The statistics on childhood obesity, Type II diabetes, blood pressure and even heart disease are scary. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children and adolescents diagnosed with obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s. Further, physicians are seeing an alarming number of kids with Type II diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions that were previously unheard of in children.
“As parents and physicians, we have a responsibility to help children get off to a healthy start, one that will allow them to achieve their fullest potential,” said Lexington Clinic Pediatrician Dana Barnett, D.O. Fortunately, raising healthy, happy kids isn’t as impossible as it might seem. “Really, common sense makes the most sense when it comes to kids’ health.”
Helping your kids achieve their best requires a focus on four areas: nutrition, physical activity, rest and wellness.
Nutrition is fundamental to good health and it all revolves around making good choices, before pregnancy, during pregnancy and afterward. Cravings aside, mom and baby benefit from eating a variety of lean meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. Supplements – in the form of B vitamins and iron – are often prescribed to help ensure mom and baby have the nutrients they need to thrive.
Once baby arrives, breast milk or formula will provide the needed nutrients for your child. Beginning around five months, most babies can start solid foods, introducing a new food every few weeks. Foods that are organic, without salt or added sugars, are best.
After the first year, transition to whole milk for the next 12 months, then offer one percent or even skim milk. Continue feeding your toddler high-quality, locally sourced foods: fruits, vegetables, lean meats, nuts and whole grains.
“I recommend parents shop local farmers markets,” Dr. Barnett said, “because they offer produce that is picked at its peak of ripeness and loaded with nutrients and micronutrients. It’s just a better way to eat for everyone – child and parent.”
Patience is a virtue when it comes to picky eating. Toddlers often begin to exercise their independence at the dinner table. Proceed with caution, recognizing that you may have to offer a new taste multiple times over several weeks before it’s accepted. Offer a spoonful here and there, not a plateful! Getting the child involved in food prep may help. Participating in the process often peaks their curiosity, which can lead to sampling.
Human beings were made to move! Yet, in today’s culture we spend most of our time sitting or lying down with very little of the day spent walking, running, standing or moving. There is a definite correlation between physical inactivity and poor health.
Kids older than six should get 60 minutes of physical activity every day, and don’t just count on gym class or sports programs to ensure they get that exercise time. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that only about a third of American kids get the physical activity they need every day.
Get moving! The benefits are tremendous: strength, stamina, weight control, stronger bones, kids who sleep better, better behavior, an outlet for excess energy and of course, the mental health benefits of being outside in the natural world.
You don’t have to set a timer and force your kids to do jumping jacks for an hour. Rather, consider activities the family can do together throughout the day that will help ensure everybody gets their exercise:
• Ride bikes
• Go hiking
• Take a walk
• Hula Hoop
• Jump rope
• Take the stairs
• Play tag
• Visit the playground
• Roller blade or skate
• Push-up / sit-up contests
“The key is to make it fun – something that you and the child both enjoy doing – because if it’s fun, you won’t even notice that it’s exercise,” says Dr. Barnett.
Get Good Rest
A restful night of sleep is vitally important to your child’s health. Good rest can not only help prevent cranky moods from your child but also can provide important health benefits. “Sleep is one of the most important things for a growing body. Good rest will help your child be more attentive in school as well as lower the risk for developing diabetes,” says Dr. Barnett.
Sleep is also important for the growing process. Growth hormone is primarily secreted during sleep, which means if your child isn’t sleeping regularly, he or she isn’t growing properly.
Toddlers should sleep at least 12 hours per day, including their nap time, but the hours required will slightly decrease as the child gets older. Preschool-age children should get 10 hours of sleep per day; school-age children (between 6- and 13-years-old) should get nine hours of sleep per day; and teenagers need at least eight hours of sleep per day.
When kids are small, parents are usually diligent about checkups and wellness visits. But once kids reach school age, parents sometimes scale back. “It’s important that children continue annual wellness visits,” Dr. Barnett said. “The changes pre-teens and adolescents experience can be quite daunting. As pediatricians, we can help them navigate these years successfully, but it all depends on having a strong and trusting relationship, which only comes from years of communication during those annual visits.”
Immunizations are an important part of keeping children healthy, whether it’s vaccination for diphtheria, chicken pox, hepatitis, HPV or an annual flu shot. Immunizations help keep kids in school and learning; reduce mortality and disability; and limit unnecessary suffering.
Finally, Dr. Barnett recommends parents take an active role in their child’s health, whether it’s seeking information from the pediatrician or from a reliable website, such as HealthyChildren.org, a site sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Ask questions. Listen. Set limits and goals. Be involved,” she advises.
Lexington Clinic is Central Kentucky’s largest and oldest medical group. With more than 200 providers, Lexington Clinic has been caring for the Lexington community since 1920. Dr. Barnett’s office is located at Lexington Clinic Beaumont, 3085 Lakecrest Circle, Lexington, Ky. New patients are welcome. For more information or to schedule, please call (859) 258-8600.