Are We Nearly There Yet? Ten Tips for Holidays with Children

About now, there’s a plethora of advice on the best holiday destinations with children, from Aldeburgh to Zanzibar. While I haven’t taken my brood to all of these places, I’ve ratcheted up enough child miles to feel able to share some essential tips.

1 When it comes to earplugs, Boules Quies are the best bet. You might consider giving them to the passengers next to you as well. On his first transatlantic flight, one of my little darlings yelled “Not fleepy! Not fleepy!” for six and a half hours solid, before finally nodding off from exhaustion on landing.

2 Have two versions of whichever cuddle toy your child can’t live without. Otherwise, as sure as eggs is eggs, it will get lost as soon as you arrive, resulting in expensive daily journeys back to the airport to see if it’s been handed in.

3 Take plenty of footwear, just in case one child throws his sibling’s shoes into a stream. May as well take plenty of clothes too, in case it’s a whole child that gets shoved into the water.

4 Pack all the medicines you might possibly need and – this is the really vital bit – keep all of them out of reach of your children once you get to your accommodation.

5 Ditto take (and use) twice as much sunscreen as you think necessary.

6 If it’s a bucket-and-spade holiday, why not choose a sturdy spade? I wish I had when one of mine bellowed on a wide deserted beach “The poo’s come back into my bum again and this time it’s not going away!”

7 Keep a few coins handy. You never know when, or where, a milk tooth might fall out, and I don’t think the Tooth Fairy does MasterCard.

8 Allow your children to bring back the treasure they collect on holiday, be it seashells, driftwood, or empty crisp packets because there are special tokens on the back.

9 Some children like to write what they did on holiday, a lovely quiet activity that’s also useful preparation for the inevitable school assignment in September. Here’s my tip: make sure they jot down more than just Then Mummy had another bottle of wine.

10 Take plenty of photos before they grow up too much. In no time at all, these will be the good old days.

Bonnes vacances!

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Happy Birthday to Hope Hospital

April 5 is the end of the tax year, but, if you’re hoping for a side-splitting post about ISAs and tax returns, you need to look elsewhere. This week it’s a serious message about sick kids.

Just over two years ago, the People’s Convoy set off from London on an overland journey, taking with it supplies to build a new children’s hospital in Syria.

War has devastated Syria

After six years of war – with the deliberate and outrageous targeting of hospitals – the humanitarian situation was dire. There was no children’s hospital left in Eastern Aleppo, leaving about 250,000 people without medical care.

Hope Hospital, enabled by the People’s Convoy and run by the Independent Doctors’ Association, literally rose from the ashes of oblivion. As the world’s first crowdfunded hospital in a war zone, Hope is a triumph of humanity.

It took 8 dedicated organisations, over 5,000 generous people and £246,505 to open Hope Hospital. When the hospital was damaged by a car bomb, it was repaired. And when funding ran low last year, people raised an additional £480,505 to keep the light of Hope on.

Hope Hospital has now provided 98,707 consultations, checked 26,309 children for malnutrition and given specialist treatment to 52,846 children – children like Hanan, shown here.

Young Hanan’s story

Hanan’s mother suffered hugely during Hanan’s birth in October last year, not least because she had to travel for more than 60 km to reach hospital. Then, at 10 days old, Hanan developed a fever which wouldn’t respond to initial treatment.

Dr Hatem, Hope Hospital’s Director and lead paediatrician says, “Hanan came to the hospital suffering from convulsions… A CT scan showed cerebral oedema, which can cause irreversible damage and even death.” 

Thanks to Hope Hospital’s specialist care, Hanan improved enough for her to be discharged, to the great relief of her mother. She needs to continue with treatment and have ongoing hospital check-ups at the hospital, but is expected to make a full recovery.

Thousands of children need medical care

Dr Hatem says, “We receive dozens of cases like Hanan’s monthly. We are so grateful for the unique presence of this free hospital. Despite the dangerous environment, we are able to save the lives of thousands of children annually.”

Friday 5th April will mark two years since Hope Hospital officially opened its doors. To celebrate, CanDo – one of the lead organisations of the crowdfunding campaign – and the Independent Doctors Association of Syria are sending messages of thanks, hope and humanity.

Dr Rola Hallam, co-founder of CanDo who travelled with the People’s Convoy, says, “Hope Hospital is a shining beacon of what we can do when we believe in our shared humanity. The amazing staff there are saving lives every day thanks to people-to-people care, action, and hope.”  

Hope Hospital is a beacon in a dark world

My grandmother’s family was Syrian, and I’m often glad so few of them are left to see what the conflict has done. But, in a war that has been raging for over eight years, has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced over six million people, the story of Hope Hospital is a rare and precious positive. So I thought you’d like to hear this uplifting story.  You can watch a short video celebrating two years of Hope Hospital.

And here’s where to find out more from CanDo

You too can send a message

Many happy returns to Hope Hospital. If you too would like to send a personal message for #2yearsofHope, it’s easy to do on this link Happy Birthday to Hope

What Nobody Told Me about Having Children

Even before I had children, I considered myself clued up. I’d looked after plenty of kids as a family doctor, though my education actually began in my teen years. As a fifteen-year old, I used to baby-sit a feisty brood of five living round the corner from me. Four of the children moved so fast that I could barely tell them apart, let alone stop them wrecking their home. The baby, less mobile, needed constant nappy changes, which was a challenge as he was in a ‘frog plaster’ for developmental dysplasia of the hip

The scales fell from my eyes, however, when my own kids arrived. Here’s what I learned from having my three sons.

1 Everyone has an opinion on raising children, especially those who never had any. The fewer children someone has, the more insistently they share their wisdom. Experienced parents rarely dish out advice because they know that not all kids are the same.

2 Yep, all children are different. Before you ask:  yes, even identical twins. My own twin boys had different personalities from day one. After all, why should they be exactly alike? The environment begins in the womb, and there are always differences in the closeness to the mother’s heartbeat, to her dominant hand, even in the amount of blood flow from the placenta, to name just a few factors.

alarm clock

3 Babies need a lot less sleep than their parents. They don’t have to go to work. They can just loll about all day looking cute and innocent, and save their strength for another fun night ahead. Had I fully appreciated this, I might have stayed on maternity leave longer rather than dragging my befuddled brain (plus a breast pump) to work.

4 The best toys engage the child’s ingenuity, not the toy designer’s.  That’s why empty boxes, old saucepans, wrapping paper, and key rings make great playthings. By the way, if you’re still looking for your keys, try checking inside your boots, behind the radiator, in the toilet, and out through the cat-flap. Or keep a spare set somewhere.

key ring

5 The longer you take to prepare a meal, the less likely your child is to eat it. Strangely, letting a child make his own sandwich does not put him off wolfing it down, even if it contains the most outlandish food combo and looks nothing like a sandwich.

6 Shopping and mayhem go hand in hand. Before supermarkets provided trolleys for more than one child, I’d have to push one trolley and pull another one. This was the moment when I’d be accosted by a patient who wanted to chat over the baked goods about her test results, or even show me her painful knee. On the plus side, my kids rarely had tantrums while out shopping. Instead, they amused themselves by pulling toothbrushes off the shelves and stuffing them down the front of their dungarees.

twins at the soft drinks dispenser

7 Children have an infinite capacity for embarrassing their parents. At a neighbour’s house one morning, I was offered coffee, only for one of my sons to pipe up, “Mummy likes gin and tonic.”  Another memorable event was a job interview, the kind where you’re invited to bring your entire family (GP interviews can be like that). One of my little lads promptly removed his shoes and socks, gleefully shouting “Sock, sock!” The snag was that, at the time, he pronounced every S as an F.

8 Being a doctor helps you cope with children’s illnesses, but doesn’t make you superhuman. One of the low points was the Christmas when both twins, aged eight weeks, had bronchiolitis. Their older brother didn’t get much attention that year.  Another low was a convulsion which landed one of the boys in hospital at the age of eighteen months. The little lad was fine in the end, but my husband drove into a bollard on our way to A & E.  

9 The biggest lesson? You have to put your child first, before yourself, before anyone else. But that’s perfectly OK, because, until your own baby come along, you have no idea how intensely you can love a little person.

FreeImages.com/Helmut Gevert

If you’d like to help a new parent cope when their child is seriously ill, please take a look at Lucy Air Ambulance for Children’s Mum Matters campaign. This great initiative comes just in time for Mother’s Day.

You can find out more about Lucy Air Ambulance for Children right here

Mum Matters logo

Are Other People’s Kids Your Problem?

Near me in the café, a little boy of about three sits in a push-chair while his mother fiddles with her iPhone. He’s wide awake, he’s quiet, yet there’s a dummy parked in his mouth. The boy asks for something, removing the plastic thing from his mouth to speak. When the brief conversation is over, Mother puts the dummy back.

FreeImages.com/T. Rolf

I feel like telling her that a dummy is a pacifier, and, as such, is only for pacifying babies.  This boy isn’t a baby, nor does he need pacifying. But I’m not sure she’d appreciate a lecture on dummies and speech development, especially now that she’s returned to her phone.

Besides, it’s not my child. It’s not my business.

In the supermarket a little later, I’m distracted by yelling from the next aisle. A woman is dragging her child by the arm, calling him, among other colourful things, a proper little stinker. I hadn’t actually noticed a pong from the child (but then we are at the cheese counter). Several shoppers stop, visibly shocked. Whether it’s the woman’s rough handling, or the fact that she’s hurling abuse at her child in Waitrose, of all places, I’m not sure. But neither I nor anyone else has words with her.

After all, not our child. Not our business.

FreeImages.com/Gokhan Okur

It must have looked pretty bad on the day, many years ago, that I smacked my twins outside the school gates. I say ‘gates’, but that school had no gates, simply a path that led to a busy street. I didn’t just tap each of my sons on the bottom – I actually slipped one of my shoes off to do it. The reason? Aged four, they’d run out into the road in front of a passing taxi which, fortunately, screeched to a halt. I figured a sharp shock would be a better deterrent than the standard telling off.

But the shoe and I didn’t look good, I admit, especially as none of the other parents had seen the incident. The mothers glared. Some tutted or shook their heads, probably wondering how a family doctor (who also writes extensively on child-rearing) could possibly behave in this way. Yet not one of them opened their mouths. Perhaps they feared that, for two pins, I’d have smacked them with my shoe too. Or maybe they just reasoned those weren’t their children, and it wasn’t their business.

Just the other day on London transport, a woman with long flowing locks boarded the train, two schoolboys in tow. It was about 4 pm and, after a day at school, the boys still looked clean and tidy in their uniforms. Yet the mother, when she wasn’t preening and flicking her hair, was shouting at one of the boys. “You’re disgusting,” she howled as he flinched. “Really disgusting.”

Whatever it was that he had done, it was surely his behaviour that was despicable, not the boy himself.  But I said nothing. Eventually it was their stop, and the woman, still tossing her hair about dramatically, dragged them off as she continued to berate the one who was allegedly so disgusting.

What would you have done?

***

For those of you outside the UK, Waitrose is the most genteel of supermarkets. There are things you can expect to hear there, and things you really don’t.

A Christmas Gift for Syria

For two weeks now, I’ve felt proper sorry for myself, wallowing in a sea of tissues with a voice that’s no more than a croak and a brain that’s as sharp as blancmange. The world can feel like it’s ending when you run out of LemSip, and neither husband nor cat will get near you for the stink of menthol and eucalyptus.

symptomatic relief for a cold

Then I turned on the TV.

After six years of war, the humanitarian situation in Syria is catastrophic. Hospitals and medical staff have been deliberately targeted. It’s a war crime, and it has left hundreds of thousands of civilians without access to medical care, even as the bombs rain down.

There is no children’s hospital left in Eastern Aleppo, and about 250,000 people are estimated to be without medical care.

But that could change by Christmas.

The People’s Convoy is crowdsourcing funds to build an urgently needed new children’s hospital. Dr Rola Hallam, a UK-based doctor (founder of CanDo and previously headed Hand in Hand for Syria), launched the campaign a few days ago. Here’s a piece from Channel 4 News which includes her interview. 

Laden with supplies for the new children’s hospital, the convoy will set off from London on Saturday 17th December for a seven-day overland journey arriving in Turkey. There it will meet the Independent Doctors’ Association (IDA), the Syrian medical/humanitarian organisation that is still operating in Northern Syria. 

incubator

The supplies will then be used to refit an existing building as a new hospital, which will be the first crowdfunded hospital in the world. It’ll be in the countryside north of the city, and will serve 185,000 people.

The convoy is a collaboration of leading medical relief agencies, humanitarian organisations, medical workers’ associations and campaign groups, including Medics Under Fire, the Independent Doctors’ Association, Physicians for Human Rights, Doctors of the World, and the Syrian American Medical Society, as well as Rola Hallam and David Nott, considered one of the world’s most experienced war surgeons. 

While governments fail to resolve the crisis, people can act, and you can help right here: The People’s Convoy.

You can keep up to date with the campaign and the convoy here: CanDo.

doctor examining baby

This is more than a convoy of medical supplies. It’s a convoy of hope, sending a strong message of solidarity and support to courageous Syrian medical and relief workers, telling them that they aren’t forgotten or alone.

It’s also a convoy of defiance: a strong message that humanitarians and human rights’ advocates will not be silenced or stopped from their life-saving work.

Please help spread the word, and give what you can to the People’s Convoy.  

It’ll do far more good than a box of tissues.

FreeImages.com/T. Al Nakib

December 18 update:

If you’ve already donated, thank you very much. The campaign exceeded its target, and the convoy left central London yesterday, as you can see in this piece from today’s Sunday Times.

A Parent Worries Forever

Seen that touching Lloyds Bank photo where the mother is hugging her ‘baby’ before he nonchalantly sets off for university? I can’t reproduce the image here, but you can check it out by clicking on Lloyds Bank.  I showed it to some of my friends, who variously remarked on the mother’s height relative to her son, the blissful smile on her face, and the flimsiness of rucksack on the son’s back. 

Those with children noticed none of these things. Their reaction was just terror.

When expecting your first child, there’s usually a golden moment during which you’re thrilled at the prospect of having a baby but haven’t yet realised you’re heading for a lifetime of worry. Well, savour it while you can.

FreeImages.com/S S

My twin boys arrived when I had one son already. In a flash, my anxiety levels trebled. The children seemed intent on working their way through the alphabet, with accidents, asthma, appendicitis, and (scariest of all) anaphylactic shock.

Some letters stand out more than others. D was for Duplo, a normally safe toy, except when you stumble face first into it. G was for golf club, as when eldest son was smacked in the face by a 5 iron at the school fete, necessitating yet another tip to A&E.

FreeImages.com/Aron Kremer

Occasional false alarms brought light relief. At eighteen months, one son was on the bus, sitting forward in his eagerness to miss nothing. When the driver braked suddenly, my son’s face collided with a metal handrail. He screamed, and bright red stuff poured copiously from his mouth. I laughed hysterically when I found he’d only been chewing on a red crayon.

FreeImages.com/Trisha Shears

In my novel Hampstead Fever, I couldn’t resist including a super-anxious new mum. It’s not just the prospect of mishaps that cranks up her worry levels. She has studied the parenting books, so she’s aware of potentially lethal conditions like sepsis, where symptoms can be minimal in the early stages yet take a child to death’s door within hours. Like many parents, Laure suspects it’s dangerous to let her guard down, because that’s when things are most likely to go wrong.

Worry can drive mums (and dads) to become over-protective, turning into helicopter parents and doing for their children things that they should be learning to do for themselves.

FreeImages.com/melodi2

For some parents, anxiety becomes hard-wired. I’ve seen them make idiots of themselves as they continue to stalk their kids on social media throughout their teens and even twenties, panicking if they haven’t posted anything in the last few hours.  

Not me, of course. I’ve finally learned to ditch unnecessary anxiety about my offspring. I’ll tell you how I did this. Not this minute, though, because first I need to text my sons to see how they’re doing without me.

Samsung mobile

The Dangers of Learning to Walk

Bringing up a child is the most natural thing in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, as forty-year old Laure was finding.

FreeImages.com/Ana Grenz

Jack was toddling now, with a confidence far in excess of his ability to balance. To stop himself falling, he’d grab at whatever came to hand. It could be a tablecloth or a lamp. Today he got brave and weaved his way unaided across the middle of the living room, screeching with pride once he reached the little table on the other side of the room. He lifted one foot after the other off the floor, then took both hands off the table. He squealed with glee a few more times and promptly fell, mouth open, onto the edge of the table.

Laure rushed to gather him in her arms. The bleeding was torrential. Had he torn an artery in his mouth? Or knocked out one of his new teeth? She struggled to take a look but he screamed and wriggled and kicked and cried. Each scream pumped out scarlet blood mixed with saliva.

“Poor baby, poor baby,” she incanted as she grabbed paper towels from the kitchen. She could see a jagged wound right through his lip to the inside of his mouth. No wonder he was howling.

She felt her breathing change. Harsher at first, then faster. And her heart was beating all over the place, especially in her chest and her temples. Her hands trembled despite herself.

“There, there,” she intoned, barely audible above his screams. He had spat out the paper towel. She could smell his blood, his baby smell, her own helplessness.

Who was there to call? The health visitor was elusive after 10 a.m., and the GP was never available.  

She tried some ice. Jack didn’t like it, but the bleeding was easing off.

FreeImages.com/Cleber Bordin

Calmer now, Jack dribbled a little blood-stained saliva onto his beloved blankie.

As he was happily playing with his toys, Laure left it. She also left the bloodied paper towels on the kitchen counter as exhibits for Dan when he got in.

He breezed in from work, his kiss reeking of garlic.

She gave him a blow by blow account.

“Relax,” said Dan. “He’s learning to walk.”

“He could have really hurt himself.”

Jack chose this moment to beam at Dan and say, “Car,” as he offered him a plastic vehicle.

FreeImages.com/Raoul Snyman

“Yeah, but he didn’t. It’s only a cut.”

She frowned at him. “It’s a very deep cut. Have you actually seen all this blood?”

“It’s stopped now,” Dan pointed out.

Laure’s heart was still racing.

You can read more about Laure, Dan, and their friends in Hampstead Fever, available online and in bookstores.