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Do You Have An Anxious Child?

No question, hands down, I get more requests from friends, family, and acquaintances for help finding support and and advice parenting anxious children than any other pediatric issue in the school years. So it’s my sincere DELIGHT to introduce and partner with Dr. Kathy Melman on my podcast. Dr Melman runs the outpatient psychiatry and behavioral health clinic and has decades of experience advising families and supporting anxious children. She helps translate the facts around what causes anxiety, how to discern anxious behavior from clinical anxiety, and helps parents understand just what we know and what we don’t. Her tips and advice below!

Where Does Anxiety Come From?

1. Anxiety is a normal emotion and a natural part of life. Fear exists in all of us and there are typical fears that are seen at different developmental stages such as Stranger Anxiety (clinging and crying) at 7-9 months of age. This happens as the child goes through developmental changes such as the stronger ability to differentiate familiar faces from those that are unfamiliar. Anxiety is a normal and important emotion that is adaptive and protective. For example, anxiety helps us stay away from dangerous situations such as leaving or not entering a building when we see smoke or fire or smell something burning. Imagine living at a time or in a place without grocery stores or restaurants for securing food, without homes with locking windows and doors. Imagine that we instead have to venture out to hunt and gather food with concern about dangerous animals or people lurking behind a bush. In this situation, concern about safety is warranted and being vigilant, scanning the environment to pick up on danger cues would help someone survive. The rush of adrenaline that occurs when highly anxious is called the “fight or flight” response and it helps someone escape or avoid dangerous situations.

2. Environmental Stress: Anxiety increases in more stressful situations. This can includes fear of safety, homelessness, instability with frequent moves or other important life changes, loss or death of caregivers or other important people, war, hearing or seeing disturbing news, economic difficulties, abuse, sexual assault, bullying at school, high pressure, expectations and demands in school, home and/or activities. Even in healthy, safe environments, all children experience some anxiety. For example, occasional or short lived worries occur when a child is faced with an especially stressful or new, unfamiliar situation. These are real issues with all that is going on in the world right now.

3. Environmental Learning: Dr. Melman reminds, “Children Learn What Children Live.” Modeling matters. Listen to what Dr. Melman shares in the podcast about overprotection and the risks of being over-involved.

4. Avoidance. Anxiety is maintained and strengthened by avoidance. Through avoidance, you don’t get to see that your worst fears will not happen and that you can, in fact, do it! Let’s look at an example of a child invited for a sleepover at a friend’s house. Perhaps this child is not experienced with sleeping away from home and struggles with sleeping in his own room and bed at home. The idea of a sleepover sounds fun and then reality hits as the time to go to sleep approaches. The child becomes panicked, maybe with physical symptoms such as heart racing and pounding and stomach aches. He has thoughts that he won’t be able to fall asleep or that something bad will happen like a robber breaking in, and calls his parents to pick him up which they do. The child starts to feel relieved and no longer anxious as soon as they learn that they can escape this feared situation by going home. The child’s fear and desire to escape and avoid is strengthened because of the strong relief is experienced when rescued and by the fact that parents agreed that there was a need to come home rather than an ability to cope, ride out this wave of distress, stay the night and see that nothing bad happened and that he could, in fact, be courageous!

5. Expecting Bad Things to Happen: Anxious thinking also plays a role in where anxiety comes from.

6. Genes: Anxiety Disorders runs in families. What can we do if our child has a genetic loading for anxiety disorders? While we can’t change genes, we can aim to reduce stress in our lives and change our own modeling and reactions. We can learn to understand and accept our child’s temperament/wiring and empathize with our child’s feelings while also teaching our children how to think more realistically about the world, to expect less danger in situations, and encourage our child to approach in a gradual and consistent manner the situations that he or she fears. We can give our children skills to cope more effectively with challenging situations.

Infants Turning Blue And Other Scary Things

EVERY new parent worries about their newborn from how much they are eating, sleeping, peeing and pooping to ensuring they hit developmental milestones. We also worry about how they breathe and how they sound. It’s a stressful time period and most aren’t running on tons of sleep themselves — so we’re more emotional baseline. Occasionally, a terrifying thing happens where your infant turns bright red, or even blue or pauses their breathing. They may arch in a funny way or get stiff in their arms or legs. We may wonder if something serious is going on. If your infant (under 12 months of age) has an episode where they have pauses in breathing for less than 1 minute, they turn blue and then recover to normal…chances are…it’s normal. Normal? Turning pale or blue doesn’t seem normal nor does having your baby get stiff, nor does a second where they pause their breathing, but it can be, and there’s a name for it: Brief Resolved Unexplained Event (BRUE).

No question we have to trust our instincts if we think something isn’t going well for our babies and I always suggest seeing your pediatrician or family physician or nurse practitioner if you worry about your infant’s health, for reassurance. No question! Go in, get reassurance and learn. Don’t ever feel bad if everything checks out — this is why your pediatric team is there for you and your family. However, when you do go in for an evaluation from a nurse practitioner or physician,  even if your baby has unusual breathing at times, or tenses, or even has a change in color, you may not need a lot of testing. Sometimes it’s normal.

Some Information About Breathing Patterns In Infants:

  • Periodic Breathing: Newborns breath less regularly than older infants, children or adults. This is in part because of their immature brain stem (the part our brain that regulates the drive to breathe). The majority of newborns experience some periodic breathing in first couple weeks of life and most infants don’t have periodic breathing after 4 or 5 months of age. The term “periodic breathing” captures behaviors where babies breathe rapidly for a few moments, then pause for a few, then breath rapidly again. Most of the time periodic breathing happens with pauses that last no more than 10 seconds. It can appear really unusual to a new parent or relative. The Academy of Pediatrics defines it this way: “Breathing is often irregular and may stop for 5 to 10 seconds—a condition called normal periodic breathing of infancy—then start again with a burst of rapid breathing at the rate of 50 to 60 breaths a minute for 10 to 15 seconds, followed by regular breathing until the cycle repeats itself. The baby’s skin color does not change with the pauses in breathing and there is no cause for concern.”
  • Color Change: babies can change color with crying, eating, fatigue or movement. Most of the time parents notice that babies will get bright red or ruddy while other times parents worry their baby looks pale or even a bit blue. It’s true that color change can represent underlying heart or breathing problems so if ever sustained over 1-minute it needs to be evaluated promptly. However, color change in infants over 2 months of age that resolves within 1 minutes may not need any work-up after you check in with a clinician. Sometimes color change can come from things like gastroesophageal reflux, coughing or choking, too. If any concern about your baby’s color it’s worth checking in with the pediatrician for a physical exam. While in the office, a pediatrician will do a full physical exam and ask lots of questions, and they can also check a spot oximetry for oxygen levels (pulse oximetry is standardly obtained in first 24 hours after birth to check blood oxygen levels to screen for underlying heart problems), do a electrocardiogram (EKG), and have observation.
  • Noises: babies make all sorts of terrifying sounds! Gagging sounds, choking, gurgling, sneezing, and coughing. Most of these during infancy fall in the range of typical and normal if they don’t interfere with eating, breathing, and sleep. Sneezing is fairly common in the first couple months, again because of immaturity of reflexes. Some parents worry about babies who spit up and sound like they can’t breathe and want to put babies on their tummies. No evidence that is recommended and to lower risk of SIDS, we always recommend babies are put on their back in bare crib for sleep.

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Parent Sleep Matters

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Sleep is tied to our outlook, our mood, our performance, our safety, and our sense of stress/anxiety. We’re nicer people after we sleep and I often say that after a good night of sleep I get to be more of the mom & parent I earnestly want to be. Sleep is magical that way.

Thing is, sleep has a profound effect on our perspectives and attitudes about life. In fact research has found that sleep loss causes bias in our memory — the less sleep we have the more we focus on negative events and the more our memory builds space for memories of the negative details in our life. In addition, the less we sleep, the less we think our children do. Huge opportunity to improve things when we not only prioritize our children’s sleep but our own.

For more listen to the podcast and read this and this where I talk with sleep expert, Dr. Maida Chen and discuss 5 ways to improve our own sleep and our family’s wellbeing.

Seattle Mama Doc Podcast Is Live

Audio is having a moment and I’m hooked. I am so thrilled to announce the launch of my Seattle Mama Doc podcast! It’s a weekly, quick, 5-15 minute show to help guide you through the joys and the complications of parenting. I’ll share what I’ve learned throughout my career in pediatrics and years of parenting my own 2 children, but also really hope to get super smart people to share what they know out to the world! The podcasts will air each week and will include interviews with pediatric experts, researchers, and peers across the country who are committed to preventing illness and injury while raising children — but this will also be a show sharing wisdom into how to enjoy the immense and privileged task of raising our babies into adults. The goal here is to breakdown all the guilt we have, doubts we share, and give us a boost in knowing what we’re doing well. Parenting is high-stakes but we really do have this.

You can listen to a couple of the first few episodes below and you can download episodes on SoundCloud, iTunesGoogle Play Music & Stitcher. Please subscribe and let me know what you think!

I recorded several episodes on sleep with my good friend and the Director of the Seattle Children’s Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center, Dr. Maida Chen. She’s a mom to 3, pediatric pulmonologist and sleep science guru. She’s also just uber-articulate. Here’s a blog post we did together a few years about with more on why and when children dream.  More podcasts arriving weekly on Tuesdays.

Maida Recording

Join In On The Seattle Mama Doc Podcast?

Always a work in progress here — trying to think on ways to share new data, expert advice & enjoy the journey of parenthood. I’m excited to announce we’re going to pilot a Seattle Mama Doc Podcast early next month. Since this blog’s inception in 2009 we’ve covered nearly 650 standard blog posts, vlogs, guest contributors, interviews and now I’m going to test out a podcast. I am a huge fan of crowd sourcing and co-design, so will you help create the look, feel and content of the podcast alongside me? I would love to know what topics you’re interested in, which you’re tired of hearing about, who you want me to interview and frankly, anything else you’d like to share.

My hope is to interview experts and researchers here at Children’s, parents, and patients when there’s interest in sharing the experience of raising children. We’ll include the smarts of friends and peers across the country working on preventing and preventing illness while raising children. We’ll highlight all the tips and tools we learn along the way, new evidence, expert opinion and ideas to feel better about our decisions while raising our children.

I’ve recorded 3 options for the introduction of my podcast (I’m well aware of kind of bootleg smartphone audio quality for these little demos — promise to record high quality content in studio for the actual podcast).

Which resonates and makes you want to tune in?

Tell me what to cover. And also, would you want to join me on the podcast? SAY SO, PLEASE!

Option #1

 

Option #2

 

Option #3

 

Using Melatonin To Help Children Fall Asleep

When I recently shared this article on my Mama Doc Facebook about a “magic” children’s bedtime story promising to make the going-to-sleep process easier, many parents inquired about melatonin.

No question that supplemental melatonin has a role in children’s sleep dysfunction but also no question that parents are turning to melatonin out of a need for convenience. I’ve had COUNTLESS curbside consults from parents asking me if melatonin is safe to use in the short-term but also for years on end. The short answer is we don’t entirely know because studies just haven’t been done. Often when I get the story of how families are using melatonin, I end up advising changes in the sleep schedule more than a need for meds. What we do know: melatonin can help children fall asleep with sleep dysfunction, sleep dysfunction and inadequate sleep have serious health consequences, and although melatonin only helps with sleep initiation (falling asleep) it can be hugely beneficial for children who lie awake at night for hours at bedtime. The other thing we know: melatonin is not regulated like medicines (it’s overseen as a food supplement) that has been studied in very few pediatric populations so it’s difficult to generalize safety for children everywhere. Lots of definitions, dosing info, and pediatric sleep expertise below.

If your child can fall asleep in about 30 minutes after the lights are out (especially when you have made sure no screen time for 1-2 hours prior, no caffeine in afternoon) then melatonin is unnecessary.

If it were my child I’d use melatonin if sleep dysfunction at bedtime was getting in the way of necessary sleep, but I’d also do everything I could to get them off of it as soon as I could. Many children respond to the hypnotic effect of higher doses of melatonin, but many children are also given it for family convenience, too. In my experience, sometimes families use it to treat anxiety (those kids whose mind spins and spins and spins and worries) at bedtime. Although sometimes melatonin helps kids fall asleep, it’s just a band-aid.

Children are sleeping less than ever before and there are mounting impediments to a good night’s sleep (screens, early school start times, stimulants in the food source, busy school days and activities keeping kids up late). However inconvenient, I think sleep hygiene (routine bed time, no screens before bed, bed used only for sleeping) and consistency with what we do as parents may be the only magic wand to wave for sleep throughout childhood. Awakenings typically rise from all sorts of developmental milestones and changes as children grow. Overnight awakenings will always be normal although how our children get back to sleep on their own changes our night of sleep dramatically. When it comes to challenges falling asleep, sometimes melatonin can really help, especially in children with underlying autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit disorders, or children with shifted sleep schedules.

Only a few long-term studies have looked at prolonged use and associated effects, but most sleep specialists consider melatonin safe, particularly for occasional short-term use. The bigger question is why parents feel the need to give their child melatonin.  –Dr. Maida Chen

What is Melatonin?

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