What to expect when taking your toddler to a Covid testing station

This piece was written for my MA portfolio for the University of Lincoln. It was written in August 2020 but published in January 2021 to allow time for it to be graded. The testing stations may have altered in this time.

By columnist Ailsa Adams, mother to two boys with a baby girl on the way.

Wilfred, who is three, started displaying all the symptoms of croup, a viral infection that causes a bark like cough, often accompanied by cold like symptoms in the middle of the night. The powerful sound woke me instantly as I rushed to make sure he was breathing ok in a blind panic.  My eldest has had it so much, we were croup veterans and regular patients at the doctors so I knew the score, but my mind instantly panicked it could be coronavirus.

I spoke to our doctor first thing the next morning who advised we had him tested for coronavirus, as they couldn’t see him to confirm a diagnosis either way. If symptoms worsened, I was to phone back later in the week. Frustrated, I put the phone down and tested his temperature militantly every hour to put my mind at ease it most likely would result in a negative test.

After booking the test online at https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/testing-and-tracing/get-a-test-to-check-if-you-have-coronavirus/ for the same day, we read through the instructions and decided it was best to all go, as you can’t exit the car, instead the adult has to climb into the back of the car to do the test. At six months pregnant, I feared this would have all the grace of an elephant, potentially resulting in me getting stuck half way with visions of Wilfred trying to kick me back through, so my husband graciously offered to sit in the back.

We all stayed in the car and had the instructions explained through the closed window in a mask. Be prepared to ask them to repeat themselves a lot, I opted to mix it up between “pardon”, “I can’t hear you” and a general gesture to my ears. They tried their best to add hand actions and more exaggerated eye movements. After a few moments they said they could go through how to perform the test with us, or we could read the instructions ourselves. Naturally, we picked the latter as a full-blown explanation might have been more akin to a sad game of charades.

The dull grey, flat and smaller than expected test pack, was then dropped to me through a small crack in the window. If someone with bigger hands is performing the test, I would advise taking your own disposable gloves as the ones provided were very small and ripped instantly, leading to a lot of hand gel being used to overcompensate the gigantic tear in them.

The enormous swab had to go right in the back of Wilfred’s throat and also right up his nose but only took a few seconds. Wilfred struggled and gagged with the throat swab going so far in, so a bucket in case it causes a coughing fit and sickness is advisable.  They recommend taking some water for afterwards, but I also recommend taking their favourite cuddly toy for moral support if they get distressed.

We then had to snap the long swab stick, which was quite tough as it’s made of plastic so a few bends in either direction and brute force did the trick. It then went in the test tube and into the sealed bag. Once we had finished, we drove back to the exit where the QR code was scanned on the form and sample bag. Once it was all sorted, a lady with a big box came to the window and I dropped it in to the box through a tiny crack in the window. The children were disappointed they only had NHS coats on as opposed to white hazmat suits, but personally I was relieved as it felt less apocalyptic.

As per the instruction booklet, we then had to return home and remain there until the results came through. The negative test results were texted to my mobile phone the following morning at 6am with a turnaround of roughly 19 hours, so thankfully we didn’t have to wait long to resume our normal routine with great joy.

The test caused momentary discomfort for Wilfred, but he was quickly over it. Taking a few home comforts might help soften the blow of the scary big swab going so far down their throat.

5 ways to entertain your baby during a pandemic

This piece formed part of my MA portfolio for the University of Lincoln. It was written in August 2020 including the lockdown rules at the time which may now differ. It was published on acajournalist.com in January 2021 to allow it to be graded.

By columnist Ailsa Adams, mother to two boys with a baby girl on the way.

Coronavirus has forced us to stay at home a lot more and think of inventive ways to keep our little people happy. A little organisation can go a long way, and though it can sometimes seem impossible to find a spare few moments alone, taking a little time each evening to roughly plan out the next day can really help. It doesn’t matter if most plans go out of the window after a rough night, the intention was there, and the list can roll on to another day.

1.Plan themed weeks with easy activities to set up based on each topic. For example, dinosaur week with toy dinosaurs and playdough made volcanoes. Once your baby gets fed up, you can get the paint out and let your baby make footprints with the dinosaur’s feet.

It is important to add structured activity as their normal routine has been up-skittled for many months. If your child is not at nursery because of the pandemic, it can be a great way to emulate their nursery environment at home, even getting in touch with their key worker for ideas on themes and setting up activities.

Lisa Clegg, author of The Blissful Baby Expert Book and a maternity night nurse, helps thousands of parents find their groove. “Take one day at a time and try to break the day into sections too. With my new mums who are overwhelmed this is the biggest thing I tell them to do.

“Don’t think too far ahead or you will find it a never-ending task with no end in sight. Try to have a rough routine plan for meals and bedtimes at least to give you all some structure and then split the day into morning and afternoon activities to break the day up,” says Lisa.

Visit The Blissful Baby Expert for lots of tips, articles and mum meet ups at https://theblissfulbabyexpert.co.uk/

2.Enroll in a local baby massage or baby yoga group. Coronavirus unfortunately closed all face to face groups but slowly they are starting up again, so it is worth checking Facebook for a local group. They are operating in spaced out in big halls, remotely, or outdoors across summer months. The benefit of a weekly group is it adds structure to the week and forces you to both get dressed and out the house, or set up in front of the computer screen if it is an online class.

It also allows you time to lean on an expert and follow their lead rather than your own. Founder of the Village Midwives, Annette Ashford, explains the benefits: “It is as much for the mothers as it is for the babies really and at the end of a baby massage course it is lovely to see how friendships have blossomed. We all need a tribe to get through motherhood and it can be the start of a lifelong friendship. It has been very different virtually but worked really well and the babies have all enjoyed sensory objects and the massage itself.”

If you are in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Leicestershire, Rutland, Norfolk or South Yorkshire, you can find classes at https://www.thevillagemidwives.co.uk/

3.Get outside. Remember that though we are at home more, we can make the most of the great outdoors where generally it is easier to adhere to social distancing measures. To lift both your mood and the baby’s, sometimes a stroll can be just what to doctor ordered.

It can also be fun to turn the walk into light exercise and time your routes each week to see how much you have improved. Now shops have re-opened you can reward yourself with a skinny late for the way home, feeling good about supporting local businesses at the same who are down on profits because of coronavirus.

Keira Williamson from Zen Mama is organising local walks around her hometown of Spalding with other mums. “I think we all miss the contact with others and meeting outdoors for a walk can really lift your mood as you share your experiences of motherhood and take in a bit of  exercise within the rules of coronavirus,” says Keira.

Why not see if there are local walks with other mothers in your area and if not, start your own?

Log and share your walks on https://www.mapmywalk.com/ and find other walks in your area.

4. “Ready, set, bake,” as they say on the Great British Bake off. Baking with your little one can be lots of fun and a chance for them to engage in messy play, getting their hands, and sometimes feet, dirty. Don’t worry, you can make a separate batch to actually eat if things go awry. If your baby is too little to join in, they might enjoy watching you bake with the different visual culinary sensations in front of their very eyes. Don’t forget to talk to them about each step of the recipe as it is a great opportunity to explore language together.

Alternatively, setting time aside to prepare lunch or dinner earlier in the day can be a fun activity and a time your baby can explore self-led weaning as they chew on a piece of cucumber. It can help prevent the stressful time of day as dinner can just be cooked later instead of you trying to prep whilst juggling an unhappy baby.

Visit www.ellaskitchen.co.uk for some yummy toddler recipes.

5.Have a dance party to shake it off. I like to do this on a Friday afternoon to get us in the mood for the weekend with my children. The sillier your dance moves are, the funnier your baby will find it as they get in the groove with you. To make it more authentic, darken the room and set up a disco light to add to the sensory experience. It really is impossible not to smile as you put on your favourite tunes and sing out of key to fits of giggles from your baby.

Picking a song with a solid beat your baby can nod along to before progressing to a wiggle, helps keep them interested. Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars is always a winner in our house.

Browse Apple Music, Spotify or Amazon music for readymade playlists for babies and children. Linking to your Amazon Alexa can mean the children start to make requests themselves too!

As a plan fan, it is really satisfying to print out the daily schedule and tick each activity off as we go. It helps me feel like I have achieved something, even on tricky days.

Comment below your own experiences of entertaining during the pandemic and any activities you have tried and loved.

Travel Diaries

This piece was written in July 2020 for my MA portfolio for the University of Lincoln. It has been published on acajournalist.com in Janaury 2021 to allow time for it to be graded.

By columnist Ailsa Adams, mother to two boys with a baby girl on the way.

In a click of a button, the trip was booked. Instant fear kicked in as I started to doubt how sensible our decision was. Were we being completely selfish and irresponsible to try and leave the safety of our home during a global pandemic? At this very moment Wilf attempted a backflip off the sofa whilst shouting “cowabunga” so my husband and I nodded simultaneously in agreement that it was definitely needed for all of our sanity and perhaps ironically, safety in Wilf’s case.

For our first trip away we decided to test the water and book just one night at the theme park, Chessington World of Adventure, near London. Though it wasn’t my first choice, the children were desperate to return since their visit last year. As parents we were comforted by the fact there would be half the number of visitors allowed in the park, so it felt like it might be quite safe.

The alarm was set for 5.30am for the first time in months and the entire contents of the house was meticulously stacked in the boot of our estate car, reminiscent of a game of Tetris. Another seemingly necessary byproduct of parenting is that everything has to be hideously brightly coloured like the game itself, as the lime green suitcase balanced below the bright red pushchair. This time though instead of the passport, wallet, keys debate before we left, we had to check we all had masks packed.

How can we possibly need an entire boot full of stuff for one night at a theme park? It definitely wasn’t because of the pandemic as the masks took up no room. Perhaps it is a British thing or a worldwide phenomenon that parents excessively overpack to cover all eventualities. I think in our case, the entire theme park population under the age of five could simultaneously wet themselves and we had them covered with fresh clothes.

The pandemic was constantly at the forefront of our minds and as a testing station occupied half the hotel car park, it was impossible to forget anyway. As country bumpkins this was the first time we had seen a station and the boys were completely blown away that the “actual” military army were there conducting the testing. As opposed to a fake army? I am not entirely sure but the word “actual” has to be annunciated excitedly when you are five and two, apparently.

Our temperature was taken as we entered the park gates and a pang of fear washed over me. Children were running and giggling all around us with little care for social distancing. As much as it was a lovely site to see children carefree and happy, I was angry they kept getting so close to us and were not discouraged by their parents. Perhaps pregnancy hormones added to my irritability but nevertheless, the empty pram proved to be a vital lack of social distancing deterrent, as I swiped it exaggeratingly left to right.

As we approached the queue for the Gruffalo ride, the character famed from Julia Donaldson’s “The Gruffalo,” I was optimistic that finally the British queuing ability would pay off. We would adhere to the new coronavirus rules and meticulously wait spaced out at two metre intervals. After a few minutes, it was clear this would not be the case as rude “Karens” pushed by us, touching us as they went to meet their spouse holding their spot nearer the front of the queue. I instantly wanted a shower as I imagined the germs spreading up and down our arms. The pandemic was adding a new level of anxiety and being close to other humans really felt unnatural.

I felt sorry for the boys as they were told for the fifteenth time “don’t touch that.” Their crestfallen faces added to my guilt that their whole existence had to be altered this year, with the inevitable “why?” met with “because of coronavirus.”  Followed by a sad voice that said: “Coronavirus ruins everything.” For the children it is a nuisance and inconvenience ruining their fun. I envied their innocence and lack of understanding of the gravity of such a global catastrophe with no clear end in sight.

Both children cried on the Gruffalo ride and never wanted to go on it ever again. So glad we had bothered to risk our lives for the experience.

The day progressed in a similar fashion as my anger level rose with each person who invaded our space. When a tiger walked by the viewing window in the zoo part of the park, it was apparently totally acceptable to forget about the pandemic for an Instagram selfie.

Finally check in time for the hotel arrived as we walked back to a chorus of moaning over who got to sit in the pushchair. I longed to have a narrow enough bottom to be a contender for the coveted prize as my whole-body ached. An occupational hazard of this being the third child in a body well trodden, sagging and protruding in ways no woman ever wishes to. At this moment in time our decision to leave the house seemed extremely stupid and I regretted it to the point I had to swallow back a lump in my throat, people were just not taking it seriously.

We all pulled ourselves together and checked into our Giraffe themed room which was magnificent, looking over the nature reserve with roaming cattle, zebras and ostriches. Naturally, the children were more interested in the seagull that landed on the windowsill, but at least we were in our own space and could sit down away from the crowds with a hot cup of tea. Even if it was in a disposable cup. Why would the pandemic mean crockery in our room was a no go? The sheets weren’t disposable, so I am not sure why we couldn’t have proper cups that were washed on our departure.

Dinner was as expected, a reduced, carb heavy menu because of coronavirus with tables slightly too close together for my liking. My husband ordered a large glass of red wine as I glared at him, green with envy as I ordered a large water.

The following day the park was even busier, so the children picked out a couple of rides each and we made our way back to the safety of our car before lunchtime. As we sat in the car, both of us sighed with relief that our time had come to an end at Chessington, wallets jingling less after the obligatory gift shop purchases to signify the end of the trip.

Having had a few weeks back at home, meticulously checking everyone temperature to make sure we remained coronavirus free, I have reflected on our trip more positively. It was really good to get the children out of the house and they thoroughly enjoyed their freedom. No one got poorly, so the measures in place hopefully were good enough to prevent spreading the virus. It was also lovely to watch the children enjoy themselves in a setting that was off limits for so many months. Really not much of our trip was too far different to previous visits either and the coronavirus was more of a constant nuisance in the background rather than ruining the trip entirely.

 Whilst I won’t be in a rush to book another theme park, I am keen to get us away somewhere in the countryside in our touring caravan so we can have a change of scenery again.

Giving birth during a pandemic

This was a piece written in July 2020 for my MA portfolio for the University of Lincoln. It remained unpublished on acajournalist.com until January 2021 when it had been marked and graded.

By columnist Ailsa Adams, mother to two boys with a baby girl on the way.

Covid-19 has changed the way we communicate with each other. Weekly quizzes and get togethers with friends and family remotely soon became the best way of keeping in touch. Speaking to women and mothers about their experiences remotely seemed impossible though, especially given the personal details they were revealing to me.

A slightly panicked house scout to find the tidiest spot ensued as lockdown has ravaged through each room in turn, even the mess is messy. How I long for a fancy bookcase to portray an inaccurate image of intelligence and organisation, just like we are used to seeing on the news. I hope my own pregnancy and children might put their minds at rest as we are members of a club with stretch marks and questionable bladder ability worn like a badge of honour.

My first interview is with Emma Epton from Boston. Emma has a little girl called Libby who is five and has been trying to conceive for a long time for her second child. I have known Emma for over ten years so thankfully it was a good starting point to get used to communicating over Zoom. Once the niceties are over, I could see her face drop as we got onto the subject of pregnancy. Emma had an ectopic pregnancy last year and has lost one of her fallopian tubes after surgery.

“Coronavirus has really put us off trying for a second. I would be so nervous pregnant during a pandemic and it has perhaps made us realise how lucky we already are with our daughter,” she says with a smile.

As the conversation develops she admits that reaching the decision had made her want a second child more than ever.

“It is typical really, it would be a terrible time to be pregnant but I would really be delighted if it did happen. Perhaps though it is for the best if the pandemic keeps restrictions in place for years to come. It might ultimately take the decision out of our hands,” she concludes.

Emma isn’t alone in putting off decisions for starting a family. Initially experts were expecting a baby boom, Nadine Dorries, the MP responsible for Maternity Services, even tweeted back in March “I am wondering how busy we are going to be nine months from now.” Quickly it became clear that people were changing plans though, which isn’t surprising given that most people have increased stress levels, not overly conducive to making a baby.

Next, I compare my own pregnancy with Kirsty Lilly, a mother to two girls, Isabella and Florence, with a third baby on the way.

As the camera flicks on I am relieved to see that she too is bookshelf free as she instantly apologises that the children are running slightly wild so may interrupt the Zoom call. I have a little chuckle as scenes of children interrupting broadcasts have become commonplace on the television. In some ways the new way of working has shown us all in a more natural environment. As she focuses on me, I can see in her eyes she is desperate to know what the children are doing right now. I try and reassure her we can be as stop-start as she likes.

“I am finding the juggling a little bit of a struggle I must say. I am a Human Resources manager and work mainly with people without children so their understanding at times is lacking. Added to this is the fact my husband has chromes disease so we have been shielding limited to the house and garden for months,” she explains.

Kirsty readjusts her screen apologising: “Sorry I hate that I can see myself, despite being only 16 weeks pregnant I think I have developed an extra chin for each week.” I instantly love her as I readjust the maternity leggings currently cutting me in two.

As we are at the same hospital for birth, it is interesting to swap stories of our experiences so far, though I am starting to feel like Kirsty is enjoying being at home a little more than I am.

“When I was told to shield, I was a little relieved. I was only a few weeks pregnant and felt so tired and poorly. With it being my third pregnancy, I already looked bloated and feared everyone might guess. For me it took the pressure off and I could work from home juggling my other children and hibernate,” she concludes.

Kirsty reveals her strangest craving third time pregnant is for beer. Obviously drinking pints of larger is a no-go, so Kirsty has been buying non-alcoholic varieties.

“Having a non-alcoholic beer has really helped curb the craving. I will admit I cracked one open last Thursday afternoon after a conference call and my husband looked at me daggers. Turns out a beer during work hours isn’t socially acceptable even without the alcohol,” she chuckles.

As the call ends, I can’t help but smile at her confident, breezy take on being pregnant for the third time. We both agree that wearing masks to appointments and having to go alone to all the scans is tough. So much so that Kirsty has booked a private scan this week to find out the sex of her baby. For that, her husband is allowed to be in the waiting room, so at least he can sort of be there.

My next interview is with a first-time mother called Sarah Moore who had her baby girl, Lily in April. For Sarah it was easier for her to have a quick phone conversation with follow up messages back and forth on Facebook Messenger. Sarah sounds so tired, I can’t help but feel sorry for her and think back to my own first time. Nothing prepares you for how hard night feeds are the first few months and to face it all with just her partner and no family allowed in her home is a terrifying thought. In Sheffield where she lives you are currently only allowed one birthing partner once active labour is established.

“It was very scary to enter the labour ward to be assessed, whilst in the early stages alone. As this was my first baby neither my partner or I were really sure of when to go to hospital, we followed the advice yet went back and forth to the hospital three times before I was actually in active labour,” says Sarah.

Sarah explains that she didn’t have to wear any form of personal protective equipment but that all midwives and medical staff had gloves, gowns and masks. Her own birth plan largely was followed so for her, pandemic or not, it was successful.

“Once I got into the birthing room and my partner was back with me, I didn’t really notice or think about the pandemic. Midwives were all wearing masks and generally being careful but this didn’t bother me, the only thing that bothered me was that I really wanted my partner and my mum there,” she adds with a sad face emoji.

Sarah stayed in hospital for one night while feeding was established but was happy to get home the next day and be reunited as a family. The following weeks did however prove hard for her as she had to drive to hospital for all routine appointments. Normally the visits take place in your own home.

“This really was a struggle as my partner doesn’t drive and I had to attend alone so it was sore to drive and carry the car seat alone,” says Sarah.

I have kept in touch with Sarah over the last few weeks and was delighted to hear that she was able to stay with family under the new guidelines that came in on 4 July. Life as a family of three has been a struggle and she really felt her mental health was suffering not being able to spend time with family and friends.

For Charlotte Goodley, the pandemic had less of an impact on birth as she was booked for an elective cesarean section. Charlotte is a great friend who I met doing pregnancy yoga a few years ago with her first-born Aspen. Charlotte gave birth to Orla in April.

As a midwife herself, I have to ask if she was relieved to have timed her pregnancy seemingly so well to avoid working during the pandemic.

“I really wouldn’t have minded working, I am young, fit and healthy so hopefully it wouldn’t have caused too much of a problem if I had contracted it. I feel a little guilty really that my friends are working and I am not. Especially because I slightly changed my career to sonography in later years and the clinic has had to close due to staffing a lot over the last few weeks,” says Charlotte.

Being a midwife and giving birth in the same environment can have its perks as Charlotte was able to pick the Surgeon and midwife staff. The operating room looked exactly the same as a high level of PPE is normal in the sterile environment.

Visibly upset, Charlotte does admit that while she was fully prepared and knew exactly what was happening at all times, her daughter had to spend time on the neo-natal ward.

“Nothing can prepare you for that, no matter how many times you have been on the other side of it reassuring mums all will be ok. It was completely heart breaking being split from Orla for the first few hours of her life,” Charlotte adds.

Whilst the pandemic has undoubtably had an impact on the mental health of the mother’s I have spoken to for this article, it is really comforting to know that the births for the most part have gone as expected.

I did manage to speak to a midwife to get the medical point of view, though this unfortunately was a quick phone call and then a series of emails due to her work schedule. The majority of emails came through in the middle of the night between shifts.

Amy works for the United Lincolnshire Hospital Trust and her story on her time working during the pandemic is hard to read as I can feel the anger and despair coming through the email.

The PPE shortages were all over the news at the start of the pandemic and though Amy always had enough access to PPE, the lack of testing directly impacted her.

“Back in late March I had a really sore throat and perhaps the worst headache I have ever had. I spoke to the Matron on the ward and begged to be tested as I really thought it was likely I had coronavirus but because I didn’t have a cough or temperature and access to testing was so limited, I was told no and had to continue to work,” says Amy.

The reality of work and a pandemic is shocking as some hospitals do not have access to excess staff so had Amy and others had gone off poorly, it would have potentially resulted in a short term closure for expectant mothers.

“Now testing is more widely available we have more access and an anti-body test has shown I did have coronavirus. I feel awful imagining who I could have infected, but what could I do?” she adds.

The role of the midwife has altered significantly as they are alone with birthing mothers a lot more as fathers wait outside until active labour is established. For Amy this doesn’t pose as much as a problem as the PPE they have to wear.

Amy explains: “I find the PPE really hard because as a midwife you are very close to the women. They hold on to you for support and sometimes want a hug. You rely on expressions from your eyes instead of greeting with a smile. It’s like the PPE acts like a barrier between you and the woman which is awful as a midwife is all about being ‘with women.’”

I am surprised to read that there is no set infrastructure or processes to check on the midwives’ mental health, instead Amy thinks she would approach the Matron if things were getting on top of her. Given shortages and the way she had to work poorly, I am not overly confident she could get access to mental health support if she needed it.

“I really can’t wait for things to go back to normal, the only plus for me is fathers can no longer stay the night. It can really impact breast feeding and establishing that bond between mother and baby. Often parents chat through the night which can keep other mothers awake. We have also found that the mothers all bond between bays which has been lovely to see,” Amy adds.

Writing this article remotely was difficult but in all honesty, it was the nicest few hours I have spent all lockdown, nattering into a computer screen with friends and strangers alike. As I prepare for my own birth in November I hope the world looks a little different, though I am comforted by the women I have spoken to that my own experience should still be the birth I want it to be.

Top tips to help you prepare for your own birth during a pandemic

1)Plan your ideal birth but make sure you have a few back up plans incase things do not go the way you expected.

Annette Ashford, owner of the Village Midwives, a private midwifery service said: “One thing I would say is there are elements you can control and elements you can’t. Try to focus on those you can control, for example, the type of birth you want and how you can try and make that happen or adapt when things change.”

2)Add a daily practice of yoga into your routine. This can be as little as ten minutes but it can help with strength and help focus your mind ready for the birth.

3)Try Hypnobirthing. Celebrities and supposedly even royalty have long backed Hypnobirthing as a fantastic way of giving birth, a coveted endorsement that might suggest it’s worth a try. With the help of MP3 tracks, breathing techniques, familiar scents, vision boards and minimal intervention it can help control the birthing environment.

4)If a homebirth is an option for you, it is worth considering to avoid hospitals. For a homebirth two local midwives come to your house and help you labour wherever you feel comfortable. Often mothers opt for an inflatable birthing pool.

5)Consider a Doula for your birthing experience. A Doula is a birthing partner you pay for who is an expert in advocating your rights and wishes during birth. Though it can be an expensive luxury, with other children potentially at home and less family and friends able to offer childcare support, it is an option to consider.

6)Get used to wearing a mask for periods of time at home so appointments are less daunting with a mask on.

7)Be prepared to throw all your principals out the window and if you need medical intervention or drugs to get you through the birth, accept that it is ok to deviate from your birth plan to do what is right for you and your baby.

8)Make yourself up a little care package with your favourite snacks in, face creams, magazines, drinks, and any other home comforts. You might not use it during the birth but it will come in handy afterwards.

9)If the NHS in your area is no longer offering antenatal classes, book with a private midwife offering home visits or zoom calls.

10)Remember that things might be a little different but it will be a year to remember and it is exciting you will always be a part of it giving birth.

Sending your child back to school (June 2020)

This piece was written in June 2020 and formed part of my portfolio of work for the University of Lincoln. It remained unpublished until January 2021 on acajournalist.com, after my final grade had been awarded.

Sending your child back to school

By columnist Ailsa Adams, mother to two boys with a baby girl on the way.

With coronavirus still disrupting our lives in countless ways, there is a possibility you are now able to send your children back to school and their Early Years setting. We have spoken to some experts to try and gain an insight into the reasons why some year groups are back, what has changed, if it is safe to send your children and what teachers and parents are thinking.

Who is back in school?

Some children from Early Years, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 are heading back to school for their third week, though it is estimated by the National Foundation for Educational Research only 54-per-cent of eligible children are in school and as little as 52-per-cent of schools are re-open for pupils. To bombard you with further statistics, according to the Department for Education as of June 4 the number of children in school only represented 6.9-per-cent of the total number of children normally in education across all years. It is clear therefore that only a tiny proportion of children are back in education.

What changes are in place?

Classes have to be in bubbles of no more than 15 pupils who are taught by the same teaching staff and do not come into contact with other children or staff outside of their bubble. With young children it has been taken into account that social distancing will not always be possible so instead the focus is on hand washing very frequently and sneezing and coughing into a tissue and binning it to avoid spreading germs.

Soft furnishings have been removed from classrooms and children are sitting at their own desks spaced out across the classroom with their own stationary.

“At my child’s school the teacher has done the Reception children little packs of stationary, bricks and Lego which is disinfected regularly and stays on their desk all week.

“We also have to send them in clean clothes every day and only their lunch boxes and drinks can come from home,” says Isabella Hicks, mother to Rupert, aged five.

Children eat in their bubbles in their classrooms and have a specific toilet only their bubble can use. Outdoor learning is encouraged as much as possible as scientists believe the transmission rate outdoors is much lower, especially at a distance of two metres and there are staggered drop-offs and pickups to minimise adult contact.

Testing is available to all staff and children, and if a child becomes unwell, they are to be tested as soon as possible. The rest of the bubble are likely to be asked to self-isolate for 7 days or more or until the result of the test comes back.

Why those year groups?

The focus from the government is getting children back in the classroom from transition year groups as it is feared the longer they are out of the classroom, the further they will fall behind. The government produced a 50-page document and explained the reasoning behind the year groups.

“Children in Reception and Year 1 are at the very beginning of their school career and are mastering the essential basics, including counting and the fundamentals of reading and writing, and learning to socialise with their peers.

“Year 6 children are finishing Key Stage 2 and are preparing for the transition to secondary school and will benefit immensely from time with their friends and teachers to ensure they are ready,” says the report.

Helen Childerhouse, an educational expert from the University of Lincoln, isn’t convinced by the year groups chosen to return.

“It seems strange to send Year 6 pupils back into their primary schools.  I would have suggested that they attend transition sessions at the secondary school they will be attending in September.

“Early years children are unable to follow social distancing expectations due to their age and lack of understanding and they require much greater management. I would have expected Key Stage 2 and secondary pupils to return first,” she remarks.

When will other years return?

Plans for the rest of primary aged children to return before the summer break have been scrapped by the government in favour of schools having more flexibility to open if they feel they can safely do so. This has caused a lot of controversy since its announcement on June 10 as it will mean some children are out of education for six months assuming they can safely return by September. However, this isn’t a certainty.

Private schools with smaller class sizes have the room to open for more children but without clear guidance on how to do this from the government, insurance companies will not sanction more children attending.

Headteacher Claire Ogden of Ayscoughfee Hall School, a fee paying prep school in Spalding, said: “I would love to get more children back in school, we have worked out numerous scenarios to facilitate this from a rota of classes attending bi-weekly, to full attendance for all if the numbers are low enough. The issue we have though is our insurance company will only act on clear advice from the government on how to operate this safely and at the moment, this is not forthcoming. Having the flexibility to open if we have room isn’t enough and we need more information,” explains Claire.

Under current guidelines from the government, children in each bubble have their own toilet separate from other bubbles with a one in, one out system.  Most schools do not have the capacity to adhere to this rule with more children in school.

Is it safe to send my child back to nursery or school?

Ask two scientists and you will get two different answers as unfortunately so much is still unknown about the virus. Covid-19 has created a huge amount of debate on transmission amongst children, and it still isn’t clear if children infect adults at the same rate as adults transmit the disease. What is clear, though, is that the virus isn’t as deadly for children with just three children under the age of 15 sadly passing away since the start of the outbreak according to official government statistics, which demonstrates the risk to life for children under 15-years-old is extremely minimal.

Dr Walter Lucchesi, a lecturer in Biomedical Science at Royal Holloway, University of London, has a special interest in virology and explains this further. “In this particular case of SARS-cov 2 children might spread the virus at different rate, similar to being less prone to develop COVID19; a protection that so far is not fully explained but clearly observed. This is a question mark that will need to be resolved.

“We should always remember the original guidelines of physical distancing, minimising interactions and simple hygiene such as washing hands, not touching your face and not sharing glasses or food. Children have already missed out on education and essential social activities with social and psychological impact, so it is important to try and get them back safely.”

Without a vaccine, living with coronavirus will become a necessity, potentially for years to come. The choice to keep children at home for their safety might have to be a long-term decision which is hard for working parents.

“If SARScov2 has got a seasonal pattern, which personally I predict it will have, then it is likely that it could come back in late autumn or early winter. Therefore, scenarios and models that will help us to tackle this perspective are essential and the word is preparedness,” says Dr Lucchesi.

Many schools have decided to remain closed to all children other than those of keyworkers beyond June 1 as they did not feel they could safely re-open yet. Some of those schools did re-open this week for more children, suggesting that, by the summer holidays, more children from the transition year groups may return to school as parent’s views soften.

“I would always suggest that health and safety have priority over curricular delivery. Schools provide so much more than just education and this is not always acknowledged.  Schools have the privilege of supporting, teaching and caring for parents most precious treasure and it is their duty to ensure that children and their families are safe in the first instance,” says Helen Childerhouse.

What are teachers saying?

A Year 1 teacher who regularly posts on Netmums under the name WoWsers16 spoke to us about her experience so far: “I have loved my first few weeks back. I have a class of 28 and 16 have returned so we have put them into two bubbles of 8 as we believe more will be back in the coming weeks.

“Our headteacher has done an amazing risk assessment which focusses on the wellbeing of staff and children. Whilst we are doing the core lessons to catch children back up, we have shifted our focus to wellbeing and mindfulness.”

Emily Patman, a Reception teacher, also confirmed the focus has been on mental health. “It is important to make the children feel comfortable in their surroundings as it is quite different. We regularly do a feelings circle and we have done lots of songs and activities about coronavirus and why we are socially distancing. The children have taken to it so well and I am comfortable to teach under the current guidelines from our headteacher,” she says.

What are parents saying?

The debate on school social WhatsApp groups has been extensive and at times personal and negative. Laura Andrew, a mother to two boys, decided to send her four-year-old back to school.

“It felt heated in the group chat for our year. Those that had chosen to return our children were being judged by certain people who were not. Especially when you are being sent article links and information informing you that your children are being used as guinea pigs,” remarks Laura.

Kate Reed, a mother to two from Boston, decided to keep both her children at home. “Knowing my son, I don’t know how he would get on with social distancing and I felt it might have been a bit stressful for the teachers to have to patrol them all the time. Having said that he would love to go back to school, he loves learning at school, but not so much at home.”

Roxanne Wallis, a mother of two boys from Yaxley, has also decided to keep her children at home. “I do not wish to send either back to their settings. I think my primary concern at the moment is the ability for teachers to keep high enough levels of hygiene up with many students in an age group not particularly known for their exceptional hygiene. Added to that concern is the fact that I am pregnant and it’s making me more risk averse to the situation. My fear is that we are being lifted out of a severe lockdown too early and this is raising the probability of a second wave.

“If the government had decided to charge parents, I would have made the decision to home-school long-term as I am not sending them back in September if the situation remains the same as it is now,” adds Roxanne.

Sandie Hutchinson decided to keep her six-year-old boy at home. “He was a very poorly baby so looking at the reports in the media, I felt I couldn’t bring myself to send him, fearing the worst.

“The first week only five children returned to his Year 1 class but he was so upset to be missing out, I decided to send him the second week and he is so much happier back at school. A further five parents also decided to send. I guess we just wanted to wait and see how the first week went for other parents,” explains Sandie.

What if I keep my children off, will they be disadvantaged?

A huge catch-up plan is currently being devised by Educational Secretary Gavin Williamson in an attempt to bring children back to an even level when they can return. The initial part of the plan is to make internet free and accessible for all children to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to learning.

Teacher Sharon Clarke, a supply teacher with a teaching career spanning more than 30 years, explains what she thinks will need to happen when children return. “Children having more than six months out of education and varying levels of parental input from lots of home-learning to none will need to have a focused entry back into education. The government will have to drop the levels of expected learning to make this effective, and instead I think teaching will have to return to much more traditional, grassroot methods for core subjects. There is so much pressure on teachers to meet targets but in order to ensure children do not fall behind there will have to be time to focus on reading, writing, maths and English initially, going over and over until they are back to the level of understanding expected,” she says.

Helen, the educational expert, expands on this further. “Circumstances will play a huge part in the level of support and pastoral and academic input children need.  Teachers are incredibly skilled at shaping their provision to meet the needs of individual children.  I feel that the focus should be on pastoral and social support in the first instance.  Children are not able to learn academically if they are unhappy, insecure, frightened or unsettled.”

With so much uncertainty around coronavirus and a clear message of “stay home” from the government for so long, it is unsurprising parents are divided and nervous about their children returning to education. The government have a long way to go to get schools ready for more children by September and it is likely that education will be disrupted for a long time to come as rates of infection rise and fall in certain areas across the winter months. It is important to make the right decision for your own family and take advantage of the educational resources available if you are home-schooling to keep your children learning, though their mental health is equally as important at such a troubling time. Tag us on Facebook or Instagram to let us know your own story about school and if you have sent your children back or are continuing to home-school.

The Dreaded PT

I can’t put it off any longer. The dreaded PT is upon us and actually I think I would rather be shouted at in the gym for an hour than face the real reality of…

Potty training.

As a mum of two boys I am outnumbered in the toilet department, and have to just accept that for the foreseeable future, I will have to sprint to the toilet ahead of any guests to make sure they don’t get soggy socks, or worse. If only that was a joke.

I have shamefully made a swift exit from a local café that has a small area of soft-play after my first born decided the artificial grass looked too realistic. The fact he is comfortable, as actor Jack Black would put it, to ‘drop-trou’ in nature comes with its own horrifying tales but this might have been the worst of his toilet antics. I can only assume I have the ‘flight over fight’ instinct to account for the dash. A moment impressed on my memory as a parenting low point, normally popping into my head just as I am falling asleep.

I have read hundreds of advice articles online, even delving into the lengthy opinionated threads on Mumsnet to no avail. Nappy-free time always leads to accidents and Wilf is the child who will happily sit in wet pants, I am guessing until they dry out again?

The only time he is willing to sit on the potty is after he has filled his nappy. His odd thought process in which he thinks if he sits on the potty after the event, he will skip the cleaning process, like the potty has some magical cleaning process of its own.

Perhaps he has seen a self-cleaning toilet during one of his Youtube sessions.  It would surprisingly be a lot more interesting than watching an American child unpackage and play with a toy Wilf actually owns and could be playing with in real life himself. That would be far too sensible.

So alas I am in limbo, trying to remind myself that no grown man crawls into a board room meeting in a nappy as he never learnt to walk or use a toilet.

Although now I have written it, perhaps it doesn’t seem completely inconceivable in a morning after a drug-fueled bender, Wolf of Wall Street, lads in the city-esque way.

The Terrible Twos

The clock strikes midnight turning your gorgeous bundle of joy into a two-year-old. Like magic dust has been sprinkled over their pillow as they sleep, the ‘terrible twos’ alter their attitude and you are left wondering what on earth happened to your baby over night?

The sweet alliteration lulls you into a false sense of security that it can’t actually be that bad, don’t be fooled. Friends assure you their child made three drama free then whisper something inaudible about threenagers.

To offer a little advice, commiseration or encouragement, I have compiled my top moments of the phase so far. You will live with a mini volcano that will erupt spontaneously and inconsiderately though. Enjoy that.

They will ask for a blue plate, they want a blue plate, you serve dinner on the blue plate. They will scream for half an hour on the floor as they wanted a red plate and you are such a mean mummy for not sensing this telepathically.

For public meltdowns lift them up by the back of their coat and march out as if they are some sort of wriggly suitcase. Just always remember to zip up first to avoid face-plants.

They will sense any ounce of mum guilt and fully throw it back in your face. My Lincoln stopovers to get last minute projects done in December resulted in a meltdown at Disneyland as neither child wanted to sit with me on a ride, only Daddy. If you take it personally you will cry into your £20 cheeseburger and feel like a tit.

Their sweet nature and willingness to please will disappear, not all the time but enough to make you question if it is worth a Google to see at what age personality traits are set. I am reliably informed Adolf Hitler was a lovely child, maybe it’s not time to panic just yet.

 I smiled at Wilf playing the other day and he turned to me, pointed and shouted: “Do not smile at me mummy,” with the most furrowed brow a tiny face can muster.

Most of all try and keep a straight face. It is so hard at times, especially when they are in trouble for answering their dad back in a hilarious mimic involving a puppet parrot.

If all else fails, hide in the pantry and eat their Christmas chocolate whilst chanting: “You are not the boss of me.”

School Mum

At the tender age of 30 I became a school mum, no longer smug booking term time holidays at bargain prices. I’d heard so many horror stories about the dreaded school gate. A year in, what would I tell myself?

BBC’s Motherland, a comedy based around a group of school mums is actually quite depressing as it’s remarkably accurate, apart from the abundance of wine at children’s birthday parties.

So far that hasn’t materialised. The cliché characters really exist. It’s worse than being 15 years old in an all-girls school, with hormones almost visible as they float down the corridor. Bored school mums can be meaner than the Year 11 captain of the netball team. The worst part is, they will be nice to your face. Just blanket smile at everyone, it’s the safest option.

The school day is ridiculously short. It’s not really worth your while leaving. Why lose your parking spot, a mere 25-minute stroll from the gate after-all? Any trips you do result in a stressed and rushed commute back.

The image of your lonely child, last to be collected, assuming you’d forgotten them impressed on your mind. You’ll shout profanities at slow and leisurely drivers, praying they aren’t repeated at teatime by your two-year-old. Me: “Well they didn’t hear that from me?” Two-year old: “Mummy you said the old man was a sh*t driver.”

You can buy 30 pairs of navy socks and you still won’t be able to find a pair when you are running late. Note, it’s always these mornings that your child tells you they need their PE kit, blazer and library book but can’t possibly find it all themselves as they have to pick a ‘pocket-toy’ that will inevitably be lost in the playground, or launched over the fence. It was always a dare, never original thought, apparently.

Skive work for assembly. Watching your child spot you at the back of the hall and grin from ear to ear will make you want to sob uncontrollably. The guilt at missing one will be huge. “I looked for you mummy, but I couldn’t see you.”

The best part though is you will click with a few school mums and feel like you are 15 again, discussing boys in a hot tub. Only the boys aren’t boyfriends this time, just mini people who stole our hearts the day we brought them into the world.

Reading with young children

Ailsa Adams, columnist and mother to George and Wilf, aged five and two explains why reading with your small children is still important in 2020.

As the digital world encroaches on our lives further, it is still important to read physical books with young children and babies. The benefits are far reaching for both the child and yourself and as the phrase says: “There is no App to replace your lap.”

When to start?

It is never too early according to Dr Karen Coats, the Director of the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge University: “As early as the 1970s, researchers have found that infants can recognise a text that has been read to them repeatedly while they were still in the womb, within hours after birth.”

Sounds like the perfect excuse to read your old favourite children’s book aloud to your bump with a hot cup of tea, all in the name of education.

Benefits for your child

There are so many benefits to reading with young children, the obvious one being language development. Dr Karen expands: “When babies and children are read to, they hear many more and different words than people use in everyday conversation. They also hear these words in clusters and expressions such as ‘handsome prince’ or ‘big, bad wolf’ so they are getting a sense of context.”

One book a day prior to starting school at the age of four will mean the child has listened to at least 1460 stories. The impact to literacy is so far reaching, not only for competence but also for enjoyment, attention span and focus.  “You can tell who has been read to and who hasn’t when teaching a child to read and it alters their enjoyment of it, it can be much less of a chore.  If you are in a good routine of reading with your child, it will also be easier to start hearing them read to you every day after school,” says Sharon Clarke, a primary school teacher in London and Lincolnshire for 35 years and mother to six children.

Another benefit is that it is an easy way of bonding with your baby and can form an essential part of a good bedtime routine. If you are struggling to get a child to go to sleep, instilling a routine can really help with the winding down process, getting the book out is the signal it is time for bed. A warning from Dr Karen though: “Be aware that for babies, a book is something to explore with their mouths, so you want to make sure the books you share aren’t too precious.”

The best part is while they are a baby, you can pick what you read to them.

Benefits for you

It is an excuse to escape reality for ten minutes a day while you delve into the depths of make-believe. Dr Karen feels passionately about dedicating time: “For that space of time, phones are put away, TVs turned off, and the pair share attention without the distractions.

“Most books for children are enjoyable in ways that adults might have forgotten such as the rhythm of the text, the humour or the appeal of the images.”

It also impacts on our mental and overall health in a positive way. “Rhythmic language can actually lower blood pressure, for instance, and reading picture-books and stories that require the creation of mental images integrates neural activity, making the reader feel more coherent after a day of stressful demands,” says Dr Karen.

Does it matter what you read?

Not really, but some books are more beneficial than others. Dr Karen offers advice on what is the most beneficial: “Everything starts with poetry, so read lots of poetry. This will give them an ear for their language and help them develop confidence in speaking as well, as children’s poems are written to be read aloud.”

At a young age enjoyment is also vital, there is no point reading Aristotle to a two-year-old if they (and you) are not interested. A book they can get involved with will have them reaching for it again and again from the bookshelf.  “Around 10 months old I really noticed the effect reading was having on the boys. Rex started to pick the books off the shelf he wanted me to read to him, showing favouritism to certain pages too,” says Isabella Hicks, a reader and mother of three boys aged five, three and two.

Dr Karen agrees: “Give them lots of opportunities to choose their own books and do some exploratory work on your own to find books that present them with a range of artistic styles and diverse stories.”

What if my baby won’t sit still?

Start small with short stories and keep building it up, taking breaks to discuss it with older toddlers. Dr Karen believes the talking around the book is as important as the book itself: “Talk, talk, talk about what you’re reading, you’ll be surprised with what they noticed that you didn’t.”

The last story read to Wilf is in his bed, so he is laying down and engaged with the story. It is a different type of reading than daytime when he is pointing at pictures and turning the pages.

“Reading with toddlers both on and off your lap is a great start to getting them used to sitting on the carpet for story-time at school,” says Sharon Clarke.

The verdict is clear. Let’s reach for our favourite books and have a snuggle for some essential, educational bonding time, complete with lots of obligatory head sniffs, to soak up the adorable baby smell.