Chances are, you're doing all that you can to ensure that your little one is in top-notch condition—he's clean, well fed, well rested, cared for, and everything in between. Still, those constant concerns creep in on the regular and leave you wondering what you could be doing more for your child. In fact, if there's one thing you think about on an almost second-to-second basis as a parent, it's "How can I keep my kid as healthy as possible?"
According to pediatricians, there really is one right thing to do. There are countless ways to continually improve and boost your little one's health. "Small changes make a big impact and they will also teach your child," says Alison Mitzner, M.D., a pediatrician in New York City. "Additionally, the earlier you start these healthy habits as a child, the more likely they will continue into their adult life." To help you give your child a headstart in this world, here are some little wins that can improve his health big time.
It's no surprise if your little one turns his nose up to veggies on the regular—it's hard to blame him when cookies and pasta taste way better. But it's important that his diet is loaded with the right nutrients and vitamins, many of which are found in vegetables. Thankfully, it's easier than ever to incorporate them into your kid's diet, often without him even noticing! For example, you can bake kale, making it nice and crispy to the point where it tastes pretty darn close to potato chips. Additionally, many brands are creating veggie versions of children's favorite foods.
Does your little one like mac & cheese? Kraft now makes a veggie-infused version, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Cauliflower, which swaps out the grain-based pasta for a cauliflower pasta without switching up the flavor. Another tip is to bake slices of sweet potatoes in place of basic fries! Each of these small swaps will add up to serious nutrition for your growing kiddo.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has long recommended against screen time for children before age 2, but recently softened this advice given the fact that today's children are growing up in an unavoidably digital age. The recommendation is now to limit screen time to a healthy amount so that children can better observe and interact within the world around them. A simple small tweak to decrease screen time is to set time limits. Stormee Williams, M.D., medical director of school telemedicine at Children's Health in Dallas, recommends keeping televisions and electronic devices out of rooms where children play, or at least turning them off after a certain time (usually two hours before bedtime, unless it's being used for school work). She also recommends setting parental controls on cell phones, tablets, e-readers, and social media accounts whenever possible.
Even though kiddos are blessed with an abundance of energy, it can be difficult to sneak in the recommended 60 minutes of daily exercise. That's why Dr. Williams suggests weaving in playtime that incorporates physical movement into your child's daily routine—even in simple ways that he or she might not notice! "Take your child to the park, go on a hike or bike ride, swim or turn on the water hose and play with him or her in the sprinkler," she suggests.
Your little one might have a serious sweet tooth, but it's important to keep his desert habits to a minimum. Even at his young age, a diet high in sugar has been linked to a myriad of health conditions, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even certain cancers. With just a few tweaks, you can cut back on your kiddo's sugar intake without him noticing. Dr. Williams suggests buying 100 percent fruit juice instead of "juice drinks" and keeping desserts, sodas, punches, ice creams, and fruit snacks for special occasions only. "These have no nutritional value so they should be treated as an occasional treat, not an everyday staple," she says.
A tired child is not only a cranky and less attentive child, but a potentially sick-prone child too, as lack of sleep can decrease immunity. In addition to making sure your child gets enough hours of sleep, you also want to make sure she's getting good quality sleep, too. "If a child is over-tired, they are often hyper and overstimulated, which makes it even harder to put them to bed," says Dr. Mitzner. She recommends committing to a solid bedtime routine. "Dim the lights, read books and, if needed, get some blackout shades (these work well in the summer when it may still be light at bedtime)," she suggests. "If you see your child is not getting enough sleep, try pushing the bedtime even just 10-15 minutes earlier at night and you can start to see the difference with just that small change in timing."
Preventative visits for your child, such as a yearly health check-up and a dentist visit every six months ensure your child is growing as she should be. "Most parents do a good job taking infants to see their doctor regularly at the beginning, but it is easy to forget about older kids (and ourselves)," says Dr. Williams. "A good tip to remember these appointments is to schedule dental and health visits during regular school breaks—for instance, every summer and Christmas break we go to the dentist and doctor." Adding these appointments to one calendar, perhaps that you share with your co-parent, can ensure that you stay on top of things.
Experts agree that one of the best things parents can do to boost their kids' health is to be a good role model and exhibit healthy choices themselves. "When parents make good decisions about their own health, children are more likely to follow," says Dr. Williams. "Maintaining a healthy diet, not smoking, living an active lifestyle, using a seat belt when driving, and wearing helmets when on a bike are examples of how parents can lead by example."