All across the nation, kids are starting to head back to school. Whether you have a teen starting high school this fall or your child is one of the 23.4% of kids under age five who will be dropped off at nursery school, preschool, or daycare, you’ll want to do everything you can to make sure they stay healthy.
Unfortunately, parents like you and me know that’s often easier said than done! Schools are a literal hotbed of infectious diseases. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, elementary school children come down with eight to 12 colds or cases of the flu every school year; for older kids, they may get sick three to six different times.
So what can parents do to help their children avoid the so-called “back-to-school plague?”
Make sure they get enough sleep
According to the CDC, children who are in school should get 10 to 11 hours of sleep every night. If that sounds unrealistic for your kids, try to encourage these habits all throughout the year. Try to limit their TV and electronic time in the evenings as well. Sleep deprivation can compromise your child’s immune system, leaving them with fewer defenses to fight off an infection.
Promote a healthy diet
Improper nutrition can certainly play a part in how likely children are to contract an illness. Vitamin-rich foods will give their immune systems a boost and allow them to have more energy during the day without relying on sugar to get them hyped. One study of school-age children found that 42% of their calories come from snacks. Sadly, many of these snacks — especially if they’re purchased at school or on-the-go, aren’t particularly healthy. Instead of relying on chips and candy, parents should buy raw nuts, veggies and fruit, or cheese sticks and pretzels, for example.
Breakfast matters, too. Experts urge parents to swap out sugary cereals and frozen waffles for whole grain options, oatmeal, or eggs and toast. To the surprise of many families, juice is a poor nutritional choice. Around 50% of children were found to be chronically hydrated in one study, and H20 is truly the only solution. Instead of juice or sports drinks, encourage kids to have water or low-fat milk with their meals instead. Meal prepping can also take the sting out of those early morning alarms and can even alleviate the need for take out or fast food at the end of a long day.
Regular exercise will boost a child’s immune system and allow them to have more energy during the day and sleep better at night. Dr. Harley Rotbart, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado, told CNN that 40 minutes of running around time is ideal, no matter the season. Even if your child doesn’t play sports, that’s no reason to become a couch potato. Cement lifelong habits early on by partaking in physical family activities like walks, bike rides, dance parties, swimming at the local rec center, or yoga. The more fun you make it, the more likely they’ll associate what you do with playtime!
Fight the germs
Teach children the importance of washing their hands as much as possible and that they should refrain from touching their faces. Experts say that this is one of the most common ways germs are spread. It may also help to recognize some of the germiest places in school. (No, it’s not actually the bathroom — the drinking fountain and cafeteria are actually much more hazardous!) Dr. Rotbart recommends that parents equip their kids with their own water bottles (and to refrain from sharing them). Kids should also bring hand sanitizer, as cafeteria trays and tables can be a breeding ground for bacteria (yuck).
Get them immunized
While some parents have religious reasons for forgoing vaccinations, schools and state law requires most children to get their shots early on in the school year. Some even won’t allow children to start school without being up-to-date on their vaccinations. Since August is National Immunization Awareness Month, local and state health departments and school districts encourage parents to get a head start on scheduling their shots. Misinformation about immunizations has caused whooping cough, mumps, and other diseases to spike in some areas. Parents should not delay in getting of-age children immunized for their own safety and the safety of other kids.
Even when you do everything you can, it’s still possible for your little one to come down with the sniffles this school year. But armed with these tips, you’ll be able to improve their immunity and start off the back-to-school season the right way!