A question many parents around the globe ask every year: “Is my little one ready for their first day at school?”
In a frenzy to find the right school, uniform and stationery, some of the vital aspects of school-readiness may be forgotten: your child’s health.
But why should parents have to worry about the health of their kids just because they’re going to school? After all, according to the Australian Department of Health, our children are healthy and doing well.
Read: Parenting influences child's academic success
The reality is that childhood is a complex life stage, with numerous factors influencing a child’s health and development. If your little one’s health isn’t monitored carefully, it could set him on a path of ill health that could have a long-term impact.
And, despite their resilience and ability to bounce back, school-aged children are at increased risk for infections and illnesses – simply because they’re in daily contact with a number of other children.
So, what can you do to ensure your child is 100% ready for the new school year?
1. Don’t hesitate, vaccinate
When asked about the main health concerns for school-aged kids, paediatrician Dr Rabeen Lutchman immediately stresses immunisation. All parents need to make sure their kids’ shots are up to date at the start of the school year.
Immunisation remains a cornerstone of healthcare in childhood, and all children and adolescents should be immunised at the right time to prevent illness and disease outbreaks. Immunisation prevents between 2 and 3 million deaths every year, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates.
“The ideal age for a child to receive a vaccine is when he or she would get a good immune reaction and, therefore, maximum protection. This depends on multiple factors, such as the type of vaccine, the age of the child and the immune status of the child,” says Dr Lutchman, adding that there are guidelines that specify the ages at which children should receive specific vaccines.
2. Teach good hygiene
General hygiene is, of course, also critically important to ensure your child stays healthy throughout the year. Good hygiene can prevent the spread of viruses, bacteria, fungal infections and other “nasties”.
“Hand washing should be encouraged throughout the day,” says Dr Rabeen Lutchman, “but especially before meals, after using the toilet, and after being outside in the play area.”
Children should also be taught to cover their mouths and noses when they’re coughing or sneezing. Teach your kids to cough or sneeze into a tissue and to put the tissue in the trash before washing their hands.
Also tell your kids never to share water bottles, food or other personal items. Offer your child this simple rule: “if you put the item in your mouth, keep it to yourself”.
3. Test vision
The Eye Foundation, which represents Australia’s eye specialists, recommends vision testing by an eye health professional at birth and during infancy, followed by regular examinations throughout a child’s school years.
When last was your child’s vision checked? Make a plan if it was several years ago.
4. Check on hours of sleep
Check whether your child is sleeping enough. Individual sleep needs do vary, but it’s recommended that school-aged children should get at least 10 hours of sleep a day. Teens should sleep between nine and 10 hours a day.
5. Get kids active
Physical activity cannot be overemphasised – most children are just not moving enough. In fact, worldwide, more than 80% of adolescents are not meeting physical activity recommendations. The current recommendation is an hour of physical activity per day.
Keep your kids healthy by encouraging them to participate in sports, and enjoy doing physical activities as a family as often as you can.
6. Check for anxiety and depression
Depression and anxiety in childhood and adolescence can affect your child’s school performance and social functioning, and could put them at risk for substance abuse, unwanted pregnancy and even suicide.
Learn to recognise the signs (e.g. irritability, anger, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, social withdrawal, increased sensitivity to rejection, changes in appetite) and get help as soon as possible.
7. Ensure good nutrition
A nutritious and balanced breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so make sure it’s never skipped and that the sugary cereals are not part of it.
Your child should also be able to enjoy healthy foods during the school day. If you have to pack lunch boxes and make snacks for your children every day of the week, try the following:
- Buy a sturdy plastic container big enough to easily accommodate the food you want your child to take to school.
- Consider buying a small, non-breakable vacuum flask for keeping cold foods and drinks cold, and hot foods and drinks hot.
- Include a variety of whole grains, fruit, veggies, healthy fats, protein and dairy products to ensure that your kid’s diet is balanced.
- Resist the easy option of buying cold drinks, crisps and sweets.
- Remember that children are different to adults – they have a much smaller stomach, so they need regular snacks.
8. Manage chronic conditions
Chronic conditions such as asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and allergic rhinitis (hay fever) need to be well controlled. Make sure your child’s condition is carefully monitored by your doctor and ensure that teachers and school nurses are aware of their condition.
9. Check your child’s backpack
Over-packed schools backpacks are a major health concern for kids, says Dr Lutchman, adding how they should never include more than the required items for that specific school day.
“A heavy bag could lead to shoulder pain, backache, posture problems, discomfort and scoliosis (abnormal curving of the spine). A general rule of thumb is that the weight should be less than 10% of your child’s weight,” he advises.
Also be sure to choose a bag that’s really comfortable. Look for wide shoulder straps and make sure the back is nicely padded.
10. Head lice
Be prepared for a head lice infestation, which is very common among school-going children. Teach your children not to share brushes, combs, hair accessories, scarves, towels and hats, and also teach them to avoid head-to-head activities, like reading from the same book with heads close together.
Do a lice check before you send your kids to school for the new school year, and repeat these checks throughout the year. Look for small, white nits.
- Reviewed by Doctor Rabeen Lutchman, registered paediatrician
- Australia Department of Health
- Mayo Clinic (Staying healthy in school: Kid-friendly tips)
- The American Academy of Pediatrics
- The Eye Foundation
- Oregon State University and Micronutrients
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Image: Shool kids from Shutterstock