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  • The Italian Guide to Parenting
    Learn the essentials of being a mamma or papa' in the Boot
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Becoming a parent is a rite of passage – and usually a baptism by fire – in any country. But Italy, especially southern Italy, takes this whole parenting thing to a new level. There are countless unwritten rules that you won't know about until you break them. Believe me, then you'll know. Everyone will tell you, even and especially old ladies you have never met who see you with your child in the middle of the street.

    My nearly 3-year-old son and I have lived in Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples in Italy, periodically during his short life. And I regularly hear from those strangers in the strada. I could write a book of rules based on their comments. But I won't bother. I'll boil it down to the most important, so you know what to expect. Keep in mind that this is meant to be humorous so I'm exaggerating. Sort of. Not really.

    Rule #1 – Breastfeeding is the only option.
    Folks around here believe that mother's milk is the only food a newborn should have. Heck, they feel it's the only way to feed a 3-year-old. Many of the women take breastfeeding to great lengths, doing so well into a child's teens. Ok, maybe not that long but close. And if you don't breastfeed, you are looked upon as though you have five heads – and couldn't possibly love your child. This is true even if you don't make enough milk or have some problem with your milk, which is something many of the women I know have encountered.

    I'm a real American in that I believe mothers should have choice – formula, breast milk, both, whatever works for them. Your kid is going to turn out fine whichever route you take. What's most important is feeding our kids' love.

    Rule #2 – Anything cold is the work of the devil.
    When my son moved onto milk (far too soon for the Italians) at 1 year old, he was very American about it. He was a total milkaholic, wanting it in a sippy cup any chance he could get – and he wanted it cold from the fridge. Italians rarely, if ever, drink cold milk. They heat it. Always. We're not just talking about when you want to sleep. This is an every morning ritual. You also only drink milk in the morning for breakfast either heated on its own or heated in espresso. Giving a toddler cold milk is looked upon as something close to child abuse. So, I tried giving my son warm milk. The milkaholic spit it in my face. Then, he marched to the fridge, opened the door, and pointed to the cold stuff. Now, I secretly give him cold milk in the privacy of our apartment in Italy. Don't tell anyone that I give him cold water, too. That's considered attempted murder around here. Many people here believe ice cold water on a hot day will cause a heart attack because they believe that's how this one guy on the island died 155.3 years ago.

    Rule #3 – Dress for warmth no matter the weather.
    Women in Ischia have been wearing suede boots and high tops with their shorts for the last five years or so. My plastic flip flops – which shout to everyone here that I'm l'Americana – are looked upon with scorn. But wearing winter boots in the middle of summer (on an island that never sees snow, by the way) is perfectly normal – and fashionable even.

    Whatever rule has them wearing these shoes applies to babies because they need to have an undershirt, jacket, socks, and a blankie whenever they are outside in a stroller even in the middle of July. After all, a breeze might pass, which will cause the colpa d'aria or the touch of air, which will cause pneumonia or the sniffles, both of which can be fatal. This rule has one exception – the beach. On the beach, babies are pretty much naked. Newborns are fairly well covered because of the sun. But toddler boys wear a diaper and a speedo if they are lucky. And little girls wear only bathing suit bottoms (and no tops) until they are about 9 years old. No joke.

    As an American, I get it all wrong. My boy wears shorts and tees in the stroller (often with no socks or blankie) and he has a rash guard, boardwalk shorts suit, and hat (when he cooperates) with layers of sunblock at the beach.

    Rule #4 – Babies are wild when you don't give them enough chamomile tea.
    Chamomile tea is a panacea for Italians. They will give it to you for stomachaches, headaches, heartaches, whatever ails you. And they give it to babies, too. They'll put it right in a bottle. It's the one exception to mother's milk. If your baby is crying, he needs chamomile tea. Your toddler is having a tantrum, whip out that chamomile. He's bored; have him drink chamomile. The idea is that it will calm him and he'll sleep. They think it's like a baby sleeping pill or something. My son was willing to drink the stuff when they took away his formula after a 40-day bout of diarrhea in Italy, but he hasn't touched the stuff since. And it never helped any of us sleep. I wish.

    Rule #5 – When nothing else works, feed your baby pastina.
    In the United States, all my friends who became parents waited until the doctor gave the okay to introduce baby to oatmeal, usually around 4 or 5 months and there were all sorts of rules about how to introduce it. In Italy, if your baby isn't sleeping through the night at one month, your friends and family will tell you to start feeding him or her pastina before bed. In their opinion, pastina and chamomile will have the kid knocked out for a good 24 hours. I never tried this, but again I wish, as does every other sleepless mother in the world.

    Now that I've shared these rules with you, I probably will self-destruct. Since I admitted to not following any of these rules, I probably will get deported on the first flight back to the United States. But now we can all follow the rules when in Rome (or Ischia, whatever the case may be).

    Di Meglio writes the Italian Mamma blog and is the Newlyweds Expert for About.com. You can follow her on Twitter @ItalianMamma10.


    Article Published 7/14/2014

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