The Childcare Search: Could an Au Pair be the Right Choice for Your Family?

Many families in need of childcare hire a local nanny or enroll kids in a daycare center. But have you ever considered hosting an au pair? This personalized and affordable childcare option might offer the best of both worlds for your children. Rosalie Gennarelli, a coordinator with a national au pair placement agency, answers some common questions about au pairs in this sponsored post. Rosalie helps place au pairs from over a dozen countries in homes throughout the United States. Contact her at 201-400-7310 or rosalie.gennarelli@lcc.culturalcare.com for more information!


Why might a family host an au pair instead of hiring a nanny or sending their child to daycare? 
Thousands of families have decided to host an au pair instead of using a nanny or daycare.  These are the top reasons:
  • Affordability: Pay an average of $1600/month, regardless of family size
  • Flexibility: Au pairs work up to 45 hours/week, and you get to decide when those hours are
  • Cultural exchange: Expose your family to a new culture, and share your culture with your au pair
  • In-home childcare: Benefit from the convenience of having childcare in your home. No need to rush to drop off or pick up kids each day, prepare bottles and lunches to take to daycare, etc.
  • Fewer illnesses: Compared to children in daycare, children who are watched by an au pair will get sick less frequently.

How old are most au pairs? What kind of childcare experience do they have?
Au pairs are between 18 an 26 years old. They have experience babysitting, and some have worked in a daycare, kindergarten, camp or hospital. Many have already gone to university.

Is it expensive to host an au pair? How much can parents expect to pay on average?
An au pair is an affordable childcare option with an average cost of ~$400 per week, which includes agency fees and a stipend paid directly to your au pair.

What kind of screening does an agency do to ensure families' safety?
We do a complete criminal background check on both the au pair and host family to ensure everyone's safety. Our au pairs are also CPR and first aid certified. 

Do parents get to choose the particular au pair they'd like? How does that process work? 
Yes. We have a unique search and select system for families. Families can use filters to search for candidates that fit particular criteria. We also assign the family a personal matcher to help them in their search. We have au pairs from over 12 different countries, so you can choose candidates from particular countries. You can even search for specific qualities, like an au pair who drives, someone that can cook the children's meals, someone that likes to bake or is good at sports.

Families can interview au pairs via phone or Skype as often as they like. Putting in the time to think about your needs and interview candidates in-depth maximizes the chances of a great fit.

Are there particular types of families or situations for whom an au pair wouldn't be a good idea?
Families who need more than 45 hours of childcare/week would need some back up childcare since au pairs cannot work more than 45 hours. Also, au pairs are not housekeepers, so families who need help with vacuuming, laundry, cooking for parents, errands, etc, would not be able to use au pairs for these services. However, au pairs can cook the kids' meals, do the kids' laundry, and organize the kids' bedrooms/playrooms. 

There are a number of agencies that place au pairs. How can parents tell if an agency is good?
Look at the agency's history - for example, we have been around for 25 years. A reputable agency should have a following of many satisfied clients. Talk to families who have worked with the agency or take a look at reviews. 

Ask whether an agency has offices overseas and actually interviews au pairs in person. We do in-person interviews for all prospective au pairs, which helps ensure the quality of candidates.  

Also, find out what kind of support host families will receive throughout the program. Who would you contact if there's a problem? Where are they located and how quickly will they respond? What is the agency's plan in case of conflict between the au pair and the family? We have a local childcare worker assigned to you so you have someone to contact at all times.


Travels with a Toddler: Chicago Weekend Getaway

As we realized during a recent trip to New Orleans and Florida, traveling with a toddler can be challenging. But this discovery did not keep us at home for long; today, I am excited to share some recommendations from our latest family vacation - a weekend in Chicago. 

During our short but action-packed trip, we ate, played and explored our way through the city, from the Loop to Lincoln Park to the Ukrainian Village. Our list of suggestions below is by no means exhaustive - for example, we decided to totally skip the famous (and pricey) Museum Campus. But it's one Chicago itinerary to inspire your next trip to the Windy City. 




Why Take a Toddler to Chicago

Chicago is perfect for a weekend getaway from Houston:
  • Easy to get to: Regular direct flights from Houston last just over 2 hours - doable with even the most troublesome little flyers.
  • Big city atmosphere: As much as I love Houston, it can feel like a suburb. Sometimes you just want to walk around a city that feels like an actual city, with skyscrapers and bustling crowds and action. If so, Chicago's got you covered. It's not quite as crazy as NYC, though, which makes it very manageable for a family to navigate.
  • Weather: The weather, at least when we visited, was the polar opposite of Houston summer, with a pleasant breeze and temperatures in the high 70s. Do you want to spend an entire summer day outside? In Chicago, you can! 
  • Lots to do: From unique landmarks to beautiful stroller-friendly neighborhoods to tons of children's attractions to parks and beaches to kid-friendly food, you wont get bored.


What To Do

  • Children's Museum: Chicago's Children's Museum is conveniently located at Navy Pier, a fun, albeit very touristy area. It has a designated play area just for babies and toddlers, as well as baby-friendly exhibits scattered throughout the museum. After you're done exploring, you can walk up and down the pier, where there's plenty of things to see and snacks for sale.

  • Walk along the lake or river:The Lakefront Trail, an 18-mile pedestrian and bike path running along the shore of Lake Michigan, is easily accessible on foot from the downtown area. It's very stroller-friendly, the views are gorgeous, and there are sand beaches along the route if you want to stop and dip your toes in the water. Alternatively, you can walk along the Chicago River, either on the pedestrian Riverwalk right by the water or the busier streets above, depending on what you're in the mood for.
  • Stop and smell the chocolate: This is one of those cool only-in-Chicago experiences. The entire neighborhood around the Blommer Chocolate Company, a chocolate factory located in the West Loop, smells like chocolate, making for a pleasant walk for chocoholics such as myself.
  • Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art: UIMA puts on shows featuring work by artists from all over the world. If you like contemporary art, this is a fun little museum to check out. It's totally manageable with a kid, with lots of open space for little walkers or crawlers to explore. We enjoyed the Summer/Fall 2016 exhibition, which had lots of bright colors, textures, and sounds to interest the whole family. The staff was welcoming, handing out water bottles and playing with Lana.


Where to Play

  • Millenium Park: Perhaps Chicago's most famous park, this classic green space is definitely worth a visit. Your kiddos can splash in the fountains, find their reflections in the Cloud Gate sculpture, or run around in the Pritzker Pavilion. There are also occasional free concerts. Michigan Avenue, just to the west of the park has a number of familiar food options if you get hungry
  • Lincoln Park: This huge park is home to a zoo, a nature museum, several playgrounds, and lots of green space. It's also conveniently located in a beautiful residential neighborhood, perfect for a stroller walk while your little one naps after a fun-filled morning outdoors.

  • Oz Park: This park has the most beautiful playground with 4+ unique play structures (think Donovan Park but even cooler), lots of green space, and sculptures of Wizard of Oz characters scattered throughout. Lana loved it! 


  • Lake Shore East Park: This little haven of green space nestled between skyscrapers felt like a secret garden. You'll find a nice playground, a splash pad, open space to run, and lots of colorful flowers. It's stroller-friendly with ramps to get down to the park.


Where to Eat

  • Perennial Virant (Lincoln Park): Fancy brunch with indoor and outdoor seating, located steps from the park. Very kid-friendly. Yummy mimosas, omelets, pastries, and more!  
  • Black Dog Gelato (Ukrainian Village): The super-fresh gelato is totally worth the walk/drive. Choose from over a dozen creative flavors like lemon gingersnap and pineapple lime basil. One downside: no bathroom here. 
  • Portillo's: Classic Chicago hot dogs, fries, burgers, pasta dishes, and chocolate cake. Healthy it is not, but definitely delicious. And there's a location within walking distance from the river/downtown hotels.
  • Roots Pizza: Roots offers a fresh take on Italian. It's not the traditional Chicago deep dish pizza, but, as we found out, a pizza that takes over an hour to make is not the best thing to order when you're traveling with a toddler. Roots also has yummy pastas, apps, salads, craft beers, and more! 


Where To Stay

The Loop (aka downtown area) is full of large hotels at various price points, and we found this to be a convenient and central area to stay in. Our hotel, the Fairmont Millenium Park, had huge rooms with plenty of space for a crib either in the bathroom or the room itself. 

For a more authentic experience, you might want to look at an Airbnb in a residential neighborhood like Lincoln Park. If you go this route, though, make sure you're staying in a safe area. As we found out personally, break-ins and burglaries are all too real in parts of Chicago. We were initially planning to stay with my friend Uptown. We assumed that safety woudn't be a concern since Uptown is nowhere near the South Side. Alas, the house was broken into on the first night we were supposed to stay there. Luckily, our flight was delayed and we had not yet arrived when the burglars broke down the door. After that close call, it was off to a safe hotel for us.

How to Get Around

This may sound a bit insane, but we walked 17+ miles to hit up all of the recommended destinations above. Therefore, I can personally vouch that the spots above and their surroundings are safe for families and stroller-friendly. One exception: when navigating the riverfront, we did have to carry the stroller up stairs twice. Not a big deal with two parents and one stroller, though it may get tricky otherwise. 

If you don't feel like walking, there's a subway and cab/Uber. You can rent a car, but I don't recommend it. We found parking to be expensive and driving to be difficult - our rental car spent most of the weekend in the garage.   

FYUL: The Gas Station that Comes to You

FYUL is a gas station that comes to you at the click of a button. "Is this some kind of busy mom fantasy?" you may ask. No, friends, this is 100% real - in fact, I tested it myself and am so excited to share my experience with you. I'm partnering with FYUL for this post. 



Have you ever wished that your gas tank could magically refill itself? I've never exactly enjoyed my weekly trips to the gas station, but after I had a baby, filling up the tank really became a hassle. And, as luck would have it, my car always seemed to run out of gas at the most inconvenient moments. 

So when I met FYUL's founder at a party and heard about her company, I knew I had to give it a try. FYUL, she explained to me, lets users fill their gas tank via an app. Just place an order, pop your gas cap, and, within a matter of hours, voila - your tank is full. Payment is totally cashless and automatic, Uber-style. You don't even need to be by your car when the technician stops by to fill it up. Could it be any more convenient? Oh, and the prices, she said, are comparable to what you'd pay at the gas station. 

For the next few days, I waited impatiently to run out of gas. Once my tank was approaching empty, I downloaded the FYUL app, signed in through my Facebook account, and placed an order. The order form asked me for my car's details and location and reminded me to pop my gas cap. The whole process took about 3 minutes, and, once I finished, I received a notification that my gas was on its way.


Half an hour later, my phone buzzed again. My car was ready! The notification came with a receipt: the bill came to $25 for a full tank of regular fuel - comparable to what I pay at the gas station (on a per-gallon basis, the cost was $2.39/gallon for standard 3-hour delivery, or $2.49/gallon for super-fast 1-hour delivery). 

Overall, I was totally satisfied with my FYUL experience and will be using the service again. The only downside? Operating hours are limited, and the service is currently available only in certain areas of Houston. These are the zip codes where FYUL operates: 

 77002  
 77004  
 77005  
 77006  
 77007  
 77008  
 77009  
 77019  
 77024  
 77027  
 77046  
 77056  
 77057  
 77098

If you live in one of these areas, I highly recommend you give the service a try - you can thank me for all the time you save! If not, email FYUL at support@fyuldelivery.com and let them know you're interested in the service - they are always looking at new areas to expand. 

Throwback Thursday Onesie Giveaway!

If you've ever wondered what a baby's Throwback Thursday pic would look like, here's your answer!


I am so excited to be giving away this adorable Throwback Thursday onesie from Etsy shop BonnieAndKlyde2014 to one lucky winner! Choose your size from Newborn to 24 months and let your hipster baby flaunt his or her social media savvy and general adorableness.

To enter, like Bonnie & Klyde on Facebook, and comment below with your real name to let me know that you've entered. Deadline to enter: August 18, 2016. For an extra entry, Favorite BonnieAndKlyde2014 on Etsy. The shop has a great selection of baby outfits with sassy sayings, handmade taggie blankets, bibs, burp cloths, and much more! 

Expert Q&A: Houston Mom & Scientist Karina Kaplun Talks Baby Gut Health

Gut health, aka the relationship between us and the millions of bacteria that share our bodies, is one of the hottest topics in the health sciences these days. And who better to explain probiotics, prebiotics, and the inner workings of our gut than a local mom who also happens to have a Ph.D. in microbiology and a decade of probiotics research experience? In this post, Karina Kaplun explains what parents of babies and toddlers need to know about gut health. Like what you see? Follow Karina on Facebook at MyGutMatters!

Q: Why should parents of babies and toddlers care about gut health?

A: Many of our health problems come from or are somehow related to the issues with our Gastrointestinal tract (GI). The GI is in constant communication with the endocrine, nervous and immune systems. Our gut has more neurons than our spinal cord! In fact, the tiny organisms residing in our gut, or our microbiota), outnumber the number of human cells and genes in our bodies.

This microbiota helps us digest food that our body cannot process itself. It also boosts our immune system by inhibiting the growth of bad bacteria. Our microbiota even has an impact on our mood and social behavior!

Q: Why is breastfeeding important for a baby's gastrointestinal system?
A: Breast milk has a very unique composition. First of all, it has live bacteria, such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli; these are transferred to the baby and help form healthy microbiota in his/her gut. On top of that, breast milk has very complex milk oligosaccharides that can only be digested by Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli. So basically by ingesting breast milk babies are not only getting probiotics (good bacteria), but also prebiotics (food for good bacteria) in their little intestines. And, of course, breast milk provides newborns with immunoglobulins that are crucial for immune protection during the very first months when babies are mostly immunocompromised.

Q: What can parents who don't breastfeed (or are done with breastfeeding) do to help their children get some of the same benefits?
A: Moms who can at least partially breastfeed are providing the baby with some protection and good bacteria to establish a healthy microbiota to some degree. My advice to those parents who cannot breastfeed for one reason or another is to look for formula containing probiotics and prebiotics. Or add infant probiotics as a supplement to formula or baby food.

Q: Should babies and toddlers take a probiotic? How can parents choose one from the dozens of options on the market?
A: Probiotics may help if the baby/toddler’s immune system is not very strong and she has a lot of viral or bacterial infections. They can also help if a baby has diarrhea or constipation. If a baby has eczema or allergies, probiotics have also been shown to improve these symptoms.

The key to a healthy microbiota is its diversity; therefore, when choosing probiotics, look for those that have more than one bacterial strain and preferably species (as an example probiotic products that have both Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli). Also important to note how many CFU (colony forming units) of live bacteria it has. The more live cells it has the better, with a minimum of 1 billion. Choose a well-known brand that discloses not only the species of bacteria but also the strain number. For example not only Lactobacillus reuteri but Lactobacillus reuteri DSM 17938 or Lactobacillus reuteri Protectis.

Q: Are there any foods (that little ones will actually eat) that help promote gut health?
A: Good bacteria in our microbiota feed on indigestible fiber present in whole grains, vegetables and fruit. The best natural prebiotics are found in onions, leeks, artichoke, asparagus, garlic, under-ripe bananas and honey (recommended after 1 year of age).

Q: Any other big do's and don'ts for parents of babies and toddlers?
A: Most of the foods that surround us each day are junk foods, which do not nourish our bodies or feed the good bacteria living in us. It is a parent's responsibility provide their babies with healthy foods and also to set a good example with our own food choices.

Q: What do you think about antibiotics?
A: Antibiotics are usually broad-spectrum drugs that not only kill the targeted bacterium but also eliminate most of the good bacteria present in our gut. Research is showing that the microbiota only partially restores itself after the use of antibiotics. Use of antibiotics in early life has also been linked to increased obesity among children, decreased ability to fight infections, a weaker immune system and lower capacity to digest food. Therefore, parents should be aware of the appropriate uses of antibiotics and consequences of inappropriate use. If antibiotics must be used, parents should consider using a probiotic to help restore healthy microbiota after the damage caused by antibiotics.

(Indoor) Playground of the Week: Ma-Jest-Kids

Searching for an indoor playspace that's clean, fun, baby/toddler-appropriate AND open 7 days a week? Look no further: Ma-Jest-Kids offers all this and more. Here's a rundown of our recent visit, in which Lana gave this playspace an enthusiastic seal of approval. I am partnering with Ma-Jest-Kids for this sponsored post.

Lana and I have made the rounds of many of Houston's indoor playspaces, so, at this point, it's hard to impress us. But we were both wowed by Ma-Jest-Kids, located just by the intersection of US-59 and Dairy Ashford.

Ma-Jest-Kids is a large indoor playspace set up with a half-dozen unique play areas, ranging from a foam pit to life-size Imagination Playground blocks. One of Lana's favorites was this wooden play structure, with multiple levels of fun for different ages. Crawlers can explore the tunnels below, while toddlers can climb up to the top.


Another favorite was this air pillow - a safer alternative to trampolines that even 14-month-old Lana could enjoy. After she had her fill of bouncing up and down, she took a break in the infant area nearby, enjoying the activity cubes and climbing over the baby-sized furniture.


The soft climbers, slides, and tunnels were also a hit: 


If you're coming with an older sibling, they won't be bored either. Here's one play structure designed for older kiddos. At left, you can see an interactive floor projector with different games - a bit too complicated for Lana, but the 3-and 4-year-olds were having a ton of fun here. 


Children aren't the only customers Ma-Jest-Kids cares about - the playspace is clearly designed with adults in mind. There are several comfy couches throughout the play area, allowing parents to relax while keeping a close eye on their kiddos.


Another nice touch is the dedicated nursing area, complete with a recliner, changing table, and soft light to soothe tiny babies.


I was also impressed by the focus on safety. Kids and adults get matching invisible stamps when they come in. When it's time to go, the staff checks the stamps with a blacklight to make sure that children leave only with their parent/caregiver. The play equipment is also chosen and set up with safety in mind.

Let's talk food. Unlike other playspaces I've visited, Ma-Jest-Kids has its own snack bar. Mom can get a coffee, while kids can choose from a large variety of snacks (including organic pouches, Annie's crackers, fresh fruit, raisins, sandwiches, and other healthy choices). There's a cute cafe area with chairs, high chairs and tables just off the snack bar. Outside food and drinks are not allowed.

 


In addition to open play 7 days a week, Ma-Jest-Kids also hosts special events, such as Mommy & Me yoga on Friday mornings, magic shows, and more. Birthday party packages are available starting at $375 for 15 kids.

The one thing I would change about this otherwise wonderful play experience is the number of people there. We visited on a Friday morning, one of their busier times, and shared the space with 20-30 other children. If you're looking for a calmer time, weekday afternoons tend to be quieter.

As for our visit, after about an hour and a half, Lana swiped a pillow from a couch, put it on the floor, and lay down. I have never seen her so tired out - a definite sign of a great time!


If you go: 

  • Address: 14031 Southwest Fwy, Suite #620 Sugar Land TX, 77478
  • Parking: Free parking lot
  • Hours: 9:00AM-6:00PM Mon.-Thurs.; 9:00PM-7:00PM Fri.-Sat.; 10:00AM-5:00PM Sun. 
  • Pricing: $8.50 for first kid, $7.00 for siblings. 2 adults get in free 
  • Contact: Call 281-201-8058 for more info


Pregnant in Houston: Part 2

 In Part 2 of our “Pregnant in Houston” series, guest author Abby Gorlach explores chiropractic care, prenatal massage, prenatal yoga, and more. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here!


Staying Relaxed: Massage and Chiropractic Care

I hit the jackpot with Houston chiropractic care when I was referred to West University Wellness by—you guessed it—my Facebook mom group. This practice, which boasts a spa-like setting with lots of yummy tea, is dedicated to pregnant women, mamas, and babies. Best part? They accept insurance! Yes, you heard me. Your prenatal massage could be covered by insurance. Worst case, you can pay with your HSA.

One caveat about their massages: you may be taken to the massage room later than your appointment time and the therapist may not make up for that time. This is what happened to me, and I ended up with a 45-50 minute massage instead of a 60 minute one. Their chiropractic care is stellar, though. I have taken my infant to this practice for adjustments with Dr. Long, and now I am going for regular adjustments for myself. It has helped me with pregnancy aches and pains, as well as relieving the extra strain on my body from chasing and carrying a hefty toddler.

Another cool feature of West U Wellness is their regular Wellness Events. These include informational meetings about breastfeeding with a renowned Belgian Lactation Consultant, a roundtable discussion about pregnancy and childbirth with a local doula, and a Bringing Baby Home workshop, to name a few. They are free and open to the public. I’ve never attended an event, so I can’t personally vouch for them. But, even if you’re skeptical of chiropractors and crunchy wellness events, I encourage you to pay them a visit for a massage. Every pregnant mama could use a good rub down.



Keeping Fit: Prenatal Yoga

One thing I couldn’t easily find in Houston is a top-notch prenatal yoga class with regular class offerings. I will not drag my body out of bed on a weekend before my child forces me to. Since she tends to sleep until 8:00 am, I was disappointed to discover the only “vigorous” prenatal yoga class at Joy Yoga Center on Washington begins at 8:00 am on a Saturday. No thanks. There is a very relaxing and “stretchy” prenatal yoga class at Joy on Tuesdays at 11:30 am, but it is not a workout by any means. I need to sweat, people. For a good yoga session, I’ve resorted to going to regular classes and modifying the poses. Not as fun as being surrounded by glowing ladies rubbing their bellies, but it does the trick.

I do, however, want to mention an extremely unique yoga offering in Houston: Alcove Yoga. This adorable studio-in-a-house is an Iyengar studio with a focus on women and especially pregnant women. Alcove offers a very cool Monday night class for pregnant ladies that is followed by a nutritious vegetarian dinner prepared by a chef. Yum. It is a great way to bond with other soon-to-be moms (I’m all about the mom gang in case you haven’t noticed), too. There is also a Saturday morning class (no meal, but cheaper and less time-consuming).

The drawbacks of Alcove are price (Monday night classes are expensive), availability (books up quickly), and Iyengar is not as accessible as Vinyasa. That being said, it is not difficult, only different. Iyengar uses a ton of props, so it’s great for pregnant bodies.



Baby Planning

The final cool pregnancy-focused business I’d like to share with you before your eyes glaze over is Bassett Baby Planning. This fantastic baby-and-mom-centered business includes birth and postpartum doulas, lactation support, childbirth classes, as well as pre- and post-natal massages. My husband and I attended a “Meet the Doulas” night, which was awesome. It was like doula speed-dating. All of the doulas we met were well-qualified and experienced, but only a handful were available for our due date. I wish we had known this in advance so we could have focused on meeting only the available doulas.

In any case, we booked a BBP postpartum night doula to cover a few night shifts once baby is here so we can get some much needed sleep. A big perk of BBP is their ability to work with your insurance so you can potentially receive some reimbursement. They have all the necessary codes and experience with insurance companies. Prenatal costs add up, so I found this aspect to be extremely helpful.

In the end, I was able to find all the pregnancy resources I needed and more here in Houston. With many qualified and reputable caregivers and other prenatal resources, pregnant mamas should be in good hands in this town!