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Hello, Dr. Mom: Top tips for keeping your whole family healthy
Doctors who are also mothers offer real-world ways to boost kids’ health.
When it comes to your own kids, you’re the expert. You know them better than anyone. But we’ll help you kick it up a notch. We’ve asked two real-life moms who are also real-life doctors for their best health tips.
Stephanie Peterson, MD, is an internal medicine doctor and a chief medical officer for Optum Health. And she’s mom to 12-year-old Jessica. Tania Miedico, MD, is a family physician and a senior medical director for Optum Health. Plus, she’s the mother of five kids who range in age from 4 to 19.
The first bit of advice: “Trust your instincts. If you’re worried, listen to your gut,” says Dr. Peterson. But your instincts are just the beginning. The more you know about children’s health, the better. There’s a link between how much parents know about health and their kids’ well-being.1
Brush up on your skills with these expert tips.
1. Go outside and play.
Exercise can help kids keep their hearts healthy, build strong bones and manage their weight. It also helps their mind and emotions. And it helps lower the chance of getting diabetes or high blood pressure.2
Playing outdoors is even better. It can help improve kids’ motor skills, focus, and impulse control. And it’s been linked to lower risk of obesity and certain eyesight problems. That’s according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).3 Best of all, it can make the whole family healthier. In a study, dads who played with their kids increased their physical activity by 17 minutes daily.4
Dr. Mom’s tip: Dr. Peterson used to wake up her young daughter a few minutes early. They took a 5-minute walk together. “That helped her get the juices flowing. She had an easier time doing the things she needed to do after our walk.”
2. Cook a healthy meal together.
Making a meal with kids helps build their confidence, teach life skills and make healthier food choices.5 In one study, kids who helped prepare family meals ate more healthy foods.6
Dr. Miedico makes meal prep a family event. “Every Monday, my 12- and 13-year-olds take turns making dinner,” she says. “We may end up eating pasta most Mondays, but it gives them that responsibility and prepares them to be on their own.”
Dr. Mom’s tip: Grow a garden, suggests Dr. Miedico. A 2020 study shows that kids who help with a family garden eat more fruits and vegetables.7 “We started small, with a basil plant,” Dr. Miedico says. “Now we grow raspberries, avocados and blackberries. It’s fun to show kids how good fruit tastes when you pluck if from the tree.”
Gardening helps kids try new, healthier foods. You can grow tomatoes in a pot outside or herbs by your kitchen window.
3. Find time to laugh together.
Sharing a giggle with your child is a great way to bond. Laughing can reduce stress and improve mental health, too.8 Make time during the day to have some fun. Maybe telling jokes cracks your kid up. Or they love hearing silly family stories. Or you might bond over watching a funny show or video together.
Dr. Mom’s tip: Laughter really is the best medicine. “I ask my daughter Jessica what the best part of her day was,” says Dr. Peterson. “Some days are better than others, but I want to help her look for the positive. It usually makes us laugh about something that happened.”
4. Keep teeth healthy.
The most common long-term disease for kids is cavities.9 They can cause pain, infection and lost school days if they’re not treated. “This is a tough one for everybody,” says Dr. Peterson. “It gets tiresome hearing mom say, ‘Go brush your teeth!’”
The good news: There are ways to help your kids take charge of their mouth health. “When Jess was little, we used a singing toothbrush,” says Dr. Peterson. “She had to keep brushing her teeth as long as it sang.”
Dr. Mom’s tip: Teach by example, says Dr. Miedico. Let them see you brush and floss. “Your kids are always watching. They take their cues from you,” she says. “My daughter notices if I don’t floss and she lets me know. You can help them create good habits.”
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5. Get ahead of health problems.
Staying on top of regular doctor check-ups can help keep your family healthy for years to come. Another key move? Be prepared to handle minor mishaps like scraped knees and rashes when they crop up.
- Schedule checkups for the kids (and yourself).
- Talk to your child’s doctor about which shots (vaccines) they need and when to get them.
- Keep a full first-aid kit at home. Tell everyone in the family where it is. You might also want to keep a first-aid kit in your car.
Shop for home first-aid essentials at the Optum Store, including OTC medications, bandages and more. And have it all delivered to your door.
Dr. Mom’s tip: Is your child scared of getting shots? Find ways to help them stay calm. “Jess was terrified of shots,” says Dr. Peterson. So Dr. Peterson would sit with her until she felt ready. “Kids need their vaccines, but they need to feel they have some control too,” she says. Patience is key.
6. Limit screen time.
Today’s children spend an average of seven hours a day on electronic devices, says the AAP.10 Computers, smartphones, tablets and video games are part of everyday life for families.
But too much screen time can be bad for kids’ health. It can cause sleep problems, increase the risk for obesity and depression, and more.11
That's why setting limits on screen time in your family is important. For example, you might allow your child to spend an hour playing video games after school, but only after their homework is done. The limits you set will depend on the age of your kids and your family’s habits.
It’s a good idea to have screen-free zones at home too. Set a rule that no one (even Mom and Dad) can use their phones at the dinner table. And children should not sleep with devices in their bedrooms, says the AAP.
Dr. Mom’s tip: Enforcing rules at home can be a challenge. Expect that kids will try to get around them. But talking openly is important. “My daughter and I have an unwritten rule that I can look at her social media history at random times,” says Dr Peterson. “I also tell her if she ever sees something that disturbs her, she is to come tell me.”
7. Get plenty of sleep.
One study found that school-age kids who didn’t get enough sleep had more depression and anxiety than their well-rested classmates. Their thinking skills were lower, too.12 Less sleep is also linked to obesity.13 Here’s how much sleep experts recommend:14
- 4 months to 12 months old: 12 to 16 hours
- 1 to 2 years old: 11 to 14 hours
- 3 to 5 years old: 10 to 13 hours
- 6 to 12 years old: 9 to 12 hours
- 13 to 18 years old: 8 to 10 hours
Dr. Mom’s tip: Bedtime is all about routine at Dr. Miedico’s house. “We tuck them in every night,” she says. “The youngest likes his blankets in a certain order. For the older kids, it’s about making sure the devices are off and the homework is finished. We have a strict policy of no devices in the bedroom.”
8. Mind your mental health.
“Mental health is no different than physical health,” says Dr. Peterson. Talk openly with your kids about it. Remind them that they would need to get help if they broke a bone. And it’s the same with feelings of anxiety or depression.
Almost 6 million children between ages 3 and 17 have anxiety. More than 2 million kids have depression.15 Often, kids have more than one mental health condition at the same time. For example, about 3 out of every 4 kids with depression also have anxiety. These tips can help:
- Listen for word clues. For example, a child might say they’re “frustrated” instead of “anxious.”
- Check in about how they’re feeling. Try chatting on the way to school or at bedtime.
- Teach them ways to cope with feelings. “It might be counting backwards. Or tapping their fingers,” says Dr. Peterson. “It helps to have a toolbox of strategies ready in the moment.”
Dr. Mom’s tip: Remember, your kids are taking cues from you, says Dr. Peterson. You can show them how to cope. “When I was grieving, I showed Jessica it’s OK to be sad. She saw me feeling bad and then noticed I was back to normal later. She learned that sadness passes. It won’t last forever.”
- BMC Public Health. Parental health literacy and health knowledge, behaviours and outcomes in children: a cross-sectional survey. Published July 13, 2020. Accessed March 26, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical activity facts. Published June 26, 2022. Accessed March 27, 2023.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. target="_blank"Playing outside: Why it’s important for kids. Last updated 4/19/2023.Accessed April 23, 2023.
- BMC Public Health. Effects of a family-based lifestyle intervention on co-physical activity and other health outcomes. Published February 15, 2023. Accessed March 27, 2023.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. 5 great reasons to cook with your kids. Last updated 11/17/2020. Accessed April 1, 2023.
- Journal of Human Nutrition and Diet. Involvement of children in hands-on meal preparation and the associated nutrition outcomes: a scoping review. Published May 28, 2021. Accessed March 24, 2023.
- International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. Garden-based interventions and early childhood health: an umbrella review. Published September 22, 2020. Accessed March 22, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reduce stress in 10 minutes and improve your well-being. Last reviewed October 6, 2022. Accessed March 28, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children’s oral health. Published April 6, 2022. Accessed March 23, 2023.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. Media and children. Last update June 4, 2021. Accessed April 21, 2023.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. Constantly connected: How media use can affect your child. Last updated June 20, 2022. Accessed April 20, 2023.
- The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health. "Effects of sleep duration on neurocognitive development in early adolescents in the USA: a propensity score matched, longitudinal, observational study. Published July 29, 2022. Accessed April 11, 2023.
- Sleep Foundation. Children and sleep. Last updated March 29, 2023. Accessed April 11, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control. Do your children get enough sleep? Published March 15, 2021. Accessed March 24, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control. Data and statistics on children’s mental health. Published March 8, 2023. Accessed March 23, 2023.
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