Book Review: Stop Second Guessing Yourself: The Toddler Years by Jen Singer

Doubts seem par for the mothering course.

You see the amazing mother on Facebook who is doing enrichment activities with her children every day of the week (Debbie, I’m looking at you!) and you wonder if your children are missing out because you mostly just stay home and work around the house.

You see other children who are talking in full sentences or singing songs or correctly identifying colors at age 1 and you wonder if maybe you’re the reason your child isn’t doing those same things.

Your toddler melts down when you tell her it’s time to get ready for bed and, instead of going straight to bed (like she’s trying to do), you go to the bathroom to brush her teeth (despite that having been your bedtime routine for months.) And when she melts down, you wonder if maybe you’re doing this mothering thing wrong.

A book called Stop Second Guessing Yourself: The Toddler Years sounds like just the thing. You need something to help you develop confidence in your own mothering so that you can relax and just get on with the mothering instead of constantly, well, second-guessing yourself.

If you pick up Jen Singer’s book hoping to get that, though, you’ll be disappointed. Rather than a confidence-inducing book for mothers, this is a collection of tips for a variety of toddler parenting situations. For the most part, it’s Jen’s own tips – although it does include some blurbs in sidebar form from Singer’s “” community. For the most part, the tips were in the relaxed category – hacks to get your kids to do what you want (without necessarily parenting their hearts) or to cope with the inevitable frustrations of toddlerhood.

Okay, I suppose, if that’s what you want. For my part, I prefer my “tip” books to either be

  1. from an experienced mother whose outcomes are known (Homeschooling mom of a half dozen who has well-mannered teenagers? I’d love to hear her tips of mothering)
  2. a compilation of research-proven methods (a la Nurture Shock)
  3. or

  4. a compilation of tips from hundreds of different moms (because out of hundreds of moms, one of them might have circumstances and/or personalities that mesh with yours and your child’s)

So I wasn’t a huge fan of this book. Your results may vary.

Stay tuned, though, if you’re interested in hearing my advice for how to stop second guessing yourself as a mother.

Rating:2 stars
Category: Parenting Advice
Synopsis: One mother’s advice on how to cope with the toddler years. Emphasis on coping (versus parenting).
Recommendation: Not a fan, don’t recommend.

Book Review: Beautiful Babies by Kristen Michaelis

This is basically a defense of the Weston A. Price diet for pregnancy and early childhood. The nutrition advice ranges from odd to downright dangerous. The rationale for the advice is nostalgia and cherry-picked scientific studies. And Michaelis (like a lot of self-taught nutritionists) despises me and my ilk (that is, people with actual training in nutrition.)

A review in which I annoy you by summarizing each chapter of the book using the words “In which…” Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Chapter 1
In which Michealis reveals that she has no credentials that give her any right to be talking about nutrition – apart from watching food-fright documentaries and reading people like Michael Pollan, Joel Salatin, and Sally Fallon (all of whom are interesting to read, but hardly bastions of science-based nutrition recommendations.)

Chapter 2
In which Michaelis explains that nutrition matters (*gasp*). Except don’t pay any attention to those nasty reductionist dietitians with their advice meant to avoid specific proven risks. No, you should jump on the fetal origins hypothesis (which is a reasonable and scientifically supported hypothesis that a mother’s environment during pregnancy affects her child well into adulthood, but which currently has little evidence of sufficient quality to use to make broad-ranging dietary recommendations) which means you should eat a primitive diet (what? Okay, fetal origins really doesn’t suggest need for a Weston Price style diet – but that doesn’t stop Michaelis from using the one to support the other.)

Chapter 3
In which Michaelis tells you what to avoid: MSG, corn, GMOs, vegetable oils, industrial meats/dairy/eggs, refined sweeteners, and modern gardening/farming practices. Michaelis’ rationale is a mixture of misguided nostalgia and alarmist pseudoscience. Oh, okay. She occasionally includes a bit of real science – and then completely screws up the application. For example, she recommends avoiding corn (and corn-fed animals) because corn oil has a much higher than recommended Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acid ratio. It is true that corn oil has a high Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acid ratio – and that almost all Americans could stand to eat more Omega 3s relative to Omega 6s. But…the list of corn ingredients Michaelis wants you to avoid? Only 3 of the 21 corn-derived ingredients contains fat. So… unless she’s got another good reason to avoid corn products, she’s just being silly.

Chapter 4
In which Michaelis tells you what TO eat: bone broth, traditional fats and oils, wild and pastured animal foods, natural sweeteners, and “properly prepared” grains. In general, there’s nothing wrong with these items, even if the emphasis is off. Good advice: choose butter or olive oil over partially hydrogenated margarines or shortenings. Advice with some nutritional support, although not enough to warrant broad-based recommendations: wild or pastured animals have a more favorable fatty-acid profile and soaked grains have better nutrient bioavailability (but a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains – even the unsoaked kind – is unlikely to be deficient in those micronutrients.) Completely spurious advice? bone broth and natural sweeteners. As far as sweeteners go, your body doesn’t care whether it’s “natural” or not – if it’s sugar (and that includes honey, maple syrup, sucanat, sorghum syrup, coconut palm sugar, and others), the body treats it as sugar. If it isn’t sugar (stevia and “artificial sweeteners”), the body processes it as whatever it is – whether a sugar alcohol, an indigestible starch or whatever. Of course, the real travesty of this chapter is what Michaelis omits. Please note the two food groups she doesn’t bother to mention in any degree: fruits and vegetables. Whatever the controversies nutrition science may have, there is one thing about which every science-based dietitian and nutrition researcher can agree – the general US population should be eating more fruits and vegetables.

Chapter 5
In which Michaelis helps you learn what to eat to poop well. Because your gut is your second brain. Sigh. I don’t even know where to start with this. Let’s just say that some people do have digestive issues that compromise their overall health. Most people don’t. Probiotics are good – but their benefits are frequently overstated. The most important thing you can do to have a healthy digestive system is to get sufficient fiber and water – like, say, from fruits and vegetables (which don’t necessarily need to be lactofermented, thank goodness!)

Chapter 6
In which Michaelis tells you what to eat to be fertile and to have a healthy pregnancy. The “fertility” section is more of Price’s general theories combined with more recent research from the Nurse’s Health Study. Want to hear what the science actually says? Read the highly readable The Fertility Diet by Jorge Chavarro, Patrick J. Skerrett, and Walter Willett – and keep in mind that even a well-executed study like the Nurse’s Healthy Study can’t prove causation.

The “pregnancy” section is where it gets exciting, because Michaelis has somehow figured out the cause of both morning sickness and preeclampsia, two relatively common pregnancy conditions that researchers have been puzzling over for years! (Can you sense the sarcasm?) Of course, the problem is nutrition. And the solution is a variation of the Brewer’s Diet, a favorite diet of natural childbirth advocates everywhere. Problem with the Brewer diet? Well… there are several. While the Brewer diet apparently had great success for Dr. Brewer’s (low-income, minority, teenage) patients in the 60s and 70s, nutrition science has failed to find links between the components of Brewer’s diet and healthy pregnancy. While protein deficiency may have played some role in increasing risk in Brewer’s patients, studies of moderate vs. high protein intake in pregnant women have failed to show any protective effect of increased protein intake. While Brewer’s teenaged patients may have needed the 3000 calories per day that his diet recommends (because they were still developing themselves, in addition to supporting a growing baby in their wombs), research clearly links excess weight gain during pregnancy to development of preeclampsia (and we’re talking weight gain even before those preeclamptic women started putting on all that fluid.) Additionally, while Brewer’s patients may have had nutrient deficiencies that made intake of large quantities of liver helpful and not dangerous, those of us who are adequately nourished in the first place should not be overloading our diet with items high in retinol (preformed Vitamin A), which is highly toxic to a developing baby. We should instead be getting our Vitamin A in the form of carotenoids (from vegetable sources) which our body converts to Vitamin A as needed, without the toxicity to the developing baby.

It’d be nice if we knew the exact cause of preeclampsia and could avoid it at all costs. But the reality is that we don’t know what causes preeclampsia. We know risk factors – first pregnancy with a new partner, high or low maternal age, overweight or obesity prior to pregnancy, excess weight gain during pregnancy. But none of those are a guarantee of preeclampsia – and the absence of those are not a guarantee against preeclampsia. As nice as it would be to just put ourselves on a diet for nine months to keep preeclampsia at bay, the truth is that there is very little evidence that dietary interventions make any difference in the development of preeclampsia. And if there is any promising research along that vein at present? It suggests that maybe increasing dietary fiber might make a difference. What, you mean like eating more fruits and vegetables? Oh. My. Word. That’s pretty much the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard suggested (Sarcasm, again, in case you didn’t catch it.)

Chapter 7
In which Michaelis reminds you that everything those nasty government-shill dietitians tell you is wrong. (I have a feeling I’m becoming less charitable and more cynical as this book goes on.) But this chapter rehashes that cholesterol and saturated fat aren’t bad for you (dietitian me: it’s complicated). Michaelis also tells you that you don’t need an iron supplement (dietitian me: anyone who is routinely recommending iron supplementation to pregnant women without confirmation of anemia is acting outside the bounds of science-based practice anyway). According to Michaelis, sushi won’t give you listeria but raw cheese might (dietitian me: both sushi and raw cheese are relatively more risky than cooked fish and hard cheeses. In both cases the odds of problems are low but the problem – miscarriage or stillbirth – could be severe if it happens. Mothers should be aware of the risks and make their decisions based on information.) And finally, the occasional glass of red wine won’t harm your baby (dietitian me: probably not, but excess drinking can… and it’s worthwhile for you to find better coping mechanisms than drinking.)

Chapter 8
In which Michaelis leaves the realm of nutrition to promote every other kind of quackery you can think of. After all, Western medicine KILLS PEOPLE (dietitian me: but not as many people as would die prematurely if they opted out of Western medicine for the mumbo-jumbo you’re suggesting.)

Chapter 9
In which Michaelis informs us that breast isn’t always best – in which case you should opt for a homemade baby formula! Dietitian me: Where do I go with this train wreck of a chapter? She’s right that breast isn’t always best. In the developed world, the risk of a woman transmitting HIV through her breastmilk is greater than the risks of formula feeding. For women who are unable to produce breastmilk because of hypoplasia/insufficient glandular tissue, forcing a baby to an empty breast is not best! A drug abuser can pass drugs through her breastmilk to her baby. A severely malnourished woman may have trouble producing high quality milk. BUT… the women reading Michaelis’ book are unlikely to be drug abusers and the degree of maternal malnutrition required to malnourish a breastfed baby is incredibly rare in the United States. As for the appropriate alternative to breastmilk? Iron fortified infant formula. Period. Full stop. Even if you scrupulously follow Michaelis’s recipes for “whole food” infant formula, you’re going to end up with variations in nutrient content because (I’ve got a big surprise for you here) whole foods don’t always have the same nutrient content (even if it’s the same brand). Some organic liver will have more Vitamin A and some will have less. Some homemade broth will have more calcium and some will have less. It’s the nature of natural. But unlike your breastmilk, that liver and homemade broth wasn’t designed by God to be consumed by your baby. Your infant could end up with too much or too little and you’d have no way of knowing until the damage was done. At least with infant formula, you actually do know what the nutrient content is. It’s regulated, controlled. It tries to get as close to breastmilk as possible (which, yes, it doesn’t get close – but it can get closer than anything you can mix up at home.)

Chapter 10
In which Michaelis slams WIC and promotes baby-led weaning. At least she’s honest: “I don’t remember much of what my WIC nutritionist told me.” I’m hoping that what she DID remember was a false memory. Because no WIC dietitian worth her salt is encouraging moms to “just mix a little [infant cereal] in with their [baby’s] milk in a bottle or sippy cup.” Michaelis goes on to explain why this was terrible advice. It’s because babies can’t digest starch like that found in infant cereal. For that reason, babies shouldn’t be given starchy foods until they cut their two year molars. Problem is, Michaelis only knows the beginning of the research (that babies have less pancreatic amylase than adults) and didn’t bother to look at the whole picture (Check out Alice Callahan’s excellent treatment of the topic at Science of Mom if you’re interested in learning more about whether infants can digest infant cereal.) On the other hand, offering cereal in a bottle is truly terrible advice that can promote excess weight gain and possibly increase choking risk. Cereal should be served by spoon.

The ironic thing is that while Michaelis goes full-on WIC-hating in this chapter, I don’t disagree with her basic premise. Once infants are ready to eat solid foods, they can eat “real foods” (that is, the same foods the family is eating.) Most infants and toddlers eat WAY too many starches and sweets – because they’re being plied with cookies and crackers all day long instead of what they should be getting, little bits of everything the family is eating. But then again, I’d be emphasizing fruits and vegetables and whole grains and lean protein sources instead of liver and bone broth and sauerkraut (not that I don’t love me some bone broth and sauerkraut – they’re just not really necessary for good health.)

Fortunately for me, the last 50 pages of this book are recipes rather than more of the same from the first 170 pages. If I’d have had to go on… I might have bashed my head against a wall.

The reality is that nutrition science is in its infancy. There’s a lot we don’t know about how to optimize our diets for health. Some government recommendations (cholesterol restriction) and the ensuing dietary changes (a population going crazy on hydrogenated vegetable oils instead of animal fats) have been for the worse. And for every government recommendation that isn’t fully founded in the research there are two thousand non-governmental, non-reputable recommendations based on a single bit of research (that happens to be contradicted by every other piece of research.) But the answer to an infant science that sometimes lets us down isn’t to ignore science altogether or to cherry-pick studies that fit our predetermined viewpoint, as Michaelis does all throughout her book. The answer is to evaluate the science critically and to go with the stuff that has the most support (rather than jumping on the bandwagon for the newest study). That is not at all what Michaelis does.

With the risk of sounding like a broken record, Michaelis majors on the minors – things that have minimal to no scientific support – while completely ignoring what I (as a nutrition professional) consider to be the most important food advice any American can receive: eat more fruits and vegetables. It’s not sexy advice. It doesn’t have the cachet of ancient wisdom only available to primitive cultures – or the allure of a governmental cover-up. But it’s the soundest advice I can give you. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Aim to include a fruit or vegetable (or two or three) at every meal and snack. You – and your babies – will be better for it.

Rating: 0 stars
Category: Diet Advice
Synopsis: A defense of the Weston Price diet – and a slam on people like me.
Recommendation: I do not recommend this book.

Book Review: Your Pregnancy Week by Week by Glade B. Curtis and Judith Schuler

The front cover of Your Pregnancy Week by Week proudly announces that it is “The only best-selling guide written by a doctor.” The spine contains a medallion announcing “The only best-selling guide written by a doctor.” The back cover proclaims the book to be “The expanded, fully updated edition of the best-selling pregnancy guide written by a doctor.”

So the major selling point of this book is that it is written by a doctor. Glade Curtis is a board certified OB-GYN, which means he’s the perfect guy to walk a woman through every week of her normal pregnancy, right?

Well, that depends a lot on your view of what pregnancy is. Is pregnancy a medical condition to be monitored and controlled (as you would diabetes or heart disease?) or is it a life event to be cherished and enjoyed (as you would an engagement and preparation for a wedding?)

Curtis (and the obstetric community as a whole) tends to think that pregnancy is a medical condition to be monitored and controlled. As such, Your Pregnancy Week by Week consists of telling a woman all the things that might go wrong with her at any given point during her pregnancy, all the tests which might be necessary to make sure that nothing is going wrong, and why she should trust her doctor implicitly and herself not at all during pregnancy.

Okay, someone not quite as passionate about pregnancy and birth as I am might feel that I’m overreacting to this book. Things can go wrong during pregnancy, they might say. Tests are sometimes necessary. You should be able to trust your doctor. Your own instincts aren’t always right when it comes to pregnancy. And, for that matter – pregnancy isn’t simply a life event like an engagement. Things are happening in your body!

And I agree completely, dear not-so-passionate-about-birth-as-I. Things do go wrong during pregnancy – I, of all people should know. I could have died during my pregnancy with Tirzah Mae. Tests are sometimes necessary – the ultrasounds to make sure Tirzah Mae was still growing when my body was no longer functioning as designed, the blood tests that finally told us that my kidneys and liver had stopped doing their jobs – those were necessary (and without the blood tests indicating the need for delivery both Tirzah Mae and I would have died.) It is incredibly valuable to have a caregiver you can trust – which is why I am SO grateful for my midwife, who was alert to normal pregnancy and knew when to refer when my pregnancy became anything but normal. That’s why I’m SO grateful for my OB, who values women and who works with them to help them have as normal a delivery as possible.

Pregnancy isn’t SIMPLY a life event like an engagement. Your body is changing, your hormones are changing. You’ve got extra blood pumping through your veins, an extra body inside your own. Things are happening to your body that you want to understand. You want to know if those changes are normal or if they’re something to be worried about. In some cases, you NEED to know if they’re normal or if you should be worried about them (ten pounds weight gain in one day – that’s not normal. It’s definitely something to be worried about.)

But Curtis and his co-author aren’t simply helping women understand what is normal and what isn’t. They are detailing, every week, another horrible thing that can go wrong during pregnancy (tacking a line at the end about how really only two in a thousand women are going to have this problem, so don’t worry.)

Curtis explains (week after week) why a woman shouldn’t ever be afraid to get a test or a procedure because they only ever help your doctor and you and your baby (and have never been PROVEN to be harmful – the anti-precautionary principle). And he explains (week after week) why a woman should be afraid to drink caffeine, eat sugar, eat artificial sweeteners, take an over-the-counter drug, etc (because it has never been PROVEN to be safe – the precautionary principle.) The doctor is always right and can do no harm. The woman is always to be doubted and will kill her baby if left to her own devices. (Okay, I’m exagerating a little.)

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the unscientific suggestions Curtis has for labor. He encourages enemas (for the patient’s safety and comfort, of course!), fasting during labor, lying down during labor, and episiotomies. Continuous fetal monitoring is necessary for baby’s safety. And if you aren’t sure you want a natural labor? A doula is a bad idea (well, actually, are you SURE you want a natural labor? If I give you this epidural, then you’ll be so much more comfortable and will be so much easier to monitor and won’t try to move around or anything… big plus? you won’t have to hire a doula!)

Yeah. No.

Choose to have a pregnancy and childbirth not defined by fear. Choose to trust that your body is fearfully and wonderfully made. Choose NOT to read Glade Curtis and Judith Schuler’s Your Pregnancy Week by Week.

Rating: 0 stars
Category: Pregnancy
Synopsis: An overmedicalized, fear-based, doctor-is-always-right tome on pregnancy
Recommendation:If you want to be scared out of your mind by all the things that could go wrong in pregnancy and to be convinced that every intervention your doctor might suggest is absolutely the right decision, you’ll want to read this book. If you prefer to learn what a normal pregnancy looks like, how to deal with the normal problems of pregnancy, and to make evidence-based (versus fear-based) decisions for your pregnancy and childbirth – this is not at all the book for you.

Book Review: The Dinner Diaries by Betsy Block

Feeding a family. Raising healthy eaters. Topics I’m passionate about. Even while I was still working on my degree, I knew that helping mothers feed their families and raise healthy eaters was what I wanted to do as a career. I made that the focus of my graduate work. After a stint in long term care, I moved to WIC, where I was able to live my dream (at least as far as career goes.)

Subtitled “Raising Whole Wheat Kids in a White Bread World”, Betsy Block’s book should be right up my alley, right?


I should have known from the blurb on the back cover:

“A harried mother of two, Betsy Block is in pursuit of the perfect family meal: local, toxin-free, humane, and healthful.”

But the book was in a Dewey Decimal category I was trying to close and I figured “how bad can it be?”

Pretty bad.

Betsy Block’s The Dinner Diaries is basically a manual on how NOT to feed a family or raise healthy eaters. In order to save you the work of reading it, allow me to summarize the main points.

Tip 1: Start with all the wrong priorities

It’s no mistake that “healthful” is last on the list of Block’s priorities a la the back of the book. In reality, her definition of “healthful” is suspect enough that you might as well knock it off the list. Block is all about the local (which has very little impact on health), toxin-free (the American food supply, with the exception of methyl-mercury containing fish, is actually one of the safest in the world), and humane/sustainable (an ideological issue but not a health one.) Her couple of concessions to actually health practices include trying to eat less sugar and (at the very end of the book) attempting to eat more whole grains.

If you’d rather actually have some success at feeding a family or raising healthy eaters, I recommend starting with priorities that will actually help you achieve health. Try: increasing fruit and vegetable intake (no, it doesn’t have to be fresh – frozen or canned are fine), increasing variety (of protein sources, vegetables, starches, you name it – variety is good), sitting down together as a family to eat (even for snacks), having sweets around less frequently and subbing fruit instead, or experimenting with forms of cooking other than frying. I can give you more suggestions if you’d like, but those are some of the biggies.

Tip 2: Lecture your children about food

There’s nothing like a good guilt trip to help kids form a healthy attitude toward food, amiright?

Okay, no.

But Block seems to think it’s a great idea. She lectures about all those wrong priorities, lectures when kids won’t eat something, lectures when kids do eat something. She sets up learning opportunities for herself (like going to see a pig that she’s later going to eat) and leaves the children behind lest it be too tense for them – not that she won’t lecture them about it when she gets home. When her daughter asks to help cook, Betsy asks if that means her daughter will eat what they prepare. When her daughter says “probably not”, Betsy declines the offer of help.

If you’d like your children to actually develop a healthy attitude toward food, start by modeling healthy attitudes towards food yourself (by the way, Block’s obsessive interest in “perfect” food isn’t healthy.) Eat in moderation. Eat a variety. Don’t obsess over food (either in a “I must have sweets now” or in a “my diet must be absolutely healthy all the time” way).

If you’d like your children to develop a healthy attitude toward food, involve them in selecting and preparing food. Preschoolers will love searching for a red vegetable at the supermarket. Kids can learn to cook early on. Gardening or going to a farm to see how food is made is a great activity for kids. BUT…not as a way to coerce your kids into eating something. That’s Betsy’s mistake. She read that when kids cook with their families, they’re more likely to eat what they make – so she thought she could coerce her daughter into eating by letting her help cook. Letting your child cook isn’t a one-time magic bullet to healthy eating. Instead, it’s a process by which children develop positive associations with food, take ownership of food (in a healthy way), and learn skills that will help them eat well when they decide that they’re willing to try eating asparagus.

If you’d like your children to develop a healthy attitude toward food, move the conversation from nutrition to habits. Dina Rose’s excellent website It’s not about nutrition is a great resource for changing the way families talk about food. The gist of Rose’s message is to start talking about proportion, variety, and moderation (Check out this article for more info.) Changing the conversation makes a real difference, both in helping kids eat healthfully, but also in helping them think healthfully about food.

In the very first chapter of Betsy Block’s book, she writes of a nutritionist who refused to work with her because of her emphasis on organic foods. Block was shocked that organic foods were controversial. Except that to call the “health benefits” of organic controversial is putting it mildly. Despite many attempts to prove otherwise, there is no compelling evidence that organic foods are more nutrient-rich or more safe than conventionally grown ones. It’s fine for people to eat organic, but they’re fooling themselves if they think that organic = healthy. Block’s choice to focus on secondary issues instead of primary ones meant that her memoir is a recounting of an exercise in frustration, accomplishing next to nothing in terms of changing her children’s habits and attitudes regarding food.

The nutritionist who ended up working with Block (although we only hear about her in the first chapter) did a good job of trying to get Block to focus on some actually beneficial eating practices (unfortunately, she did not address the task of how to communicate with children about food) – but it was all for naught. Block would not be dissuaded from her ill-informed search for dietary perfection and from her agenda of changing her children’s eating patterns by coersion. I think the first nutritionist made a wise choice.

Please, people, don’t be Betsy.

Rating: 1 star
Category: Food memoir
Synopsis: Betsy Block tries to make over her family mealtimes.
Recommendation: Ugh. No.

Book Review: Mothering Your Nursing Toddler by Norma Jane Bumgarner

“How long do you intend to nurse?”

If my experience is typical, it’s a question many a nursing mother has heard many a time.

And my answer has always been… difficult to give.

Because I didn’t have any hard and firm answer. I intended to keep nursing until we stopped.

I did know that would not be until Tirzah Mae was at least 12 months old, since cow’s milk is not recommended until age 1 due to a high sodium and protein content that can tax an infant’s kidneys (and because I had no desire whatsoever to provide formula, that nasty-smelling, clothes-staining stuff.) But after a year? Who knew.

Generally, my questioners would follow up with the question they really wanted answered: “But you aren’t going to still nurse when she’s old enough to [lift your shirt, walk up to you, ask to nurse in English]?”

And I… didn’t really know what to say exactly.

My observation has been that most mothers I’ve talked to who have nursed for truly extended periods of times (past their child’s third birthday, for example) have often delayed practices that I consider healthy (for instance, waiting to give their nursing child solid food and water until long after six months) or prolonged practices that I consider less than ideal (such as frequent nighttime nursing.) Since I intended to introduce solid foods at six months and water to go along with solids – and felt that an infant or toddler should, at some point, learn to sleep through the night without waking to nurse, I imagined weaning would occur sometime before my child’s third birthday.

When Tirzah Mae turned one, I had an easy excuse for continuing to nurse beyond the American Academy of Pediatrics’ minimum recommendation of one year – Tirzah Mae was born early, so it was really only like she was ten months old. But I also knew it would be worthwhile to read up on this “nursing a toddler” thing – and I knew just the book.

La Leche League’s Mothering Your Nursing Toddler by Norma Jane Bumgarner is THE book on the topic – and my library happens to have it.

This book’s greatest strength is in encouraging mothers of nursing toddlers through countless stories that can assure them they are not alone – a very useful thing for those mothers who often DO feel alone as they nurse their baby-who-is-no-longer-a-baby.

On the other hand, Mothering Your Nursing Toddler seems to assume that nursing for a very extended period of time is both beneficial and desirable in almost all cases. While I don’t think that nursing for a very extended period of time is harmful, I don’t know that it is necessarily to be encouraged by default. But, since that is the position Bumgarner takes, she encourages those practices that I’ve observed in prolonged nursers – suggesting that following the practices I recommend is actually parent-led weaning.

And if that’s so, I started weaning at six months, when Tirzah Mae started eating solid foods and drinking small quantities of water to go along with it. We continued weaning when Tirzah Mae turned one and I started giving her small amounts of whole cow’s milk with a couple of meals or snacks a day. If I didn’t feel like nursing when she was grabbing for the breast, I offered her cow’s milk or water in a cup first. If she was satisfied with that, we didn’t nurse. If she refused the water or milk, we’d nurse despite my not feeling like it. Sometime around a year, I stopped automatically feeding her when she woke up at night. I cuddled her close and rocked her and put her back in bed without nursing unless she made clear that she would only be pleased if I nursed her.

Now, she’s nursing a couple of times a day, usually before naptime and bedtime – although we occasionally nurse more, depending on her state of mind and my own.

I have no plans for stopping anytime soon (although I also don’t begrudge the days when Tirzah Mae falls asleep before we’ve nursed and ends up not nursing at all.)

I feel no need to pump on days that Tirzah Mae chooses not to nurse. Before I read this book, I would have assumed that was a part of child-directed weaning. She doesn’t nurse, so my body doesn’t make as much milk, so weaning commences. But I don’t think Bumgarner would agree. She seems to think it quite unlikely that a child would self-wean before age 2 and would therefore encourage pumping to keep supply up.

So…what DO I think about this book? Just like this entire topic, it’s hard to say. I suppose it could be very encouraging to the mother who feels like her child could benefit from extended breastfeeding – and I would recommend it to that woman. The woman who is pretty sure she doesn’t want to nurse past a year is unlikely to benefit from this book (if anything, she’s likely to feel overwhelmed by the suggestion that she should keep nursing until three, four, or beyond.) It’s tougher for me to say whether I’d recommend this book for a woman who is uncertain about continuing to nurse.

I think there are definite benefits to continuing to nurse as long as both you and your child want to. I do NOT think that means that your nursing relationship has to be on your child’s terms (as Bumgarner generally seems to recommend). It’s appropriate that, as your child no longer relies on your breastmilk for the primary source of his nutrition (usually around a year of age), you as the mother would take a more active role in determining when and where you breastfeed your child.

Rating: ?
Category: Breastfeeding
Synopsis: All about breastfeeding a child at age 1, 2, and older
Recommendation: I’m not sure.

Book Review: Animals of the Bible illustrated by Dorothy P. Lathrop

Books are about words, right?

Of course, right.

Or at least that’s what I’ve always thought.

While I read picture books, I really only care about the words.

While I’ve been reading picture books for years, I’ve typically only cared about the words.

But after reading Baby Read-Aloud Basics, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the pictures, especially when reading out loud to Tirzah Mae. Then, I read Donald Crews’ Freight Train (recommended by Baby Read-Aloud Basics) and was absolutely enthralled by the illustrations. The library copy I’d borrowed featured a Caldecott Honor Medallion – which inspired me to look at the Caldecott Award.

I discovered that the Caldecott Medal is given by the American Library Association (ALA) to the illustrator of an outstanding picture book.

Okay, okay. If the ALA considers illustrations important enough to give an award for them, maybe I should pay a little bit of attention to them.

And what better way, I figured, than to read through the Caldecott Award winners?

Dorothy P. Lathrop received the very first Caldecott award for her Animals of the Bible, published in 1937.

My library’s copy had to be retrieved from storage, and I was interested to see the penciled-in note on the front flyleaf indicating that water damage had been officially noted 9/17/70.

The text of Lathrop’s Animals of the Bible consists entirely of passages from the King James Version of the Bible, all of them pertaining to animals in some fashion. Each story (with a few exceptions) is accompanied by a full-page black-and-white illustration.

Reading this (and looking at the pictures) reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilder, looking at the pictures in Pa’s big Bible and in his animal book.

I couldn’t help think of the great differences in picture book illustrations since 1937. Perhaps the easiest to note is the change from black-and-white to full-color illustrations – but even more striking is the variation in level of detail. It certainly seems that recent illustrations tend towards the cartoonish, with spare details. But the further back one looks, the more detailed the illustrations tend to be.

Lathrop’s illustrations are highly realistic montages of multiple animals in distinct environments along with carefully drawn plants. They are delightful (apart from the unfortunate addition of halos on Jesus and the angels, a convention I rather detest.)

I can see a preschool or early elementary child enjoying these illustrations, although I think said child would likely be overwhelmed by the King James English of the text. Then again, I’ve never been much of an illustration person, and I may be translating my own tastes to a child – if you can find this book at the library, I’d find it there and try it out on your child before buying.

Rating: 3-4 stars
Category: Children’s picture book
Synopsis: A collection of “animal” passages from the King James Bible along with striking full-page black and white illustrations.
Recommendation: Children might be interested in the illustrations, not sure how easily they’ll get the King James English.

Book Review: Inklings by Melanie M. Jeschke

Inklings opens on the day of C.S. Lewis’s funeral. A protege of his, David MacKenzie had a change of heart as he watched the flame of a candle on Lewis’s casket burn brightly, unwavering despite the wind. David recommitted his life to God and purposed to make a difference in the lives of students at Oxford, just as his mentor had.

MacKenzie and a friend begin the “Inklings Society” at Oxford, meeting at the same “Bird and Baby” where the original Inklings had met. The group shares literature – that of their own and others’ composition – and discusses matters of life and faith.

Enter Kate Hughes, a Virginian studying in Oxford for the year. She’s reading Shakespeare with MacKenzie, and quickly develops a crush on her handsome believing tutor.

This is definitely a Christian romance, with romance being the operative word. As such, it is fairly straightforward – although with an emphasis on a sort-of courtship-ish model such as was popular among homeschoolers when this was published (the author is a homeschooling mom of many, of course!)

Not being a terrific fan of romances for romance sake (at least not for quite a while), I didn’t find the romance to be tremendously interesting. But the setting? This is like a travel brochure for Oxford. The glimpses into the life and thoughts of C.S. Lewis? Yes, please.

I think that someone reading this for the romance might feel that the travelogue and the Lewis biographical notes are heavy-handed and unnecessary. But not I. I tolerated the romance and relished the bits of Oxford/Lewis info.

Sidenote: Why didn’t I study at Oxford? The whole reading/tutor system seems a much better fit for my learning style than the lecture-style system of American education. Not that I wouldn’t love to attend the lectures – the ones that dons give that aren’t required but that anyone can attend who wants to (be still, my beating heart.)

I read this because my bookclub is reading it – one member of the club had seen it at the church library and was curious about it. And I’m glad we did read it. It’s not spectacular fiction, but passable as Christian romance (isn’t most Christian romance simply passable?) Yet the depth of information about Oxford and about C.S. Lewis made it worth reading for Lewis fans (at least, for Lewis fans who don’t mind Christian romance :-P)

Rating: 3 stars
Category: Christian romance
Synopsis: A British don and an American exchange student carry on something of a romance in Oxford just after C.S. Lewis’s death.
Recommendation: I wish I could draw a Venn diagram, but you’ll have to just imagine it. Imagine the intersection of “those who tolerate Christian romances” and “those who love C.S. Lewis”. Those people would likely enjoy this book.

Book Review: Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer

Unlike a majority of Georgette Heyer’s romances, Devil’s Cub is not set in Regency England. Instead, it is set about 30 years before, prior to the French Revolution.

Like Georgette Heyer’s other romances, though, Devil’s Cub includes a supercilious man who is an expert shot, a couple foolish male foils, a rather silly and romance-headed girl, a sensible female, and several other major players. As is usual, it took me a couple of chapters to get the characters straight in my mind – but once they were fixed, I was transfixed.

Murder in the first chapter. Female squabbling in the second. A love interest in the third. High-stakes cards in the fourth. Before the book was out, there was mistaken identity, abduction, and an elopement (or was it two elopements?). Just the sort of thing to get one’s mind off the laundry and the dishes.

I enjoyed this book, as I usually do Heyer’s romances. I did find a few bits jarring – a groom starts off the book taking the Lord’s name in vain (there are usually quite a few “damn’s” in Heyer’s books, but this seemed out of place compared to what I’m used to), and the different time setting meant the terminology and attire were a little different (requiring me to work a bit more than usual to understand what the characters were saying and wearing.)

It was also plain to see that this was a sequel – that Heyer had previously written the story of the parents of the “Devil’s Cub”. While the story was plenty enjoyable without knowing the back story, there were frequent allusions to the parents’ story that would probably have been more enjoyable had I read These Old Shades prior to reading Devil’s Cub.

In all, I was glad I read this – but it probably wouldn’t be my recommendation for a first foray into Heyer.

Rating: 3 stars
Category: Historical romance
Synopsis: Straight-laced Mary Challoner attempts to save her sister from the clutches of the notorious “Devil’s Cub” – and ends up embroiled in scandal herself.
Recommendation: Fellow fans of Heyer will enjoy this one – but it’s not the best intro to Heyer’s writing.

Book Review: It Sucked and Then I Cried by Heather B. Armstrong

Just to show how un-blog-savvy I am, I had no idea who Heather B. Armstrong was until I read a news article (by chance) about how famous people were leaving social media. Armstrong was cited as an example. Apparently, she was fired from a job for talking unfavorably about her workplace on her blog – and then became a wildly successful “mommy blogger.”

Even having read this article, I had completely forgotten who Armstrong was by the time I picked up her book (maybe a week later?) because it was in a Dewey Decimal section I was working my way through (306.8743 – mostly memoirs or sociological treatments of motherhood). It wasn’t until I saw “creator of” under her name that I remembered the article I’d read.

So I entered this memoir of motherhood with few preconceptions.

First impressions: Heather Armstrong is NOT A MORMON. This is the defining feature of her life. Every page of this memoir screams out her insistence that she is NOT A MORMON any longer. Even if her family is all Mormon and she lives in Utah and she went to BYU. She is NOT A MORMON any longer. Lest anyone start thinking she’s a Mormon mommy blogger and uncool, she must remind them that she drinks alcohol (NOT A MORMON!), listens to cool bands at cigarette-smoke-filled bars (where all the other people in Salt Lake City who are NOT A MORMON! are), curses like a sailor (NOT A MORMON!), and doesn’t wear holy underwear (NOT A MORMON!)

Hearing Armstrong declare (implicitly and explicitly) that she is NOT A MORMON! was exhausting. I wanted her to tell me something about who she was that would make me like her. Does she have interests, beliefs, passions, personality traits of her own? I couldn’t tell. It seemed like she only stood against, never for. Yes, plenty a memoirist drinks, goes to live concerts in bars, curses, and dresses immodestly – and sometimes I still manage to like them. But in order for me to like an alcohol-obsessed, rock-concert-going, cussing, immodest memoirist, they have to tell me something real about themselves – about who they ARE, not just who they AREN’T. I wasn’t a fan.

And then there was Armstrong’s tendency towards hyperbole. She just positively eats up her baby – slathers her with butter and jam and eats her up. And motherhood is absolutely the most awful thing ever and she throws things at her husband when he walks in the door from work because he’s done something other than try to entertain a baby all day and how dare he get her pregnant in the first place. Motherhood is awful, awful, awful, she says (and then goes off on eating her baby again.)

The thing is, nothing she was describing about her own situation sounded that awful to me. Her baby smiled at her at one month. Her baby slept through the night (12 hours!) at three months. My baby didn’t smile at me until three months and still hasn’t slept twelve hours. Armstrong complained about naptimes and how they have to be just right and blah-blah-blah-blah. My baby gave up napping the same time she started sleeping eight hours (about 3 weeks ago). But you don’t see me whining and complaining that it sucks and then I cried. Yes, I probably complain more than I ought – but I also recognize that this is how life with a baby goes, so sometimes I stop my whining and just do what needs to be done.

So, imagine my surprise when I discovered somewhere around month six of Baby Armstrong’s life that Armstrong has actually been clinically depressed all this time and is now checking herself into a psychiatric hospital because she’s afraid her husband will leave her if she doesn’t get a grip on things!

What? She’s not just a whiner? Something is actually wrong with her? See, I assumed that all the awfulness of her really-not-very-awful experience caring for a new baby was hyperbole to balance out all that hyperbole about sweet-smelling baby whose smiles seem straight from heaven-that-I-don’t-believe-in and who I eat up every day with a side of caramel sauce.

Maybe that’s saying more about me than about her. But I think maybe it also says something about her writing. She couldn’t tell her story well enough that I could figure out that she was experiencing something more than just what every mother experiences?

So, yeah. I wasn’t a fan.

Rating: 1 star
Category: Memoir of motherhood
Synopsis: Armstrong is NOT A MORMON. Turns out, she’s not just a crazy hyperbolist who whines more than is necessary. She’s actually suffering from rather severe postpartum depression and anxiety. Bummer she couldn’t have somehow communicated that to the reader before she commits herself to a psychiatric hospital.
Recommendation: Nothing redeeming in this one. Skip it.

Book Review: The Child in the Family by Maria Montessori

Over the years, I’ve read my share of books about homeschooling, looking forward to the day when I’d be doing history timelines with my elementary students, science experiments with my middle schoolers, and higher maths with my high schoolers. But, then… what do you know? I don’t have any of those. I have a baby. And before she’ll be a high schooler or a middle schooler or even an elementary schooler – she’ll be a preschooler.

Which is why I resolved to pick up something on early childhood education on one of my recent library trips.

And who better than Maria Montessori, right? She’s a universally recognized early childhood educator.

I started with The Child in the Family because we’ll be training our children in our family (not in a school setting) – and because I guessed that this would be about very early childhood, even infancy. And… I was right!

The Child in the Family is highly theoretical.

Montessori begins by stating that children are the last repressed class of humans – practically slaves to their parents, who exercise god-like power over them. She argues that while adults tend to think of children as blank slates, ready to be made after their parents’ image, children are in fact living spirits ready to begin to make their physical selves in their own likeness.

Montessori’s method, then, is all about giving children the freedom to raise themselves, to learn as they desire, to mold themselves as they like.

Montessori’s child is some sort of idealized angel, innately aware of both morality and of his own dignity. When the child sees injustice, he bristles. When his dignity is wounded, his spirit is crushed. As such, adults should tread lightly, recognizing their great potential for injuring this otherwise perfect being.

Does this sound melodramatic? I thought so too.

Montessori seems fully aware of one half of the human condition: Imago Dei. But imago Dei is only one half of the equation. Original sin means the child is not only a spiritual being made in God’s image, but also spiritually dead, bent toward evil.

Montessori’s only-half-right-theory means that her practice is only-partially-helpful. In this volume, Montessori mentions a few practical ways by which a parent or other adult can avoid offending the child. The first is to be patient with a child’s curiosity (a child isn’t being dirty or naughty when he picks up a fallen leaf from the sidewalk). The second is to, for lack of a better phrase, allow the child to be a grown-up. Montessori encourages the use of real miniature glasses and plates and silverware, rather than having unbreakable “child-friendly” dishes. She encourages the use of child-sized furniture that the child can move around (and discourages the use of rubber caps to keep the movement of said furniture from making noise.) She encourages the use of child-sized cleaning equipment so a child can sweep her own floor and dust her own furniture.

In general, I’m okay with those practices. I don’t think I’m anywhere near as dogmatic on the child-sized-but-real stuff – but certainly Tirzah Mae has no interest in using a plastic baby spoon, eschewing it in favor of real flatware (child-sized flatware for her is on it’s way, since she can’t exactly fit the real flatware in her mouth!)

The second to last chapter speaks of the Montessori teacher and how she uses “various stimuli to awaken a sense of security in the child.” She is all about making her educational material attractive to the child so that the child will initiate learning activity. Once the child has initiated the activity, she is careful not to interrupt either with praise or correction (I really appreciate this idea – I often see moms completely disrupt their child’s purposeful play by inserting themselves into the play.) Unfortunately, that is the extent of the discussion of Montessori’s pedagogical methods in this book. I certainly hope she elaborates more in other books – since this proposed role for the teacher seems much more interesting to me than the silly theories about a child’s innate goodness promoted by this particular book.

Rating: 2 stars
Category: Early Childhood Education
Synopsis: Montessori propounds her theory that children are innately good and should be allowed freedom to mold themselves as they like.
Recommendation: Lots of ridiculous theory, very little of practical use. Skip it.