Health experts' 10 tips to keep kids sound at school

Health experts' 10 tips to keep kids sound at school

CHAMPAIGN – Sniffles, sore throats, coughs, earaches: Don't they just seem to follow your kids home from school sometimes, like a stray dog?

Every year, millions of kids miss school due to just colds and flu alone. But parents can help fight off those illnesses and others by promoting healthy habits at home.

Here are 10 suggestions from doctors and nurses that can help keep your children healthier this school year, starting with ...

1. Zzzzzzzzzzz

Did you know kids and teens need nine hours of sleep a night, even through adolescence?

If you haven't already started gradually adjusting your childrens' wake-up and bedtime hours from summer to school year, you still have a week to start getting them to bed earlier and waking them earlier in the morning, advises Linda Cox, a Frances Nelson Health Center nurse practitioner who staffs the Urbana school-based health center.

Take it from her. She sees a lot of kids who could use more sleep.

"Sleep is a huge issue," she says.

Her advice to help kids get those necessary nine hours: Establish a bedtime routine and stick to it. She suggests this one – shower, snack, reading, then off to a good place to sleep.

2. Lighten the load

Try lifting your kids' backpacks sometime.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Council says thousands of kids are injured by overloaded backpacks, some of which weigh as much as 45 pounds.

To help them manage the load, make sure they're carrying a backpack with wide, padded shoulder straps and a waist strap, and advise them to balance the load on both shoulders.

"What most kids tend to do is sling their backpacks over one shoulder," said Dr. Victoria Johnson, a Carle Clinic physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor.

Johnson says safe backpack weights depend on your child's size, and the American Academy of Pediatrics advises a range of 10 percent to 15 percent of your child's body weight.

Parents can consider buying rolling backpacks, but remember, pediatricians advise, your children will also have to lug those backpacks up stairs and through the snow.

3. Dodge those germs

With the H1N1 flu pandemic hovering, it's become more important than ever to teach kids how to avoid spreading and picking up germs.

That includes teaching kids to wash their hands frequently, cough or sneeze into their sleeves instead of into the open air, refrain from sharing personal items like water bottles and keep their hands away from their faces – especially after using items like phones and keyboards – says Carle Clinic pediatrician Dr. Malcolm Hill.

And make sure they know how to wash their hands effectively: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests scrubbing with soap and warm water for 15 to 20 seconds – about the length of time it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice.

What if your children's school doesn't provide enough hand-washing opportunities? Equip your kids with a hand sanitizing gel or wipes to carry in backpacks and stash in lockers or desks.

4. Stay home!

Keep sick kids (and adults) home. Yes, doctors say, they know that's easier said than done. But sending a sick child to school is just going to make other kids and teachers sick.

Generally speaking, your child should be free of a fever for 24 hours before going back to school, says Dr. Norbert Yoe, a Provena Medical Group pediatrician.

5. Fight childhood obesity

Here are two suggestions that can help:

– Incorporate an hour of outside play or exercise a day into your child's schedule. (Walking or riding a bike to school can help build more activity into the day, Hill says, but make sure the route is safe and your child wears a helmet when biking to school.)

– Keep an eye on that school lunch menu and consider packing lower-fat lunches at home for at least part of the week. Kids as young as grade-school age can help busy parents with this task.

Carol Shriver, regional clinical nutrition manager for Provena hospitals in Urbana and Danville, says kids need three meals a day and healthy snacks in between to do well in school.

And when it comes to lunch, she's not a big fan of those high-fat, high-sodium lunch kits sold in the grocery store.

Consider some of her ideas for school lunches: Cold pizza made from a whole wheat English muffin topped with pizza sauce, cheese, green peppers and onions; gourmet grilled cheese made with different types of cheeses and a container of marinara sauce to dip it in; a quesadilla made with whole wheat tortillas, fat-free refried beans and cheese and salsa for dipping.

At lunch and all day long, say no to sugared beverages and yes to water or fat-free or low-fat milk, and aim for a rainbow of food colors that include plenty of fruits and veggies.

"I tell kids, 'Count the colors you ate today and the more you get, the more vitamins you get,'" Cox says.

6. Breakfast = brainpower

As many as 48 percent of girls and about one-third of boys don't eat breakfast, according to a University of Illinois Extension study. That means breakfast-skippers will feel tired and hungry and have trouble concentrating by midmorning.

Tell your kids having something in their stomachs increases their metabolism and gives their brain some fuel, says Cox.

And if everybody's too busy for breakfast, she advises, try something small but substantial like a granola bar, peanut butter and bread, peanut butter and banana or a cheese stick.

Or, if you have a child like Shriver's son, who shuns food in the morning, try her suggestion for a drinkable breakfast: a smoothie made by blending yogurt, milk and fruit. She blends a ripe banana, vanilla yogurt, milk and a splash of vanilla.

7. Screen and vaccinate

Make sure all childhood and adolescent vaccinations are up to date and your child has had a vision exam.

Vision: The American Optometric Association says 86 percent of children start school without an eye exam, despite the strong connection between good vision and learning.

Children need frequent eye exams because their vision may change frequently. Optometrists recommend that children have their first eye assessment at six months old and comprehensive eye exams at age 3, before entering school and every two years unless otherwise advised by a vision professional.

Vaccines: Yoe says the benefits far outweigh the risk for all vaccines available in the U.S., and don't forget the new one for meningitis and the vaccine that will be available later this year for the H1N1 flu virus.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says every child also needs an annual seasonal flu shot, but only about one-third of American children get one.

Getting a seasonal flu shot is especially important for kids with asthma, who are linked to a higher number of influenza fatalities than children without lung disease, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

Treatments for flu aren't all that effective, Yoe says, so it's better to avoid getting sick in the first place. (And, he adds, if your kids eat right and maintain a healthy weight, they'll have more reserve to fight off flu and other illness.)

8. Alert schools to chronic health conditions

If your child had an asthma or allergy attack at school, would anybody know what to do?

If your child has a chronic health condition, make sure there's an action plan on file at school in the event of a flare-up, Yoe suggests.

That includes a list of medications, when to use them and what the side effects are.

9. Make sports safer

Has your child ever complained about being winded in P.E.? That can be a sign of being out of shape, Hill says.

Yoe says parents should help kids select a sport wisely and ramp up to it gradually.

"A lot of kids want to go full-steam ahead," he says.

You can help kids avoid over-exertion and overuse injuries by teaching them to warm up with mild exercise and stretching, making sure there is adequate adult supervision for their sports activities and paying attention to seasonal factors. Kids may still need sunscreen in early fall and can be subject to heat exhaustion on Indian summer days, Yoe says. Make sure they're drinking enough water and let them know that feeling nauseated or weak is a sign to lie or kneel down, he adds.

10. Be the parent

Your children's good health begins with letting them know you're available, on their side, ready to protect their health and safety and ready to listen to whatever problems are causing them stress, Yoe says.

Have an open-door policy, he advises.

"Don't use the topic to assign blame, but use it as a stepping stone to help the child resolve the issue and move forward."

Cox's formula is love your children unconditionally but also establish firm behavior limits for them.

"I have a lot of parents who have a hard time being the parent, and I give them permission to be the parent," she says.

One more thing: All those healthy living rules Cox gives kids, she makes it clear they're for everyone in the house – including mom and dad.

The more parents are good role models in their eating, sleeping and exercise habits, the more kids will follow, she says.

"You've got to take the cookies out of the house, the pop out of the house, the chips out of the house," she adds.

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