Does your child really need to bathe every day, brush after every meal or pop a daily vitamin? Find out which healthy habits kids really need to follow -- and which ones they can shrug off.
Take a Bath Every Day
The real deal: Of course, a bath is essential to get strained carrots out of your baby's hair or mud stains off your preschooler's legs. But a daily soak in the tub isn't necessary. Too much scrubbing can irritate your child's tender skin by removing the natural oils that keep it moisturized, says Catherine Dundon, M.D., an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital, in Nashville. While tubtime can help kids wind down, a daily rinse or spot-clean at the sink can do the trick on nights you don't have time for a bath or you can't wrangle your little one into the water. Be sure to wipe down her hands, face, and feet, as well as the body folds where dirt can hide (such as her neck, genitals, and armpits).
Never Miss a Nap
The real deal: When your baby's cranky, there's usually no better cure, but it's perfectly okay -- and normal -- for your child to occasionally skip his siesta. Many kids go through phases of resisting their afternoon snooze for days or even weeks, experts say. A few toddlers give up naps completely at an early age, while most stop napping between ages 3 and 4. "Kids physiologically outgrow naps," says Parents adviser Jodi A. Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night. But your child expends a lot of energy during the day and will have more trouble with nighttime sleep if he's overtired, so continue to reserve space for naps in his daily routine. Some quiet time on the couch or bed will also give him a chance to relax and refuel, says Dr. Mindell. On days he doesn't nap, compensate by moving his bedtime up 30 to 60 minutes.
Brush After Every Meal
The real deal: In a perfect world, every child (and adult) would thoroughly brush after eating. But who has time for that? Your child isn't doomed to a mouthful of cavities, says Gregory T. Wilkinson, D.D.S., a pediatric dentist in Memphis. Get her into the habit of brushing twice daily (after breakfast and before bed), and encourage her to rinse her mouth with water during the day. It's especially important to brush well at night (you may have to help your child do it right), because food particles and bacteria can build up all day and form cavity-causing acids while she sleeps.
No Dessert Until Dinner's All Gone
The real deal: Using sweets as a reward -- or withholding them as a punishment -- could predispose your child to future food-related problems such as binge eating and even obesity. "You don't want your child as sociating desserts with happy times and other foods, like vegetables, with conflict," says Joan Carter, R.D., an instructor in the department of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. Instead, offer your child a variety of healthy foods at meals, and let him decide what and how much he eats. Focus on the overall quality of his diet across several days -- not on how many asparagus spears are left on his plate. Ideally, dessert should be reserved as a "sometimes" food that's served in small portions after a healthy meal. Forget about banning dessert altogether. "That's bound to make sweets more attractive," Carter says.
Feeling Sick? Take Medicine
The real deal: You want to make your child feel better, but medicine isn't always best. Over-the-counter (OTC) cold remedies, for instance, are widely regarded as useful only for temporary symptom relief. They won't lessen the duration or severity of your child's illness. Also, OTCs that suppress vomiting or diarrhea can interfere with the body's natural way of getting rid of bacteria or a virus, says Donald Schiff, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, in Denver. Many OTCs also carry a risk of side effects, from hyperactivity to drowsiness; the benefit your child receives may not be worth it. Check with your pediatrician.
Pop a Daily Vitamin
The real deal: Most kids don't need vitamin supplements. "If your child eats healthy meals and snacks, she's probably already getting all the nutrients she needs from food," Carter says. Anything extra that a supplement provides simply won't get absorbed. And if your child eats a less-than-stellar diet over several days, her body naturally increases absorption of vitamins and minerals from food -- a built-in safety net. If your child is a very limited eater, however, a daily multivitamin can offer some extra insurance. Just be sure to give children's formulas (adult vitamins pack higher levels, which can be risky for little kids) and to avoid giving megadoses of single vitamins or minerals.
Eat Meals, Not Snacks
The real deal: Children are notorious nibblers, and for good reason. Their high-calorie needs -- and small stomachs -- make eating throughout the day an absolute must. Experts recommend serving little kids five to six small meals every day instead of three larger ones. Snacks also help fill in nutrient gaps: For instance, yogurt gives your child a calcium kick, and fruit delivers fiber. In addition, letting kids munch when they're hungry -- and not forcing them to finish a meal if they're stuffed -- will teach them to heed their body's own hunger and fullness signals and help ward off weight problems later on, Carter says. Just don't offer snacks within an hour or two of regular meals.
Don't Go Outside With Wet Hair
The real deal: "Germs cause illness," says Meg Fisher, M.D., chair of pediatrics at Monmouth Medical Center, in Long Branch, New Jersey. "And viruses and bacteria don't care whether it's hot or cold outside." Both the flu and the common cold are spread by person-to-person contact, such as holding hands or sharing a cup with someone who is infected. There's no evidence that temperature has any effect on the onset of illness. Still, if you have the time, dry your child's hair before she heads out into frigid temperatures. Moisture in the hair can freeze and make her chilly and uncomfortable.
Don't Sit Too Close to the TV
The real deal: Children's eyes have the ability to focus on close objects ? something we lose as we get older ? so sitting front and center won't cause them eyestrain, says pediatric ophthalmologist Michael X. Repka, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Don't worry about TV radiation, either -- studies show no danger. In some cases, however, sitting close to the TV can be a sign of vision problems: For instance, kids with an uncorrected astigmatism may find it easier to focus on larger images. Squinting or odd gazing positions (such as watching out of the corner of the eye) also warrant an eye exam.
5 Habits You Should Never Skip
- Use car seats. More kids are killed as passengers in car accidents than from any other type of injury. Minimize your child's risk by buckling him up in an age-appropriate car seat every time you get into a car.
- Get regular checkups. Keeping immunizations up-to-date is key. But periodic pediatrician visits also help ensure that your child is growing properly. "We can detect developmental changes that may need treatment," Dr. Donald Schiff says. "Well visits are not just for shots."
- Wear sunscreen. Using sunscreen daily on your kids protects them against severe sunburns that can cause skin cancer later and also helps create a lifelong habit. Be vigilant during the hours when the sun is directly overhead, and don't forget that kids get burned on cloudy days too.
- Finish off antibiotics. Even if your child feels better, use the entire course of antibiotics (unless otherwise prescribed by your doctor). If you don't, the bacteria may not be completely killed, and the infection could return; there's also the risk of creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
- Wash hands. It's one of the easiest ways to prevent illness. Teach your kids to wash up after going to the bathroom, before eating, after touching animals, and after playing outside. Keep a stash of sterilizing hand gel or wet wipes in your diaper bag or car to swab away germs.
Copyright © 2004 Sally Kuzemchak. Reprinted with permission of Parents magazine February 2004 issue.