You enter the world of mothering and all of a sudden everyone has an opinion on everything! Stop. Take a deep breath and listen to your “Mommy Intuition,” which is one of your strongest and most powerful assets. It is what you rely on in those times when there is no one to ask or book to reference and you need to make that gut instinct decision that is right for you and your child.
Being a mom myself, I’ve experienced how all the “how to” information out there can be a great resource but also incredibly overwhelming. With all the “shoulds” and “should nots,” it is easy to doubt ourselves.
The truth is: no one has ALL the answers. Many people have great insights and pearls of wisdom to learn from, but no one is “the baby-raising gospel.” Do your homework, take the pieces that resonate with you, and leave the rest. You (or you and your partner) have your own values and your child has their own unique temperament and you need to figure out what works for your unique unit. This will change and evolve as your children grow, and new situations present themselves!
The tips below are things that I have found personally helpful, so I wanted to share them with you. Take what resonates with you and adapt it for your own situation; leave what doesn’t fit and move on. Regardless, keep listening to your Mommy Intuition and continue doing the great job you are already doing!!
1. Let them eat dirt!
Ok, so this doesn't mean feed them spoonfuls of dirt! And, as always, use your discretion about the areas where you choose to allow this. BUT, if they do eat dirt, don’t fear it. Don’t overly sterilize or sanitize their environment. Avoid antimicrobial soaps and chemical hand sanitizers. Instead, when needed and before eating, do a good hand wash or wipe with soap and water.
Dirt helps expose us to good bacteria through micro-organisms called soil-based organisms. Soil-based organisms have been shown to increase IgA levels in the gut (which helps your body fight bad bacteria, viruses, and toxins), decrease inflammation, support the immune response, and decrease autoimmunity.
So, letting your children eat an unwashed carrot from the garden or farmer's market or explore the texture of sand in their mouth at the beach is actually giving them a natural inoculation of good bacteria!
2. Don’t overtreat—trust their immune system.
Observe and listen to your little one’s body. When possible, support what it is trying to do and avoid suppressing it. This comes into play especially when our kids get sick. It is hard to see our little loves suffer, so when they have a fever, we want to bring it down. When they have a cough, we want to suppress it. And when they have diarrhea, of course we want to stop it! It is a natural instinct. However, remember, human bodies are wise (even tiny ones!) and often working against what our body is trying to do can extend the duration of an illness.
Instead of grabbing for Tylenol, a cough suppressant, or Pepto-Bismol, find an integrative health care provider, a naturopathic doctor or functional medicine doctor who is trained to work in pediatrics. Work with them and let them guide you on how best to make a fever more efficient, support a cough with expectorant herbs, and repopulate the gut flora with healthy bacteria.
Illness isn’t enjoyable, but it is an important part of childhood development and allows our bodies to exercise the immune system “muscle” to establish a healthy and robust response. An important caveat is that the above advice does not apply for babies under 6 months of age. Any fever in an infant under 6 months needs to be investigated ASAP. Finally, use care and give antibiotics judiciously. They are amazing medicines when needed but can do our bodies a disservice when they are used too frequently.
3. Provide probiotics.
This is so important that I am saying it again, but in another way. In addition to the exposures of being outside and “eating dirt,” gaining additional probiotics through food choices is essential. Regular doses of cultured veggies, pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, and drinks such as kefir, kombucha, and kvass are wonderful options. If your child’s palate won’t yet accept cultured or fermented foods, supplemental probiotics can really help as well.
4. When they’re hungry: Veggies, Veggies, Veggies!
Growing up, people always asked my mom how she got her kids to love veggies so much. She would tell them that “When they are starving, I put out a plate of veggies with a good dip (usually hummus or a homemade yogurt dip) and they’ll scarf them up.” And we did! I wanted the same love of veggies for our boys, so we decided to do baby-led weaning. The first solid food our kids chewed on were steamed broccoli florets. We thought this “mini-tree” was the perfect first taste and texture for exploring delight! We kept up the veggies at every meal and they still (thankfully) love and devour them.
By eating all the colors of the rainbow through the veggies you eat, you get many beneficial vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. In addition, vegetables provide fiber that supports a healthy microbiome. Also, incorporating green veggies (such as spinach, kale, collard greens, cabbage, or broccoli) provides healthy sources of vitamins A, B, and C, plus iron and calcium. PLUS, prebiotic liver-supporting foods, such as artichoke, provide the fuel for your gut bacteria to feed on in addition to supporting your liver.
5. WATER, WATER, WATER (…and say no to juice!)
Water is essential, especially for infants and children. Water assists our body with circulation and maintaining body temperature, digestion, absorption, transportation of nutrients, and elimination of wastes. As we breathe, sweat, and urinate, we lose water and it is important to replace it. In order to avoid dehydration and get enough water in, it is important to enjoy the taste of water. We felt like the mean parents for many years when we would only allow our kids to drink water and breastmilk (as they didn’t tolerate cow’s milk and I was fortunate enough to be able to do extended breastfeeding with them).
Now that they are older, they will get small amounts of kombucha and coconut water as a treat. But, when we are at a restaurant and they want a special drink, it will be sparkly water with a lemon, lime, or sometimes a splash of juice. At home, we’ll also make our own limeade or lemonade (with fresh limes, sparkly water, and stevia). Juice is very high in fructose and carbohydrates and low in fiber, which allows it to create a strong spike in our blood sugar. This can send your little one’s blood sugar on a topsy-turvy ride, and a topsy-turvy mood will most likely follow.
6. Avoid synthetic scents.
Synthetic scents like air fresheners, laundry detergents, fabric sheets, cleaning products, synthetic room sprays, and perfumes can be terrible for your microbiome and overall health. Remember, unless it is a 100% essential oil-based scent, an artificial smell means CHEMICALS galore. Air fresheners have been found to contain over 100 different chemicals! These include volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, and xylene, and semi-volatile organic compounds (such as phthalates).
Scent-free locations are becoming much more popular in doctors’ offices and other public places because of the known health impact of artificial scents and the increasing amount of chemical sensitivity we are seeing in our population. I strongly suggest making your home a scent-free zone as well.
7. Say no to plastic.
Plastics contain Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, which have been shown to be hormone disrupters and contribute to cancer development. Increased exposure can occur when they are used with hot food or liquids, microwaved, or start to break down from being scratched with utensils or re-used. With options such as stainless steel for water bottles, lunch boxes and even plates and cups, it is worth the investment in my opinion.
At home, instead of plastic we use stainless steel cups, plates and bowls with our kids for mealtimes. They are light, shatterproof, and great to take out of the house on picnics and camping trips. We like to use paper sandwich bags vs plastic bags and beeswax-covered cotton wrap vs plastic wrap. And we store our food in glass vs plastic storage containers.
8. Go organic (or local).
Personally, I don't think pesticides are good for anyone to ingest but especially not for pregnant women, nursing women, or little developing bodies. I know organic can be expensive so eating local (out of your garden or from your local farmer’s market or veggie stand) is likely to have fewer pesticides even if it isn’t certified organic than fruit or veggies that had to travel far to get to you.
If you can’t eat all organic, the most important places to prioritize this are in dairy, meats, and the dirty dozen fruits and veggies. According to the Environmental Working Group, strawberries and spinach are some of the worst offenders and multiple samples of kale contained 18 different pesticides! Yikes!
9. Get outside in nature.
The power of getting out in nature with a walk, hike, or trip to the beach can have a profound effect on your family’s health. Not only are you getting a daily dose of vitamin D while your kids run, play, and explore, but breathing in that fresh air from trees and the ocean breeze can provide an inoculation of beneficial microorganisms to support our gut and immune health.
10. Don’t try to do it all and give yourself a break!
Realistically, we can only do 1 or 2 things at 100% at the same time. A wise mama friend shared this insight with me, and I have found it helpful to reflect on often. Revel in that and give yourself permission to let the other things go until the tide changes. When your baby is first born, that one thing you choose to do may be getting dressed, brushing your teeth, or nourishing your body with some good food. As your kids get older, it may be taking a walk or going to yoga or for a hike or bike ride. It also may be taking the time to destress with a bubble bath or a good book. Stress can cause issues for your microbiome and throw your health out of whack.
We make priorities all the time, and we only have so much time in the day, so we can ’t always excel at everything all of the time. Balance is an ebb and flow and you need to make sure you prioritize your kids, yourself, your partner/relationship, your house (and ALL THAT LAUNDRY!), your work, etc. But let go of the expectation that you need to be perfect for all of them 100% all the time. Follow your own instincts for what your family needs most.