Tag Archives: children

Books and websites on babies

Several people I know are expecting a first baby soon, and I wrote up notes for one of them. Might as well share here too:

Scott Alexander’s Biodeterminist’s Guide to Parenting is an interesting read, and some parts are actionable. 

If you live in an old building (pre-1978 in the US), here’s my writeup on lead paint.

If breastfeeding, KellyMom is my go-to for advice on whatever is going wrong.

On childbirth, I read several books but The Birth Partner is the only one I’d use again. It’s written primarily for the partner rather than the person giving birth, but it’s the best one I read even for the person giving birth. The advice for working out your attitude to pain relief and medical interventions felt more balanced than some of the other more obviously pro- or anti-intervention stuff I read.
Even if you’re not expecting a c-section, read about what aftercare will be like if you do get one. For example laying things out in the house to minimize walking / stairs, figuring out what pain meds you’d be ok with during recovery if breastfeeding.

The Happiest Baby on the Block techniques are well worth learning for dealing with fussy babies. The actual book is needlessly fluffy, but there’s a video version that covered the important stuff in an hour, or there’s a 9-minute version.

Emily Oster’s Expecting Better and Cribsheet have some good info, and enough of your friends have read them that you’ll hear about her opinions no matter what. At least on her blog, I feel like her brand is now “don’t worry, studies show your child probably won’t be harmed by X.” I think she’s overly cavalier in a few cases (for example claiming that light drinking during pregnancy won’t hurt; this rebuttal by an epidemiologist specializing in fetal alcohol syndrome was pretty convincing to me.) There are cases where there’s no conclusive evidence that X is bad for your child, but often she’s only looking at one particular type of harm, or it seems like there’s just not enough data to answer the question. For example she convinced me that caffeine is not likely to cause a miscarriage, but that’s not the only harm I care about, and common sense is that you don’t give psychoactive drugs to developing brains.

Now that you can google everything, I don’t feel like a Dr. Spock – style baby guide is that important if you have a decent sense of what babies are like. If you’ve never spent much time around babies, it’s probably worth skimming a baby development type book to get a sense of what happens when. I skimmed Penelope Leach’s Your Baby and Child and T. Berry Brazleton’s Touchpoints, which were both fine.

Another part of why I didn’t feel like I needed a book that explained every last medical situation you could encounter with a baby is that our pediatrician’s office has a 24-hour phone line where they answer your questions about the baby’s rash or whatever. I definitely recommend finding a practice that offers this.

When researching medical problems, I find that children’s hospitals often have good guides. You can find some doctor somewhere with all kinds of opinions, but I assume the guides from children’s hospitals represent some kind of expert consensus. Example on fever.


On sleep training, my take is that people have a pet method they prefer and will tell you the other methods are terrible. But different families do succeed with completely different methods, and if one method is a terrible fit for your family you can switch to another. We used the Weissbluth cry-it-out method and will do it again. If you run into other sleep problems the Ferber book might be worth getting because he’s an actual pediatric sleep expert, while the other authors are usually generic pediatricians. The Ferber book covers a bunch of other sleep stuff like sleepwalking and bed wetting, so might be worth consulting later even if you don’t use it for sleep training.

Aside from nighttime sleep training, read something about nap schedules. One example. If your baby is in daycare, you can ask the daycare what they do and do the same at home.

On potty training when the time comes, the Oh Crap method was great for us. Both kids trained in a weekend.

On other behavior stuff, Jeff’s main thoughts are here and mine are here. I talk a lot in that post about How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, but a lot of it is about older kids. For younger kids, I start with How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen.

Other life stuff:
On time management, Laura Vanderkam is about the only productivity person I can stomach anymore, because she has 5 kids and most other authors seem to write for people with no commitments aside from work. Her book I Know How She Does It is based on time tracking by mothers who earn at least $100k and are presumably pretty busy. The time logs indicate you can work a lot, have some personal time, and spend quality time with your kids if you organize things well and pay for a lot of childcare.

Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids is based on a bunch of twin and adoption studies. He argues that they show parenting doesn’t make that much difference and mostly your kid is going to come out how they were always going to come out based on their genetics, so you might as well just focus on enjoying time together instead of shaping them into a star achiever. I thought I was going to be a really relaxed parent after buying these arguments, but there’s still a bunch of environmental stuff like lead exposure that I managed to be anxious about anyway. And there’s still a lot to figure out about how to make life pleasanter in the meantime. 

Notes from “Don’t Shoot the Dog”

I just finished Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog: the New Art of Teaching and Training.” Partly because a friend points out that it’s not on Audible and therefore she can’t possibly read it, here are the notes I took and some thoughts. It’s a quick, easy read.

The author started off as a dolphin trainer at an aquarium park in the 1960s and moved on to horses, dogs, and her own children. There are a lot of anecdotes about how to train animals (apparently polar bears like raisins). At the time, training animals without violence was considered novel and maybe impossible. I read it as a parenting book since I don’t plan to train dogs, horses, or polar bears.

It’s probably not the best guide to training dogs since a lot of it is about people, and not the best guide to training people since a lot is about animals. She’s written a bunch of other books about training dogs and cats. But this book is an entertaining overview of all of it.

The specter of behaviorism
I can understand not wanting to use behavioral methods on children; the idea can sound overly harsh or reductive. The thing is, we already reinforce behavior all the time, including bad behavior, often without meaning to. So you might as well notice what you’re doing.

“To people schooled in the humanistic tradition, the manipulation of human behavior by some sort of conscious technique seems incorrigibly wicked, in spite of the obvious fact that we all go around trying to manipulate one another’s behavior all the time, by whatever means come to hand.”

“There are still people who shudder at the very name of Skinner, which conjures in their minds some amalgam of Brave New World, mind control, and electric shock.”
(B. F. Skinner in fact believed that punishment was not an effective learning tool, and that positive reinforcement was much better for teaching.)

Pryor argues that behavioral training allows you to get good results more pleasantly than with other methods. She describes her daughter’s experience directing a play in high school:

“At the closing performance the drama coach told me that she’d been amazed to see that throughout rehearsals Gale never yelled at her cast. Student directors always yell, but Gale never yelled. ‘Of course not,’ I said without thinking, ‘she’s an animal trainer.’ From the look on the teacher’s face, I realized I’d said the wrong thing—her students were not animals! But of course all I meant was that Gale would know how to establish stimulus control without unnecessary escalation.”

Of course there are bad applications of behavioral training: “The psychological literature abounds with shaping programs that are so unimaginative, not to say ham-handed, that they constitute in my opinion cruel and unusual punishment.”

I don’t know a lot about ABA (applied behavior analysis), which is one application of behaviorism. My understanding is that its bad applications are certainly cruel and ham-handed, although there also seem to be good applications. I think that even people opposed to ABA should be able to find a lot of useful material in this book.

You’re already doing reinforcement training

One point I think is underappreciated is that we all reinforce each other, and children train parents as well as the other way around.

“A child is tantruming in the store for candy. The parent gives in and lets the child have a candy bar. The tantruming is positively reinforced by the candy, but the more powerful event is that the parent is negatively reinforced for giving in, since the public tantrum, so aversive and embarrassing for the parent, actually stopped.”

It’s also easy to accidentally reinforce bad behavior.

I recently read Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona with the kids, in which a preschooler scribbles in a library book she wants to keep. Her older sister pays for the book, and the librarian gives them back the discarded book to keep.
That’s not fair, thought Beezus. Ramona shouldn’t get her own way when she had been naughty.
‘But, Miss Evans,’ protested Beezus, ‘if she spoils a book she shouldn’t get to keep it. Now every time she finds a book she likes she will…’ Beezus did not go on. She knew very well what Ramona would do, but she wasn’t going to say it out loud in front of her.

Jeff and I try to not let bad behavior lead to a reward. For example, our four-year-old was eager to go home from the park, and left without us towards the house. I caught up with her and told her not to leave without us. We were halfway to the house, but If I’d continued home with her from there, she would still have achieved what she wanted: getting home sooner. So I took her back to the park and we redid the whole situation: she said “I want to go home” and I walked home with her. Running off on her own didn’t pay, and she hasn’t repeated it.

Responding to good behavior, not bad

Instead of punishing bad behavior, the emphasis is on noticing and reinforcing good behavior.
“Shutting up about what you don’t like, in order to wait for and reinforce behavior you do like, is counterintuitive and takes some practice.”

My mother, who taught preschool for decades, sums it up as “You have to catch ‘em being good.” 

Some animals can’t be trained by force, or at least can’t be trained to do anything very complicated. Such training was necessary with dolphins because they’ll simply swim away if you try to make them do anything they don’t like. You can only train them by offering something they like (fish).

“As a dolphin researcher whom I worked with sourly put it, ‘Nobody should be allowed to have a baby until they have first been required to train a chicken,’ meaning that the experience of getting results with a chicken, an organism that cannot be trained by force, should make it clear that you don’t need to use punishers to get results with a baby.”

At its best, reinforcement learning is enjoyable for the learner:
“Clicker trainers have learned to recognize play behavior in animals as a sign that the learner has become consciously aware of what behavior was being reinforced. When ‘the light bulb goes on,’ as clicker trainers put it, dogs gambol and bark, horses prance and toss their heads, and elephants, I am told, run around in circles chirping. They are happy. They are excited.”

Clickers and other sounds

Pryor became known for “clicker training” because she started using the method of using a sound to immediately convey “yes, that’s good.” The particular sound isn’t important as long as the learner can hear and recognize it. With aquatic animals you use whistles because they can be heard underwater; with dogs she uses mechanical clicker noisemakers; with a person I’d probably use a specific phrase but some people also use clickers.

The sound initially has no meaning, but by giving it at the same time as a reward (food, smiles, pats) you create an association between the sound and the reward. Later the sound itself is rewarding.

“It often happens, especially when training with food reinforcers, that there is absolutely no way you can get the reinforcer to the subject during the instant it is performing the behavior you wish to encourage. If I am training a dolphin to jump, I cannot possibly get a fish to it while it is in midair. If each jump is followed by a thrown fish with an unavoidable delay, eventually the animal will make the connection between jumping and eating and will jump more often. However, it has no way of knowing which aspect of the jump I liked. Was it the height? The arch? Perhaps the splashing reentry? Thus it would take many repetitions to identify to the animal the exact sort of jump I had in mind. To get around this problem, we use conditioned reinforcers.”

“Breland called the whistle a ‘bridging stimulus,’ because, in addition to informing the dolphin that it had just earned a fish, the whistle bridged the period of time between the leap in midtank—the behavior that was being reinforced—and swimming over to the side to collect one’s pay.”

Pryor describes the program her son (an airplane pilot) designed for pilot training:

“A flight instructor can also click a student for initiative and for good thinking: for example, for glancing over the instrument panel before being reminded to do so. So the clicker can reward nonverbal behavior nonverbally in the instant it’s occurring.”

“Once you have established a conditioned reinforcer, you must be careful not to throw it around meaninglessly or you will dilute its force. The children who rode my Welsh ponies for me quickly learned to use ‘Good pony!’ only when they wanted to reinforce behavior. . . One day a child who had just joined the group was seen petting a pony’s face while saying ‘You’re a good pony.’ Three of the others rounded on her instantly: ‘What are you telling him that for? He hasn’t done anything!'”


This doesn’t mean you give positive attention only during training.

“One can and should lavish children (and spouses, parents, lovers, and friends) with love and attention, unrelated to any particular behavior; but one should reserve praise, specifically, as a conditioned reinforcer related to something real.”

I think when children point out minor accomplishments — “Look at all the sticks I collected” — it’s more often a request for attention than a situation that requires praise. I’m likely to comment in a way that shows interest — “Yes, you’ve got a lot of sticks there!” — but I don’t see a need to evaluate the quality of their stick pile or whatever. I try to save actual praise for something I especially want them to do more of, or something that was new and challenging for them.

Interested attention during training is necessary, and ignoring someone is a kind of punishment:
“If the trainer starts chatting to some bystander or leaves to answer the telephone or is merely daydreaming, the contract is broken; reinforcement is unavailable through no fault of the trainee. This does more harm than just putting the trainer at risk of missing a good opportunity to reinforce. It may punish some perfectly good behavior that was going on at the time. Of course if you want to rebuke a subject, removing your attention is a good way to do it.”

Wrong timing

Pryor emphasizes that if you give punishment or reward at the wrong time, you reinforce the wrong behavior. If you call a dog to you and it finally comes, then you strike it, you’ve punished it for returning to you.

My mother always complained of the same tendency in her choral director: when the singers finally got a difficult passage right, instead of praising them he’d shout “Why couldn’t you do it like that the first time?!”

I’ve noticed the importance of timing when a child finally does what you want, because it’s tempting to scold them even after they’ve shaped up. Anna has a wide variety of delay tactics for brushing her teeth, and I find it easy to be stony-faced when she’s capering around instead of coming to the sink. By the time she finally comes to have her teeth brushed I’m feeling annoyed and would like to give her a lecture. But if I give her an unpleasant response just as she’s finally doing what I want, I disincentivize her from doing it. Instead, as soon as she comes to the sink I become pleasant Mama, smiling and joking.

Maintaining behavior

Once a behavior is established, you use intermittent reinforcement to maintain it:

“In order to maintain an already-learned behavior with some degree of reliability, it is not only not necessary to reinforce it every time; it is vital that you do not reinforce it on a regular basis but instead switch to using reinforcement only occasionally, and on a random or unpredictable basis.”

“Many people initially object to the idea of using positive reinforcers in training because they imagine that they will forever have to hand out treats to get good behavior. But the opposite is true. Training with reinforcement actually frees you from the need for constant vigilance over the behavior, because of the power of variable schedules.”

In people, the behavior itself eventually brings its own reward; we praise toddlers for learning to use the potty, but after the behavior is established we no longer need to reinforce it. And having dry clothes is its own reward.

“The power of the variable schedule is at the root of all gambling. If every time you put a nickel into a slot machine a dime were to come out, you would soon lose interest. Yes, you would be making money, but what a boring way to do it. People like to play slot machines precisely because there’s no predicting whether nothing will come out, or a little money, or a lot of money, or which time the reinforcer will come (it might be the very first time).”

We encountered this in my house when Lily was two. Our housemate would sporadically show her a Sesame Street video on his phone, and she loved this so she’d pester him constantly for it. The reward came unpredictably, so she asked very often. Once he moved to a predictable schedule (one video every day after dinner) she learned the pattern and stopped asking at times of day when she knew it wouldn’t work.

Also affects adult relationships:
“If you get into a relationship with someone who is fascinating, charming, sexy, fun, and attentive, and then gradually the person becomes more disagreeable, even abusive, though still showing you the good side now and then, you will live for those increasingly rare moments when you are getting all those wonderful reinforcers: the fascinating, charming, sexy, and fun attentiveness. And paradoxically from a commonsense viewpoint, though obviously from the training viewpoint, the rarer and more unpredictable those moments become, the more powerful will be their effect as reinforcers, and the longer your basic behavior will be maintained. Furthermore, it is easy to see why someone once in this kind of relationship might seek it out again. A relationship with a normal person who is decent and friendly most of the time might seem to lack the kick of that rare, longed-for, and thus doubly intense reinforcer.”

Pryor training herself to go to class even when she didn’t feel like it, and then maintaining the behavior without the reward:
“I found that if I broke down the journey, the first part of the task, into five steps—walking to the subway, catching the train, changing to the next train, getting the bus to the university, and finally, climbing the stairs to the classroom—and reinforced each of these initial behaviors by consuming a small square of chocolate, which I like but normally never eat, at the completion of each step, I was at least able to get myself out of the house, and in a few weeks was able to get all the way to class without either the chocolate or the internal struggle.”

Sports players and fans become “trained” to do certain actions (wearing their lucky clothes, etc) because they associate it with the team winning. 
“I have seen one baseball pitcher who goes through a nine-step chain of behavior every time he gets ready to pitch the ball: touch cap, touch ball to glove, push cap forward, wipe ear, push cap back, scuff foot, and so on. In a tight moment he may go through all nine steps twice, never varying the order. The sequence goes by quite fast—announcers never comment on it—and yet it is a very elaborate piece of superstitious behavior.”

Raise expectations gradually, with rewards for incremental progress:
“I once saw a father make a serious error in this regard. Because his teenage son was doing very badly in school, he confiscated the youth’s beloved motorcycle until his grades improved. The boy did work harder, and his grades did improve, from Fs and Ds to Ds and Cs. Instead of reinforcing this progress, however, the father said that the grades had not improved enough and continued to withhold bike privileges. This escalation of the criteria was too big a jump; the boy stopped working altogether.”

Pryor claims that you have to be much more consistent with aversives (punishments) than with rewards. Seems like that might be right with animals and young children, but adults are usually willing to avoid committing crimes even if they don’t expect to be caught every time.

“Often when we are teaching the behavior, we use a fixed schedule of reinforcement; that is, we reinforce every adequate behavior. But when we are just maintaining a behavior, we reinforce very occasionally, using a sporadic or intermittent schedule. For example, once a pattern of chore sharing has been established, your roommate or spouse may stop at the dry cleaners on the way home without being reinforced each time; but you might express thanks for an extra trip made when you are ill or the weather is bad. When we train with aversives, however—and that’s the way most of us began—we are usually taught that it is vital to correct every mistake or misbehavior. When errors are not corrected, the behavior breaks down. Many dogs are well behaved on the leash, when they might get jerked, but they are highly unreliable as soon as they are off leash and out of reach. When out with their friends, many teenagers do things that they wouldn’t dream of doing in their parents’ presence. This can happen because the subject is fully aware that punishment is unavailable—when the cat’s away, the mice will play—but it can also happen as a side effect of training with aversives. Since the message in a punisher is ‘Don’t do that,’ the absence of the aversive sends the message, ‘That is okay now.'”

Learners can go long periods of time without a reward:
“One psychologist jokes that the longest schedule of unreinforced behavior in human existence is graduate school.”

When to stop a training session

End a training session while the learner is having success:
“When you stop is not nearly as important as what you stop on. You should always quit while you’re ahead.”

“The last behavior that was accomplished is the one that will be remembered best; you want to be sure it was a good, reinforceable performance. What happens all too often is that we get three or four good responses—the dog retrieves beautifully, the diver does a one-and-a-half for the first time, the singer gets a difficult passage right—and we are so excited that we want to see it again or to do it again. So we repeat it, or try to, and pretty soon the subject is tired, the behavior gets worse, mistakes crop up, corrections and yelling take place, and we just blew a training session.”

Sports training

Pryor notes that in the second part of the 20th century, sports training seems a lot better than when she was young, and has moved toward more effective reinforcement learning:

“I think what had changed in the last decade or two is that the principles that produce rapid results are becoming implicit in the standard teaching strategies: “This is the way to teach skiing: Don’t yell at them, follow steps one through ten, praise and reinforce accomplishment at each step, and you’ll get most of them out on the slopes in three days.”

On patience

Good trainers are disciplined and intentional:

“People who have a disciplined understanding of stimulus control avoid giving needless instructions, unreasonable or incomprehensible commands, or orders that can’t be obeyed. They try not to make requests they’re not prepared to follow through on; you always know exactly what they expect. They don’t fly off the handle at a poor response. They don’t nag, scold, whine, coerce, beg, or threaten to get their way, because they don’t need to. And when you ask them to do something, if they say yes, they do it. When you get a whole family, or household, or corporation working on the basis of real stimulus control— when all the people keep their agreements, say what they need, and do what they say— it is perfectly amazing how much gets done, how few orders ever need to be given, and how fast the trust builds up. Good stimulus control is nothing more than true communication— honest, fair communication. It is the most complex, difficult, and elegant aspect of training with positive reinforcement.”

One thing I notice in all this is that it’s self-reinforcing. The method requires a certain amount of patience and self-discipline from the parent. It’s easier to do that when things are already going well, and in turn you’re rewarded with children who are easier to live with. When parents are exhausted and time-pressed, it’s easier to slip into inconsistency, and both parents and children are more prone to outbursts and unpleasantness. 

Limits of reinforcement

She ends with some warnings about trying to apply reinforcement to absolutely everything, or assuming it’s the only thing in play: 

“Idealistic societies, in imagination or in practice, sometimes fail to take into account or seek to eliminate such biological facts as status conflict. We are social animals, after all, and as such we must establish dominance hierarchies. Competition within groups for increased status—in all channels, not just approved or ordained channels—is absolutely inevitable and in fact performs an important social function: Whether in Utopias or herds of horses, the existence of a fully worked-out hierarchy operates to reduce conflict. You know where you stand, so you don’t have to keep growling to prove it. I feel that individual and group status, and many other human needs and tendencies, are too complex to be either met or overridden by planned arrangements of reinforcement, at least on a long-term basis.”

This isn’t the only tool I’d want in my parenting repertoire. But I do think it’s well worth having.

Baby stuff I’d get again, the third time around

Jeff and I are expecting a third child in June. We gave away most of our baby stuff in the interim, so I’m now considering what stuff to get. Since I’m more experienced than I was the first time, I feel like I don’t need to do as much trial and error.

Basic principles
A note on nurseries

Basic ideas

I’m being neither super minimalist nor maximalist. You might get more or less stuff depending on your budget, your tastes, and the space you have.

Babies grow out of things fast. You can get almost everything used from friends, Ebay, Facebook marketplace, Craigslist, and Facebook groups like Buy Nothing [name of town] where people give things away. It’s cheaper and lighter on the environment. When you’re done, you can send stuff back into the same system. (The same is true for maternity clothes and gear.)

I found it hard to think about buying things that I’d only use for a few months, but they’re intense months. You’ll use a lot of baby products every day. And again, the beauty of the secondhand market is that if you get something and don’t like it you can resell it.


Rather than individual clothing items, I would try to get bundles of clothes for a given size. You can get bags of clothes in the various sizes from any of the sources listed above. Remember seasons (if you’re having a summer baby, you want lightweight newborn clothes and warm 6 month clothes). After that it gets less predictable, so I would hold off on getting 9 month 12 month sizes until you know if you have a big, medium, or small baby.

“Newborn” size clothes are sized for babies around 5-8 pounds, and an average baby weighs around 7.5 pounds already at birth. You can probably skip newborn sizes and go straight to 0-3 month sizes.

If you just buy stuff that’s cute, you will end up with lots of cute patterns that don’t go with each other. Now I try to go for patterned/interesting tops and solid color pants so it’s not too crazy.

Hats: If you live anywhere at all cold, get a warm hat both for warmth and to reduce the rate of older ladies telling you the baby needs a hat. Sunhat for summer. The hats will fall off and get lost at some point – have a backup.


Infant carseat: even if you don’t have a car, you will need this at some point. We used a hand-me-down from a family member – tips on safety of used seats. If you want to use a stroller with the baby in the first year or so, you might want to get one that snaps into a stroller frame (examples). It is possible to fit 3 carseats in a standard car – there are several guides.

Some kind of carrier: Even if you never go anywhere in it, I would still get one to use around the house to be able to hold the baby hands-free. Also good when the baby is fussy and wants to be close to you and in motion. If you can learn to breastfeed in the carrier, even better. We used a stretchy wrap for the first several months, but they’re hot to use in summer. Having a pocket in front is convenient, so you might want to sew one on. They look complicated, but if you can learn to tie shoelaces you can learn to tie a wrap. Wirecutter on soft wraps and slings

For older babies and toddlers, a soft structured carrier. The Baby Bjorn is popular but not very comfortable – there are better ones out there. We used our Ergo for errands, parties, conferences, travel, everything. We continued using it as late as age 3 for when a child was sick and wanted to be held at all times. Wirecutter on structured carriers

We got a double stroller once we had two little kids. We got one for the specific things we needed (narrow to get through store aisles, single front wheel to get up onto a bus, rain cover) because we had no car and used it as our main vehicle. For others it’s more of an occasional thing and they might want other characteristics, or might not need it at all.

Cold weather gear:

Outdoor clothes: We had a warm zip-up suit that the baby could wear in a carseat for winter. If they’re going to be buckled into a carseat or stroller, you need something with legs that separate rather than a sack shape, or a hole for the buckle to go through.

If you plan to wear the baby outside in cold weather, some way to keep the baby warm in the carrier. A snowsuit with feet doesn’t work well because it gets pulled too tight and is uncomfortable on their feet and crotch. I sewed a panel into my coat. I’ve also seen parent tuck a blanket or something around the baby and the carrier.


Diapers and wipes: We cloth diapered for the first 6 months and then decided this was not an additional task we wanted in our lives. Now we use disposable diapers. The big boxes of storebrand ones from Target are cheap and worked fine for us.

Even if you are cloth diapering, I would get some disposable newborn diapers for the first two weeks or so because they come with a cutout so they don’t bother the umbilical cord while it’s still attached.

Diaper pail: Many of the specialized diaper pails like the Diaper Genie only work with special bags that cost more than normal trash bags. We ended up using normal lidded trash cans and normal trash bags. I do recommend a lid, but it doesn’t have to be hermetically sealed.

Nasal aspirator thing, aka snotsucker: Nosefrida or similar. At some point your baby will have a stuffy nose and be unable to breathe while latched on to the breast or bottle, and it will be a sad day for everyone. This device will unstuff their nose. Yes, it’s gross, but this kind works better than the bulb kind. My babies hated having their noses cleaned in any way, but life is better once they can breathe freely.
Minimal version: A doctor I know says the old-fashioned method used by some of her patients on their babies is just mouth-to-nose suction.

Some kind of spit cloths: babies vary a lot in how much they spit up. Even with not-very-spitty babies, we wanted some. You can use things sold as burp cloths, old cloth diapers, cut up flannel baby blankets, or whatever. You can get or make bandana-type drool bibs so the baby’s shirt doesn’t keep getting wet.

Some kind of bathtub: We used the bathroom sink for the first few months, and later a plastic tub that I think was meant to hold drinks. Even once they’re old enough to sit in the big tub, it’s nice to have something quicker to fill, and ideally small enough that they can’t tip over very easily. 
Minimal version: wash baby in the sink with a towel for padding, or take a bath with the baby and hold them. I find both more annoying, especially in sinks with a popup drain where the baby inevitably sits on the drain and opens it, draining all the water out.


Somewhere comfortable to sit: If you’re breastfeeding, you will spend a lot of time sitting and feeding the baby. Some people just do that in bed or on a couch. The Ikea Poang chair is a popular cheap alternative to gliders or rockers. I prefer a chair with padded arms (for less head-bonking) and where I can rest both my elbows on the arms at once (for me, that’s a narrower chair). I do like a glider, and since I’m going to spend a lot of hours in this chair I did get one I thought would be maximally comfortable.

If you want one that moves, I would go with a glider rather than a rocker. Rockers move around on your floor so you have to keep repositioning them after you’ve rocked for a while, and if you have cats or older children it can rock on their feet or tail.

If you have older children, you might want a glider where the gliding mechanism is not exposed, so nobody gets their hands and feet caught in it. DaVinci is one brand with a bunch of such gliders.

I’m paranoid about flame retardants in furniture, so I get one that’s not made with flame retardants (like Ikea or some other brands) or where I can take off the cushions and wash them. Since no one in our house smokes, our furniture is very unlikely to catch fire.

Footstool: if you’re short enough that your feet don’t easily rest on the floor in your chair, a footstool of some kind is nice. I like this wooden kind.

I don’t know what people find best for bottlefeeding – I assume the chair is less important.

Breastfeeding pillow: something to rest the baby on while you’re feeding them. I have one for upstairs and one for downstairs. Boppy and the oddly-named My Brest Friend are the two common kinds.
Depending on the distance between your lap and your breasts, you might want a thicker pillow. I jam extra stuffing inside a Boppy kind.
Minimal version: use regular pillows, or feed the baby lying down.

Breastpump: If you’re going to be pumping at work. In the US, your insurance will probably cover a couple of models, but if you use it every day you might want to buy your own if the model you want isn’t covered. Wirecutter on pumps. I loved having one with a rechargeable battery so I didn’t have to plug it in everywhere, but you can also get an external battery for models that don’t come with this. 

If you’re pumping every day, definitely get some way to pump hands-free, whether it’s a bra that can hold the pump parts, or a wearable pump. This way you can still use your computer, read, etc while you’re pumping.

There are a lot of in-bra models now that didn’t exist when I first looked into this; I would look at those if you’re going to pump at work. And someday the MIT breastpump hackathon may save us all from poor design and those little flaps that wash down the drain.

If you expect to pump only occasionally, a hand pump is fine. Wirecutter recommends a couple. Also worth having for travel, public bathrooms, etc where you don’t necessarily want to bring your full electric pump or can’t plug it in.
Minimal version: hand express and you don’t need a pump at all. It’s slower and won’t get as much milk, though.

Some kind of bottles: Even when I was breastfeeding 95% of the time, we did a couple bottles a week so I could go to dance practice. I would start with a few and then buy more if you like that kind, or try different kinds if not. Then buy more of the kind you like.

If your baby is not liking bottles, you might want to try different kinds. Some breastfeeding support groups have loaner kits where you can try out a bunch of different ones.

I wanted to avoid plastic bottles, so we used glass bottles with silicone covers. I was happy with them.

Something to dry bottles on: All those little bits can take over your counter very fast. There are various racks intended for drying bottle parts.
Minimal version: dishcloth, but wash it pretty often

High chair: I love this one that buckles into a normal chair. We used it every day, and it’s light enough that we packed it in our suitcase (with clothes in the crevices) when traveling.

Bib: I get the kind with sleeves. The kind that just covers their front still leaves their arms/sleeves covered in food.

Clothes you can breastfeed in: If relevant. You can get ones that are specifically made for this, with some kind of opening or layers that lift out of the way. I typically wore loose shirts with a tank top underneath, aka the two-shirt method. That way you don’t need to buy a different set of clothes.
Most dresses do not work for breastfeeding because you’d need to hike the whole thing up to your shoulders. Dresses and tops can work fine if they have a wrap style, or have buttons at the neckline that can be undone, or are stretchy enough that you can pull the top down.
If you’ll be breastfeeding at night, think about sleep clothes – button-down pajamas or stretchy tank tops work well.
(For the first few weeks when you’re figuring it out, don’t worry about clothes – just hang out at your house and feed the baby the best you can. You can figure out how to do it in clothes later.)

Bra you can breastfeed in: Most people seem to like the kind with little buckles that open up. I’ve always used something like a stretchy cami bra that can be pulled out of the way. You might start by finding one you like and then getting more.


Swaddles: The blanket method is good to know, but velcro is so much better and less likely to come undone. By far my favorite is this sleepsack with wings, so they can have arms out or in. More recommendations from Wirecutter. Some babies hate swaddling, but enough people (including us) find it so helpful that I would have some swaddles available. I would have at least two so you still have one to use when the other is in the wash. In a pinch while out of the house, we have swaddled Lily in an adult flannel shirt or any other thing we could wrap around her to get her to sleep.

Something to sleep in during the early stage (first six months or so):
You could just go straight to a crib. You’ll be getting up to feed them a lot, so you might find it more convenient to have the crib in your room rather than in a separate room.
You could cosleep (sleep with baby in your bed), but if you already have two adults in the bed I’d recommend sidecar-ing another mattress or using a co-sleeper so the baby has room. Cosleeping is most dangerous when you do it without planning out of exhaustion – if you want to do it, figure out a safe setup where baby won’t fall off the bed, get trapped between mattress and wall, covered with a blanket, etc.

This time I am biting the bullet and getting this ridiculously expensive robo-bassinet that rocks and shushes the baby. (I’m getting it used, but they’re not cheap even used.) If it does result in significantly better sleep, even for 5 months of use that’s a cost of about $7/night, and as the parent of a newborn I would definitely pay $7 for an additional 30 or 60 minutes of sleep a night.

Crib, crib mattress and crib sheets: Easy to get used. We kept them in cribs as long as possible, which worked well for us. Once they seemed on the verge of climbing out, we just moved them to the same crib mattress on the floor without the crib frame. A child doesn’t actually outgrow the size of a crib mattress until they’re 5 or so.

Crib sheets and waterproof mattress covers: I recommend the layering method so when your child has a stomach virus or whatever and you change the sheets in the middle of the night, even if you have to do it multiple times, you just take off the dirty layer instead of wrestling more sheets on. I like to have at least 3 layers (so 3 sheets and 3 mattress covers).

Minimal version: cosleep in parents’ bed, but you probably still want a bigger mattress or an additional mattress to put alongside yours.

Night light: to see the baby a little while you’re feeding them at night.

White noise machine: Especially when sleeping in the same room as the baby, this was helpful for everyone’s sleep. You can use your phone (or an old phone with no data) and a white noise program, but you want to be able to take your phone out of the room. We used the Dohm kind that’s basically a little fan. Or you could use an actual fan, pointed away from anyone.

Air conditioner: We’ve done without air conditioning for nearly our whole time in Boston. But when you have a baby who normally sleeps swaddled, and it’s too hot to swaddle them, it’s a very rough night. We finally own, and periodically use, a window unit.
Minimal version: just have bad sleep when you can’t swaddle them

Warm sleeping clothes: We used sleep sacks through age 3 or so (search for “wearable blanket” or “sleep sack”). Thick ones keep the baby warm in winter without blankets that can get over their face or get kicked off. Even in summer, they make it much harder to get a leg over the side of the crib.

Blackout curtains: Your baby does not have to wake up at dawn. We made some curtains that velcro for a good seal. There is a commercial version too.
Minimal version: try aluminum foil or black garbage bags first, or while traveling. It might get moldy if you leave it indefinitely, so I would take it down periodically and wipe off the windows.

Baby monitor: Unless your apartment is so tiny you can hear the baby from anywhere. We liked having one with one parent set that lived in our bedroom all the time and another one that we’d carry around during the day. I can see how a video one could be useful but have not used one.


Something to put the baby down in: 
For the early weeks when they lie down a lot, we used a bassinet on the floor.
For once they want to sit up and look around, we used some kind of bouncer seat. We liked the kind with a wire frame that you could push with your foot so that the whole thing bounces, like this or similar.

Teethers: I’m getting a natural rubber one because I’m not keen on them chewing on plastic.


Something to change the baby on: You probably want a changing table if you have a c-section or have back or knee problems that makes it hard to be on the floor. I don’t find that I want one, and don’t plan to have one this time. You can change the baby on a mat on the floor, or just a folded towel on the floor. I switched to this after Lily fell off the changing table (which was my fault, but it made clear that I should switch to a more foolproof method). If you do want something at table height, you can use a changing mat on top of a low dresser – they make trays to hold the mat on top of the dresser.

Other swaddle type things: we used the Baby Merlin sleepsuit (basically a stiff snowsuit type garment that makes it hard for them to roll over) as a transition once our second baby started rolling over in the swaddle. There are various other kinds of swaddle-ish things. I wouldn’t get one preemptively, but worth trying if your baby is waking themselves a lot by rolling or startling.

Stroller: We didn’t get one until I was pregnant with our second child and it got uncomfortable to wear the older one everywhere. I did like having a double stroller with two little kids. Obviously some people get a lot of use out of theirs with one kid, but we preferred using a carrier.
If using the stroller in really cold weather, I would get one of those bag-type buntings that fastens into the stroller and keeps the baby’s legs and torso covered.

Bumbo or other thing for the baby to sit in: marketed to help your baby learn to sit up, but the child development people think it’s bad for that. Can be useful for having the baby sit near you while you’re cooking, sorting laundry, etc. We had one but didn’t use it much.

Toys: people will give you some random toys. You can wait and see what you get.

Socks: they just fall off and get lost. If you need to keep their feet warm, some kind of booties with elastic or velcro stay on better. Or put them in footie suits.

Baby shoes: they don’t need them, and it’s better for foot development to walk barefoot or in minimally structured shoes. Once they learn to walk and need something to protect their feet outdoors, here are recommendations for flexible-soled shoes.

Baby food: we did the baby-led weaning method and gave the kids pieces of table food, and soft things like yogurt. Spoon-feeding can be more convenient in some ways (can be faster and less messy) and less convenient in other ways. Most parents do more spoon-feeding purees, which seems fine, just not what we prefer to do.

A note on nurseries

A surprisingly large portion of the baby-related internet is devoted to setting up and decorating your baby’s nursery. If you enjoy decorating a baby-themed room, that’s cool. But be clear that aside from some basics, the room is for you, not the baby. They do not care if there is a color theme. They will not appreciate the wall art.

Make it comfortable, and optionally make it pretty if that’s something you’ll enjoy. But you’ll probably spend more time hanging out in the living room than you will in the baby’s room.

Once the baby is crawling, having their room be a fully childproofed “yes space” means you can leave them there while you go to the bathroom or whatever.

Toddlers do not have tastes that look good by Pinterest standards; as soon as they get some say in how the room is decorated they will probably want it full of rocks, things they found in the recycling, etc. More on scruffy spaces.

Gift ideas for preschool / early elementary children

Previously: gift ideas for young children (0-2)

I thought I’d list some toys our kids have especially liked. None of these are amazing revelations that you probably couldn’t find on other sites.

I’m picking things that need little or no adult supervision, unless otherwise specified.

A few of these (especially the Melissa and Doug toys) are so ubiquitous that you might well duplicate toys they already have, so it might be worth asking the family if they already have them. We had three identical wooden train sets at one point. This is fine for sets that build on each other, less so for other toys that you really don’t need multiples of.

Eeboo, Mudpuppy, and Crocodile Creek puzzles – attractive and well-made large jigsaw puzzles.

Melissa and Doug toys of many kinds. We have several of the food sets that have gotten a lot of use, including pizza, cupcakes, and cutting food. The cleaning set is surprisingly good for actual cleaning.

Battat take-apart airplane (and other similar take-apart toys from the same company). Pieces go together with big plastic screws. The coolest part is that it comes with a working drill (forward and backward) that you use to put the screws in and take them out. Unlike a bunch of construction toys, the pieces are big and simple enough that a 5-year-old can do it themselves with maybe some adult help the first time.

Some kind of marble run set. A poorly made one is pretty annoying, so I do think it’s worth reading reviews. The ones that snap together are easier for younger kids than the wooden kind that falls completely apart if you bump into it.

Costumes: hats, crowns, and fancy dresses have been popular with my kids. You can buy used sequiny dance costumes on Ebay.

Play kitchen. There are usually some on Craigslist or similar sites. The Ikea one is popular for good reason.

Dolls and stuffed animals: when I asked the kids, these were the first things they listed as their favorite toys. BUT we’ve been given about 9 times more volume of stuffed animals than the kids actively play with, it’s kind of a storage problem, and I would not suggest getting these for other people’s children without checking what they already have.

Paper activity books: Play All Day is maybe out of print but I think it’s the best. Masha’s World, My Giant Press Out Activity Book.

Dollhouse: I would only get this for a kid who’s already into dolls. 2-4 seemed to be the peak years for dollhouse interest. There’s a sort of standard wooden type with expensive ones by Hape and Melissa and Doug, and some other cheaper ones for typical 4-inch wooden dolls.

Physical play:

Bilibo: plastic seat / teeter totter thing. Versatile and doesn’t take that much space.

A kite. Get one described as for kids or beginners.

Large floor mattress: ONLY get this for your own household, not someone else’s unless you are sure they want it. Most of Anna’s bedroom is taken up by a queen mattress. (She sleeps on a different smaller mattress.) It serves as a guest bed, a sleepover location when Lily wants to spend the night with her, a trampoline, a circus ring, and a gymnastics tumbling mat.

(In climates with snow) snowpants and sleds. Snowpants for both kids and adults mean you can do stuff in snow or cold weather and not be miserable.


What We Do All Day has my favorite collection of book suggestions by age, topic, etc. Can use for picture books, or longer books to read aloud to kids at this age.

You can search for “Caldecott lot” on Ebay or similar sites and find collections of prize-winning books, often classics from other decades.

Anything published by Usborne seems reliably good. For example their “Look inside” series of lift-the-flap books about science topics like space and the human body, good for younger kids who aren’t ready for wordy science books.

Let’s Read and Find Out science series is also good, with topics from germs to weather to animals. Some are old enough that you can search Ebay for “Let’s read and find out lot” and get bundles of them, but I haven’t found the info outdated.

Board/card games:

My First Orchard: attractive wooden pieces, teaches game mechanics, no skill involved. Pieces are big enough that you can play with a baby around and they cannot eat the pieces. Best for age 2-4.

Rush Hour, Rush Hour Jr, or Three Little Piggies spatial puzzle games. The first two seem to be very similar except that the Jr version has some easier puzzles.

Uno: of the standard children’s games, less boring for adults than Candyland or Chutes and Ladders. Can play a simplified version starting around age 4.

Board Game Geek’s lists of games by suggested age. Mostly pretty obscure unless you’re in Germany (and maybe even there.)

Open-ended materials:

I would not give messy project type supplies (e.g. paint) as a gift unless you know the parents are up for that.

String. Rope. Scrap cloth. Tissue paper. Giftwrap. So much scotch tape.

Big rolls of paper. Washable paints (watercolor, tempera). Paint sticks. Spillproof paint containers and brushes. Washable markers. Pipe cleaners. Pompoms.

Digging tools like shovels and trowels, either sets for kids or small real tools. Can be used at the beach or in dirt.

Bucket, bowls, boxes with lids, other containers.

Flashlight. Kids leave them on and the batteries run down, so we’ve enjoyed a wind-up rechargeable one.

Rocks and branches in the yard.


Tiny Polka Dot: card game with lots of variations for different levels.

Counting bears: This set or any of many other sets. We use ours a lot for Bear Store, other ideas here.

A bowl of pennies. We use them as counters for a bunch of things.

After developing a distaste for BOB books and other learn-to-read books, Lily had a breakthrough with the Acorn series at age 6. They have chapters, but with few enough words per page that they’re manageable for a kid who needs to sound out a lot of words. A key thing was getting books on a topic she was interested in (fairies, in her case.)

Needs adult supervision:

Snap circuits Jr. Lily listed this as one of her favorites. Some of the projects are loud (I have banned the one that plays “Happy Birthday” during work hours). She was ready for this at age 6.

Science kit: there are a lot of ones that look kind of bad, but this one has been a hit. Lily really wanted to do the kind of science where you need to wear goggles, and this did it for her.

Pricey but versatile:

Magnatiles or similar magnetic tiles. My kids never got super into these, but they’re consistently recommended enough by other families that they’re worth considering.

Duplos: my kids did get super into these. The cheapest option we found was buying them by the pound on Ebay, though you might get knockoffs instead of name-brand Duplos which are easier to work with. My kids are more into narrative than pure construction, so the animals that came with our set were a big part of their enjoyment. We haven’t gotten into legos yet except for travel, where a lego set can provide a lot of playtime for little luggage space.

On scruffy spaces

Before I had children, I liked to think about how I would decorate their rooms. I collected Pinterest boards full of images like this, full of colorful, whimsical objects.

Now that I’ve actually tried it, I see more of the backstory behind these photos. Know who assembled, maintained, and photographed these rooms? Adults.

What kind of young child wants their toys to be 5 feet in the air where they can’t reach them? And what kind of child puts their things away quite so tidily?

Lily’s room looked a little bit like one of these for about 20 minutes before she moved in. Now it looks like this:

The pieces of green tape are how she decided to cover up some holes in the wall. The string is a zipline for stuffed animals. The box next to her pillow is a bedroom for her beloved My Little Pony keychain. The dragon and bat decorations are ones she punched out of a wizard-themed activity page and wanted hung from her ceiling. The lightbulb’s light does not match the light of the other lightbulb in the room, but she declared she liked having mismatched lightbulbs and does not want me to change it. The curtains are usually shut because we made some heavy duty velcro-sealed blackout curtains when we decided we cared more about our children sleeping past dawn than about having the lovely sunny lighting you see in the above pictures.

In short, this is a child’s room, not an adult’s photo op.

Now let’s look at the back yard. Recently I wanted to ask for advice about what to do with the decrepit shed in our backyard, and once I saw the photo on my screen was kind of horrified at how ugly it all is.

Some of the people I asked advised me to tear down the shed in the pavement, and put in a classier patio and a pergola, something like this:

As I considered whether we’d want such a space, one of my thoughts was, “Where would we put the dirt pile?”

The adults in our household are not the main users of our backyard, and I suspect we still wouldn’t be even if it were nicer by adult standards. The main users are these people:

They love the dirt pile. It’s left over from when Jeff dug a hole in our basement to put in a sump pump. I intended to get rid of the dirt somehow, but it became the site of burrowing plastic animals, irrigation canals, and acorn plantings. Anna has been working on “projects” there since she was old enough to pick up a stick.

Other much-used features of the backyard are the sandbox, the bucket on a pulley hanging from the fire escape, various buckets of mud, the rain barrel, the watering can, shovels, a bunch of rocks, and a lot of fluff Lily has scattered around in the hope that birds will use them for bird nests.


Now a word on decluttering and items that “spark joy”. To look at the visuals on decluttering websites, you would think that the items that spark joy only include ones in a harmonious color scheme that photograph well.

Here is an item that sparks joy for Anna:

It’s a torn foam earplug. I don’t know where it came from. Anna loses it among her other possessions, but she’s always excited to see it again when it emerges.

Adults and children living together is an act of compromise, even on top of the different preferences that individuals of any age have. For the most part, our house has different zones: the kitchen and basement are adults-only, the living and dining rooms get taken over by the kids and their stuff during the day but get tidied in the evening, the play room is the kids’ domain except for corners for Jeff’s music and my sewing, the backyard is mostly a kid construction area, the front garden is mine, and everyone’s bedroom is up to them. (Admittedly most of the “mama papa room” as we call it is done to my taste and occupied by my stuff, because Jeff is generous to me and owns a lot less stuff than I do.)

If anything, I think shared spaces should be slanted more toward kids’ needs than adults’. A lot of adult life takes place through words and screens. Kid life is much more physical, and more of their activity consists of interacting with physical objects.

This strategy does not result in anything Instagram-worthy. I think some people must have an intrinsic preference for spaces that are tidy in that very specific way, and would enjoy tidying their spaces even if no one could observe it. But for most people I’m guessing tidying is something we do largely because of we expect other people will judge us, and being at home should probably be optimized for our own enjoyment.

I still care what things look like on camera, but I don’t endorse that as a worthwhile thing for me to put much effort into. I hope our kids continue enjoying their physical world as long as possible before they start second-guessing how it looks.

Related pieces by other people:
In praise of scruffy hospitality
Give me gratitude or give me debt

Interpersonal rules for preschoolers

(which we hope they will carry into adulthood)

  • Consequences matter. If you were kicking your legs near your sister and you didn’t exactly mean to kick her but your foot did crash into her, you’re being reckless.
  • You never need to give hugs or kisses if you don’t feel like it.
  • No complaining or threatening when someone else refuses your hugs or kisses.
  • If you can’t stop making loud noises at dinner, you have to go somewhere else.
  • People can revoke consent (yes, even if she already said you could bite her. Now she’s telling you to stop.)

How much do kids cost? The first 5 years

We did an estimate on how much our first year of having a baby cost. Four years and another baby later, we decided to do an update on how much the first five years have cost.

TL;DR: Over 5 years we’ve spent about $106,760 in cash, or about $150,000 including lost earnings. By far the biggest costs for us were housing, childcare, and lost wages of a stay-at-home parent.

Related posts:
Cost comparison of childcare
How much does it cost to have a baby? (at the one-year mark)
How much does it cost to raise kids? (speculation before we did it)

Total cost over 5 years:

Ok, this graph looks ridiculous because most categories are so much smaller than housing and childcare that you can’t see them, but that’s probably the point. People talk about baby gear and diapers costing money, but they just don’t hold a candle to the big two.

And that’s just counting what we paid in dollars. Here it is with my lost wages (post-tax) included:

So overall we’re about $151,690 short of what our child-free selves might have (assuming we neither donated nor invested the money). We’re also ahead by an unknown number of kisses and games of Lily-burrito.

Monthly averages:

With the exception of buying a house, most of your costs don’t come all at once. So how to the costs actually come each month?

Some costs scale with having a second child and some didn’t. The biggest differences were 1) moving towards more paid childcare 2) moving to a house where each kid had a bedroom, instead of sharing our bedroom as Lily did for the first two years. Of course some of this is more affected by the passing time than by adding additional children — if we’d had just one child, we still would have moved her out of our bedroom around that time.

Chart with numbers

What’s in the categories:

  • Housing: this is kind of pretend, because we actually built two extra rooms onto our house, which had a high up-front cost but will be useful for years and will eventually make the house sell for more. I’m instead substituting the cost at which we currently rent our spare bedroom ($900/month times 2 bedrooms). Lily got her own room around age 2 and Anna got hers around age 1, but I’m prorating it equally between them. This is one where you’ll be able to work out pretty easily what an extra bedroom costs where you live. Remember that your housing size won’t scale with your family size unless you move to a larger place every time you have a baby, so you’ll likely have some crowded years or some spare space.
  • Childcare: payments to daycare providers, payments to nannies, au pair costs (stipend, agency fees, room, food, utilities, phone, and transit). The cost of the au pair room is estimated in the same way as the kids’ rooms above. Duplicate childcare while traveling (when either parent takes one child with them on a work trip).
  • Food: additional food while Julia was pregnant and nursing. Minimal food during child’s first year. When we split food costs with housemates, we started counting the kids at half an adult share when they turned 1. This is probably an overestimate of what they eat.
  • Health insurance: increase over what we paid for 2 of us to be on health insurance from Jeff’s work.
  • Gear/nursery: cribs, rocking chair, stroller, etc.
  • Hygiene/medical: diapers, bottle-feeding supplies, medicine, dentistry, vitamins, copays on medical appointments.
  • Other: travel, toys, books.
  • Education: books and materials for doing home preschool with Lily, and a summer program.
  • Clothes: mostly from thrift stores or Swap.com.
  • Julia: maternity and nursing clothes. The fact that I even thought this would be a significant category when we started tracking shows how vague my idea of our future expenses was.

More on lost wages:

During 2014-2017 I worked 2434 fewer hours, or about 60 fewer full weeks, than I expect I would have. After Lily’s birth I used my 13 days of vacation and sick time I’d hoarded from my social work job, and then quit and returned 5 months later. Lily lasted 3 weeks in daycare before getting kicked out because she wouldn’t drink milk for anyone but us (who knew that was a thing? To be fair, it’s unusual and your kid will probably be fine in daycare). So Jeff moved his schedule earlier, I worked evenings and weekends, and between us we took care of Lily constantly while working the equivalent of 1.6 jobs. More on that period. When she was 18 months we switched her to 4 days a week in daycare, and I worked 4 days and 2 evenings a week.

With Anna, we had a more normal setup. I took 7 weeks unpaid maternity leave, Jeff took 10 weeks paid paternity leave, and then both children were cared for by a nanny or au pair. Cost comparison of childcare arrangements we considered.

Things that may change your costs:

  • Paid parental leave: Both times Jeff got 12 weeks paid leave and I got none. This is better than what most Americans get, but not so good by world standards.
  • Opportunity cost: If a parent earning a lot takes unpaid leave or reduced hours, it’s a bigger difference from your previous income. If the parent wasn’t earning that much, it’s a smaller difference. If you’re in a field where taking extended leave will hurt your chance of promotion, etc, that’s an additional loss.
  • Cost of childcare in your area: Boston has one of the highest childcare costs in the country, which is why an au pair (with nationally standardized costs) was the cheapest option once we had two kids. I don’t really understand why it varies so much by region. Also, different types of childcare vary in cost, quality, and convenience.
  • Cost of living in your area: There are many places (including cheaper areas of our city) where a spare room costs less than $900/month, and some where it costs more.
  • Sharing rooms: We could have moved to a three-bedroom place before having kids, which would have increased our costs. Or we could have stayed in a smaller space for longer — children having their own bedrooms has been unusual historically. But extended room-sharing means extended night feedings and (at least in our experience) more disrupted sleep for everyone. That’s one thing if you don’t need to do a lot of mental work during the day, but chronic sleep deprivation is no joke if your job requires you to think clearly. There are also other ways around this (baby in the bedroom and parents sleeping in the living room seems to happen a lot in San Francisco). Having children share with each other is another common option.
  • Buying more or less stuff: We’ve kept costs pretty minimal here by buying used toys and clothes. Swap.com and similar sites are excellent for this.
  • Preschool: we opted for minimal paid preschool because we were already paying for full-time childcare. We could either have put the kids in a daycare (the more expensive of which include preschool programming) or paid for Lily to go to morning preschool on top of the childcare we already had. The difference is whether someone is basically watching the kids play, vs. leading more organized group activities and having them learn letters, basic math, prewriting skills, etc.
  • Vehicle: We have never owned a car, so kids really haven’t changed our transportation expenses. This is a cost to consider.
  • Travel: The trips we take are now more expensive, but we take fewer of them, so I think this about evens out.
  • Health insurance: Costs would be lower in a country with free health care, or higher if you don’t have an employer that covers as much of insurance costs as Jeff’s does.
  • Health needs: children with special needs (medical, emotional, behavioral) need more of your time and more money for medical copays, services that aren’t covered by insurance, childcare that can handle their needs, etc.

How I want you to use this information:
To think about how much it may cost you or others to raise children. I particularly advise saving money before you have kids.

How I do not want you to use this information:
To criticize my family for our lifestyle or financial choices.

Hardly anyone publishes their budget. Please don’t disincentivize that.

Parenting philosophy

Jeff’s been talking about predictable parenting on his blog. This is probably the parenting principle that’s most important to him. I decided to write down the principles that I find most important.


I’ve been influenced a lot by the research that short-term gains in children usually come out in the wash by the time they’re adults — e.g. that identical twins raised separately will respond to different environments as children, but will basically converge on things like IQ and other characteristics as adults. So I try to focus on what makes life better in the short and medium term rather than trying to mold my children’s personalities or futures. Most of that is already done by genetics.

This has meant we’ve prioritized having a relaxed schedule over educational activities. I’m not so sure that the evidence on education later on matches up with this approach, but at least in the preschool years I think basically doing what’s easiest for the family is best.


Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids


My strategy involves a lot of acknowledging the child’s emotions. This is both from working as a therapist, and from How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk.

I also try to acknowledge my own emotions. If I’m sad, I cry in front of them. If I get hurt, I yell in pain and accept cuddles to feel better. I also try to emphasize the continuity of love (I still love you even when I’m tired and grumpy, even when I’m mad about something you did.)

I get a lot of mileage out of the “engage with desires and fantasies” tactic:

Lily: I want to be a ballerina.
Me (inside voice): Send you into that nest of perfectionism and eating disorders? Like hell I will.
Me (outside voice): It’s fun to think about being a ballerina, huh?
Lily: Yeah!


Happiest Toddler on the Block: Not worth reading the full book. The summary is that toddlers tantrum largely because they can’t verbally express their emotions, and if they feel understood (by you verbalizing the strong emotions they’re feeling, or giving them another way to express emotion like scribbling) they can often calm down.

How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk: This one is worth reading in full, but you could get a lot of the benefit just from paging through the cartoons that illustrate the principles.

Mr Roger’s Neighborhood and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: this stuff is straight out of person-centered therapy, emphasizing empathy and unconditional positive regard. Rather than being knowledge-focused like other kids’ shows, they focus on social and emotional skills, emphasizing that children’s emotions are acceptable and that they can learn ways to manage them.


The backbone of this is what Jeff wrote about being predictable and consistent. The kids generally know what to expect from us and I think are better-behaved in general as a result (e.g. they don’t do much whining after we’ve said no to something, because we try to say yes a lot, and when we say no they know we mean it.) I’ll repeat Jeff’s point that this pays off, but takes an ongoing investment of willpower from the parents, and is generally harder when you don’t have the time or energy.

As far as what to do when that doesn’t work, this is one that I think varies a lot by the kids’ needs and caregivers’ needs. We use timeouts anywhere from a few times a week to every couple of weeks, depending on how things are going. The kids know what it means when we start to count to three, and usually do what we’re asking without it coming to a timeout.

I see one purpose of discipline as anger management for the parent. Timeout is not just for the child — it’s also so the parent who just got bitten has three minutes away from the child to get a grip on their anger. I like the philosophy behind non-coercive methods, but the reality is that since we started using timeout, I basically don’t yell at the kids anymore and don’t feel frightened that I’m going to physically yank them around. It helps me be in control of myself, and I think that’s ultimately better for all of us.

I also think that a lot of people who had bad experiences as children with coercive discipline were subjected to discipline that was unpredictable or cruel, or who generally didn’t feel secure in their parents’ love. I think the occasional timeout doesn’t do that kind of damage to our relationship because it’s fairly applied, and because the kids have a secure attachment and are sure of our love.


1-2-3 Magic, about how to implement a timeout method


I was influenced by this piece by an anarchist mother. I was expecting anarchist parenting to be about total freedom, but her approach is more about teaching children to contribute: “Interdependence, not independence. We all need each other, in society and in a family, and we all play very important roles. We remind the kids all the time that they are very important members of our family “community” and that they are necessary for our family to function. . . . One of my greatest fears is that my kids grow up to be one of those people who live in community houses and don’t do their dishes! Kidding. (Not kidding.)”

I think this is more salient to us because we’ve always raised our kids in households with other adults. We’ve tried to teach them early that other people’s needs must be considered. You cannot shout at 7 am not because I set an arbitrary rule, but because Ange is sleeping in the next room.


Parenting, Anti-Capitalist Style


My understanding is that 1) while families of color need to talk about racism, white families prefer to not talk about race at all, or if so to only use a colorblind approach, emphasizing that everyone is the same. 2) This approach does not work. It results in white children concluding that differences do exist, and that the differences must be bad.

I try to talk (at least with my older child) about how some people are mean to others because they look different, and this is bad. She’s heard from her au pair about some ways people have treated her unkindly because she comes from another country. We’ve started to talk about our country’s history of slavery and racism. At the library, I try to pick out books that show children of color just being kids (a favorite is When’s My Birthday?) rather than being victims of racism. Later on we’ll read books like Amazing Grace that address discrimination and show children transcending it.

I’m currently not introducing the kids to materials explicitly about sexism. There are a ton of children’s stories out there about princesses rebelling from expectations that they be pretty and quiet. I avoid these because I basically want my girls to go as long as possible without understanding these stereotypes.

I try to expose Lily to examples of things women can do without hanging a lampshade on the fact that they’re women. E.g. when she was interested in being a “rocket girl,” we looked at this website and talked through the different careers in the space industry without calling attention to the fact that all the examples were women.

I’m not 100% sure about this strategy, but I’m planning to wait on inoculation until closer to when I think they’re starting to hear sexist messages (basically when they go to kindergarten). Inoculation being stuff like, “Some people think girls can’t do X. Isn’t that ridiculous?”

Nurtureshock, chapter on “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race”
The Longest Shortest Time podcast on “How to not (accidentally) raise a racist“, largely drawing on the same research.

We let the kids try things that are at the edge of their abilities, including finding things to do when they are bored. We tend toward more free-range parenting than is typical, though we keep a close eye on them around roads and water. Jeff writes about training he did with the kids about staying out of the street. I expect mileage varies a lot here depending on the kid.

This is often more work in the short term, but I hope leads to the kids being better able to solve their own problems.

When they’ve given it a try and genuinely can’t solve the problem, I try to do it in a way that gives them tools they’ll eventually be able to use.

Given the larger-than-expected number of cartoons from “How to Talk so Kids will Listen”, I think you can see how much it influenced me (or spelled out things I already believed.)

How we’re explaining Jesus and Santa Claus

These both seem like hard ones to tackle, so I’m writing down what we’re doing in case it’s helpful to other families.

I’ve told Lily that at Christmas people tell a story about a baby being born. My plan is to continue presenting religious traditions as stories, which she can then choose to get into or not, sort of like some children get really interested in Cinderella and some older people get really interested in the Lord of the Rings.

With two babies in the household, Lily’s naturally interested in stories about babies, particularly when animals are also involved. She’s particularly interested in umbilical cords, so we’ve discussed Jesus’s umbilical cord quite a bit. I made her a pregnant Mary doll, with the baby being presented on Christmas Eve. Lily currently likes to carry him around in her pocket.


In some ways, explaining Santa was even trickier because other adults really don’t want you to mess up their kids’ belief (whereas people accept that not everybody’s on board with Jesus). I wasn’t interested in deceiving my kids for several reasons:

  • It messes with their sense of reality, particularly when they get old enough to notice some discrepancies and adults are gaslighting them by pretending the evidence they’re noticing is wrong
  • A lot of kids are disappointed when they find out
  • It takes away the credit from those who deserve it. These gifts didn’t come from a far-away stranger, they were made or bought by your own family.
  • It means the child can’t fully participate in gift-giving until they’re let in on the secret. In our large family gatherings, stockings are how we give any presents to anyone outside each nuclear family (so we don’t all need to come up with 27 presents).

So after the older cousins who believe in Santa Claus had gone home, we strung up the stockings (pillowcases pinned to a clothesline across the house, which is the only practical way to do it for all 27 people visiting). I showed Lily the presents I had for other people, and she helped me put them into their stockings.

Yesterday when she asked for a story, I told her the story of St. Nicholas. Well, a simplified version without mentioning dowries or prostitution as in the original.

A long time ago in Turkey there was a kind man named Nicholas. There was a family nearby who had three daughters, and they were very poor and didn’t have enough money for the things they needed. Nicholas wanted to help them, but he wanted to keep it a secret. So one night Nicholas threw a bag of gold down the chimney for the oldest daughter, and it landed in her stocking that was hung up by the fire to dry. The next night he threw a second bag of gold down the chimney for the second daughter. By now the family was very curious about who had been helping them, so the father hid outside the house to see who kept dropping money into the chimney. Sure enough, Nicholas came with a bag of gold for the third daughter, and the family said, “It’s you! Thank you, kind Nicholas, for helping us!” People thought he was so good that they called him a saint, and they called him by the nickname Santa Claus, which means Holy Nicholas. And that’s why we give each other presents in stockings at Christmastime.

Of course, Lily’s primary interest in all this was still in finding and opening her own stocking. found-it

Recognizing problems as temporary

Sometimes a situation becomes worse because you interpret your inclination to do a bad thing as a prediction that you will actually do it. Realizing that it’s possible to successfully get past this feeling has been helpful to me. Three examples I’ve noticed:

  • Several older women in my family speak openly about the times they felt like hurting their babies. It’s been really helpful to hear them—successful matriarchs who have loving relationships with their adult children—say this, and know that wanting to throw your baby at 3 am after six months of sleep deprivation is normal and doesn’t mean you are actually going to do it. It’s reassuring to have the interpretation “I am going to get through this somehow, and in thirty years we’ll all laugh about it” rather than “I am a terrible mother who is actually going to throw this baby.”

    Of course, you also have to take steps to not hurt the baby! Lily’s great-grandmother, when raising kids on an isolated farm, would put the baby in the baby carriage and wheel it out into the field until she couldn’t hear the crying anymore from the house. When she could see the carriage stop shaking, she knew the baby was asleep and would wheel it back within earshot. This is the kind of thing the health pamphlets tell you to do (“step away right away”), but it’s more reassuring to know that your husband’s beloved grandmother did it and not something that only bad parents in pamphlets need to do.

  • Many of the older dancers in my folk dance group have been part of the team since the 1970s or early 80s. Some of them brought their little kids to every event, but others took time off and one central member took about a decade off when she had a child. These days I’d often rather fall into bed as soon as possible than go to practice, and I don’t go to most of the gigs because traveling with baby in tow feels like more trouble than it’s worth. If this were a group with less institutional memory, I’d assume this meant I was drifting away from the team and that it soon wouldn’t be a part of my life anymore. But because I have the model of people rejoining the team after early parenthood, I see this as a temporary and not a permanent separation.
  • A friend noted that sometimes when he feels he wants to sleep forever, he worries a lot about the fact that he’s feeling suicidal. He found that if he takes a nap he usually feels much better, and that the problem is temporary exhaustion more than ongoing suicidality. So now he doesn’t assign much importance to the feeling when it happens.