Thursday, April 21, 2011

Quick Change Artists: DIY Playdough Playmats

My artists: chaos & control
My kids love Play-doh, but I dislike the million multi-color crumb clean-up.

I cut some lengths of freezer paper (size corresponding with age and messiness) to use as perpetual playmats.  Waxed paper or parchment would serve equally well.

When playdough interest wanes and the dough is tucked back into cans, I shake the papers over the trash can and many of the wee nuggets are vanquished.

It is not a perfect system.  Some days the bottoms of my socks still look like they have a Seussical pox, but the slick paper playmats cut clean-up time substantially.

***Baby Toolkit is a collection of hacks, coughs, and observations from a couple geeky Midwestern parents.  We're Amazon affiliates, so a portion of purchases made through our links goes toward our dreams of a giant Batsignal spotlight.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Required Reading for Geeks & Parents: Science Fair Season Set Me On Fire

Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch . . . and What It Takes to WinAt first blush, Judy Dutton's Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, A Robot Named Scorch. . . and What It Takes To Win looks like Spellbound recast with science geeks.  Don't be fooled.  While Science Fair Season explores the lives of a handful of contestants in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, it deftly illustrates artful parenting and success in learning as well.

The high school students' projects are sometimes mind-boggling in scale (like building a reactor for nuclear fusion).  I expected the top achieving high school students to be working on an undergraduate level, but these noteworthy projects more clearly resemble post-graduate research.  Because the students approach their inquiries with fresh perspective, they see possibility and challenge where more conventional researchers might not explore.

While no two contestants' stories are remotely identical, patterns do emerge that speak to science education and parenting young children.  So often the students' stories begin with an early spark of interest in something (horses, electricity, cars, astronomy) which parents encouraged with exploration.  Though the kids' interests didn't usually mirror parental interests, the parents went out of their way to feed their child's curiosity and enthusiasm.  Time after time, parents provide opportunities (like a homebrew chem lab, a borrowed Geiger counter, or time with horses) and find mentors with similar interests.  Granted, not every child is going to become a super-competitor in science by the mere magic of parental support, but these stories clearly illuminate a parent's ability to multiply interest into inquiry and fascination.

Yet the book is not populated with Tiger Moms or Stage Fathers, the burgeoning interests are consistently directed by the kids (and I say kids because this explosion of interest seems most common in early childhood).  These biographies are full of freedom and exploration.

The other looming discussion is that of how students come to love science learning.  Halfway through the book I became painfully aware that, although some "outsiders" come to science interest in junior high or high school, most of the kids with scientific fervor (and the resulting knowledge) fully embraced science long before most schools begin to seriously teach it.  We, as a nation, are missing the critical window where kids fall in love with science.  Thanks to budget cuts and lack of advocacy, science is barely taught when young students are making decisions about what they love.  When schools finally start teaching science in junior high, the approach is often dry and makes the very foundation of existence seem irrelevant and esoteric.

During the space race, science charged into unsuspecting homes through popular media.  While the media marveled and quaked at Sputnik, rocket scientists became the heroes of coal mine town boys like Homer Hickam (NASA engineer and author of Rocket Boys).  This book reminds me that not only are science heroes present today, they're still coming of age (though in increasingly shorter supply).  Our tech role models need to be more than wealthy boys with killer apps (Apple's Steve Jobs, Facebook's Mark Zuckerman).  Kids would be better served to know about Pluto Files atrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson and science humanitarian Amy Smith.

In my life as a university academic advisor, the most frustrating academic trajectories were those of students with no real interests. A student sorting through a abundance of passions brimmed with energy, but one without a single definable interest made me want to bang my head against my desk.  I knew then that, should we ever have kids, I wanted them to deeply love some thing that challenged and expanded them.

Science Fair Season left me with a long to-do list.  I want Ranger, Scout, and the Detective to gain exposure to math and science beyond what they'll get in the elementary classroom, and I also want those opportunities to be available for their friends and classmates.  My mom's fifth grade class had this amazing interactive experience put together by an orthopedic surgeon dad; the dad set up hands-on stations where the class could use real orthopedic tools to meet objectives (like screwing a nut on a bolt) through obstacles (inside a bottle) to simulate surgical challenge.  My mom believes that one presentation converted more students to science than any other single event of her long teaching career.  This it the type of early experience I want for my kids and as many other kids as we can involve.

I think the future, not just of our kids' educations, but of the country and the world, may lie in the opportunities we offer our kids in their early years.

Well written and entertaining, Science Fair Season is going to have the broad voyeuristic appeal of subculture documentaries like Word Wars and The Farmer's Wife, but it also has the seeds of one of the most critical educational discourses of our generation.

Hyperion, hardcover $25 MSRP, $15.99 on Amazon.
Read excerpt at author's site.

***Baby Toolkit is a couple geek parents currently so hot about science learning that we might just turn to plasma.  Hyperion supplied us with a free e-book loan of Science Fair Season, but we've now bought three hardcover copies to share with friends and family (the first taste is free...).  As Amazon affiliates, a small portion of purchases made through our Amazon links brings us one step closer to a giant dirigible trip around the planet.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Yet Another Barf Tip: Hairstyling Cape

Andre Zephyr #617 Hairstyling Cape, BlackLate last night, Scout reminded us of the incident that inspired our 2007 post Barf-a-rama: Coming Too Soon To A Home Near You.  The spontaneous stroll down this particular toddler memory lane was like a parenting pop-quiz on a chapter long-forgotten.

We scored high on items like EXTRA SHEETS, but sadly that particular point was irrelevant as the eruption landed solely on a handmade pillow (Sorry, Mimi-n-Moe's Mom, but it does wash beautifully!).  I entirely forgot #2 and immediately thought, "Hey, that's the last of it."  Thus I earned a second pair of chunkalicious pajamas to launder.

Once we realized that our child should be treated as an erratic fire hose of digestive destruction, I reached behind the door and grabbed our easily washable, water resistant nylon hairstyling cape.*  A couple snaps later Scout's clean jammies were shielded by her "Sick Cape."  Nothing like a barfing, backwards caped superhero. I would normally offer action shots, but the simultaneous unsubscribes might break Feedburner.

And after a few more rounds of awful, all the exhausted citizens of our little patch of Gotham slept soundly in clean, warm beds and jammies.

Yes, this book.

*I cut Jim's hair: sometimes well, sometimes badly.  My only "training" consists of a VHS tape that came with the clippers and the 1978 manual Haircutting the Professional Way by Bruno from my parents' house   It started during our potato years (we couldn't even afford salad) as a cost cutting measure, but Jim prefers it (despite the risks) because he doesn't have to make small talk with a barber or stylist.

***Baby Toolkit is the work-in-progress of a some slightly bloodshot geek parents raising an energetic clutch of wee people this side of the Land of Nod.  We're Amazon affiliates, so a percentage of purchases made through our links (you know you want that Bruno book) bring us that much closer to owning our own decommissioned nuclear silo on the windy plains.  Thanks for reading Baby Toolkit!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Extreme Breastfeeding: Pumping for NICU Without Losing Your Mind

-or- Free Your Hands and Your Mind Will Follow

When our littlest geek (locally dubbed the Baby Detective) ended up in the NICU, I found myself back in familiar breastfeeding territory.  My role on supply side of breastfeeding began in the NICU.  As a first time mom who gave birth by c-section, my milk didn't come in for days.  That newborn, a "sugar baby" in NICU lingo, had low blood sugar and a low body temperature, so my first attempts at breastfeeding were bedside in the NICU.

It was awful.  There's no just way to prepare for breastfeeding or the hormonal postpartum roller-coaster.  Throw in the physical separation, heightened anxieties, and lack of privacy of NICU, and the natural act of breastfeeding dials itself up to an 11 (on a scale of 10 for those who haven't had the senseless pleasure of This is Spinal Tap [available on Netflix streaming]).

I won't tax you with all the gory details (although keywords like nipple shield coupled with a multitude of synonyms for breast might spice up my Google hits).

When we decided to grow our family to five, I assumed the third round of nursing would be without surprises. Then BabyGeek 1.3 arrived six weeks early after swift and furious pregnancy complications.

Instead of a bassineted baby in my hospital room, our teeny geek was an isolette half a building away.  She was challenged to digest liquid food, much less consume it.  While she drew most of her nutrition from IVs and lipids from a feeding tube, I pumped every 3 hours in an attempt to provide breastmilk that she could consume by bottle.

The only things previous breastfeeding experiences had taught me were I hated pumping, I didn't have much success with it, and with growing sleep deprivation, the low moan of the pump motor turned into crazy words that made me loathe pumping all the more.

With 8 pumping sessions a day on the horizon, things had to be different this time.

In order of importance, here are the big changes:

Easy Expression Bustier Hands Free Pumping Bra (Large 38-40 D-f, Black)1. Go hands-free: this list-topper may seem painfully obvious to the working moms, but somehow I managed to miss the advantages with earlier infants.  Maybe it was the early '90s era models in their shoulder padded power suits, but somehow hands-free seemed inappropriate for someone who spends most days in jeans, tees, and a sea of Cheerios.

Prior to this baby, I loathed pumping and avoided it at all costs.  The deeply bovine feeling of hooking up to a milking machine felt humiliating (especially in the hospital with people walking into the room all the times).  Holding the flanges in place kept my hands and mind focused on the pumping process.

This time, with the phone ringing off the hook, and hardly a moment to bolt a meal, I walked my hospital gown clad self into the lactation boutique and bought an Easy Expressions hands-free bustier.

Suddenly, I had my hands back, and along with them came a solid measure of dignity.  Yes, I was still fastened to a very dairy machine, but I felt more 80s throwback (think Madonna) or crazy fashion forward (Lady Gaga) and even a bit Amazing Stories.  It was the best kind of ridiculous.  When my hands were unshackled, my brain and soul were now free to contemplate something, ANYTHING, other than the pumping process.  Pure awesome.  Worth every penny.

Man vs. Food: Season One2. Kick back and watch something distracting.
I hesitate to offer this advice as television kills brain cells and such, but there are times in life where really senseless shows can be blessedly soothing and distracting.  While I couldn't sleep and pump, I could pump while watching every episode of Sons of Tuscon, Doc Martin, The IT Crowd, Toddlers & Tiaras, and Man v. Food on Netflix streaming.

3 . Hospital grade pumps should be considered.
Medela Symphony Breast PumpBefore Ranger was born, we bought a Medela Pump-In-Style Advanced pump.  I still own it, but I instead opted to rent a Medela Symphony from the hospital boutique.  When pumping 8 times a day, it's important that the pump works well- 10 minutes more per session adds up to 80 more minutes per sleepless day.

4.  Lactation consultants can help immensely, but tend toward generalizations.
I love the lactation department at our hospital.  The consultants have helped me over the years.  This time they lent me a DVD copy of Hands-On Pumping (the 3 videos are available free online at  Those techniques improved my supply quickly.  Pumping every 3 hours (at the hospital or at home) is an insane challenge.  Undersupply broke my heart because (in my hormonal insanity) it felt like the only thing I could do for my vulnerable baby (in more reflective moments I realized the error in that thinking, but I'll save that for a later post).

While I appreciate their expertise and enthusiasm, I've also been given general advice that didn't apply to my specific situation and made me feel like I was failing.  Go breastfeeding, but skin-to-skin contact, homeopathic supplements, and 2 hour pumping schedules just weren't options I could consider.  They really wanted my baby to feed directly before leaving the NICU, but it was simply too difficult for her and taxed her limited energy.  I understand their concerns that breastfeeding might not last as long if she's bottle-fed, but I also knew my daughter was overtaxed by breastfeeding.  The neonatologist agreed that the baby would come home sooner if bottle-fed, so I focused on more effectively pumping and bottle-feeding.  For us, bringing the baby home sooner was a much higher priority than direct breastfeeding (or even breastfeeding).

Once the baby was bigger and stronger, the transition to regular breastfeeding was easy.  We were so glad to say goodbye to bottles.

5.  The White Wave -or- What to do with all the milk

Lansinoh 20435 Breastmilk Storage Bags, 25-Count Boxes (Pack of 3)During time I pumped daily, the surplus milk quickly engulfed our fridge's freezer.  The hospital can only store so much per patient, and the nurses told me about other moms buying deep freezers.  I started freezing the surplus in Lansinoh breastmilk storage bags instead of the space-hogging NICU bottles.  They freeze flat, and 10 can be neatly stowed in a gallon freezer bag .  With Amazon Mom and Subscribe and Save, I was able to get cases of these delivered to my doorstep at an excellent price.

6. Washing Up
Munchkin Deluxe Bottle Brush, Colors May VaryCleaning the pump parts after every session brought to mind Sisyphus forever rolling the stone up the hill to watch it immediately roll back down.  In this sleepless rendition of the classic tale, it's easy to feel that the stone is actually rolling over you on its disheartening downward fall.  This is where a kindly clan of magic bottle-washing elves would come in handy, but my neighborhood owl seems to have taken them out (along with the toilet paper fairy).  Wash up all the parts as soon as you put the milk in cold storage.  It feels even worse to start the whole process with the washing.

We went through 3 different bottle brushes before again settling on the Munchkin's Deluxe Bottle Brush which we liked back when Ranger was formula fed.

All in all, it's no small feat to pump for a NICU baby.  If you are a parent who is going through this now, take care of yourself as much as you can.  Your kiddo needs YOU more than breastmilk.  Sleep as often as you can, eat, and drink lots of water.

If you know someone else going through this, feed them a meal (or, even better, set up a food registry for them at

***Baby Toolkit is the ongoing story of a couple of Midwestern geeks and their kids.  We are not affiliated with Medela, Munchkin, Ziploc, Meal Baby, nor Netflix, but we are Amazon affiliates (so a small portion of purchases made through our Amazon links go toward the Baby Toolkit jet fleet).

And be sure to check out related post The Boob Wars.