Keeping kids healthy takes vigilant parenting through each stage of childhood. When pregnant, first-time moms frequently read What to Expect When You’re Expecting and follow the nutritional and medical advice closely. Some move on to read about the next phase of their child’s life in What to Expect During the Toddler Years, then toss the books aside as they grow more confident in their parenting skills—and, perhaps, too busy trying to balance having children and a career.
Working parents pressed for time may catch themselves cutting corners at mealtime—opting for fast and convenient over home-cooked and healthy, or letting bedtime slide because they didn’t get to spend enough time with their kids that day; but the need for paying close attention to all of the things that impacts their child’s health doesn’t change as the parents’ time and energy resources decrease. To help keep busy parents on track, we asked local doctors for some quick tips and recommendations for keeping kids healthy.
Here’s our “Top 10” list
1 Physical activity
This one tops most everyone’s list for obvious reasons—especially when considering the dramatic increase in childhood obesity over the past two decades. Keeping children active has been linked to preventing obesity, increasing stamina and boosting the immune system, says Dr. Judith Gorra, of Beacon Pediatrics in Rehoboth Beach. How much physical activity do they really need?
“At least one hour of exercise every day,” says Dr. Renee Grob, Bayhealth Pediatrics Chair at Kent General Hospital. “It doesn’t have to be all at once, but it does need to be every day,” she says. “Show your kids how exercise can be fun. Put on some music and get them dancing. It’s good for their heart, digestion, muscle strength and overall health.”
It’s good for kids to get their hearts pumping—when the heart beats faster, it gets strong, explain Drs. Sandra Hassink and Doug Tynan, of Nemours, who also recommend at least 60 minutes each day.
Physical activity gives kids energy, helps with concentration and is a natural mood lifter, explain Hassink and Tynan. In addition to the health benefits of regular physical activity, active play also promotes children’s language, problem-solving, motor and social skills.
Keeping kids physically active leads to the next tip on the list.
Page 2: Physical Safety
2 Physical Safety
Before the kids head outdoors, protect them with sunscreen to prevent skin cancer, premature aging, and wrinkles. Apply it “liberally and frequently,” says Grob. Then make sure they’re wearing the proper protective gear. Helmets are a must when riding a bike, skateboard, or scooter. The same goes for skiing, snowboarding, and any high-impact sport.
“Protect their skulls and brains,” cautions Grob. Protect the curious younger kids from stairs, windows and other heights where they may fall; and if your child is an athlete who has suffered a concussion, don’t let him return to play until he is symptom-free.
Make safety a habit, say Hassink and Tynan: The car doesn’t move until everyone is buckled up. The bike doesn’t move until its rider is properly helmeted. No one touches the stove but mom and dad. Safety should be a rule—that’s how it becomes a habit.
Car safety includes using the proper car seat for your child. It’s not only good parenting, it’s the law. Delaware’s child restraint law mandates that all children be properly restrained in a federally approved child safety seat appropriate for the child’s age, weight and height up to 8 years of age or 65 pounds, whichever comes first. (For more information, visit Delaware’s Office of Highway Safety at ohs.delaware.gov.)
Safety issues reach far beyond helmets and seatbelts, though. Dr. Robert Olivieri, of First State Pediatrics in Hockessin, speaks to the next tip on our list.
Page 3: Personal Safety
3 Personal Safety
“Personal safety is something that every parent wants for their child, whether they are going off to kindergarten or a college campus,” Olivieri says. “The best way to accomplish this is for parents to start early, to teach by example, and to seize the moments when they can reinforce those lessons throughout childhood.
“Instructing your child about personal safety at each developmental stage is often uncomfortable for the parent and the child. Starting young allows the parent to lay the groundwork and lines of communication for future conversations and instruction,” Olivieri continues, reminding parents of younger children to have conversations about stranger danger, fire drills in the home, and dialing 911.
As kids get older, those personal safety conversations are equally—if not more—important. The talks with your kids about illicit drugs and under-age drinking, sex, STDs, and date rape are difficult, provoke anxiety, but need to be done.
“Children do understand that you are putting aside your discomforts even if you can’t hide it completely,” says Olivieri. “You are communicating that it is more important to you that they get the right information and that they are safe rather than anyone’s momentary discomfort. Starting young establishes a pattern that you are always available to be an ally, an advocate, a protector and a parent.”
Page 4: Good Hygiene
4 Good Hygiene
Protect kids of all ages from exposure to germs that can cause multiple illnesses by teaching them about good hygiene, Gorra says. More specifically, teach them to wash their hands well.
“Routine hand washing using soap and water for 15 to 20 seconds is key,” she says. “Singing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice takes 15 to 20 seconds and is an easy way to assure proper washing time.” Of course, always have them wash before sitting down to eat a meal—then make sure it’s a nutritious one.
Page 5: Family Meals
5 Family Meals
When you sit down to eat, do it as a family. Family dinners are a perfect time to connect with your kids, to find out what’s going on in their lives, to show them that you’re there to support them, and strengthen family bonds. “Meal time is a great time to actually talk with each other about just about anything,” says Gorra, but do it without the TV or other distractions. Use meal time as an opportunity to teach kids good values for Gorra believes “a child’s sense of self is perhaps the most important foundation in promoting overall health.”
Page 6: Proper Nutrition and “5 a Day”
6 Proper Nutrition and “5 a Day”
Getting proper nutrition is critical because it affects growth, brain functioning, and overall health. Start by “shopping the perimeter of the store,” says Gorra. That’s where you’ll find fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy, grains, meat and fish. The inner aisles are where you’ll find more processed foods, which you’ll want to avoid because they’re filled with artificial ingredients.
When preparing food, be sure it’s cooked properly. “Food born illness is prevalent but most cases can be avoided by cooking food properly,” Gorra says.
Helping kids understand the importance of eating right is important, so get kids involved in cooking and nutrition. “As the weather warms up, consider planting vegetables with your child and showing them that food does not ‘grow’ at the supermarket,” Gorra says. “Kids are more inclined to eat something they helped grow.” That’s good, because you’ll want them to be eating at least five fruits and vegetables per day for essential vitamins and minerals, fiber, antioxidants, to help maintain a healthy weight, and to aid digestion.
Plant-based foods give us the most nutritional bang for the buck, say Hassink and Tynan. If kids aren’t consuming fruits and vegetables, chances are they’re choosing to eat junk food instead and risking both their weight and their health.
The doctors suggest that parents may have to use a little creativity to encourage kids to eat their fruits and veggies: put berries on cereal, oatmeal or pancakes; add chopped apples, raisins or mandarin oranges to salad and Jell-O; offer low-fat dips and peanut butter for dipping; and add veggies to pizza, scrambled eggs and sandwiches.
Page 7: Immunize
Breastfeeding a baby provides good nutrition and good medical care.
“Breast milk provides immunity to your newborn as well as natural building blocks for growth and development,” says Grob. “Plus it’s cheap and readily available.” Then “immunize, immunize, immunize. Protect your kids from deadly and debilitating diseases, and immunize yourself to protect your newborns and your children.”
Follow the immunization recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Since the start of widespread vaccinations in the United States, Hassink and Tynan explain, the number of cases of formerly common childhood illnesses like measles and diphtheria have declined dramatically. Immunizations have protected millions of kids from potentially deadly diseases and saved thousands of lives. The benefits of immunizations far outweigh the risk of side effects, which are rare, but concerned parents should speak with their child’s physician.
Page 8: Limit Screen Time and Get Outdoors
8 Limit Screen Time and Get Outdoors
Limit TV viewing, video games, and Internet surfing or Facebook time to no more than two hours per day, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP); and children under the age of 2 should not have any screen time at all. “When viewing TV programs, promote those that send a positive message and videos games that are activity focused,” says Gorra.
Better yet, unplug and get outdoors in a natural setting for at least 30 minutes per day, as Hassink and Tynan suggest. Outdoor play encourages children to use their imaginations and explore their world, which might help them become more creative and flexible thinkers, they say. The great outdoors can provide children with precious and transformational experiences.
Page 9: Drink Water
9 Drink Water
A 20-ounce bottle of soda contains the equivalent of 17 teaspoons of sugar, and other drinks are sugary offenders, too, including fruit drinks, sweetened iced tea, lemonade, and sports drinks. The consumption of sugary drinks has been linked to an increased risk for obesity, say Hassink and Tynan, so try to limit those beverages to just two per week and encourage everyone in the family to drink water and fat-free or low-fat milk. Even 100 percent juice should be limited to 4-8 ounces per day. Our bodies are made mostly of water, with cells consisting of 60 to 90 percent water by weight, so drink plenty of it.
Page 10: Sleep
Lack of adequate sleep is connected with a host of factors that affect everyday functioning such as headaches, low energy, problem behaviors, and poor school performance, say Hassink and Tynan, who recommend removing TVs from bedrooms, and turning off all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Use that time to read to your child. And keep in mind that when kids are moderately to vigorously physically active during the daytime, they often feel better, sleep better and think more clearly. The hours needed for adequate sleep vary by ages. The National Sleep Foundation (sleepfoundation.org) recommends 10-11 hours for school children, ages 5-12, and more for younger children.
There are limitless tips for raising healthy kids. The 10 tips listed provide good guidelines, but remember to consult with your physician to be sure you’re doing everything you need to do to keep your child’s good health on track.