Cold Weather Getaways – Dogsledding


Whether you have palm trees or evergreens outside your window, consider that not all getaways must be to warmer climates. Consider this dog sledding trip we did last winter that ran in the December/January issue of Family Fun Magazine.


While I made this trip on assignment, I’d venture to say it is my favorite travel experience to date. The founder of Wintergreen kennels, polar expedition leader, entrepreneur, husband and father of three, Paul Schurke is considered one of the best, if not the best in the business (so said every one of his peers while researching my article). Paul ensured our safety and comfort every step of the way, and his family’s hospitality and warmth were a terrific incidental benefit. This was a family-friendly experience, from bundling then-two-year-old Aaron inside a sleeping bag while he rode in the front compartment of a sled to offering our oldest son the chance to drive a team solo.

Here’s a video clip hosted at the web site of the outfitter we were lucky enough to work with, Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge. (Watch carefully for shots of the family’s home they designed and built themselves–aka the model for our dream house). If this isn’t enough to tempt you to explore fun in the snow, check out their photo gallery.

You really have to love or at least not loathe the cold, and bringing proper winter clothing is highly recommended (synthetic fabric long underwear, sturdy gloves, cold-proof winter boots, snow pants, windproof, warm coat, hat–I suggest ski masks for kids to avoid windburn). The Schurkes will either loan or sell gear you may not have from either their lodge or their retail gear store in downtown Ely.

Our family is definitely planning to repeat this trip for longer than our previous half-day adventure. The boys keep asking when we’ll return, and we may even head up for another long weekend this winter, budget permitting. I also have plans to attend this photography workshop, possibly next year.

What’s your dream cold-weather getaway? Have you done it already or is it in the planning stages? Share your ideas, thoughts and questions in the comments section.


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Winter Blah-Blah-Blahs


2212813781_212d9a7425I think the winter blahs are setting in at our house. It’s been a bit too cold for outdoor play, since when temps hit single digits, the kids don’t enjoy being out for too long. This means the fort-building/indoor picnic/winter crafts season is upon us. There are days I’m tempted to succumb to the call of the Wii remotes, but we don’t allow video games during the week and limit their time on weekends for a reason – we want our kids to engage in a variety of activities.

I have a handful of books we’re going to put to good use, in addition to making those tissue paper landscapes I wrote about earlier. At some point I got sucked into purchasing these books as a set:

Look What You Can Make With BOXES Edited by Margie Hayes Richmond

Look What You Can Make With Paper Bags Edited by Judy Burke


Look What You Can Make With Paper Plates Edited by Margie Hayes Richmond

I’m excited to order Soule Mama’s upcoming release, “The Creative Family: How to Encourage Imagination and Nurture Family Connections,” due out in April but available for pre-order now.

I also think I’m going to get this book, because we’re all about the nocturnal goodness around these parts.

And hey! Writing about great books for winter blahs has pulled me out of my own winter blahs for a while.

Are there any go-to crafty/activity books you use on rainy/snowy/bleak-and-dreary days? Write the titles and why you like them in the comments section.

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Affordable Outdoor Winter Gear for Kids


2145992995_682e89e2edOutdoor retailer runs regular “hot deals” on outdoor/camping gear (click on “Hot Deals” at the top of their web site and you’ll see a handy menu on the left broken out by category. You can also subscribe to their “Trailmail” newsletter that features the latest Hot Deals offered on the web site).

I’ve had my eye on their $7.97 long underwear separates for kids. Trying to outfit a family of five isn’t cheap, and while we do have cotton long underwear, I’ve wanted to get the boys some made of fabric that wicks moisture from their hard working little bodies. If you have no idea what I’m talking about (what is this “wicking” of which you speak? I’m just a cavemom . . .), here’s a great, simple explanation about why layering using non-cotton fabrics is the smart way to go, folded into a handy piece about winter play with kids in general.

So I went ahead and ordered some Duofold midweight long underwear for the two younger boys (ages 3 and 5 but very close in size) and expedition weight long johns for my 8-year-old. I’d have ordered everything the same but it wasn’t available, and since the oldest boy is outdoors for the longest periods, I’m okay with that. I’ll write about their performance after we’ve had a chance to test them. I threw in some hiking socks on sale when bought as a three-fer (sometimes having to buy in bulk comes in handy!).

Our next purchase: snowshoes! I’m already finding that shopping for these is more complicated than it might seem on the surface but will report back with what we learn after more research/shopping.

We’d priced cross-country ski gear for the family and it’s just too cost prohibitive compared to how frequently we’d use the gear (assuming the boys would enjoy it at all–of course we’d do test runs before purchasing, however).

After a day gazing at gear at REI, Dan ultimately confessed that he used to X-C ski years ago and simply didn’t enjoy it as much as he did hiking, so why not keep it simple? This is a price difference of maybe $300-400 for snowshoes for a family of five vs. about $2K for skis, bindings, boots, and poles. We’re going to try renting X-C skis on occasion to see how the boys like it, but I can really see us getting more mileage–figuratively and on the trail–from the snowshoes.


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Low Expectations Days

While I’m all about adventure and discovery and getting out and doing fun stuff, I also think that a crucial element to living is the ability to simply “be.” This is a common theme in articles and web sites devoted to simplicity and wellness.

But some days, I take the middle ground.

Yesterday, a family emergency required that I chuck every last one of my best-laid plans (column due, three kids on three school schedules, shopping to do before a friend’s wedding, a recipe to test for said column) and declare a “Low Expectations Day”–I would get done what absolutely had to be done and no more.

It wasn’t easy, but at the same time it was sort of liberating, kind of like the day last week when a tornado touched down nearby. As I herded the kids downstairs, I looked around the main floor of our home – camera, laptop, bills, knick knacks – and decided I needed none of it, I had everyone of value to me headed to the basement.

Next time you find yourself mid-crisis (kids barfing in tandem, car won’t start, elderly parents injured or sick), declare a Low Expectations Day, do what has to get done and let life blow the rest away. It’ll all be waiting for you when you return, and you may even find that some “priorities” didn’t need your attention after all.

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Quaking Bogs and Boy-Eating Plants

At the trailhead.

As I mentioned in my previous post lamenting our lack of snackage, the boys and I did a brief but fun hike at Volo Bog State Natural Area in Ingleside, Illinois (about 45 miles northwest of Chicago) last weekend.

Carved by the glaciers that ambled through here a few thousand seasons ago, we learned that Volo Bog is more technically a fen. The boys and I agreed that bog is more fun to say, so we’re content with current nomenclature.


The open water portion of Volo Bog.
The open water portion of Volo Bog.

There are two main trails at Volo Bog; the shorter 1/4-mile interpretive trail and a 2.75-mile hiking/cross-country skiing trail. Given the unseasonably warm weather and resulting potential for muck (not to mention my single mom status for the weekend–no way was I carrying our sturdy 3-year-old for that last mile!), we opted for the interpretive trail with a brochure keyed to numbered posts along the way.

At the trailhead.
At the trailhead.
Rightfully confused but determined moss jostles for its share of the sunlight.
Rightfully confused but determined moss jostles for its share of the sunlight.

While my middle child traditionally serves as the dictator keeper of the map, all we had was the handout, so he quickly lost interest. I gave him the job of seeking out the numbered posts instead.

Nolan earns his keep by spotting guideposts
Nolan earns his keep by spotting guideposts

The boys set out along the wooden boardwalk trails that literally sit on top of the water, quaking and tilting with each bounding, boot-clad step we took. I’d purposely waited to take this hike until Aaron was a little older, and at three and a half, I’m glad I waited. I don’t know how deep those waters are along the interpretive trail, but I wasn’t planning on finding out, either. Of course, the three of them jockeyed for the lead throughout the hike and I had to hiss and squawk at times to keep someone from going into the drink. There are hand rails for some portions of this hike, but some of them are seriously shaky and at points, nonexistent, so parents of very young children will want to keep their kids within snatching distance.

Aaaand they’re OFF!
Aaaand they’re OFF!
One of the hinges that keeps hikers bog-water-free
One of the hinges that keeps hikers bog-water-free

At each numbered guidepost, they stood and listened to about 3/4 of what I read from the information listed on the guided tour handout. There was a too much information for a three- and five-year-old (who accuses me of “blah blah blah” if I go on too long), but older kids will probably stay put for longer. The terrain changed often enough and, coupled with the factoids we picked up, like our discovery of a carnivorous plant (take it from me, boys LOVE the idea of carnivorous plants) and a deciduous evergreen tree (the tamarack pine, which sheds its needles each fall), this short hike packed a lot of punch.


Exactly how wrong is it to tease your kids that carnivorous plants can chase them?

In the thick of it
In the thick of it

The bobbing and weaving of the trail itself adds an element of danger and adventure to the hike, something the boys enjoyed but that I’m sure contributed to the completely white head of hair I’m sure to have one day. What’s even better is that Volo Bog changes greatly with the seasons, so there’s often something new to see with each visit.

There are also usually guided tours along the trail we took, except for the one day we actually showed up on time, ready to be guided. The Visitor Center is kid-friendly and packed with exhibits that encourage touching, and questions are always welcome. Just be sure to be polite or the coyote greeter will escort you off the premises.


We’re waiting for the next big snowfall for a return visit to see if those meat-eating plants will be poking up out of the snow.


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Hiking Snacks


I’m continually on the look-out for decent hiking snacks. My requirements are fairly humble: they must be portable, fairly indestructible, and reasonably neat when eaten. I always think I’m going to try PB&J or turkey/cheese/light ranch dressing wraps, but never get around it because I fear the onslaught of goop when eaten.

Anyway, last weekend the boys and I did a really fun, short hike over a quaking bog at the Volo Bog State Natural Area here in Northern Illinois. Because I procrastinated all morning, sipping coffee and reading magazines in my PJ’s, I didn’t think about snack planning. Before I knew it, we were out the door totally snackless and racing to the start time of our guided hike (which was canceled–note to self: call ahead even if the web site says EVERY weekend at 11 and 1).


I’ll write more about our hike in a subsequent post, but wanted to share (confess?) what we did after hiking. We went for lunch at a fast food joint. Now it was better in quality than McDonald’s, but it was still fast food. I’m not a french fry hater, or even a “parents who choose fast food” judger, but I do not enjoy eating fried foods after savoring a healthy dose of nature. Plus, I don’t want to grow the expectation for the kids that after hiking, we eat cheeseburgers and chocolate custard.

A tiny bit of planning would’ve saved me the time and expense (better-than-McD’s fast food is also pretty spendy–$25 spendy for four people, in fact). In a pinch, I always have Nature Valley Granola bars on hand, and with three boys, I buy apples by the bag. We usually have raisins or Craisins on hand, and bringing some peanut butter to go with the apples would’ve gone over really well. Just a few minutes to either gather these essentials or stop at a store en route and toss ‘em in a day pack or tote bag. Next time, I’ll do better.

Please share your ideas for tote-able food. What do you like to eat during and after a hike, or any time while on the go with your kids?


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New Year, New Ideas


I’m excited about the turning of calendar pages to a new year for many reasons, one of which means some new regular features here at Bring the Family, including:

Mini Adventures – I’ll drag bring the family somewhere new in the Great Lakes region of the Midwest, with an eye toward learning or trying something we’ve never experienced before.

Stuck Indoors – Ideas for days when illness, weather, or your wallet keep everyone stuck at home.

How To – multimedia segments on subjects like: how to pack a day pack for a short hike, build an igloo, learn to snowboard, take memorable photos, and more. Let me know what you’d like to see here!

Doing It Right – This will center around communities, organizations, families, and individuals who are keeping the spirit of exploration and adventure alive in their corner of the world.

Guest Bloggers – Have an adventure or idea you’d like to share with Bring the Family’s readers? Email me at ToniTravels AT gmail DOT net to sign up to do a guest post (with video and/or photos, if that’s your thing).

Product Reviews – We’ll test gear our family actually uses and provide honest reviews (with giveaways of products we endorse, too).

I’m considering putting some of these items up for a vote – especially mini adventures – where readers get to pick where we go and what we do next! From kayaking the Chicago River to touring the Trek Bicycle Factory in Wisconsin, we’ll pick fun, affordable things to do locally.

Here’s a cute little kickoff for the new year that demonstrates what you can do when you combine a 9-year-old, a sloping driveway, and an inexpensive starter snowboard from a sporting goods store.

I’d love to hear from you about how to make this site more useful to families; post your requests and suggestions in the comment section.

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Making Meaningful Holidays

Cars line up to deliver food and gifts to local residents for the annual Rotary Club-sponsored Christmas Clearing House, Woodstock, Illinois

I meant to write more than just thoughts on teacher gifts for the holiday season, but an evil flu-like virus hit our home for over a week along with a last-minute assignment, so blogging time & motivation were scarce.

Here are some post-Christmas thoughts to ponder as you stare down those bits of gift wrap that seem to multiply each time you think you’ve retrieved the last of ‘em from the floor (or is that just me?)

Note: I’m covering secular Christmas celebrations because that’s what I know best, but please share your favorite winter seasonal traditions in the comments section.

Ditch Perfection

Tell perfection to take her perky backside somewhere else, because she’s not welcome at your place any longer. Look, I get it: we all fall prey to perfectionism because we care. We care about our family, friends, and community members, and we care about crafting celebrations that hold meaning for us. But the thing is, none of it has to be perfect. I get caught up in this, too, especially when I’m making photography- or food-related gifts. I think it’s easy to confuse what we give or how we otherwise present ourselves with who we are.

In the photo above, we were trying for that perfectly posed holiday photo, but as you can see, that didn’t quite work out. Our youngest son was fussing, so after we’d decided to call it quits, my husband decided to playfully flip him upside down and I happened to hit the shutter release as he did. The resulting photo not only felt more real to us, but it netted several phone calls and positive comments because it made the recipients laugh.

The truth is, nobody’s going to remember that you forgot to vacuum the living room carpet or that your mini pumpkin loaves weren’t expertly wrapped. What people remember about the holidays is time spent with friends and loved ones. People aren’t perfect, so stop expecting your holiday presentation to be perfect, too.

Make Meaningful Traditions

It’s not the Bears-themed magnet you grabbed from the shelf at Walgreens (or, if you’re my dad, perfume or a cat calendar) that people will remember of Christmases past. What makes a meaningful tradition? Hint: if� you’re feeling stressed and/or simply going through the motions, you’re probably doing it wrong.

This year, my parents switched from a heavy, Italian-style Christmas Eve dinner fit to feed a subdivision to lighter appetizers served earlier in the day, and we all enjoyed it–and felt better afterward. My favorite part of this year’s visit was listening to my parents laughing about their different versions of a story about my Chicago-raised mom supposedly craving farm fresh eggs, which led to a drive in the country where they found their first dog, a collie shepherd named Sloopy. She vehemently denies ever wanting farm fresh eggs, but my dad swears it’s true and their arguing and laughing over it is funny every time it comes up.

I fully realize that watching your parents argue might not make for holiday entertainment in every household. The definition of “meaningful” will vary from family to family, but to me the key is it should be simple, fun, affordable, and make everyone feel good. Notice I don’t mention “perfect” or “ideal” or “obligatory” anywhere in there.

Some of our traditions include:

Kicking off the season on the day after Thanksgiving with the Lighting of the Square, one of my very favorite days of the year.

Watching as many of our favorite movies and specials, including: A Christmas Story, Elf, The Year Without a Santa Claus, The Polar Express, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman as we can.

Buying at least one new holiday CD each year.

Baking together. This is the year I’ve decided to say good bye to cutout cookies; the taste payoff simply doesn’t match the effort required, even though I found my best recipes yet this year. This year’s mini pumpkin loaves turned out great, but the kids ate all of them, since our last day of school was a snow day and we couldn’t deliver them to our teachers!

Christmas Eve noshing at my parents’ house. Yum.

Putting cookies and carrots out for Santa and his reindeer on Christmas Eve, then reading A Night Before Christmas.

The annual New Year’s Day open house party at my friend’s home.

This year, we added sledding and snowboarding to our Christmas Day traditions! That’s my six-year-old heading down our driveway, one of my favorite Christmas Day moments.

People First, Then Money, Then Things

Financial expert Suze Orman’s advice rings truest during the holidays. And while I think having a cadre of crazy relatives who drive people to drink makes great fiction writing fodder, my family makes me feel blessed, because I actually enjoy spending the holidays with them.

Take my kid brother Stephen, who gave me two photos of him in holiday frames, one labeled “then” circa 1973 and one labeled “now” from the 80s (love the imperfection!), along with a handmade card with a family photo from our childhood on the cover. He didn’t even tell my mom he was making these gifts, and they were my favorites because of the planning and thought that went into them.

Give Back

Cars line up to deliver food and gifts to local residents for the annual Rotary Club-sponsored Christmas Clearing House, Woodstock, Illinois
Cars line up to deliver food and gifts to local residents for the annual Rotary Club-sponsored Christmas Clearing House, Woodstock, Illinois

Taking time to volunteer at or donate to charitable organizations is a wonderful way to celebrate the holidays while also teaching our kids the importance of thinking beyond those Christmas lists. Of course we should all pitch in year-round and I’m sure most, if not all of you already do, but I think it’s important to give to others during a time of year that can be very lonely and difficult for so many. Consider starting with local charities; they often need warm bodies and cash more than larger organizations.

Don’t Do Debt


When I was growing up, even during hard times, my dad wasn’t happy unless there was a mound of gifts piled all around the Christmas tree. I know where this comes from; one Christmas during his humble rural childhood, all he got was a shirt and some oranges. So when he had kids of his own, he made sure the house was overflowing with gifts and food.

Just this year, I looked under our tree and fretted that it wasn’t enough, only to hear the boys declare this “the best Christmas ever!” the next day. I still struggle with my urge to overspend and I try not to mistake price tags for emotional connection. One of the smartest financial moves my husband and I have made (and believe me, not all of our choices have been brilliant), is not using credit cards for Christmas purchases. We set a budget and work with it. Do I feel bad that I can’t give more elaborate gifts? Sure. But when January rolls around and our budget looks healthy, with bills the same size they were last month, I get over it.

Share your holiday traditions and thoughts on how to make holidays meaningful in the comments section.

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The Gift of Saying “Thank You”


My family is fortunate to have a small-town school district with a forward-thinking superintendent and caring, professional educators and support staff. Our district’s budget is not only consistently in the black, but is known statewide as one of the finest in terms of accommodating children on the autism spectrum (including one of our boys). And while there are many families hovering near the poverty line in our little town, I’ve seen administrators and staff members take their own personal time and money to ensure that their students have boots in winter or can attend a field trip with the rest of the class.

My kids are getting a fine education and I am deeply grateful for this. During the holidays, I express that gratitude with handwritten notes or cards telling the teachers how much our family values their hard work and dedication to our kids.

In recent years I’ve noticed a trend toward giving gift cards, cash, or extravagant holiday gifts to offset what teachers spend on their classrooms throughout the year. However, many parents I know donate time, classroom and party supplies, and support fundraisers throughout the year, and many teachers earn decent (though seldom extravagant) salaries with great benefits and pensions. Some districts have even banned parents from giving gifts to teachers to prevent undue influence and/or to spare families on tight budgets from feeling bad for not being able to contribute.

Truthfully, our family would love nothing more than to shower everyone in our world with gift cards from our awesome indie book store or some handmade loveliness from the talented peeps on But for various reasons, including our family’s annual cash-only holiday budget, we don’t.

Instead, we say thank you.

This year, my plan is to bake some mini pumpkin loaves and make photo cards with personal notes to my kids’ teachers and some other staffers.


Wait! Come back!

Don’t panic about the handmade gift ideas; this is not about being the parent who can out-Martha all the others, just as it’s not about being the parent who can spread the most gift cards around. Holiday giving shouldn’t be about running yourself ragged, stretching your family’s budget, or worse–going into debt in order to keep up with those spendy Joneses. The bottom line: don’t make obligatory or competitive gifting part your holiday grab bag. If you have the means to shower everyone with gift cards, great. But if you don’t, know that it’s possible to honor the spirit of this season with a heartfelt thanks.

I mentioned the “to gift or not to gift” issue to my friend, Kelly, who teaches third grade. She wrote:

I know that a note of appreciation for the job they are doing and the impact they are having on your kid means SO much more than ANY gift. I have a drawer filled with notes I have saved. When I am having a rough day in the class … nothing is better than pulling one of them out and reminding myself why I do what I do. I have no idea what gift was given to me by what family last year. Don’t spend your money… take the time and write a note!

What do you think? Share your thoughts and ideas for meaningful ways to give thanks to our educators and others in our communities.

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Comparison Between Breastfeeding And Formula Feeding

Comparison Between Breastfeeding And Formula Feeding

Just like buying the best pack and play for toddlers, choosing between breastfeeding and formula feeding is one of the toughest choice that new parent need to be make.

While breastfeeding is highly recommend by a number of health organizations such as the WHO, there are moms who could no breastfeed their babies due to their medical issues or personal problems.

In this article, I will provide you further information about these two types of feeding as well as their pros and cons. I hope that you will have a deeper insight about one of the most heated topic among parents.

Comparison Between Breastfeeding And Formula Feeding

Here is the list of the comparison between breastfeeding and formula feeding:

1/ In Term of Nutrients

Breast milk is rich in a lot of vitamins and minerals as well as protein and fat.  Formula milk also contains a lot of nutrients for the baby as well.

While breast milk contains most of the needed vitamins and minerals, it does not have a sufficient amount of vitamin D. In this case, you need to let your baby take vitamin D supplements until he is 1 year old.

However, in term of easy digestion, breast milk can win over formula. All of the breast milkís component including protein and fat can be easily digested, even by a small and weak digestion system of a new born baby.

In addition, breast milk can help your baby to explore different tastes from food you have during the day. And when the baby is introduced to different tastes, he will accept the strange foods more easily, making it convenient for you to introduce him to solid food.

2/ In Term of Support for the Immune System

Breast milk is packed with a significant amount of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory compounds, which are transferred from the mom. Therefore, breast milk helps to enhance and strengthen the immune system and is really effective against infections and chronic diseases.

Formula milk, on the other hand, does not provide any single form of antibiotics. Therefore, it cannot contribute to protect your baby from colds and sickness. Furthermore, some type of formula or in case you donít have access to clean water, can make your baby get sick and increase the risk of getting constipation.

Comparison Between Breastfeeding And Formula Feeding

3/ In Term of Cost

As you can clearly see, you donít have to prepare anything to breastfeed your baby while you have to buy a lot of baby bottles and bottle sanitizers, not to mention a huge amount of formula each month.

The only appliance that a breastfeeding mom might need is a pump and some storage bags. However, this appliance only cost for 2 or 3 month supply of formula.

4/ In Term of Convenience

For breastfed baby, whenever he wants the milk, even in the middle of the night, he can have it. It is also much easier for you as you only pull your shirt up and serve.

If you feed your baby with formula, you need to spend a lot of time washing the bottle and preparing the warm water to mix with the formula. All of these activities become a burden in a cold night.

Also imagine that if you need to go out with your baby for a long day, you need to bring formula and bottle with your, making your belongings bulkier.

However, if you opt for formula feeding, you can go out alone for a long day without bringing him with you. Just ask someone to come over and let him eat from a baby bottle.

5/ In Term of Setting Feeding Routine

For most parents, especially new parents, when they breastfeed their baby, they cannot tell if the baby has enough milk or not. Therefore, they end up in over-feeding or under-feeding their baby.

This thing seems to be much easier when your baby is formula feeding. You can easily check how much milk he has for one take and the total milk he has for a whole day.

By feeding your baby the right amount of milk, you can help him to set up a healthier feeding schedule.

Comparison Between Breastfeeding And Formula Feeding

6/ In Term of Bonding

Both of these methods can help you to spend quality time with your baby. When you feed him with your breast or from a bottle, remember to switch sides so that he will has chance to develop his sights and his brainís function.

Also try to look into his eyes and talk to him, these things will help to create a valuable quality time with your baby.

7/ In Term of Benefit for Mom

Breast milk can bring a lot of benefits for mom as well. For example, it helps you to lose a lot of calories of about 500 calories per day, which is equal to 4 to 5 kilometers of running.

Furthermore, breastfeeding your baby can help you to reduce the risk of getting cancer.

As you can see both breastfeeding and formula feeding have different pros and cons. The decision for choosing whichever way to feed your baby depends on your personal preference and your lifestyle. However, I cannot stress enough the importance of breastfeed your baby totally for the first 6 months.

I hope that with all of the information I provide, you will make the most informed choice that is beneficial for both of you and your baby.

This is a Guest Post by Alicia Martinez from – The place that you can find the advice, tips, guide, the knowledge and experiences about baby care and also help new parents to have a useful and exciting place to learn things about the baby and the best method to take care of them.

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