Parenting is always a challenge, but when babies become mobile it’s like a whole new ball game! Toddlers seem to be full of energy at all times, and keeping up with them can be a challenge for any parent. For parents facing the added pain and fatigue of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the toddler years can be particularly demanding.
As a mom of three very active kids, two boys and one girl, I’ve learned a lot about parenting with RA through my own process of trial and error. I’ve also brainstormed with many other mamas living with RA, including my friend Cheryl who is not only a mom with RA herself, but also a trained occupational therapist. So, I’d like to share some practical strategies and life hacks to help you face the physical demands of parenting a toddler when you’re living with RA.
For many people living with RA, morning stiffness can make tasks that need to be accomplished at the beginning of the day particularly challenging. I sometimes have trouble dressing myself, let alone a squirming toddler! So, when I’m shopping for clothes and shoes for my children, I try to keep my own needs in mind too. Cheryl agrees and recommends choosing stretchy material, particularly around openings such as the neck, arms, legs, or waist. Skipping snaps and buttons and opting for elastic waistbands may be easier too. And until my kids learn to tie their own shoes, I’m sticking with Velcro (no pun intended!). My kids also really loved their rain boots when they were tiny, whether it was raining or not, because they could put them on all by themselves at an early age.
“I’ve learned a lot about parenting with RA through my own process of trial and error.”
Along the same lines, I started asking my children to help me with dressing and undressing as soon as they were able. Can you please help me by pushing your foot all the way through these pants? Do you think you can take your socks off all by yourself? Even a small amount of help is useful to me, and having them participate also instills confidence and self-sufficiency. As Cheryl points out, parents have to learn to be patient with things taking a little longer than they might like in order to allow the child to learn to do things for him/herself. While it isn’t always easy to be patient, it pays off in the end – the earlier toddlers master these skills the easier things will be for you!
Feeding a toddler can be a big job, but there are some simple things you can do to make it easier if you have RA. For starters, make sure your kitchen is equipped with tools to make your life easier, like a jar opener and utensils that are easy for you to grip. When selecting a high chair, think about how easy it will be to get your toddler safely secured to the chair, and test the latches and buckles to make sure your hands can manage them. I like having a high chair with a removable tray to make cleanup easier. Cheryl recommends using bibs with Velcro instead of snaps – at least until your toddler starts ripping them off! She’s also a fan of services to make the logistics of meal prep easier, such as grocery delivery and boxed meals. Personally, when I feel up to cooking, I like to cook big batches and set aside portions in my deep freezer for days when I have less energy. If your little one goes to daycare or preschool, you might also find it easier to make lunches the night before rather than fighting through stiffness in the morning.
Bathing a slippery, wiggly, naked toddler is another challenge for any parent! While many RA parents depend on baby bathtubs so they don’t have to bend down, toddlers will eventually grow out of them. If you switch to a traditional bathtub, you may want to consider a small chair, kneepad, or elbow pads (they actually make elbow pads that suction to the side of the bathtub so you have something padded to lean on while washing kiddos!). I also have friends who skip baths altogether and stick to using the detachable showerhead to spray their kids clean
As a parent with RA, I try to be prepared for the inevitable, yet unpredictable flare days, when I know I may have more pain and less energy than usual. Making sure the house is baby-proofed is a really good starting place, particularly in areas where the kids spend a lot of time. Knowing that our environment is safe gives me the opportunity to relax a little bit more when I really need it. I also have a cupboard that I keep stocked with simple craft materials and quiet activities – like markers, crayons, coloring books, stamps and ink pads, Play-Doh, memory games, lacing cards, and more. That way I always have something on hand for easy kid entertainment when I’m not feeling well (or when the weather is bad!).
We also rely on a system of toy rotation to keep things interesting in our playroom. At any given time, only a portion of our toys are out for play while the rest are stored in a closet. This not only helps cut down on clutter, making it a lot easier to keep the house clean, but it also gives me the option to bring out “new” toys on days when I’m flaring. However, I do recommend making sure you do the actual swap when the kids aren’t watching – so they won’t learn where the “put away” toys are hidden!
On the go
Car seats can generally be difficult for parents with RA to manage–but the good news with toddlers is that you won’t have to worry about taking the seat in and out of the car anymore. When choosing a car seat for your toddler, the most important thing to keep in mind is how easy it is to open and close the buckles (but if you’re still having trouble with the buckles remember there are products specially designed to help with this task!).
When out and about with toddlers, I rely a lot on having a stroller – not only to carry the kids, but also to carry all the associated stuff! If you need a double stroller, make sure to be careful about its overall weight so you won’t hurt yourself getting it in and out of the car. And, because my kids quickly reached a weight where it was difficult for me to carry them in my arms, I found it extremely useful to have a soft-sided toddler carrier on hand so that I could wear them and distribute their weight when carrying them was unavoidable.
Self-sufficiency and the importance of helping
Overall, I think one of the most important things you can do to make it easier to parent a toddler is to teach them self-sufficiency and the importance of helping. Cheryl points out that most kids are capable of contributing to household chores and tasks at much younger ages than we typically tend to think. Having your toddler “help” can start off as simple as putting their dish in the sink after a meal, helping with stirring while you cook or bake, or putting toys away before taking out something new. Learning to do things on their own teaches important life skills, gives them pride in their own accomplishments, and can actually help take the burden off you.
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