By now your kids are probably geared up for school, and everyone is in the process of getting used to a new schedule (hopefully). The last thing you need is to have your child wake up one morning with a high fever or, even worse, that dreaded call from the school nurse telling you to pick up your ill child ASAP.
Come on! School just started!
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Still, many parents find themselves dealing with a sick child early into the school year. Think about it: Schools are filled with kids (some of whom may be sniffling and snotting), and as any mom knows, when one kid comes down with something…anything … it can and will spread like wildfire.
Therefore, it’s not uncommon for kids to miss school (and for to you miss work, by extension) within the first couple of months due to colds, strep throat, the flu or stomach bugs.
To keep your child healthy throughout the school year–from the beginning to the end–here’s what you need to do.
Schedule These Appointments
You may have booked these doctor visits over the summer to get them out of the way (kudos!), but if you didn't, do it now.
- Well-child exam. One of the easiest ways to know your child is off to a healthy start is to take him in for a visit with the pediatrician or family doctor. “Routine physicals will vary based on age, but as a standard, your child should be examined from head to toe,” says Nancie Fitch, D.O., Regional Medical Director at MedExpress in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. The doctor should check your child’s eyes, ears, nose, throat, listen to his heart beat and breathing, check reflexes, do screenings for vision, hearing and hernias, and possibly perform blood and urine tests, Dr. Fitch says. Any needed immunizations will also happen during this visit, so don’t forget to bring the shot record. As feared as they may be, immunizations protect your child again common childhood diseases and illnesses. (Plus, getting them done now means you won’t get the “deadline” letter from the school nurse!)
- Sports physical. Speaking of letters, if your child participates in sports, expect to provide a doctor-signed note of approval to the school. The sports physical, performed during the well-child exam or at a visit to a clinic, is extremely important for children preparing for competition and practice, says Kevin R. Campbell, M.D., assistant professor of cardiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. The exam screens students for cardiovascular abnormalities, lung problems and hernias, which may make sports unsafe for them, Dr. Campbell says.
- Eye exam. Although the general checkup included a brief eye exam, it’s a good idea to have a more thorough screening performed by a specialist, as a child’s eye health is critical to her learning experience. “The health of the eye can affect how the brain processes visual information, which in turn, can affect a child’s ability to focus and digest information,” says Cal Roberts, M.D., a clinical professor of ophthalmology and the Chief Medical Officer at Bausch + Lomb. An eye exam can also possibly detect non-eye-related health issues. (We talked more in depth about children's eye health here.)
- Dental exam. Your child’s oral health can affect her academic life in a number of ways. Cavities can be painful and may cause difficulty concentrating, and black or discolored teeth may put kids at risk for teasing or make them feel self-conscious, says Shehzad Sheikh, DMD, a family dentist at Dominion Dental Care in Sterling, Virginia. Kids should have a dental exam every six months. (There's more about your kid's dental health here.)
- Specialty appointments. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, allergies and asthma account for more than 14 million school day absences annually. If your child suffers from allergies or asthma, an appointment at the beginning of the school year to discuss any concerns or needed medication changes can help prevent or reduce flare-ups and school absences. Other appointments to consider scheduling (if they're needed) may include the dermatologist or an ear, nose and throat specialist.
Keep Up the Good Health
- Suds up. Handwashing is one of the most important parts of preventing illnesses. Teach your child to wash his hands for at least 20 seconds (have him sing or hum the “Happy Birthday” song twice) before eating foods or snacks, after using the restroom, after recess, and after blowing his nose, coughing or sneezing. For those times when there is no soap and water available, give him a small bottle of hand sanitizer to keep in his backpack.
- Feed 'em right. Children who eat a well-balanced diet are less likely to get sick and more likely to have quicker recovery times when they do. To ensure your child is getting the nutrients she needs, follow the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines and have her drink plenty of water. Breakfast is especially important for students. “After a night of rest the body needs fuel to get all our systems going,” Dr. Fitch says. She recommends kids jumpstart their day with a meal that consists of protein, carbs and a fruit. (If you have a picky eater, try these healthy food substitutions that your kid will hardly even notice!)
- Work up a sweat. As with proper nutrition, exercise helps boost the immune system. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends children and teens get at least one hour of physical activity per day. However, with many schools reducing recess time (or slashing it altogether), a lot of kids aren’t getting enough exercise. To get your child’s heart pumping, make it a habit of engaging in some type of physical activity–a family bike ride, a dance-off, a game of volleyball–on most days of the week.
- Get some shut-eye. During sleep, the body releases hormones that aid growth, build muscles and repair cells and tissues. So, if your child is short on slumber, her body won’t work to its full potential, meaning it may have a harder time fighting off infections. The National Sleep Foundation says children ages five to 12 need 10-11 hours of sleep and teens need 8 ½ - 9 ¼ hours of sleep. You can encourage healthy sleep habits by maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, making cell phones, TVs and other electronic gadgets off limits an hour or two before bedtime and establishing a relaxing bedtime routine.
- Prevent lice. The CDC estimates 6 to 12 million lice infestations occur each year among children ages 3 to 11 in the U.S. You can reduce your child’s chances of catching these tiny critters by telling her not to share scarves, hats, combs, brushes, hair bows or other hair accessories.
- Watch their backs. Sure, backpacks make it easier for kids to tote essentials to and from school, but Joshua Evans, M.D., a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, says some kids experience back pain because they’re lugging around an entire locker’s worth of books, school supplies and personal items. To keep your child’s back straight, pick a backpack with two wide, padded shoulder straps and show your child the proper way to wear it–using both straps, with the straps tightened so that the backpack lies flat against the back. Another way to save your child’s back: lighten the load. “A child’s backpack should never weigh more than 10-20% of her body weight,” Dr. Evans says.
- Keep stress in check. Stress not only affects children psychologically, it can also cause physical effects, like stomachaches, headaches, changes in eating habits and problems sleeping. While you can’t eliminate all stressors in your child’s life, you can reduce her stress level (and help her manage it better) by making sure she isn’t overscheduled, taking time to talk with her and listen, encouraging physical activity and modeling healthy ways to deal with stress. When children have minimal stress, they’re more likely to have a better academic year and better health. (Another way to be on lookout for this is to know the ten signs that your child may be too busy.)