Five things parents don't need to worry about

With all the things keeping parents up at night, it's nice to know there are a few that shouldn't

When you’re the parent of a young child, worry comes with the territory. You worry about that blotch on your newborn’s skin; that your baby’s robust appetite seems to be waning; that she won’t know her alphabet in time for school. Most of the things we stress over turn out to be nothing — a rash that evaporates as quickly as it arises — or they remind us that kids develop at their own unique pace. Rather than worry ourselves silly, the way we deal with little anxieties may help our kids learn a thing or two about handling life’s inevitable bumps in the road. Here’s how to get a handle on five of the most common things parents fret about.

Night waking: The sequel

Sarah Muir’s daughter, 13-month-old Janae, slept through the night at four months. But for the past few weeks, she’s been waking in the wee hours.

“It’s completely normal and very common for toddlers to have irregular or changing sleep patterns,” says paediatrician Michael Dickinson, of Miramichi, NB. “Recurring night waking can come out of the blue, but usually it’s a response to a change in the child’s life.” Not only did the Muir family move a month ago to their new home in Port Perry, Ont., but Janae has been teething and she just started walking. “She’s had a lot going on,” says her mom.

How to handle it

Change, like a new sibling or even a holiday weekend, can wreak havoc on bedtime routines. If you nail routines down again, a toddler’s sleep patterns will often fall back into place, observes Dickinson.

“Kids don’t wake at night to drive us crazy,” observes Ottawa parent educator Christine Colbert. “Something is going on and it’s important to respond.” She suggests first eliminating obvious causes, such as hunger or a wet diaper. Then Colbert recommends trying to settle your night owl in her own bed by rubbing her back for a few minutes, then leaving the room. If she resumes crying, wait a bit and then offer the same reassurance, gradually lengthening out the time between return visits.

When Janae wakens, Muir says she listens for a minute or two and sometimes the crying subsides. If not, rocking usually does the trick. “Some nights, though, Janae is clearly hungry, so I nurse her and she’s back to sleep within five or 10 minutes.”

Red flags

Fever, rash, vomiting or changes in behaviour during the day (irritability, not eating well) suggest something else is going on and parents should take their child to the doctor, says Dickinson.

Appetite gone south

“I see people every day with this concern,” says Montreal dietitian Louise Lambert-Lagacé. “Parents used to have a baby who opened his mouth at every spoonful, and now they’ve got a toddler whose eating behaviour looks like chronic refusal.”

A drop in appetite in the second year is normal because the rate of growth slows down, says Lambert-Lagacé. “Babies typically triple their birth weight by their first birthday. In year two, they will add perhaps five pounds.”

When children become less interested in food, says Lambert-Lagacé, “parents will do anything to get the baby to swallow something, and they begin to feel that anything is better than nothing.”

How to handle it

If a child is active and looks healthy, she’s not starving, says Colbert. “Kids are grazers. They need to eat a little bit every two or three hours. When you add that up, it’s substantial.” Serve your toddler her meals on a small plate to keep serving sizes in perspective (a quarter of a pear, two tablespoons of cooked veggies, a quarter of a cup of cottage cheese or 1½ ounces of meat constitute a toddler serving) and let her explore her food by playing with her utensils and eating with her hands. It’s also wise to avoid letting your little one fill up on juice or milk between meals. Water is the best thirst quencher.

“Repetition and perseverance are key,” says Lambert-Lagacé. Continue to offer healthy, well-balanced meals and snacks. “Never force the issue.”

But can a grazer really get the nutrients she needs? Focus on protein, calcium and iron, says Lambert-Lagacé. Two servings of milk, cheese or yogurt provide the first two. While most toddlers won’t eat enough green veggies or meat to get the iron they need, a serving of iron-fortified cereal will get them there. “If she’s getting enough dairy and a fortified cereal every day, you can sleep tight,” says Lambert-Lagacé.

Red flags

While a child’s rate of growth decreases significantly after the first year, if it levels off or declines over a period of 12 months or, conversely, if he gains more than five or six pounds in a year, there may be cause for concern. Check with your child’s doctor.

Slow to walk

You’re convinced your son will crawl forever — at 14 months he shows no interest in getting on his feet. Meanwhile, your Great-Aunt Clara wants to buy him some “proper baby boots.”

How to handle it

In the words of child development writer Penelope Leach: “Don’t worry and don’t hurry.” Dickinson explains, “There’s a huge range of normal here. The average age for starting to walk is 12 months, but kids do it anywhere from eight to 18 months. My advice usually is if the child isn’t walking by 15 months, then we may need to look into it. Occasionally there’s a medical problem, but most late walkers are quite normal.”

It’s important to look at the big picture, says Colbert. Kids develop at different rates and in different ways. A 14-month-old may not be walking, but is she talking a blue streak? Likewise, if she has progressed from sitting to crawling to cruising, she’ll take those first steps when she’s ready.

What about Great-Aunt Clara’s sturdy white walkers? Not a good idea, says Sylvia Ounpuu, a kinesiologist at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Centre. A stiff shoe with a rigid sole doesn’t allow the toes to bend, and that interferes with walking, she explains. Barefoot is best for beginning walkers, non-slip socks if the floor is likely to be chilly, and a very flexible shoe for outdoors.

Red flags

If a child is clearly frustrated or irritated when trying to walk, or seems reluctant to move around much, talk over your concern with the doctor.

Wetting the bed

Five-year-old Madelyn has gone without diapers since she was just over three, but at night, she wears training pants. “Some nights they’re dry, but often they’re wet, so until we get a week or two dry, we’ll carry on,” says her mom, Deanna Wilmshurst.

“Bedwetting is very common in the preschool population, and more so in boys,” says Dickinson. “Even by age five, 15 to 20 percent are still not dry at night. Some kids have the odds stacked against them. A deep sleeper with a smaller, more immature bladder will be prone to nighttime accidents.”

“I think that’s what we have,” says Wilmshurst. “Madelyn is a very sound sleeper.”

How to handle it

“Don’t make a big deal of it,” says Dickinson. “Put on the Pull-Ups and keep the rubber sheet on the bed. Punishing a child isn’t going to help. Reassurance and patience are usually all that are required.”

Some parents do have some success with waking their child to pee when they go to bed, and it’s reasonable not to overdo liquids at bedtime. But beyond that, says Dickinson, these children just need to do a bit more growing.

Red flags

Dickinson says he’s suspicious if a child who’s been dry for six months suddenly starts to wet the bed, in which case he’ll order a urine test to rule out infection or illness.

Not reading yet

Your son, who is in grade one, isn’t reading on his own yet, even though he loves it when you read to him.

Literacy develops alongside motor and cognitive skills, gradually beginning in infancy, explains paediatrician Alyson Shaw of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa and primary author of the Canadian Paediatric Society paper on reading. A baby pats and tastes her books. The pincer grip allows a toddler to turn the pages. Preschoolers know that print is a code, and the hope is that they are excited about cracking the code by the time they hit school. So a child who clearly enjoys books is probably on track — just not quite there yet. Some parents find their kids much prefer to hear The Wind in the Willows read aloud than struggle through a simpler book on their own.

Jo-Ann van Staalduinen, who teaches grade one at James Strath Public School in Peterborough, Ont., says that while curriculum expectations tend to assume kids are reading by grade one, that’s not always the case. “Some years 80 percent of my students are reading by February,” she says. “Other years it’s not anywhere near that. It really varies.”

How to handle it

What can you do? “I encourage parents to continue reading with their children, and I recommend grade-level readers,” says van Staalduinen, who often sends home a list of “wall words” (words that frequently appear in grade-level books). “Kids may not be reading the whole book, but can they recognize some of the words we’ve learned in class?”

Above all, don’t make reading a source of stress, says van Staalduinen: “Sometimes a child doesn’t want to read at home because he’s been working hard all day at school.” And make sure you’re providing reading material that interests your child, adds Shaw. “He might prefer non-fiction books or Captain Underpants rather than classic stories.”

If you’re still concerned, both van Staalduinen and Shaw recommend you talk with your child’s teacher. “If it turns out the child is having difficulty, the earlier the intervention, the better. You don’t want kids getting frustrated and falling behind at school,” says Shaw.

Red flags

If a five- or six-year-old doesn’t know the sounds of the letters, can’t recognize rhyming words, is unable to sit still and listen to a story, or can’t recall any details from the story, this suggests a deeper problem. Parents should ask the school about further assessment.