A PAEDIATRICIAN ON 25 SIMPLE WAYS TO HELP CHILDREN BE HEALTHIER
BY DR VICTORIA WAKEFIELD, PAEDIATRIC DOCTOR
As parents, we care about our kids’ health more than our own - are there things we can do to help our children be healthier?
One of my proudest moments as a mother was when my 4-year-old child picked up a carrot stick from a table laden with junk food at a children’s party, (I know, I need to get out more).
It gave me comfort to know that I had already started to teach him how to make healthy food choices. I’m choosing to ignore that he later went on to shove three Party Rings in his mouth.
As parents, one of our most important jobs is to prepare our children for adult life and teach them how to make the right choices when faced with decisions on their own.
Why is this important? Simply put, prevention is better than cure.
To encourage healthy habits and if we want our kids staying healthy , I believe we need to be proactive about the health of our children as opposed to reactive after things have gone wrong.
Surely, if we can avoid ill health in our children and ourselves with some simple lifestyle changes, why not try?
The best way we as parents can ensure our children are healthy and go on to be healthy adults is to set the example by living the life we want for them, with them, during the relatively short time we have influence.
In this instance ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ just isn’t good enough.
I have come up with a list of tactics that I have already implemented in my home and some I want to implement based on my experience as a paediatrician.
My family are far from perfect, but choosing not to do something once you know about it is very different from not doing something because you were not aware of it.
Some of these healthy lifestyle tips you will have already come across, but I hope some will be new concepts to you.
Here are my top tips to help your children be healthier, by improving your family health:
Healthy eating is a huge topic and I can’t cover it all in this article, but my top tips are:
Eat family meals together. It doesn’t have to be at a table, particularly if you don’t have one. Try and avoid eating with the TV on. Research shows there is a link between eating more if you are distracted by the TV.
I’m sure we’ve all used the iPad or TV on occasion as a way to shovel food into your toddler’s mouth and get them to eat more.
Eat more whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables and reduce foods that contain refined or added sugar to just one portion a day and ideally give to your child after a meal.
Try not to pander to your child’s faddy eating. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard in clinic: “He will only X, Y or Z”. Remember you are in charge of what is cooked and offered.
If they refuse to eat a new food, don’t force it, but don’t offer an alternative. They will soon be back to pick when they are hungry. It’s hard to see your child not eat but, stick to your guns with this one.
I am the mother that gives my kids their uneaten dinner for breakfast the next morning!
Minimise the amount of fast food you and the children eat.
Reduce or avoid salt in everyone’s food
Don’t buy high sugar, high fat or high salt snacks in your weekly shop. If these items are not in the cupboard, you and the kids won’t eat them.
If you fancy a bit of chocolate in the evening, take yourself off to the corner shop and buy one bar. If you have managed to get yourself off the sofa to get the chocolate, you definitely deserve it.
Cook together. I know this normally seems more stress than it’s worth, but it’s actually hugely beneficial to get your child interested in what goes into their body.
Don’t voice your disdain for any foods, just because you hate a particular healthy food (brussel sprouts anyone?), doesn’t mean you should not cook it for your child.
Children are a blank canvas and you are their role model when it comes to eating habits - let them explore new healthy foods without your bias.
Aim to display a healthy relationship with food and your own weight, be that not under or overeating. Food should not be seen as a treat or a punishment.
It is there to nourish and sustain us. If you have issues with food or maintaining a healthy weight, work on those please as they will affect your children.
It’s not until you have been a sleep deprived parent that you realise the importance of sleep or realise how poor-quality sleep just totally messes up your day.
The same applies to your child. Lack of sleep affects their physical and mental health and will impact their school performance.
I am not going to list how many hours sleep your child needs depending on their age, but aiming for 9-12hrs sleep for most kids is a sensible goal.
On average, children under the age of 10 need at least nine hours of uninterrupted sleep.
What can you do to improve your family’s sleep?
Aim for a regular set bedtime for your child and for yourself.
Have a set bedtime routine, once again this applies to you. If you can, turn the screens off at least an hour before bed. Have a bath, read a book, do some yoga etc then get into bed.
No stimulants before bed, so no hot chocolate and no screens. If a drink must be had, make it warm milk or water. For you, try a caffeine-free hot drink or better yet, water.
Create a pleasant sleeping environment and declutter your sleeping space. This is a hard one for me and I am currently in the process of decluttering my bedroom.
Fix any medical problems affecting sleep. In kids, a common problem is coughing at night which could be a sign of asthma or chronic post nasal drip, so see your GP if your child is waking at night with coughing or another recurrent medical problem.
Consider sleep training. We expect infants (children under the age of 1 to wake at night), but if this is an ongoing problem in older children, consider sleep training. It may seem harsh initially, but you and your child need undisrupted sleep.
In May 2019, the Government called for help to halve childhood obesity over the next 10 years.
According to current estimates, 10 per cent of boys and nine per cent of girls start primary school obese and children gain weight at a drastic rate once at school.
Pressure is mounting on parents and schools to address this trend and the Government has set pre-school children a physical exercise target of 180 minutes per day.
In response, Micro Scooters (the scooters all your kids’ friend have) launched Play for Life: an online resource for adults caring for pre-school children.
Play for Life is based on the foundations of physical development and explains why for under-fives in particular, exercise should be less about minutes and more about movement challenges.
Children need at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. If the whole family can get this too, even better. If able, walk or scoot to school.
Encourage your children to be as active as possible.
If life allows, use the weekend to go on a family walk, go swimming, cycling, climbing. No matter the activity - get out and about with the kids.
Try and leave the house 15-20 mins earlier in the mornings and if getting the bus, or train to school/work, get off a stop or two earlier and walk/scoot the rest of the way.
Aim to have family time, where screens and other distractions are banned. My husband and I are currently working on a no phones rule after 8 pm.
In busy hectic lives, it can be hard and meal times are a good focus point to allow family social time.
If your children are older and have lots of after-school activities, aim for one meal or one evening a week where you are not allowed to do an activity that does not involve the whole family.
Supervise your child’s social media consumption. Consider having a phone, iPad and laptop embargo before bed.
Have the family computer/iPad in a communal area of the household.
It's important to let teens feel some element of autonomy and have some privacy, but it is also important that you as the parent have some idea what’s going on in your child’s social media life.
How you do this might be tricky, but include your teenager in this discussion.
Consider having no locks within the house and teach your children to knock before they enter a closed room. You should extend the same courtesy to your children.
I believe it helps to create an environment of openness and trust within the family network.
Be proactive about your health
It always surprises me how little people know about their bodies and what’s normal vs abnormal. You don’t need a deep understanding.
From a young age, get the kids reading books about their bodies, how they work etc. You can learn too.
Teach children about ownership of their bodies, so if things go wrong, they understand that they can have some part to play in getting well.
Try and get a yearly medical MOT for the kids and yourself. This is a tricky one, as unfortunately our current health care system is not set up for this but consider going to your health visitor if preschool aged, or your GP for a yearly check-up for your child. A lot of other European countries have a setup for this, it would be great if we could mirror this at some point.
Vaccinate your children. People in developing countries walk for days to get their children vaccinated because they have seen first-hand what it means not to be. We are privileged enough to not live in that reality, so I think many take that privilege for granted.
Deal with your ACEs
This stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). The more of these your child is exposed to, the worse their health outcomes both as young people and as adults.
What are the ACE’S?
Abuse - physical, sexual and verbal
Neglect - emotional and physical. A child growing up in a household where there is an adult with a drug or alcohol problem, where there is domestic violence, where there is an adult who has spent time in prison or where parents have separated.
If you are currently living in a household where at least two of these are happening, and you have a child in that household, get help.
If you grew up in a household where these were present, it is very likely to have had a negative effect on your physical and mental health too.
But, do not despair, these effects can be addressed if highlighted early enough. Speak to your GP and get help; getting help will improve the lives of both you and your children.
Teaching children about the health of our environment is just as important as teaching them about their own health.
For want of not sounding cheesy, they will be the inheritors of our planet and I want my kids to have a healthy earth to live in after I am no more.
How to help your children be environmentally aware:
Get them sorting the recycling for you, teach them about litter and how they can impact the environment in a positive way.
Have meat free meal days as a family.
Get them interested in slow consumption, be that toys, food, or clothes. If they have outgrown their old toys, get the kids to sort through them with you and take the toys to a charity shop before you buy more. The same for old clothes. Try to teach them about the value of things and looking after what they already have.
If your means allow, get a greener car, cycle more, walk more. Poor air quality affects everyone’s health.
I have not written this piece to claim that I have the answers to raising the perfectly healthy child. Of course, no one does.
However, as a paediatrician, I’m taught to consider the range of external factors that can influence the well-being and health of a child.
I have found that having a more holistic approach in my home life can often have a positive impact.
Now go and eat an apple and drink a glass of water!
Follow Dr Victoria Wakefield on Instagram at @oncallmummy.