When it comes to your kids’ health, there are three key areas to get right early on: diet, sleep and exercise; plus, specific immunisations. Nutrition is vital to development, and overeating is a huge issue – large kids usually become large adults, increasing risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, some cancers and arthritis. Instilling healthy habits provides them with the best chance to grow into fit adults.
Birth to four years
We think babies eat till they’re full, but they are prone to overeating. Check they’re comfortable before offering a bottle, and provide a range of foods from weaning onwards – especially fruit and vegetables. Fussy eating can start before school age. Remember, kids don’t know foods taste different made in different ways; so mix up your menu, don’t cut certain foods out. No one hates all vegetables! Avoid rewards; it links emotions to food, potentially causing comfort eating.
Babies are born with some immunity, but this needs extending via vaccinations so it’s important to keep up with the programme, and attend health checks to allow us to detect any problems early. Observing children as they grow lets us offer the best help for their needs.
Sleep is crucial as it’s the only time children grow and the immune system is renewed. Babies need 18 hours sleep; pre-schoolers 11 hours. A set bedtime builds boundaries, making children feel safe.
Another healthy habit to instil at this age is to wash hands regularly; especially after toileting and before eating – to avoid spreading illnesses and parasites such as worms. Nose picking can be a health issue – one in four of us have bugs that can cause meningitis up our noses, that we could spread to vulnerable people such as babies.
The school nurse will do eye and hearing tests, and monitor height and weight to check children are growing healthily. They should eat three balanced meals a day, plus healthy snacks. Teach kids to get their five-a-day to avoid constipation and boost nutrition. Restricting or rewarding with sweets is a bad idea; if they’re seen as a treat, they’ll want them when they feel bad. Both can lead to overeating/poor nutrition.
Sleep is even more important: kids this age need at least 10 hours a night. Poor sleep can lead to poor concentration, difficult behaviour and poor learning. Screen-time (computers, TV, mobiles) can be an issue. Evidence suggests it can lead to decreased social skills and raised risk of obesity; limit it to two hours a day. Kids need to be physically active for an hour a day; getting them into sports now makes it a habit. Vitamin D is as important as exercise for healthy bones and bodies; aim for 20 minutes of sun per day (then apply an SPF).
From 12 to 25, our brains reset to become faster and more efficient. Teens literally think differently; and a shift in sleep pattern feels like being jet-lagged, as they need to wake later. They need nine hours a night to boost immunity and absorb what they’ve learned.
This age can be more prone to cancers and meningitis; teens are offered another meningitis jab; the HPV vaccine addresses risks of cervical cancer. Once a girl is menstruating, she’ll need a good iron intake, from meat or green leafy veg, for example.
Hopefully your children will form and maintain good habits around healthy eating and exercise. If they’ve had boundaries and respect from you through their developing years, this stands you in good stead for an excellent continuing relationship.
The expert: Dr Liz Bragg is an associate specialist in paediatrics at University Hospital of Wales, and has worked as a paediatrician for 20 years.