoo membership, and it only takes a small space in my wallet. For only slightly more than flowers, you can offer a year's worth of opportunities and experiences for the whole family.

You can also offer moms an escape from the kids for a while (this is great for infant and toddler moms who are getting exhausted). While Mother's Day isn't a great day to be away from the kids, offering her other times she can have some time alone or in the company of other grown ups can be a remarkably perceptive gift. Maybe she's been wanting to bowl, go back to book club, drive in the demolition derby, or just sneak off to a coffee shop where she can surf the Internet without interruption. Maybe she'd love to have a night out with friends or go to the movies.

If your household runs like ours (with lots of shared duties), this might not be a big deal, but it's still a nice gesture.

Jim suggests that arranging dinner reservations or an outing for a mom and her friends (sans kids) soon after Mother's Day could be a great and welcome surprise. This will require some legwork to set a time and location, but it would probably be greatly appreciated.

Tools for Quality Time:
Asha of Parent Hacks recommends activities that mom and kids can enjoy together like science kits or tactile toys for babies and toddlers. Good time with the kids is always appreciated.

Sometimes it's hard to entertain infants and toddlers every day. As I can't convince Ranger that it's entertaining to watch me on the laptop without touching the laptop himself, I'd been trying to find activities we both enjoy.

I really like ideas from the book Toddler Play by Wendy S. Masi (for Gymboree). She's also written Baby Play which looks good too.

Face Hercules' Challenge: Take on Odious Tasks:
If you're a dad to the diaper wearing set, and you really want to impress your wife- get yourself a Diaper Valet and put it to regular use.
[Side note] It's always a great gift to those you love and live with to tackle one of the odious projects everyone hates and works at avoiding. At our house this is organizing the office, fixing the garage door, and taking the recycling to the recycling center, but your house probably has its own notoriously avoided tasks. Do one, and make everyone's day!

A Tall, Cool Beverage and A Good Book:
For a mom desiring mom lit, I strongly recommend Christine Mellor's very funny Three-Martini Playdate: A Practical Guide To Happy Parenting. It's (by far) my favorite parenting book.

A geek fiction favorite is Sharon McCrumb's Bimbos of the Death Sun (a fun mystery set at a sci-fi convention).

Geek Gear:
Well, she wouldn't really be a geek if she didn't have the crow-like predisposition for carrying shiny things home. For your geek mama, there may be a piece of electronica just calling her name. You know her better than we do, but don't go too quotidian and don't venture too far into 1.0 territory if she doesn't have time for debugging. If it's still reasonably beta and may have persistent failures, the gift could be more frustrating than fulfilling. We had this problem once with an early multi-gig hard drive mp3 player by Archos (it was the size of a fat paperback book and weighed a few pounds; it took me months to get one that worked right- they were full of fatal bugs).

What kinds of geek mom gifts are you dreaming of?

Heifer, the gift that keeps on giving.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Kill Your Television: National TV Turnoff Week

Earlier today Parent Hacks reminded me of a significant geek family event, TV Turnoff Week. Jim and I both added comments about Turnoff Week's influence on our family long before we even had kids.

We discovered TV Turnoff Week through Canadian media activists, but the event and its ideology aren't limited to the anti-commercial set. It's advocated by children's fitness organizations, both major American political parties, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, outdoor appreciation groups, environmental groups, children's organizations, and numerous educator groups.

You don't have to try it, but you might just have some fun if you do.

Wikipedia article on TV Turnoff and links to other sources.

Admitted: What to Take When Your ER Visit May Become a Hospital Stay

Ranger came home from the hospital yesterday after a bout with rotavirus-related dehydration. He's back to his ornery self, so we're relieved.

Last post, we discussed preparing for and improving an ER visit, but you might want to throw a few extra items in the car if you think your child's ER sick visit may translate into a hospital stay.
  • Socks for the kiddo. Hospitals are sometimes cold, especially for little people with short circuiting bodies. If there is any chance your child will be up and walking around, bring slipper socks or socks with grippy soles (hospital floors are slick). Our local hospital requires footing offering traction before they will let an inpatient walk around at all. Your own socks are far more comfortable than the semi-disposable ones the hospital offers.
  • Snacks for you (or money for the vending machines). You won't want to leave your child alone in their room, and you may get hungry. Throw some portable, non-perishable food into your bag. This will keep you from the guilt of wanting to eat your child's food when it arrives. Don't feed your child any food you've brought in without first clearing it with medical staff, and realize this may mean you have eat it in secret to keep your toddler from melting down.
  • Clothing, bedding, and toiletries for you. Chances are, you or another caregiver are going to sleep on a chair or sofa in your child's room. Pack something that is comfortable to sleep semi-publicly. Some hospitals have blankets and pillows for families, but don't depend on it. If you don't know these items will be supplied, pack a colorful blanket and pillow for yourself. Don't forget your toothbrush!
  • For infants, a blanket, pillow, or toy that smells like home (and/or mom) can be very reassuring. (Thanks for sharing this tip, Amy!)
  • Kid entertainment. Hospitals can be boring. Jeremiah and Jenni of Z Recommends like bringing some of Z's favorite books along. They also remembered that more and more hospitals are making VCRs and DVD players more available to patients, so it may be a good idea to grab some favorite kids' viewing. We didn't take anything along, so Ranger (who never watches tv) got to watch the basketball playoffs and the Wiggles' Wiggle Bay. It was pretty weird for him as it's the first time he's ever watched tv at any length.
  • Reading material for you. Maybe you'll read it, and maybe you won't, but you may not be so lucky as to find last November's US magazine abandoned in a lounge- and the hospital novella-length privacy policy really lacks developed characters and plot.
  • Bedtime ritual stuff. At home for bedtime, we read books, sing a couple of songs, and then tuck Ranger in with a plush dog. We found ourselves without any books and no plush dog on night one. The dogeared US magazine Jim had found in the family lounge told tales of celebrity that should be inflicted upon no child, so Jim sang extra songs. Ranger's grandparents sent a plush bear the next day, so doggie got a ride through the washer at home. It can be hard to get your child to sleep in the hospital. Make your job easier by maintaining as many familiar bedtime routines as you can manage.
  • Kid toiletries and going home clothes & shoes. I speak from experience when I tell you it's sad not to have your own toiletries during a hospital stay. Not only do you feel bad, you also have to see people all the time. And, yes, hospitals can supply some of these items, but they are pale substitutes to the items you regularly use. Often you carry a pajama clad sick kiddo to the ER, remember to bring some clothes & footwear for when they're feeling well enough to leave.
  • As the Z Recommends folks reminded me, many pediatrics wards offer refrigeration facilities for breastmilk. So, if your baby is breastfeeding, you may want to pack some pumping supplies. Make sure and ask a pediatrics nurse about the availability of breastmilk storage facilities, too.
Good general hospital guidelines:
  • With pre-verbal infants and kids, the nursing staff is relying on you to tell them about your child's level of discomfort. Make sure and inform staff if you perceive a change in your child's condition or comfort level.
  • Have a pen and paper handy and write down EVERY MEDICAL QUESTION THAT CROSSES YOUR MIND. That way, when a nurse or doctor appears, you won't forget to ask something important. Seriously, write them all down. You can skip the really stupid ones when you get to ask, but they may not look so stupid when you have a professional to answer them.
  • Input & output: Make sure nursing staff knows what your child is taking in and expelling from their body. Confess if you ate your child's chicken strips.
  • If you are hungry, don't be afraid to ask the staff for options. Depending on the hospital, you may just have vending machines and a cafeteria- or there may be a family lounge with free drinks (soda & coffee, not open bar)- or you may be able to buy food for yourself from the hospital to be delivered with your child's meals. It may not be gourmet, but it is delivered.
  • Learn your nurses' names. We make sure to send a note back to the hospital about the quality of care we received (thus far, it's all been glowing). This is a way to support and encourage good service and high standards of patient care.
  • Be on your best manners. That way if a problem arises, the staff will know that you are reasonable and respectful.
  • If you are an online junkie (like most parent blog readers), ask if the hospital has wireless network access available or public computers.
  • If your sick kiddo is sleeping, look for Closed Captioning options on the tv.
  • Most pediatrics units keep kid-friendly snacks (Popsicles, Jell-O, graham crackers, etc.) at the nurse's station. They can usually find something your kiddo can eat even on dietary restriction. Don't hesitate to ask, it's actually better than giving them unapproved food.
  • It's great to have the support of friends and family, but sometimes that support is better from afar. Don't be afraid to ask visitors to leave (or have the nurses ask for you) or to end phone calls quickly. Your kid needs to recuperate and you, dear parent, need not be exhausted when you and your child return home. It's also okay to head off visitors and callers in advance by not giving out the hospital room phone number and requesting that people not visit until further notice. We made sure to request that our friends with kids at home not visit as Ranger's virus was quite contagious and we didn't want to feel responsible for anyone else getting it. You are your child's gatekeeper. Help them rest.
Now, what did we forget or not know in the first place? Please tell us!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Getting Professional Help: Improving Sick Kid Visits to the Emergency Room

Well, after Regurgapalooza 2007 went on two days longer than we last reported, we found ourselves facing an Emergency Room sick visit for the third time in Ranger's short life. Ranger's pediatrician and her entire practice (4 physicians total) were fully booked on Thursday as a modern plague of bodily-fluid erupting youngsters has overtaken our community in recent weeks. The pediatrics nurse recommended we take Ranger to the ER as his symptoms were acute and indicated dehydration. Our experiences with the ER visit and his subsequent hospitalization have prompted another tips list.

#1- Know which facility you prefer before you ever encounter an emergency. If your community, physician, and insurance allow you selection from different facilities, research while healthy and know where you're headed when an emergency occurs.

Not all emergency medical facilities are created equal. It's good to find out what wait times to expect, quality of care, and reputation for working with infants/children. Friends working in the medical profession have told me of two seemingly identical hospitals in the same community where one has a much higher in hospital infection rate. This kind of information is good to know in advance.

It's also good to know if a hospital specializes in pediatrics. In our community, only two of the three hospitals accept pediatrics inpatients. The hospital without pediatrics will see children in the ER, but can't admit them, so for illnesses which might require hospitalization it's counterproductive to go there. One of the two hospitals with pediatrics is allied with a respected regional children's hospital and can offer a higher level of specialization.

We used to live in a town where the ER wait for any condition was at least 4 hours (they didn't seem to apply triage principles but instead plodded through a first-come, first-served practice). Some friends went to ER with a newborn running 105 degrees, and after over an hour of waiting and staff indifference they called their old family physician in a nearby community. He met them at the ER in their old community in 45 minutes and saw the burning up baby immediately. It was definitely worth a 45 minute drive for the prompt and caring attention they received at the smaller hospital. Even if they had to wait the regular 40 minute ER wait time, they would still see a doctor MUCH sooner in the far-flung hospital where people really cared about their child's well-being. We made a mental note to visit their small town hospital should we ever need emergency care.

Ask people with kids or grandkids about their families' recommendations and experiences. There's a lot of emotion in hospital stories, so try and keep an eye on the facts.

#2- Contact your pediatrician's/physician's office before you leave your house- even though you'll probably just get an answering service. Sometimes they have a better alternative (our pediatrician recommends a partner after-hours pediatrics clinic for less critical concerns). Sometimes they can grease the wheels at the ER and get you in faster (it's not how things work here, but I know it's worked in for friends in other communities).

#3- Gather necessary items before you leave:

  • Payment (Insurance Info/Card, Funds for Copay/Deductible)
  • Vitals (Your wallet, cell phone, phone numbers of anyone you might need to call)
  • Records (Regular Physician Contact Info, List of Medications/Treatments, Any Records of Symptoms/Temperatures)
  • Icky (Vomit catcher (see the 1st anonymous comment on our barf management strategies for a great, quick DIY solution and make one now while no one is barfing), Ziplock and bring the most recent dirty diaper if a stool sample may be needed (helpful for infants/toddlers with abdominal symptoms or vomiting))
  • Comfort: Kids' entertainment, Jeremiah of and recommends bringing favorite books and a pillow with a distinctive or colorful case (lest the hospital think you're taking their pillow home). A blanket or washable toy can also handy.
  • Sustenance: Food/drink for kids and grown-ups (or at least funds for the vending machine).
  • Upkeep: Diapers and wipes (the local ER usually doesn't have these on hand), a change of clothes, SOCKS, shoes, jacket or sweater, backup outfit in cases of fluid eruption.
  • Containment: Do you need a stroller to keep your child from making the occasion into a meet and greet? Will your child need a place to lay down?
  • Is there a chance of hospital admission? If so, you may want to shove a few more things in your car (we'll post this list separately soon).
#4- Don't be grouchy.
While we're all for medical self-advocacy for our families and ourselves, we've observed many families entering the ER with chips on their shoulders. It does you no good with staff to be combative, angry, or negative. Politeness and respect can be a great assets.

You're obviously having a bad time and feel the situation needs professional assistance (otherwise you wouldn't be in the ER).

An ER is a demanding and unpredictable work environment. The people there are working hard in a somewhat chaotic environment. If you can keep your cool as a patient's parent and do your best to help the process, your positive attitude will set you apart from other patients. This always seems to get us preferential treatment in the local ER. It's okay to ask questions and make requests, but if you can do it in a way that recognizes the demanding job of the medical professionals, they are more likely to hear your concerns and respond with consideration.

#5- Have Your Information Ready
Anyone who has spent time behind a desk or cash register knows that people are rarely prepared- even for incredibly routine, predictable processes. This is compounded when people are under duress, they tend to forget more things- slowing processes to a crawl.

If you are visiting an American hospital, have your identification, your insurance information, your supplemental payment (deductible, copay, etc.), your emergency contact information, and your regular physician information on the ready when you get to the registration desk. I guarantee it will speed the registration process.

Not only can you prepare for the registration desk, you can also predict most of the questions in the nurse's initial interview. If you can, write a list while you wait.
  • Does the ill party take any medications? Make sure to include asthma inhalers and any other prescribed items regardless of their delivery format (pill versus inhalation). Most people require further questions to disclose these non-pill, non-liquid items. Also include any regularly consumed supplements (vitamins, herbal remedies, etc.) and any recently consumed over-the-counter products (pain relievers, cough syrups, etc.). You'll probably surprise the interviewer with your broad definition of medication. If anyone in your family regularly takes medication, it's a great idea to have a written list in your wallet to supply in case of medical emergency that includes drug name, reason prescribed, and exact dosage.
  • What's in the patient's past? Does the ill person have allergies, prior hospitalizations, chronic illness, known conditions, surgeries, or family history which may be relevant to their current condition and/or treatment methods?
  • Organize and describe the events that have lead you to the ER. Chronological, succinct presentation is usually the best method of delivering this information. What symptoms brought you to the ER? When did they appear? Have they changed over time? How? When? To what degree?
  • Input: How has the patient been eating and drinking? Does it vary from their normal routine? If so, how? For how long has there been variation in consumption? Were any new foods, beverages, or conditions recently introduced?
  • Output: Number of dirty and wet diapers for infants and toddlers. Number and type of recent eliminations for older kids. How does this vary from regular habits? Is there a change in odor, color, or consistency?
  • Environmental factors: Has your child done anything unusual or experienced anything significantly different recently that might be relevant. A friend of mine while in vet school experienced allergy symptoms which might have been quite mysterious had she not had her first up-close contact (a horse proctological exam) with a large animal earlier that week. Her physician soon diagnosed her allergy to large animals (thank heavens her specialty is birds). While a toddler, our infant godson kept experiencing mysterious rashes- often after seeing a specific relative. It turned out that he has an incredibly severe allergy to tree nuts, and the relative wore a lotion with almond oil that was causing a rash reaction.
#6- Don't freak out, especially when they bring out the needles.
Being worried about your child is fine, but being utterly distraught will cause your child greater anguish and will probably cause you more delays.

If you're taking a sick non-verbal kiddo in, expect bloodwork at the very least (though you may also have x-rays and/or other labwork). And the phlebotomists have to draw that blood with a needle. And the veins are very small, so it may take a couple tries. Deal with that now. It's no fun (they stuck dehydrated Ranger 7 times yesterday to find a viable vein), but it has to happen. This is how doctors diagnose illness; this is how they know what to treat; this is how your kids get better.

So, when the nurse or phlebotomist comes into the room realize they are thinking "Oh *&%#, not a baby/toddler/little kid and parent!" Greet them as you would a friend doing you a huge favor. Offer to help (if you feel able). Let them know you aren't combative (many parents are), and they will relax (last night not withstanding, we usually have great luck with blood draws). When Ranger was a newborn we overheard a couple alternately threaten and beg a phlebotomist not to draw their very sick baby's blood. He had to insist that this was the very thing they had come to the ER for to get them to eventually agree. By the time he got their begrudging permission to draw the blood, their baby was completely freaked out from her parents' outbursts. If you don't want your child fully examined, stay home. Don't terrorize your child with your own fear, pain, and guilt.

A child hears panic and anger in a parent's voice and doesn't know its source or direction (I recently yelled at some teenager thugs harassing. cornering, and physically threatening strolling birds at the zoo and made Ranger burst into tears). Focus on deep breathing, staying calm, and reassuring your child throughout the process. We sing Ranger some of his favorite songs and keep telling him that is just part of making him feel better. He's not verbal enough to understand, but after saying it a few times, I know I don't feel as guilty about subjecting him to that pain. The kids will cry out when stuck, but they recover far more quickly when the parents take a more casual and reassuring stance.

#7- Ask Questions
There's nothing wrong with asking questions. Typically helpful questions are nature of the diagnosed illness, expected duration of illness, your responsibilities for treatment, the warning signs of complication or illness progression, risks of treatment, and future prevention of condition (if possible).

#8- Anticipate and Accommodate Your Child's Specific Needs
This may seem obvious, but Jenni and Jeremiah of Z Recommends give a prime example of how a parents' knowledge of their child can greatly improve the quality of care through attention to detail: If a child sucks their thumb, it's nice for parents to [request] the IV stick in the non-thumb sucking hand. Nurses don't usually think about that.
Ranger is much calmer when he sees a procedure done on someone else first, so we tend to ask the doctors to cursorily shine the lights in our eyes, ears, and mouths first if he seems tense. However, he must brave the rectal thermometer alone.

Jim just called. Ranger woke up feeling much more himself this morning and is now completely bored with being quiet and sitting still. Please forgive my poor editing and proofreading, as I'm posting this in haste.

I will soon post here a to link to general checklist/worksheet of things parents may need for an ER visit which also includes a worksheet of standard ER questions.

Please feel to add your own best practices in the comments.

Next: What to Pack for the Hospital When Your Child May Be Admitted

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Barf-a-rama: Coming Too Soon to a Home Near You

In the spirit of Dad Labs' Bathtime 101: Poop in the Tub tutorial, we'd like to share some hard-learned lessons from our recent battle with gushing tide. A quick Google search for "barf crib cleanup" brings back altogether too many references to the family dog.

Backstory: A terrible virus has been lurking at the periphery of our playgroup, quietly taking out one child after another. The symptoms were pure horror movie- gurgling, rumbling, growling, fluid eruptions, convulsions, crying, and screaming- violent, copious screaming.

Toddler Barf Tip #1- Zippers are your friend. Ease of clothing removal is essential when confronted with a potentially barfing child. Yesterday I foolishly dressed Ranger in a onesie, a rugby jersey, and overalls after he barfed on his zip-up jammies and crib. He wasn't off the changing table before he annihilated that outfit (and the changing table). It took forever to take the sopping outfit off as two of the items had to pull over his head. It brought to mind a car trip story my dad tells involving himself, a carsick dog on the back window ledge, and my grandfather cutting Dad out of a sweater. After that, it was fleece zipper jammies all day. I highly recommend the the kind that zip to or below the knee. Fleece is also resistant to stains and absorption.

Toddler Barf Tip #2- Don't think "Hey, that's the last of it." Toddler nausea seems to have more reincarnations than horror movie villain. I would wishfully think " How could he barf any more?" only to have the question promptly answered on our white carpet, upholstered furniture, Jim's person, my person, and /or all of the above. As the Boy Scouts recommend: "Be Prepared." Trust me, you won't be that disappointed for overplanning the next barf attack.

Toddler Barf Tip #3- Hydration is essential, even though it seems like you are rearming a loose cannon. The biggest risk for little guys with bad stomaches is dehydration. To avoid dehydration keep giving your child water and electrolytes. It may seem counter-productive in barf control, but your child is far more important than your carpet, furniture, etc.. Electrolyte Popsicles are great for kids who gulp down liquids or are timid about drinking.

Toddler Barf Tip #4- What goes down, may come up. Consider this when choosing food items. Grapes and oranges, not good. Grape juice and orange juice, even worse. Water, not so bad. Grapefruit, horrible. Mid-afternoon on day one of our 2 day regurgapallooza, I found myself asking "How will this color compliment our decor?" If you don't like the match, find something else. Also be concerned about texture and acidity because the kids don't yet know enough to consider the feeling of their favorite foods (for Ranger- grapefruit) flying through their nasal passages.

Toddler Barf Tip #5- One is the loneliest number. If you face an ill child alone and have someone who will come help you, don't hesitate to call them immediately. It may seem like a cop-out, but let me tell you- it's hard to clean a child and clothing/furniture/carpets/yourself at the same time. No one sane will fault you for calling in reinforcements. If you don't have anyone you can call, see tip #6.

Toddler Barf Tip #6- Remember the Bathtub. (lifesaving tip from Veronica, mom to twins) Trying to clean a squirmy, freaked out, barfy kid quickly? Unless you have a mudroom with a hose and a floor drain, I strongly recommend the bathtub. Strip 'em of dirty duds and wash children as needed in tub (the shower is also quite handy if hair, ears, or face are involved- though you will probably need to step in with the child). Ranger is quite freaked out over the new experience of vomiting, but a bath really helps calm him down. If there is more gastronomical disruption, your tub is usually easier to clean than other regions of the house. A few cautions- if your child has a high fever, DO NOT USE WATER THAT WILL CHILL THEM; febrile seizures can occur. Never, ever, ever leave a sick child unattended in the bathtub even if it's just for a minute to get a towel or clean something up.

Toddler Barf Tip#7- Put supplies in multiple places. Stick an extra outfit, wipes, and diapers in the bathroom or wherever it is easy for you to clean up your child. Have at least two places you can change your baby as one of those areas may quickly become a biohazard zone.

Toddler Barf Tip #8- This is a great justification for owning a home carpet cleaner. Prep the machine once and leave it on standby for further cleanup situations until you know your child is better. Keep cleaning supplies handy.

Toddler Barf Tip #9- Call your doctor, track temperatures and wet/dirty diapers. Call again if the situation changes.

Toddler Barf Tip #10- It's always somewhat frightening when you child is ill and heaving, maybe more so for first-timers like us. Try to stay calm for the sake of the young one. If your voice is in a strange vocal range, your sick kid is going to pick up on that and become more frightened. Listen to yourself and try to sound more assured than you feel. If you have to call for assistance and you make some distressing noises, remember to reassure your child that they are a good kid and they will feel better (Ranger thought he was in trouble when Jim called me in to assist with a completely unforeseen upchuck reprise).

Toddler Bart Tip #11- Layer your crib. I can't express how much we love the Ultimate Crib Sheet with its slightly disgusting 4 liquid cup holding capacity. It launders well and is easily removed and installed. We just bought some extra crib -sized pads and also use a waterproof mattress pad under a standard sheet. The more onion-like you can make a toddler's bed, the better- who want to changes sheets or wait for the dryer to finish at 2AM?

Any other good barf-related tips or stories out there?
Please share them in our comments.

Next: Making the Best of an E-Room Visit

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Snack Traps: Very Small Money Pits

I've spent much of Ranger's solid food eating career seeking the panacea of a truly spill-proof snack cup. Wouldn't it be wonderful for the little guy to serve up his own snacks in the backseat or the stroller? It's a beautiful dream, but only a dream.

We first tried the much-heralded Snack Trap (~$6 at Babies R Us). Like most of the self-serve snack cups, it has no airtight option. When the snacks remain in the cup for any measure of time they are exposed to air which can cause them to dry out if your child doesn't eat like a starved Wolverine or is choosing to reject your current snack offering. While this is annoying, air exposure surely doesn't represent a death knell for the cup if you're not storing long-term provisions in them (and who would do that?). It does however mean that you can't toss the cup into a backpack unless you want lint in your Cheerios and Cheerio dust everywhere else. Snack Trap offers "Snap-Over Lids" to solve this problem (~$2 NOT including shipping and not sold in most retail stores). That brings you cup cost to over $8. They also offer a "Stay Fresh" airtight lid that replaces the normal slotted lid for $1.50 (plus shipping) but doesn't dispense snacks. Although additional lids are more likely to end up in "storage" under our car seats and sofa, I had Ranger try the Snack Trap. The trap worked well for its first 10 minutes, but after more toddler testing, we found that it's flaps- made of mere Earthly materials- were not immune to bending. Ranger found the slightly altered cup very handy in relasing a wide school of Goldfish Crackers throughout the back of the car. The Snack Trap was promptly retired.

Next up was the Gerber Lil' Snackin' Bowl (I guess there is a short supply of letters at Gerber these days and an overabundance of punctuation) for $5 for a 2 bowl set. While there is Gerber feeding equipment we love, the Lil' Snackin' Bowl failed miserably at snack retention and rapidly became more annoying than it's predecessor. The bowl had the same always-open flaw like the basic Snack Trap, but it had no obvious remedies beyond a Ziplock baggie. Within milliseconds of Ranger receiving the loaded Lil' Snackin' he found the bowl's sweet spot above the the center retaining "tooth" (see top photo) and released its payload everywhere. By flicking his wrist while pressing the bowl open, he could shower his environs with ample snackage: just call him "Johnny Cheerioseed." Two down, one to go.

Our next challenger was the First Year's Take & Toss Perfect Portion Snack Saver (6 cups, 4 portion lids, and 2 storage lids for around $3.50). The packaging claims to allow different portion sizes according to the parent's wishes. Forget it, if your kid is awake, they will choose their own portion size- and it's wide open. This rigid lid seems more effective at containing snacks than the others, but probably because it provides less entertainment value by merely dumping its payload rather than launching it into the stratosphere. The portion lids are not airtight, nor do they lock in any position (including the closed position).

Apparently, a good snack holder is hard to find (possibly impossible). Save your money and accept a certain amount of escapee snack foods around the car, house, and planet. It's really okay, they'll know us by our trail of Cheerios.

Edit: We've since found a snack cup that works for the most part and, with three little kids, we don't leave home without them. Check out our review of a cup that actually works.

photo credit (top photo):, 2007. Reproduction allowed with attribution

Marshmallow Magic: Mix It Up With Some Novel Treats

Target's after-Easter clearance (at 75% off yesterday) helped me score supplies for a favorite household hack. We got oodles of Toasted Coconut Marshmallows at $0.24 a bag.

While the bag claims they are "munchable" alone, I couldn't wait to get them home and try them as Marshmallow Crispy Treats.

For a young pink-loving friend's birthday party last summer, I threw together a batch of Rice Krispie Treats made with the Tutti-Frutti flavored Pink and White marshmallows by de la Rosa. I shaped them in a heart-shaped jello mold (no, I don't normally mold gelatin, I used to do a froofy desert as a lesson in my technology and the family class to make people understand how a jiggly desert once inferred electric refrigeration and affluence as opposed to what it denotes these days). The tan color of the crispies aren't well-masked by the pale pink of the melted mallows, so the whole think looked more like a human heart in color. Jim encouraged me to take the fleshy looking treats anyway (probably to get them out of the house).

We really can't say how those kids liked them because the adults (none of us huge fans of Rice Krispie treats) couldn't stay away from them. I made a second batch of these pink monstrosities for a dinner with my brother (a former fan of krispie treats suffering from complete burnout after a few too many bachelor meals of them). My brother, being super suspicious of many unfamiliar foods and imaginatively squeamish about anything mildly suggesting cannibalism, was entirely put off by their color.

But, he is a brave soul and wouldn't want to hurt my feelings, so he nibbled at one. This is truly an act of bravery as Mom and I once made him a homemade Key Lime pie for his birthday- substituting regular Persian limes for Key Limes (completely disregarding their size difference and using a 1:1 substitution). We included the zest of 12 Persian limes in one pie. My brother ate a very generous piece without a word (though I suspect his head was threatening to implode with the tartness). I tried the pie after he left and gagged. I can eat raw lemons, and the pervasive tartness of this desert was way too much for me. He has ample grounds not to trust me.

After a little nibbling, he took a bite. "Wow, these are great!" After finishing a few he asked "Could I take the leftovers home?" I made sure there were plenty left as he was gracious enough to eat an entire of slice of that horrible pie and pretend to enjoy it. He really is a fine big brother.

So, the Tutti-Frutti ugly treats passed muster with a cynical audience- and actually a few adults from the kids' party kept asking me for the recipe. I was happy to tell them about the substitution, but I don't know if we can get the de la Rosa marshmallows locally, I typically buy them at Saraga when we visit Indianapolis.

When we came upon the Toasted Coconut Marshmallows at 75% off, I knew we would have to try another variation. The bags release a cloud of toasted coconut aroma, so be prepared to spend maybe $0.96 if you find them at your local Target. Unlike the typical fat-free marshmallow crispy treats, the coconut marshmallows pack some saturated fat, so they promised to be extra delicious.

I made a test batch, promising Jim he could take them to work if they were good. And they were. Maybe not as good as the de la Rosas, but lusciously scented with coconut sophistication they exceeded the regular limits of standard issue crispy treats. I was so sad to enter the kitchen on Friday morning and find that Jim had taken ALL of them to work. Leaving none behind for young Ranger (BabyGeek has outgrown the old moniker) or me. When I called him at work to see if he would bring leftovers home, he reported that they were all promptly consumed by his fellow Morlocks.

I was forced to make another pan. Ranger saw me eating one and demanded a portion. He's onto the fact that much of what I don't offer to him is delicious (this actually proves useful in getting him to try new things through reverse psychology), and in this case I was willing to share.

Try them at your house. And if your kids don't like coconut, well I guess you may have to invite a few other grownups over for Happy Hour. (Jet-Puffed also makes Strawberry Marshmallows- though I've never seen them in stores- in case you want to placate the wee ones with treacle.)

Friday, April 13, 2007

Reincarnation: A Grandma's Wedding Dress Transforms into Twin Christening Gowns

I cannot apologize enough for not having photos of this hack- but I'm having a hard time convincing Mo, the sewing genius behind our Diaper Valet, that it's helpful to take pictures of her freelance work. The wedding dress hack is still great, so we persevere on without visual aids.

A local mom commissioned Mo to transform her mother's wedding gown into two christening gowns for her infant twins. So, one grandma's wedding dress got practical, meaningful reuse regardless of its style, dress size, and (in the case) the gender and marital predilection of her progeny (these were boy/girl twins).

What a great way to use a dress imbued with meaning without forcing the next generation of bride to forgo fit or style. Think of all the saved wedding dresses that never made the cut for a second generation walk down the aisle. They would be great for a project like this.

The wedding gown could also be transformed into a special celebration outfit (birthdays), decor item, or sewn toy for grandchildren. If the dress isn't something that will be worn again, then any reuse you will value and enjoy is fully justifiable.

The wedding dress Mo worked with was a narrow, fitted style, so it was really important that the seamstress measured and planned carefully and cut with great judiciousness in order to get two twin gowns out of the material.

If you are considering the reconfiguration of a wedding dress, I strongly recommend:
  • choosing a seamstress carefully (get recommendations for someone who does tailoring and dressmaking, not just alterations, and don't be afraid to ask to see a sample of their work). This also applies to selecting a seamstress from friends or family or sewing the item yourself. Does the seamstress have a reputation of meeting deadlines and doing consistently high quality work? (I fail on both counts.) If I or my mother sewed anything, it would arrive at least two years over deadline or marginally sewn (which isn't good for an heirloom item).
  • having photos, a sewing pattern, and or drawings to clearly detail the look of the item to be made. This prevents confusion between customer and seamstress.
  • ask questions: end cost, time frame, will additional materials be needed (what will their cost be), are there any additional fees or expenses that might occur (I know of a woman who paid a small fortune for custom window treatments and then was charged a slightly smaller fortune in additional travel fees for measuring the windows and installing the curtains [never mentioned in the initial consultation] by the seamstress).
If you have any odd feelings about the potential seamstress, do not hesitate to ask more questions or keep looking for another candidate as you only have one wedding dress to work with.

We won't be doing this with subsequent GeekBabies for a few reasons.

My moderately unsentimental parents eloped, so my mom's wedding garb of a cotton sundress was discarded long before my adolescence. There wasn't an heirloom dress option in my family.

We ended up getting a satin 1940s vintage wedding dress for $18 at an antique mall for our laid-back, somewhat impromptu outdoor wedding. So I probably wore someone's grandma's dress; I just don't know whose grandma. The material is gorgeous, but it would make a little guy look like a lounge singer, plus, I keep thinking it would make lovely pillowcases (my grandma was a firm believer in the wrinkle-alleviating powers of a quality satin pillowcase- wrinkles or not, they're blissfully cool and comfortable).

Here are a few other tips from Mo on caring for your heirloom clothing items:
  • Have treasured items professionally repaired if they are torn or deteriorating. Amateur repair work might temporarily fix a problem, but it often (think Antiques Roadshow commentary) can cause further damage to the material. Mo did a beautiful restoration of a second-generation christening gown that was torn and unraveling, but due to fabric loss from amateur repairs it required the addition of new materials (hidden to the observer) and hours of careful hand stitching. The dress should last for another generation's use. Please, please, please, don't trust just any dry cleaner or alterations place with heirloom work; some will do the work magnificently, but many will not. It's worth the extra effort (the cost is often the same or less) to find someone who can lovingly restore your heirloom textiles.
  • "No wire hangers.... ever!" It may famously bad parenting, but it is good advice for clothing items that you want to survive in good condition for generations (I doubt it's any big deal for day to day wearables). Mo recommends not using any hangers on any items that you're storing. Delicate fabrics can stretch and discolor on hangers (regardless of type) with prolonged hanging (especially in crowded closets). Padded hangers are better, but not for items that are being stored long-term.
  • Crowded closets make fabrics more prone to wrinkling and deformity. I have read about bachelors pressing their pants between the mattress and box springs, but the same flattening principle doesn't seem to work in closets.
  • Think inside the box if you're storing a special textile, put it folded, but not compressed, in a large acid-free box with tissue paper wrapping.
  • Don't store boxed heirlooms in the attic, garage, or basement (where they will be subject to extremes in humidity, heat, etc.).
  • Plastic is bad for fabrics: dry cleaning bags and other plastic covers do not allow fabric regular air exchange. They allow moisture to collect and promote mildew. Also, plastic bags can be bad for people and pets: In college we used to use plastic trashbags to store off-season clothing items, and then we found out that some plastic trash bags have embedded pesticides (though Glad reports not to use them). It still freaks me out a bit when people store their kids toys in them for attic storage, etc..
So put that gown to use already.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Awkward Hostess Challenge: Throwing a Frozen Food Baby Shower

A couple months ago I attended a reasonably impromptu, very wonderful, very informal frozen food baby shower for some of pregnant friends. As the entire baby group was in attendance (babies and toddlers included), we didn't bother with niceties like decorations, food for guests, games, or much else. It was a bustling, splendid time.

I realized, after writing about the shower, that my dear friend, due only 7 weeks later, had no festivities planned to celebrate the arrival of her third child. This seemed a grave omission on my part, especially as she co-hosted a shower for BabyGeek's arrival.

Thus, I became an ersatz hostess. While many of the girls I knew growing up were encouraged to participate in and understand formal hostessing, I was raised by a grown tomboy with no interest in such matters. Travel, basketball, or sailing? My mom rules. But if it requires a doily but not Elmer's school glue- forget about it.

If I can get through a formal social event without any major gaffs, I count myself lucky. Hosting one presented a challenge.

The honoree, a friend who I met in high school gym class almost two decades ago, is an exceptionally graceful, gracious, and social person. This meant the guest list would be intergenerational and full of interesting, gracious, and social people who I would hate to horrify with my own ineptitude.

So I threw a tea. Why, a tea? It's the only formal event I usually feel much at ease attending- probably because it's primarily centered around eating things that are very bad for me and talking. My friend is also a tea aficionado. Plus, I've been to loads of teas of all kinds. It seems hard to screw up: sweet and savory foods full of cholesterol, some good tea, a decent location, and presto, a party with grace and simplicity.

What do I put on the invitations?
Although a food shower is a common idea in some parts of the country, it isn't even a known quantity here. I struggled and Googled to write an invitation. The one I had attended had been organized by email, so there really wasn't any written invitation available to crib. Google only offered a few rhymes, but they weren't my style or the expectant mom's.

So, this is what I eventually wrote:
You are cordially invited to a food shower and tea in honor of [mom] and her newest daughter at [time, location, details]. Please join us for conversation and celebration. [hostess, rsvp, contact info]

And, I knew everyone receiving the invite would be confused, so I slipped in a second magic decoder explanation on the map with directions to the event:

What is a food shower?

Like a baby shower, a food shower celebrates friendship and the arrival of new life.

Unlike a traditional baby shower, the gifts are ready-to-freeze or frozen foods that the family can enjoy in those harried first weeks after the baby's arrival. It is always appreciated when givers include a copy of the recipe for the family.

It is also greatly appreciated by the family if the food is packaged in containers that need not be returned.

Please clearly label any dishes containing nuts or nut products as *** has a severe nut allergy.

Quite a few people attending the shower mentioned that they appreciated the explanation. While I was writing the invites, others said suggesting restaurant gift cards or offering to bring fresh meals after the baby's home would be appropriate in the food shower explanation, but I figured, better safe than sorry. As I understand a shower, it is a gathering to celebrate the arrival of a child, gifts (although traditional) are not requisite. So, the suggestion of bringing anything at all, much less what to bring, seemed to teeter on the cusp of graceless. As I have little judgment in such things, I decided in favor of brevity.

I printed the invites and envelopes using a spreadsheet and mail merge. When I was shopping for invites, I chose a card that could double as a thank you note card. I printed a second set of the guest envelopes with the honoree's name and return address in place of my own. It was really easy to do. Sure, not everyone invited attended, but I had plenty of stationary and some of those people not in attendance may still give a gift. The honoree mom was quite excited to receive these and sent out thank you notes lightning fast (which is impressive as the baby was born less than a week after the shower).

What to serve?
I chose 3 teas with various caffeine levels (a classic black tea- full caffeine, my favorite pomegranate white tea from Trader Joe's, and a caffeine-free fruit tea). Green tea would provide another interesting alternative, but it gets quite bitter if it steeps too long. I knew I wouldn't be able to watch it very closely, so I went with teas requiring less observation.

Amy generously loaned me her Sizzix die-cutter, and I cut out standing labels for the foods and teapots. By inserting a folded index card into the die, I was able to make a perfectly matching standee for the pretty paper cutouts used for labels. I put labels on each teapot using colored embroidery floss tied through a hole in the label. Using a lark's head knot, I could easily attach, remove, and swap teapot labels as needed. As a result, no pots or cups were refilled with the wrong tea.

I put little standees among the different foods. My parents were vegan for many years and I've known lots of people with allergies and other dietary restrictions, so I'm into full disclosure serving. I like to identify in writing all foods I serve. If people want to know ingredient specifics, I'm happy to supply more information. If a dish contains a hidden, serious allergen (like nuts or nut oils), I always try to note that ingredient's presence.

We had egg salad sandwiches, spiral deli wraps, and tiny quiches for savory foods.

For sweets we had our family's favorite Oatmeal Scotchie bars (the recipe on the Tollhouse butterscotch morsels bag is quite remarkable if you substitute Billington's Molasses Sugar for the brown sugar and turbinado sugar for the white sugar. We found both substitutions through pantry scarcity and now consider it our secret recipe), the new Girl Scout lemon shortbread cookie, and tiny cream-filled cakes reminiscent of petits fours.

Veronica, Supermom to twins, gifted cake decorator, and bowmaker extraordinaire, offered critical assistance at just the right moment. She decorated 24 tiny cream-filled cakes (that I made from her family's recipe and "leveled"- so forgive her any crooked confections). When the guests entered, they were greeted by her gloriously-presented dessert (on her clever cupcake stand) which set a gracious tone for the occasion. Veronica's hard work on this small detail really paid off as the initial impression of graciousness lingered despite my careless pouring and other foibles.

There were many great storytellers among the guests, and only a handful were previously acquainted with each other. It was delightful to watch friends from different circles enjoy each other's company. So delightful in fact, that I completely forgot to take pictures or do the single planned activity of the afternoon (a piece of advice written to the child by each guest to be placed in a small scrapbook). Thanks, Asha for this great idea!

Instead, I'm taking the guests' recipes and making baby's first cookbook. The honoree has requested that I include the Scotchies recipe (they're really completely amazing cookies), so I will probably throw in all the recipes from the shower as well (kids need cholesterol, right?).