child development · Just for fun · lifestyle · parenting · play

Free & Cheap Ideas For Fun Outdoors With A 12 – 18 Month Old Toddler

I’ve previously written about Little Man’s first discoveries of the great outdoors as a newly-walking toddler. I thought it would be fun to follow up with some ideas for fun ways to play and explore the great outdoors when you have a young toddler – in the one year old to eighteen months sort of timeframe. I’m focusing on cheap and easy activities that involve household items you probably already have, or at least that don’t require purchasing anything worth more than about £1… Because fun shouldn’t be mega expensive!

Free & Cheap Ideas For Fun Outdoors With A 12 – 18 Month Old Toddler

Pebbles in a Pot

This idea came from my own lovely mum! When I was a kid we had a gravel area outside our kitchen door, and mum said I used to spend ages sat on the step happily putting little pebbles from the gravel into empty milk bottles.

We have a small amount of gravel in our back garden, so I thought I would try the same with Little Man, showing him how to put pebbles into an empty plastic bottle… And he loves it! (To be fair, it could be genetic – so I guess there’s no guarantee your kids will like it, buuut let’s just skate past that). He needs reasonably close supervision to ensure he doesn’t try to eat any of the pebbles, but as time has gone by, the frequency of attempted pebble-munching has greatly diminished.

Pebbles in a pot!

The pebbles in a pot game is great for fine motor skills as well as concepts like big and small, empty and full. And honestly, it requires so little parental input that it’s perfect for those mornings when you find yourself in your back garden with an energetic toddler much, much earlier than planned…

Interactive Plants

Okay, bear with me, because I didn’t really have a title for this one! While on our way to nursery one morning a couple of months ago, I introduced Little Man to the concept of dandelion clocks. He loved watching me blow away the seeds and having a try himself (mainly just aggressively blowing raspberries in the complete wrong direction, but he had a go!). Now he loves dandelions and asks for them whenever we go out – he calls them “bubbles” which actually kind of makes sense when you think about it.

But dandelions aren’t the only interactive plant out there! We’ve played with snapdragons (antirrhinums), squeezing the sides of the flower to make them snap, and Little Man really likes picking daisies and singing the Upsy Daisy song from In The Night Garden – and watching mama make daisy chains. There’s such fun to be had in simply exploring new flowers and plant textures like tulips, daffodils, poppies and strands of grass.

When we go out, Little Man also enjoys looking for daisies, dandelions, leaves and sticks, and later on in the summer I can’t wait to go foraging for blackberries and other fruit, and playing with popping the seedpods of bizzy lizzies (impatiens). There’s really so many fun and interesting plants that little ones can explore, it’s probably worth a blog post on its own!

Upsy Daisy, here I come!

Treasure Hunt

I thought this would be a bit too complicated for Little Man at just 14 months old, but actually thanks to Easter I discovered that you really can do a fun treasure hunt in the garden, even for really young toddlers.

First, pick something they’ll be really interested in finding (like, say, shiny chocolate eggs… Or toys wrapped in silver foil). Let them watch you “hide” them (pretty much in plain sight), and then set them loose! With a fair bit of help and prompting, it’s a really fun way to spend some time together. Little Man though did not trust us to look after the eggs he had found while he looked for others, which created a slight issue when he ran out of hands…

Easter Egg Hunt Champion 2021

Fun with Water

You don’t need to buy a paddling pool to have fun in the sunshine (when the sunshine actually turns up, of course). We have now invested in a pool, but before we did, we had loads of fun with a washing up bowl and a bucket of water in the garden! Little Man actually still managed to fit in a normal kitchen bucket at almost 18 months old, and really enjoyed watching the water spilling over the rim as he sat down, and stood up… And sat down, and stood up… Safe to say, the lawn got a good watering.

Setting up a few buckets of water and some cups and things to play with is super easy and a great way to keep cool on a hot day. Just make sure you don’t forget the sun cream!

Making Marks With Chalk

This is my last suggestion and unless you live near some natural chalk hills and can collect a pocketful of rock chalk while out for a walk, you’ll need to buy some chalks – I got a big packet for £1 from our local cheap and cheerful store (it’s not technically a pound shop so I don’t know what else to call it…)

Chalk is great because of course it washes away in the rain, so you can make a huge mess of a driveway, path, fence, some rocks or a wheelie bin… And not worry too much about the cleanup (if you live in the UK, anyway). Little Man is loving playing with chalk at the moment and it’s great for starting to learn the alphabet and numbers as well.

Your top tips for free and cheap outdoor play ideas

What are your top tips and ideas for fun outdoors with a toddler? I’d love to get more ideas and tips for me and Little Man this summer!

health · Just for fun

Why You Should Always Find Out Your Surgeon’s Birthday

Today is my birthday! How old am I? Fortunately that’s not relevant to this blog post. Because today, we’re going to be talking about the most important birthday you need to add to your calendar. And, hard though it is to believe – it’s not my birthday… It’s your surgeon’s. Because a study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has found that patients who underwent surgery on the surgeon’s birthday exhibited higher mortality than patients who underwent surgery on other days.

Wait, what?

Yes, that’s correct. Your surgeon is more likely to kill you if they’re operating on you on their birthday. How’s that for a crazy fact – and a completely inappropriate topic for a light-hearted celebratory birthday blog post? In my defense, the study was published as part of the British Medical Journal’s fun and festive Christmas edition, so I’m not the only one completely misjudging the suitability of the topic for light entertainment.

It’s my surgeon’s birthday. How worried should I be?

The study looked at almost a million surgical procedures performed by 47,489 surgeons, and found that mortality rates were 6.9% on surgeon’s birthdays, compared to 5.6% on other days. That’s a pretty noticeable difference – but there are, of course, a few “buts”…

The study looked at 17 common emergency surgical procedures, performed on patients aged 65 – 99, at US hospitals from 2011 – 2014. The fact that these were emergency procedures performed on older people means the expected mortality rate for the first 30 days after surgery was already quite high. Unless you’re a 65+ year old undergoing a common medical emergency, even if it is your surgeon’s birthday, you’ve probably not got a 6.9% chance of dying. Good news for anyone getting an ingrowing toenail removed (or having pituitary surgery).

Additionally, apparently it’s actually comparable to the kind of increase in death rates that is seen at other times – including Christmas, New Year and weekends. So that’s… not at all reassuring, actually, now I think of it.

Why does it happen?

Well, the study was observational, meaning that the authors couldn’t establish the reasons behind the ‘birthday effect’ they observed, or exclude the impact of other, unmeasured factors. But they suggested a number of factors that could be at play:

  • Surgeons rushing to complete procedures on their birthday if they have plans to celebrate later on.
  • More distractions from birthday phone messages or conversations with team members, which could lead to more errors.
  • Surgeons being less likely to check up on patients following surgery, if they are busy with birthday plans.

They all sound totally plausible, although I’ve also thought of a few of my own that the researchers somehow missed:

  • Surgical staff suffering from a sugar rush and subsequent drop in blood sugars after eating birthday cake, impairing surgical performance.
  • One or two evil surgeons intentionally killing patients as part of some kind of sick annual birthday ritual. It’s probably a whole conspiracy, guys. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out Bill Gates was involved.

How reliable is the study?

I’m not a statistician, so I’ll leave that question to more experienced maths jockeys. I will say, however, that the letters section of the British Medical Journal website contains a number of letters on the topic from some very disgruntled surgeons, and is well worth a read. To quote one letter from neurosurgeon Steven A. Reid: “One wonders about the intrusion of errors on the part of statisticians on their birthdays — I’m certain the outcome isn’t as dramatic. More speeding tickets perhaps?”

And in conclusion…

Well, I’m not a surgeon, but you’ll be glad to hear I’ve booked my birthday off work anyway. You can’t be too careful, right? And if you’re reading this while in the office, well… play it safe and go read about my experience of transsphenoidal pituitary surgery rather than doing any more of that dangerous work stuff…

baby · Just for fun · parenting · Seasonal

First Spring Into Nature: A Toddler’s First Steps In Springtime

Little Man is now 16 months old. Since last autumn he’s changed from being a baby into a toddler, and sometimes it feels like it’s difficult to keep up! Over the winter, he learned to walk, and one of the best things about the weather warming up for spring has been the opportunity for him to really explore the natural world on his own terms as a toddler, and take his first spring into nature.

Of course, last year we spent plenty of time outdoors – thanks to lockdown, there often wasn’t much to do other than to sit out in the garden together in the afternoons. But the ability to walk rather than crawl (or just lie there!) has completely changed how he interacts with nature, and also (let’s be honest) slightly reduced the frequency with which he tries to eat pebbles, dirt, and leaves. I wanted to write a post about Little Man’s first spring into nature, what he’s enjoyed most in the great outdoors, and some of the fun ways he’s engaged with springtime.

First Spring into Nature: A Toddler’s First Steps in Springtime

Meeting the birds

Little Man loves birds. When walking him to and from nursery in the pram, he would sometimes point up at the sky, or behind us. After a while, my husband realised he was pointing at birds, which of course were usually gone by the time mum or dad turned to look.

He’s fascinated by birds, and now we make a point of stopping to look whenever there’s a fat pigeon on a fence that’s too lazy to fly away when we get close. There’s even a little blackbird who has been flying back and forth from a particular berry-covered tree on our way to nursery all winter, who sometimes will perch on a branch and watch us watching him for a little while before he flaps off.

Going to see the ducks on the river has also been a big hit this winter, although I’m not sure that Little Man has worked out the connection between swimming ducks and flying birdies…

Down by the riverside

First steps on grass

The first time after Little Man had learned to walk that it was mild enough to take him out to the garden and let him try walking on the grass was so lovely. He didn’t know what to make of the grass but once he discovered how soft it was to fall over on, he threw himself (often quite literally…) into the challenge of learning to walk on it.

I love the fact that when you have a young child, you almost rediscover the world from their perspective. As a grown up, I wouldn’t say that walking on a freshly-mown lawn is any more difficult than walking on a flat pavement – unlike, say, walking on sand, which is noticeably more difficult. But for Little Man, it’s a completely different experience. Plus, there are loads of little rocks everywhere to eat look at…

One of our first trips to the garden this spring

First snow

We didn’t get heavy snow here at any point this winter (unlike most of the rest of the country, it seems!). But we did get a decent dusting one day – enough for wee man to get out and discover snow for the first time. We bundled him up and set him loose on the driveway.

He was fascinated and really enjoyed it for a little bit, until he fell down onto his bum and I wasn’t quite quick enough to pick him up. A chilly rear end was apparently enough to put him off snow completely, and so we retreated back into the house. I think the fun of snow is perhaps more pronounced for slightly older children.

First snow for Little Man

Meeting the flowers

I love spring bulbs and flowers. My garden is filled with daffodils, tulips, hyacinths – you name it. I love the way that bright daffodils really make it feel like spring has finally arrived, even if the weather is still cold. And for Little Man, the daffodils are almost as big as he is, which is strange to imagine from an adult’s perspective.

He’s been loving discovering flowers, from the bulbs in our garden to the cut flowers we’ve had in the house over the past few weeks. But when he fell over in the local park and squashed a lovely bed of narcissus perfectly flat, we did run away pretty sharpish…

Meeting a daffodil

Your first spring into nature:

What fun discoveries have your little ones made this springtime? Let me know in the comments!

health · pain · top tips

Best Ways To Relax And Enjoy Life When You’re In Pain

I’ve written previously about alternative ways to cope with pain when you can’t (or don’t want) to use painkillers. I thought it was time to follow that up with a post about ways to relax, and even try to enjoy your time, when you’re in pain.

I’m writing mainly from my perspective as someone who’s had chronic pain from my hypermobility spectrum disorder throughout my life. My joint pain tends to come and go – sometimes it’s really bad, sometimes it’s just an annoying backnote. This post is focused around things you can do to relax and distract yourself from pain – perhaps when you’re waiting for pain relief to kick in, or if your normal treatment hasn’t got rid of the pain entirely. There is a strong connection between mental health and pain; stress exacerbates pain, so by using these ideas to help relax, it may also help to reduce your perception of the pain. You might find it useful if you suffer from chronic pain, or you have a current injury that’s bothering you…

how to relax and enjoy life when you're in pain the sickly mama blog pain management top tips

Best Ways To Relax And Enjoy Life When You’re In Pain

1. Take a bath

Heat can be a great way to treat pain, so a warm bath is a great way to treat pain but also to distract yourself from it and have an enjoyable time. I always love having a bath with nicely scented bath products – there are plenty of bath soaks on the market which are specifically targeted at soothing sore muscles or relaxing you. You can take a cup of herbal tea and a book, or play some relaxing music, and just chill in relative comfort. There’s also the benefit that the water takes some of the weight off your muscles and joints.

sylvia plath bath quote the sickly mama blog hot bath to help with pain management

2. Yummy smells

I guess technically the word I’m looking for is ‘aromatherapy’, but that sounds very formal for the kind of thing I’m talking about. When you’re in physical pain, it can be difficult to focus on anything other than the pain, but strong comforting scents can be a really good, pleasant distraction – especially if they come with comforting memories or associations attached. You can try using an oil burner, reed diffuser or wax melts that scent your whole house; scented massage oils or moisturisers; or you can use essential oils on a handkerchief or on your pillow at night.

3. Gentle Exercise

It depends on the cause of your pain as to whether this one is likely to help – obviously if you have a sports injury that needs resting up, or a condition that means your pain worsens with exertion, then this is not the suggestion for you! But gentle exercise can really help with some joint and muscle pain, which can actually be exacerbated if you stay still for too long.

I love taking a walk when my joints are painful, because not only does the exercise help to reduce stiffness and ease the pain, but also just being outside is a lovely distraction for my mind, and it gives me something else to focus on. Since having Little Man, I’ve actually discovered that walking with a pram is especially nice if my hips and leg joints are playing up, for some reason.

Alternatively, light stretching, yoga or tai chi can be really good for pain as well. Yoga With Adriene has free online videos including this yoga routine for chronic pain, and other yoga flows aimed at targeting different types of pain including migraine, sciatica, back pain and more.

tkv desikachar yoga quote yoga for relaxing and coping with pain chronic illness the sickly mama

4. Mindfulness and Meditation

Mmm it’s time to get hippy dippy! Meditation has also been shown to be effective in reducing pain, and it’s believed this is because it reduces the stress response in the body. I find it’s especially helpful at bedtime if you’re trying to go to sleep while you’re in pain. Personally, I enjoy guided meditations where you visualise peaceful locations like a beach or a forest, but there are lots of different styles of meditation around, so keep looking until you find one that works for you. There’s loads of free guided meditations online – try experimenting to find a meditation style you enjoy.

5. Get Closer to Nature

Spending time in nature is inherently relaxing. Walking, gardening, or going foraging are all great ways to relax and gently distract yourself; but even if you’re not up to doing anything too physical, just taking some time in the great outdoors is a great way to feel better. On a sunny day, a spot of sunbathing can boost your mood (obviously use sunscreen and limit your time in the sun!) but as long as you wrap up, even on colder days the sight and sounds of nature are really soothing.

Your tips for relaxing and enjoying life when you’re in pain:

Do you have experience of managing a chronic pain condition, or pain from an injury or illness? What are the ways you try to relax and chill out even when you’re in pain? Let me know your tips in the comments!

how to relax and enjoy life when you're in pain the sickly mama blog chronic pain illness
children's books · Just for fun · parenting · reviews

Brutally Honest Children’s Book Review: Moon Dance by Christian Riese Lassen

Continuing my series of Brutally Honest Children’s Book Reviews, today I will be reviewing the board book Moon Dance. No, sadly Van Morrison has not branched out into the magical world of kids books (as far as I know) – this is written by Christian Riese Lassen, famous primarily for painting pictures of dolphins.

We inherited the book from some lovely friends once their daughter outgrew it (thanks guys!), and it has proved very popular with Little Man. Moon Dance refers to itself as ‘A Sparkle Book’, as if sparkle books were a thing we have all heard of. A quick search of Amazon Books identifies other children’s books by Riese Lassen which also include curious classifications: Sea Treasures (‘A Mystery Envelope Book’), and Sea Creatures (‘A Read And Play Carry Puzzle Book’). Sounds complicated. But anyway! On with the review…

Brutally Honest Children’s Book Review: Moon Dance by Christian Riese Lassen

A Sparkle Book

In fairness to Moon Dance, it very much does what it says on the tin. The illustrations of underwater life are beautiful and engaging, and there can be no doubt that this is, indeed, a Sparkle Book. Every full-page illustration, including the front cover, features colourful sparkly cut-outs that will bewitch even the least magpie-like babies and toddlers.

No Time To Rhyme

Moon Dance is essentially a poem, all about dolphins having a lovely underwater dance. This is where the problems start to creep in. The book contains seven verses of four lines each, with an ABCB rhyme scheme, i.e. there are 7 opportunities to rhyme in this book. Of those verses, three rhyme on the same word: ‘light’. That’s nearly half the book turning on the same rhyme. I know it’s a kid’s book, but it’s hardly a rousing introduction to the magical world of poetry, and it sounds very clunky. Rhymezone.com reliably informs me that there are 589 possible rhymes for ‘light’ in the English language. We know you’re really a painter, Christian Riese Lassen, but next time maybe try a little harder with the words…

Sparkly but dumb

Unnatural History

Now we come to the next issue: one for all fans of David Attenborough documentaries (and if you’re not a fan of David Attenborough documentaries then, quite frankly, you need to sit down and take a long, hard look at yourself). The natural history depicted in this book is questionable at best. Am I being petty? Yes. Is it reasonable to expect 100% accuracy in the depictions of underwater life in a children’s book whose primary selling point is the fact that it has sparkly pages? Who knows. But is this series called Brutally Honest Children’s Book Reviews? You’re damn right it is. So let’s continue.

All is pretty much well for the first four pages, assuming you can get on board with the basic concept that dolphins like to spend the whole night dancing, instead of sleeping like everyone else (in fact dolphins are often active late at night, but do also sleep for a few hours here and there, so in a way everyone’s right).

Then we hit a problem: page 5 opens with the couplet “Down on the seabed / Where colours are bold”. This strikes me as off for two reasons:

  • Water absorbs light rapidly, with some wavelengths (i.e. colours) absorbed faster than others. The colour red completely disappears by the time you reach a depth of c. 20 feet, orange by c. 50 feet, and so on. Unless this is an incredibly shallow seabed, it’s not likely that the colours there would be especially bold.
  • More importantly, the entire premise of the book is that IT’S NIGHTTIME. Colours are not bold at night!

So, we take a deep breath and move on. Hey, it’s just one line, right?

All Thriller, No Killer

At first glance, the verse on the next page is nice, about how the whales join in the dance alongside the dolphins. But wait. What’s that in the corresponding illustration? Those are killer whales. This is significant because (a) killer whales are not really whales, they’re just giant monochrome dolphins, but more importantly (b) killer whales notoriously eat dolphins, meaning they’re not especially likely to be caught prancing around in the moonlight together – unless the killer whales are trying to catch a dolphin dinner. I don’t know about you, but that seems a bit dark for a kids book for me. As my husband points out: “They’ve got the word ‘killer’ in their fucking name, guys”.

Not the best of buddies

Little Man’s Review

In all fairness, despite its flaws, Little Man loves Moon Dance, as it is very shiny and reflective. The pages are a bit large for tiny hands, so he struggles to look at the book on his own, but if mama or dada holds the book he enjoys turning the pages. And, for extra enjoyment, mama and dada gently shake the pages to make them sparkle to the absolute max, which proves very popular.

Brutally Honest Children’s Book Reviews: The Verdict

And so, in conclusion we come at last to the moment you’ve all been waiting for… Drumroll please, it’s the Brutally Honest Children’s Book Review Star Rating System, and the results are in for Moon Dance by Christian Riese Lassen:

  • Plot: *** (3/5)
  • Illustrations: ***** (5/5)
  • Interactive features: *** (3/5)
  • Educational Value: ** (2/5)
  • Little Man: **** (4/5)

Aggregate Score: (17/25)

health · Just for fun · pregnancy

Things That Are Suddenly Unexpectedly Difficult When You’re Pregnant

Okay, so everyone knows that pregnancy makes some things difficult. Doing up your shoelaces, fitting in your clothes, and picking up something you’ve dropped on the floor are all tasks that you know are going to become challenging when you’re super pregnant. But some other pregnancy problems are not so predictable… like walking through a car park, or reading about cheese. It’s a well-known fact that forewarned is forearmed, so I’m writing this blog post to warn other mothers-to-be about all the things that are suddenly unexpectedly difficult when you’re pregnant…

Unexpected Things That Are Suddenly Difficult When You’re Pregnant

Walking through a car park

When I was pregnant, my pre-existing joint problems got a lot worse. I have a condition called hypermobility spectrum disorder, which means that my joints are more flexible than they’re supposed to be. In pregnancy, the additional weight from my baby bump meant that my joints were under even more pressure than normal, which meant a lot of quite severe joint pain. My employer was actually super about this, and they gave me a car parking space for the duration of my pregnancy (car parking spaces are like gold dust at my work, so it was very exciting). This meant that every morning and afternoon, I had to walk through the underground car park.

And OH MY GOD it was like a logic puzzle! Normally, if you’re trying to fit through the gap between two cars, and you think it might be a bit too small, you turn sideways to fit through the gap. Top tip: this approach doesn’t work if you’re pregnant with a massive baby bump. Instead, you just have to waddle the long way around, on your poor fat little preggo feet… What a total pain in the bump.

Wearing shoes

Everyone expects that when you’re pregnant, you’ll have to buy a new wardrobe of giant baggy tent-clothes to fit your enormous bump. But no-one warns you that you might also need to buy new shoes, due to developing giant fat swollen feet. By the time I went into hospital to be induced, I actually only had one pair of shoes that actually still fit my freakishly large feet (even though I had bought new, larger shoes while pregnant!) and it was a pair of trainers that I had to wear unlaced. I should mention that swollen feet in pregnancy can be a sign of pre-eclampsia, so make sure if you do experience this fun side-effect that you get checked out by your midwife. In my case though, there was nothing wrong with me. I just had gigantic preggo feet.

Another thing to note is that, following bad advice from one of the midwives, I took my compression socks off the day after my son was born. My feet promptly swelled up overnight to such an incredible extent that they didn’t even fit in those shoes, and I just shuffled around the hospital in a pair of oversized slippers for a few days. When I was eventually supplied with new compression socks to put back on, after the nurses became alarmed at the sight of my colossal cankles, it was actually a two-man job to put the socks on, working around the remains of my deflated baby bump. Both my poor mum and long-suffering husband got the opportunity to help me put them on after showering on different days, which I’m sure is an experience they’ll never forget.

Anyway, the point is – if your feet swell up when you’re pregnant, make sure you keep the compression socks on for a few days after the birth…

Reading about cheese

When I first suspected I was pregnant, my husband and I were on holiday in Japan for a family wedding. Obviously, buying a pregnancy test over there was not especially practical because I don’t speak or read Japanese! However, I became fairly certain I was pregnant after an incident at a train station. My husband and I were queueing to buy tickets, and as we were waiting I glanced around at the pamphlets and posters at the far end of the room. For some completely inexplicable reason, in a room where every other bit of text was in Japanese, there was one poster which just had the word “CHEESE” on it in English, in very large orange letters. The moment I read it, it tipped my very low-level nausea into the feeling that I was going to throw up at any moment, and I had to apologise quickly to my husband and run outside to wait for him in the fresh air… Hello, morning sickness!

Walking through the office

Once you’re heavily pregnant, walking through the office takes at least twice as long as it used to. Not because of the magical pregnancy waddle (although that doesn’t help) but because everyone wants to stop you, tell you how enormous you are, ask you how far along you are, and exclaim loudly that you look ready to pop already. Thanks guys. Much like a vampire, I have no reflection, so it’s incredibly helpful for all my co-workers to make sure I know how enormous I am.

Drinking coffee

Okay, so you’re not supposed to drink too much caffeine when you’re pregnant, and I was very careful about that, as I’m normally a tea fiend. But I do also love a coffee, and so I would sometimes order a decaf from a coffee shop. Sadly, of course, people can’t tell that your coffee is decaf just by looking at it, which means that you have to be prepared to brave some very judgemental glares from complete strangers as you stroll through town trying to enjoy a quiet coffee…

Rolling over in bed

When you’re the size of a malnourished beluga whale and all your joints hurt, rolling over in bed is no longer an everyday task, achieved with only momentary inconvenience to yourself and your bedmate. Instead, it becomes an undertaking almost as mammoth as your giant belly. When I was pregnant, I had to sleep with extra pillows to support my hip and knee joints, so turning over in bed not only involved turning myself, but also swapping over the pillows, which frequently caught on the covers and dragged them out of place, and generally made me just consider giving up on the sweet dream of getting some sleep at all…

What random things do you find difficult when you’re pregnant?

Let me know whatever weird and wonderful things you found to be unexpectedly difficult when you’re pregnant! I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below…

Just for fun · mermaiding · top tips

How To Use Props To Create Stunning Underwater Photography (Tips From A Professional Mermaid)

Drawing on my experience as a professional mermaid and underwater model, I’ve been writing a series of articles with my top tips for underwater photography. These blog posts are primarily aimed at people who are new to underwater modelling, but they’ll be useful to models, photographers and anyone else aiming to create the perfect underwater photograph! In this article, we’ll be focusing on how to use props underwater for the best effect…

how to use props underwater to create stunning underwater photographs modelling top tips the sickly mama mermaid

How To Use Props In Underwater Photography:

Using fabric in underwater photography:

Loose fabric is one of the best props you can use in underwater photography, because visibly floating fabric is a simple way of enhancing the weightless sensation of being underwater. There are some simple ways to enhance the effect when selecting your fabric:

  • Pick the right fabric. Lighter fabric will float the best (and the longest) in the water, and fabric which is slightly translucent will catch the light and look most effective in your photographs. Organza, chiffon, voile, tulle etc. are all good choices.
  • Consider the background you’ll be shooting against and select a fabric that will contrast, e.g. white fabric against a black background, orange fabric against a blue background and so on. Bright block colours are usually more effective underwater than darker or heavily patterned fabrics.
  • Ensure the fabric is big enough to have an effect – if you are using loose fabric then you want at least a couple of metres of it, if it’s part of a costume (sleeves, skirts, etc) then again, bigger is better.

Then you need to think about how you’re actually going to use the fabric in your pictures. Some top tips for working with fabric underwater include:

  • Move slowly and steadily through the water, to maximise your opportunity to get the shot.
  • If you’re using loose fabric, aim to keep it at chest height or above, as this will accentuate the weightless effect of the picture.
  • Think about how you’re shaping your hands as you hold onto the fabric – you don’t want beautiful flowing fabric clenched in tight little fists!
  • Aim to keep the fabric mostly behind or above you unless it’s partially translucent, as otherwise it will block you in the photo.
mermaid using fabric prop underwater the sickly mama mairead claydon blog

Using Small Props In Underwater Photography

Often small props can be a very simple way to create some extra interest in your underwater photography, or to give it a fun sense of surrealism. One of the most fun photographs of me underwater is of me dressed in a mermaid tail, reading a newspaper at the bottom of a water tank (see below, by Shamira Crivellaro). I love it because it’s such a surreal shot – the floaty hair makes it clear that the photo really was taken underwater, but the calm pose reading the paper with my glasses on is not what you expect from typical mermaid photography!

mermaid reading a newspaper underwater wearing glasses

Here’s a few top tips on getting the most from using small props underwater:

  • Make sure they’re waterproof! Okay, it sounds incredibly obvious but there’s nothing worse than having a key prop disintegrate in the middle of a shoot (and then finding yourself swimming around the tank trying to retrieve the pieces!). So make sure they’re waterproof before you start – that includes making sure they won’t leak colour, or have bits fall off, and that they sink/float as you’d expect.
  • A single prop is usually more effective than loads of them. Getting the perfect shot underwater is difficult enough without introducing too many variables! Make it something simple that’s easy to interact with.
  • Combining ‘everyday’ items with underwater photography is often very effective at achieving that surreal look. For instance, newspapers, tea cups, fans, mirrors etc.
mermaid holding a model ship underwater david ballard
Photograph by David Ballard

Using Large Props In Underwater Photography

Large props, such as furniture, can also look incredible in your underwater photography, but they bring their own challenges! Again, you need to make sure they’re waterproof, but what other considerations are there when working with large props?

  • The biggest consideration is buoyancy! If your furniture is trying to float away, it’s incredibly difficult to work with. I once did a shoot with a chair that was almost impossible, because it just was not heavy enough to stay sunk at the bottom of the pool, and we both kept drifting away together! (See the pic below… We made it work eventually!) You can always add weights to help something sink if needed.
  • Working with large items creates additional risk, particularly in terms of getting the props into/out of the water and the risk of costumes catching on the props during the shoot and restricting movement. Make sure you’ve properly risk assessed the shoot and considered how to manage these potential dangers.

The Underwater Photoshoot Series

This article is part of a series giving advice on underwater photoshoots both for photographers and underwater models, drawing on my experience as a professional mermaid. Why not check out my previous articles, including top tips for modelling underwater and this blog post helping you learn how to open your eyes underwater.

celebrations · history · Just for fun · Seasonal

Just Who The Flip Was St Valentine, Anyway? Love, Beekeeping and Epilepsy

Ah, Valentine’s Day. If you have no-one to spend it with, it can be an unwanted reminder of singledom. And if you do have someone to spend it with, there’s a lot of pressure for the perfect romantic day. But you may not know that St Valentine is one of those greedy saints who is the patron saint of all kinds of random things, not just romantic love. So just who was St Valentine…?

Who The Flip Was St Valentine, Anyway?

St Valentine The Romantic

First things first: there are various legends and stories surrounding St Valentine, which may actually refer to multiple different figures. Valentine’s Day itself honours Valentine of Rome (who died in 269) and Valentine of Terni (who died in 273), but there were apparently even more early Christian martyrs named Valentine, which at this point seems like it was basically the Roman Empire’s equivalent of the name John Smith.

The legend that most obviously connects a St Valentine to a tradition of romantic love relates to a Roman priest during the reign of Claudius II, who was apprehended performing marriages for Christian couples and assisting Christians, who were at that time being persecuted. This was a major inconvenience to the emperor at the time, who supposedly believed that unmarried men made the best soldiers (legend is silent as to why he believed this, but perhaps the widow’s pension scheme simply proved too costly on the imperial purse). St Valentine was therefore promptly put to death. How romantic.

So next time you’re single and a newly coupled-up friend tells you about their Valentine’s Day plans, you can smugly remind them that Valentine’s Day is a holiday for married couples, and St Valentine (or any one of the various St Valentines) would certainly disapprove of chocolates, flowers and a romantic dinner out of wedlock.

St Valentine The Epileptic (?)

Less well-known is the fact that St Valentine is also the patron saint of epilepsy. And once again, he’s not the only one. According to Epilepsy Action, there are forty separate patron saints of epilepsy, although St Valentine is the most famous one… which does seem a little unfair, considering some might argue that he’s already famous enough for the celebrations on February 14th. He’s very much stealing the epilepsy thunder from other saints like St Vitus. Ever heard of St Vitus? No. But after he freed the Emperor Diocletian’s son from demonic possession (read: epilepsy), he was promptly put to death for doing it like a big old Christian. That’s gratitude for you.

Anyway, the point is that St Vitus literally died to cure epilepsy and you’ve never even heard of him.

So how did St Valentine become one of the many patron saints of epilepsy? Well, allegedly it once again comes back to the name Valentine. Epilepsy was for many years known as the ‘falling disease’ and in German, there is a similarity between the word ‘fallen’ and name ‘Valentine’, which led to alternative names in German for epilepsy, such as St Valentine’s disease. Bit of a weak connection, if we’re totally honest. St Vitus is pissed as all heck about it.

St Valentine The… Everything Else

Saint Valentine (well, one of them anyway) is also, for some reason, a patron saint of beekeepers – a link that seems even more tenuous than his connection to epilepsy, but there we go. The best justification for this link that I could find was a few beekeeping websites that vaguely referred to a supposed relationship between love and honey/bees. I can only assume they’re confusing love with pollen.

Now, you may be thinking that, well, someone has to be the patron saint of beekeepers, and maybe there just weren’t many volunteers for the job. Perhaps St Valentine just offered to help fill a blank spot on the celestial staffing rota? But no. St Ambrose and St Bernard of Clairvaux (you have to include the “of Clairvaux part, because otherwise people assume you’re talking about a dog) are also patron saints of beekeeping. If anything, you might say it’s a little oversubscribed on saints.

On top of this, Catholic Online lists St Valentine as the patron saint of fainting, greetings, plague, travellers and young people. It’s certainly a miracle that he has time to rest at all, especially as he seems to have overlooked the opportunity to become the patron saint of something a bit more chill, like embroidery (Rose of Lima got that gig). No wonder he needs Cupid to lend a hand on the 14th February…

So there you go. If you’re feeling a little left out this Valentine’s Day, why not try a spot of beekeeping, or celebrating your love for travel? It’s just as valid a way to mark the occasion as a box of chocolates and a bunch of roses…

children's books · Just for fun · parenting · reviews

Brutally Honest Children’s Book Review: Zoo Sounds (Usborne Sound Books)

Since having a baby, my husband and I have often discussed some of the vagaries of the children’s books that we read to Little Man. No matter how much he loves them, to the adult eye, a number of these books have some pretty major issues. And so I thought I’d start a new series on this blog, called Brutally Honest Children’s Book Reviews. I’m going to review Little Man’s favourite books. And I’m going to be brutally honest about it! Read on for the first instalment: a review of Zoo Sounds by Sam Taplin, and illustrated by Federica Iossa, from the Usbourne Sound Books range…

brutally honest children's book review zoo sounds usbourne sound books sam taplin the sickly mama

Brutally Honest Children’s Book Review: Zoo Sounds

Judging A Book By Its Cover:

With a title that sounds more like the name of a disk in the BBC’s famous Sound Effects Library, on first sight Zoo Sounds did not inspire me with confidence that a roaringly good yarn was in store.

How wrong I was. In fact, if you press the small button in the middle of the book’s cover, you will quite literally hear the (slightly tinny) sound of a lion’s roar.

The cover includes pictures of some of the animals whose sounds feature in the book, along with the word denoting their accompanying nose: a lion (“roar”), a monkey (“ooh-haa”), an alligator (“splash” – hmm, okay), a bird (“squawk”), and a couple of meerkats. What sounds do meerkats make? Other than “simples!” – as my mother rightly pointed out – I have no clue. I’m looking forward to finally hearing the cry of the meerkat, courtesy of Zoo Sounds

False Promises Of The Meerkat Kind

But brace yourself, my friends. For Zoo Sounds – despite prominently featuring not one, but TWO meerkats on its front cover – not only does not feature any meerkat sound effects, but actually doesn’t feature any bloody meerkats at all, in any capacity. Pretty sure they could be done for false marketing… Or at least, false meerkat-ing! (Dad joke alert!)

The Plot Thickens (Or Not)

Speaking of false promises, I have to admit that I didn’t have high expectations of Zoo Sounds in terms of plot. I wasn’t anticipating a Game Of Thrones-esque struggle for power between the lions and the monkeys, mediated from the sidelines by their semi-mythical meerkat overlords (although if anyone wants to write that children’s book, I will gladly review the heck out of it).

But I did expect some plot, even a simple one. Like perhaps a family on a walk through the zoo, or a zookeeper doing their job and seeing the animals along the way. But no. Zoo Sounds has dispensed with the frankly conventional notion that a story book should have, you know… a story. It’s literally just several pages of random animals making noise, and then it ends, abruptly, after an alligator hops into a pond (spoiler alert).

I’m not the only person to have this criticism of the book either. One Amazon reviewer closed their (3 star) review with this zinger: “This one reminds me of the scene in Elf when Buddy’s Dad demands to ship the book even though it hasn’t been finished.” Ouch.

What Does The Penguin Say

One of the things that I try to do when evaluating a kids book is to consider its educational value. And, to be fair, there’s a fair amount of educational value in Zoo Sounds. Lots of animals to discuss, including their accompanying sound effects, and most of them are doing something you might reasonably expect said animal to do (the monkeys are eating fruit, the seals are eating fish, you get the idea).

However I’ve had to downgrade the educational value score for this one because I just straight-up do not believe that any penguin on earth sounds like the corresponding ‘penguin’ sound effect in this book. I freely admit, I’m not a penguin expert, and perhaps someone who is will prove me wrong. Maybe there is a sad, demented species of penguin, somewhere in remote Antarctica, that sounds like the man from the Go Compare advert being subjected to cruel and unusual torture. But until I get some cold hard proof of that, I will continue to describe the penguin sound effect as ‘wildly unrealistic’.

Little Man’s Book Review

Obviously this wouldn’t be a very good children’s book review if I didn’t take into account the views of an actual child. And Little Man absolutely loves this book. I asked him to write a review, but sadly it was so full of expletives and foul language that I felt unable to publish it. So instead, we’ll have to infer the review from his behaviour: a huge smile whenever we sit down to read together, and regularly selecting the book to be his chew toy du jour.

If I had to suggest what Little Man’s favourite features about Zoo Sounds are, I would say that: a) he loves sticking his finger through the cut-out hole on the front cover (but not, for some reason, the cut-out holes on any of the other pages), particularly if I grab his finger and pretend something is nibbling on it; and b) he likes turning the book over when he hears the sound effects, and trying to work out where the noise is coming from. It’s good stuff.

Brutally Honest Children’s Book Review: The Verdict…

And so, in conclusion we come at last to the moment you’ve all been waiting for… Drumroll please, it’s the Brutally Honest Children’s Book Review Star Rating System:

  • Plot: * (1/5)
  • Illustrations: *** (3/5)
  • Interactive features: ***** (5/5)
  • Educational Value: *** (3/5)
  • Little Man: ***** (5/5)

Aggregate Score: (3.5/5)

brutally honest children's book review zoo sounds usbourne sound books sam taplin the sickly mama
Just for fun · mermaiding · top tips

How To Use Your Natural Buoyancy For Underwater Photography (Tips From A Professional Mermaid)

Controlling your buoyancy is key to successful underwater modelling. Ideally, you want to be able to sink when you want to sink and float when you want to float. Everyone has a different level of natural buoyancy, so you will need to learn what works for you! I’ve collected together my top tips from my time as a professional mermaid and underwater model, to help you work on controlling and using your natural buoyancy for underwater photography.

Understanding Your Natural Buoyancy

On average, the human body has a density of 0.98 compared to water (according to Wikipedia!). That means that most people’s bodies are inclined to float, rather than sink.

Your body composition plays a large part in determining whether you’re more sink-y or float-y; muscle and bone are more dense than water and sink, whereas fat will float. Women naturally have a higher body fat percentage than men and so are more likely to be inclined to float – great in a shipwreck situation, but potentially more of a challenge when modelling underwater.

When it comes to learning how to control your buoyancy for underwater photography, you could work on changing your body composition, but that tends to be quite a long-term fix! In the short term, buoyancy control is mainly about controlling the amount of air inside your lungs, which effectively act as a floatation aid when full of air.

It’s also worth remembering that the salinity of the water will make a difference: if you’re swimming in salt water, you’ll always be more floaty than you are in a pool.

buoyancy for underwater photography two girls floating gregory brown the sickly mama blog modelling professional mermaid
Photograph by Gregory Brown

If You’re Floating Too Much

If you find that you’re constantly floating to the surface when modelling underwater, the first thing to think about is your breathing. Our natural instinct is to take as deep a breath as possible before submerging, in order to be able to last as long as possible underwater; however, having lungs full of air is likely to make it difficult for you to pose in place for long.

As you’re about to dive, take a deep breath and then puff out a little air before going underwater; you’ll need to experiment with this to find the exact amounts of air you need to breathe out in order to be able to float neutrally in the water or sink to the bottom and stay there.

If you’re a very competent swimmer and this is something you’re struggling with, you can also think about incorporating diving weights into your costume. Scuba divers use these to compensate for the buoyancy of their equipment. You can purchase small amounts of lead shot ballast online in pouches which can be hidden or incorporated in weight belts or costumes. However, being weighted down always has the potential to be dangerous – your weights should be quick release, and you should be careful not to weight yourself down too much. It’s always good practice to have an agreed hand-sign so that your photographer and/or assistants know if you’re in difficulty and can come to assist.

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Photograph by Johannes Hjorth

If You’re Sinking Too Much

If on the other hand, you find that you’re sinking too much and you’re not able to simply float in place underwater, firstly make sure you’re taking a good deep breath before submerging. You may find that it’s your natural instinct to breathe out as you’re diving down in the water, thus making it easier to dive down quickly, but if you tend to have negative buoyancy (i.e. you sink!), you need to hold on to that breath of air while diving.

If that still doesn’t make a difference and you find you tend to sink straight to the bottom, this is probably a natural effect of your body composition. You’ll need to try to get good photographs on your way to the bottom, while swimming, or after pushing off from the bottom of the tank or pool for an underwater jump.

mermaid floating holly meadows photography the sickly mama blog buoyancy underwater modelling
Photograph by Holly Meadows

Playing With Buoyancy For Underwater Modelling

Finally, it’s worth thinking about how you can capture great shots underwater while working within the limitations of you/your models’ natural  buoyancy.

If you constantly float and can’t stay in one place for long, you’ll need to go for shots with more movement; try diving down to the bottom of the pool or tank and then allowing yourself to naturally float up through the water (remember: if your lungs are full of air it will mean that your torso floats up first, so you will pretty much always maintain a vertical body position if you do this).

Having a model with negative buoyancy who sinks straight to the bottom can be great for setting up more complicated poses or scenarios, or working with props.​

Having two models with different natural buoyancy affords a lot of possibilities for underwater photography; having one model with negative buoyancy who is able to remain at the bottom of the pool means they can act as an ‘anchor’, who can hold the more floaty model in place. This makes it much easier to catch the perfect shot of more than one model, while keeping the underwater ‘feel’ in the photograph.

buoyancy on a chair sickly mama blog gregory brown underwater modelling mermaid professional
Photograph by Gregory Brown

More tips for underwater modelling

This blog post is part of a series of articles on underwater modelling and photography, based on my experience as a professional mermaid and underwater model. You can read more top tips for underwater models here, or learn how to open your eyes underwater here.