Most parents believe that their most critical job is to keep their children healthy and safe and for many generations, parents were happy to achieve this.
Many standards of parenting have risen to “Pinterest levels” and overbooked schedules, yet Dr. Hassan Alzein of Alzein Pediatrics in Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn, Illinois, says these same two priorities are still on the top of the list for parents.
“There are some illnesses that your child is bound to contract throughout the years, such as the common cold, strep throat, or the stomach flu,” says Dr. Alzein. “Some illnesses are just unavoidable. There are, however, five things parents can do to minimize the risk of illness or, when a child does contract an illness, make the symptoms and complications less severe.” Here are the suggestions:
1. Don’t Skip Well-Child Visits/Immunizations
Dr. Alzein understands that if your child appears to be healthy and thriving, it’s easy to avoid these recommended well-child visits. However, these visits are just as important as when kids are ill. “Having your pediatrician examine and evaluate your child when they are healthy will help catch any developmental delays, early warning signs of illness, or chronic health conditions.”
“The American Academy of Pediatrics has outlined well visits from birth to 21 years of age. Your pediatrician’s office will help you make and keep these recommended appointments. Vaccinations are safe and proven to save our children’s lives, protecting against life-threatening and life-altering illnesses,” says Dr. Alzein.
However, if you have concerns about your child, their health, or their development, Dr. Alzein says not to wait until a well-visit appointment; instead, bring your concerns to your child’s pediatrician as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent severe delays or complications.”
When you adhere to the AAP well visit schedule, your child is also much more likely to stay current on their vaccinations. “This schedule is carefully constructed to ensure the vaccines are administered in the most effective way for a child’s developing immune system. Staying current on the vaccination schedule is the best way to prevent illness,” says Dr. Alzein.
2. Serve a Healthy Diet
“You are what you eat” is probably the most accurate way to describe how parents should think about a healthy diet for their family. Eating a balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables at every meal, as well as protein and carbohydrates, is the best way to give the body what it needs to thrive.
“We also strongly recommend avoiding processed foods, avoiding excess sugar and sodium. Going through a drive-through once in a while is okay, but having fast food as a daily (or near-daily) habit will cause long-term and negative health conditions for your child. Multiple research studies have shown that consuming heavily processed food leads to unhealthy weight gain and puts people at an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes,” says Dr. Alzein.
At every meal, make sure to serve your child a vegetable and a fruit, making sure they eat that – even just a few bites – before eating any other foods, and most especially before any dessert.
Instead of the fast-food line, try to pack lunches (which will also save money!) with whole fruits such as bananas and apples. Make sure breakfasts contain protein and avoid the sugary cereals that will give kids a burst of energy, but bring a crash mid-morning, as they are not a good source of nutrition.
Dr. Alzein and team also recommend:
- Protein: homemade chicken nuggets, seafood, beans, peas, and unsalted nuts
- Fruits: fresh, canned, frozen, or dried
- Vegetables: several times a day in an assortment of colors (the more color, the better!)
- Grains: whole grain bread and rice, oatmeal, and popcorn
- Dairy: yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, and milk at meals
Grandparents today laugh because they cannot remember a time in their childhood when they carried a water bottle around everywhere they went – sometimes not even at sports practice. Dr. Alzein says, “We know the importance of water today and more and more parents make sure children have water easily accessible.”
There are plenty of physical benefits to staying hydrated like helping blood circulate, making digestion easier, and helping to maintain a consistent body temperature. “There are also mental benefits to staying hydrated,” Dr. Alzein says. “Being well hydrated will help improve mood, memory, and attention span.”
Water intake should be a standard part of your child’s day, with an increase in intake when the temperature rises or they are engaging in physical activity. Make sure your child drinks water whenever they are thirsty and encourage them to drink enough so that their urine is nearly clear. Dr. Alzein’s team says, “No child, at any age, should be drinking pop/soda or soft drinks, even the clear ones.”
4. Encourage Physical Activity
Parents are stressed between working, taking care of the home, and keeping up with the kids. “We know that there are times it is easier to sit the kids in front of their favorite show or give them a tablet. While there is nothing wrong with this for a time or two, sedentary behavior should not turn into a habit or last for long periods,” says Dr. Alzein.
Regular physical activity in childhood will ensure that physical activity is a priority as an adult. According to the CDC, this habit will:
- Strengthen bones and muscles
- Improve the cardiovascular and respiratory system
- Reduce the chances of developing type 2 diabetes
- Prevent obesity
- Decrease anxiety and depression
“Physical activity does not have to be structured or involve a league,” says Dr. Alzein. “It can be as simple as a family bike ride after dinner, a trip to the park in the morning, or silly obstacles, like walking like a bear or a crab indoors to get from room to room; find what works for you and your child so their body is moving and their heart rate becomes elevated for an hour every day.”
5. Keep a Schedule that Prioritizes Rest
Dr. Alzein says, “We have such a busy culture, and it seems as though rest is always sacrificed to accommodate hectic schedules, now even in childhood. Rest has to be a priority above other commitments. When children rest, they are giving their bodies and minds time to recover from a long day of learning and developing and also gearing up to do it all again the next day.”
Children above the age of 5 need an average of 9-10 hours of sleep a night. When children sleep, bodies cleanse toxins and release hormones for growth and the brain strengthens itself, which increases learning and memory. An adequate amount of sleep will also help children regulate their emotions and decrease the risk of developing depression.
“To make sure that your child is getting enough rest, teach them healthy sleep habits at an early age,” says Dr. Alzein. “Have a consistent, calm bedtime routine at the same time every night. Make sure that all screens are shut off at least an hour before bedtime. Avoid caffeine. If your child is clocking 10 hours of sleep a night and still seems groggy during the day, call your pediatrician and make sure a physical problem isn’t preventing them from getting the rest they need.”
Check-in with Your Child Regularly
A healthy lifestyle takes commitment to build, but when these healthy habits are started in childhood, kids will carry them through healthy adulthood. “As you stack these building blocks of health with your children, make sure they are part of the building,” says Dr. Alzein. “Giving them some control over their health will empower them and help them learn the why behind healthy choices.”
“Check in with your kids. Ask them how they are feeling and what they like and don’t like about their diets and exercise. Talking to your child may reveal some preferences that can easily be adjusted to help them increase their water or vegetable intake. They may be having a difficult time falling asleep from stress. You won’t know unless you ask,” says Dr. Alzein.
Dr. Alzein also says, “Always advocate for your child. If you or your child feels something is wrong, make sure to see your pediatrician, ask all your questions, and get the answers you need to improve both their physical and mental health.”