Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Newborn Gift Guide – Part 2

3/26/11 Newborn Gift Guide – Part 2
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By Mike Shinn

Newborn Gift Guide - Part II

If you had a chance to read Part I of the Newborn Gift Guide, you might notice that I have my favorite baby items but am critical of others. In Part II of the gift guide, I have continued my list of practical items to add to your baby registry. The items listed in Part II are intended to be higher on the priority list as you will want all of these things sooner than later. Baby Sling: You will need one of these and use it more than you know. This is the type of gift that you can put a lot of research into online and still be as uninformed as when you started. The best way to find out which is best for you is to ask around and try them out. Test out your friends' slings and try others in a store - bring in 10 or 20 lbs of weight or stack up heavy toys inside if you have to. Be sure to have one of the professional sales staff adjust your sling for you. In my case, we received a Bjorn as a gift from a coworker. I was skeptical until our schnauzer willingly tried it out with me. I think that she still yearns to be carried around in it. Cost: $30-150

Changing Table: There are a lot of products out on the market for this, and many of them are expensive. I was surprised to see cheap plastic tables going for well over $100. Even more frustrating - many of these in the showroom were single-purpose items. In other words, after using the changing table for a couple of years, you're stuck with dismantling and adding to the landfill. There are alternatives, though. My wife and I purchased a standard wooden dresser from the Unity Shoppe downtown and saved a lot of money. It looks nice and we can use it when we're finally finished diapering. Alternatively, consider a pack-n-play. This is a collapsible and somewhat portable baby bed/playpen with optional changing-table top attachment. Be sure to get a table with a dock or drawer to store spare diapers and wipes. Placing them on the table itself may work at first, but only until your newborn learns to kick. Cost: $60-500

Changing Pad: Now that you have your changing table, consider getting a changing pad. This will turn your flat, hard surface into a concave foam fortress. You will also want a few washable covers - even the easiest of kids will have messy mishaps. Cost: $10-25

Baby Bath: Done right, this can be an inexpensive and fun item. Read up on the reviews for the bath that's right to you. Not all children will grow to remember baths given to them in the kitchen sink as I do. I don't recommend going all out on this item. Your baby just needs to be clean and safe, not given a spa treatment. Cost: $20-80

Cute Towels: Now that they're out of the tub, it's time to dry them off. There's nothing cuter than a kid in a towel costume. These are gaining in popularity - now it is easier to find towels with the corner folded over and eyes or horns sewn in the top. Convincing your child that bath time is finished is a little easier when they have a fun towel to wrap up in. Cost: $12-40

Bottle Drying Rack: This was an item that I saw in advance of my daughter's birth but was skeptical of. I thought that it was somewhat wasteful. The paper towels that I laid out to dry my bottles on seemed to get me by just fine. It was only after receiving one of these (thanks to points on my think geek account) that I learned the true use of this item. While my paper towels got me by, a drying rack elevates bottles, caps and rubber nipples in order to allow for a better and faster overall dry. Cost: $20

Boppy: I thought that this item was ridiculous before the baby was born - it looked like an oversized portable travel headrest. Its intended use is for breastfeeding mothers - they will wrap this around their waist and rest the child atop so that feeding can proceed without holding the child. This use is nice, but for fathers it is all the better. If you are trapped beneath a sleeping baby, jostling them into a flat position to free yourself when you become uncomfortable is an option that sounds good only to the inexperienced. Strategically using the boppy as a body pillow surrounds your child with the hugging comfort of a parent that doesn't have a bladder that needs to be emptied on occasion. Consider getting a couple of covers for this item. Cost: $15-50

Baby Swing: Some kids can't sleep without them. Still, all children are different. My son wasn't interested in the swing that my daughter loved. You won't know which swing matches to which kid until later - this is a gamble no matter which swing you choose to get, if you choose to get one at all. These also come in a variety of sizes, shapes and features. Your child will not likely pay any attention to the features, so focus on the safety and cost. Cost: $50-200

Reclining Chair: This item may not be at all necessary for you if you plan to feed your child in a chair or couch that you can easily get up from while lifting a sleeping baby. For most of us, this couch does not exist. Consider getting a comfortable chair or at least ottoman for the couch or chair that you most often use. You will be surprised to discover later how often you accidentally fall asleep in it yourself! Cost: Free-$1000 depending on where you purchase. (See my next article for tips on where to purchase in Santa Barbara).

As mentioned in the last article, no one is ever provided with a proper gift guide for newborns. It can also be said that parents of newborns are seldom properly trained or prepared. This can play itself out in many ways. One of the most noticeable is in the review of a baby toy or tool. Too often I was discouraged from purchasing or registering for something because a parent would rate the item as poor quality or unsafe. Later, I would discover that these parents had rated the wrong product, a previous version of the product or were improperly using the product to begin with. Take online reviews with a grain of salt, but take note of general trends in ratings when comparing products before making a decision.

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Newborn Gift Guide – Part 1

2/26/11 Newborn Gift Guide – Part 1
Originally at:

By Mike Shinn

Once you have gotten over the excitement of learning that you are about to have your first child, fear quickly sets in. One of the largest sources of fear is the lack of experience and equipment. Those of us lucky enough to have family and friends who are interested in purchasing nice gifts for us have the added pressure of needing to set up a registry. The alternative is accepting well intentioned, but horrible baby gifts. One friend of mine even received baby clothes made of felt, a material typically reserved for immobile dolls. Unfortunately the practical gift guide for newborns in Santa Barbara does not come complimentary with a positive home pregnancy test. To fill the void, I have prepared such a list for parents who may not know what's worth registering.

Diaper Disposal: Whether you have chosen disposable diapers or cloth, you will one day want to store this soiled material in a location where the stench and germs can be contained and out of your way. There are many models to choose from and they're difficult to tell apart. There is one large differentiating factor - the bag. A wise choice is the model that allows you to use a standard trash bag. Avoid the models that require proprietary bags or you will be paying again and again until your child is potty-trained.

Note: when you receive your diaper unit, consider placing it in your bathroom or near where your pets relieve themselves instead of a bedroom or kitchen. There's no reason to have multiple rooms in your house smelling of biological waste - even the best diaper disposal units smell a little after a few months. This is a gift that anyone can buy and everyone with babies will get a lot of mileage out of. Cost: $25-30.

Stroller: Many families will inevitably end up purchasing the big, expensive stroller. This is typically not done in haste, is expensive and can potentially even attach to your removable car seat. This is not the stroller that just anyone can purchase. Eventually, the time will come when your back will ache from having lifted your child and their stroller too many times. You will yearn for the convenience of a stroller but without the weight or car trunk space. The answer is a lightweight, inexpensive backup stroller. The price is right on these, and they serve as a perfect backup and transition stroller from the more expensive one. Cost: $10-20. Note: At this price, you're paying too much to bring it on the plane with you when you travel. Simply pick one up at your final destination and avoid the hassle.

Bath Water Spout Cover: I wish I had known about these fun items as a child and later as an adult. Some of us are a little clumsier than others and can bang their head or feet on the spout in the bathtub. This protects your body parts and those of your little ones as they learn to bathe, something that becomes increasingly important as the child becomes increasingly mobile. Cost: $5-15

Snap Straps: This little device is simple - a foot-long ribbon with buttons sewn in to it allowing you to strap anything to anything. Perfect for the baby who is learning to toss their bottle or pacifier in your car when they really intend to keep it. Strap toys, pacifiers, bottles hats, etc. to the child's wrist, car seat, stroller, etc. Later your child will learn to use it to snap toys to other toys. Sure, you could make them yourself with material from the craft store, but for the price it's worth getting them pre-made by a company that is focused on quality materials and an interest in keeping the buttons perfectly attached. Cost: $5-10.

Nesting cups: There are many kinds to choose from and they never get old. Stack them, hide them, nest them, sort them, or fill them with sand. There is no limit to their uses. They also make an excellent travel toy. I keep a set in the bathtub; both for bath play as well as to rinse the hair of my son. He doesn't like the rinse, but since it's also used as a toy, he doesn't see it coming. Cost: $5-10

Snack Trap: While your child until won't use this device until after they have learned to use their limbs, it will eventually become a lifesaver. Put small crackers, fruit or any type of snack into the cup and then push on the cover. Your children can then reach in and grab a small snack, one at a time, and feed themselves. This eliminates spills and lost snacks as well as teaching patience and the use of hands for eating. You will save money from not having to purchase as much food (especially when out of the house), so buy a few of them. Cost: $5-10

While there are some great items out there to register for, there are also things to avoid. I did a lot of reading in advance of my daughter being born, and kept a list of all of the potential items. Two items that I still haven't found a use for are tongue depressors and a hot water bottle. A couple of weeks before she was born, my neighbor found me these final items - apparently Santa Barbara's drug stores no longer carry them. I was very thankful but they still sit in the bathroom unused more than three years later.

I recommend avoiding a bottle warmer and baby wipe warmers. I am not implying that babies prefer ice-cold milk or a cold surprise during a diaper change. It's just that these devices are wasteful and inconvenient.

Bottle Warmer: If you use a bottle warmer correctly, you fill the electrical device with water to a poorly-etched fill line before plugging in, waiting for it to heat up, putting the prepared milk bottle in, heating the milk, then testing the milk to make sure that it's not too hot. Don't forget to unplug the warmer when you're done. Under ideal circumstances, this is inconvenient and needlessly complicated. At 2am with blurry eyes and a screaming infant in one arm while you try to operate the device in the other arm, it is useless. Instead, go the easier route - fill a mug about a quarter of the way with water and microwave for 25 seconds. Place the bottle in the warm water for another 30 seconds once it is out. You're not micro waving the bottle itself, so no need to worry about the milk getting nuked. Also, muscle memory on the microwave is surprisingly good under non-ideal conditions. Money saved: $15-40.

Baby Wipe Warmer: This simply isn't as much of a problem in Santa Barbara as it must be elsewhere. A cold wipe can be upsetting to a baby who is already upset from having to wallow in its own waste. Later, they will come to associate the coolness with cleanliness. For now, your newborn will expect a warm and gentle clean. Much like the bottle warmer, this device will take unnecessary time and delay your diaper change, potentially waking up anyone else in the house from the baby screams. Fortunately, we're all born with our own wipe warmers - simply rub the wipe between your hands rapidly for about 5 seconds. The wipe that was cold is now warm and without the need to add a power strip next to your changing table. Money saved: $15-25.

Baby Bottle Cleaner: We received several complimentary steam bags as well as advertisements for whole baby bottle cleansing systems when buying breast pump attachments. These items ranged from single-use to ridiculously complicated and expensive. Instead of going through all of this buy a thin brush, the kind you would use to clean out a thin vase. When you do your dishes at night, use warm water and light soap and clean out the bottles and nipples (and spoons and pacifiers and toys) thoroughly. If you bought the complicated cleaning system, it will tell you to do this step anyway, so you have saved no additional work in this purchase. Now that the items are visibly clean, boil up some water and give them a bath. A good soak in a rolling boil will leave your baby materials cleaner than the day that you purchased them - fully sterilized. I recommend using a drying rack when finished, but a paper towel will do. Money saved: $50-200.

If you are newly expecting, this guide should help get you started on your new registry. Congratulations on your child, the greatest gift of all!

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Boxing Holiday

11/27/10 Boxing Holiday
Originally at:

By Mike Shinn

I have heard it time and time again - despite buying the most expensive gift for your child; they will only play with the box that it came in. As purchases have started to climb due to the holidays, I am reminded of this wisdom. This time around, I have chosen to embrace the concept of boxes and get every last mile out of them. Here are some tips for getting the most from your boxes before they become recycling materials.

For kids, the bigger the box, the better. I have fond memories of the box from a new refrigerator in my early childhood. My whole family joined in transforming the discarded cardboard into a playhouse that lasted for weeks. I have since heard from friends that had built an entire box city after a kitchen remodel. There's no need to wait until after a major household purchase to enjoy the benefits that boxes have to offer. Any appliance store in town, including Costco, is happy to provide you with their discards. If the box is large enough to fit an adult, it is prime A+ material. For it to be acceptable to a child, though, it need only to fit them and allow for regular passage in and out.

Once the box has been procured, it must be personalized. Determine the eventual design of your creation before cutting. Safety must be maintained, so in our case, we had the kids vacate the plain box before I made a few slits with a steak knife for windows and a steering wheel on our space ship. Once cut, our kids got to draw on any part of the box that they wanted - inside and out. My wife and I got to help with the initial outlines before they took over entirely. Be sure to take many pictures of your child's artwork as it progresses

Once the space ship was complete, we determined that it was time for a space launch, complete with countdown. This, of course, meant me pulling both kids up and down the hall with the box atop a blanket. A slow ride is just as enjoyable for them as a fast one and significantly safer. Too fast and your child might bail out into a wall or corner - then you will have a trip to the emergency room.

Any child will immediately show you that boxes are also excellent for drumming. The hollow acoustics make them the perfect instrument. What's more, the box will wear out at about the same pace as your tolerance for the loud noise.

Have a wonderful holiday season and may all of your child's gifts be as enjoyable as the boxes that they come in.

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Teaching with Toys

9/5/10 Teaching with Toys
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As we approached the birth of our second child, there was concern that our first would not react well. We had heard horror stories from friends about their kids acting out, hitting their new siblings, feeling forgotten and jealous - all things that we wanted to avoid if possible. We spent significant time including our daughter in the preparations for our son. Still, explaining something biologically and socially complex to a one or two-year-old is difficult. With tips from our friends, doctor and nurses, we believe that the transition from a three-person family to four was relatively smooth.

First, we explained to our daughter that she would soon be a "Big Sister". The concept reached much further than I had originally anticipated. We started by bringing out her old baby bed, baby toys and clothes explaining along the way that she was a Big Sister now, so she doesn't need baby things. This also gave us the opportunity to help get rid of some toys that needed disappearing, and habits that needed to be stopped. Done in a teasing manor, our daughter stepped it up and began to embody the role presented to her. She would talk to her little brother, touch mom's belly and generally start including him even before birth.

We didn't really know how to explain the biological part of childbirth or if it was even good to go down that road. That is to say that we didn't know a good way until I accidentally used a PotatoHead to explain in a moment of sleep deprivation. A few weeks before our son was born, our daughter woke me up at 5am. My daughter had a Mr. PotatoHead and baby PotatoHead that she wanted to play with - fully awake. She managed to shove the baby into the storage area on the backside of the larger one. Still loopy from lack of sleep, I dressed the larger one as a woman and told her that it was a mommy and she was about to have a baby. We pretended that the misses went to the doctor's (another PotatoHead) and pushed a few times before popping out the baby PotatoHead. To top it off, I then had the baby nurse from Mrs. Potatohead. I don't know what it was about the visual but all of a sudden she understood what was going to happen with her mom. She made me repeat it over and over again that morning and the mornings leading up to our son's birth.

We tried to be prepared for the day-of with special regard for the amount and type of attention displayed. We had prepared our families with instructions - somewhat thrown out the window by our unexpected home-birth. Still, our in-hospital experience afterwards was key toward introducing our son to his big sister.

When our daughter first came to the hospital room, the baby was in the bassinet - not in our arms or nursing. This way she was able to hug and interact with us without a "barrier" in the way. Our experience may have been traumatic, but she was right on the sidelines and incapable of assisting or fully comprehending. This also allowed her to discover baby at her own pace. This is especially important when your first child has been in an unfamiliar place for an extended period of time. While the Cottage Hospital waiting room is quite nice, it is still not home. In order to acclimate your first-born to the hospital, that they will undoubtedly spend significant time, take them on the baby tour. Cottage Hospital offers regular tours of the third floor to expectant families on Tuesdays at 6pm.

For the first post-birth visit, it is helpful to have a small gift wrapped in the bassinet "from the new baby." The idea behind this is to associate the new child with a positive gift-receiving experience. I wasn't entirely comfortable when I heard about this - for me it leads to other questions about the origins of the gift and why mom can't pop out other gifts on demand. Fortunately, toddlers are less neurotic and simply just happy to receive a toy.

It is a good idea to keep any visit (but especially the first visit) to 30 to 60 minutes and then to go somewhere fun. Oak Park is a convenient walk from Cottage Hospital, and it gives grandparents something to do as well. Grandparents and visitors should be instructed in advance to limiting the cooing over the new baby as much as possible while the other child is present. If they are present with the firstborn grandchild, they should come in, put down the baby, and shower attention on the first child. Questions such as "how do you like this hospital room?" and "how do you feel being such a big sister?" are key.

During the first few weeks of feeding times, try distractions. For example: "the baby is hungry, I bet you are too, why don't you count out 10 Cheerios and put them in a bowl." Hopefully that will give enough time to get baby latched on without having to help the other count.

When our daughter got home and we brought the baby in, we had a large toy waiting for her - a tricycle. She was riding it around when our son was brought in for the first time. Now, he wasn't invading her territory - he's the source of many toys so he's a welcome guest! While I am not entirely comfortable with the buying of attention or affection, the tricycle was a gift that we had been holding on to for such an occasion.

I hope that these tips can be of value to you if you are preparing to have your second child in Santa Barbara as we did earlier this year.

Fun With Worms

7/31/10 Fun With Worms
Originally at:

By Mike Shinn

About five years ago, I saw a segment on Santa Barbara public access about worm composting. Before then I thought that it wasn't for me.

After watching the show, everything started coming into place. Ever since, I have developed a solid composting system and shared my worms with more families than I can count.

Vermicomposting is a big word that means you have a bin filled with dirt and worms. The hardest part is finding the worms themselves. Good news, though, if you know where to look in Santa Barbara, you can find them. My worms were purchased at Island Seed and Feed, but since buying them I've seen them at La Sumida and ACE. Legend has it that there is also a Worm Girl who will distribute free composting worms to those who know how to find her.

The worms that you're typically looking for are Red Worms. They need a moist environment, air to breathe, and food to eat. In some ways, our worms have been like a pet that I have to feed infrequently and not clean up after. If you're starting out, I recommend picking up a 15- gallon storage bin (under $5 anywhere will do). Drill some ¼" holes in the bottom, and elevate on top of a couple of bricks or rocks in order to allow for seepage (unless you plan to clean out your bin frequently).

Next, I like to give my worms a combination of about 1/3 potting soil, 1/3 "bad dirt" from the side of my yard and 1/3 compost. The compost amount is a cumulative amount over time. Some weeks my worms get more food than other weeks - it all depends on what I'm cooking.

Whenever I go to feed the worms, I invite my daughter. At first she was a bit shy, but now she is usually excited to feed the worms. She usually wants to hold one in each hand and examine the baby worms. Red worms are nice for those of us who aren't generally bug-friendly. Their babies look like smaller, white worms. Kids have no natural fear of bugs and worms - vermicomposting is a good way to get them comfortable with bugs, even if you aren't. I've taught my daughter how to dig a small hole with a hand shovel, empty our expired vegetable leftovers, and then cover it back over. You can feed them food pieces from discarded fruit, vegetables, bread and even leaves. Don't feed them dairy, oil, eggs, meat, fat, or pet waste. The worms may eventually eat these things, but they may not - plus you will generate a horrible smell and attract other pests. Best of all are the coffee grounds that we feed the worms every couple of weeks.

I keep a plastic bin at work for our used coffee grounds. This bin is filled once per day and usually comes home with me about twice a month. My daughter and I spread the grounds over the bin and mix them in with a hand rake. We've been surprised at the speed of our worms rising to the top of the bin to get a caffeine fix. If you don't work somewhere fortunate enough to have complimentary coffee, any barista in town would be happy to fill a bag for you with grounds for free.

Another benefit of vermicomposting with kids is that it leads to discussion about worm life and the food chain. You can explain how worms can re-grow parts of their bodies, how they eat the same things that we do, and how the dirt that they live in can help in your garden. link to more info Depending on what you throw into your bin, you may also find occasional surprise growth. Just this week, we found a volunteer tomato plant in our bin. If you don't have a garden to spread your mixed soil every few months, consider bagging your extra soil up and bringing it to your local garden share - everyone will be happy to give you free, fresh produce in exchange. Otherwise, spread it out amongst your existing plants or use with new sprouts and seeds to get amazing Billy Goodnick-style results.

Vermicomposting done right is an all-around win. It's a fun weekend project to start with the kids, it's educational, year-round in Santa Barbara, it's easy to maintain, and the benefits can seen through the rest of your garden.

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Dinnertime with Kids

6/26/10 Dinnertime With Kids
Originally at

By Mike Shinn

One of the hardest things to do as a parent is to keep it together at all times. Consistently maintaining a level head is nearly impossible to do, more so if both parent and child are hungry. With both my wife and me working during the day, and with a relatively early bedtime for our daughter, we found that we were spending all of our time purchasing or preparing food and no time enjoying each other's company. It wasn't until after a rant about Rachel Ray's unrealistic 30-minute meal program that a friend argued that while Rachel may not be a particularly special cook, the trick was entirely in the food preparation. It was at this time that my wife and I developed our food preparation system that has led us to more quality time with our kids without as much hassle or hurry.

Like the shows on the food network, we discovered that in order to beat the clock, we had to do as much in advance as possible. Even the Iron Chefs get pots of boiling water before the clock starts!

Typically this means chopping up bulk fresh items such as meats or vegetables, separating into groups, bagging, labeling and freezing. This might take up an entire evening after the kids' bedtimes one night per month, but the reward pays off again and again. This also means a larger variety of foods for the week and better inventory of food at hand. Before setting out to make any dish, I know how much of any given item I have - good, cut, and ready to be defrosted. This is also key for my herbs, which do well seasonally in the garden, but do well year-round chopped up into labeled bags in the freezer.

Shopping to collect our food can be an ordeal - especially now that we have two kids. To make this somewhat easier, we do our best to get most of the shopping done in one evening. This may sound difficult, but it's made easier by choosing the right day to go shopping. Ask your grocer which days are the busiest. If you shop the same places that I do, they will tell you that the weekends and Mondays are the worst for shopping. If you prefer less traffic to the store, fewer carts in the lot, quicker lines and less frustration - consider shopping on Wednesdays and Thursdays. When possible, use grocery shopping as an educational opportunity for both child and parent. Can't remember how to properly thump a cantaloupe? It's easier to ask the produce manager to show your kids - everyone wins! What's more, kids can enjoy trying new things like the samples at the booth at Trader Joes - or even using one of the new kid carts that they now provide.

Shopping is also easier with a complete list of all items needed to prepare for the food in a given week. To do so, my wife and I have developed a food chart [Excel attachment]. Each week before we go shopping, we review the items at hand and name off five meals that we will potentially eat for the coming week. Since it's easy to forget what meals are even options, we consult the left-hand column of the food chart. This lists all of the meals that we might be interested in making, narrowed down to our top 30 based on likelihood of actually making them. This list changes for us every few months as we add new favorites or remove foods that we no longer are interested in. Each week we select five meals, using ideas from the left column and put them on the right column. Now I know what meals to get ingredients for to add to my shopping list. During the week we never spend time asking "what do you want for dinner tonight?" but instead, "do you want lemon chicken or spaghetti tonight?" We have found that preparing for five meals also allows us the flexibility to occasionally eat out or eat leftovers.

My food preparation system may seem like a lot of work, but like any routine, it gets easier once it becomes a habit. Spending a few minutes of prep per week saves cumulative hours of ambiguity and missing ingredients. Having any system at all allows you to spend more time with your family. Now that you have figured out what to get, you can next figure out how to get your kids to eat it!


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Water Lab

6/5/10 Water Lab
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by Mike Shinn

Summer is here! For those of us with enough time and energy, that means heading out to the beach to enjoy one of Santa Barbara's best natural attractions. Still, there is a certain convenience to staying home and enjoying our great weather. For many of us, as kids, this meant turning on the sprinklers or sitting in a few inches of water in a wading pool. Occasionally, my brother and I could find someone in our neighborhood willing to share a slip-n-slide, that is until it would inevitably break and reveal itself to be a mere yellow tarp.

If you're familiar with this column, you will know that my daughter loves water link - rain or shine. A favorite toy of my daughter's is her water lab. When warm enough, she can spend all afternoon alternating between the lab and sandbox. All that's involved in this "lab" is a large tub full of water and various water-carrying utensils. We've seen her friends enjoy this as well - attracted to it more than to expensive toys or television. There's something about being able to measure, pour and splash around in water that brings kids back to the lab again and again.

We originally purchased the items for the lab last Spring on a trip to the thrift store. For under a $10 price tag I was able to find the tub, a set of measuring cups, sponge, cups, plastic squeeze containers and a jug. The entire lab is self-contained to one area of our back yard. We usually place it near our fruit tree so that at the end of the evening we can empty the contents without wasting the water.

Because of the water, it's important to keep safe and watch the kids playing at all times. That said, if your kids are anything like mine, you'll notice that they enjoy playing with this toy on their own without the regular interaction required from a board game. You can sit back and enjoy the weekend while your kids entertain themselves, all for under $10.

Note: If you look closely, you might catch one of Lisa Slavid's Peadoodles cartoon

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Getting Through The Night

5/8/10 Getting Through The Night

By Mike Shinn

Soon my wife will be back to work from maternity leave. This signals many memories to me from just after our daughter was born. While my anxiety begins to climb knowing what is to come, I'm comforted by the thought that I made it through this stage once before. I'm talking about the semi-sleepless nights that I have so far been sheltered from with our new son. This time around, I have assembled for myself a few pointers that belong in the guidebook that was not provided after the birth.

Living in the digital age, we have at our hands options not made available to prior generations. Our TV has been one of the greatest saviors towards my sanity and need to stay awake for midnight feedings. The DVR is now an easy-to-use, publicly available option. I simply tell the box what my favorite shows are, or even ones that I'm curious about, and it meticulously stores them away for when they are needed. When I need to stay up, I have a glowing friend that lets me skip past commercials to talk to me and keep me up at any hour. For shows that aren't available to me immediately, I use a DVD-to-mail service or video-on-demand. The dramas and seasons of television shows that are too interesting to allow me to rest do their job well, and at a reasonable price.

For nights that the baby just won't sleep and I have enough energy, I have my Bjorn and excersaucer. We picked up our exersaucer for $25 on craigslist and it provides hours of entertainment to a child with low potential for injury. With the Bjorn, I've been known to do just about any chore around the house while my child enjoys the light bouncing, strapped to my chest. The Bjorn sling brings with it the potential for a cleaner house in addition to child care.

One of the tips that my wife and I heard at a PEP meeting was to "put your kid in the car and drive them around until they fall asleep". It seems that for many babies, the ride and white noise is soothing enough to knock them out. This may be the case, but it poses three very large problems. While it may be a very good short-term solution (which is sometimes all you can hope for) it becomes very addicting to your child. Soon they may not be able to sleep without first taking a few trips around the block. This regular driving about is also quite expensive. Gasoline costs more than three dollars per gallon now, and shows only signs of rising in the future. The final problem with this solution is that it causes long-term associations. My wife has trouble staying awake as a passenger for more than an hour as a result of this. Still, there are other options.

Finally, one of the best gifts that we received when my daughter was born was a Beatles CD done in light xylophone. The Rockabye Baby series comes in a large number of bands. We later used the Pickin' On series as well, recorded right here in Santa Barbara by local bluegrass artists. These covers of favorite musicians are great for keeping you up, as it gives you a focal point while you remain awake at night. For us it has become part of the nighttime routine for our daughter. Unfortunately I do fear that she will one day fall asleep every time she hears Strawberry Fields Forever as the decades pass. As the hallucinations and odd thoughts come and go during these periods of sleep deprivation, I am comforted by the thought that I am not the first person to go through this. Somewhere else in town are other parents in the same situation. Most comforting of all is knowing that this too soon shall pass.

Getting Kids to Eat

4/24/10 Getting Kids to Eat
Originally at

By Mike Shinn

One of the most basic habits of living creatures is eating. Still, this can also be one of the most infuriating for parents.

Every child is different and from day to day their food preferences may change. I can remember pleading for advice with friends who had already been through this when our daughter simply rejected any solid foods offered as her teeth came in. But don't despair, there is hope. Because the world of food is new to them, what is out of the question for adults is a world of possibility for the child.

Once the teething began, we found our daughter unwilling to eat much of anything at all. After making the foods that she previously ate in a variety of ways (and even dancing them in front of her for entertainment) she simply refused. A coworker of mine recommended frozen berries. After trying them, frozen blueberries (and now the fresh variety) have become a favorite of my now-not-teething daughter.

One night with the kitchen nearly bare from lack of shopping, I improvised with frozen peas. My daughter took to them and many other small frozen fruits and vegetables in the same way. I must add that it didn't hurt that her favorite shirt featured a Peadoodle cartoon from Lisa Slavid.

When using frozen food hasn't worked, we have also tried and branched away into fresh and cooked foods. Cooking up her vegetables alongside of our meals has become commonplace in the Shinn home. When boiling or steaming doesn't work, I have had to fry her foods to get her to eat them. I use olive oil instead of standard vegetable oil, though. For driving, a favorite snack has become dried fruits - easy to eat for the kids and easy to clean up for the parents.

Now that we have our daughter eating a good variety of foods on a regular basis, we do our best to remain consistent. Our daughter gets a meal very similar to ours each night, just a smaller amount. In the case of her favorite, spaghetti, she's been known to eat as much or more as my wife and I. (See photo.)

She may not particularly like bell peppers yet, but if that's what we're eating, she also gets it on her plate. Not expecting her to eat them, we make sure that she at least tries the food and reward her with foods that she does like. A piece of roast beef will earn her five blueberries. This also keeps her busy while we enjoy our meal.

I have heard of parents having success with using food coloring to change the color of the food to one that their child likes. Also I have heard of parents calling different foods by different names. Strips of zucchini become "green fries," but our daughter has seen through our deceptions in the past.

Minimizing snacking before meals so that they are hungry at meal times seems like a basic concept, but still it works well. When our daughter became more aware in the world, we have done our best to encourage her to pick out the foods at the store or one of the many Farmers Markets. Better still, growing growing their own foods makes them appreciate and become hungry when they were not previously. We also let her prepare prepare food with us when safety and logistics have allowed.

Children need relatively small amounts of each of the food groups compared to adults. It is much easier to encourage a tablespoon at a time when only a few tablespoons are needed for the day's nutrition.

Workstation/Home Electronic Power Information

2/5/10 Workstation/Home Electronic Power Information

Originally at:

Written By: Mike Shinn

With power outages occurring and more expected due to the power, I’ve been receiving a lot of the same types of questions and problems. Typically we have provided or worked with our clients to make sure that their network and data are protected using proper power conditioners and battery backups. More and more I have been asked about personal desktop protection. Please feel free to pass along the following information to your staff as you like.

1) A traditional power strip costs around $10-20 and can be purchased virtually anywhere – these will not provide any surge protection whatsoever. They simply extend your wall outlet and give you more places to plug your computer or monitor or printer in to.

2) For $50-100, a personal UPS can be purchased that can provide you with surge protection for your PC and a short amount of battery life – good for most basic PC setups. You can tell the difference between a power strip and a UPS due to size (a UPS is large and bulky. (note: you can spend a little less for just a surge protecting power strip, but for a few bucks more it is often worth it to get the battery)

3) Laptops – most laptops are built with a power brick that does a fair amount of surge protection. The battery backup is the laptop’s battery!

4) If you have purchased a nice flat panel TV for home and are plugged directly in to your wall, it may be time to consider a UPS – it’s a good investment to protect the TV that you spent so much money on, not to mention that it’s nice not to have to reset the clock on your DVR or DVD player if you have a battery backup.

There are a lot of strategies behind backup power. For example, you may not want to plug your computer monitor into the UPS battery, just the surge protection, to make it last longer. We at CIO would be happy to assist with if you are interested – please let us know.

How to Avoid Getting Blacklisted

2/5/10 How to Avoid Getting Blacklisted
Originally at

Written By: Mike Shinn

It’s easy to get on the world’s “bad” list while everyone is sensitive to spam. Here are some tips to try to stay on everyone’s good side and avoid getting your company’s email blocked. It takes only one person to get your whole company on a black list.

1. Don’t send out spam. If you are sending out a large number of emails, even to people who have opted-in to your service, you are spamming. I hear a lot of companies say that they’re just “marketing” but also want to increase spam protection to avoid everyone else’s “marketing.” By sending out large numbers of emails, you are flagging your company’s servers to be potentially blacklisted, not to mention slowing down email at your company.

2. Set up Microsoft Exchange restrictions. People should have restrictions on how many mail items can be sent at one time. Your email server should be routed for spam protection both incoming and relaying outbound. If you’re not sure how to do this or if you have this set up, please ask someone from CIO Solutions to make sure.

3. Use a service to send out your marketing letters. We use at CIO Solutions. Other services like and can also help you to get your message out properly without risking your own server getting blacklisted.
I hope that these tips will help you keep your email getting to the right people without getting anyone in trouble.

The Importance of Coffee

1/8/10 The Importance of Coffee

By Mike Shinn

Every Saturday, I wake up early with my daughter to go out for coffee. We get up early and do our best not to make too much noise - this gives my wife a break and lets her sleep in a little. We head out, and take our time getting to our final destination, usually picking up my friend, Billy, along the way. Once we have arrived, I get my treat and enjoy some time in the coffee shop with my daughter. Having done this every weekend over the last couple of years, I've picked up a few tips.

"Child's Hot Chocolate": This is an off-menu item but most baristas know exactly what to do when you order it - it's regular hot chocolate but watered down in a small cup made warm, not boiling hot - this allows them to start drinking immediately, and feel grown-up, like everyone else drinking from similar cups.

Destination: Santa Barbara has a lot of coffee shops, and our local coffee shops have a lot to offer. For example, the Santa Barbara Roasting Company roasts their beans in a large industrial roaster while you wait for your order. Mojo's has chessboards and pieces sitting out and ready to play - my daughter can't get enough of chess pieces. Newly opened, Jitters has a fun upstairs lounge. Any coffee shop that offers something other than impulse-buy items within the reach of a toddler keep kids wanting to come back. [roaster picture]

Open early: Most coffee shops open up significantly earlier than anything else in town. If your kid wakes up early, no problem, there are fewer people in line! Forgot to fill up your baby's bottle in the hurry to get out of the house? The baristas will often clean and refill the bottle with any type of milk - usually without charging for it!

Stuff on the walls: Many independent coffee shops will display their tea selections on the wall or counter. Kids love to point out the different colors. Unfortunately, many coffee shops will also display items for sale. Beware - mugs are breakable, and toddlers are attracted to them like magnets. Don't get me started on French presses on display that can break if you look at them wrong. Be sure to distract your kids with the extras that your local coffee shop provides, such as lids, straws and heat wraps. My daughter can't pick up a cup with a plastic lid without instinctively pressing in each of the buttons. [picture of lid buttons]

Post-coffee Destination: Going out for coffee alone may not give enough time for your partner to get the additional rest that you were hoping for. Extend your outing to include neighboring businesses or destinations. Once my daughter could walk, we started going to the beach after coffee. I found that she loved chasing the birds, and I loved getting the free parking because I was there so early. The farmers market is the perfect after-coffee destination. Enjoy your coffee while getting the first pick at local produce. One of my daughter's favorite post-coffee destinations is D'Angelos, for a large pretzel. [pretzel picture]

Whether you drink coffee or not, getting out of the house once a week provides everyone with something to look forward to.

Send this picture as a postcard

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Send this picture as a postcard

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The Best Gift is the One You Make Yourself

12/5/09 The Best Gift is the One You Make Yourself
Originally at

You may have gotten the impression from some of the retail stores in Santa Barbara that Christmas was coming in August. While the decorations for sale then seemed so far away, it is now just around the corner. As anyone out on Black Friday can attest, shopping can be stressful and exhausting - even in our small town. Still, there is a lot of potential for getting the perfect gift for your little one.

If you have family in town, you might stop by some of the small businesses in town that cater to our young ones to browse potential gift items. For toddlers and younger, Chicken Little and Santa Barbara Baby have been great. Now that our daughter is old enough to run around and pick out her own toys, we have spent more time at Kernohan's Toys and Bennett's. Still, some of the best and most cherished gifts are the ones that you make yourself.

Project 1: Wood Peg Toy

As you can see, there is not much to this toy - I bought the plywood circle as you see it from the hardware store and drilled 25 holes. While I was there, I purchased a 1" dowel and had the clerk cut off 25 half-inch pieces. Different hardware stores have different policies on cutting - some charge nothing, as long as the wood pieces are under 1", while others charge as much as $1 per cut - find out in advance! After purchasing the wood and a bag of ¼" pegs, I was off to my garage to drill a hole in the dowel pieces for the pegs. The whole process of creating a working toy took under an hour - all of this done after getting some coffee and spending time with my daughter when she got up far too early one weekend. Fortunately, hardware stores are open earlier to accommodate contractors and tired fathers. After gluing and sanding, my wife and I spent one evening watching a movie and painting the tops of the dowels after putting our daughter to sleep. I considered painting each piece a different color, or grouping colors, but we decided on painting small pictures of things that she could say or identify easily. I am no artist, but I was very pleased with the results. The next day, I put a coat of clear finish on all of the wood - project complete. The toy has had a lot of mileage - we group the pieces by color, type, shape, anything. Also, this toy has had a surprising amount of independent playtime. While there are smaller parts that can be potentially lost, I know that replacements can be made in an afternoon!

Project 2: Size and Color Toy

This is literally made from spare wood from another project - a 4x4 block with some drilled holes and some wooden dowels. This may not fly for the older kids, but by painting the dowels different shades of the same color or each a different rainbow color in order; the toy becomes both fun and educational.

Project 3: Ceramics

Be it a mug, frame or a decoration, ceramics have a lot of customizable potential. Ceramic kits are available from any craft store in town. Santa Barbara also has 2000 Degrees and Color Me Mine, where you can paint pre-made ceramics and have them glazed and finished for you. A well-placed handprint gives your ceramic personalization that you can't buy from a retailer. As a child, I loved comparing my handprint to that of my siblings from previous years.

Project 4: Picture DVD or preloaded Digital Frame

One of my daughter's favorite things to do is to look at pictures of our family, pets and herself growing up. It calms her and captivates her. If you don't have a media center computer at home, showing pictures can be challenging. Albums take time to assemble and boxes of pictures can quickly be disorganized by children. All photo processors in town now offer the option of burning to CD or DVD. Most processors also allow you the option to load select photos directly from your digital camera to be burned to disc. Digital Frames have become commonplace and can now be found at most electronics retailers. Due to their popularity, the price has also dropped in recent years.

Gifts that last don't need to be expensive or flashy in order to be memorable. No one understands this more than the National Toy Hall of Fame who recently inducted the common ball. Previous winners include the stick, and a cardboard box. This year, give a gift to your child that they will love and appreciate - one that you have made.

IT Support Tips for Santa Barbara

IT Support Tips for Santa Barbara
Originally at:

The first job that I got in Santa Barbara was doing IT support at UCSB. Students could buy a network card for their computers for about $150 and I would help them get it connected to something new called “the internet.” A lot has changed.
Now, the internet is commonplace. People typically have multiple computers in their homes as well as mobile devices that connect to the internet. Here are some support tips that I’ve collected through the years to help you to use your Information Technology to its greatest potential for the new year:
1) Program a new contact into your phone named “411” that dials 1-800-466-4411. This is Google 411. After you try it once, you’ll never be able to stop using it. It’s an easy-to-use 411 service that is absolutely free and without advertisements from your friends at Google.
2) Alcohol Wipes keep your computer monitor clean. Unless you have a special computer screen, read on. Regular alcohol pads such as medical prep pads or glasses wipes are great for keeping your monitor spotless and the images on your internet browser crisp!
3) Keyboard keys sticking occasionally? Turn your keyboard upside down and give it a few good spanks. You may want to do this while your computer is offline. This isn’t such a good idea for laptops as you may damage something. If your keyboard is still sticking, it may be time to find a replacement – the good news is that keyboards are relatively inexpensive.
4) Pets in the house? In Santa Barbara, it seems that everyone has a cat or dog. Unfortunately our furry friends leave a trail that will get sucked up into our computer fans and boxes. To clean, unplug your computer, take off the cover of your computer case, and then clean up any of the fur that has lodged itself inside. Use of a vacuum is okay, just be sure not to run it against any of the parts inside.
5) Take a class! Santa Barbara City College offers a great classes that only cost a few bucks. Check out their schedule at - many of their computer classes are offered at night for those of us who work during the day.
From someone who does computer support in Santa Barbara every day, I hope that these tips can be of assistance.

Baby Sign Language

From 10/31/09
Originally at:

By Mike Shinn

When we found out that we would be having a baby, my wife and I were very excited. Not long after, came the fear that most couples have when they find out that they are pregnant; we knew nothing about having or raising a baby. We received a barrage of information, both real and rumor, regarding everything from proper feeding, to appropriate toys, to pet maintenance. We also read, "What to Expect" and other books. Just when I thought I had felt the relief of knowing how to handle a potential situation like swaddling or changing or calming the baby, I would read another, contradicting solution. If I know anything now, it's that all children are different, and even if something works well for you today, tomorrow is another day.

One of my coworkers recommended that we start our daughter on baby sign language early. This was some of the best advice that we could have received. There are a lot of products and books that can teach you, as well as a wealth of information on the Internet. Still it's tough to know where to begin and when to stop. Below are the 3 essential baby signs that I recommend (in order), plus four others that can help as well.


[Place your fingertips all together and then tap both hands together at the tips]

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[Make a semi-fist and pretend to squeeze milk from an udder]

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[Both thumbs up or point fingers up in the air]

Babies love to be carried around, but as they get heavier, your back gets weaker and you carry them less often. This sign is nice because it lets them take control of when they want to get picked up or see something higher than their current size.

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[Place your fingertips all together and tap them to your lips]

This is used to distinguish between drinking liquid and eating a more solid food.

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All Done

[Place your hands in front of you - palm up. Then turn your hands to palm-down and back to up again a few times]

This sign is nice because you can use it as a form of question like, "are you done eating?" or in the form of a command like, "We are done with this activity". Use this when finished changing a diaper or at the end of the bath.

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[Place both hands palm-together and lay your head down on them like a pillow]

Use this to let them know that it's about time for a nap or bedtime. I also use this on early mornings to let my daughter know that my wife isn't up yet, because she is sleeping.

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Thank You

[Place one hand out palm-up in front of you and the other palm-side fingertips to the mouth, and then bring it down in an arc to meet the other hand]

It's never too early to learn good manners. It's also nice for them to get a special "thank you" when they have done something you are proud of, like cleaning up their toys.

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We began baby sign language at 3 months of age. Our daughter continues to use the signs now, in addition to her words. We have read that children brought up on baby sign language are slow to begin talking, since there is no necessity (they can just sign for what they want). While that may be true, the benefits of having a clear indication of your child's needs at a few months of age should far outweigh the cuteness of having them talk earlier. There are other benefits as well, such as being able to communicate in public, or in a crowded area without having to yell. Lastly, there is the lasting benefit of having bonded with your child earlier through the use of a common language.