Children’s Health Overview
Your choices as a parent begin before your child is even born. From what to feed them to how to discipline, parenting seems to be one choice after another.
The choices you make regarding your child’s health will affect them throughout their life. These are decisions best made with plenty of thought and information. Below, we’ll go over some general tips on making healthy parenting choices.
Nursing is a wonderful way for you and baby to bond. Human milk is also naturally rich in a variety of nutrients and immune factors that can help protect your child from germs.
In the latest Dietary Guidelines for AmericansTrusted Source, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services recommend giving infants human milk exclusively for their first 6 months, continuing with human milk through at least 1 year. You can also nurse for longer, if you’d like.
Nursing isn’t for everyone, however. It requires a lot of time, dedication, devotion to healthy eating, and all-hour feedings. Some people aren’t physically able to nurse, either. At the end of the day, it’s a very personal decision whether you choose to nurse your child.
If you don’t nurse or you want to give your baby both infant formula and human milk, know that formula can still provide your child with the nutrients they need to grow and thrive.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends selecting an iron-fortified formula
Summers are for kids, but summer sun isn’t. Ultraviolet (UV) light can damage the skin and increase the chances of developing skin cancer later in life.
Babies younger than 6 months should avoid direct sunlight if at all possible. Focus on keeping your baby in the shade as often as possible.
It’s also a good idea to dress them in a hat as well as lightweight clothing that covers their arms and legs.
Just keep in mind that babies can overheat quickly. Be sure to closely monitor your child for any signs of dehydration.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)Trusted Source recommends against using sunscreen on babies younger than 6 months old, as the risk of side effects such as rash is increased.
If you’d like to use sunscreen for your baby, make sure to talk with a pediatrician about formulas designed for babies or kids.
Babies older than 6 months and all children should wear sunscreen.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, sunscreen should have a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Reapply every 2 hours or more frequently if your child is sweating or in the water.
Vaccination is a vital tool for preventing your child from becoming sick with potentially life threatening illnesses.
Vaccines work by introducing your child’s immune system to a small bit of a germ, helping the immune system learn how to respond to that germ, should it be encountered in the future.
Recommended vaccines can vary according to your child’s age. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source recommends children receive the following vaccines at specific time points within the first 2 years of life:
- diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough (DTaP); whooping cough is also known as pertussis
- Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)
- hepatitis A
- hepatitis B, with the first dose taking place within their first 12 hours of life
- measles, mumps, rubella (MMR)
- pneumococcal conjugate (PCV13)
Keeping up with a child’s vaccine schedule can seem overwhelming, but your child’s pediatrician will help by letting you know when they’re due for their next vaccines.
You can also find an easy-to-read overview of the childhood vaccination schedule here on the CDC’s websiteTrusted Source.
Vaccinations aren’t just important for young children. Older children and adolescents should receive certain vaccines as well. These include:
- the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine
- a flu vaccine every year
- the COVID-19 vaccine
- the meningococcal conjugate vaccine
- a tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough (Tdap) booster every 10 years
All these recommended vaccines are both safe and effective. To ensure this, they must go through rigorous testing and clinical trials before they’re given to people.
If you have any questions or concerns about vaccination, don’t hesitate to raise them to your child’s pediatrician.
The dietary choices you make for your child can influence their eating patterns when they’re older.
Additionally, an unbalanced diet can contribute to a variety of health conditions later in life, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Because of this, aim to focus meals on:
- fruits and vegetables
- whole grains
- lean cuts of meat
- fresh fish
- fat-free or low fat dairy items after age 2 (children 1 to 2 years old should have whole fat dairy items)
- fiber-rich foods such as beans and leafy greens
Some examples of foods or beverages to avoid or limit are those that are high in:
- saturated or trans fats
- sodium (salt)
- refined carbohydrates
Nearly all children get plenty of vitamins — A, B, C, D, etc. — in the foods they eat every day. A multivitamin isn’t generally necessary for children. Talk with their pediatrician about a daily multivitamin if you’re concerned.
A 2021 study connected nutrition with mental well-being in school-age children. After surveying data on 8,823 children, researchers found that high consumption of fruits and vegetables was significantly associated with increased mental well-being.
If you’re ever unsure about the nutritional content of an item, be sure to check out the product packaging. There, you’ll be able to find information such as:
- allergy information
- serving size
- calorie content
- the amount and percent daily value of:
- fats, both saturated and trans
- vitamins and minerals
It’s important to know that nutrition requirements change as your child gets older. Be sure to check in with your child’s pediatrician to guarantee they’re receiving the nutrition they need.
A tip for grocery shopping
Shop the perimeter of the store where the fresh foods are. Avoid the inside aisles where many of the processed foods reside.
Your parents had the best intentions when they wouldn’t let you leave the table before you finished your broccoli, but the truth is that your child knows when they’re full and need to stop eating.
When children say they don’t want any more, they probably aren’t trying to skip out on their vegetables. Their bodies are just letting them know they’ve had enough. Overeating could lead to unwanted weight gain.
It’s also possible that your child may not like some types of foods when they first try them. Their tastes can change as they get older. You can probably recall foods that you didn’t like as a child that you now enjoy as an adult.
If your child’s a picky eater, try some of the strategies below to encourage them to try new foods:
- Be patient. It may take several attempts for your child to try a new food. Additionally, know that behaviors such as only liking specific foods or not liking different food items to touch each other are totally normal.
- Wait a little bit. If your child doesn’t want to try a new food, don’t push it on them. Wait a few days before offering it again.
- Serve new foods with favorites. Try serving new food items alongside foods you know your child likes.
- Offer choices. Consider offering your child choices of a few different foods with similar nutritional value. Let them select which one they want.
- Consider texture. It’s a good idea to offer your child foods with different textures, such as puréed, mashed, or chopped. However, also keep in mind it’s also completely normal for children to find certain textures off-putting.
According to the CDC, childhood obesity has more than tripledTrusted Source in U.S. children since the 1970s. Data from 2015 to 2016 indicates that nearly 1 in 5 young peopleTrusted Source 6 to 19 years old have obesity.
Physical activity is very important for children. It sets the stage for a lifetime of health and nutrition.
The recommended amount and type of physical activity can vary by a child’s age. Public health experts at the Department of Health and Human ServicesTrusted Source have issued the following recommendations:
Children 3 to 5 years old
Children in this age range should be encouraged to do a variety of activities of differing intensities throughout the day.
A good target is about 3 hours of daily activity. Some examples of activities to consider are:
- active play with other children
- riding a tricycle or bicycle
- throwing and catching
- activities that involve hopping, skipping, or tumbling
Children 6 to 17 years old
Children in this age range should aim for 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day.
This activity also needs to include different types of exercise, such as:
- Aerobic activities. Examples of aerobic activities include running, swimming, and sports such as soccer and basketball. A good goal is to try to get 60 minutes of aerobic exercise at least 3 days of the week.
- Muscle-strengthening activities. A few examples include climbing, playing on a playground, or lifting weights (for adolescents). Plan to incorporate muscle-strengthening activities into physical activity at least 3 days of the week.
- Bone-strengthening activities. These types of activities involve impact with the ground and have a lot of overlap with aerobic activities. Examples include running, basketball, and jumping rope. Aim to include bone-strengthening activities at least 3 days of the week.
You can also promote physical activity by including your child in household activities where appropriate. Some examples include walking the dog or washing the car.
If you’re concerned about your child’s weight or level of physical activity, raise those concerns with their pediatrician. The doctor can help make recommendations you can implement at home.
Tooth decay is one of the most common chronic childhood diseases. Not only can cavities cause discomfort and pain, but they can also lead to problems with speaking, eating, and learning.
Fluoride can help eliminate tooth decay in young children. Aim to brush your child’s teeth with a fluoride toothpaste twice daily.
If your child has their first tooth and is under 3 years old, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using a “smear” of fluoride toothpaste. Children 3 years old and up can use a “pea-sized” amount of fluoride toothpaste.
Your child should also receive a fluoride treatment at each dental cleaning, which typically happen every 6 months.
Additionally, most drinking water in the United States contains fluoride. If your tap water doesn’t (you can check here), ask your dentist about other ways to get fluoride.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends taking your child to their first dental appointment when their first tooth comes in.
If you don’t already have a pediatric dentist, you can browse dentists in your area with the Healthline FindCare tool.
Proper handwashing is one of the most effective ways to prevent becoming sick. Because of this, it’s important to teach your child when and how to wash their hands.
Some examples of when your child will need to wash their hands include:
- after using the bathroom
- after blowing their nose, coughing, or sneezing
- after coming inside from playing or from being out in public
- before and after eating
- after touching or handling animals
To teach your child how to wash their hands, it may be helpful to do it together. Focus on the following steps:
- Wet your hands under running water.
- Add soap to your hands, being sure to demonstrate how to run the soap over your hands, between your fingers, and under your fingernails.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. This is about as long as it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. It may be helpful to sing along with your child.
- Use running water to rinse your hands.
- Dry your hands using a clean towel.
As your child gets older, additional hygiene topics will come up that you’ll need to discuss with them. Some examples include:
- covering their mouth when they cough or sneeze
- using the toilet
- bathing and showering
- brushing and washing their hair
- brushing and flossing their teeth
- trimming their fingernails and toenails
- applying deodorant or antiperspirant
- shaving, if they choose to do so
- practicing menstrual health
While good sleep is important for everyone, getting the appropriate amount of sleep is particularly important for a child’s health. And yet, it’s estimated that almost half of children in the United States will have a sleep issue.
Poor sleep is associated with a variety of negative health effects in children. These can include:
- behavioral problems
- trouble paying attention or concentrating
- mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression
- lower immune system function
- predisposition to health conditions, such as diabetes or obesity
- increased risk of accidents or injury
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has published guidelines that list the appropriate amount of sleep children ages 4 months to 18 years should receive per a 24-hour period:
- 4 months to 12 months: 12 to 16 hours
- 1 to 2 years: 11 to 14 hours
- 3 to 5 years: 10 to 13 hours
- 6 to 12 years: 9 to 12 hours
- 13 to 18 years: 8 to 10 hours
You can follow the advice below to help promote a good sleep environment for your child:
- Determine a bedtime, and aim to stick to it as consistently as possible.
- Develop a bedtime routine that’s relaxing and promotes sleep, such as reading to your child or playing soothing music.
- Ensure that your child’s bedroom is dark, quiet, and kept at a comfortable temperature.
- Make sure your child doesn’t do high-energy activities shortly before bed.
- Don’t give your child foods or drinks that are high in sugar or caffeine in the evening.
- Set curfews for when your child needs to stop using electronics such as TVs, video games, or computers.
Good mental health is just as crucial for children as it is for adults. Children with good mental health function well in home, school, and social environments.
Promoting mental health starting at a young age is very important. This is because many mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, can begin in early childhood.
According to the CDC, 17.4 percentTrusted Source of U.S. children between the ages of 2 and 8 years had at least one mental, behavioral, and developmental disorder in 2016.
The strategies below are good starting points to help you foster good mental health in your child:
- Talk about feelings. Don’t be afraid to talk about feelings with your child. This can help your child understand not only their feelings, but those of others as well. It can also foster open, honest conversations going forward.
- Avoid negativity. Raising a child can sometimes be frustrating, but try to avoid negative remarks. These can include things such as sarcastic comments, personal attacks, or threats.
- Boost self-esteem. Be sure to praise your child when they reach a new milestone or experience an achievement in school or an extracurricular activity.
- Consider goals. Aim to set realistic goals for your child. Setting goals that don’t match well with their abilities and desires can lead to feelings of inadequacy and lower self-confidence.
- Be encouraging. Always encourage your child to do their best. Additionally, show support when your child expresses an interest in doing a new activity or learning a new thing.
- Discipline consistently. It’s also necessary that your child learns the types of behaviors that aren’t OK. However, when you do discipline your child, make sure it’s both fair and consistent.
- Find playmates. Finding and interacting with friends helps your child broaden their support network and develop their interpersonal skills.
It’s also vital that you’re aware of the potential signs of mental health issues in your child. Some examples to look out for are:
- a noticeable dip in performance in school or extracurricular activities
- restlessness, increasing irritability, or frequent tantrums
- decreased desire to play with other children
- lack of interest in things that previously made them happy
- poor sleep or frequent nightmares
- low energy levels
- changes in appetite
If you have concerns about your child’s mental health, it may be useful to reach out to a person who has regular interactions with your child. A good example would be their teacher or day care instructor.
You can also ask their pediatrician for a referral for a mental health professional who specializes in helping children.
There are a lot of decisions to be made and factors to consider when you’re raising a child. They can range from ensuring proper nutrition and encouraging physical activity to promoting good mental health.
It’s normal to feel as if you always need to make the perfect choice regarding your child’s health, but this can add a lot of pressure or unnecessary stress to parenting.
Instead, try to reframe it so you’re aiming to make the best possible choice for your child in a given situation.
Don’t forget that you have help and support along the way as well.
If you have questions or concerns about your child’s health, don’t hesitate to reach out to their pediatrician.
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