My Breastfeeding Story: The stuff more new moms should know

IMG_0272Because Emilia is nearing her 1 year birthday, and because she is likely my last baby, I’ve started to get nostalgic about my experience nursing. I’m looking forward to weaning, to having my body back to myself. I’m also keenly aware that I will always remember the physical closeness and quiet moments with great fondness. In honor of National Breastfeeding Month I want to put out into the world my breastfeeding story — what I have learned, and what I wish someone had told me beforehand. I like what I have been reading on other blogs (like the pregnant chicken) about the need to have an honest conversation about breastfeeding, that we are doing mothers a disservice by simply telling them breast is best without telling them what it is really like. It is important that every expecting and new mother trying out nursing for the first knows the truth: nursing is wonderful and convenient, and it is really hard.

When Leo (my first) was born, he immediately latched on in the delivery room in the same way I saw in all developmental psychology textbooks I read as an undergraduate. I was amazed that he seemed to naturally know what to do. Things seemed to work fine while we were in the hospital. I thought, this is easy! Except for one thing: he didn’t have a great wet diaper while we were there. But, the doctors cleared us and we were eager to get our baby boy home! So off we went, two totally inexperienced parents, to care for this fragile life. The first day or so went smoothly, but by the 2nd day home, Leo was crying a lot. At first we thought, this is normal, all babies cry, right? But then it got to the point where he was completely inconsolable, so we took to the pediatrician. It was quickly determined that he was dehydrated because my milk hadn’t come in yet and the doc recommended we supplement with formula. I felt like I had failed when she put the little sample bottles on the desk in front of me. I had read Dr. Jack Newman’s books about how aggressive the formula industry has been in getting samples into hospitals and doctors offices, and about how many medical professionals prefer formal feeding because the food their patient receives is in clear, measurable amounts. I didn’t know in that moment if I should follow the doctor’s recommendation or if this was some rouse to deter me from doing what I thought was right for my child. At the same time, the thought of my child being hungry was intolerable. I felt confused and angry. Why hadn’t someone warned me about this? Why had they sent me home from the hospital without clear instructions?! My God, what could have happened if we hadn’t taken Leo in to be seen? I was so exhausted and hormonal after a hard first delivery. Everything seemed like such an effort. At that moment was sitting in the doctor’s office in pajamas (nice ones, but still), fighting back tears.

If my mother hadn’t provided a great role model to me by breastfeeding me and my two sisters, and if my husband hadn’t been fervently dedicated to the cause, I might have folded completely in those first few days. After we fed Leo those first few ounces of formula, he promptly fell asleep. Finally, peace. All I wanted to do was sleep too. But no, I had to pump to get my supply up. Despite my protests, my husband broke out the new pump (and read the instructions, something I hate doing), sterilized the parts, sat me in a comfy chair, and made me food while I pumped. Those first few days of feedings consisting of nursing, giving a bottle, and pumping were absolutely exhausting. But, after a few days, we didn’t need the bottles anymore and my milk came in just fine.

Everything was great for a few months. By great I mean that Leo was eating constantly and gaining lots of weight. However, feedings took a long time, like close to an hour, sometimes more. It felt like all I did was feed him. But I was okay with that because he was my only and I loved the satisfaction I got from knowing breastfeeding was the healthiest option for him. I mean, there were SO MANY things I worried about or felt guilty about those early days, I took great comfort in knowing this was one thing I didn’t have to second guess. Plus, I always had an surefire way to comfort him, which kept him happy and me feeling confident and in control.

Then it came time to go back to work and although we had occasionally given Leo a bottle of pumped milk, I guess we didn’t do it often enough because he refused to drink from one. Despite trying every nipple on the market, he would go 8 hours during the day only drinking an ounce. As a result he woke up every couple of hours all night long to compensate. I was so tired and felt like I needed to do something about his sleep, but I also felt trapped because he needed the nourishment during the night since he wasn’t eating during the day and it wasn’t as though my husband could give him a bottle while I slept. (The resolution to this problem is a whole other post. It did all work itself out but message me if you want more details on how.)

All and all nursing my kids has been a wonderful experience that I wouldn’t change at all, even with all these heartaches. So, yes, breast is best, but be prepared. Here is my list of what I wish someone had told me when I was pregnant:

1. Get a pump, know how to use it. It’s likely that your milk will not just magically appear and you will need to pump for the first few days to get your supply going. Never fear, this will be short lived.

2. If breastfeeding is important to you, make sure your partner is equally committed. You will need them to be supportive and firm in the moments when you are too tired to go on and just want to hand the baby to them and take a nap.

3. Give a bottle around 3 weeks and then do it daily. You don’t want to be stuck being the only person who can feed the baby. Even if you aren’t planning to go back to work, and even if this idea seems fine to you at first, the day will come within the first year that you will want to be away from your baby for a few hours.

4. It takes a long time for things to feel natural and easy. You will get to the point where you don’t feel terribly self-conscious doing it public and where you don’t need to carry your boppy pillow everywhere you go.

5. Find a lactation consultant before giving birth. I had one who came to my house in the first week or two and that was incredibly helpful. She observed us in our natural element, which allowed her to make more specific recommendations and me to feel at ease. The last thing I wanted to do was travel to see someone in a sterile office.

Experienced breastfeeding moms: what would be on your list, what were your roadblocks, what advice would you give to other mothers?

Expecting or first time moms: what makes you want to try breastfeeding, what are your fears?

Creating a Successful School Year

school success 2Are you as ready for school to start up again as I am? We had a great summer, filled with lots of unstructured time that made for lots of fun, and now it’s time to get back into our routine. I’m excited to have a little more time to myself. And, I’m excited that Leo will get to learn and experience so much in the coming school year. He will be attending school 3 afternoons a week, taking a phonics class on a 4th afternoon, and taking a cooking class one morning (making for a full school day on that day). I think he is going to love it, and I’m thinking about how to set him up for success this year. Sonya at mamaTRUE gave me a great idea. She advocates for parents writing a letter to their elementary school’s principal at the end of each school year that outlines their child’s personality, strengths, and weaknesses so that the principal can select the best match of teacher for the following year. I will definitely keep this in mind for when we enter grade school. Since there are typically fewer choices of teachers within a preschool, I plan to write a letter of introduction to Leo’s teacher this coming year. I think much of his success will be influenced by how comfortable he feels within his new classroom and the connection he feels with his teacher. I would also like as much continuity as possible between school and home, such that his teacher knows what we are working on here and I know what he is learning there. The data shows that parent involvement in school is associated with greater academic success and social competence. This is presumably because children who know their parents are in regular communication with their teachers behave better at school because they are being held accountable for their actions, and these children also receive the message that their parents value academics so they put the effort in accordingly. Teachers are also more likely to approach parents about learning or social issues if they already have a relationship with that parent. So, for these reasons, and because I enjoy being involved in all aspects of his life, here is my letter to Leo’s teachers.

Dear Mrs. _________,

I wanted to take a few moments to introduce you to my son, Leo. I hope having a bit more information about him as school begins will be helpful to both of you in creating a successful year together.

Leo just turned three and a half a few weeks ago so he is likely one of the youngest children in your class. He is an exceptionally curious boy and has a strong desire to understand his world. I know there will be times when him asking “why” for the however many time that day will be a challenge, as it has challenged me too, but I also hope you will delight, as I do, in the connections he makes and the degree to which he attends to what you tell him and to his surroundings. He is currently most interested in animals, the human body, and plants. The other day he asked me what the inside of his knee looks like. He was not satisfied with my cursory first answer and asked, “Tell me more about what it looks like. Tell me about all the parts.” We frequently use YouTube as a way to research the various topics about which Leo wonders. You will find he enjoys hearing about the details, and he gets great pride out of sharing his knowledge with others. Our neighbor recently remarked that before talking to Leo she didn’t know what a honey badger was, no less about where it lives and how it defends itself from predators. Leo listened to her remarks with his chest out and hands on his hips, very pleased that he had told someone something they didn’t know before.

Leo is also very creative. He has recently begun expressing this through artwork (previously he wasn’t interested in arts and crafts), and greatly enjoys constructing intricate buildings and inventions from Duplo and Trio blocks. I think he is rather mechanically inclined. He regularly participates in complex pretend play. He is capable of blissfully entertaining himself for extended periods of time with little more than a stick, broken shovel, and a rock. However, it can be hard to keep him focused on one activity. I am not sure how this will play out in the classroom given it is more structured environment, but at home, tasks like walking from the house to the car can involve multiple stops because Leo is imagining or noticing things superfluous to the task at hand. We are currently practicing focusing our attention, completing one task before beginning another, and thinking ahead to recognize the next steps involved to complete a task (e.g. he may walk to the car as instructed, but stop at the door to play with a leaf he finds instead of climbing in. I have been talking with him about remembering what we are trying to accomplish, like getting to the pool, and staying focused.) I would be very open to hearing your thoughts on this topic as you get to know Leo.

Leo is a very sweet, empathic, and loving child. He has a firm understanding of emotions and a solid emotional vocabulary. It might not always be apparent because Leo is able to regulate his emotions well, especially in contexts like school, but if another child is upset, it is often distressing to Leo. It helpful to him to know what is bothering the other person; once he understands the situation he can put is aside.

In the past 6 months, Leo’s interest in and ability to form meaningful social connections with peers has blossomed beautifully. I am very proud of the gains he has made in initiating play, sharing, and playing together. However, when Leo does not know someone yet he can be a bit standoffish or avoidant. To Leo, “knowing” someone means knowing their name, so reminding him of classmates names will be helpful. Also, even when it may not appear that he wants to be included in an activity, sometimes another invitation or indication that his presence is wanted is all it takes for him to be engaged. We were once on a playdate where Leo was happily playing by himself, so much so that I didn’t think to intervene. However, when we left, he said he was disappointed because no one played with him. His desire to play with others might be easy to overlook and we are working together at initiating play more clearly and skillfully. Again, if you have observations to share or advice to give, I would be happy to hear it.

Finally, (I promise I’ll wrap up. I can go on-and-on about my darling boy!) Leo enjoys novelty. He likes to go to new places, meet new people, and explore new objects. At home, we foster this with frequent trips to the museums, at-home science experiments, and informational books. Leo will likely be one of the first children to engage if you tell him you have something interesting or new to show him. He is a very happy and excitable child.

I hope you will enjoy Leo as much as we do, and as much as I hope he will enjoy being a member of your class. I am very excited for this coming year in his social and academic development. Please feel free to contact me anytime to share anecdotes from his time with you, or if I can be of any help to you in the classroom in anyway.



**Since publishing this last night, this post has created controversy on Twitter. I’m open to a dialog about the content of this letter and curious what people think, especially my regular readers who know a bit about how I try to parent. When I wrote it I also saw the flip side that it might be preferable for Leo’s teachers to form their own opinions, independent of mine, of him. Just to clarify, although I can see how this letter might sound prescriptive, my intention is to simply share information between myself and another adult who will be caring for my child.

what I hate about having 2 kids


Of course I love both my babies desperately, and I’m so lucky to have two wonderful children, but sometimes I sort of hate having two kids. (I bet all you moms out there with more than 2 are scoffing at my naivete. I don’t know how you do it!) There are lots of times lately when I feel like I’m not able to really meet anyone’s needs completely, just enough to keep us marching forward. There are days when I feel like all I do is run from one snack, to the next dirty diaper, to the next nursing session, to the next need to administer a time out, to the next outfit change. I miss the days I lulled through with Leo when we played until we both had enough not until we were interrupted.

Right now, with an infant and a preschooler, being a mother of two means that there is ALWAYS someone touching me. Always. And, they don’t just touch me, they hit, pinch, and scratch me. Leo does this thing, often when I’m in the middle of concentrating on something like fitting his feet through his narrow pant leg or brushing his teeth, where he lightly smacks me on the cheeks. He does it because he gets so excited and he “loves me so much,” similar to the way that we want to squeeze little babies cheeks, but it is hell annoying nonetheless. It is almost extra annoying that he is doing it out of love, because I so want to reciprocate with affection, but I often end up feeling guilty about displaying annoyance instead because… well… because I’m being smacked in the face.

Emilia is no better. Although I’m really proud of her budding fine motor skills, I wish she would stop practicing her pincher grasp on the fat of my arms while she nurses. I have bruises! She also enjoys taking her pointer finger and just scratching at my skin. There is something a bit dehumanizing about being someone’s scratching post.

And, I just have to say that I hate I have to do a million things every morning before I can get around to taking a shower. I really love taking a hot shower. It has always been my favorite time of the day. But, before I can, I have to change diapers, make 3 people breakfast, clean dishes (often some left over from the night before because I was too tired then to finish), sweep up said breakfast, get 2 people dressed, get Leo set up with a show and snack (because that is how much time has passed since we had breakfast — he’s hungry again), nurse and get Emilia down for a nap… you get the point. I’m ready for a nap by 8:30am.

Where am I going with this? Not sure. I’m tempted to circle back around and talk about all the times when I love having two kids, but I’m not going to. That is all still there and true, but not feeling it right now. Instead I just needed to put this out there and vent. I imagine I’m not the only one in the trenches of parenthood who feels this way sometimes.

Making Happy Memories for Our Kids

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Lately I’ve been wondering what events from their childhood my kids will remember when they are adults.  When I’m in the thick of day-t0-day parenting tasks, I something can’t help but wonder which, if any, of the many moments we share together they will hang onto in the long run. I hope to God they will most clearly remember the science experiments, seemingly endless summer days at the park, trips to the museum, laughing together, and nighttime cuddles, and the moments I wish I could take back will not stand out in their minds.

I had the pleasure to spend last weekend with 4 of my closest girlfriends from high school. One night over dinner and drinks I threw the question out there of what they remember most from their childhoods. We all shared the flashbulb memories we have of our parents, siblings, and friends.  One of my friends made the excellent point that is not just the events of childhood that stand out in her mind, but how her mother talked about events with her that contributed to her feeling loved and secure.  Yes, of course!  This reminded me of research I had read briefly back in graduate school, so I decided to pull it up.  Most interestingly, there are things I can do now to increase the likelihood my kids will remember the experiences I work so hard to create for them.

This review does a great job of describing what research has taught us about this topic, specifically, about mothers’ reminiscing style with their kids.  The long and the short of it is that mothers who reminisce with their kids in a more elaborated manner, have kids who remember events with more detail and with more coherence.  Being an elaborate reminiscer is made up of a number of factors. Mainly, these mothers get their kids involved in the discussion. It is not enough to simply model reminiscing and remembering to our kids by retelling the events of a shared experience to them. We need to get them engaged and encourage the development of their own autobiographical voice, they need to be the author of their own life events. To do this, a handful of techniques have been identified as important.

First, ask open-ended questions when processing an event. So, rather than saying, “did you have fun at the zoo?” say, “what did you enjoy at the zoo?”  The use of this technique increases with age, such that mothers of older preschoolers tend to employ it more frequently. With younger children, it is developmentally sensitive to pose the open ended question and then follow it up with close ended questions (yes or no answers) to help the child cultivate their answer. Open ended questions are important because the child’s task of putting their experience into words helps them to represent it more richly in their minds.

Second, reinforce your child’s contributions to the conversation with positive affirmations, and, more importantly, by repeating their answers and weaving their content into the overall story the two of you are creating together. Although repeating a child’s answers might feel unnatural at first, doing so helps them to feel heard and understood, and it helps to elicit more information from them. You may find that after repeating or lightly summarizing their response, they add another layer of detail. (This type of reflecting is a useful technique in any parenting situation in which you want your child to share and to feel validated.)

Third, include in the discussion what you and your child were each thinking and feeling during the event, or your unique internal states. Don’t be afraid to talk about differences in each of your experiences because doing so will teach your child that their perspective is unique, which aids in their development of theory of mind. Indeed, mothers who have styles of reminiscing that are highly elaborate, have kids who are better at perspective taking.

It is important to allow your child to have a different perspective than your own, rather than imposing our own experience of the event onto them. Although it is tempting to only accentuate the positives within the memory (especially if we get caught up in wanting our kids to remember the good stuff the most clearly!), discussion of negative emotions also provides opportunity for important teachable moments.

The added bonus to all of this is that kids of mothers who reminisced with great elaboration, also had better literacy skills.  Reminiscing places a significant linguistic demand on the child and provides them with practice in relaying sequences of information. Reminiscing also goes well beyond a cognitive task by creating a shared history together that fosters emotional bonds. Elaboration in reminiscing style is also related to better quality attachment and relationship between child and mother.

Personally, I’m also looking forward to doing more of this with Leo, and eventually Emilia, because it helps me to slow down and fully experience our lives together. I find that in the bustle of the day-to-day, I can get more focused on the details involved in arriving on time and leaving the house with the many supplies we need than on the big picture of being fully present in all the happy memories we are creating and sharing.

Taking care of Mommy

Why is it so hard to take care of ourselves as parents? I have had the conversation with nearly all the parents with which I have worked clinically about how important it is to take time for themselves — important for their well-being, for their kids’ well-being, for their family’s functioning. I often give the analogy of being on a plane, where it is required that before assisting a child with their air mask, we must first help ourselves. Yes, of course, if we cannot breath, we are not much good to our kids. Yet, here I am, barely able to sit because I recently threw my back out for the 4th time in the last 18 months. This time around I do feel committed to finding the time to exercise regularly (I went to the gym today!), but seriously, why is this so hard?

Friends of mind have talked about feeling guilty that they are taking time away from their kids to exercise. One said that she will sometimes put on a movie so she can use the elliptical, which she classified as a selfish act. This is a somewhat of a factor for me. Although Leo is pretty independent and would probably enjoy the kid’s room at our gym, Emilia is in the throws of separation anxiety, and the idea of leaving her with a stranger feels cruel.

So that leaves evening, after baby is sleeping peacefully. Oh wait, that’s when I am so tired that if I sit down, I have a very hard time getting up again. Right now, as I look around my kitchen and dining room, there are groceries on the counter that haven’t been completely put away from this afternoon, and our dishes from dinner are still on the table where we left them an hour ago because the dishwasher needs to be emptied. Just typing this makes me tired.

I’m pretty sure that if I were exercising regularly I would have more energy. It’s just the getting started that is hard. But what I’m trying to wrap my head around is how I got here. I have belonged to a gym and exercised regularly since I was 13. I also used to get my hair cut regularly, take baths, put on face masks, and get massages. I took care of myself, and I felt totally entitled to that time when I only had myself to take care of. Yet, now I do not, when it could be argued and I am especially entitled to these things given how much of myself I give all day to my kids. The other day, I found myself dancing around the kitchen, really having to pee, but pouring Leo’s lemonade first. I realized, this is nuts, the lemonade can wait!

The other night I did have a long overdue massage since, you know, I could barely walk. During it, I became aware of how much tension I was carrying. I realized the extent to which I am out of touch with how my own body is feeling and functioning. I think that right there is my barrier to doing more for myself. I am so wrapped up with taking care of the kids, that I am not even aware on a daily basis of what I need. It’s pretty hard to take care of my needs if I’m not even conscious of what they are! That is a thought I need to sit with and bring into conscious awareness to during my day-to-day.

There have been a couple of times lately that I have said to Leo when he has asked for a snack or help with something, that I was busy taking care of myself and I would help him in a few minutes. I said, “if I don’t eat now I’m going to get really cranky, and neither of us want that.” He seemed to really understand that (I guess hungry mommy has instilled some fear in him. Haha) The other night when he wanted me (instead of my husband) to put him to bed, I said I couldn’t because I wanted to write my blog because writing is something that makes me happy. Although this stance hasn’t come naturally to me, it feels good, and I think it is teaching my kids important lessons. Mainly, I’m modeling that is okay and healthy to set boundaries with others, that taking care of yourself is a legitimate activity, and doing things to make oneself happy are important pursuits. After all, my biggest goal for them is do what makes them happy. So, with all things related to parenting, it is time for me to model the behavior I want my kids to do. And, of course, the more balanced I feel as an individual, the more patient and present I can be with my kids.

What are the stress relieving things you do to stay sane? What are the things you miss doing that have fallen to the wayside after having kids? You know, like going to the bathroom when you have to go ;)

Redshirting: to enter kindergarten or not… that is the question

This is one hot topic. Two years ago I was at a cocktail party and making friendly conversation with a group of women. We exchanged basic information about each other, you know, where we live, how many kids we have, what we do for a living. When I reveal that I am child psychologist to other mothers I often get one of two reactions — heightened interest followed up by stories about their kids and requests for advice, or withdrawal out of fear of judgement. One of my now close friends told me long after we met that when she initially saw my name and profession on our playgroup roster, she thought, “oh great.” This particular evening’s crowd, however, fell into the interested camp. The topic quickly changed to kindergarten entrance, which was charged with palatable anxiety over whether their child should start this coming year or wait a year. Each mother shared their respective observations of their kids, explaining how they came to their decision, when one mother interrupted, turned to me, pointed, and said, “I want to know what you would do. I want to know when you are going to send your son to kindergarten!” The emotion behind her statements threw me off a bit, but since that time I’ve been giving this topic a lot of thought, since it is clearly a topic about which many parents are thinking, are feeling strongly, and are looking for direction.

How prevalent is redshirting anyway? A new, and sound, study just revealed that is a lot less common than people perceive. Only about 4-5% of kids start kindergarten a year after their birth date allows. This number is lowest among low income African American children (1%), presumably because of the cost to the family to provide another year of childcare, and highest within communities with a mean household income of $100,000 or greater (7%). Even despite this range, the overall frequency is much lower than previously thought.

So, does delaying kindergarten give kids a head start? It appears that it can, at least for the first few years of elementary school, and this is especially true for kids who are already at risk for school difficulties due to socio-economic factors (unfortunately those are also the kids who are least likely to start later). However, evidence also indicates that age at school entry is a poor predictor of school success, with younger children performing just as well or better than their older peers. And, some studies indicate that children who are redshirted also have higher use of special education services in elementary school and higher rates of behavioral problems in adolescence. This may be because the children who parents initially thought were immature and in need of an additional year, where actually exhibiting early symptoms of a larger problem and could have benefited from early intervention.

Although I am a big fan of examining the data to inform parenting, the results often do not reveal a clear path, and although group level statistics are useful, they do not tell parents what their individual child’s trajectory will be. What is clear, however, is that given redshirting is much less common than originally thought, parents should worry less about how their child’s age will compare to peers (there is no reason to hold them back just so they won’t be much younger than most of their peers) and more about the signals their own children are giving them.

The big areas to consider are: social skills (ability to initiate and maintain play, sharing, understanding of own and others’ emotions), academic skills (knowledge of content areas such as letter/number recognition and phonics), ability to regulate impulses (staying on task, following directions), and fine motor skills (fine motor skills have been linked with academic success above and beyond content knowledge and attentional abilities). Interestingly, teachers rate enthusiasm to learn, ability to follow directions, and attention span as the most important factors for kindergarten success, less so than actual academic knowledge (which parents tend to perceive as most important).

Given the research on the topic, if you have concerns about your child’s behavior and that is why you are considering delaying them, this is important information that may signal your child would benefit from behavioral intervention, if not immediately than it is something to keep in mind as they progress through their early years of schooling.

So what is the answer to the question originally asked of me at that cocktail party? What will I do for Leo? Well, he will be 5 1/2 at the time of kindergarten. That February birthday excuses me from much of this anxiety. But even beyond that, I see him being very enthusiastic about learning and I want to give him as many opportunities as I can to foster that curiosity. I think he is a kid who is in danger of getting bored in a less stimulating/demanding environment. After his first day of preschool he was disappointed because “I didn’t learn anything.” Socially, I do wonder if being older would be helpful for him, especially since in adolescence it is socially advantageous for boys to hit puberty early (it is risk factor for girls) because that means physical strength. But, at this point he keeps up well with friends who are a year or more older, and prefers their company to kids who are a few months younger. In some ways being surrounded by older kids is much easier because they tend to be more prosocial and they model social skills from which Leo can benefit. Taken together, the risk of Leo becoming bored outweighs any concerns I have about him socially. This coming year of preschool instead of being in a traditional 3′s classroom, he will be in a young 4′s room that ranges from 3 1/2 to 4 1/2. I plan to see how that age assortment goes for him as it may mirror what we will encounter in kindergarten.

What are the factors you considered when making this decision for your child?

Why spending $2.99 at IKEA is the best thing I’ve done in a long time

Last week I took a trip to my happy place, IKEA, and picked up one of my handiest little parenting devices yet — an old fashioned kitchen timer. Getting dressed in the morning was one of my most stressful times of the day. It could take me up to 20 minutes to get Leo dressed and cleaned up. This really wasn’t working for me because we often had places to go, and mostly because Emilia would be unfairly waiting to eat or nap while I cajoled Leo out of his PJs and into his clothes. I swear, that kid would have lived in the same set of PJs for the rest of his life if we let him. On most days he wasn’t particularly oppositional about getting changed, but the whole process took so long because he would be dancing, singing, hugging me, or running up and down the hallway. There was always “one more thing” he had to do or say before he would put on his shirt. It was maddening. I was repeating instructions over and over, often getting very frustrated in the process. For the last week, however, getting dressed has taken 5 minutes flat! (That includes clothing change, face & hands washed, teeth brushed, hair combed, and PJs in the hamper!)

When we go upstairs now, I lay out his clothing and get the wash cloth ready. I get Leo’s attention, set the timer to 5 minutes, and give him his first clear, simple instruction (e.g., Run into the bathroom and take off your PJ pants). When he finishes getting dressed before the timer rings, he gets to put a sticker on his chart. The “chart” is just a piece of construction paper with columns created by the days of the week written along the top.

I explained to him before we began, that when he earns 5 stickers, he gets a prize of his choosing.  He has the opportunity to earn 2 stickers a day since we repeat the process for bedtime. I started with 5 stickers so that he would get his first big reinforcement within a few days of starting the chart. I wanted to give him a taste of success quickly. Now that he has earned 2 prizes, he needs to earn 7 stickers. My plan is to work him up to 10 stickers. which means he will get about a prize a week, which does not break the bank (the prizes average $5).

The same day we started the chart, we went the toy store and picked out some prizes for his “surprise basket.” He had a great time running through the store, getting to freely choose 5 toys without any hesitation from me. It was great to see him so invested in the process!

I’m happy to report that 1 week in, this plan is working beautifully. Here’s why:

1. It’s simple and expectations are clear. We are only working to change 1 behavior (generally sticker charts should be limited to targeting 3 behaviors at at time otherwise it gets overwhelming for both parent and child) and he understands well what is expected of him. Making expectations very clear, concrete, and well-defined/measurable is an important part of any behavioral plan.

2. It’s something he was always capable of doing, but just wasn’t motivated to do. The timer serves as a great reminder of the end goal because it physically ticks and rings. The ticking creates a fun atmosphere of racing against the clock, for both of us. Leo gets the reward of beating  the timer, a high five from me, putting the sticker on his chart, and anticipating a larger prize in a relatively short amount of time. All of this came together to really amp up his motivation. You might ask, is this just bribery? Why should I have to reward my kid for something they should be doing anyway? I hear you. But here’s how I think about it. We, as adults, probably wouldn’t go to work if we weren’t getting paid. In the same vein Leo didn’t see why getting dressed quickly was important and he needed an extra incentive to get the job done.

3. The timer took the argument out of it. On the one day Leo didn’t make it in time, he got upset, but he moved past it quickly because there was no one to argue with. The timer rang, I didn’t make that happen. Also, when we are in the process of getting dressed and he starts to goof around, rather than trying harder to convince him to cooperate (sometimes with threats of punishment) and feeling frustrated, I just back off. I say calmly, “ok, go ahead and dance, but that is taking up time and you might run out.” That immediately gets him back on task. So, we are both arguing less. Getting dressed has become completely stress free!

4. He is invested. By allowing Leo to pick out his prizes, I ensured he is motivated by the rewards. It is important to get your kids’ input on the reward being offered, because without a reward that is valued by the child, the behavioral plan will not work.

5. It’s sustainable. I can live with this reward structure given the frequency and price limit of the prizes being offered. Although it can be tempting to offer larger rewards for good behavior (especially when you are desperate for a problem behavior to go away!) it can set you up for failure if you cannot continue to match that level of reinforcement. It is best to start small, even just using praise and stickers at first, and work your way up if necessary. You can also turn activities that have felt like “givens’ into rewards, such as screen time (i.e. 5 stickers will earn you 20 minutes of iPad time).

Plus, the timer aspect is teaching Leo how long 5 minutes actually is. I think this has been helpful for him in other contexts, to stay calm during waits, for instance, or to know what it means when I say we will leave a place in 5 minutes.

Also, having the surprise basket has made walking through stores easier. If Leo asks to buy something small, I can now say, OK, with the agreement that it will go in his prize basket and he can earn it for good behavior.

I could see this technique also working well for clean up — let’s clean up for 5 minutes straight, see how much we can get done quickly, and then earn a sticker. The timer could also be used to end an activity — when the timer rings it is time to stop watching TV. If you turn it off calmly, you earn a sticker.

As with many positive changes to parenting I’ve implemented over the years, I’ve wondered why I didn’t do this earlier. I would love to hear about the changes you have made (big or small) that made a big impact on your interactions with your kids or level of stress in your home!