Ever wonder how a pediatrician keeps her own kids healthy? We did, too, so we asked some top mom-doctors to share their trade secrets. Here are their simple (and simply surprising) strategies.
Encourage imaginative play and exercise. Lack of physical activity is a major cause of childhood obesity and illness, so Jean Moorjani, M.D., a pediatrician at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, Florida, encourages old-fashioned play by instituting "tech-free time" after homework is completed. She also regularly shoos her two kids out of the house to play. "We try to go outside together at least once every day if the weather cooperates," Dr. Moorjani says.
Wash hands frequently. Your mom was right. Every single doctor we talked to emphasized the importance of washing hands before meals; after using the bathroom; after touching or playing with pets and animals; and after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose. Little kids (and big kids, too!) need lots of reminders, but all those gentle nudges toward the sink are worth it. Hand washing is the best way to prevent the spread of germs.
Ditch antibacterial soaps and heavy-duty cleaners. "Don't go too crazy with hygiene," says Katja Rowell, M.D., a family physician, child feeding specialist, co-author of Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating, and mom of one in St. Paul, Minnesota. Research has shown that while antibacterial soaps and chemical cleaners kill or inhibit bacteria, they also destroy the good bacteria that help keep us healthy. Simple soap and water are good enough for hand washing, and gentle cleaners (such a vinegar and water) are great for most household cleanups.
Keep kids home when they're sick. "When my kids come down with a fever and a cold, I keep them home and give them plenty of rest, fluid, and TLC," Dr. Moorjani says. Taking it easy for a few days boosts your child's chances of a quick recovery. A child who continues to go to day care or school could catch a secondary infection or even spread the virus to another child.
Offer healthy meals and snacks. Josie Znidarsic, D.O., a family physician at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, knows that a healthy diet is the bedrock of good health. That's why she offers her two daughters plenty of fruits and veggies and limits their exposure to added sugar. "If you're eating a terrible diet, there's so much inflammation in your body that your immune system is already stressed. A healthy diet should be your foundation," Dr. Znidarsic says.
Don't ban junk food. Dr. Rowell resists the urge to label food "good" or "bad," and routinely allows less-than-healthy options. "We enjoy Cheetos along with Brussels sprouts and homemade stir-fry," she says. Her reason? "When foods are forbidden, kids can end up really craving them, and that can set them up for eating problems later in life," she points out. "Allowing occasional 'junk food' with meals and at snack times is almost like inoculating kids. The food loses its mystique, and kids learn to manage it as just another food."
Keep vaccinations up to date. "In our family, we talk about the importance of vaccines and how they protect us from diseases that make us very sick," Dr. Moorjani says. "I also try to be a role model for my kids. Every fall, I make an appointment for our entire family to go to our regular pediatrician, and each one of us rolls up our sleeves—myself and my husband included—to receive our yearly flu shot."
Give a daily probiotic. Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for your health, especially your digestive system. They're often called "good" or "helpful" bacteria because they help keep your gut healthy. Recent research suggests a link between probiotics and the immune system, so Dr. Znidarsic gives her kids a daily probiotic gummy to support immune system health. "If I start to notice that they might be getting symptoms, sometimes I'll double up on that," she says.
Let kids feel their feelings. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, poor emotional health can weaken the immune system, increasing susceptibility to colds and other illnesses. Help boost your child's health by recognizing and respecting his feelings. "So often adults will jump in and say It'll be okay or Don't worry or Let's think about something else when a child is scared or sad," Dr. Rowell says. "It's better to begin by allowing them space to feel their emotions and to connect. I try to say things like, 'That sounds like it was really hard' or 'I'm sorry you're going through this.'"
Insist on sleep. Kids who are sleep-deprived are more susceptible to germs and viruses, so Dr. Znidarsic is "pretty regimented" about her kids' sleep schedule. She also explains the importance of sleep to her kids and models good sleep habits. "Sleep is really when the body restores and repairs itself," Dr. Znidarsic says. "We let our kids know that it's not only important for them, it's also something we adults do for ourselves, too."