health · Just for fun · top tips

How To Cope When Dealing With Hospital Administration Systems

Something that no-one realises about chronic illness, until they become ill themselves, is the sheer amount of extra life admin it generates. It’s simply incredible how much time can be taken up by what should be simple tasks – booking appointments, getting hold of medication, finding out test results, getting in touch with the right person if your symptoms change… It can actually become extremely stressful and difficult to cope with hospital administration systems and the issues they can create through sheer inefficiency.

I think the worst instance of hospital administration failure that I encountered was when I was telephoned by the hospital and told off for missing an MRI appointment after my first pituitary surgery. I had indeed missed the appointment, because the letter had got lost in the post. As I had been expecting a scan appointment, though, I had actually called the hospital two weeks earlier to chase up, and been put through to the MRI department, who had told me that I was not booked in for any scans. I later discovered the hospital for some mad reason has two MRI departments, so presumably my scan was with the other department, and at no point did anyone think to tell me to check with both departments. Well done, hospital. Good use of public money.

I was first diagnosed with my pituitary tumor aged 21, which means that I’ve been dealing with the hell that is hospital admin for 11 years, the vast majority of my adult life. And that means that I have a few tips to share!

I used to think that the difficulties I encountered in getting anything done was because I was dealing with the National Health Service. I’m so grateful for the NHS funding my treatment that I would just remind myself to be grateful for it, and put up with the terrible admin, endless phonecalls and feeling of being lost in the system. Then one of my friends developed a serious medical issue which they had treated privately… And they encountered the exact same problems! It seems that terrible admin may well be a universal healthcare experience. So here are my top tips for how to cope with hospital administration, without falling into a pit of total despair…

how to cope with inefficient hospital administration systems without giving in to despair

Top Tips For How To Cope With Hospital Administration Systems

1. Be Organised

You have to be organised. Just because your doctor tells you something will happen doesn’t mean it will, without your intervention. Keep a note of what appointments you’re due to have, and if you haven’t heard from the hospital or doctor’s surgery well in advance, get in touch to check what’s happening.

2. Get Ahead Of The Game

Try to get in touch with your hospital nice and early if you haven’t heard anything. It gives you the most time to get something sorted. There’s nothing more stressful than realising that, for instance, you’re going to have a gap in treatment because the hospital has forgotten to send you a prescription or order the right tests. So make sure you chase up on things sooner rather than later.

3. Remember it’s not anyone’s individual fault

When you’ve made six phone calls and still made no progress with getting an appointment sorted, it’s incredibly frustrating. Try to remember it’s not the fault of the people you’re talking to, who are mostly just human beings trying to do their jobs in an imperfect system. You’ll get better progress by trying to be friendly and build a rapport with the staff you talk to, rather than getting annoyed.

4. Think outside the box

Most hospital departments and doctors surgeries have a public number you can call, but of course when you do, you end up speaking to someone who knows nothing about you or your issue. As a result, you can find yourself explaining yourself over and over again to different people, and feeling like you’re getting nowhere.

It’s time to think outside the box! Firstly, get Googling. In hospitals, often the consultant or head of the department you’re under will have their own secretary and you may be able to find their contact details online, or even on the letters you’re sent from the department. You may have better luck contacting the secretary if you have specific issues with your treatment or new symptoms.

Over time, you may also be able to build up other contacts. Some hospital departments have specialist nurses attached to the department who run certain tests or follow-ups. If you can find the public phone number for the specialist nurses, they may be especially helpful in chasing up on things for you. I love the specialist endocrine nurses at my hospital, they’re so lovely and super helpful.

5. Take up cathartic screaming

Ultimately, despite all your best efforts, your encounters with hospital admin systems will likely still be frustrating and inefficient. At some point, it’s best to accept this and try not to let it get to you. All you can do is try your best to smooth the process, give timely reminders, and chase up on things that should have been organised for you.

Make sure you can have a good rant to a friend or family member about how frustrating it all is. If you find yourself getting too stressed out, try to take a step back and give yourself a break. You can always start making phone calls again tomorrow.

What are your worst experiences with hospital admin? Do you have any tips for how to cope with hospital administration systems? Let me me know in the comments!

Just for fun · mermaiding

Things No One Tells You About Being An Underwater Model

Underwater modelling looks super cool, but I can tell you from experience that it has it’s downsides. So today, I present my list of the things no-one tells you about being an underwater model…

Things No One Tells You About Being An Underwater Model

1. You might look amazing but you will feel GROSS

Underwater modelling (and underwater performance more generally) may look incredibly glamorous, but the truth is… It’s not! If you’re shooting (or performing) in chlorinated water, by the end of the shoot your eyes will be bright red like some kind of mermaid vampire, and your nose will be running like mad. If you’re working in seawater or fresh water, your eyes probably won’t be as sore, but you’ll still have a gross runny nose and… You might smell pretty bad too. Ever seen a mermaid performing in an aquarium, looking magical alongside the fish and sharks? Yeah, when she gets out the tank backstage, she will stink of seaweed and shark poop. And she’ll still smell pretty bad even after her third hot shower that evening.

2. It takes FOREVER

That gorgeous shot of the underwater model hovering in the water, wrapped in elegant folds of transparent fabric that float around her in perfect symmetry? Yeah, the photographer will have about 500 versions of that photo that didn’t work out.

Getting the perfect underwater photo takes patience and persistence, sometimes to a quite ridiculous extent. So many things have to come together for the shot to work. The model has to be floating just right; so does her costume and hair. There can’t be any bubbles or floating debris obscuring the picture. If the model is moving in the water (and let’s face it, it’s almost impossible to stay still in water!), the photographer has to press the shutter button at the exact right moment, not too early or too late. Plus, all of the normal considerations that need to come together to create a great photo – the lighting, the model’s expression and open eyes, the make-up, the props… The list goes on.

So if you have a specific shot you’re trying to create, be prepared to try for the shot over… and over… and over… and then maybe just a few more times…

3. Being an underwater model is super cold!

So this one sounds obvious, but modelling underwater gets really cold. I presume that professional mermaids and underwater models who live in lovely hot countries don’t have this issue to quite the same degree, but if you’re in the UK it’s going to be an issue. Make sure you plan how you’re going to warm up once you’re out of the water – hot towels, warm drinks, a space heater or hot shower are all good ideas to have on standby. You also need to ensure that you’re not in the water for too long at one time – 15 minutes is the absolute max in cold water before you should have a break.

One of my coldest mermaid performance experiences was at an aquarium in Scotland where the water for their main sand tiger shark tank was fed directly from the Firth of Forth. After each stint swimming in the freezing water, we climbed straight into a large sink filled with warm water… It was heavenly!

Photograph by Mark Jones

4. Risk assessments are really important

Risk assessments for underwater models:

Modelling and performing underwater is inherently dangerous. You’re trying to hold your breath for long periods of time, often in cold water, often while wearing impractical costumes or working with props that could impede your ability to swim to the surface if you needed to. If you’re modelling or performing in open water, there are even more dangers – waves, tides, entanglement hazards from fishing gear, and so on. With all these dangers, it’s important to manage the risk to yourself and others.

I actually ended up with a concussion after one underwater photoshoot – we were shooting at night against a black background with a single beam of light, so it was pretty dark, and I surfaced straight into a metal ladder that had been placed across the pool as part of the lighting rig. Talking to my doctor the next day about how I sustained the injury required a LOT of explaining… And my GP always remembered me as the professional mermaid after that. So, proper risk assessment for underwater photography is really important.

How to do a risk assessment for an underwater photoshoot:

Essentially, the process involves identifying possible risks or hazards that could arise as part of the photoshoot, and taking action to eliminate or reduce the risk, as well as planning for what you’ll do if the risk materialises.

So for instance, linking back to aprevious section in this article, with an underwater photoshoot a risk could be that the model ends up with hypothermia; and you could plan to mitigate this by controlling the amount of time spend in the water, the temperature of the water (if possible), providing a heated area where they can warm up afterwards, having towels and warm drinks on hand, etc. etc. Or another risk could be the model getting into difficulties in the water; so think about having a safety diver or divers in the water, and/or a lifeguard on hand in shallower water, and agreeing a hand signal that the model can use to signal that they need help. Think about whether the model’s costume(s) could impede any rescue efforts, and how you can manage that.

By working your way through the possible dangers, and planning for how to keep the models and photographer safe, you can ensure you have a fun and low-risk shoot.

Other risks to consider in your assessment:

You should also think about other types of risk, such as whether you have the right insurance, and whether your photoshoot will be in line with the law. For instance, if you or your photographer is diving using SCUBA gear in the UK, you will be subject to the Diving At Work Regulations (1997). Make sure you do your research and know the relevant laws in advance of your photoshoot.

I’ll write more about risk assessing underwater photoshoots in a future post, so watch this space.

5. Being an underwater model is incredibly tiring

Underwater modelling is exhausting. Repeatedly diving and posing while holding your breath is very strenuous work, and it’s another reason why it’s important to schedule short diving windows – even if the water is warm. It’s really easy to underestimate just how tiring it can be! I recommend restricting photoshoot timings to a maximum of 20 minutes at a time before the model gets a break. If you have multiple models at a shoot, it’s best to rotate them; often the photographer will be able to keep going longer if they’re shooting from outside of the water or are using SCUBA gear, so it’s the best way to make use of the time.

Make sure you’ve properly considered how tired you will be after any extended session as an underwater model, and how you will manage that. It may be sensible to ensure that you’re not going to have to drive yourself home after the photoshoot – especially combined with the risk of things such as getting sore, dry eyes from the chlorine.

Photograph by Johannes Hjorth

6. You can’t communicate with your photographer

Again, this sounds obvious, but it’s easy to overlook. Underwater, the photographer cannot direct the model while actually taking pictures. In order to discuss how the shoot is going, you’ll both need to surface to talk to one another. That takes time and can be a real pain, especially if the photographer is using SCUBA gear, or if you’re shooting in a tank when it can be difficult for the model to hear anything that’s being said outside the tank itself.

So for a successful underwater photoshoot, make sure you have a thorough discussion with your photographer before getting into the water. Agree the type of shots you’re aiming for, the poses, location in the water, and any hand signals you’ll use to communicate with one another. That way, you’ll get the most of your time shooting together.

More tips and tricks for underwater models

This article is part of a series I’m writing called The Professional Mermaid’s Guide to Underwater Modelling! Why not check out the series page to see all the articles I’ve written about underwater modelling and photography? The series includes top tips on everything from learning how to open your eyes underwater, to styling hair and using wigs in the water, underwater makeup tips, and more!

Are you an underwater model or photographer? Do you have any tips that you think I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!

environment · food · food storage · lifestyle

Easy Kitchen Eco Swaps

I’ve written before about how we’ve been working to reduce plastic waste around the house through swapping the everyday products we buy for alternatives that are plastic-free and more eco-friendly – eco swaps, if you will! I thought it was time for another update, this time focusing on easy kitchen eco swaps. A lot of plastic waste that we generate comes from the kitchen, so it seems like a logical place to look for opportunities to make life more sustainable…

Easy Kitchen Eco Swaps

Milk Delivery

One of the best swaps we’ve made recently is moving towards a traditional milk delivery by a real, live milkman! When I was a kid we used to have a milkman, but I’ve not had one for years – then, in the autumn we had a knock on the door from a new local milk delivery service, and I thought we’d give it a go. It’s super convenient, and much more eco-friendly – the switch to reusable glass bottles means it completely does away with the need for plastic bottles. Plus, our milk service also has the option to deliver other local produce like eggs, jam and more.

Plastic saving: We used to get through about 6 – 8 pints of milk a week, usually in 2 – 3 bottles. I’d estimate that by switching to a milk delivery, we’ve saved 130 plastic bottles per year – or 2,600 bottles over 20 years… wow!

Refill Shop

When a refill shop opened up in our town, I was super excited, but it was kind of a new concept to me! What is a refill shop? Well, it pretty much does what it says on the tin: it’s a shop where you bring your own containers to buy products which are free of packaging. Every store is different, but often they offer dry foods such as rice and pasta, and liquids such as cooking oils, cleaning products and more. The idea is to make shopping more sustainable by cutting down on plastic packaging, and often by offering fresh local produce as well, to reduce food miles. In general they’re a great option for making your shop more eco-friendly (although I recommend checking out this article by Wired where they look at some of the potential pitfalls of refill shops, as well).

We’ve tried to move to using the refill shop as much as possible for the products that are available, and that has meant that we’ve completely cut out plastic packaging for some products that we use every week – particularly rice and granola. We now also get to mix the perfect granola every morning: combining plain granola and a sprinkling of dried tropical mix, which solves the problem that you get with bags of granola where all the good stuff ends up at the top of the bag, and the last few bowlfuls are rubbish.

Plastic saving: I’ll write about plastic savings on refill toiletries in another article, so focusing just on the rice and granola that we buy regularly, I would estimate that we save a minimum of 68 items of plastic packaging a year – that’s 1,360 items over 20 years.

Eco Friendly Dish Sponges & Scourers

Up to now, we have always used washing up sponges and dish brushes from the supermarket, but these are all plastic, so I started looking into sustainable alternatives. I’ve not bought a new dish brush yet, as our old one still has plenty of use in it, but we’ve swapped to using eco sponges and scourers. They’re great, and there’s plenty of different options out there, made from sustainable materials like plant cellulose, hemp, coconut fibres and more. The only thing to be aware of is that normal plastic-based dish sponges often include ingredients to kill bacteria, whereas sustainable scourers won’t be, so it’s important to keep them dry.

For hard-to-shift, dried-on food, I also found a coconut husk dish scraper which is great for cleaning pots and pans.

Plastic saving: We probably would get through around 6 sponges a year, so that’s 120 plastic sponges saved over 20 years.

Sustainable Washing Up Liquid

Linked to the above, I realised we were getting through a lot of washing up liquid bottles. I’ve tried a solid washing up bar – lemongrass dish soap by LoofCo – but while I loved the smell, and found it cut through grease surprisingly well, I still found liquid washing up soap easier to work with. So currently we’re using our local refill store to top up on washing up liquid, and reusing an old Fairy Liquid bottle to store it.

Plastic saving: I’d guess we save on about four bottles of washing up liquid per year, so that’s 80 bottles over 20 years.

More Eco Friendly Ideas

If you have any ideas for further kitchen eco swaps that I haven’t mentioned, let me know in the comments! I’m always interested to hear about new green products and sustainable alternatives.

And if you’ve enjoyed this article, why not check out my previous blog post on eco swaps to reduce plastic waste or this post on keeping the weaning process more eco-friendly?

baby · fatigue · health · pain · parenting · top tips

How To: Looking After A Baby When You’re Sick/Fatigued

Looking after a baby is hard work at the best of times, but when you’re sick it can be overwhelming. Whether you’re parenting with chronic illness, a bad cold or tummy bug, or fatigue (either from illness or too many sleepless nights!), it helps to have a plan for how you’re going to manage. So, based on my experience as a mama with chronic illness, I’ve pulled together my top tips on looking after a baby when you’re sick or fatigued. Read on to find out more…

looking after a baby when you suffer from chronic illness or you're sick top tips the sickly mama

Looking After A Baby When You’re Sick

Ask For Help

Whether you’re suffering from a temporary issue – a cold, a tummy bug, a flare up of your condition – or ongoing consistent symptoms from a chronic illness, ask for help. It’s okay! Even the healthiest, heartiest parents need help sometimes. It won’t do you any good to try to do everything yourself. And people love babies, so chances are you’ll have more people willing to help you out than you may imagine… But you do have to ask.

When you do ask for help, try to be specific about what you need – for instance, help around the house, fetching groceries or popping to the pharmacy, or just holding the baby. Most people will want to help if you let them know how. If people have popped over to see the baby, get them to help you out – for instance, they could hold baby for an hour so you can nap!

Do The Absolute Minimum

Again, might sound obvious. But if you’re feeling really unwell, do the absolute minimum you need to do. Things like the washing up, hoovering, tidying, even having a shower… You don’t absolutely have to do them. You need to feed yourself and baby, change baby, and sleep. Everything else is optional! So don’t force yourself to do anything unnecessary, if you don’t have the energy for it.

This may include cancelling on some guests, especially in the early days with a new baby. If people are planning to visit and you don’t think they’ll be helpful – or perhaps you know they won’t – and you’ll end up running around after them trying to be a good host and look after baby and yourself… Cancel the visit. You need to prioritise the well-being of yourself and your baby, and that’s okay.

…Except When You’re Okay

On the days or times where you are feeling better, that’s the time to prepare for the bad days! This may seem more obvious if you have a chronic health condition where the symptoms come and go – but even if you don’t, there will be good days and bad days. You never know when you might catch a cold or flu, or have an upset stomach, and even babies who are normally good sleepers will go through bad patches. So make sure that you’re prepped for bad days.

What does being prepared look like? Here are some suggestions:

  • A stash of easy emergency meals in the freezer – things you can just pop in the oven/microwave and leave.
  • An upstairs and downstairs nappy change station with everything you need for changing, so you don’t have to carry baby too far for changes.
  • A small stockpile of key items for baby (nappies, wipes, formula etc.) that will last for at least a week, so you’re not going to run out and need to go to the shops urgently when you’re feeling sick and/or exhausted.
  • Similarly, try to ensure you have a good stock of spare clothes for your little one, so you’re not going to end up in a pickle if you can’t do laundry for a few days.
  • Talking to your partner, friends and family about how you will manage childcare on sick days, in advance. Have a back-up plan if you are just too poorly to look after the little one – and ideally have a back-up back-up plan just in case!

Practice self-care

Just scraping by will do for a few days here and there when you’re feeling especially dreadful, but it’s not sustainable for the long term. You need to take care of yourself and your mental and physical health.

So, once you’ve worked out what the absolute minimum is, have a think about the next step up – the minimum things you need in order to feel reasonably content. For instance, in my case, I absolutely hate not having a nice hot shower in the morning. Even if I feel rubbish, I know a shower always helps me feel better. So I really prioritised ensuring I got my morning shower every day, as far as reasonably possible. Little Man would be on the bathroom floor in his Moses basket when he was really small, or crawling around with a few toys and a baby sensory video once he was a bit bigger.

Work out your key self-care priorities – perhaps it’s having a shower, listening to music or watching a show, reading a book or getting outside for some fresh air once a day. And make sure you find time to do the things that help you feel okay, even if it’s at the expense of other day to day life admin.

Rest as much as possible

Before you have a baby, everyone tells you to “sleep when the baby sleeps” which in my experience is much easier said than done. If you can get some sleep when baby is napping or someone else comes to help out, then obviously that’s the best thing you can do. But even if you can’t sleep, you can try to rest up. Set up a comfortable spot in the house to have as your base for the day – an armchair, sofa, bed, whatever suits you – and collect as much stuff as possible that you’ll need for looking after baby to keep nearby. Not just obvious things like nappy change supplies, but also toys, books, whatever you’ve got to keep the little one entertained. Try to sit and chill as much as you can.

And when baby goes to bed for the night – go to bed too! It’s tempting to stay up and take some time for yourself, but you’re better off going to bed and getting as much sleep as you can before your next wake up call.

Let go of the mum/dad guilt

When you’re ill, you will not be winning any parenting awards, and that is fine. You need to keep baby safe, clean and fed. If they miss out on a few sensory play sessions, or they spend a bit more time watching YouTube videos to give you a break – it really will not matter in the long run. They need a parent who takes care of him/herself, and if you don’t do that then sooner or later you will crash and end up much worse than before.

No parent is perfect, whether they suffer from chronic illness or not, so just do your best to let go of the guilt about what you can’t do because of your illness, and focus instead on all the positive things you can do, however small, to help your baby feel loved and cared for.

Your tips for looking after baby when you’re sick

Do you have any experience of looking after a baby while ill? What are your tips for others? Let me know in the comments!

looking after baby when sick parenting with chronic illness the sickly mama blog newborn
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.

baby · health · parenting · teething · top tips

How To Brush Baby’s Teeth (Without Losing A Finger)

It seemed like Little Man was teething for forever before his first tooth appeared! He started teething around three months, and he didn’t get his first tooth until he was gone six months old. It wasn’t until a little while after his first tooth arrived, though, that I realised… Hang on, we need to brush it! But how exactly do you brush a baby’s teeth without losing a finger? Wee Man’s first teeth are like tiny razors, and he once notoriously bit his dad so hard on the toe that he drew blood. We were not looking forward to trying to brush his teeth…

how to brush baby's teeth without losing a finger toothbrush baby the sickly mama blog parenting top tips

How To Brush Baby’s Teeth (Without Losing A Finger)

When should you start brushing?

As soon as that first baby tooth appears, it’s time to start brushing (oops! Took us a few weeks to realise). The NHS recommends brushing twice a day, including before bed in the evening, with a smear of baby toothpaste.

What makes baby toothpaste different and do I need it?

Baby toothpaste has less fluoride in than adult toothpaste. Swallowing a lot of fluoride may upset baby’s stomach in the short term, which is why it’s recommended to use only a smear of toothpaste on the brush.

Over the longer term, swallowing large amounts of fluoride toothpaste in early childhood could cause something called dental fluorosis, which can affect the appearance and strength of teeth. However, it is rare in the UK for dental fluorosis to be anything other than very mild, appearing as some white patches on the teeth which may or may not be visible to the naked eye. It is still recommended that children and babies do brush their teeth with a fluoride toothpaste, because it’s the best way to prevent tooth decay. Just don’t let them eat toothpaste straight out of the tube!

Baby toothpaste also often has a milder flavour which children may find easier to get used to, compared to the strong mint flavours of adult toothpaste.

How do you brush baby’s teeth?

And so, to the practicalities… How do you actually brush baby’s teeth?

Firstly, sit baby on your knee, with their head back against your chest (I got this tip from the NHS website!). We use a bamboo baby toothbrush, to try to reduce our plastic waste.

Brush baby’s teeth using circular motions, just like you would an adult’s teeth. Don’t restrict yourself to brushing the teeth they actually have, but brush their whole mouth and gums gently, to get them used to the idea.

Making tooth brushing fun for baby

Obviously tooth brushing is a bit strange for baby when you introduce it, so I think the best approach is to really try to make tooth brushing fun. We sing a little song to our baby while we brush his teeth and that seems to be a really good way to distract him! In fact, he enjoys it so much that he now looks forward to having his teeth brush and co-operates with opening his mouth, handing over his dummy etc.

Ideally if both me and my husband are free, one of us brushes his teeth, and the other one dances Little Man’s hands around to the song, as otherwise he tries to grab the brush. We sing the following song, to the tune of ‘Row Your Boat’:

Brush, brush, brush your teeth
Brush them nice and clean
Scrubbly-bubbly, bubbly-scrubbly
Brush them nice and clean

We actually got the idea from the Peppa Pig handwashing advert from the World Health Organisation, if you’ve seen it! We sing through the song three times and the last time we slow it right down so he knows we’re nearly done. After a couple of months of this routine, brushing Little Man’s teeth is not just easy, it’s actually quite a fun thing we do as a family.

I let Little Man take over the toothbrush after I’m done brushing, and he enjoys chewing on it. Then when it’s time to finish, I distract him with a dummy while I take the brush away, and we both watch as I clean the brush under the taps.

So for us, this approach seems to work pretty well. Little Man likes to feel involved and he seems to enjoy the flavour of the toothpaste and chewing on the brush is nice when he’s teething. He does often bite down on the toothbrush while I’m trying to move it, and he also often tries to grab the brush from me, which can be tricky! But in general, starting to brush his teeth has not been as horrendously difficult as I expected!

Your Top Tips For Brushing Baby’s Teeth

Do you have any great tips for persuading a reluctant baby to let you brush their teeth? Let me know in the comments!

how to brush baby's teeth without losing a finger toothbrush baby the sickly mama blog parenting top tips
baking · celebrations · food · gluten free · Just for fun · recipes · Seasonal

Ridiculously Delicious Pancake Day Inspiration and Ideas

So the 16th February is, of course, Pancake Day. And let’s face it, what with lockdown and coronavirus, we’ve not got much to look forward to this year. Which means (in my mind) that Pancake Day should now be treated as a major holiday and celebrated as such. To that end, I’m bringing together some of my personal favourite recipes and ideas for incredible pancakes – including sweet and savory recipes, gluten free pancakes, and some slightly outlandish ideas as well… By the time I’m finished, I might just have to turn it into Pancake Week!

Pancake Day Inspiration and Ideas

Big Fat Pancakes

Ah, big fat pancakes. You know the ones. The kind of fluffy pancakes you find stacked up like the Empire State Building and smothered in syrup, on a plate that’s much too small, in a cheap American diner…. Om nom nom. Here’s a recipe for big fat pancakes from BBC Good Food – the normal flour can be directly substituted for gluten-free flour. And see below for ideas on how to make them a bit more exciting…

Savoury Pancakes

These kind of American pancakes really work well with additions to the batter. If you’re a fan of the Hawaiian pizza, I highly recommend scattering shredded ham and small pieces of pineapple into the pan along with the wet batter. They will cook into the pancake and, served with a little melted cheese on top, create a delicious (if slightly unorthodox) Hawaiian pancake treat! Unless you are my husband, in which case you will think it is the pancake of the devil. Fair enough.

If you are of my husband’s mindset, with regards to the combination of ham, pineapple and cheese, then there are of course big fat savoury pancake alternatives. Another great choice is to keep the shredded ham in the batter (but drop the pineapple!… not into the batter…) and then top your pancakes with smoked cheese and chives.

Sweet Pancakes

The obvious choice is, of course, to drop blueberries in your pancake batter and serve with syrup or, if you’re feeling especially extravagant, blueberry yoghurt and maple syrup. I think pretty much any fruit + yoghurt combination works – I’m not the biggest ever fan of blueberries but I love these pancakes with raspberries and yoghurt (in fact you can see that exact combo in one of the pictures on this page!). Ice cream is a more than acceptable yoghurt substitute if you don’t care about pretending that your breakfast is remotely healthy.

Another amazing big fat pancake is a cinammon swirl pancake. These are perfect breakfast pancakes! Basically it’s a normal American pancake but with an addition of sweet cinammon butter, swirled into the batter. I make them at home on a semi-regular basis and they are super delicious, but fair warning: I have never managed to get them looking particularly attractive (hence the absence of photos). To this day, I have no idea how the folks over at BBC Good Food managed to get theirs looking so perfect. But who cares? They don’t last long enough to photograph anyway.

I also weirdly love the combo of banana, bacon and maple syrup for the ultimate sweet and savoury twist.

Skinny Flat Pancakes

Let’s be clear. By ‘skinny’ pancakes, I mean pancakes that are physically slender, not ones that are in any way healthy to eat. That is not in the spirit of Pancake Day. The best thing about skinny flat pancakes, a.k.a. classic French crepes (basic recipe here, straight swap the flour for gluten free flour if needed), is that you can eat a lot more of them before you’re full! As we all know, on Pancake Day one should maximise the quantity, as well as the quality, of pancakes consumed…

Savoury Crepes

Crepes work super well with savoury flavours. My favourite is to spread the crepe with cream cheese, sprinkle with cracked black pepper, smoked salmon, a squeeze of lemon and a generous scattering of chopped chives. It’s sort of like a smoked salmon blini, but much much bigger!

Sweet Crepes

Having started with a savoury crepe (or two, or three) obviously you need to move on to dessert. When I was a kid, my mum always served up crepes spread with strawberry jam, and/or a sprinkle of lemon juice and sugar. Sometimes the classics are the best!

But these days I often dish up a range of sweet fillings, so people can pick and choose their favourites and maybe have a few different combinations. Strawberries and banana are the perfect versatile fruits to have available to fill your crepes, along with Nutella (other chocolate spreads are available…) or caramel sauce.

Fun and Fruity Pancakes

Speaking of fruit, my husband was the one to first introduce me to banana pancakes. Before he came along, I thought ‘banana pancakes’ were the same as ‘banana and pancakes’ – I clearly didn’t pay enough attention to Jack Johnson in my youth. Boy, was I missing out! Proper banana pancakes are now a staple in our house, and Little Man loves them too.

Making banana pancakes can be as simple as two ingredients – banana and egg – making them naturally gluten free, although I prefer recipes that include baking powder for a little extra lightness. My go-to recipe is here, but I usually add a tablespoon of gluten-free flour – because I find the addition of flour makes the pancakes much easier to flip! Banana-only pancakes can be very runny, and you end up with rather unattractive melty blobs (although to be fair, they are absolutely delicious melty blobs). I recommend serving them hot from the pan with either maple syrup or golden syrup – both are delicious.

I’ve heard a rumour that you can make other types of fruit pancake, but honestly why would you bother?

Boozy Pancakes

The classic boozy pancake is, naturally, the Crepe Suzette. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a delicious recipe, but also requires a certain amount of confidence and fancy chef-y skills like making caramel and then setting it on fire. The BBC conveniently have an easy version recipe which they call Cointreau Pancakes (other orange-flavoured liqueurs are available).

I have been religiously Googling alternative alcoholic pancake recipes for Pancake Day 2021 inspiration, because as we all know, lockdowns are vastly improved by the addition of booze. The ones that have caught my eye the most are these caramelised banana and rum pancakes (drool!), these Bailey’s red velvet pancakes with whipped cream (I love the idea of red velvet pancakes!), these pina colada pancakes (my favourite cocktail) and these strawberry lime margarita pancakes which just sound straight-up amazing. Will I get the chance to try all these recipes before Pancake Day? Clearly, no – so if you try one, let me know what you think in the comments!

More Pancake Day Inspiration

Do you have any 2021 Pancake Day inspiration of your own? Let me know your favourite recipes in the comments! Or check out my other recipes and gluten-free baking ideas here.

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.

johannes hjorth monochrome bride floating water roses buoyancy the sickly mama blog
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.

baby · parenting · top tips

Common Household Objects That Make Great Free Toys For Baby

Little Man has lots of lovely toys, but in the interests of trying to avoid our house becoming little more than extended toy storage for the wee fellow, we also try to ensure we supply him with common household objects to play with. Some household items make great free toys for baby, and not only do they save on storage space, but buying fewer toys is better for the planet too! So here’s my list of the top household items that will keep your baby entranced for hours…

common household objects that make great free toys for baby the sickly mama blog

Common Household Objects That Make Great Free Toys For Baby

A Wooden Spoon

“Oh, that’s where it was,” said my husband in an accusatory voice, as I picked up a wooden spoon from the playmat in the kitchen and handed it to Little Man. “I was searching for that for ages while I was cooking.”

Reader, we own a grand total of five wooden spoons (I counted for this article), but as it turns out, I had inadvertently selected my husband’s favourite spoon to give to baby as a fun new toy. Little Man loved it, and now the spoon has visible little gnaw marks on it from his two front teeth. Oops. So, although a wooden spoon is a great idea for an easy toy for baby, in the interests of marital harmony you should probably check with your partner before handing one over…

Egg Boxes

Every once in a while, our Sainsbury’s delivery will randomly substitute our chosen cardboard box of eggs for a plastic box instead. But not only are they less good for the environment, they’re also 100% less useful for their secondary purpose: entertainment for Little Man.

Just think about it. They’re made of cardboard, eminently chewable, not too heavy, an interesting shape and with a hinge that opens and closes. The perfect toy for a baby who’s interested in everything!

baby playing with a cardboard egg box the sickly mama blog household items toys
A twelve-egger in action

Packaging

One of Little Man’s favourite toys is known in our house as The Gold Floofer. It has been a favourite since he was a couple of months old. It’s actually made out of a shiny gold plastic envelope lined with bubble wrap, that contained a delivery for me. We’ve long since forgotten what was actually contained in the envelope, but I cut out a large strip from the envelope for Little Man, because I thought he’d like the bright shiny colour and texture. I was not wrong, and he’s been playing with it ever since.

Fruit and vegetables

Over the autumn/Halloween season, Little Man had great fun playing with a miniature pumpkin I used to create a seasonal display in the lounge. He’s enjoyed chewing on it and bowling it across the floor so much that we actually just started calling it his pumpkin!

Now he’s a bit bigger and stronger, I only let him play with tougher fruit and veg like pumpkin, that has a thick rind that he can’t do much damage to! But when he was younger, most fruits and vegetables made great play things, and he loved exploring the textures of different grocery items. The perfect eco-friendly, 100% biodegradable (and delicious) playthings.

baby on a mat surrounded by yummy fruit toys the sickly mama blog
Fun with fruit and vegetables!

Shakeable items

I’ve also had great success in making various shakers for Little Man (fancier parents than I will call them ‘sensory bottles‘). One favourite was a bottle part-filled with coloured water and dried lentils, which he loved shaking and rolling across the floor. My husband went to empty it out though when it was getting a bit old, and he reported that it smelled “like mouldy farts” by that point, so maybe don’t leave it too long before cleaning and changing the water!

Another great success has been the Shake Shake Box, an empty ice cream tub with some dried seeds and pasta in it so that it makes a satisfying rattling sound when you shake it, and the sides of the tub are clear so you can see it all shaking around in there. It’s been going for about six months now and still remains a favourite.

Cardboard Boxes

Okay, this one was so obvious that I almost forgot it! What child doesn’t love a cardboard box?

Your Ideas For Household Objects That Make Great Free Toys For Baby

Do you have any suggestions for other household items that make great free toys for little ones? Is there anything you think I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!

If you’ve enjoyed this article, why not check out my blog post with top-tips for keeping the weaning process eco-friendly?

baby eating a banana common household objects that make great toys the sickly mama blog
health · top tips

How To Cope With Having A Mystery / Undiagnosed Medical Condition

I’ve previously written about how it feels to have a mystery or undiagnosed health condition. This post follows on from that, and looks at tips and strategies for how to cope with undiagnosed illness or while managing an unknown medical condition.

tips for how to cope with undiagnosed illness the sickly mama blog

Tips For How To Cope With Undiagnosed Illness

1. Acknowledge and talk about your feelings

Having a mystery health condition is really hard and stressful. It’s completely natural and normal to feel sad, frustrated, angry, stressed out and more. Trying to keep your emotions pent up isn’t healthy. It won’t help you cope with undiagnosed illness, and it won’t help you feel better in the long run. Give yourself a chance to feel those emotions, and accept the way you’re feeling.

Ideally, talk to someone – a friend, family member or partner – about how you’re feeling. Not only will it help you deal with your emotions, but it will also help them to understand what you’re going through.

2. Communicate your needs

One of the most common complaints from people with chronic illness is that other people don’t understand what you’re going through. It can be especially upsetting and frustrating when it seems that the people closest to you don’t understand – or worse, that they’re not even trying to understand how you’re feeling. You can end up getting that your needs are sidelined or ignored, or that no-one is prepared to help.

Remember that the only way that people will understand is if you tell them. Try to be proactive about communicating and give people a chance to listen to how you’re feeling and what you need from them. I remember a few weeks after my first brain surgery, I had to travel across London. I was very wobbly and it was my first time out on my own, but outwardly I looked like a normal 21 year old.

At King’s Cross station, it was very busy but thankfully I got lucky and found a seat while waiting for my train. Everyone else with a seat in that area was middle aged or older. An elderly woman walked up and stood nearby, and started giving me angry looks and clearing her throat. Clearly she expected me to give up my seat for her, as the youngest person there. But she never actually asked for it.

If she had asked, I would have explained that I really needed the seat, and probably someone else nearby who wasn’t in such need would have offered her their seat. But she never actually asked, so I never explained, so she never got to sit down. No doubt she thought I was incredibly rude, but she didn’t communicate her need, so no-one accommodated it. This really drove home to me the importance of asking for what you need. You might not get exactly what you’re going for… But if you don’t ask, you’ll get nothing at all.

Be specific if you can – for instance, rather than saying “I get very tired and need to rest”, you’ll get better results from saying “I get very tired and can’t be on my feet more than about ten minutes at a time. Then I will need to sit down for half an hour”. You may think that your emotions and needs should be blindingly obvious to anyone with half a brain… But it’s not always the case.

3. Be kind to yourself

Remember to be kind to yourself. When you’re frustrated and stressed and finding it hard to get things done, it’s easy to push yourself too hard and forget to give yourself a break. But it’s important to look after yourself and your mental health. Don’t spend all of your available energy doing life admin – make sure you occasionally have time to have a bath, read a book, chat to a friend, or whatever it is that you enjoy.

But being kind to yourself isn’t just about having a spa day. It’s also about listening to your body and believing in yourself. When you’re experiencing medically unexplained symptoms, it can be easy to start worrying that they’re all in your head. When there is no label that explains the symptoms you’re experiencing, you may feel that people don’t take your illness seriously – or that you shouldn’t be severely affected by it. Try to remember that a diagnosis is not a permit to be ill. You don’t need permission to be sick. Your experiences – your pain, fatigue, whatever other weird and wonderful symptoms you’re experiencing – are real. And you need to listen to your body and its needs, and take care of yourself.

4. Be your own best advocate

It’s a hard truth that when you have a chronic illness, the one who cares most about finding a diagnosis and a treatment is YOU. Yes, it’s your doctor’s job to work out what’s going on, but no matter how committed your healthcare providers are, at the end of the day it’s just that – a job to them. Whereas to you, it’s your life.

Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. That is likely to mean different things to different people. It might mean chasing up those appointments that are slow to arrive, or those test results that no-one seems to want to discuss. Or, it might mean having the persistence to keep going back with the same symptoms that no-one seems to want to investigate, or pushing for a second opinion . It might mean using these techniques to get your doctor to listen to you. Whatever you need to do to push your best interests.

5. Seek out support to help you cope with undiagnosed illness

You don’t need to do it alone. Don’t be afraid to ask friends and family for support. It can be difficult to find external support networks, because most charities and support groups focus on specific illnesses… Which is difficult if you don’t know what illness you have. But support is out there for the undiagnosed.

You can join Facebook support groups such as Undiagnosed Illness Support Group or Undiagnosed Chronic Illnesses… And many more. Equally, you may wish to look online for ways to connect with people who experience similar symptoms to you, even if you don’t have a diagnosis yet.

Do you have any tips on living with an undiagnosed medical condition or mysterious unexplained symptoms? What are your recommendations for how to cope with undiagnosed illness? Let me know in the comments!