By now, you have probably started your back-to-school routine of shopping for supplies, attending open houses, and reviewing team sports schedules. But just as important as buying new folders and coordinating the carpool is setting your children up for good health and wellness when school begins.
Want some extra credit? Summit Health pediatrician Aashiki Shah, DO, offers some ABCs — and a bonus “D” — to help keep your children healthy, safe, and productive this school year.
A – Adopt healthy habits. Making smart food choices, staying active, and getting quality sleep fuel busy schedules. Start and end the day with these tips:
- Eat a well-balanced diet, beginning with breakfast. Mornings can be hectic, so make sure your child has time to fuel up with the most important meal of the day. A healthy and hearty breakfast provides the boost a growing body needs to start the day off right. Studies show that children who eat a nutritious breakfast concentrate better and have more energy. Dr. Shah also encourages this first meal to contain some protein.
In general, promote a diet that includes fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. These foods include nutrients young bodies need to function well and grow. Dr. Shah says to scan the school cafeteria’s offerings with this in mind and to discourage meal-skipping. “Hunger can affect a child’s performance and motivation,” she says.
- Limit sugary drinks. Some sodas and energy drinks can pack an unnecessary punch of added sugar, calories, and caffeine, which can lead to weight gain, cavities, or trouble sleeping. Instead, quench your kids’ thirst with water, 100% fruit or vegetable juice, low-fat or fat-free milk, or unsweetened milk alternatives.
- Get moving. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends children and adolescents, ages 6 to 17, get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Make time after school or dinner to get moving as a family. “Get kids involved in after-school programs to keep them active,” suggests Dr. Shah.
- Establish good sleep hygiene. Poor sleep can lead to problems such as difficulty concentrating, obesity, and even depression. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 10 to 12 hours of sleep per night for younger children and eight to 10 hours for adolescents.
Dr. Shah advises parents to establish a sleep schedule one to two weeks before school starts. “This will allow children to adapt back to their school wake-up time and bedtime,” she says. Another way to promote good sleep quality is by having a routine, such as a bath or reading with your child before bed. The National Sleep Foundation also recommends limiting screen time at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
B – Be cool and careful. Many parts of the U.S. are experiencing heat waves this summer, and above-average temperatures can persist into late August and September. As children head outside for recess and sports, Dr. Shah offers advice for hot days:
- Practice sun safety. “Have kids wear breathable clothing and hats. They should also continue to use sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher,” she says. Seek shade while outside, especially midday when the sun’s rays are the strongest.
- Stay hydrated and take regular breaks. “Kids are at risk for dehydration, which can manifest with headaches, low energy levels, warm skin with elevated body temperatures, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and even rash,” cautions Dr. Shah. “If spending time outside for prolonged periods, ensure kids are given adequate breaks, and always keep water or hydrating electrolyte drinks on hand to prevent heat-related illness.”
C – Connect at home. Returning to school can be an exciting time, but children can also experience stressful moments. Academic and social pressures can impact both their mental and physical health. A recent report from the CDC shows the COVID-19 pandemic has also taken an additional toll on the mental health of both children and adolescents.
Dr. Shah encourages parents to check in with their children regularly and offer support. Talking about current events, family stressors, or changes your child is experiencing can build self-awareness and help identify potential challenges.
“Encourage your kids to verbalize their emotions,” she says. “Express and normalize getting help for any mental health concerns.”
D – Defend against germs and illness. Two very simple, yet important, self-care steps can help protect your family’s health and minimize missed days of school or even work. Dr. Shah advises parents to:
- Teach proper handwashing. This includes using soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. Remember to wash your hands before eating and after blowing your nose, going to the bathroom, or touching objects handled by others. When soap and water aren’t available, the CDC recommends using a hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol.
- Stay up to date on vaccines. Check with your pediatrician to ensure your child is current with all recommended immunizations, such as influenza (flu), measles, and tetanus. You can also reference the CDC’s immunization schedules for children ages 6 and younger and ages 7 to 18.
Be mindful that COVID-19 infections are on the rise again. “Children returning to crowded classrooms have high chances of repeated COVID-19 exposure and infections,” Dr. Shah cautions. The CDC currently recommends COVID-19 vaccines for everyone ages 6 months and older and boosters for everyone ages 5 and older, if eligible.
“Given vaccinations are available, parents should take advantage of this opportunity to help protect our youngest and most vulnerable populations,” says Dr. Shah.
In addition to all these health tips, simply encouraging a positive outlook can help get the year off to a great start. Dr. Shah says one way to do this is the back-to-school shopping trip. “Allow your kids to have a relaxed shopping experience. Let them choose their supplies — a backpack, their lunchbox — to help increase their excitement about returning to school,” she adds.