New School Year: Tips on Starting and Staying Healthy
School's about to start and schedules will soon be filled with extra-curricular activities. That makes it hard to keep health top-of-mind. Here, experts at Duke University Medical Center advise how to ensure your child stays healthy throughout the year:
Wash Your Hands
Viral infections run rampant in classrooms, which may be why most children under six have eight to 12 respiratory infections per year.
"They play closely together, mouth their toys and touch one another," explains Coleen Cunningham, MD, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Duke. "Frequent handwashing is the best form of infection control out there."
Teach children to keep fingers, toys, and anything else out of their mouths. Use anti-bacterial wipes and cleansers to rid skin of germs.
If your child gets sick, don't despair. Most viral infections aren't serious. "They stimulate the immune system and can even teach kids a lesson or two in empathy," says Dr. Cunningham.
Play It Safe
More than 3.5 million children age 14 and under are injured playing sports or participating in recreational activities annually.
Remind children to wear helmets when wheels are under their feet. Insist that they wear protective equipment made for their sport, including mouth guards, which can protect against injuries that harm children's teeth, lips, cheeks, and tongues.
Keep Obesity at Bay
The CDC recommends children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day, but fewer than three percent of 15 year olds do. Encourage kids to be active daily, whether it's playing neighborhood games, through a community league, school activity, or other opportunities.
"Encourage them to stay active, and be a role model by showing them you enjoy an active, healthy lifestyle, too," says Sarah Armstrong, MD, a pediatric obesity specialist at Duke. "Suggest they try new things. Support their interests. That's how they will develop a lifelong habit of activity."
Get Enough Sleep
If you're having a hard time getting your child up each morning, join the club. As kids grow, they get sleepy later in the evening. But busy family schedules, little to no bedtime supervision and today's technology aren't helping.
"Too little sleep can negatively impact children's health and learning potential," says Michelle Bailey, MD, a pediatrician with Duke Integrative Medicine. "Lack of sleep interferes with a child's ability to concentrate, and may lead to school difficulties, behavior problems, and even misdiagnosis of attention deficit performance."
To ensure your child gets the recommended 10 hours of sleep each day, establish uniform bedtimes, avoid letting children eat late or drink caffeine in the evening, and reinstate bedtime rituals.
Keep Vaccines Up to Date
New vaccine recommendations aim to lower kids' risk for contracting whooping cough, which is occurring more frequently. Also known as pertussis, the bacterial infection is contagious and can be deadly if transmitted to infants. Children ages 10-13 now need a booster to protect them against diphtheria and tetanus, and a new Tdap vaccine offers protection against those infections as well as pertussis.
Doctors now recommend children get vaccinated against meningitis starting at ages 11 and 12. About 20 percent of people who contract the disease die, and approximately 50 percent of survivors suffer permanent damage. The new vaccine immunizes children against four of the five types of meningococcus bacteria and is more effective than the shot previously available.
Gardasil is a relatively new vaccine that targets four strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted virus that causes genital warts and most cases of cervical cancer. "Since these viral infections are rapidly acquired with sexual debut, it's recommended that girls receive this protection between the ages of 11 and 18, before embarking on sexual activities," says Samuel Katz, MD, chairman emeritus of pediatrics at Duke. "It will be many years before we can state with certainty that they will protect against cervical cancer, but the evidence is highly convincing that it does protect against the viruses that are responsible."
Do a Mental Health Check
By the time kids reach high school, their risk for starting bad habits such as smoking, drugs, and drinking rises dramatically. That's also the time when kids may engage in high-risk sexual behavior. Keeping the lines of communication open with your children is smart, and eating as a family is a good place to start.
According to Nancy Zucker, director of the Duke Eating Disorders Program, female teens with families who ate together were less likely to engage in substance abuse and disordered eating behavior. "So much happens at family meals," Dr. Zucker says. "Parents get the opportunity to prepare and observe healthy eating behaviors, teach family teamwork and communication skills. And adolescents can trust that there is a certain time each day when they have their parents' undivided attention to share the events of the day."