Ho Ho Hot! Christmas in the Desert with Kids

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Ever since breaking with the traditional pattern of child friendly holidays (you know: developed countries where tap water is clean, the risk of food poisoning is low and access to first world healthcare is on hand) and taking the children to Morocco a few years ago, we have been particularly rubbish about having a repeat adventure.

So when the very rare opportunity came up for my husband Andrew and I to have 3 weeks off work at the same time, we vowed to make it a memorable holiday. Chilean Patagonia and the Okavango Delta have long been on my bucket list and so why let 2 kids get in the way? On enquiry with travel agents, I found that a 3 week trip to Patagonia was going to set the family back 24k (!!!) which swiftly put paid to that idea. The problem being that Christmas is summer in the southern hemisphere making the climate just perfect for long hikes along glaciers, thus peak tourist season in Patagonia. Sooooo…what about the Okavango Delta and Namibia? Guess what? Peak summer in the Delta and Desert means baking heat, no water, no tourists and cheap(er) season! Bargain. They say that mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, well, my family fit the bill there!

I can confess to having not one hand in the arrangements of the mega-trip and am very grateful to Andrew who did all the necessary bookings and arrangements. He, being South African, had long harboured plans of bombing around Africa in a land rover so he was in his element, but even I thought his 4000km drive plans were rather ambitious. Never-the-less we were up for the challenge and had the most amazing experience, the highlights I share with you to encourage more families to have their own adventures!

Okavango Delta, Botswana

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We flew overnight from London to Cape Town which is a very manageable flight with children aged 8 and 10 years who plug straight into the movies and watch until they eventually fall asleep (we are told that Molly managed to watch 4 movies in a row – which is a record even for her!). The only downside is that this is an extremely popular family flight at Christmas time and I had to bite my tongue several times to stop myself from telling other people to “control their children” and to inform them that their baby’s crying was disturbing my mindless romcom. How quickly we forget that we were once those desperate parents earnestly insisting that our near-2 year old was in fact just a big boned 10-monther and really needed a basinette.

We flew from the Cape to Maun, Botswana, where we boarded a tiny 5 seater plane which took us to our base in the Okavango: Delta Camp. This is one of the oldest (and most reasonably priced) accommodations in the Delta. You’ll find that the majority of accommodation in the Delta is extremely high end and expensive, which has been a purposeful strategy by the government of Botswana to limit tourism in the area to preserve the unique environment. The downside is clearly on your wallet, but once you arrive in the Delta, you’ll see that you gain in terms of a very peaceful environment. If you go off season, like we did, you’ll probably be the only guests at your residence (like we were) and in fact, it was only on our 5th and final day on walking safari in the Delta that we had our most significant animal sighting: another tourist.

The downside of off-season visits to the Delta is the lack of water which is still awaiting the rain in the mountains of Angola. In and after the rainy season, the Delta is renowned for being an animal magnet as the water traps animals on land-locked islands and tourists can sail by very close to them safely on traditional wood carved boats called mekoros. As there was hardly any water when we went, our mekoro outings were limited to 10 minute rides and we required to do the majority of our safaris on foot.

Every day, we had two walks accompanied by 2 guides which was a luxury as they told us that in peak season, the 2 guides would accompany groups of 10-15 people. There was a long 2-3 hour walk in the early morning and a shorter 2 hour walk in the late afternoon to avoid being out in the heat. As the sensible animals also did the same, we were able to see a wide variety and abundance of animals going about their daily business. One benefit of tourism in the dry season is that where there is a water source, all the animals congregate there: at one watering hole we found around 15 hippos jostling for space in the tub and 5 elephants having a drink. As we were on foot, we were able to get very close to animals and as, Botswana has banned hunting, the majority of animals are not fearful or aggressive to humans that pay them respect. Indeed, our guides were unarmed. Initially this gave alarm, but as the days went by, we realised that their experience was enough to keep us out of trouble. There was just enough “danger element” (a grumpy buffalo that was making up his mind about charging us leading to our retreat up a termite mound, a trumpeting elephant protecting its baby and a hippo that emerged from behind us taking us by surprise) to allow us, and the children to feel that we were “having an adventure”, but insufficient danger to cause any real anxiety (even to a worry-prone parent like me). The guides were knowledgeable and child friendly: when the guides realised that D (like many small boys) had a poo fetish, they set about showing him all the animal excrement such that by the end we all got quite good at discerning giraffe poo from warthog. If anyone came across white poo, we could all howl “Of, course that’s hyena poo because the white comes from the calcium it gets from chewing bones!”. They also taught D how to make a rope from the bark of a baobab tree. The food was plentiful and hearty and much enjoyed after our long walks. The communal spaces which we had all to ourselves were open to animals walking by and the occasional monkey dropping in. The bedrooms were characterful and open to the wild, including the alfresco showers which even Molly got used to after we convinced her that the elephants really didn’t mind seeing her naked! We opted to split into 2 parties of adult and child so that we could take turns staying in a romantic tree house for 2 atop a tree overlooking the delta. It was absolutely magical.

Best of Namibia

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On return to Maun by tiny plane we picked up our trusty tented 4×4 which was to be our transport for our drive back to Cape Town and our accommodation in between various booked hotels. This vehicle is literally a 4×4 with 2 pull down tents perched on top and you sleep on the roof of your car (thereby avoiding being eaten by animals who can’t climb ladders). The back of the 4×4 is a storage hold equipped with bedding, table and 4 chairs, a massive tank of water, a fridge and all your cooking equipment and utensils. Being a great fan of George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces, I was in love. Having been dubious of the vehicle when planning the trip from London, we had only planned on 4 days of camping as interim accommodation between hotels, but it was so comfy and fun, I could definitely have done more camping. The tents were easy to put up and down and after the first day, this job was assigned to the children who fought over who was going to do it (luckily there was one tent for each of them) so it really was incredibly easy. We stayed on the main roads where we could, which are straight and good and we drove through some amazing scenery. You won’t believe how many versions and colours of “desert” that there are, and there were not infrequent unplanned stops for passing goats, cows, baboons and oryx. Spitzkoppe and the coastal region are only accessible by dirt road but this was more than manageable in the 4×4. We only had one flat tyre on the journey and luckily this was swiftly changed by 5 men who leapt out to help at a petrol station.

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Here were the best bits of our trip to Namibia:

Spitzkoppe: This is a striking range of mountains in the middle of the Namibian desert. We camped in a campsite here which was again practically empty which made the experience feel fantastically adventurous. There are good hikes to be done if you come when it is cooler and some amazing cavemen paintings which are between 2000-4000 years old. Due to the heat, we only managed a few short walks and to see the cavemen drawings near ground level, but even those were quite amazing. During the heat of the afternoon, we literally hid under rocks and read books and watched movies on the DVD player. At night time, the skies come alive and toasting marshmallows on an open fire looking up at stars and galaxies as far as the eye can see with just your family and no one else around for miles was superb.

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Swakopmund: This is a characterful ex-German town on the coast of Namibia just south of the skeleton coast. It has a nice beach and good restaurants. Molly swears the chocolate fondant at “The Tug” is the best she has ever tasted, and sushi dinner at The Jetty perched out in the sea is decent sushi in a superb location, although I was the only family member strong enough not to weep at their “green dragon” sushi (sushi rolled in a layer of wasabi). Although we were pre-warned by the over-zealous travel clinic NEVER to touch raw seafood abroad; oysters are a Namibian specialty at the coast and we indulged and they were great. They even formed part of the breakfast buffet at The Delight, the hotel which we stayed at and I can recommend. We went for a morning sand surfing session organised from the hotel which you can imagine was a hit with the kids. Barrelling down a sand dune on a piece of cardboard is surprisingly fun!

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Sossusvlei: This is depicted on the cover of every Namibia guidebook. Red sand dunes under a blue sky, sometimes with the black of a dead tree in the foreground. It’s spectacular and a photographer’s dream. Equipped with only an extremely dated cannon point and click circa last decade I was still able to get really lovely photos because the scenery was actually THAT GOOD. We did a balloon safari from nearby Solitaire with Samawati: http://www.hotairballooning-safari.com which was the most affordable that we could find and quite an experience for the children.

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Fish River Canyon and the Orange River: On either side of the Namibia-South Africa border, we stopped at both of these areas and they are worth a visit, even though we were unable to hike at Fish River (closed to hiking in the summer due to heat) and didn’t have time to take a kayak out on the Orange River. We stayed in a lovely campsite at the Orange River (The Growcery) on Christmas eve, and swam in the beautiful orange river. The scenery in both places is spectacular.

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And more…

Beyond the beautiful scenery and sense of adventure, my motivation to take my children to less developed countries is to give them a better sense of the world. Growing up in a nice area in London, one can easily become complacent and entitled and that is something that I really don’t want my children to become. Although I do not want to be a “poverty” tourist, going through Namibia and Botswana, it is impossible to avoid seeing poverty and the moment that made the trip absolutely worthwhile for me was at Spitzkoppe. In this extremely remote area, two orphan girls of similar age to Molly started talking to her, asking her to come to their brother’s roadside stall that sold rocks. Although they were asking for custom, they did also seem amazed and interested to see Molly as although tourists pass through the area regularly, they are usually adults and they were so happy to see a girl of similar age to them. Children have that open curiosity to ask questions, speak openly to each other about their lives and connect uninhibitedly that for some reason we lose as adults. They were cheerful, smiley, chatty girls who Molly instantly connected with. We said that we would visit the stall the next day and in the meantime, we rummaged in our car for tins of beans and bread that we could give them. They went away very happy with our “excess”. Molly was tearful afterwards. “They are just like me, but they have nothing” she said. “I want to give them more.” That night she went through her clothes and set aside some of her clothes to give the girls. “What more can I do?” she asked.

“That’s why I brought you here.” I said. “There is nothing more you can do now Molly. But one day, when you are older, you can remember and you can make a real difference if you want.”


Delta Camp, Botswana

4×4 Hire

Campsite in Windhoek

Campsite at the Orange River

Hotel in Swakopmund

The Tug Restaurant in Swakopmund

The Jetty Restaurant in Swakopmund

Before you go:

Many people are put off more adventurous travel destinations with children by the long list of travel vaccines, and yes, it can be quite off-putting, but once you have bitten the bullet and had the children vaccinated, most of the vaccines are good for many years and so it means that you are good for many other travel destinations thereafter. Many travel vaccinations are available for free from the GP, and others are readily accessible from travel clinics or pharmacies. Malaria prophylaxis was required for the Okavango Delta, but for Namibia, areas south of the capital Windhoek are out of the Malaria area. Banker and I did not get vaccinated for rabies but after scare stories from the over-zealous travel clinic and their handouts stating: “If you are bitten by a rabies infected animal there is 100% chance of death” we opted to vaccinate the children. We chose Malarone as malaria prophylaxis which requires starting 2 days prior to entry to a malaria area and continuation for 1 week after exit. The children found Malarone no problem in terms of side effects. The generic is cheaper than the branded drug.

For long drives, travel prepared: we had over 70 hours of children’s audiobooks available. Screens in the form of a DVD player and assortment of DVDs and Nintendo 2DS were periodically doled out as rewards and as pre-emptive measures to prevent meltdowns after long days.

We found both Botswana and Namibia to be safe and had no problems to this regard on our holiday. In fact, the only time our vehicle was broken into was when we finally arrived in Cape Town. Of course, we stayed on main roads and are also careful  and considerate travellers.





How to Train a Husband

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My dad told me he sent a copy of my parenting book to his old university friend who is in his 70s. After reading the book, his friend’s comments were these: “It’s not a book on how to raise your children, it’s a book on ‘How to Train Your Husband!'”

I had to laugh. I thought that it was only in the last chapter of my book “Inside Out Parenting” that I broke forth into a feminist rant on equality in childcare and domestic chores (promise), but it has to be said that since the book’s release several men have commented to me that they feel sorry for my husband. Also I do know that for some time now several of Banker’s friends no longer allow me unsupervised contact with their wives lest I contaminate them with my views on equality in domesticity and the value of fathers in the lives of children, so it is possible that this flavour pervades more of the book than I realise.

For many people the status quo is very satisfactory thank you very much and boats shouldn’t be rocked. But if like me you feel that “Equality starts at home” then here are my contributions on how to attempt to achieve this. I am by no means an expert on husbands or relationships but equality is something that I have thought about and tried to implement. Rather than feel ashamed or guilty about being a “mean wife” (which I am not impervious to feeling due to societal expectations of a “good wife”), I shall embrace the “How to Train a Husband” banner and offer you these gems:

  1. Choose your husband wisely. Simplistic advice perhaps but many of us get caught up in love and romance that we don’t think beyond to the potential 50+ years of life ever-after when desire abates, life goes on and chores are required to be done. Choosing a husband that respects and loves you is really important. My definition of “love” involves caring about your happiness. If being a “perfect housewife” is making you desperate or depressed, then husbands need to care about that and try to be more involved to allow you to fulfil yourself in the ways that you need.
  2. Start from a base of equality if you can. It is much easier to argue for equality in the home if your relationship started off on a basis of equality. Marrying your boss or someone incredibly wealthy unfortunately can put you an an unequal power footing from the outset. You may always feel weaker in your ability to assert your needs. But for many young couples these days, it is more commonly the case that going into parenthood both partners are working and earning an equivalent salary, the power dynamic only changes when one parent (usually, but not always the wife) steps back from her career due to childcare responsibilities. If this is the case, then you know what equality in a relationship feels like so you should seek to maintain it.
  3. Assert your needs. Some people love quitting their jobs to undertake the fantastic experience of parenthood. This is great. But some people don’t and they feel guilty about feeling this and/ or complaining about being unfulfilled by their caregiving role. I would say that if you don’t feel totally fulfilled, then it is imperative that you make this known to your partner. Harbouring guilt and unhappiness will gnaw at you from the inside and is the harbinger of depression. We all have to do things out of responsibility, but we need support and hope that there are alternatives or compromises to be made to work towards something more fulfilling. Hopelessness and feeling there is no way out is a very dark place. If you abided Rule number 1, then a partner that cared about your happiness would step in and do what they could to allow you to feel more fulfilled. Even if they could not actively help, their support and understanding of your feelings can sometimes be enough. Equally, if breadwinners feels trapped in a job they hate they should make their voice heard: adjustments need to be made for everyone’s happiness and an effective team and division of labour should work for all.
  4. Childcare is a 9-5 job. Of course this is blatantly untrue as children need looking after throughout the clock. But if it were a standard job, these would be the hours that you would be employed to work. As such, from this view point, any work that is required to be done outside of the 9-5 framework are a job for parents – of which there are usually two. Whilst I have undertaken to be the primary carer for my children between normal working hours (unfortunately in my case Banker works 7am-7pm), any child related problems outside these hours or at the weekends are equally shared. I know that this seems ridiculous to point out, but I have seen many of my friends continue to resume full responsibility for their children at weekends running themselves ragged while their husband relaxes after a hard week in the office. Really? If you are in possession of several young children I can honestly say that I think going to the office should be regarded as veritable downtime. If your husband poo poos this notion, book a week’s holiday away and get your husband to be sole charge of the children for a week (no grandparent support allowed). I promise that within a week, they will come around to the notion that going to the office is easier than childcare.
  5. Childcare and Maid are two different jobs. Just because you have given up your job to look after your children, this does not mean that you have also become the live-in maid. If your husband treats you like a maid, please stop and think whether this would have happened before you got married and gave up your job to look after children? If it did happen before you got married – why did you marry him…?? If it didn’t used to happen, what has changed, why have you become the maid? If he wants a maid, he should employ one. If the family are suffering because of reduced income due to your quitting your job to look after children, then this is a FAMILY problem, meaning that EVERYONE needs to pitch in to help with the cleaning and chores. You should both be maids. I know that this sounds petty, and I do more than 50% of the domestic chores in my household, but HELL if that is the “expectation”. If there is ever a whiff of discontent or insinuation that domestic chores are my “responsibility” – I go on full-on strike! Yes, ladies – I have purposefully picked out my husbands’ shirts and underpants from the dirty laundry and laundered my own and the children’s clothing only. If there are complaints about no clean shirts I point at the washing machine. Many of my friends find this despicable – but really? I never washed his clothes before we had children, why should having children together mean that I am now responsible for washing his clothes?
  6. Maintain a job and income. I know that this is not always possible, but if you can, in any way shape or form, I think this is beneficial for your self-esteem and sanity. The only way to maintain respect in a relationship is by knowing and believing that you WANT not NEED to remain in it. For me, knowing that I have maintained employment skills in a part-time job means that I have certainty that should my relationship fail, I could go full-time and be able to support myself and my family. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. We would all wish for our marriages to last and relationships to succeed, but there is nothing successful in a  marriage that lasted in misery and entrapment. Remaining in a marriage for fear of destitution is not really a great place to be in. Finances aside, a job allows you not only financial independence but to maintain social contact with other people and to meet new people such that should a relationship fail, you do not feel socially isolated and unable to meet new and interesting people. I don’t know if there are statistics to back this up, but anecdotally it feels like that when a couple divorce, the husband re-marries more readily than the wife. I don’t think that it is always because the wife typically gets custody of the children that this happens, but because many wives have been socially isolated or cosseted within female only social groups long before the divorce settlements are initiated.
  7. If “Training” your husband is not in your nature, encourage others to do it for you. I have found that often mothers are more readily blamed for anything that happens involving their children. When Big Sis broke her leg at the park with her father, my mother rebuked me with “What the hell were you doing letting your husband take her to the park!” This transfer of blame from fathers to mothers should be unacceptable but it happens all the time. Banker had a spate of being late to pick up Big Sis and Lil Bro on his nursery runs. Rather than rebuke him the nursery were congenial when he arrived late. However, the following day I would be given a telling off about the children being picked up late. I immediately countered that it was my husband who was late and not me. They acknowledged this and asked me to let my husband know that this was not on. Luckily, I had taken a good dose of assertiveness that morning and said, ‘You know, if I tell him it will be perceived as nagging. It will be much more effective if you ring him at work and tell him yourself.’ To my alarm, the nursery teacher became all bashful and said, ‘Am I allowed?’ This was the first time that I realized the unfairness of it all. Professionals are more than happy to criticize working women on their parenting but dare not criticize working men. I said to the teacher: ‘Not only are you allowed, but I would be delighted if you did!’. Mothers: encourage professionals to talk to your husband directly and refuse to be accountable for your husband’s actions. My additional advice, is this: if you are a professional who works with children, be it teacher, nursery worker, teaching assistant, doctor, nurse, dentist, or other, please be fair and call fathers to account as well as mothers.
  8. Share the Mental Load: What scientific explanation is there to say that organising childcare, making a packed lunch or reminding children to put on a coat and remember a PE kit require a pair of breasts? None-whatsoever. Yet generations of women have been conned into subsuming these activities as their responsibility. I myself spent much time and sleepless nights wracking my brains over solutions to tricky childcare logistics when I wanted to return to work.  It only struck me when Big Sis was 7 that fathers could actually contribute to regular weekly childcare duties, rather than just at the weekend, Banker too was surprised to be asked. He had indeed sat through my endless rantings about how maybe we could pay ‘anyone-in-the-world’ to look after the children, without once suggesting that part of this responsibility was his. There ensued, of course, the typical grumbles: ‘important job’ . . . ‘impossible’ . . . ‘money’ . . . ‘promotion’ . . . ‘blah’ . . . ‘blah’ . . . ‘blah’. However, I happened to know that one of his colleagues had been able to wangle a late start to drop his children at school a few times a week. This colleague had just spent a tonne of money fighting for shared custody of his children, following a divorce. For him, it was a privilege to be able to do the school run. So I pointed out to my darling husband that I was offering him exactly this privilege, without the expense of a divorce and custody battle. Bargain! Seriously, though, surely childcare arrangements are a shared responsibility? Why does it so often fall to mothers? Even when fathers are doing childcare, it is often because the mothers have told them to do so and given them explicit instructions of where things are and what to do. The other day, having just cleaned the kitchen, I asked Banker to make Big Sis a packed lunch for her school trip. He replied, ‘OK. But what goes into a packed lunch?’ I did not dignify this question with an answer. A grown-up, well-educated man should be able to work this one out for himself. I, for one, would like some time off from all the thinking and planning of parenting, as well as all the doing. Make sure it is not just the load that is shared, but also the mental load.


I know I might sound like a right old dragon. But the good news is this: although implementing and fighting my corner with my husband has not always been plain sailing, I know this for a fact: my husband has been grateful for my honesty and has thanked me openly for allowing and fostering his relationship with his children. At a recent book publicity event, the male CEO of a major publishing company came up to me to say that he chimed with my view: the thing he is most grateful to his wife for was to insist that he participated in childcare. Although he grumbled at the time, he recognises now the difference it has made to his relationship with his children, now fully-grown. Because children are not blind, they see everything: who is doing what for whom. Providing the cheque for lavish birthday parties and expensive presents will never quite equate to the tear wiper, illness healer, sandwich maker, homework teacher, hug-giver, PE kit rememberer, confidence instiller; and I think that deep down, we all know this to be true.

Back to School


For many parents it’s back to school this week, a time of mixed emotions. I’m sure that I am not alone in feeling a sense of relief (thank God I’m no longer responsible for them 24/7 or for organising who will be responsible for them 24/7), sadness (how the heck did they get this big? A minute ago I was wiping their bottom) and anxiety (how will they get on with their new teacher?).

The “Back to School” prep has all been done. This year, thanks to a last minute job application form that was due, the majority was delegated to Banker. For the first time, he braved John Lewis alone with the kids to battle over the last Size 3 Geox, AND he ironed on all the name labels on the new uniforms. This latter he did correctly this time as last year when he was assigned this task he spent an hour ironing on sticker name labels (used for books and pencil cases etc) rather than the iron-on name labels (used for clothing). They obviously didn’t stick and I had an absolute barney as I had to repeat the task. This year all was done to standard, which goes to show that these parenting tasks need not be the preserve of mums (if we are happy to tolerate a hiccup or two)! All I did was get Lil Bro his back-to-school haircut and then they were set.

As soon as my kids saw their friends they were off without a backward glance.

I toddled off to the shops. It was with sadness that on my return from the shops, a good hour after the school bell had tolled that I saw a mum and her son outside the school gates. I heard a snapshot of their conversation “Just go in and talk to the others. It’ll be fine.” It occurred to me that for some families, “back-to-school” is not just a logistic nightmare of name labels, new shoes and haircuts, but a return to a battle-ground and heartache.

As an autism specialist, it is not uncommon for my clients to loathe school and in extremis to refuse to go to school. Anxiety is the most common co-morbidity in children with autism, and it is also the most common mental health problem in primary school aged children. So here are a few pointers on school refusal:

Try to find the cause for anxiety

  • Encourage your child to feel safe to talk to you about their problems. This requires a non-judgemental attitude and a guarantee of confidence and that they will not get into trouble. They will also need to know that they will be taken seriously, and that you will have the resources and strength to help them. Many children I see in clinic do not disclose bullying to parents as “it will worry them”, “they won’t believe me”, “they will only confront the situation and make it worse” or “they won’t be able to do anything”.
  • Often it is not sufficient to ask your child why they will not/ do not want to go to school. Persistent badgering on this question may cause more harm than good if it is not forthcoming given encouragement. Sometimes your child may not fully understand their own emotions or the cause of their emotions and therefore cannot tell you even if they wanted to. In this instance, it is up to you to speak to teachers and friends and come up with your best guesses. Discuss these hunches with your child in a non-judgemental way: “If I were in your shoes, I’d be a little scared of your new teacher…” and see whether any of them chime with your child. This is a favourite child psychiatrist strategy of mine as usually one of your guesses will be correct and when you see a child’s face respond to you verbalising their darkest emotions, you can tell that you’ve got to the heart of it and work can begin.

If you find a cause then dealing with the cause will be your next step. Some common causes for school refusal in primary aged children are:

  • bullying/ social ostracisation by peers
  • bullying/ fear of a teacher/ fear of being told off
  • anxiety about a particular subject: fear of failure in an academic subject, fear of being ridiculed in P.E.
  • anxiety about leaving the parent (separation anxiety) for fear something may happen to the parent.

Sometimes, there is no one-single cause and anxiety may be generalised or the sum of minor anxieties that can overwhelm. Working through each one, however minor, can be important.

Dealing with the cause should always involve:

  • Working together with the school. The natural parental instinct is to do your utmost to protect your child which can mean confronting the school staff or the parents of other children. Try to stay calm and keep an even head – whatever happens, getting other parents and teachers on side will lead to better outcomes for your child than making adversaries.
  • Supporting your child. As well as in relation to the identified cause, increasing your child’s self-esteem, resilience and social skills will always help.

Avoid pitfalls:

  • Sometimes, parents will allow children to stay off school due to school refusal. It is important to remember that this can inadvertently encourage problems as you are in effect teaching your child that crying and fussing will lead to a day off school. Sometimes it is impossible to get a child into school, but if this is the case, then schoolwork should be done at home rather than a pleasurable day at home watching TV and playing computer games. An incredibly boring or taxing day of chores at home may lead some children to the conclusion that school is preferable!
  • If at all possible, get children back into school as quickly as possible because the longer that they are off school, the harder it will be to get them back.


Make Time For Your Dreams

inside out

In September 2013, after a prolonged period of doubting, mental deliberation and build-up, I ventured on-line and bought myself a domain name: Shrinkgrowskids.com. It was meant to keep me busy while the children were in school because finding employment in school hours only is impossible. I psyched myself up. I was about to start writing when the following happened:

  • my daughter broke her leg (she was 6 years old and too little to use crutches. We have a typical Victorian townhouse on 3 floors. She needed hoisting everywhere. I put my back out)
  • my dad got diagnosed with cancer (thankfully now in remission)
  • my son had terrible allergies to a list of over 20 food items

There were a lot of hospital appointments. The blog got put on the back-burner. Life’s never easy and there is always an excuse NOT to do something.

I’m glad that I persisted.

In January 2014, I finally got the chance to sit down and blog and this led on some 3 years later to the publication of my book last month. So I wanted to share the following with you:

Remember your dreams and make time to make them happen!



Here’s a little taster from the intro of my book:

Oh, for pity’s sake!’ I silently cursed.
I had timed the nursery run to a tee and for once we were actually on schedule – until my three-year-old daughter, Molly, realized that her new shoes did not have her name label in them. Disaster! I tried to persuade her that this would be fine for one day and promised to stick the labels in that night; I explained that I couldn’t do it there and then because we would be late for her nursery (and, more importantly, I would be late for a meeting I was due to chair). But Molly out and out refused to see reason.

So I tried cajoling, then bribing, then threatening her. All to no avail. Ultimately I gave in, impatiently got the name labels and grumpily stuck them in her shoes. But by then it was too late. Molly was digging her heels in and her anger wasn’t just about the shoes anymore, but had become an incoherent fury with the world in general. And she was still refusing to put on her shoes. There followed more shouting, this time from me, along the lines of, ‘Now I’m going to be late!’ Reciprocal shouting and foot stamping from Molly ensued, until I realized that physically picking her up, bundling her under my arm and forcibly depositing her in the car was the only way I was going to get anywhere that day.

This was no mean feat. Picture me shuffling sheepishly down the road to the car, praying not to encounter any of my neighbours, Molly tucked under my arm like a log, kicking and screaming, with no shoes on. Simultaneously, my eighteen-month- old son D (Chinese for little brother, which is what we’ve always called him), was clinging on to me like an oversized pendant, his arms wrapped tightly around my neck. Assorted nursery-required paraphernalia was haphazardly piled into two bags, which weighed down so heavily on my elbows that they were cutting off the circulation to my fingers, from which dangled the contentious shoes. I must have resembled a demented rag and bone woman with my assorted wares hanging all over me. Meanwhile, Molly’s ongoing high-pitched wails of, ‘You’re hurting me!’ advertised our approach to everyone in the neighbourhood.

It was on that day of model motherhood that I decided I should write a book about parenting. If this seems perverse, I haven’t even confessed the funniest part of the story yet. About an hour after that little episode, I finally took my seat at the meeting. There I sat, solemnly discussing the effects that ‘compromised parenting’ has on the mental health of children. Believe me, the irony was not lost on me.

You see, I am a child psychiatrist. Handling Molly’s meltdown should have been second nature to me, but it wasn’t. After this humiliating escapade, I started to write down the more ridiculous of my parenting moments, because on one level they intrigued me: ‘Surely a child psychiatrist should know better?’ I kept asking myself.

Before having children I probably considered myself some-thing of a ‘parenting expert’. I doled out parenting advice to parents like hot dinners and wore my, ‘I know about parenting; I’m a child psychiatrist y’know’ badge with pride. It was only when I actually became a parent that I woke up to the humbling reality that there is no such thing as a ‘parenting expert’. Parenting is, in essence, often a process of mainly well-intentioned trial and error. The well-intentioned part is important because in recent times parents have been taking their role in their children’s development much more seriously. We’ve come a long way from the days when children were seen and not heard; when it was fairly common for them to be farmed out to wet nurses, governesses or boarding school at one end of the social spectrum, or sent up a chimney at the other. We now know that leaving the administration of parenting to others means potentially leaving the outcomes

of our children, and the adults that they will become, in the hands of others.

Indeed, sometimes it seems we have gone to the other extreme; there has been such a seismic shift in our attitudes towards parenting. Rather than abdicating responsibility for our children, or being ambivalent, we now have an almost obsessive preoccupation with them. I like to think that this is because my profession has done such a great job at promoting the importance of loving and understanding our children, though cynics might argue that it has more to do with the fact that most of us can no longer afford nannies, governesses or boarding schools. Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that there is now a genuine interest in giving our children the best possible start in life.


Asian Woman: Nanny or Hooker?


So it’s finally general election day (again!) and in the build up you’d think that local canvassers would be hungry to win over voters on the doorstep wouldn’t you?

Sadly not if you are Asian. This week, I experienced yet again the “Mistaken for the Cleaner” scenario. Here’s what happened:

Door bell rings.

I answer it.

The canvasser looks at me and gives me a flyer (for the party that I support) and asks me to give it to the resident voter.

I am taken aback, because I would like to have a chat about the candidate that I am going to vote for, but the canvasser has already turned his back and is already exiting the gate.

I finally find my tongue.

“I live here. I’m a voter too you know? Aren’t you going to talk to me?”

Cue awkward back-tracking by canvasser on the hot foot.

“Oh, sorry”

*sigh* “Did you think I was the cleaner?”

“No, no, of course not, we get doors answered by all sorts of people, you know friends and so on.”

I’m not really buying this. REALLY? Someone opens the front door and the first thing you think is: this person is a ‘friend’ of the resident…??!!

“Do you want to know about our policies.”

“Don’t worry. I’m good.”

Door shut.

This is not a unique scenario. Not too long ago I laughed out loud along with the rest of the world when the images of Professor Kelly’s report on South Korea was unexpectedly hijacked by his kids. Yet the initial hilarity and empathy with Professor Kelly’s clip soon became soured by the comments that flowed beneath the video. If there ever was a hero of the piece, it was his Korean wife that sped in to save the day and heroically crawled back in on all fours to close the door to allow peace to descend. I immediately warmed to her as her casual wear and practical pony tail looked just like my own. My own response to such an eventuality with my own children would have been instinctively identical.

Why then was she presumed by many to be the Nanny/ Maid, and worse still, why were her actions defined as being “submissive” and “fearful”? What would the “proper”/ “non-submissive” response from a wife and mother have been? To walk in and wave at the camera? To leave her husband to battle it out with the children on-screen?

Whatever people may say to try to justify their gut reactions, I am without a doubt that the “nanny-assumption”, just as the canvasser’s “cleaner assumption” was based on our ethnicity. How can I be so sure? Because it happens to me (and I’m sure other Asian/ Latino women) all the time. Here are a few of my highlights:

• When I first started dating my husband (a 6 foot 2 white South African), many people expressed surprise, questioning “You are a strange couple. What do you have in common?” I soon realised this was a bit of code for “He’s tall, white and handsome and should be going out with a leggy blonde not a short bespectacled Chinese woman”. This line of thought was later confirmed by a sozzled old bufty we had the misfortune to sit next to at a wedding once who stated the quandry more precisely due to inebriated state: “How did you two ever get together? He has round eyes and you have slitty eyes.”

• My husband had invited some of his new, white, male colleagues over for dinner. At 5 minutes to specified guest arrival time, I’m still in my tracksuit pants doing the last minute hoover and cushion plumping because in London with the ineffectiveness of the transport links and the relaxed attitude to time-keeping, I’m figuring I’ve still got 20 minutes to get changed and slap on some lippy. But what-ho? There’s the door-bell! The damn husband had failed to mention that his new colleagues had meticulous talent for punctuality. Never mind, I do my hostess duties diligently: offering to take coats and taking orders for drinks. The guests are genial and I show them into the dining room, where I start to serve the food that my husband has prepared. Here I figure that since they have caught me in my casual garb that it would be affected to disappear upstairs and re-emerge tarted up, so I don’t bother with that pretence. It is only when I plonk myself down at the table amongst the gathering that I notice the strange looks from my fellow diners. There is a definite note of initial surprise that “the brazen cleaner/ house-help is joining us for dinner”, followed by a tinge of embarrassment when they finally clock that I am the wife.

• When I was on maternity leave and started being in my house in the day time, I couldn’t help but notice that each morning a troupe of Asian ladies would come up the road, disappear into various houses and then leave in the evenings. I could see them through windows dusting and polishing in various houses. I realised that I looked more like them than my actual neighbours. It was no surprise then that when unexpected callers came to the door (the gas man, electricity man, charity door-stoppers, election campaigners, the police) they would ask to speak to the owner of the property when they were faced with me. After a few times of indignant proclamations of “I am the owner of this property”; I realised that it was much more fun and expedient to actually pretend to be the Cleaner and this works fantastically well to get rid of a lot of people that I don’t have the time for. I don’t even need to speak. I just put on a puzzled look, shake my head and shrug my shoulders like I can’t understand English.

• One time on maternity leave I went to the Royal Academy of Art with my baby and a friend with her twin babies. I had access to the Friends’ room so we ventured in there to have a snack, but the tables were all full, so we were kindly invited to join a table that was already occupied by a sweet elderly couple. This was a blessing as we had 3 babies between us. As my daughter was asleep, I helped out my friend with one of her twins by rocking her in my arms, and my friend chatted amiably to the elderly couple. When along comes a posh old dame who comes over babbling with delight about how wonderful it is to see families enjoying a day out at the RA. She talked at length about her own daughter who “also had triplets”. At this point I clocked things from her perspective. Here was a family of white grandparents, white daughter and triplets. That left me, the Nanny.

• Add to this the countless times I have had to have my passport doubly scrutinised at airports (apparently because there are Chinese gangs providing all manner of people with fake British passports) or if I am with my children, all our passports doubly scrutinised (because of Chinese gangs child trafficking). Strangely enough, if I travel with my husband, or if he travels alone with the children, this never happens. The addition of a “jolly fine white chap” somehow legitimises the rest of us.

Like for Jung-a Kim, Professor Kelly’s lovely wife, none of the above particularly bothers me. The reason being that for most non-white females, we have acclimatised and adapted to these day to day occurrences. I believe that these days we are to refer to them as “micro-aggressions”, but in my day, they were just things we ignored/ laughed at or put up with. Annoying, petty stereotyping is not the preserve of non-white females. Although I have witnessed a myriad of advantages that my husband gets purely by being a “tall, white, male”: aeroplane upgrades, hotel upgrades, many, many people-that-ignored-me smiling and offering to help him, people hanging on to his every word (when he is actually spouting my rhetoric which would have been ignored if it were coming out of my mouth); I have also witnessed my tall, white-male husband frequently mistaken for a Bullingdon club posh toff/ arrogant Apartheid supporting South African/ Countryside Alliance fox-hunter/ Trust Fund elite just because of the way he looks – which I imagine can also be tiresome.

“What are you doing going out with him?” my Socialist Worker reading friend asked.

But scratch beneath the colour of our skins and you will see that we:

• Are both the youngest of 3 children
• Are both from close knit families
• Are both immigrants to the U.K.
• Are both originally from pariah nations (South Africa due to Apartheid; Taiwan due to Chinese diplomacy)
• Both have direct experience of the effects of racism and inequality
• Both have an interest in opening our minds and hearts to new people, new places and new experiences
• Are both happy with who we are

So where it matters, we are immensely similar.

And so, in conclusion I think that we should all do a bit more of looking beyond stereotypes. I have no problem with being mistaken for a Nanny/ Maid/ Cleaner, because consider the alternative: I absolutely hated travelling with my husband to Thailand/ Indonesia and other developing Asian countries in my youth, because if we ever got in a cab, went for a nice meal or checked into a fancy hotel; I was clearly always “The Hooker”.

Talking to My Children About Terrorist Attacks


I, like the rest of the country have been left dumbfounded by the cruelty of a terror attack targeting children and their parents. Of course, this is no more tragic than the bombs being dropped on hospitals and schools in Syria or elderly window cleaners being mown down on Westminster bridge, but it is a natural and human tendency to feel more empathy when the people involved are “just like you and your family”. The eight-year old girl that died, could have been Big Sis, the mum’s chatting outside waiting to pick up their children could have been me and my friends. Maybe it’s this that makes me feel it more this time around.

I asked Big Sis and Lil Bro if their teachers had mentioned the recent news at school. They had not. I wondered for a while if I should talk to the children about it. They were blissfully unaware that anything out of the ordinary had happened and I could have left it that way. Why let the world intrude on a “safe and idyllic” childhood living in a fortunate part of London?

Yet I decided not to stay quiet and here’s why:

  • Children do not live in a bubble and sooner or later the outside world beyond a loving home and sheltered school will impinge on them. As much as we parents want to shelter our children from hurt; hurt is an inevitable part of life. Children who are shielded from hurt never learn to manage their negative emotions so that when inevitably, they get hurt, they are less well equipped to cope. Better to gently expose children to reality and teach children to manage their emotions.


  • Children will become adults sooner than we think and need to have socio-political views of their own. There is talk of extending voting age to include 16 year olds: de facto: children. Whilst the children are young and I have an influence on my children’s opinions, I would like to pass on my ideals of openness, fairness and love so that they are entrenched before the likes of unknown peers and uncensored media get a hold of them. I felt that this terrorist attack was a marker event, so significant that they needed to know about and understand it, to shape their opinions for later life.


But what could I say? No medical degree or child psychiatry training teaches you this.  In this, like so many other aspects of parenting, I am like any other parent: a novice. Here’s how  I tried my best:

I told them that something terrible had happened in Manchester and we found the BBC Newsround clip together on iPlayer. We watched it together. A good quality children’s news program can convey facts in a way that children will understand and also be counted upon not to shock or overly upset the average child, so this is a good place to start.

I asked the children what they thought about it and I answered their questions.

Big Sis: What is a terrorist?

Me: It’s a person that does things to frighten other people so that the frightened people will do what they tell them to do.

Big Sis: Is it like a bully?

Me: Yes, I suppose so. They frighten people to get their own way or to make other people angry to start a war.

Big Sis: Why would anyone want to start a war?

Me: Well there are already lots of wars going on around the world. We are just lucky that we live in a country that’s safe right now.

Big Sis: Why can’t people just stop fighting?

Me: It’s easier said than done! Why can’t you and your brother stop fighting?

Big Sis [Hmm – recognising this is a tricky]: Well, we should just kill all the terrorists.

Me: It’s more complicated than that. Killing people just upsets more people and often leads to more death. I don’t have all the right answers, but it usually doesn’t involve more death.

Big Sis: What should we do then?

Me: I think we must just help the people that got hurt, remember the people that died and carry on with our lives. We can’t let bullies scare us into giving in or feeling anger and hate, because this is what they would want. Maybe it can help us all feel grateful to be alive and for what we have.


Lil Bro: Will a terrorist come and bomb us?

Me: I hope not, but we live in London so I can’t say for sure. What I can say is that I have lived for over 40 years and haven’t been hurt by a terrorist yet, so the chances are really low. It’s natural to feel a little bit upset and worried, everyone does – even me, but if we let it stop us doing what we enjoy doing then the terrorists have won. So we need to be strong and ignore them.


This was getting rather depressing and I was running out of things to say, so I was really surprised but pleased that out of the mouths of babes can come heart-warming positivity:


Lil Bro: At least they died happy.

Me: Huh?

Lil Bro: They went to see an Arianna Grande concert and had a good time. The last thing that the people that died felt: was happy.



  • Don’t be afraid to tell the truth to children
  • Use language children will understand
  • Avoid unnecessary graphic and frightening details
  • Acknowledge that fear is normal
  • Encourage talking about fear rather than suppressing it
  • Model a good sense of the risks: don’t get overly worried yourself
  • Offer realistic reassurance
  • Model a “carry on” attitude
  • Continue to spread love not hate


And, if you can, find a glimmer of hope.


If you are lucky like me, your children may find the positive for you.

It’s here! Inside Out Parenting

Inside Out Parenting jkt


Sorry for the radio silence, but life has been pretty hectic the last few months to say the least. I have been interviewed by The Times, Country Walking and writing articles for The Telegraph and Daily Mail on-line sites. Crazy. Today a long-held dream has become reality and my little book, which came about from this blog, has hit the bookshops. When I paid my £60 to register this blog domain, little did I imagine that all this would be possible.

This morning after dropping off the children at school, I made a solitary trip to the local bookstore and headed to the parenting section where I have hung out quite a lot in the last few years. My only previous publication was a Chapter in a textbook so specialised that you had to order it on-line, so it was a very strange idea that I could go into a bookshop and see my book on the shelf. I didn’t really believe that I would find it, but there it was….




Thank you so much to all the lovely people that have followed or read my blog. I do hope that now the hard work is done on the book that I will be back on the blog site again! I have missed Big Sis, Lil Bro and Banker, not least because they are transformed into Molly, D and Andrew in the book. Since writing the book, so much has happened and the children are no longer little anymore! I’m really looking forward to sharing the next adventures in parenting with you : Lil Bro is sitting his KS1 SATS and I am forming an excel spreadsheet of secondary schools for Big Sis – where did the time go?

If you have liked my site, please look out for my book: it may be tucked away somewhere next to books on potty training! – (I confess to having spent half an hour rearranging the shelves at my local Waterstones to get that photo above – at least I was decent enough not to sneak it widthways over Giovanna Fletcher).

Thank you again for supporting my blog. I could have not done this without you!



Children’s Sleep


Lil Bro: Mummy – I can’t sleep

Me: Please, its past nine o’clock, what are you doing still up? You have to go to sleep now or you’ll be exhausted at school tomorrow! [Plus I just got started on this week’s episode of “This is US” and a tub of ice cream and I really fancy a rest!]

Lil Bro: But I can’t sleep.

Me: Just close your eyes and lie still! [Grrr]

I’m sure many of you are nodding in sympathy at this experience. Lil Bro who usually has no difficulty getting to sleep is having a spate of “I can’t get to sleep”. We have tried cuddling, cajoling, comforting, reassuring and now we are at the frankly fed up stage.

Children with poor sleep can have difficulties with poor concentration, over-activity, behavioural problems, day-time sleepiness, bed-wetting, obesity, increased clumsiness, depression and worse academic performance. Equally bad, the lives of their parents and entire family are also grossly affected. As parents of infants, we have all been there, but somehow I’ve taken immense umbrage at this recent spell of poor sleep because Lil Bro is now 7 years old and well able to put himself to sleep.

When Big Sis was a wee mite, I was the rabid sleep-deprived mother heckling the sleep experts flown in from abroad to teach us doctors about sleep EEG’s: “Can you tell me why, WHY, how, HOW can a baby go from stage 4 deep sleep to AWAKE and CRYING just by a 10 degree tilt to lay them in the cot????!!!! Give me the EEG on how that happens…!!!! What’s the possible mechanism???!!!”….zzzzzzzz – bonk.

So, I must now be the envy of most mums, as for the last few years I have had the pleasure of working with Paul Gringras a.k.a. the Professor in charge of the national Sleep Medicine centre at The Evelina Children’s Hospital. I have been working with him on an international multi-centre drug trial for sleep medication in children with neurodisability (mainly autism), which he is leading. His centre is hi-tech with observational sleep bays where children can sleep-over and be observed on video to capture what is going on, often plugged into electronic equipment that monitors breathing, brain and movement activity and I was fortunate enough to be able to sit in on consultations with Consultant Paediatrician Dr Mike Farquhar. It all sounds very medical. What then has a shrink got to do with sleep?

Well, it turns out that the majority of sleep problems in children are “behavioural”. Yes, there are known medical causes of disturbed sleep, e.g. restless leg syndrome, obstructive sleep apnoea, sleep walking and so on, but for the majority of cases in children who are otherwise fit and well, it is what children and their parents are in the “habit” of doing that is keeping them all awake.

What constitutes a sleep problem?

The definition of a “good night’s sleep” is variable from person to person. As a student, a full 10 hours was a requisite for me often causing tardiness to morning lectures. At weekends waking before 10am was unheard of. As a junior doctor, 4 hours sleep constituted immense good fortune and developed in me the very useful skill of being able to sleep anywhere, anytime – zzzzzz-bonk. These skills came in handy with babies that hadn’t read Gina Ford. The early years of parenthood are a sleep-deprived blur, but once the youngest had reached the milestone of 3 years, a more acceptable routine of 10 hours of continuously sleeping children was established –albeit the 6am wakenings were still somewhat painful.

In reality sleep requirements differ between children of different ages, but also between different children. Average daily sleep duration ranges between 10-17 hours at 6 months to 8-11 hours at age 11 years. This variability colours people’s ideas of what constitutes a sleep problem, and I am often bemused by some parents who come in desperation seeking medication for 10 year old children that sleep from 7:30pm to 6am: thinking with a mix of incredulity “What planet are you on? That’s almost a full 11 hours!” and admiration “Please tell me how on earth you get a 10 year old to go to bed at 7:30pm!” With these children who are getting hours of sleep within the acceptable range, the sleep is only classified as problematic if it represents a dramatic change to sleep pattern and/ or if there is any evidence of daytime sleepiness. If the answer to both is “No”, then one should feel reassured. However, for a psychiatrist, we know that often a parental cry for help of “My children don’t sleep!” is actually a cry of “I’m struggling to cope with my children when they are awake!” This differentiation is critical as the treatment strategies for the two problems are entirely different.

Aside from these perceptual sleep problems, the three main problems involving sleep are: struggling to fall off to sleep, waking in the middle of the night and co-sleeping.

Struggling to fall off to sleep

Problems falling off to sleep are often cited as a struggle. Sleep latency (to give it its fancy name) averages 19 minutes in 0-2 year olds and 17 minutes for 3-12 year olds. Anything over 30 minutes is classed as problematic. However, these average latency numbers involves the child actually wanting to fall asleep and lying in their bed in the dark, and any of the children’s wonderfully inventive delaying tactics “One more story”, “I need the toilet”, “I need a drink”, “Mummy sing to me” are clearly “behavioural” and not really to do with a “medical” sleep problem.

Night waking

As part of our natural sleep cycle, we all wake at some stage in the night. Most of us are able to close our eyes and will quickly fall back to sleep again such that we don’t realise that we were ever awake or close to waking. Where night waking is problematic is where children are unable to settle themselves back to sleep and start playing the drums and waking the entire neighbourhood in the middle of the night. Typically these children then decide to fall asleep at around 7am, just when they need to go to school, and then they either miss school as their parents are unable to drag them there, or they doze off in the classroom and can’t learn effectively. You can imagine the impact of this on their parents.


OK I am as seduced by the lovely mental images of canoodling up with my young children for a snooze as the next parent. Many parents are seduced into this as children love it and it often helps them to fall asleep more quickly, but each time you get the inkling that this might not be such a bad idea, I would like you to imagine you sleeping with your 15 year old son or daughter. If you don’t do something to nip it in the bud while your children are young, they might not “grow out of it” and it will be a battle to get them out of your bed and are not used to falling asleep alone. I would suggest that you turf them out of sleeping in your bed by age 7 years otherwise it may get horribly entrenched. Of course, the early morning “I’m awake” cuddles in bed are still fine!

So what can we do to help our children to sleep?

My paediatric colleague Dr Jess Turnbull who is starting up the community Evelina Sleep Centre off-shoot in my work-place has the following advice for encouraging good sleep habits:

  • Physical exertion in the afternoon – encourage daily exercise in children in the day-time. This will wear them out and make them physically ready to sleep.
  • Consistent daily bedtime – as with all things behavioural, if there is an established routine and children know what is going to happen and that they cannot get out of it, then compliance is more forthcoming.
  • Last drink 1-1.5 hours before bed – this reduces the likelihood of children needing to get up to go to the toilet in the night, which may make it harder for them to fall back to sleep.
  • Avoid sugar/ caffeine – fairly obvious really.
  • Try and have a routine wind-down regime in the hour before bed time (calming activities such as reading, bath, calming music). The idea is to try and calm your child down so that they are in the right physical and mental frame of mind to sleep.
  • NO SCREENS (TV, phones, tablets) for at least an hour before bed. TV programmes, phones and tablets are all designed to capture interest, attention and brain activity. Ideally, you want to be winding down your child’s brain activity in the hour before bed so turning off screens is desirable. I know that many parents are tempted by having a TV in a child’s bedroom to keep them quiet and contained in the day, but it then requires discipline for children to stop watching it late into the night. Only be happy to provide a child with a TV in their room if they possess such discipline or you are happy for them not to sleep.
  • Having a transitional object (eg. a soft toy) to develop sleep confidence and a healthy sleep association. This can be particularly helpful for younger children.
  • Working towards your child falling asleep by themselves in their own bed. If a child is used to sleeping with you, then you should gradually withdraw yourself. For instance, first get the child accustomed to sleeping with you sitting next to them, then in a chair in the room, then outside the room in sight, then outside the room out of sight. It takes time, patience and grit to do this as some children will really dig their heels in, but if you view this as ultimately for their own good (which it is) then it is more possible to undertake.
  • Limit setting on ‘fussing’ after ‘lights out’. If you draw out the bedtime process with attending to the child’s fussing, then it defeats the purpose as it will get later and later and only teaches children that you will give them attention for their fussing which encourages them to continue to do it.
  • Reducing attention given after ‘lights out’ to prevent reinforcing messages of attention (e.g. avoid eye contact and conversation): good old pursed lips and silent treatment. There is a rule in my house that after the official bedtime, “Nice mummy” goes to bed and “Horrible mummy” her doppelganger comes in her stead. Nice mummy cannot be accountable for the actions of horrible mummy and so it is much better for children to just go to sleep.

But I had done all this and still, Lil Bro could not get to sleep. This was even more annoying and I was starting to put it down to “naughtiness”.

The next day, I was lucky enough to be chairing a talk on Smith Magenis Syndrome (a genetic disorder which was frequently associated inverted sleep cycle – i.e. day time sleepiness and night time waking) and my colleague Paul Gringras was the invited expert. Half-way through his talk, he spoke about the solution to keeping these children awake in the day was by using blue light to cut off melatonin secretion in the day. Melatonin is the natural hormone our pineal glands secrete to tell us it is night time and aids sleep. It’s pharmaceutical form can be bought over the counter in the USA as a treatment for jet-lag and is a commonly prescribed sleeping tablet.

Hang on a minute, Lil Bro had recently been given a fantastic blue Star Wars light sabre light that he had been insisting on turning on as a night light when he went to bed….this type of blue light is used to KEEP CHILDREN AWAKE….aargh. We had been inadvertently switching off our son’s natural melatonin secretion via Luke Skywalker’s weaponry.

I double checked Jess Turnbull’s list of advice and saw that I had overlooked: “Use a red coloured light if night light is needed (does not interfere with natural melatonin production)”. That evening, I told Lil Bro that an important sleep expert had told me that his special blue light was keeping him awake. Lil Bro likes science and reason and he felt good that there was a reason for his insomnia and that it was not just “bad behaviour”. It’s silly mummy’s fault for letting you have that light on (he likes not being to blame). Releasing him of anxiety about insomnia and allowing the release of melatonin by switching off the offending blue light sabre led to zzzzzz-bonk!




The info from this post came from: Turnbull & Farquhar 2016. Fifteen-minute consultation on problems in the healthy child: sleep. Arch Dis Child Educ Pract Ed 101: 175-180.



Public Library to Publishing


Around this time 2 years ago I ventured into the public library. The library has always seemed to me a calm and comforting place where natural introverts like me can hide without need for social interaction. I have fond memories of public libraries from my childhood.

  • My parents did not have much money for books when I was young and so it became a Saturday ritual to take us to the local library. My sisters and I delighted in the weekly routine of 4 books in and 4 books out. The sitting with a pile of books on the library floor to make the book selection was as much fun as the devouring at bed time. Decisions were critical of course as it could never be guaranteed that a book cast away could ever be found again in the bowels of the public library system. I conjured up images of the child that never returned the book that I had set aside for next week. I remember tittering as my precocious sister stole into the forbidden adult library to feed on the minds of Austen, Bronte and yes, Mills & Boon.
  • As I grew older, the library routine became an independent journey. There was a Mobile Library that parked on the next road from my house. Come rain or shine, the humble little van would open it’s doors to a wonderful and shifting collection of books rammed onto wooden shelves that seemed to be hewn from the very carcass of the van. It’s purpose? To open my mind. Here I discovered childhood favourites from Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton to Paula Danziger, Judy Blume (who can forget Ralph?), Robert Cormier and S.E. Hinton. From books I spent a childhood learning and yearning to be British and the teenage years aspiring to be American. 2016 has made both youthful aspirations rather less enticing, but I think the core of what I mean still stands: books shape opinions, identities and lives.
  • As an adult, sadly the enjoyable public library routines of old fell away to being buried in book stacks of University Libraries. The “downstairs” of the Institute of Psychiatry (IOP) library was in my day a pleasure. Hidden away, accessed by spiral staircase is a room with more books than space where one had to churn a handle to move whole bookcases in order to squeeze between the shelves to retrieve the required tome. It’s fortunate that it was almost always devoid of people, because the one occasion where the bookcase started to move while I was trapped in between stacks brought back Star Wars style nightmares of being crushed by advancing walls. It always impressed me that amongst those books were the first clumsy descriptions of Down’s Syndrome, Schizophrenia and Autism. The pleasantly eerie bolt-hole had an atmosphere that’s hard to recreate. Sadly, it’s all gone now, and the IOP library – like most things – has “gone digital” and now resembles an Apple Store.

A return to the public library was heralded by having children of my own. Although not quite up to the organisation of weekly visits, the public library is a space that my children know and enjoy. Helped by lack of overdue fees on children’s books and Drop-Back boxes for books, sporadic and opportunistic visits to the library are possible. My children, like me before them enjoy the rummage and many of their favourite picture books were bent and battered copies of random and obscure books (for instance one about a girl called Tina and an alligator that trips on soap while doing the Tango and falls down the toilet) bought for 20p from the Library rejects sell-off bins. While the children explored and tried to hack into the library computers, I would wander to the parenting section.

During this particular library visit 2 years ago though, I wasn’t exploring the parenting shelves, I was asking the man behind the desk for the little red book – “The Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2014“. The Writers and Artist’s Yearbook is an agency listing for budding writers and artists.

I had decided to take the plunge. I scoured the book for agencies interested in non-fiction and parenting. I took down the emails. I went home and I sent out my story.

I had been here 2 years earlier for the same reason. I had written the beginnings of a manuscript about my childhood and it’s influence on my parenting. I had pored through the agency listings and sent off my manuscript to 5 agencies. I was rejected by all of them, although one had nice things to say. It wasn’t easy to think about going through this process of rejection again, but since the first round of submission, I had started the blog and was warmed by the people that had responded to my writing. Friends and acquaintances would stop me and say “I liked your last blog” or “my wife reads your blog” which was a real encouragement. Also, as I had nothing better to do at the time (as high flying work-places dislike women with young children), there was nothing to lose. Sometimes it takes having no easy option available to force us to take a risk.

And so it came that a lovely young mother connected with my story and agreed to become my agent, followed a year later by another lovely mother offering to be my publisher.

And that’s how I got to meet proper writers: Russell Brand, Joe Wicks, Jack Monroe, Leah Garwood-Gowers, Daisy Kristiansen, Laura James and Eleanor Morgan and pitch with them to media and retailers our books that will be released by Bluebird Books (Pan Macmillan) in 2017.

For those that harbour manuscripts (I know at least one-friend) – please send them out – it really does happen! And if you can, pop in to your local library. Without us they have been closing up and down the country and with their closure the door and mind-opening opportunities for many children.

VaNITy Case


Now that the children are a little older, I am finding that I finally have time to look in the mirror. This is a very depressing past-time as over the last 9 years, I appear to have aged 90 years. Bags under the eyes, lines traversing the face, spare tyre around the tummy and plenty of black hair turned grey! Some of these aspects I find acceptable (crows feet while not exactly welcome, are a sign of a life spent smiling) or readily remedied (thanks L’Oreal) – and I may finally get to claw back some benefit from that under-utilised gym membership. What I found very frightening was to see the piles of dyed black hair clogging up the plug hole of my bath every time I washed my hair. Hair-loss – extremely frightening. There was definitely a bit at my hairline which looked thinner than previously and I started to find the jokes that I had made about my husband’s retreating hairline less amusing. (When he had denied any hair loss, I had told him that he should tattoo his hairline and then we would have physical evidence of whether or not he was receding – funny I thought at the time, not so funny now that I am suffering the same fate!).

So when I next trotted off to the hair salon to get a hair cut; I wow-ed at the massive poster in the window which promised “Thicker, fuller hair could be yours” with a whole new product range targeted at thinning hair. Even for evidence-based scientists, rationality goes out the window when faced with fear and the potential of hope, however unlikely. The hairdresser was kind enough to doubt my need for the product but was only too happy to sell me the entire range given my disposition. He warned me “It works on your scalp so if you feel it tingling on your scalp, you’ll know it’s working.”

Over the next two weeks, I diligently used the entire product range, and indeed, soon after I felt a tingling on my scalp. “Ooh, I can really feel it working!” I thought to myself and liberally applied more product. The tingling got stronger. I inspected my hair daily. “Hmm” I thought to myself, my hair is looking fuller. More product slapping. Hang about, this product is starting to itch more than tingle now. That must be a sign of all the new hairs that are sprouting out of my scalp, because I know that when new hairs grow they can sometimes itch. More product. What fabulous hair I now have, well worth the itch because as everyone knows: “you must suffer for beauty”.

A week later, I was clearing out the detritus of school letters and notes that had formed at the bottom of Big Sis’s school bag. Oops, I have not yet paid the school dinner money. Thank goodness, I am in time to give permission to a school trip.

Then, I saw it and the penny dropped.

“There has been an outbreak of nits in your child’s class”.


It was quite something other than new-age, hair-growing potion that had been working on my scalp and my vain mis-belief had led me to tolerate it blindly!

For the next 3 weeks instead of gentle, herbal, hair-regeneration and scalp renewal product, I was in the chemist hoarding chemical agents, the more toxic the better. None of the homeopathic agents for me, I was for all-out chemical warfare and instead of wishing for hair growth, I was happily pulling out my own hair with a fine toothed nit comb shouting “Out damn nits!”

Vanity really doesn’t pay.