Beating the Heat with MS

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Multiple Sclerosis is no fun. Especially in the summertime.

Around this time of year, every year, I find that my energy and motivation wanes and my productivity level drops. I am pretty hard on myself, always having high expectations of my abilities and what I can get accomplished on a day-to-day basis, so any time I feel like I am doing less than what I could be doing, I get really down on myself.

I recognized that there is a pattern to my productivity levels depending on the temperature outside. On the cooler days of late fall, winter, and early spring I am able to get more done every day. It isn’t perfect or guaranteed, I am just more likely to get everything done that I want.

But once late spring, summer, and early fall hits, when the really hot and humid days sink in, I find that I am lucky to get more than two major things done on my to-do list. Most days require me taking a nap and if I push myself through it (and therefore too hard), I won’t get anything done past a certain time in the day.

Weekends are the hardest. I am so worn out chasing Jai around all week that when I get the opportunity to stay in bed for most of the day while Ash does the “heavy” lifting, I do. And then very little gets done on my to-do list.

There is a definite correlation between my productivity and the weather.

And I am not imagining it.

Heat & MS

It’s well-known that MS and heat do not go hand-in-hand. Many other MS patients find that the heat can be particularly draining, possibly due to electrical connections between neurons no longer being efficient from the heat. Because of this, flare-ups are more common, especially for those who suffer from spasticity.

In researching this post, I learned something I didn’t know: prior to MRIs and other efficient tests to diagnose MS, patients were submerged in hot water baths to gauge their symptom reactions to the heat.

I find this fact particularly interesting considering my intense love of hot, hot showers. Ash does not understand why I love them so much. And now I don’t know why I love them so much, I don’t find that it affects my body in a negative way, in fact, I find them extremely relaxing and soothing. I should try some lower-temperature showers to see how it impacts my energy level for the day. I may be negatively impacting my productivity in favor of a hot shower.

The recommendations by medical professionals are for MS patients to avoid the heat and humidity as much as possible. Some recommendations go so far as to tell patients to move to better climates. This is all well and good, but sometimes it’s unavoidable, not economically feasible, or we don’t want to let the weather affect our social plans.

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Camping with Toddlers

Summertime meant camping when I was a kid.

Camping was always fun: sleeping outside, getting as dirty as can be, and eating all the sugary food my parents packed but normally never ate at home. I met so many different people when I camped and was introduced to new things. When I was a toddler I wasn’t into soda (“too peppery” was my response according to my mom), but a kid named Chris from a campsite over reintroduced it to me and I became a fan into adulthood.

I learned how to play pool from another set of kids on a different trip and made friends with some raccoons that invaded our campsite on yet another. One trip saw us sleeping in the car one night because it rained so hard our campsite flooded.

Camping was such a fun part of my childhood that right after Ash proposed I added a bunch of camping supplies to our wedding registry. He was never a big fan of camping, but he’s such a good sport that he went along with my interest to get back into camping once we were married.

We went once.

It was an ordeal, something to discuss in a future post, but it took us six years before we’d attempt it again. The takeaway from the trip: it was fun but extremely eventful. Fuel for family stories for years to come.

Jai’s First Trip

Once I got pregnant I knew I wanted to take my child camping as soon as they were old enough. I know we could have taken Jai right after he was born if we were super dedicated campers, but we’re not. We’re extremely casual, but not to the point of an RV or camper.

I decided that once Jai was able to walk it would be a good time to go. Unfortunately, his birthday is at the end of the casual camping season here and he didn’t start walking until he was 13 months. So we’d have to wait until spring/early summer to try our first trip.

We planned a trip for early-June at a campground not far from where we lived. Ash, Jai, and I went with my parents which helped the trip go smoothly because Jai had some adult available at all times to take him for a walk or follow him around the campsite to make sure he was safe.

Overall, the trip was a huge success with Jai in love with the outdoors (more than before). Able to spend 48 hours outside, including sleeping out there? All the dirt I can play with? All the walks I can take? We have a fan. He was slightly grumpy for a few days after we returned that I suspect it had to do with the fun ending and no longer having 24-hour Grampy access.

Admittedly, it was an easy-going trip because we only got a few sprinkles, four adults to watch him, and a relatively private campsite for the few crying sessions. I know not all of our trips will go so smoothly, but it was a fantastic way to jump back into the yearly trips with our little one.

Planning Ahead & Quick Tips

What helped the trip go smoothly was all the planning ahead we did.

I looked for camping lists and cobbled together my own list to bring everything we could possibly need. I also tried to keep the list to the bare minimum so we didn’t overstuff the car. I remember having to squeeze in next to coolers and tents in a much smaller vehicle as a child. It was fun, but as I got older it was hard to stretch out on the longer trips to campsites.

While we didn’t know what the site was going to look like ahead of time, we were able to confirm water & power hook-up and there would be bathroom facilities close by. We wouldn’t need to lug water for cleaning back to the site and we also didn’t need to stress over making our own bathroom.

We also made sure to check for activities at the location. Where we camped was near the Appalachian Trail, so there were easy hikes, falls, playgrounds and other activities to keep Jai occupied if there was a need.

Other things that helped the trip go smoothly:

  • Making use of plastic totes to hold camping supplies and food. Allowed me to move the food back into the vehicle with ease at night to prevent bears and other pests from getting into the food.
  • Air mattresses. We’re causal campers, so lying on the ground isn’t appealing, and we wanted to make sure Jai was comfortable. As he gets older we can let him have the pleasure of sleeping directly on the ground for a night.
  • Bring “special” toys, but keep the toys to a minimum. I have a child backpack filled with trip toys and activities that are only there for trips like this. By keeping them set aside, they are always “new” and exciting to play with, though he never once cracked into that backpack during the trip. Why? Because he wanted to play with all the dirt, sand, and twigs he could find.
  • Accept the dirt and settle for wipes. We kept the trip short (which was equally helpful) so the need for a bath or shower was minimal. Jai loves his nightly baths, but because there was so much to do during the day, he didn’t miss it when it was bedtime due to exhaustion. Camping is such a wonderful opportunity for them to get dirty without repercussion. A quick wipe before bedtime was enough to make me feel better about his cleanliness.

I created a packing list to share from our trip. Download your copy below.

Camping with Toddlers Packing List

Possible issues or concerns:

  • Sleeping at night. He slept just fine at night, which was good, but the major concern we had was him being in the tent alone (we stayed close by at all times with the door in sight). It was harder for him to fall asleep at night because there was no way to dim the tent and he could easily hear us just outside. Keeping him up later wasn’t a real possibility for us because he was already hitting his threshold and I didn’t want him to be overtired and unable to sleep.
  • What to do in case of rain or stormy weather? We didn’t have bad weather during the entire trip, but I suspect if it got really bad, I would have sent Ash home with Jai while I held down the site until it was time to strike camp. This may not be a luxury for everyone camping with toddlers, but we kept it in the back of our minds in case something happened.
  • Wildlife encounters. There was a real concern for bears while we were camping with signs posted all over the place warning campers about leaving food out. My mom caught a raccoon looking for scraps at night, though there was absolutely none to be had (we packed everything away and into the vehicles). I think we would have stayed in the tents until it was safe to leave if there were any major issues.

Overall, there wasn’t any major issues or concerns for the entire trip. I think a lot of it had to do with staying flexible and not stressing over anything.

Keeping it Fun and Flexible

The most important thing is to keep it fun and flexible.

If possible, select a site that is within driving distance of your home. It relaxed us knowing that if Jai did not enjoy his time, we could drive him home so he could sleep in his own crib for the night.

By keeping it flexible, it kept our stress level down and therefore his stress level down. We had no set plans beyond making and striking camp. If we were going to spend the entire day at the site watching him play with dirt, then we’d find something relaxing for the grown-ups to do while he did that.

I certainly enjoyed this aspect of it because it allowed me to take a 72-hour break from my social media and electronics. I still checked stuff from time-to-time for professional reasons, but I took a temporary electronic detox (again).

It was important to me that his first trip be uneventful and fun, which I believe we were successful in doing. We are going to try to take him out a couple more times this year before the end of the season to keep him used to the idea and help get him excited for next year. I anticipate each year will grow more and more exciting for him as he gets older. I want him to look back on these trips with the same level of fondness and nostalgia as I do now.

How early did you take your little one out for camping? How well did that go? What suggestions or stories do you have to share? Leave your comment below.


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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton Photography


Nature’s Classroom: Teaching Perspective

Monday I discussed the importance of spending time outdoors with little ones. Today I wanted to focus on the lessons we can teach by spending time outside, not just for ourselves, but for our little ones as well.

I struggle with perspective. The more time I spend outside, the clearer my perspective is on a lot of things. Not just my life, but where my life fits in the world and those directly surrounding me. While there are plenty of other ways to gain perspective, I have found that spending time in the middle of the woods or on top of a mountain to be the quickest way to re-orient and re-prioritize my mindset.

Children also struggle with perspective. Plenty of adults do too, but with a child’s limited experience it is hard for them to understand any perspective but their own. Teaching children to understand different points of views helps with empathy and compassion. It is important for children to have these tools prior to encountering a negative experience with another human being, such as a bully or bad behavior.

To be clear: teaching empathy isn’t telling a child to condone bad behavior, but to understand why a person behaves a certain way. If a child can try to understand the behavior it helps them not take it personally. Many situations where a child is treated badly or bullied have little to do with the child themselves and more to do with what they represent: i.e. happy home life, parental attention, or just because they are there.

Yet the bullied child is told to brush it off and ignore the bad behavior which can lead them to believe that there’s something wrong with them and not with the person behaving badly. If the child is taught to see things from the bully’s perspective, they may have a chance to see that it has nothing to do with them but has everything to do with the unhealthy ways the bully manages their feelings.

It isn’t about making friends with the bully but giving the child the emotional tools to manage the bully internally when it happens. Obviously, if a child’s physical and emotional well-being is in danger more drastic measures need to be taken, but I am referring to the simple push-and-take behavior that occurs in a toddler’s life.

There are many other reasons why teaching a child about perspective will help them daily, bullying is just an easy example many of us have already experienced and want to figure out how to handle when a little one goes through it as well. But learning about perspective cannot be forced, it must be gradually introduced into the child’s daily life/mindset.

When I taught I found that my more successful teaching moments happened when I took the time to understand things from the student’s perspective and worked on their level rather than talking down to them. I could lecture students all day how to formulate a thesis statement or a paragraph, but it was only when I showed them how to do it in a more subtle way on a level they could understand that I found more success.

For kids, nature is a non-threatening and interesting way to understand the world around them and how they fit within it. Using nature as a classroom is an organic way to teach children that there is more to what they see in front of them and makes it easy to transfer those lessons into different scenarios.

Before getting to that point, it’s important to understand things from a toddler’s perspective. Life is rather difficult for toddlers, despite the fact that everything is still done for them: you learn about independence, yet you can’t be fully independent; you learn about objects and how you might want them, yet you can’t get everything you want when you want it; and finally, you are curious about everything, but you aren’t allowed to see or do everything you want when you want.

It’s hard.

It’s also very hard to see the larger world as a toddler. Everything is momentary, everything is what is in front of you. Anything hidden doesn’t exist even when object permanence is finally a thing.

That’s where spending time outdoors can help start the learning process that there’s more to life than what is in front of a toddler’s nose.

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Exploring the Outdoors with Little Ones

I grew up in a rural area.

My house was in the middle of a small town, so you could make the argument that it was more suburban in nature, but it took us 15 minutes to get to the next major town. Coupled with living in New England, it meant that you stuck close to home, especially during the winter when roads were hazardous. There really wasnt much to do even if you went 15 mintues away, you had to travel farther to find any sort of quality entertainment.

As a kid, I had to learn to occupy my time with my surrounding environment. This was before the Internet and my parents didn’t have cable for most of my childhood. So I had two choices: inside or outside.

Being inside the house was nice, but that got boring and cramped, especially with a dog. So I spent most of my time outside, even in the rain or cold weather.  I would spend hours outside: building things, climbing trees, reading in the shade. When I was old enough, in summer I would split my time between biking to the library and the town pool.

Sunscreen or not, I built up a nice tan with all the time I spent outside each summer. 

As I mentioned before, I also hiked a bit and spent time at the local Audobon center helping out with wildlife rehabilitation and taking nature classes. When I moved away for college and later down South to a major urban center, I lost touch with how much I loved spending time outdoors. Picking up running within the last year and having a wooded area as the primary training location helped reconnect me with the outdoors.

Having a toddler in an urban setting meant that if I wanted Jai to have similar childhood experiences I did, I would need to work a little harder to make sure he engaged with nature. I would have to take him to parks, interact with our yard, and find opportunities to get him to engage with nature on a frequent basis.

 

Why Engage with Nature?

It’s not always easy to spend time outside. We get busy or we live someplace where the greenspace is limited. But taking the opportunity to spend a few minues a day outside can be so beneficial. It can reduce stress, promote short-term memory, and act as an anti-inflammatory: all wonderful things for someone with MS.

Likewise, there are also a lot of benefits for children outdoors. Spending time with a toddler outside is a great way for him to engage with the world around him, nurture a love for the environment, and help focus that energy and attention span. It’s also a wonderful bonding experience for the parent and child. A lot of the nature activities require one-on-one time between parent and child where the parent explains new concepts or engage the child in a line of questioning.

The hope is to provide children with options by spending time outside. There are times when power goes out or you have to visit a remote location with limited internet access. By getting children to engage with nature before these scenarios, it will hopefully be easier to get them to go outside until the situation changes.

Things to Do

There are a lot of simple things parents can do to get their children outside, most need parental involvement at first, which will be great for bonding and your own health:

  • Take them on nature walks
    • In your yard, neighborhood, or local park/preserve
    • Ask questions when you see something interesting and get your child to critically think through answers
    • Bring a container for collecting items. See if you can start a leaf, twig, or rock collection for each walk
  • Build a fairy house
    • As a child, I always built one with natural materials (no glue or wire) as a means to see if I could create a stable house in all sorts of weather
    • Set up the house outside and have small dolls or toys to play in the house
    • Write down stories your child creates surrounding the house owners
  • Set up a blanket and read outside
    • Find some shade, grab some snacks and spend time reading outside. Books/stories about nature would be perfect for the surroundings.
  • Set up a bird feeder and do bird watching from a slight distance
    • Make sure you have a bird ID book so you can learn the different birds that visit the feeder
    • Set up the feeder near a window so you can watch birds on rainy/snowy days as well
    • Note: if you have a neighborhood bird of prey, this may be a learning opportunity of life cycle for smaller birds and creatures. You may need to explain what happens if a hawk swoops in
  • If you can do so safely, teach your little one to climb a tree
    • Only do this if you feel comfortable spotting your child and they start with short heights

While you are spending time outside with your little one, make sure to ask them a lot of questions. Not just about their surroundings and what you are doing with them, but also see how they are feeling.

If they start to get antsy, bored, or seem unhappy, make sure to honor those feelings. Spending time outside should be a fun experience and forcing it will make it harder to encourage another excusion. Some days they will be ready to spend hours outside and other days only five minutes. There’s always later in the day or tomorrow, so try to be flexible in your plans until your child gets used to being outside.

As they get older, include them in the plans by asking them what they would like to do. Their answers may surprise you and lead you down the path for a fun adventure that you’ll talk about into their adulthood.

What are some of the things you do with your little ones to get them to spend more time outside? What did you do as a kid when it came to the outdoors? Leave your comments and stories below.


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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton Photography


Outdoors for Urban-Dwellers

Living in a major metropolitan area makes having daily access to nature a challenge. While we’re lucky enough to have a wooded area near our house, but I know that not everyone is so lucky and wanted to compile ways to increase one’s exposure to nature.

Growing up in a rural area I learned to appreciate all that nature had to offer, but because Jai is going to grow up either in an urban or suburban location (unless something drastically changes), he’s not going to have the same amount of exposure I did. So bringing nature inside will be one task I will want to do as much as possible for his sake.

Bring Nature to You

Here are some simple and easy ways to bring nature to you to help you with reconnection. I didn’t want to limit it to adults with children, so you’ll find all of these suggestions work for adult-only households:

  • Container Gardening: a great way to create your own produce, especially if you live in a food desert or want to know the origin of your fresh vegetables. You don’t need a yard to have a container garden, as a window or balcony can afford you enough space.
  • Potted Plants: you don’t have to have a green thumb to grow and maintain potted plants. If you are worried that you’ll kill a plant, buy a succulent. They tend to be really difficult to kill.
  • Nature walks & classes: find a local nature preserve and check their class schedule. Most have outdoor classes for adults and children on the weekends with a suggested donation fee. Learn a new skill and get yourself out in the wild.
  • Remove the blinds and curtains: if you can, keep your blinds/curtains up all the time to allow for maximum sunlight in your space. Choosing to use the sun for light sources can also be soothing.
  • Picnics in the park: have a park nearby? Why not bring some food and blanket for a quick picnic. Perfect for any day, especially if you work on the weekends or have a tight schedule.
  • Wading pool: For adults and children. Nothing feels better than filling a wading pool in the heat of summer and dipping your feet in.
  • Centerpieces and home decor: If you spend enough time outdoors, consider creating a centerpiece for your table of the interesting sticks, rocks, or leaves you find interesting. Dry flowers and arrange them according to the season with found river rocks in the vase bottom.
  • Companion animal: this is pricier and more time intensive AND dependant on allergies, but consider adopting a companion animal. Animals are known stress-reducers and their wild natures can bring the outside in for you (especially walking the dog). Reptiles are great for places that might have pet fees or those with allergies.
  • Fruit picking trips: If you can, look to see if there is a local farm where you can pick-you-own fruit. It’s a fun experience and a great way to discover fun recipes with the leftovers.
  • Nature Arts & Crafts: I have a flower press that my dad made me when I was a child. I used to press the flowers and leaves I found to make cards or bookmarks. Finding a cheap flower press and making art with dried pieces is a great way to reconnect with nature and a fun gift for a friend.

What do you do to bring nature to you when it’s hard? Share your ideas and experiences in the comments.


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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton Photography