What I Want Parents to Know: 3 Don'ts and 5 Dos About Child Health

From time to time, I get approached by writers who would like a pediatrician’s perspective on various topics. Since talking about pediatric issues is my life’s work, I am often happy to oblige. Last week, I was asked two great questions by a writer. I had to think a LONG time about these because every time I thought about how I would respond... my own answer kept changing. Making quick lists of bullet-point items is hard to do when discussing something as personal and complex as parenting and child health.

So, I thought I would share my final answer with all of you. I know my list is not all-inclusive. I know some of you will disagree. So, tell me. I want to know.

As a person who cares for children professionally, personally, or both; how would you have answered these questions?

Question #1: What are the 3 worst decisions you regularly see parents make about their child’s health?

1. Not getting routine health care, even for healthy kids.

Routine healthcare visits are vital for monitoring the global health of a child. There are many things a health care provider (HCP) is evaluating every time a child comes for a well child check, beyond a complete physical exam. They confirm optimal growth, including subtle body changes that occur during puberty. They keep children up to date with protective vaccinations. Most HCPs will discuss topics that are effecting similar-aged peers in the community. And, they can advocate for services and specialty care that a child may benefit from receiving.

Equally important and often undervalued is the fact that those brief, well visits are opportunities for a HCP to learn about what is important to a family. It is an opportunity for us to support and care for a child at a time of calm awareness, rather than in the stress of illness or concern. These healthcare visits are crucial for parents, patients, and HCPs to develop a trusting relationship.

Finally, talking with a doctor about personal health history, medications, and symptoms of illness, is a life-skill teens need to learn and practice. I want all my kids to leave my office with the understanding of how a HCP can be a partner for their life-long wellness. But, that can only be accomplished if I see them regularly.

2. Not controlling media.

I believe that kids of all ages need to experience life and learning in real, 3D space - not from a backlit screen. And, especially in the youngest of children, I think the overuse of media is getting out of hand. This trend makes me worry because we are just beginning to understand know how media exposure is changing the way a child’s brain is processing information, and influencing brain development. Meanwhile, I am concerned too much media may be causing harm.

In older children and teens, media overuse is affecting nearly every facet of life. Learning, attention, sleep habits, eating choices, homework effectiveness, social development, safe driving, bullying, sexual exposure, violent images, illicit substance use...Everything. So, if parents do not have control over these devices of privilege they are giving their children, there will be consequences to their health and wellness.

3. Exposing them to second hand smoke.

Few things in our medical research is as clear as the negative impact of tobacco smoke. There is absolutely no benefit to smoke exposure, and we know that it causes harm. Smoking negatively effects the smoker themselves, the people inhaling second-hand smoke, and those exposed to the harmful particles that smoking leaves behind (third-hand smoke.) No questions. No doubt. Finally, smoking is a self-destructive behavior that when watched by children in the home, increases the risk the child will also become a smoker.

Question #2: If you could encourage all parents to take on five simple changes to improve their child’s health, what would they be?

  1. Prioritize sleep. Regular, routine sleep (for all members of the family) optimises everyone’s function during the day. Good sleep restores and renews the body and mind. And, oftentimes, is the first thing we start to compromise during times we need it most.
  2. Eat meals together as a family, as often as you can. Talk, catch up, relax. And, no tech at the table.
  3. Never put a TV in a child’s room. Ever.
  4. Read. Read to your child, everyday. Have them read to you. And, let your kids see YOU reading. Model the love of language, and the wisdom of the written word.
  5. Get a hobby. For this one, I am talking directly to parents. We can become so easily consumed by our children’s activities, that our interests become neglected. Personal growth is vital to every productive human. So, find a passion. Something you really love. Something that you are proud of, and want to share with your kids. Show your children a dynamic part of you that is growing and changing, just as they are. The whole family will benefit!

So, tell me. How would you answer these questions?