Ask a parenting expert: Eileen Hayes

Ask a parenting expert: Eileen Hayes.

As our parenting expert, Eileen is here to offer advice on a range of queries. As well as advice, she gives useful tips for parents.


I’m thinking of sending my daughter to a Montessori nursery. Is there any evidence that it’s a better way to educate children?

The model developed by Dr Maria Montessori in Italy was firmly based on research, and children educated by the Montessori method can have a very high standard of academic achievement.

Many of the activities are similar to normal nurseries, but the key principles on which it is based are that children are all individuals, and this is to be encouraged. It concentrates on nurturing each child’s natural potential, particularly that for creativity. Children can choose the activities they want to carry out and are not pushed or timetabled to finish them. There is greater freedom for the child to concentrate and complete a task. Children also work in mixed age groups which is believed to help them advance. There are still guidelines and social rules, but many children do flourish in this particular environment.

I was out shopping with my young daughter recently and I saw a mum shouting at and intimidating her young child, who was in tears. I really wanted to intervene. What is the PC thing to do when confronted with this?

It’s always tricky to know what to do for the best in these situations. If you go in very heavy handed and critical, it can make mums feel even worse, and not have the desired effect. Chances are, the mum is already stressed out to behave like this, and probably feels guilty straight after.

A two-pronged approach works well. Show the child you have empathy with how they are feeling and you don’t think it’s ok (best done by body language, not words) a smile and sympathetic look works well for a child. Try saying something to the mum along the lines of, ‘Is there anything I can do to help? I know what it’s like to be frazzled myself as I have a couple of kids’, to show some sympathy for her.

I’m really enjoying being a new mum, but am finding that I’m constantly worrying about my daughter’s health and safety to the point of being over-anxious all the time. How 
can I learn to relax and be more 
of a laid-back mum to her?

Many new mums – and dads –  feel just as you do. Nature has programmed us to be very concerned about our babies to ensure their survival. However, constant worry
activates the stress hormone, cortisol,
in the long-term, and can lower the 
immune system or make you ill. While accepting that it is probably
universal and necessary to worry about
your baby, it also makes sense to try and tone your responses down. Useful ways to relax include: Try repeating your antenatal
relaxation exercises. Take deep, slow breaths. 
Exercise – a brisk walk in the fresh air pushing the pram.

Also, take up all offers of help to give 
you some time to recharge your batteries – have a relaxing bath, get your hair done, 
or whatever would feel like a treat. As
your baby grows older, you should start
to feel more relaxed and less anxious.

I’m concerned about my sister-in-
law slapping her toddler on the leg
or bottom when he’s been naughty. Is this the right message to give a child? If not, how should I broach the subject?

Smacking is not helpful and gives all the wrong messages. It says that big people 
can hit little people to get their way or enforce a point of view – not something you want toddlers to copy with siblings or at nursery. As children grow they can become more defiant, not less, which leads to 
slapping harder and harder to get a result. This has real risks that a child can be hurt.Try speaking to your sister-in-law to see she has thought about the fact that her son is behaving normally.

The fact that all toddlers behave the same proves this, and parents need to be understanding about what makes them behave in ways adults call ‘naughty’
– usually frustration at things they can’t
do or the in-built desire to be independent. 

You could also chat to her about the
benefits of positive discipline. This means praising children when they do things that please you, and trying to ignore minor ‘naughty’ behaviour. Children raised in this way behave much better in the end, and have much better relationships with their parents too, so the whole family is happier.

My daughter is a real daddy’s girl and I’m the one at home with her all day, telling her no she can’t have another sweet or watch another DVD. Is it right to feel so jealous that when he gets home they just have fun together?

Many parents feel as you do – usually mums who are at home all day, but sometimes it’s dads too. It’s almost inevitable that, as the parent responsible for most of the childcare, you will be slightly taken for granted by your little one while your husband arriving home each evening has novelty value. Reassure yourself that this has nothing to do with how much your daughter really loves you. It’s only when a child has a very secure base – loving a parent and knowing they are loved back – that they feel able to be a little bit rejecting. To ease your jealousy, aim for more of a balance with her dad, so you both have time to play with her and she can see that you are someone to have fun with too.

My daughter-in-law wants her baby to be vegetarian like her. My son doesn’t seem to mind but I think it’s unfair to impose such a restriction 
on a child who can’t make his own choices. What can I do? The best thing you can do is probably to let the parents make their own decisions. It is hard for grandparents to keep quiet when they have strong views about any childcare matters, but it is usually best not to get involved and cause arguments. You could casually mention reading somewhere that it can be harder to have a balanced diet with all the nutrition children need, and have they checked with the health visitor? But you will probably find they know exactly how to achieve this. Your grandchild can, and most likely will, make his own decisions when he is older, and may or may not decide to stay vegetarian.  

My best friend’s three-year-old son
is autistic and I feel for her because
he can be such a handful. Recently
he had a major meltdown while we were in a shopping centre. I find myself getting frustrated with her because her tactic is always to try 
to appease him. Should I tell her 
she needs to be firmer? Your friend may resent your advice, as she
is living with the problem and has no doubt tried many different tactics. There is a wide range on the autistic spectrum, and some children will have few behaviour difficulties, while others will be a bit of a nightmare in any situation that they find difficult and strange. A busy shopping centre can be overwhelming for any child, but especially for one with autism. The best approach
with children with special needs is the positive parenting that works for any child.In fact, it is thought to be more essential. This may look like giving in, but parents have to minimise the meltdowns, and keep stress down for both themselves and the child. It is certainly necessary to have firm boundaries as this makes children feel safer, but it can be essential to be flexible on these if the alternative is a distressing and embarrassing situation in public..

How can I get my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter used to the idea of 
a little brother – due in three months – and still make her feel special? She’s already becoming clingy.

Reading books about new babies is always 
a good start, and involve her as much as possible – take her shopping for baby things, for example. Balance positive ideas about being a ‘big sister’ with honesty so she isn’t disappointed - tell her babies can be hard work and don’t play much at first. Let her practise on her own ‘baby’, pushing a pram, feeding and bathing, and point out friends’ new babies, to show how small they are. Set aside time just for her, now and after the birth, for a cuddle, or reading a story, and try to keep to her routine as much as possible.

My sister has just had her baby at 28 weeks, and he is quite poorly. Is there anywhere she can get help or advice?

Having a very premature baby can be a terrible shock for parents, while other family members often feel helpless. Luckily there’s a wonderful new DVD, Small Wonders, which covers topics such as holding a tiny baby, how to cope if you are separated from your baby, feeding independently and expressing milk, all of which are challenging when you have a very small or sick baby.

The DVD follows 14 families, and shows that you can come through this. The films aim to build parents’ confidence to feel that they can care for their babies, to help them understand what goes on in the neonatal unit, and to be brave enough to ask questions of staff.

They encourage parents to be at the centre of their baby’s care, which can make them feel a lot better. Most parents on a neonatal unit should now receive this DVD from their nurse or midwife. If your sister isn’t given one, ask the hospital about it. Or you can also get it direct from Best Beginnings, a charity that aims to make sure every baby has the best start in life. Send an e-mail to [email protected] for details.

On a recent visit to his cousin’s house, my son, who’s three, has picked up a swear word which he keeps repeating. What’s the best way to get him to stop?

When it comes to annoying behaviour like this, the best response by far is to ignore it as much as possible. Even paying attention by commenting on it, and asking him not to say it, can be a satisfactory reaction for your son; he will realise it’s important to you and be quite likely to keep saying it to see if he can produce the same response. Try substituting a nonsense word – if he says it again, say, ‘That’s a silly word, try saying “Jeepz!”’ Divert him into a new activity as soon as possible, so it seems that you are just moving on without much comment. He will soon get tired of it if he sees it gets very little reaction.

I’m having problems with my toddler who can be quite naughty and doesn’t respond to bribery! Can you suggest some positive tactics to try?

A lot of the behaviour displayed by toddlers is extremely challenging for parents. It helps to think that this is not really naughty, but normal for the age and stage of development. Your best tactics at this age are distraction and diversion, quickly moving on to another activity when she heads for the TV yet again, or offering another interesting toy in exchange for the phone he’s determined to play with.

A positive attitude, less shouting, and trying to see the funny side of behaviour works better than always telling them off. Lots of praise and small rewards for behaviour that pleases you, while trying to ignore things that don’t really matter, make for an easier time than constant battles.

I recently had a baby and have realised they don’t come with instructions! Do you know of any good DVDs or sources of help that I could investigate?

There’s a new NHS information service for parents which provides bite-sized pieces of information that have been approved by health professionals. This will give parents advice they can trust, covering everything from staying healthy in pregnancy, preparing for birth and looking after baby. There are hundreds of short video clips online on these topics, and you can also
sign up to get regular texts and emails. Visit The newly relaunched website and the NCT also have info on their websites.And if you like the idea of having advice to hand in the form of a DVD and endorsed by Professor Robert Winston, then I recommend The Essential Baby Care Guide. Containing four informative DVDs, help and guidance is given 
on feeding, sleeping, everyday care, development 
and first aid.
 The guide costs 
£35 from

Parenting Expert

Eileen is a highly experienced family counsellor and parenting coach. In addition to her Gurgle duties, she's the NSPCC's parenting adviser and author of several books.

To ask Eileen Hayes a question, please email below. Not all your questions can be answered but we will try to put up as many as possible.

[email protected]


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