Maybe your children can’t bear to think of it, but the start of school is just a few weeks away. And for athletes, practices and workouts of one kind or another will be here sooner than that.
As important as it is for parents to think about academic readiness, it’s also essential that they weigh children’s health concerns before school begins. Healthy eating, sufficient sleep, and reasonable limits on access to electronics … these issues and more can make a big difference in how well your child learns.
We checked in with two Einstein pediatric specialists to help parents focus on the essentials. Here’s what to think about as the time for school draws near.
Get Up to Date on Vaccines. Einstein Physicians Pennypack Nurse Practitioner Katelyn Schafer, CRNP, says vaccinations are required for good reason: “Vaccine-preventable diseases can be deadly, and many of these illnesses are passed from person to person. With your children heading back to school, sports programs and after-care, they are in close contact with other people—therefore increasing their exposure.”
One good example: measles, a serious and potentially fatal respiratory disease. Getting vaccinated against the disease isn’t completely foolproof, but it’s pretty darned close—93 percent effective with one dose, and 97 percent effective with two doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Thanks to immunization, measles was declared eliminated more than a decade ago, but in 2014, the disease was back with a vengeance 644 cases in 27 states. Most of those who contracted the disease were unvaccinated, CDC says.
Measles is one of a raft of diseases that are preventable by vaccinations, including mumps, rubella, diphtheria, polio, hepatitis B, and chickenpox. In most states, several specific vaccinations and numbers of doses are required before a child can begin school—although some states, like Pennsylvania, offer medical, religious and philosophical exemptions.
The primary care series of vaccines is usually mostly complete by the time your child is 5, and if that’s the case, Schafer says, your child should be school-ready. However, she notes, additional vaccines may be required or recommended before your child begins 7th grade, including, tetanus, diphtheria, acellular pertussis (Tdap), meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV) and HPV (human papillomavirus).
Healthy Eating. Your kids should be eating healthy all the time—although summer, of course, can be a challenge. Kids definitely slurp up more sugary drinks than they do the rest of the year, and while there’s a bit of good news—they seem to eat more fruit and veggies during the warm-weather months—it’s still not enough, according to the YMCA’s Family Health Snapshot Survey.
If your kids are loading up on hot dogs, s’mores and ice cream, it’s time to start transitioning over to the healthy stuff.
You can draw inspiration by what they ought to be packing for lunch during the school year. “I would say avoid any sweetened drinks such as iced tea, juice, soda or sports drinks,” says Emiliano A Tatar, M.D., Einstein Physicians Roxborough. “Instead of chips or cookies, pack fruit.”
By the way, when school days start, you’ll be interested—or perhaps disheartened—to know that packing a lunch isn’t necessarily healthier than buying a lunch at school, according to a study from the Baylor College of Medicine. They contain 88 percent fewer veggies and 40 percent less fruit. They’re likely to include desserts and sugary drinks.
It doesn’t have to be that way, says Schafer, who concurs with Dr. Tatar’s recommendations. “Whether your child’s lunch is packed or bought in the cafeteria, it should be balanced. This means including all of the food groups, as well as not overloading on sugary or salty foods and drinks. A well-balanced meal is a salad and sandwich combination such a half a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with lettuce, tomato and mustard, and a one-cup garden salad with one tablespoon of dressing.”
Avoid creamy dressings and condiments, Schafer adds. Don’t forget fruit—grapes, an apple or pear an orange, or banana, for instance. If you can’t get away without a treat, try a “fun size” candy bar or a Hershey’s kiss.
Definitely avoid pre-packed “fun” lunches. Some of the most popular varieties of the most popular pre-packaged lunches contain unhealthy amounts of saturated fat, according to a recent study, and they’re loaded with sodium—more than 750 milligrams, which more than exceeds the recommended daily amount for children from 4 to 13. Candies and juice drinks bump up the sugar content.
Screen Time. Kids spend more time on game consoles, tablets, television and other electronic devices during the summer—about 30 percent more than during the school year, the YMCA survey notes.
It’s time to scale back the number of hours kids spend online and in other electronic pursuits. A good rule of thumb, says Dr. Tatar: “Limit kids to two hours a day.”
Adequate Sleep. Whether or not your child gets enough sleep has a bearing on learning—in fact, it’s critical. Research suggests that insufficient sleep has an impact on children’s memory and on their ability to learn. Yet, only about 45 percent of kids get nine hours of sleep per night, according a 2014 study by the National Sleep Foundation. Eight percent of kids sleep seven hour less per night; 23 percent sleep only eight hours a night. The National Sleep Foundation says children 6-11 need nine to 11 hours of sleep each night.
When it comes to adequate sleep, electronics once again seem to be a factor. Seventy-five percent of U.S. children have at least one electronic device in their bedrooms, according to the National Sleep Foundation; 51 percent have two or more.
There’s a simple solution, says Dr. Tatar: “If children are not falling asleep near bedtime, all electronics—phones, Gameboys, computers, and so on—should go to parents for the night. They can get them back in the morning.”