Chemicals and Toxins — What Is Safe?

One of the most common questions I get from SquintMom readers is along the lines of is item/substance/compound XYZ toxic? I’d like to go ahead and answer this once and for all: YES, it is.

Now let me explain what I mean, and how I can answer this very generic question in a catch-all way without specifying the item/substance/compound to which I refer. Because he said it so well that it doesn’t need rephrasing, I’ll quote the Renaissance-era botanist Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus, who said:

All substances are poisons; there is none that is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy.

Phrased more generally, this is simply that any substance can be either safe or toxic; the dose (quantity) to which one is exposed is what makes the difference. I’ve mentioned in previous posts (like this one about oxybenzone in sunscreen) that the notoriously jumpy Environmental Working Group (EWG) systematically fails to recognize this particular principle; they have a tendency to vilify anything that proves toxic in any dose, under any conditions. This attitude, however well intentioned, leads us to some interesting places. Pause for a moment and check out the cautionary website Note that the highly toxic dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) is associated with cancer (it’s found in every tumor ever identified), has serious environmental impact (it’s a major greenhouse gas and overexposure is associated with thousands upon thousands of deaths every year), and, per the website:

[DHMO’s] basis is the highly reactive hydroxyl radical, a species shown to mutate DNA, denature proteins, disrupt cell membranes, and chemically alter critical neurotransmitters.

Sounds horrid, doesn’t it? No doubt we should ban it. Except that… is a joke website, and dihydrogen monoxide is the almost never-used, formal chemical name for water.

None of the information on is false, which is what makes it both amusing and apropos to this discussion. Water does, in fact, directly result in many deaths. Not only through “overexposure” via flooding and/or drowning, but also through overconsumption. For instance, in 2007, a radio station held a contest (“Hold your wee for a Wii”), the idea of which was to drink as much water as possible without a bathroom break; the caller who drank the most would win a coveted Wii game console. Contestant Jennifer Strange won (and then lost) by consuming more than 2 gallons of water in the space of less than an hour. She died shortly thereafter of hyponatremia, a condition in which there is an insufficient concentration of sodium in the body fluids to support life (sodium is critical to cellular function, neural conduction, muscular contraction, brain function, and so forth). This is not the only incident of water toxicity on record; similar cases have resulted from fraternity hazings, bizarre diet plans, and overconsumption of water during endurance sporting events like marathons.

On the other hand, there are substances that we typically consider highly toxic that are, in the right dose, of great medicinal utility. Clostridium botulinum is a species of bacteria that produces botulinum toxin, generally considered the deadliest substance on Earth. The average 150 pound man would have a 50:50 chance of survival if exposed to merely 341 ng (that’s less than a millionth of a gram) of pure botulinum toxin. Regardless, marketed under the trade name Botox, botulinum toxin is used for cosmetic purposes (wrinkle treatment and prevention). Of perhaps greater medical importance, it’s also used to ease the painful symptoms of temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ) and other spasmodic disorders, and mitigate the symptoms of diabetic neuropathy (damage to peripheral nerves, often in the feet, due to diabetes).

Further complicating matters, our perception that “natural” substances are somehow safer or better for us than “artificial” substances is misinformed. A simple example is the flavoring agents found in many foods. While the common perception is that natural flavors come from the food of which they taste (strawberry flavor, for instance, comes from strawberries), nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, natural and artificial flavors are generally identical chemicals, collected or produced in different ways.* Natural almond flavor, for instance, isn’t a mixture of “natural substances” that come from almonds. Instead, it’s a chemical called benzaldehyde that is extracted from peach pits. Artificial almond flavor is also benzaldehyde, but unlike natural almond flavor, the artificial stuff is made in the lab. Funnily enough, it’s possible to get benzaldehyde made in the lab much more pure than that extracted from peach pits. Further, the stuff that comes from peach pits — the natural almond flavor, remember — contains small amounts of deadly cyanide that occurs naturally in those same peach pits (one of many reasons it’s not wise to eat the pits of stone fruit).

*Eric Schlosser’s excellent book Fast Food Nation contains a very interesting chapter on this topic, for further reading.

Where does this leave us, in trying to avoid toxins? First, as a chemist, let me just say that the word toxin is very often misused in popular sources and conversation, and the word chemical is almost always misused. “Chemicals” are not bad things that cause harm and should be avoided. Instead, they are matter; they are what makes up the physical universe. Nothing that has mass and occupies space — nothing we touch, eat, drink, breathe — is not chemical. There’s no such thing as chemical-free bread, shampoo, or paint. Water is a chemical (and — let’s not forget — a toxic one at that). With regard to toxins, the word is used too often in a vague, handwaving sense on the Interwebs. I see pop-authors (who are generally trying to sell something) write about how Product X contains “toxins,” and should therefore be avoided, or Product Y (which they’re selling) contains no toxins.* I’m not sure what these folks mean when they say “toxins” (and since they rarely name said toxins, I’m not sure they know either); after all, let’s not forget that all substances are toxic in the right dose.

*Or worse yet, Product Y (which they’re selling) is a detoxifying agent. This is ridiculous; almost all humans (with the exception of a few with significant disease) are possessed of one of the most powerful detoxifying mechanisms known to man — a liver. Livers work really well, particularly when they’re left alone to do their job.

This is not to say that we should all go about our business with no concern whatsoever for the things we touch/eat/drink/breathe; it’s simply to say that we simultaneously worry too much and worry too little about “chemicals.” To take one particular example, a few scare-articles about bisphenol A (BPA) have some of us so worried (and confused) that we’re willing to shell out extra cash for BPA-free diaper wipe containers, toys, and even a bath toy organizer. In reality, if BPA has any effect at all in doses to which we’re routinely exposed (which has not yet been established), it would require significant physical contact with the compound to absorb it. Holding, playing with, or storing one’s bath toys in a BPA-containing item would not be a problem, particularly given that while the absorption rate of BPA through human skin hasn’t been thoroughly evaluated or established, it nevertheless appears to be significantly lower than the (already modest) rate of absorption through the skin of other animals (Marquet et al). Based upon the current research, might it be worth avoiding storing food in BPA-containing plastics? Possibly. This is because food might leech BPA out of the plastic in sufficient quantities to possibly have some effect on people (because we eat the food, which gives it an easy route into the system). Is it worth it to avoid all BPA in our houses, however? Simply, no. And on that note, it particularly amuses me to watch women with painted nails shopping for BPA-free toys for their daughters (also with painted nails), given that the exposure to potentially harmful substances (like toluene) is much greater when one physically paints said chemicals on one’s body.*

*For those who are curious, I do paint my nails, because I really don’t think this is that big a deal. But it’s certainly a more significant exposure to chemicals (ew! chemicals!) than touching a rubber ducky in the tub.

So, we worry too much. But we also worry too little. In our desire for the “natural” (whatever that means), we choose the cyanide-laced flavoring agent over the one made under strict conditions and control in the lab. We go to the natural foods store and buy herbs to treat our ailments — which are essentially unregulated for either safety or efficacy, and which may interact unsafely with prescription and over-the-counter drugs or be toxic in their own right — rather than using the “unnatural chemicals” prescribed by medical professionals, despite the fact that the latter have undergone many years of pre-marketing research, followed by decades of post-marketing surveillance. We’re more willing to expose our children to the 1/330 risk of death due to the measles than the 1/3000 risk of a moderate side effect of measles vaccination (e.g. seizure with no permanent effects, mild rash), and immeasurably small risk of serious side effect. We further eschew the vaccination because, in a complete failure to understand the mechanics of human immunity, we have come to believe that “natural” immunity from disease is superior to “artificial” immunity from vaccination. When it comes to the “natural” versus the “toxic” and/or “chemical,” we’re chasing flies out of the chicken coop while the foxes sneak in.

So what do we do about it? This is difficult. We know that all substances are toxic in the right (wrong?) dose, but when it comes to many substances, we still don’t know what that dose is. Some exposures are unavoidable (by virtue of living in a city, for instance, one is going to be exposed to a certain amount of benzene from exhaust, industrial processes, etc). Some exposures are avoidable, but avoiding them reduces quality of life (no one HAS to eat foods containing coloring agents, for instance, many of which are of questionable safety, but the complete avoidance of these would make for a stoic existence, particularly for children). In most cases, when it comes to toxic chemicals (and once more, all substances are chemicals, and all chemicals are toxic when one is exposed to them…all together now…in the right dose), one must do a risk-to-benefit analysis. Some cases are relatively clear. Is codeine toxic? Yes, in the right dose. Is it worth the risk to take codeine for recreational purposes? Probably not. Is it worth the risk to take codeine after a painful surgery? Probably. Is water toxic? Yes, in the right dose. Is it worth the risk to drink water when one is thirsty? Absolutely. Is it worth the risk to drink water to win a contest? Probably not. Some cases are less so, as with the previous example of BPA. With the evidence still equivocal, financial means and convenience likely become a large part of the decision. Those of greater means or with greater willingness to be inconvenienced might buy the BPA-free rubbery ducky, the BPA-free cabinet safety locks. Others might decide to buy the BPA-free food storage, but be content with the plain old, BPA-containing bath caddy. Regardless of these personal decisions when it comes to substances of yet-unknown safety, it’s worth remembering that the media, the product manufacturers, and the fad-authors capitalize upon the lucrative combination of public confusion and fear, and that the words “chemical,” “toxic,” “artificial,” and “natural” are as powerful as they are misused and misunderstood.


Marquet et al. In vivo and ex vivo percutaneous absorption of [14C]-bisphenol A in rats: a possible extrapolation to human absorption? Arch Toxicol. 2011 Sep;85(9):1035-43. Epub 2011 Feb 2.


Exercising While Breastfeeding

A reader recently asked whether exercise — specifically marathon training — affects lactation and breastfeeding. I did a little digging and came up with some information, but decided the article fit better at another site for which I write: Trail and Ultra Running. Here’s a brief summary of my findings, based upon the current research:

  • Moderate exercise (about 45 min/day, 5 days/week, moderate intensity) probably has no negative effect on milk production
  • Short-term vigorous exercise probably has no negative impact on milk production
  • Habitual moderate-volume exercisers may make slightly more milk than sedentary women
  • Exercise that results in short-term (~2 weeks) significant caloric deficit probably has no negative effect on milk production
  • There’s no evidence that habitual moderate exercise negatively impacts nutritional content of milk or immunologic factors (like antibodies)
  • Moderate exercise doesn’t appear to increase the amount of lactic acid (a waste product of exercise) in milk, while intense exercise increases lactic acid in milk for about 90 minutes; this doesn’t affect nutrition, but may impact flavor
  • Infants may or may not respond negatively to temporarily increased levels of lactic acid in milk; women can pump before exercising if this is a concern
  • Lactic acid clears from the milk as it clears from the blood; there’s no need to “pump and dump” after vigorous exercise

Read the entire post here.

Updated Policy on LATCH Use For Securing Car Seats

Since 2001, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has required that car manufacturers comply with Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH), a system that relies upon a universal anchor system to which car seat tethers can be attached. However, as of 2014, the NHTSA will be requiring child seat manufacturers to inform parents NOT to use the lower LATCH anchors if the combined weight of seat and child is more than 65 pounds, on the grounds that the anchors could fail in the event of a car accident.

The problem, according to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, is that the original legislation did not take the weight of a car seat into account when stipulating strength limits for LATCH anchors, which are consequently required to be tested to only 65 pounds. Combined with the weight of a seat, however — one of which weighs an incredible 33 pounds — a child as light as 32 pounds could be unsafe in a LATCH-tethered seat.

While the LATCH system is a convenient way to tether a car seat in a vehicle, a LATCH-secured child seat is no safer than one properly secured using the vehicle’s seat belts. Given the potential for LATCH failure, then, parents who need to secure a seat-plus-child combination weighing 65 pounds or more should use the vehicle’s seat belts per the car seat manufacturer-provided instructions.

There’s been increasing attention paid to car seats for larger and heavier children as a result of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) recent car seat policy changes. The current recommendations include the following (Durbin et al):

  •  Children should ride in a rear-facing car seat until age 2 or until reaching the maximum height/weight allowed by the seat manufacturer for rear-facing travel
  • Children 2 and older should ride in a forward-facing car seat with a harness until reaching the maximum height/weight allowed by the seat manufacturer
  • Children who have outgrown forward-facing seats with harnesses should ride in a belt-positioning booster until they are at least 4′ 9″ in height (8-12 years of age)
  • Children younger than 13 should ride in the vehicle’s rear seat at all times

This post contains a discussion of some of the research that supports the AAP’s policy changes.


Science Bottom Line:* If the combined weight of your child and your child’s car seat is 65 pounds or more, secure the seat using the vehicle’s seat belts; do NOT use the lower LATCH anchors.


Do you use the LATCH anchors, or do you prefer to secure your child’s seat with the vehicle seat belt?



Durbin et al. Child passenger safety. Pediatrics. 2011 Apr;127(4):e1050-66. Epub 2011 Mar 21.

Dirty Feet, Skinned Knees, and the Spices of A Million Flowers

Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers. -Ray Bradbury

We spent some of this past week visiting my aunt and uncle. They recently retired to a small rural community in northern Arizona, across a dirt road from the cabin my grandfather built in the 1960s. During my childhood, I would spend weeks of each summer in that cabin with my grandparents and any number of cousins. While it’s been somewhat improved in recent years, “rustic” may have inadequately described the place in those early days; there is a period of time within my memory during which the call of nature was answered in an outhouse. The only bed was a fold-out couch in the cabin’s single room, upon which my grandparents slept. Kids piled into sleeping bags and lay clumped together on the floor like so many puppies or, more often, slept out on the deck under the stars. We’d tell each other jokes and ghost stories each night, growing rowdier and rowdier until my grandmother issued a frown and a stern Hush! Chastened, we’d burrow deeper into our sleeping bags and, bending our heads close together, we’d whisper the secrets of our childhood hearts late into the night.

Those were the summers of skinned knees and dirty feet. The summers of waking with the sun and throwing clothes onto our bodies and food into our mouths as we ran out the door into the forest. Those were the summers of going barefoot and eating sun-warmed berries from right off the brambles. Of bathing in the outdoor shower my grandfather built — the cabin’s only shower for most of my childhood — while looking up at the wind-rustled pines. The cabin had no television, but we never cared. There were few, if any, toys; I remember a partial set of dominos and an old and beaten train case. These we repurposed in any number of ways, and never wanted for the fancier playthings of our city lives. We made swords out of sticks, and pretended at being knights. We brewed a magic potion from leaves and creek water, and went looking for bugs with ailments we could cure. My grandfather helped us make bows and arrows, and we spent hours trying to hit a cardboard box from 20 paces. When both my grandparents were at the cabin, we confined our boundless energy and the vast majority of our chaos to the outdoors. If ever my grandmother left for a few days, however, the rules went with her. Cream cheese and jelly sandwiches became a nutritional staple. We caught dragonflies and brought them inside, the better to observe them. We moved our extensive collections — lizards, plants, rocks — indoors, and made a museum of the kitchen table.

During those summers at the cabin we were free, my cousins and I. Free as only children can be, with no jobs, no nagging concerns, and no charge other than to be home before it got too dark, if only to collect a flashlight. As childhood flowed seamlessly into adolescence, summers at the cabin began to change. I cared less about ensuring my butterfly collection was complete, and more about whether the cute boy staying in the nearby rental was close to my age. I grew too old — or at least too self-conscious — to make believe with wooden swords, and joined the adults to play cards more often than I ran barefoot through the pine litter. Eventually the last vestiges of those carefree days fell away, replaced first by summer work and college applications, and later by jobs and mortgages and car payments. Visiting the cabin became something I did rarely — an only intermittently tolerable interruption to the flow of everyday life — and then didn’t do at all, until recently.

While this past weekend wasn’t W’s first visit to my aunt and uncle’s house, it was the first since she’s been walking. Watching her respond to the cabin area has been like stepping back in time. She wakes early and hardly has the patience to eat her breakfast before she starts to demand OOS! OOS! OOS! (Shoes!) while racing for the door. She’s learning to run on the same dirt roads upon which I learned to ride a bike. My aunt feeds the birds and squirrels in the yard, and W squeals in delight to see the animals and waves to them as they come and go. She rolls in the grass and runs her fingers over the bark of the trees, feeling their different textures. When I try to hold her hand as she tackles a steep hill, she pushes it away. No, Mama, I hear her thinking, I do it myself. I get that. This is a place to be free.

The memories here, even though it’s been so long, swirl all around me. We sit on my aunt and uncle’s porch, and I can see the clubhouse my cousins and I built out of salvaged siding and plywood. The nextdoor neighbor is a girl — of course, she’s a grown woman now — with whom I used to play sometimes; one summer, we built a boat and carried it over our heads down to the creek. It was tippy and leaked like a sieve, but we laughed the whole time. W and I go for a walk, and pass the spot where I once tripped and fell, skinning my upper lip so that I spent the rest of the summer wearing scabs like a mustache. I punctuate our walk with intermittent observations and explanations. This is the house where the mean dogs used to live, I tell her as we go by; they chased me every day. This is “Poison Ivy Lane”; it’s a shortcut to the creek, but you have to be really careful picking your way through. This is the place I caught my first fish. The woman who used to live in this house was an amazing cook, and always used to invite me in and feed me. I don’t know how much of what I say she understands, but underneath the stories is simply this: I was once a little girl, W, just like you. Where we live now isn’t where I lived when I was little — it’s not even in the same town — but this place was a big part of my childhood. Maybe the biggest part. And I am sharing it with you.

Getting W undressed for her bath the last night of our visit, I notice the dirt on her toes and the scrapes on her legs. She’s only just come in from outdoors, and her hair is still warm from the setting sun. She smells like water and dust, grass and little kid sweat. I breathe in deeply, filling my nostrils and filling my heart. Last summer, W was a baby in my arms; this is the first true summer of childhood — the first of many — full of skinned knees and dirty feet, of fun to be had and memories to be made. I’m grateful I have this place to share with her, this place where the anthem of her childhood will ring loudly in her ears, and her pigtails will stream behind her as she runs free.


What of the summers of your youth will you share with your child?


Are Bubble Baths Safe For Girls, Or Do They Cause UTIs?

Got another great question recently (keep them coming, readers; I love answering these!):

I’ve heard that girls shouldn’t take bubble baths because they can get urinary tract infections. I have some around the house, though, and in a moment of weakness, I let my toddler use it. Now she wants a bubble bath all the time! The package says it’s “safe for girls” but I am not sure what chemical it is that gives them UTIs so I find the whole thing confusing. Is it safe to use bubble bath for a girl?

This is an interesting case of some old and erroneous research that’s been propagated in the medical field (and among women) for several decades. Back in the 1960s and 70s, a few studies suggested that bubble baths caused urinary tract infections (UTIs) in girls (see, for example, Neumann et al). This belief has continued to show up in more recent journal articles for medical professionals. The truth is that while it’s certainly possible for soaps, fragrances, and other chemicals in bubble bath to irritate the vulva (Modgil et al) and urethra (see, for example, Johnson et al, Santen et al), there isn’t any scientific support for them causing UTI.

A study of college-age women examined a number of potential risk factors for UTI (including bubble baths, diaphragm use, tampon use, sexual activity, and various hygiene practices), and concluded that only diaphragm use was reasonably correlated with increased urinary infection risk (Strom et al). A 2006 meta-analysis (study of studies) revealed that while many pediatricians advise parents to avoid bubble baths for female children, there is no reasonable scientific support for the notion of a connection between the two (Modgil et al). Indeed, despite the lack of scientific evidence, a survey of health care professionals and women noted that both groups believed there was a link between bubble baths and UTIs (Rink).

It’s possible that the mistaken belief about bubble baths and urinary infections comes from the tendency of some healthcare practitioners and researchers to view children as “little adults” (Todd). In fact, however, signs and symptoms of UTIs are not the same in little girls as they are in adult women; one of the most notable differences is that while adult women often experience dysuria (painful urination) with UTI, most girls do not (Santen et al). The ability of frequent bubble baths to cause urethral or vulvar irritation in some girls and women, which can in turn lead to painful urination, combines with the mistaken belief that painful urination typically indicates a UTI in a young girl to produce the erroneous notion of a bubble bath/UTI link. In the end, however, with no reasonable scientific support for a link, Modgil et al sum up the risk-to-benefit analysis nicely, in saying:

We believe that the enjoyment of bubble baths outweighs the limited evidence of their proposed harm.

There is, of course, the question of whether some bubble bath products might produce less skin, vulvar, and urethral irritation than others. Very sensitive children and those with allergies to specific chemicals may be more likely to react to any given product. Still, some bubble baths are milder than others, with fragrance-free varieties almost always ranking milder than those containing fragrance. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a somewhat reactionary organization that likely overestimates the toxicity of and risk associated with chemicals, as I discuss in this post. Still, they provide a nice guide to various personal care products — bubble bath included — that at the very least can be used to determine which of the bubble baths on the market are most mild.

Science Bottom Line:* There is simply no scientific evidence to support the notion that bubble baths increase a girl’s risk of urinary tract infection. Children with sensitivities may do better with a milder product, however, as well as less frequent use. Because bubble baths can cause irritation to the skin and female genitals, it may be reasonable to consider rinsing with plain water after a bubble bath.


Do you let your little girl take bubble baths? What’s your favorite type?



Johnson et al. New advances in childhood urinary tract infections. Pediatr Rev. 1999 Oct;20(10):335-42; quiz 343.

Modgil et al. Should bubble baths be avoided in children with urinary tract infections? Arch Dis Child. 2006 Oct;91(10):863-5.

Neumann et al. Constipation and urinary tract infection. Pediatrics. 1973 Aug;52(2):241-5.

Rink, E. Risk factors for urinary tract symptoms in women: beliefs among general practitioners and women and the effect on patient management. Br J Gen Pract. 1998 Apr;48(429):1155-8.

Santen et al. Pediatric urinary tract infection. Emerg Med Clin North Am. 2001 Aug;19(3):675-90.

Strom et al. Sexual activity, contraceptive use, and other risk factors for symptomatic and asymptomatic bacteriuria. A case-control study. Ann Intern Med. 1987 Dec;107(6):816-23.

Todd, J. Management of urinary tract infections: children are different. Pediatr Rev. 1995 May;16(5):190-6.

The Weird Things I Find Around The House

There’s an amusing blog post at BabyCenter about “baby crop circles,” which the author describes as odd arrangements of items — little shrines of sort — that appear out of nowhere and without explanation as the result of toddler activity. If I wanted to get all sciency, I’d speculate that these arrangements are probably physical manifestations of a toddler’s emerging sense of heuristics and increasing ability to categorize items and recognize the relationships between them. It’s late at night, though, and my brain hurts, so I’m just going to leave the explanation alone and call the arrangements as I see them: interesting, funny, weird, sometimes profound, and sometimes downright baffling.

W and the duck lineup.

For about a month now, W has been arranging her bath toys in a particular way each night. She has a veritable flotilla of little plastic animals that join her in the tub, three of which happen to be ducks. Each night, the three ducks are carefully extracted from the swarm of floating fauna and made to perch on the edge of the tub  [insert joke about “having all her ducks in a row” here]. I suppose if she were a little older, I’d find this nothing more than an amusing quirk, or perhaps a sign that she was particularly fond of ducks (which she is). Two things, however, combine to make the nightly duck arrangement remarkable in my eyes. First, only a few months ago, she demonstrated no understanding of categories whatsoever; there was no indication that she’d begun to develop heuristics for mentally sorting items into groups of similars. Second, the three ducks are all different. One is large and yellow, one is small and yellow, and one is small and white, and wears a scarf and a jaunty hat. In the last few months, she’s gone from seeing the three ducks as nothing more than three anonymous and dissimilar bath toys to seeing them as belonging in the same category, and knowing the name of the category is DUCKS. She demonstrates the former by placing them — and only them, of all her bath toys — on the edge of the tub every night. She demonstrates the latter by pointing to them when I ask where are your ducks? She’ll also point out the duck that covers the tub spout, ducks in books, ducks in pictures, and so forth. She’s begun making a cute little WUK WUK sound when she shows me a duck (not sure if this is her saying duck or quack). Anyway, on the surface, the duck-sorting is cute. On a deeper level, it’s a pretty awesome indication that her brain is maturing.

[Sigh. I said I wasn’t going to get all sciency about this, but because I am inescapably me, I went there anyway.]

Tickle Monster on a placemat with a cell phone. That sounds like a code phrase, doesn't it?

So the duck thing makes sense to me; I can see what she’s doing and why. There are other “baby crop circles” that I find around the house, though, that I completely fail to understand. The other night, for instance, I put W to bed and came out to the kitchen once she was asleep. There, I found an interesting arrangement. In the middle of the floor was a placemat. W’s been obsessed with this particular placemat lately; at first, she liked to put it on the floor and dance on it. That turned into putting it on the floor and sitting on it while she ate. This particular night, she apparently decided it was a good spot for her mama-made Tickle Monster, with which she’d been playing before bed; I found him placed carefully in the center of the placemat. Lest he get lonely, she’d also given him her (currently) very favorite toy: a little cell phone that opens and closes. She’s pretty anal retentive about the cell phone (where does she get that, I wonder!?), and always keeps it closed when she’s not “talking” on it. She opened it for Tickle Monster and set it next to him so he could…I don’t know…phone home? Or maybe it was his job to guard the phone for her, lest someone touch it while she slept (she’s been a possessive little thing lately). Anyway, though the arrangement defied explanation, it was clearly made purposefully. These sorts of things make me wish she was possessed of verbal abilities that more closely matched her mental development, because I’d really, REALLY like to be able to ask her what the heck that was about.


The domino troll hanging out in the one does...

Whether I analyze her behavior in my typical sciency-geeky way, or just sit back and enjoy watching my daughter grow and learn, it amazes me to see the changes day-to-day. We fairly regularly visit my parents, who also have a flotilla of bath toys for W (my only sibling is childless, and I didn’t procreate until well into my 30s, so my parents’ enthusiasm at the introduction of a grandchild into their lives has been…shall we say…substantial). Among the myriad creatures in the tub at Nana’s house are a mallard duck (white with a green head) and a swan with a very poorly-cast and decidedly ducky beak. Having been told about the duck arranging, my mother produced a third specimen to join W in the bath, this one yellow with a red beak and a large pair of retro sunglasses. None of the three looked much like W’s ducks from home — the sunglasses duck, in particular, called to mind a number of Tom Cruise films from the early 80s — so I was surprised when, during a bath at Nana’s house two weeks ago, W lined up the mallard and the duck-billed-swan on the bathtub. The “Risky Business” duck was not deemed sufficiently duck-ish, apparently. Last week, however, he made the cut, and joined the others on the edge of the tub. In just a week’s time, she’s learned that sunglasses can hide eyes, just as hats can hide heads. As such, apparently, a sunglasses-wearing duck should be just as much a part of the gang as the scarf-and-hat duck is. I don’t know…maybe I’m a real geek to think this is cool, but what can I say? Watching my daughter grow and learn — and seeing the little shrines she builds and sorting games she engages in that demonstrate how she’s changing — is awesome. Well, usually awesome, anyway. I do sometimes go to the pantry for a plastic storage container to put the leftovers into after dinner, only to find that she’s moved them all and re-sorted them into a variety of drawers and bins throughout the house. And I always have to check the contents of her hamper carefully before I put the clothes in the wash; she tends to use it as a place to stash blocks. And there’s a little wooden fellow — we call him the domino troll because he inexplicably came packaged in a box of dominoes — who is transplanted to any number of places around the house on a daily basis. I never know when I’m going to open the diaper drawer and see him peering up at me, move furniture to vacuum and unwittingly discover his hiding place, or go to put on a bra only to find him lurking. Still, bra-trolls aside, one thing is clear: toddlerhood is a wild and amazing ride. Every day is hilarious and frustrating, amazing and exhausting, awe-inspiring and mystifying. For both of us.


What surprises have you found around the house?