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How do you raise a healthy child?

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There are plenty of things you can do to help your child grow strong and healthy. But which ones really make a difference? We’ll help you figure out the basics of children’s health.

What’s a parent’s top priority? It’s to keep their child healthy, of course. But figuring out exactly how to reach that goal isn’t always straightforward. After all, to raise a healthy child, you need to stay on top of a wide range of issues. You want to make sure your child eats well, is physically active and spends time outdoors. You don’t want your child to get sick or injured. You’ll also want to keep an eye on your child’s mental health. Sound overwhelming? Don’t worry, we’re here to help. We talked to top pediatricians about how to help you better handle your child’s health. Read on to find out what you need to know to make good health a habit.

How do I know if my child is healthy?

“Your child’s health isn’t just physical,” says Lloyd Fisher, MD, a pediatrician in Worcester, Massachusetts. He’s also the associate medical director for informatics at Reliant Medical Group, part of Optum. How does your kid feel emotionally? How are they doing in school? Do they have good relationships? These are all ways to know if your child is healthy and happy. And the best way to tell if your child is healthy? Make sure you stay up to date with routine exams.

At these visits, your pediatrician will be able to view your child with an expert eye. The doctor will likely check your child’s heart and lungs. They will also make sure your kiddo’s height and weight are on track.

“We also look at your child’s emotional and mental health,” says Dr. Fisher. Are there any changes in your kid’s behavior or school performance? These changes could be a part of their development. Or they could be a sign that something more worrisome is going on,” says Dr. Fisher. “If you notice major changes in your child, bring it up with your pediatrician.”

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How do I get my child to eat healthy?

Trying to get your kid to eat well is no easy job. “But there are some tips that can help your child enjoy healthy foods,” says John Good, MD. He’s a pediatrician with Optum in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

  • Be a healthy eating model. Let your child follow suit. You might say, “Yum, these strawberries are delicious, would you like one?” “If you’re serious about good healthy food, your kids are more likely to be, too,” says Dr. Good. “Don’t argue with your kid about food because you’re going to lose.”

  • Serve healthy food options. “If food comes from a farm, the ground, or a tree, it’s going to be good for you,” explains Dr. Good. “If food comes from a factory, it’s likely to be processed and is something you should try to stay away from.” Teach your kids early to seek out whole foods.

  • Put the brakes on sugary drinks. “They can add up to a lot of empty calories,” says Dr. Good. This even applies to fruit juice. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers the following juice rules:

    1. Kids ages 4 through 6 should have no more than 4 to 6 ounces of juice daily.
    2. Kids ages 7 and up should have no more than 8 ounces, or 1 cup, daily.1

How much physical activity does my child need?

Does your kid seem to have a ton of energy? That’s a good thing. Your little kid (ages 3 to 5) should be playing on the jungle gym, jumping, running or dancing during the day. That’s according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).2

What if you have an older kid? Aim for at least 60 minutes of exercise every day. “Your child should be doing activities that raise their heart rate,” says Craig Keanna, MD. He’s a pediatrician and regional medical director at ProHealth Physicians, part of Optum, in Wallingford, Connecticut. “Kids also need to do activities that strengthen their muscles and bones,” he says. Here are some ideas:

  • Walking, running, swimming, or anything that makes the heart beat faster, says Dr. Keanna.

  • Climbing on the jungle gym or doing the monkey bars, which helps build muscles.

  • “Jumping or running helps build strong bones,” says Dr. Keanna. That’s because these activities create an impact. That force helps bones grow and get strong.

If your child loves organized sports, great. But they don’t have to be a star athlete to be active. They can do spurts of different kinds of exercise during the day to add up to 60 minutes. The benefits of making this time to move are huge. Exercise can lower the chance of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and developing brittle bones. And kids who exercise tend to have better memory and focus. They may even get better grades in school.2

Why are vaccines so important?

Before vaccines, many diseases used to cause severe illness and even death in kids. Today, illnesses like measles, polio and diphtheria are rare because there are shots that prevent them.

The CDC has a schedule of recommended vaccines for children. The specific shots vary by age and health history. But the CDC recommends that all children 6 months and older receive both a flu shot and a COVID-19 shot each year.3,10

Work with your doctor to make sure your child is up to date on routine childhood vaccinations, says Dr. Fisher. If you have questions or concerns, your pediatrician will be able and happy to answer them.

How can I teach my kids good hygiene?

Are you nagging your kids to brush their teeth? Or does it feel like days of stink build up before your kid will bathe? Many kids don’t understand that it’s important to keep their bodies clean. So start teaching these habits early. Then they become a normal part of your child’s day. You’ll be glad you did, especially once puberty hits.

What if your kid refuses to follow your directions? “The pediatrician can play a role here,” says Dr. Good. Before your child’s next wellness exam, call your pediatrician. Ask them to talk to your child about brushing and washing. The advice from them might have more of an impact.

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What role does screen time have in my child’s health?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that kids under the age of 2 should stay away from screens (except for video chatting). Kids over 2 should limit screen time to one hour of high-quality content per day.4 But the reality is murkier.

“It’s especially difficult to rein in screen time lately. During the height of the pandemic, screen time was sometimes all the kids had. And a lot of us loosened up on those rules,” says Dr. Good. But too much screen time is linked with poor health in young kids. Obesity, poor sleep patterns and delays are linked to too much screen time.4 To get your kids back on track, try these strategies:

  • Create a family media plan. Base it on your children’s ages, personalities and health. You might create screen-free zones in the house. You can set time limits. And you can agree on what types of apps or videos are OK.5 Another good idea: “Put phones away during dinner so you can talk as a family without screens,” says Dr. Good. The goal is to set the priorities that work best for your family.

  • Watch with your kids to make sure the video content is a good fit.

  • Don’t let screen time get in the way of other important activities. It’s not just the screen time itself that can be harmful. “It’s what you’re not doing when you’re spending too much time on the screen,” says Dr. Good. “You’re not exercising, spending time with friends or developing all those other important skills you would be if you were spending time face-to-face.”

How do I help my child get enough sleep?

Helping your child get enough rest is one of the best ways to help them stay healthy. Kids ages 3 to 5 need between 10 and 13 hours of sleep per 24-hour-period (including naps). Kids ages 6 to 12 need between 9 and 12 hours of sleep per night.6

To ease your child off to dreamland and help ensure a solid night’s sleep, try these tactics7:

  • Make sure that your kid sticks to the same sleep schedule. That means you should aim for your child to go to sleep and wake up at the same times each day — even on weekends. Doing so will help regulate your kid’s internal clock. Then they will be naturally sleepy at bedtime and alert in the morning.

  • Keep your child’s bedroom cool and dark. That helps the body switch to sleep mode.

  • Steer clear of bright lights the hour or two before bedtime. Be sure to remove electronic devices, too. The blue light they emit can be very disruptive to sleep.

  • Don’t feed your child heavy meals close to bedtime. It can be hard to sleep while digesting a large amount of food.

  • Try to create a bedtime routine that relaxes your child. For instance, read a story or sing a song. A warm bath before bedtime can help calm your child, too.

  • Make sure your child gets some exercise during the day. This can help them sleep more soundly at night.

What are some common childhood illnesses and their symptoms?

A few of the most common illnesses kids tend to get are:

  • Upper respiratory infections like colds. Symptoms include runny or stuffy nose, cough, sore throat and fever.8,9

  • Stomach bugs. Symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, muscle aches and fever.

  • Flu. Symptoms include chills, muscle aches, fever, weakness, sore throat, dry cough, headache and sometimes vomiting.

  • COVID-19. In kids there may be no symptoms or mild cold-like symptoms and loss of taste or smell. Very rarely, children may develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome. That can cause severe inflammation and requires medical attention.

What do all these infections have in common? They are all caused by a virus. They can’t be treated with antibiotics. To manage a viral illness, you typically need to let the infection run its course. Rest, fluids and over-the-counter medicines are the best treatment.

The key to managing viral infections, says Dr. Good, is to pay attention to the pattern of the illness. “Most viruses cause symptoms over two to three days. Then the symptoms peak and subside, getting better over another two to three days,” he says. “But if your child’s illness does not follow that normal pattern — their symptoms peaked and they are not getting better — then call your pediatrician.”

It is possible that your child has a secondary bacterial infection. Often, it’s an ear infection or sinus infection. These infections can be treated with antibiotics.

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What are some ways that I can help keep my child safe while playing outdoors?

Playing outside should be fun — and safe. Here’s how to maximize their play and prevent injuries.

  • Slather on sunscreen with at least SPF 30. The sun’s rays are the most powerful between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.8 But your kiddo should be using sunscreen any time of day while outdoors, even when it’s cloudy. And don’t forget to have them wear a wide-brimmed hat for extra protection from the sun.

  • Got wheels? If your kid is on a bicycle, a skateboard or a scooter, then they should be wearing a helmet. It can help protect against a concussion if they fall. Skaters should wear wrist, elbow and knee pads, too.

  • Drink up, especially on hot days. Drinking lots of water will help keep heat exhaustion and heatstroke from happening. Signs of heat exhaustion or heatstroke include headaches and feeling tired or dizzy. The amount of water your child should drink depends on their age, size and activity level. And don’t forget to factor in the heat and humidity levels.

The AAP suggests the following water intake rules for kids:

  • Ages 1 to 3 need about 4 cups of water (or milk) a day

  • Ages 4 to 8 need about 5 cups daily

  • Ages 9 and older need about 7 to 8 cups (if kids ages 9 to 12 are exercising intensely or sweating, they need to drink about 3 to 8 ounces of water every 20 minutes)9

Don’t forget about supervision. As your child gets older, you may need to supervise them less. But always keep a close eye, especially if your child is on a trampoline or near water.

What are signs that my child may have a developmental delay?

“A big part of the pediatrician’s job at well checkups is to make sure children are on track with development,” says Dr. Good.

One of the ways doctors do this is by having parents fill out brief surveys about their children’s behavior. These questionnaires can flag possible issues in speech, gross or fine motor skills, and signs of autism. “As pediatricians, we’ll also interact with your child or play on the floor,” says Dr. Good. “We do it not just because we like your child but also because we’re using our skills to learn about your child’s development.”

But if you or a teacher have a concern, bring it up with your pediatrician. The doctor may send you to a specialist for further evaluation.

How would I know if my child is anxious or depressed?

Your pediatrician can be a big help here as well. Starting at age 11, your child will be given a screening form to fill out at well checkups. Answering the questions can help figure out if your child is depressed or anxious.

But don’t wait for a yearly appointment if you need help. You can keep tabs on your kid’s emotional health year-round. Dr. Good says to look out for these behaviors below from your child.

  • Irritability, anger or sadness that lasts for weeks
  • Pulling away from friends
  • A lack of interest in activities your child used to be excited about
  • A decline in academics
  • A change in eating patterns
  • Sleep changes
  • Negative self-talk (saying things like “I wish I’d never been born” or “I hate myself”)
  • Self-harm

If you notice any of these issues, let your child know you’re available to talk. You can also make an appointment with your pediatrician. Or you can ask your doctor for the name of a therapist.

“Check in with your kids every single day,” says Dr. Good. “Ninety-nine out of 100 times, you might get an angry door slammed in your face, which can be typical. But it could be that 100th conversation that will be an important one. So keep checking in because your child is going to get the message that you have their back, and that cannot be said enough.”

If you need some help getting your child to open up, try these conversation starters.

How do I help my child create healthy friendships?

We can’t force our kids into friendships. But there are ways that parents can create the space for friendships to flourish. For instance, have your child invite other kids over for playdates or to hang out, says Dr. Good. If your child is younger, you’ll be the one planning the dates with other parents. So seek out kids that your child consistently enjoys.

As your child gets older, they will start initiating more of the meetups. But try to steer them toward kids that seem to make them feel good about themselves. Is your kid having a hard time making connections? Sign her up for group activities, like sports teams, the school play or dance classes. These activities will allow your child to meet a range of kids who share similar interests. And that could be just the spark your child was looking for.

The habits you help your child create now will support their health for years to come. And the more involved you are in making sure your child is physically, mentally, emotionally and developmentally healthy, the happier your child,and your family,will be.

Sources

  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Fruit juice in infants, children, and adolescents: Current recommendation. Published June 1, 2017. Accessed June 28, 2022.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much physical activity do children need? Published June 3, 2022. Accessed June 28, 2022.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Child and adolescent immunization schedule: Recommendations for ages 18 years or younger, United States, 2022. Published February 17, 2022. Accessed June 28, 2022.
  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. Media use in school-aged children and adolescents. Published November 1, 2016. Accessed June 28, 2022.
  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. Where we stand: screen time. Published November 11, 2016. Accessed June 28, 2022.
  6. American Academy of Pediatrics. Healthy sleep habits: How many hours does your child need? Published November 16, 2020. Accessed June 28, 2022.
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Do your children get enough sleep? Published March 15, 2021. Accessed June 28, 2022.
  8. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Practice safe sun. Published April 18, 2022. Accessed June 28, 2022.
  9. American Academy of Pediatrics. Choose water for healthy hydration. Published January 27, 2020. Accessed June 28, 2022.
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Interim COVID-19 immunization schedule for 6 months of age and older. Published June 29, 2022. Accessed July 13, 2022.

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