Tips for Raising Healthy Kids
She may look (and even act) like your Mini Me, but kids aren’t little versions of adults. Here are pint-size guidelines for diet, sleep, exercise, and more.
Growing up is hard work, and a child has a special set of requirements to get the job done. “Kids have to be treated as their own entities with unique needs,” says Laura Jana, a pediatrician in Omaha and a coauthor of Food Fights ($15, amazon.com). That’s because your little person is still developing, of course, from her brain to her bones. Here are a few ways in which she’s different from you—and how you can give her what it takes to get big and strong.
She Dehydrates More Easily
There are a few reasons for this: Water makes up a greater proportion of a child’s body, and children have faster metabolisms, which means their systems need more water to run smoothly. You’ve heard “eight glasses a day” for the average grown-up, but for kids there’s no magic number. The amount of water depends on a child’s weight and activity level; as those increase, so does the quantity needed, says Jana. At a minimum, younger children should drink about 32 ounces, or four glasses, of water daily, and older kids, about eight, says Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician in Atlanta and a coauthor of Heading Home With Your Newborn ($16, amazon.com).
Stay-healthy tips: Young children may not ask for a drink until they are very thirsty, which means they are already beginning to dehydrate. Make sure to offer water throughout the day, especially if they are active. If plain water doesn’t go over so well, try adding frozen fruit slices (such as lemon, lime, or strawberry). The best way to know that a child is getting enough water is through her bathroom habits. “When kids urinate every few hours and have pale yellow or clear urine, chances are they’re well hydrated,” says Shu. If your kids are doing a lot of sweating, watch for signs of dehydration, which can include light-headedness, nausea, and weakness. And when she is sick and is losing fluid through diarrhea or vomiting, consult your pediatrician, who may recommend a replenishing electrolyte product, such as Pedialyte.
She Needs More Physical Activity
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that kids and adolescents get at least 60 minutes of age-appropriate physical activity each day. (Adults should log about 30 minutes of cardio five days a week.) According to a number of studies, exercise can strengthen kids’ growing bones. Most effective are weight-bearing exercises, like running around, dancing, and strength training—and hanging from monkey bars counts.
Speaking of monkey bars, there’s even more incentive for getting outside: A study last year led by a physician from the University of Cambridge, in England, found that for every extra hour a week that a child spent doing an outdoor activity, his or her risk of nearsightedness declined by approximately 2 percent. Researchers aren’t sure why, but it could be any of the following reasons: When kids are outside, they may be more likely to focus on distant objects (and less likely to focus on things up close, such as a computer screen) and get more exposure to natural ultraviolet light. Another factor could simply be the physical activity.
Stay-healthy tips: “Now that many kids do year-round sports, overtraining can be an issue,” says Joel Brenner, M.D., the medical director of sports medicine at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, in Norfolk, Virginia. “Watch for fatigue, trouble sleeping, and a general lack of motivation,” he says. Brenner advises against focusing exclusively on one activity, which could lead to overuse injuries, especially for kids approaching puberty.
She Needs More Fat and Calcium
Both kids and grown-ups require plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. But very young children need a little more fat because they burn more body fat than adults do. According to the National Academy of Sciences, fat should make up 30 to 40 percent of daily calories for a child 1 to 3 years old. For kids ages 4 to 18, it’s 25 to 35 percent. (For adults, it’s 20 to 35 percent.) Fat is essential for brain and nerve development; it’s the major component of brain-cell membranes and the protective coatings around the nerves that help send signals from the brain to the rest of the body.
Kids also need more calcium, because childhood is a time of turbo bone growth. In fact, children’s bones grow so rapidly that breaks can heal in weeks, versus months for an adult, says William Hennrikus, a professor of orthopedics and pediatrics at the Penn State College of Medicine, in Hershey, Pennsylvania. They heal so nicely that doctors typically can’t tell via X-rays that they were ever broken. Tweens and teens, in particular, need more calcium than adults do. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, bones absorb the most calcium during the teen years. Kids ages 9 to 18 need about 1,300 milligrams of calcium a day, versus 1,000 for most adults.
Stay-healthy tips: “The best way to give kids all the nutrients they need is to introduce them to a variety of foods,” says Teresia O’Connor, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. By age 2, children should be eating the same things that the rest of the family is eating. Of course, most of the kids’ fat intake should come from healthy foods, such as avocados, olive oil, and nuts, rather than candy bars. While kids don’t necessarily need a separate calcium supplement, it’s smart to give them plenty of leafy greens and dairy. For optimum daily servings by age, see the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommendations at choosemyplate.gov.
She’s More Sensitive to Environmental Toxins
Continued exposure to household chemicals and pollutants (paint fumes, cleaners, insecticides) isn’t good for anyone, but kids are especially vulnerable. A child’s lungs are still developing, so irritation caused by toxins can result in an obstruction in her airway, leading to issues like allergies and asthma. Little kids are physically closer to potential pollutants and toxins than adults are, since they play in the grass and crawl on carpets.
Stay-healthy tips: You may not be able to keep all chemicals out of your house, but when possible, opt for nontoxic cleaners without harsh ingredients, like ammonia and bleach. Open windows for ventilation as often as possible, even when you’re not scrubbing the bathroom. Choose paints with low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs, potentially harmful fumes given off by paints, sealants, and adhesives), and buy only what you’re going to use, since gases can leak from closed cans. Keep all chemicals out of reach. And minimize exposure to other potentially toxic environments. A mother-daughter mani-pedi is OK once in a while, but don’t bring your child along to your weekly salon appointment, says Shu.
She Needs More Sleep
Adequate sleep is important for kids and adults. But for kids, who take in a great deal of new information daily, it’s crucial. “Think of kids’ brains as batteries that need to be recharged each day,” says Shu. “Sleep is when that best happens.” Studies have shown that the brain consolidates networks for memory and learning during sleep, and that kids who don’t get enough are more likely to act impulsively and score lower on cognitive tests. Adequate sleep also promotes growth-hormone activity, so, quite literally, kids need sleep to get bigger and stronger. According to the National Sleep Foundation, most toddlers require about 12 to 14 hours a day (including naps), and kids ages 5 to 12 need 10 to 11.
Stay-healthy tips: These sleep recommendations are guidelines. The real proof is in the child, and she’ll give you clues as to whether she’s getting enough. Some things to consider: Does your child wake every morning at her regular time without your help? Is she alert throughout the day and in (relatively) good spirits? If the answer to either question is no, she might need more z’s. For younger kids, enforce regular naps. “Resist the temptation to run those much needed errands that might mean skipping a nap,” says Shu. “You might cross things off your to-do list, but you’ll end up paying for it in the end with an overtired, cranky child.” For older kids, encourage consistent, reasonable bedtimes. And limit screen time before bed, since exposure to light—emitted by everything from TVs to iPods—can suppress melatonin, a hormone needed for sleep.