The Essential Guide to Your Child's Health

Fat-Proof Your Child, Snacks, Habits, Exercise

6 Ways to Fat-Proof Your Child

Fifteen percent of kids in this country are overweight -- more than double the number 20 years ago. We asked the experts for the skinny on helping your child fight flab.

  1. Breastfeed. Studies have shown that kids who are breastfed are leaner than kids who are bottle-fed, says Reginald Washington, M.D., a Denver pediatric cardiologist and cochair of the AAP's Task Force on Obesity.
  2. Watch for dramatic, early weight gains. In one recent study, researchers found that rapid weight gain in the first four months of life was associated with an increased risk of being overweight at age 7. "A lot of people like to think of it as baby fat," Dr. Washington says. "But we're learning now that baby fat generally doesn't disappear."
  3. Get to an ideal weight yourself. Young children of an obese mother are three times more likely than those with a lean mom to become obese adults; the odds jump to ten times when both parents are obese. While you can't control genetics, you can set a good example. Cook nutritious meals, limit junk food, and encourage physical activity -- for the entire household.
  4. Restrict your toddler's fat intake. When she's 2, switch her from whole milk and high-fat dairy products to lower-fat varieties. "We know now that if you have a heart attack at 40, your cholesterol may have been building up since age 5," Dr. Washington says.
  5. Limit screen time. It's a no-brainer: When your child is hunkered down in front of a TV or glued to a computer or video game, he isn't being physically active. Research shows that kids who watch four or more hours of TV a day have more body fat and a greater body-mass index than those who watch less than two hours a day. The AAP recommends limiting screen time to two hours a day or less.
  6. Cut back on fruit juice. It's the drink of choice for many children -- but juice is high in calories and low in nutrients. The AAP suggests that you restrict a young child's juice consumption to six or fewer ounces a day.

Be Smart About Snacks

Because they can't eat large quantities at one sitting, toddlers and young kids need to consume up to one third of their calories from high-energy snacks like fruit, milk, yogurt, and cheese. What if your kid clamors for chocolate-chip cookies, not cheddar? "If your child is not overweight, has a healthy diet, and eats a variety of foods, then an occasional cookie is fine," says Fima Lifshitz, M.D., a member of the AAP's Committee on Nutrition. For smart serving suggestions, see our guide below.

Good for Every Day
Whole-wheat crackers, unsweetened cereal, cut-up vegetables, fresh fruit, dried fruit, string cheese, peanut butter, yogurt, breadsticks.

Fine 3 or 4 Times a Week
Animal crackers, pretzels, popcorn, snack crackers, granola bars, ice pops, pudding, frozen pizza, frozen yogurt, bagels, vanilla wafers.

Only as a Special Treat
Candy, chocolate, cheese puffs, potato chips, taco chips, cookies, toaster pastries, cupcakes, snack cakes, doughnuts, french fries, soda.

Health Habits to Make and Break

Good Habits

  • Buckling up your children. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 30 kids die and more than 5,000 are injured every week in automobile crashes. Use an appropriate car seat for your child (rear-facing for infants; forward-facing for toddlers; booster seats starting at 40 pounds and up until your child is 8 years old or 4'9"). And always put kids 12 and under in the backseat.
  • Teaching your kids how to swim. Drowning is the second leading cause of injury-related death among kids ages 1 to 14. It's crucial to sign up your child for a water-safety class when he turns 4. At the very least, kids should be able to swim to the side in case they fall into a pool or a stream.
  • Having your kids wash their hands frequently. "It's the number-one way to control disease," says Norman Harbaugh, M.D., of the AAP's Committee on Practice and Ambulatory Medicine. Make sure they suds up when they come in from playing, after using the bathroom, before they sit down for a meal, and before they go to bed.

Bad Habits

  • Putting them to bed too late. School-age children should get between nine and 12 hours of sleep a night. Anything less and they'll be tired and irritable and have difficulty concentrating.
  • Scrimping on sunscreen. Now is the time to start protecting your child against skin cancer. The AAP recommends you slather your kids with SPF 15 or higher sunscreen every day. Reapply every two hours, and after swimming or sweating.
  • Letting kids ride without helmets. Your child will reduce her risk of head injury by 85 percent if she wears a helmet when she in-line skates or rides her bike, scooter, or skateboard.

Get a Move On!

Your kids should get some sort of exercise every day. Here are three easy ways to keep them active.

  1. Make it a family thing. Exercise is always more fun when you do it with a buddy. Start a tradition of after-dinner walks, visit the Y on family swim night, or take the gang to the bowling alley instead of the movies on Saturday afternoons.
  2. Let them sample sports. The more you allow your child to try a variety of activities -- soccer, baseball, hockey, tennis -- the more likely she is to hit on one she likes and is good at.
  3. Think beyond teams. Unless they're star athletes and playing most of the game, a lot of kids in organized sports get only a few minutes of heart-pumping activity at a time -- not enough to really increase overall fitness. Whether they wear a uniform or not, encourage your kids to be active -- shoot hoops with them, or have them walk the dog with you each morning.

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