In those busy weeks before the first day of school, many parents sandwich a quick visit to the doctor for their child between clothes-shopping trips and last-minute runs for school supplies. And, of course, that's all happening while your family is trying to soak up the last days of summer. However, pediatricians say there's more to getting your child healthy and ready for school than just filling out medical forms and scheduling booster shots. To give your children the best possible launch, you need to take a look at their overall health and start now to get them physically ready to meet all the challenges of a new school year.
1. Getting Enough ZZZs
By far, the most important school health issue for most kids is getting enough sleep --about 10 to 11 hours a night for elementary school-age children. That sounds simple, but the trouble is, it's not always easy to make your child's sleep patterns mesh with his new school schedule.
When parents work late, children's bedtimes often get pushed back to create a window of family time. How can you argue with that? But to make sure your child can make it through the day without dozing at his desk, night-owl families need to start gradually shifting their schedules a few weeks before school starts, advises Donald Schiff, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. "You can't wait and say, 'Oh, my gosh, we start school tomorrow. You have to get to bed early tonight.' "
Don't be surprised if your child comes home from school exhausted, especially in the first few weeks, says Greg Prazar, M.D., a pediatrician in Exeter, NH. "It's a huge adjustment for children," he says. "Lots of kids will need a nap after school to help them revive." If your child doesn't want to sleep, settle for 30 to 45 minutes of quiet time --with no television.
2. Testing Eyes and Ears
You can't expect a child to learn if she's having trouble seeing the blackboard or hearing the teacher. So have your pediatrician screen for vision and hearing problems during your child's back-to-school checkup.
"If your pediatrician does not have the equipment for visual and hearing screening, you're not getting a complete assessment," says David A. Cimino, M.D., director of adolescent medicine at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, FL. "Parents ought to insist on that." Some pediatricians prefer to send patients to ophthalmologists and audiologists for more sophisticated eye and ear checks. (Don't try to cut corners by going to a local chain --their quick tests may miss important development problems in young children.) Make a note to ask your doctor what type of screening she recommends, then be certain to get it done long before school starts.
Remember: You can't assume your child has 20/20 vision just because he never complains about not being able to see; children with vision problems may not realize the world isn't blurry to everybody else. If your child often has headaches, tilts his head to one side to read schoolwork, or holds objects unusually close or far away to view them, it could be a sign he has a vision problem.
You may be planning healthy, well-balanced lunches to pack in your child's shiny new Pokemon lunchbox. Just don't be surprised if those turkey sandwiches and carrot sticks come back untouched. Eating in new surroundings and under tight time constraints can make some children's appetites evaporate.
Don't worry too much if your child only nibbles on lunch at school, Dr. Prazar says. Instead, focus on providing a protein-filled breakfast. "It doesn't matter what it is, as long as it has some protein. It makes a real difference in your child's energy level." With a little bit of fat and fiber from complex carbohydrates, your child will be ready to start the day. You should also take time to eat breakfast with your children, Dr. Prazar adds. "I know it's tough, but parents are the most important role models. Why would your kid eat breakfast if you don't?"
It's a good idea to lay down some nutrition rules before your child heads into the lunchroom. Otherwise, he may end up trading his healthy lunch for a short stack of Twinkies. "Parents ought to know what their kids are eating at school --so ask them," says Dr. Cimino.
Plus: Healthy Lunch Ideas
4. Bathroom Break
Adjusting to classroom life can be overwhelming for a child who's a little embarrassed about asking to go to the bathroom, and there's nothing more humiliating than an "accident" at school. To help your child avoid any problems, have a talk ahead of time about school bathroom rules --taking breaks as scheduled, and raising your hand for permission to leave the room.
If you think your child may have wetting problems in school, take preemptive action, Cimino advises. Before school starts, schedule regular bathroom breaks during the day, so your child gets used to going when directed. It's also a good idea to talk with the teacher before that stressful first day of school.
The first day of school brings new friends, new activities --and a bunch of new germs. That's why good hand-washing habits are critical for school-age children. Children (like adults) need to wash their hands after they go to the bathroom and before they eat. "Kids hate to wash their hands, but they can understand that germs can be bad for us," Schiff says.
If your child rockets out of the bathroom without stopping at the sink, consider sending her to school with a packet of antibacterial wipes. They're not as effective as soap and water, but they may have more appeal for young children. (You can also check how many towels are left at the end of the day, to see whether your child is really using them.)
6. Calling in Sick
No matter how much you emphasize personal hygiene, your child is bound to get a cold during the school year. To make the first morning your child wakes up with the sniffles easier, study in advance a copy of your school's guidelines on when to keep a sickly child at home. "Don't wait until your child's first illness," says Linda J. Rufer, M.D., a pediatrician in Chicago. If you're not at home during the day, you'll need to prepare a battle plan to provide reliable backup child care for unexpected sick days.
7. Stay Safe
When a child starts school, it's often the first time he's out from under your watchful eye for any length of time. So it's important to review basic safety rules. If your child will be walking to school, go over the route together ahead of time to check out possible hazards, such as busy streets. Don't let a young child walk to school alone, and don't expect a slightly older brother or sister to provide adequate safety supervision, Dr. Schiff says. "There are just too many distractions for 7-, 8-, and 9-year-olds," he adds. "Their ability to take responsibility is limited."
In carpools, seat belts should be a given, but remember to check out other drivers' safety standards well ahead of time. For safe bus trips, tell your child to stay seated quietly while the bus is in motion. If you can't take your child to the bus stop, arrange for an adult or responsible child to get him on and off the bus safely.
To protect your child from strangers, avoid writing her name on the outside of her backpack or jacket. However, Prazar warns against overstating the risks of child-directed crime, so you don't make your child too scared. "Some parents obsess about it," he says. "Talk about it with your child once at the beginning of every year, and that should do it."
8. Get Moving
As your child blasts through the backyard like a whirlwind or jumps across the sofa-turned-lava pit, making sure she gets enough exercise may seem like the least of your worries. But once she enters school, she'll be spending most of her day sitting at a desk --and you can't assume that recess and gym class are giving her all the daily activity she needs to stay healthy and happy.
"Kids need 20 to 30 minutes of regular, nonstop exercise a day," Dr. Prazar says. Physical education classes and after-school sports may not be enough. "At softball or in gym class, most kids are standing around, waiting for the ball to come to them," he adds. Plan weekly bike rides and nature walks, and your whole family will benefit.