Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On Food

I have finally figured out why Pumpkin's potty regression is bothering me so much, and no, it is not because I'm cleaning up a lot of poop (although I wouldn't say that I enjoy that aspect of it). It is because it is taking me back to the way I felt when Pumpkin was a baby and just would not sleep through the night. It is making me feel like I must be doing it all wrong. Surely something as simple as going potty (or sleeping) shouldn't be this hard?

Rationally, I know that yes, indeed, sleeping and pottying can be this hard for some kids. Just because something seems easy to us as adults (and actually, sleep, at least isn't that easy for some adults), that doesn't mean it will be easy for a kid. The amount of brain development that is going to occur between now and when Pumpkin is an adult is staggering, so why should I expect her to be rational about the potty? But on an emotional level, my gut wrenches a bit every time some one asks me how the potty training is going, because admitting the truth feels like admitting that I've screwed up.

So it is killing me to suddenly be reading all of this guilt and angst from people about feeding their kids. I'm not going to link to the blog posts that I've read, because the last thing I'd want to do is make anyone feel even worse about this by somehow implying that they shouldn't feel what they do. Eating is another thing that seems so simple, until you try to feed your kid. And just like some kids are easier sleepers than others, some are easier to feed than others.

The proximal cause of all of this angst is Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution TV show. I've never seen the show- TV is so low on my priority list right now that I might as well replace our television set with a potted plant- so I only know what I've read about it. Therefore, I have no feeling for whether Jamie Oliver would be pleased that he's making people feel guilty or horrified. (If you have been living in an even deeper cave than I have, you can read Marion Nestle's write up about the show to get an idea of what it is about.) I, for one, think that making people feel guilty is never a good way to bring about lasting change, so it saddens me to read guilt-ridden blog posts about food from women whose good motherhood practically oozes from the computer screen.

It doesn't surprise me, though- just read the comments on Marion Nestle's follow up story about an evaluation of the results of Jamie Oliver's show to see why parents might feel guilty. If our kids won't eat their vegetables it is clearly all our fault and all we need to do is sit them down with a plate of spinach for dinner and tell them that is all they are getting and/or that they aren't leaving the table until they eat their greens.

I call bullshit on this idea. I think that these strict, inflexible approaches to vegetable eating probably do work for some kids. Heck, they may even work for most kids, I don't know. But I know for a fact that they didn't work on me as a kid, and I'm grateful that my parents recognized that pretty quickly and switched tactics. I am still a picky eater, but I now eat a variety of vegetables, and I'm a fairly healthy adult. I don't seem to have suffered any lasting harm from my "white food years", and we can all look back and laugh at how I once stopped eating pizza because my parents told me that the spaghetti sauce I wouldn't eat was the same as the sauce on pizza. (Yes, this is a true story.)

I suspect that temperament and other genetic factors play a role in eating, just like they do in sleep. For instance, a supertaster is unlikely to ever eat unadorned green vegetables, because they taste very bitter to her. Perhaps the strict approaches work well for your average everyday toddler food defiance, but I don't think they are likely to work well on a really picky eater. The cry it out sleep training methods don't work on some kids (as anyone who has had a child cry until she throws up can attest), so why should we expect strict "eat it or starve" approaches to feeding to work on everyone?

None of this should be taken to mean that I think our food system is all hunky-dory. I think there are some serious problems with how we approach food. Long time readers might remember that I went on a little food reading kick when I was pregnant with Petunia, and came away wanting some changes in both my own approach to food and my country's approach to food. I may even agree with Jamie Oliver's goals- since I didn't watch the show, I don't know. But I also think we are prone to looking for silver bullet solutions to our problems with obesity and the like. We vilify certain foods- high-fructose corn syrup and "processed" foods are the current targets- but don't stop to think about what the real problems are (too much added sugar of any sort and too much salt and fat, respectfully, in my opinion).

We seem to have a hard time thinking about food issues sensibly. I have yet to see any evidence that convinces me that my body can tell the difference between the glucose and fructose in HFCS and the glucose and fructose in sucrose. But the evidence that my body doesn't need all that extra refined sugar is pretty strong. So I won't scour the grocery store looking for cookies made with "real" sugar to give to Pumpkin- I'll limit her intake of cookies.

I also don't think the vitamins in the food I serve my children can tell whether the food was made with love or for profit. Food is not inherently bad for us just because someone else made it, even if that someone else is workers 2054 through 2078 in some giant company. I think we should judge our food on its ingredients and not on how it was made. Take the sweet potatoes that are currently Petunia's favorite food. I could make these from scratch. I could cook up some sweet potatoes and puree them with water. But I can also buy "processed" sweet potato baby food. The ingredients in this are sweet potatoes and water. Does it really matter who does the pureeing? Similarly, I rely heavily on preshredded cheese to make it easier for me to get dinner ready in the limited time I have after we get home from day care. The ingredients in that are cheese, some starch (to keep the cheese from lumping together in the bag), and natamycin (to inhibit mold growth). I'm not too concerned about either of these "extra" ingredients, so why should I feel bad that I'm not the one who shredded the cheese?

Am I thrilled that Pumpkin will only eat chicken if it is formed into a nugget and breaded? No. Do I wish I could get her to eat a vegetable other than sweet potato fries? Of course. Am I going to feel guilty about her eating habits because of what somebody who has never met me or my (extremely stubborn but really quite wonderful) little girl says? No way.

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Transference of Guilt

Before Petunia was born, in the final months of my pregnancy, I would often sit on Pumpkin's bed after she had (finally) fallen asleep and feel an overwhelming wave of guilt for the changes I was about to bring to her world. I assumed that the new baby would bring abrupt and significant changes to her beloved bedtime routine. I thought that Pumpkin would feel left out in the new family dynamic.

That is not what has happened at all. Pumpkin has adjusted really well to having a new baby in the house, perhaps because the baby is so easy-going as to barely disrupt her routines. She still has the same bedtime routine- Petunia is sound asleep before Pumpkin's routine even begins, having gone down ridiculously easily at about 7 p.m.

In fact, most of the time, I feel guilty for Petunia, who is not getting the same sort of babyhood as Pumpkin did. Pumpkin played on the floor with me every morning, while I ate my breakfast. Petunia gets this sometimes, if she wakes up early and Pumpkin wakes up late, but mostly she sits in her bouncy chair and chews on a teether (or "teeter" as Pumpkin calls it) while Pumpkin and I eat our breakfasts. Pumpkin got our undivided attention when we got home from work, since we postponed our own dinner until after she was in bed. Petunia sits in her bouncy chair after I get home from work, while I rush around the kitchen trying to get dinner ready so that we can all eat together before Pumpkin's bedtime. (Pumpkin watches Dora during this time, an arrangement I no longer feel bad about at all, although I do still have to reappear to dance to the "We Did It!" song with her.)

Petunia is such a laid back little baby. She often gets left on her mat to play on her own while we tend to Pumpkin, our intense little girl. I sometimes wonder what Petunia must think of the whirlwind of activity and the often screeching little girl at the center of it all. ("No! I don' want to go potty with you Daddy! Mommy goes potty with me!")

Petunia does cry out if she is left alone too long and gets lonely, and as often as not, it is Pumpkin who goes rushing to her to cheer her up. And the sight of Pumpkin almost always does cheer Petunia up. Petunia smiles at me when she sees me at day care, but bounces with joy when she sees Pumpkin. If Pumpkin sleeps in (a rare event), Petunia gets fussy when her usual wake up time passes and she has not appeared, then calms down and smiles when Pumpkin comes running down the hall.

Hubby and I try our best to do right by Petunia. We make a point of reading her bedtime stories every night, even though she would happily go to sleep without them. We try to split up some on the weekends, to give Petunia some one-on-one time with a parent, without the noise and distraction that is always around when Pumpkin is present. But the fact is, Petunia demands less of us than Pumpkin does, and so, sometimes, she gets less. I am very glad that she had 5 months of spending her days at home without Pumpkin (Pumpkin was in day care), when her needs and wants could dictate the schedule, and I feel guilty that she almost never gets time like that now.

So the guilt I don't feel about Pumpkin isn't gone- it is just transformed into guilt for Petunia, and this probably explains why I worry that maybe I should be doing more to challenge her to learn new skills.

But last week, the tables turned a little bit, and I got a glimpse of what the life I had expected would have been like. Petunia was going through her 6 month growth spurt, and waking up far more often than usual in the night. By Saturday, I was exhausted during the day. I longed for sleep so badly that I could taste it- a sensation all too familiar to me from Pumpkin's baby days. Pumpkin, in the meantime, continued her potty regression at home, despite her return to using the potty at day care. I could clearly see that what she needed was a patient and playful Mommy, who would help coax her to go potty more often. What she got was a tired, grumpy Mommy, who demanded that she go potty! Right now! This approach didn't really work, resulting in more accidents. And it wasn't like Petunia was getting quality mothering, either- she mostly got a bleary-eyed Mommy who either fumbled around and nursed her or waved a rattle in her face.

Then, starting Saturday night, things returned to normal. Petunia only woke up once. (For some reason, Pumpkin woke up once each night, too, but not until almost morning, so that wasn't too disruptive of my sleep.) Today, I felt better, and after work, I was able to turn Pumpkin's sudden obsession with her play phone into a game and get her to the potty before she had an accident. We even took a post-dinner walk around the block with both kids. So I guess I should stop feeling bad for Petunia- any slight she is experiencing is due to birth order, and not her personality. If anything, things could only be worse.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Zenbit: Teenage Fun





















A school group arrived at our hotel not long after we did, and had the requisite fun in the sand and surf.

Location: Langkawai Island, Malaysia
Date: February 16, 2006

Friday, March 26, 2010

Maintaining my Mommyblogger Cred

After I wrote last night's post, I realized that it has been a long time since I told y'all about how cute and wonderful my kids are.

Pumpkin will be three in a week and a half. She is growing up in so many ways. Santa brought her a scooter for Christmas. She was a little unsure about it for a long time. But recently, she's been riding it more- my parents gave Hubby a scooter of his own for his birthday, and seeing Daddy ride his scooter renewed her interest in riding hers.



There are very few vestiges of baby speak left in her speech. "Bobbin" is long gone, replaced by "bottom". However, she still sometimes says "stank you" instead of "thank you". And the beads my sister brought home from her recent trip to New Orleans are Pumpkin's "neck-uh-lace".

Petunia is still doing great at day care. She is an extremely smiley, laid back little baby. Today, I got to day care when she was 20 minutes into a nap. I woke her up to put her in her car seat. She didn't cry or complain at all about being woken up. She looked around, a little bit confused, and then gave the room a big smile.

I sometimes wonder if she is a bit too laid back, though. She rolled over from her back to her tummy a few weeks ago. Once. She has shown no real interest in doing it again. She can sit up on her own for a little while if we put her in that position, but gives no indication that she is in a hurry to learn how to get there on her own. This is so different from Pumpkin's behavior at this age. Pumpkin was always pushing for the next skill. I don't really think there is anything wrong with Petunia's more laid back approach (and I certainly appreciate the relative rarity of crying), but I do wonder if we should be doing more to encourage her to master new skills. It is becoming clear that the parenting techniques that worked with Pumpkin may not be right for Petunia.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

One More Update

Tonight, my sister came and got Pumpkin down for the night while Hubby and I went out and finally bought a car. We got a Mazda 5. However, since Hubby didn't want a white one but had to have bluetooth, we have to wait and pick it up on Saturday. They're driving a red one down from a dealer in Orange County for us.

And, because I need to remind myself that my stubborn, potty regressing little girl is actually quite adorable, here is the story she told my sister and her doll Grat tonight, while "reading" The Napping House:

"Once upon a time there were three bears. And a crocodile came and asked to come in and the bears said 'not by the hair on my chiny-chin-chin'".

The story continued on the next page, with more about the crocodile, but I can't remember that part.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Miscellany of Updates

A while ago, I wrote up my conclusions from some lunchtime literature reading on high fructose corn syrup. At the time, I could not find any studies that demonstrated an actual difference between the effects of eating HFCS and sucrose. Earlier this week, a paper came out that found some differences in the effects of HFCS and sucrose- in rats. Unfortunately, I do not have access to the journal in which it was published. Derek Lowe has a write up of the paper, and one of the comments on that post led me to Marion Nestle's take on it.

All in all, I don't find this convincing/alarming enough to make me go out of my way to get the original paper, let alone change my eating habits. But then, I don't drink soda, I only occasionally indulge in other sweetened beverages such as Vitamin Water (which should probably just be called "sugar water"), and I don't have a huge amount of other sources of refined sugar in my diet. However, this is the first study I've seen that indicates that there might be any metabolic difference at all between a soda sweetened with HFCS and one sweetened with sucrose, so I thought I'd mention it. It will take much more convincing correlative data and/or some data pointing to an actual mechanism for how HFCS acts differently than sucrose to change my basic opinion (that it is refined sugar in general, not HFCS in particular, about which we should worry).

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The Binky Fairy's visit was reasonably successful. It took over an hour to get Pumpkin to sleep Monday night, and she spent at least 30 minutes of that time repeating how she wanted her binkies, and didn't want the Binky Fairy to come. I was beginning to think that I was going to have to drug either her or me, but then she just dropped off to sleep and I was able to escape from her room. Last night, we were back down to the more usual 30-45 minute weekday bedtime, and there were only a few minutes of whining about the binkies. Tonight, she just stated once that she wanted her binkies, and then dropped the subject and asked me to tell her one of her favorite stories.

Her lip is already much better.

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When I was listing the many reasons why this was a particularly silly time to be inviting the Binky Fairy to visit our house, I left off the fact that Petunia has hit her 6 month growth spurt. Monday night, I had barely gotten Pumpkin to sleep and Petunia's bottles ready for the next day before Petunia woke up for the first time wanting to eat. Last night, I lost track of how many times I nursed her. Maybe 4 or 5? Prior to this, Petunia was waking only once to eat, and had shown signs that she might be convinced to drop that, so this is quite a set back. It reminds me of the "bad old days" of sleep (or lack thereof) during Pumpkin's infanthood. I am much more sanguine about it this time around, though, perhaps because I know that it is just a phase, and that I will survive it. Perhaps because I have already figured out how to function on so little sleep.

Still, the combination of Petunia's growth spurt (and concomitant all night nursing), Pumpkin's continuing potty regression, and Pumpkin's recent decision that Daddy is not allowed to help her with anything (because apparently only Mommy knows how to properly help her wash hands) have left me feeling drained- literally and figuratively.

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Speaking of Pumpkin's potty regression.... it is not due to a urinary tract infection, and gee, it was a lot of fun finding that out. (Being an hour late to work because you were trying- and failing- to convince a three year old to pee into a cup is downright demoralizing.) Everything I've read indicates that this is pretty normal, and that all we can do is just grin and bear it. And do a lot of laundry. I have a load in the dryer right now.

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And on happier, but even more mundane, topics.... we still love our dishwasher. And the Scanpan has worked out great. Due to a poor shopping decision, we ended up with a large "standard" Calphalon non-stick skillet and a smaller Scanpan. The Calphalon one is already discoloring and clearly won't last all that long. When it goes, I'll replace it with a Scanpan, because the small one has been awesome.

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Did I miss anything? I often find myself wondering about dropped threads in the blogs I read. If I've dropped any myself, mention it in the comments, and I'll fill you in. I'm all about the oversharing!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Everyday Magic

The Binky Fairy is going to visit our house tonight.

When Pumpkin finished reading stories with Daddy, she and I gathered up her binkies (she had four) and put them on the table, at the spot where she usually sits. Then, while she sleeps, the Binky Fairy will come and take the binkies to little babies who need them, and leave a surprise for Pumpkin (a giant Dora coloring book- what can I say? This plan was hatched late in the day, and I only had the energy to drive to the nearby drug store for the surprise).

This is absolutely not the time I would have chosen to take Pumpkin's binkies away. She was down to using them only at night, and occasionally when she got really upset during the day. I bought the book Pacifiers Are Not Forever, and started reading it to her. I was planning to gradually get Pumpkin used to the idea that her binkies were going to go away, and to wait until after her third birthday to actually take them away (the timing plan was based on the information/advice in Isabel's Bedtiming book). I certainly wasn't going to mess with anything else while we were in the middle of the potty training regression (which, it turns out, is not due to a UTI. It has improved somewhat but not completely resolved).

But Pumpkin has a rash on her upper lip. She's had it for months. Hubby took her to the doctor, who found a yeast overgrowth. We've been treating that, and frankly, her lip looks even worse. It is peeling, and red, and just looks painful. After months of being nonchalant about it, Pumpkin is now bothered by it. She doesn't want us to wipe her mouth after she eats. I can only imagine how much it must hurt if she eats or drinks something acidic. It has become increasingly apparent that the binkies are at least part of the problem. Last night, I looked at the rash and saw the perfect outline of her binky.

So this afternoon, I told Pumpkin about the Binky Fairy. She cried a bit, and said that she didn't want the Binky Fairy to come. I was planning to wait until next weekend to have the Binky Fairy actually come- Pumpkin seems to do better if she has time to get used to new ideas. But then, at dinner, Pumpkin announced that the Binky Fairy was going to come tonight and take her binkies away and give them to babies who still need them. And so the plan was moved to tonight.

She fell asleep easily without her binky tonight (muttering under her breath about how the Binky Fairy was going to come take her binkies and give them to babies), but the real test will be tomorrow. She no longer naps on weekends, and is so tired by the end of the day that she falls asleep in 10 minutes or less. During the week, she naps at day care, and it takes 30-45 minutes to get her to sleep. (Someday, I'll figure out what to do about that... but that is DEFINITELY waiting until after she is three.)

I hope she likes her new giant Dora coloring book when she sees it tomorrow morning. I suspect that disappointment with the Binky Fairy's surprise will not help things go smoothly.

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I understand fairy tales far better now that I am a parent. I am finding a lot of "magic" slipping into out parenting. I dished out the Binky Fairy story without a second thought. We also have a Birdie, who brings a little treat (these days, a gummy worm) during naptime (these days, during the "quiet time" that we're trying to get to replace naptime).

The Birdie is actually a bit of a family tradition. My mom used it with me and my sister, and her mom used it with her and her six (yes, six) brothers. I don't remember when I figured out that the Birdie was really my mom, but I do know that my sister and I pretended we still believed for a longer than we really did, because we liked the treats. And I certainly don't remember being upset by the fiction when I figured it out.

I think the Binky Fairy and the Birdie, like fairy tales, are useful because they help us teach our children the "rules" of life long before they are actually able to understand them. Pumpkin needs some quiet time in the early afternoon, or her evening is a disaster. She needs to stop using her binkies so that her lip can get better. I can try to explain these things to her, but I don't think her brain development has progressed to the point where there is any hope of that actually producing the desired behavior. The Binky Fairy and the Birdie, though, work great. I'd read about this explanation for fairy tales, but I don't think I truly understood it until I had kids. If you really need your kid not to wander off into the woods alone, just explaining the risks isn't going to do the trick. But the Little Red Riding Hood story might.

Maybe I should start working now on the story I'll tell Petunia to get her to stop sucking her thumb.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Self-Censored

I go to a book club once a month. It is one of the few non-work, non-child related things I still manage to do, and I generally look forward to the meetings. For reasons that don't really matter to anyone outside of the book club, we need to seriously cut back on talk about babies, birth, mothering, and all that. Now, my book club knows about this blog, and some of them even read it occasionally, so I want to be really clear that I think this is a very good idea. In fact, I was the one who suggested it.

But. (You knew there had to be a "but", didn't you?)

But it makes my heart hurt a little to think about this. There are several mothers in the club (hence the need for the change). The other mothers seem to have done a better job than I have of keeping parts of their pre-baby lives. They watch TV shows and movies, and read books other than those we've chosen for our club. I marvel at this. By the time we get our kids in bed and our chores done, Hubby and I are usually too exhausted to do much more than crawl into bed ourselves. Our book club does actually discuss the books we read, but we also talk about other things. And frankly, if I stop talking about my kids and motherhood, and don't talk about my job (which no one in the club really wants to hear about)- well, there is not much left. Except for my opinions on health care reform, I suppose, but even those are informed by my experience as a mother.

To be honest, I don't think the hurt comes from the restrictions on topics at book club so much as the general restrictions on how I interact with the rest of the world when it comes to motherhood. I must not talk about the difficulties of being a parent because no one forced me to have kids. I must not wish out loud for a more flexible work place because the accommodations made for working families are so unfair to those who don't have kids. I must not wish for better government support for working parents because we already get so many tax breaks and that is unfair to single people. If I go out in public with my children (except maybe to a park), I must be hyper vigilant to ensure that they do not disturb anyone else, because other people have a right to enjoy public spaces without being bothered by noisy little kids. And most of all, I must not imply that having children is a good thing to do, because the planet is already overcrowded.

My husband wonders why I care so much what other people think. I don't really know, but I suspect it is because I used to be "child free", too. I remember how other people's kids weren't that interesting to me, and how I wished for an adults only day at the zoo. (Really! I did. In retrospect, this was a bit silly, but I really believed it at the time.) I know that there is no way to describe how motherhood has made me a better, less selfish person without somehow implying that people without children are shallow and selfish. I certainly do not believe this to be true, so I choose instead to avoid trying to describe how transformative motherhood has been for me. And I would never tell someone that they can't truly understand something because they do not have kids (especially if in my heart of hearts I think it is true).

This self-censorship is exhausting, and more than a little isolating. I find myself wanting to spend more time with other mothers, or with the few old friends I have with whom self-censorship is entirely unnecessary. The isolation I feel is one of the reasons I read (and write) blogs. I think that this self-censorship and the concomitant search for other people who are just like me is a sad thing, not just for me and my small little social life, but because it is indicative of a larger problem in society. Thanks to technology (like blogs....) we now have the ability to choose to talk with only those people whose views will not challenge our own. This is far bigger than parents and non-parents, although I don't think that this divide is as trivial as it may seem at first. (What would happen if we worked together to bring about true flexibility in the work place? I had true flex time at my previous job, and I loved it from the beginning, long before I had kids. I loved being able to arrange my work week so that I could leave early on a Friday for a long weekend getaway.) It is also Democrats and Republicans, Tea Partiers and Progressives. When was the last time you had a political conversation with someone whose views are different from your own? Or do you politely change the topic when it becomes clear you do not agree? We have lost the ability to politely disagree with someone, but to still listen and really try to understand their point of view.

I don't know the solution. I can try to listen, but it takes two to have a true conversation, and I'm afraid to talk.

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I almost deleted this post as a little too whiny and self-absorbed. But then I decided that if I can't navel-gaze on my blog, where can I do it? (Hey! Look at all that lint!) And I really wanted to get this out of my system. Besides, self-censoring a post on self-censorship just seems wrong.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Cool Graphic on Vitamins

I came across a graphic showing the amount of evidence for various vitamins and supplements by way of Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline. It is a really cool way to look at the data, but then, the Information Is Beautiful site always has cool ways to look at the data. I thought I'd share it, particularly since I've recently been talking about the evidence supporting the use of vitamin D.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

I Don't Even Have the Energy to Think of a Title

I had great plans to write something meaningful this weekend. But time change + potty training regression = exhausted mommy... I'm heading to bed as soon as I get Petunia's milk ready for tomorrow.

If anyone out there knows why an almost 3 year old who clearly can control her pottying (since she does so at day care and was doing so at home) would now choose not to do so at home, please tell me. My current theory is that my daughter is trying to drive me insane.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Mechanism for the Effects of Vitamin D on Immune Function

Our pediatrician is a big proponent of vitamin D supplementation, and thanks to her, everyone in the family regularly takes vitamin D. She referred us to the GrassrootsHealth.org website for more info about her recommendations. I did some PubMed searching, too, and decided that I agreed that the available evidence suggested that vitamin D supplementation might be a good idea- or at least that it wouldn't be a bad idea. We all know that vitamin D is essential for strong bones (this is because we can't absorb calcium without it), but one of the other things that vitamin D is supposed to help is your immune function.

I submit that "improves immune function" will be irresistable to just about any parent with a child in day care. And indeed, after we started giving Pumpkin vitamin D, I noticed a drop in the number of illnesses in our family (most of our illnesses come home from day care, and Pumpkin is the first one to get sick). However, she had also been at day care for awhile, and presumably built up some immunity to various things, so I considered this suggestive, but nothing more.

This week, I cam across a recent article in Nature Immunology by von Essen, et al, which adds support to the idea that vitamin D is essential for proper immune function. (You can read the abstract of the original paper without a subscription. Here is a write up of the paper, too.)

The paper looksat the function of one type of immune cells, called T cells. T cells are far more responsive to antigen after they have been "primed"- i.e., exposed to antigen once. The current model to explain this involves the fact that T cell activation can occur via two different signaling pathways. The first pathway dominates in "naive" T cells (T cells that have never been exposed to antigen), while the second dominates in T cells that have previously been exposed to antigen. The second pathway is far more efficient than the first, which explains why primed T cells are more responsive than naive ones.

But how do the primed T cells switch to the second pathway? That is where the new paper comes in. The researchers show that the expression of one key protein in the second pathway, phospholipase C gamma1, is increased by the combination of vitamin D and its receptor (cleverly called "vitamin D receptor", or VDR). The expression of VDR, in turn, is increased by the activity of the first pathway. So, the T cells turn on the second, more active pathway using the same pathway that they use to respond to antigen the first time they "see" it- but only if there is sufficient vitamin D around. The researchers even showed that T cells isolated from people with low serum levels of vitamin D were less responsive to antigen than T cells from controls with normal levels of vitamin D.

Maybe it is because my background is in biochemistry and biophysics, but this is the sort of study I like to see when I'm trying to evaluate the benefits of a supplement. Correlative population studies are all well and good, but I'm always a little suspicious of them. Human beings aren't lab animals- it is very hard to control for all of the confounding variables in how we live our lives. A population study indicating a correlation between levels of some vitamin and a certain outcome is a nice story, but it is only the outline of the story. A biochemical mechanism adds some satisfying detail to the story.

And here is the ironic twist to this story- as I write this, my nose is blocked with the second or third consecutive cold I've had this season, which just goes to show that no supplement can guarantee you perfect health.

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I am not a medical doctor. This post should not be construed as medical advice. I read the entire paper, but as an interested scientist, not as a careful reviewer. If you're wondering about whether or not you or your children should take vitamin D supplements, all I can really tell you is to talk to your doctor and/or do your own research.

Monday, March 08, 2010

High Stakes

A very sad couple of stories have been dominating the news over the last couple of weeks here in my home town. A 17 year old girl was attacked and killed while out jogging. She was missing for a couple of days before her body was found. They have arrested a 30 year old man who has previously served time for attacking a young teenage girl. And now, they have found the skeletal remains of a 14 year old girl who went missing on her way to school just over a year ago. The same man is a "person of interest" in that investigation.

These stories hit harder now that I am a parent. I look at my two beautiful little daughters and can barely comprehend the pain that the parents of those two young women are feeling.

But I find that I spend a lot of time thinking about the other parents in this story- the parents of the little boy who grew up to be a rapist. I think they must be feeling a lot of pain right now, too. I do not in anyway blame them for these attacks. Their son is a grown man now, and surely, at some point, we have to be responsible for our own actions, regardless of what mistakes our parents make. To say otherwise would be an affront to the many people who go on to lead perfectly normal lives despite bad childhoods.

I am also not saying that this man's parents necessarily did something wrong. There are surely people out there who had idyllic childhoods and still go on to commit crimes.

But clearly something went wrong here. And clearly we, as a society, have an interest in figuring out what goes wrong in cases like this and determining how we can prevent these things from happening.

There are many people in my community calling for the death penalty, or saying that after this man's first offense he should have been locked up for life. I don't think either of these things provides an answer. Yes, executing this man will ensure that this one man never commits a crime like this again- but there will be other men who do, and I think the evidence is pretty clear that they won't be deterred by the thought of the death penalty. And yes, a longer prison sentence would have prevented these crimes- but it would not have prevented the first crime.

So I come back again to the parenting. It seems to me that the only way to stop these crimes is to prevent little boys from turning into men who could commit such an act. This man's parents will never know if there was something they could have done differently that would have changed the outcome for their son. From what has come out about his background, it does not seem that there was any obvious warning sign, any clear point at which his parents should have intervened. There was just an average boy, perhaps a little more troubled than most, trying to find his place in the world. If there was anything his parents could have done differently, it is buried in the mundane details of raising him- in how he was disciplined and how he was praised, how he was taught to respond to disappointments and what he was taught to expect from the world. In short, it is in the sum of all the everyday decisions that parents make, while they are also trying to keep food on the table and hold their own lives together.

And that is what has me stuck thinking about this story, reading every new little update that comes out. It is a reminder that parenting is such a high stakes game, and one with very delayed feedback. We muddle through as best we can, but won't really know the outcome for at least 20 years.

For such a high stakes game, we play it with very little support from society. We are presented with unrealistic images of what parenthood will be like, and society frowns on frank discussions of things like the fact that some children are harder to parent than others. We isolate new parents by creating a fiction that the tight knit nuclear family should be able to handle it all, and show images of the joy of parenthood without fully acknowledging the frustrations. How easy it is to think that you're doing it all wrong. How easy it is for new mothers to slip into depression (which studies show can lead to an increase in aggression in the child) and how poorly prepared we are to catch it. I had prenatal appointments every week by the end of my pregnancy- but my first post-partum appointment was six weeks later. A lot can happen in those first six weeks, and a lot can happen after that one post-partum appointment is past. Why does it fall to pediatricians to try to catch the signs of post-partum depression? Why don't we follow up with the women directly, rather than via the proxy of their babies?

And then there are the pressures on working families. Women get a guilt-trip regardless of what choice they make about whether to go back to work or not- and many women don't really have a choice, anyway. But any attempt to require more family-friendly workplaces is met with cries of how it will destroy jobs, or of how unfair it is to the people who do not have children. I think cases like these show that policies that degrade our ability to parent are risky for all of society, not just painful for the families in question.

I look around my community, and I see a patchwork of programs and organizations trying to plug these, and the countless other holes in our support network for families. They are constantly underfunded, and usually overlooked. It must be difficult work. I suspect their success stories are not always easy to recognize, because you're looking for an absence- an absence of depression, an absence of abuse, and absence of troubled children- and how do you know that the program caused that absence? In some ways, this work is like the work of parenting. Its difficulty is underappreciated, and its importance is hard to pinpoint because it is so all-encompassing.

I don't know what to do to try to fix this mess. So I give a little money to the programs I think are trying to address the problems, I try to reach out to other parents where I can, and I hug my little girls a little tighter, and I hope for the best for all of our kids.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Quality Day Care for All

I'm going to do something that I don't normally do... I'm writing this from my lunch break. I'm bending my rule about no blogging at work because this is important.

Awhile back, I signed up for the MomsRising email list. A lot of their stuff I don't necessarily agree with, but I'm 100% with them on the need for better policies to support working families. They are running a campaign today to get people to write to their congressfolk in support of the proposals in President Obama's budget that support access to quality child care and early education. Here are some specific items, which I confess I am just cutting and pasting from the MomsRising email:

  • $1.6 billion increase for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). This would be the largest increase in funding for the program in more than 20 years. CCDBG directly helps families afford quality childcare
  • $989 million increase for Head Start and Early Head Start helps ensure that low-income and at-risk children have access to quality early learning opportunities
  • The reauthorization of key programs like Child and Adult Care Food Program, which would ensure that millions more children across our country have access to healthy foods.


I have written here before about how I am a happy working mom. The single most important part of the arrangements that make me a happy working mom is the excellent day care I can afford to purchase for my daughters. I firmly believe that this should not be a privilege reserved for well off families. All mothers should have access to affordable, quality child care if they choose to work.

If you agree, don't just tell me about it- here is the link to send emails to your congressfolk. You can customize what you say, and you can cancel out of this if you decide that this is not something you want to do.

Updated to add: Here is a write up in Slate with more details about the proposals.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Another Blindingly Obvious Post

Petunia is doing great at day care. She did fine her first day, but ate a lot less than usual, and frankly, she seemed a little freaked out by it all when I picked her up. Her eyes were open even wider than usual, and when I took her from the teacher who was holding her, she grabbed onto my shirt and leaned back so that she could keep looking at me while I gathered up her things.

They had taken her to visit Pumpkin at one point, which I imagine helped. She clearly loves her big sister. Pumpkin can almost always get her to smile, and usually can get her to laugh.

Today, Petunia ate more- still not as much as usual, but at least 3 ounces more than yesterday, and seemed pretty content when I got there. She was finishing off her last bottle in the arms of one of the teachers. She immediately gave Pumpkin (who insists on coming in to the baby room with me, even though she is required to stand against the wall by the door while I pick up Petunia) a huge grin. In short, she seemed like her normal self- a smiley, happy little baby.

I've made it out of the house on time both of the last two days. We got dinner on the table a little late, but not terribly so. We even had time for a family walk around the block today. The girls looked so cute sitting next to each other in their double stroller.

So, it is all going to be OK.

But you already knew that.
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