Pediatrics for Parents: How to Help Your Child Live a Healthy Life

Parents know a few things when it comes to their children’s health – but there’s plenty still to learn. Glean tips from local physicians as they cover the basics.

As a parent, you do anything you can to keep your child safe and healthy. But it’s inevitable they’ll get sick and have scrapes, cuts and bruises. They’ll also probably beg for junk food and ask a million times for five more minutes on their PS4.

So what can parents do better for their kids? These tips from local physicians guide parents on how to tackle some of the biggest issues that come up throughout a child’s upbringing.

Confronting Obesity

Nationwide, childhood obesity is a serious problem. Dr. Baby Than, a board-certified family medicine physician at Mercyhealth Woodstock, is treating more and more children for diseases linked to obesity, such as Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

“Obesity is a growing problem, and I will say it’s because of how technology is changing – kids are hardly going out to play and they’re always on a screen – and then they’re eating all these fatty foods,” Than says. “If you look 20 years ago, Type 2 diabetes in children was hardly anywhere.”

But now, nearly half of all new cases of diabetes in children are Type 2 rather than Type 1, Than adds.

Some parents may debate with her by arguing that their child is “big-boned,” or extremely athletic. But Than warns obesity is connected to just about every health complication out there: early arthritis, high cholesterol, frequent indigestion and bowel issues, sleep apnea – which is linked to early heart disease and kidney problems – and even mental health complications. So, when parents are in denial, Than brings out the growth charts. Visual aides can help parents realize what’s normal and what’s problematic.

Most parents are receptive to what Than has to say. But actually implementing changes in a child’s lifestyle is easier said than done.

“It’s difficult because most parents are so busy,” Than says. “We like to schedule more follow-ups with kids in unhealthy percentiles. We say ‘Oh, why don’t you come back in three months and we’ll check again.’ Scheduling more check-ups emphasizes to parents that this is important to monitor.”

In addition to encouraging a healthy diet and exercise regime, Than recommends parents set strict bedtime hours and limit their child’s daily screen time on phones, computers and television. And, since hypertension can be asymptomatic, Than also recommends that children who have a family history of high blood pressure start undergoing regular screenings at age 3.

“Family support is so important,” Than says. “If a child needs structured weight management, they’ll need their parents to supervise physical activity and ensure a nutrient-dense, balanced diet. It’s important because all of these health issues are doubling with the rise in obesity.”

Nutrition Tips

A healthy diet is a crucial component of avoiding obesity. Dr. Shaheen Misbah, a family practitioner with AMITA Health Medical Group in Elgin, has a mnemonic device to help parents remember how to keep their children healthy.

“It goes five, four, three, two, one,” she says. “Five” stands for five fruits and vegetables a day.

“It doesn’t mean five plates of salad, it means five servings,” Misbah clarifies. “Sometimes people don’t understand what a serving size is. One large banana could be two servings. A handful of baby carrots could be one serving. So five servings of fruits and vegetables is really not that hard. I tell parents to stick some fruits and vegetables into every meal – not just dinner.”

“Four” stands for four glasses of water a day. “Three” represents three servings of dairy, which could be cheese, yogurt or milk. “Two” represents two hours of exercise a day and “one” represents one hour of screen time.
“The last two aren’t nutrition based, but all of it ties together for a healthy lifestyle,” Misbah says.

Something parents tend to forget is that children need more fat in their diet than adults, she adds. Fat is important for a child’s brain development.
However, this doesn’t give children a free pass to consume junk food.

“Nutritional needs change as a child ages, and kids who are growing and developing should be drinking whole milk,” Misbah says. “I wouldn’t recommend whole milk for adults, but a pediatrician can tell a child when to switch.”

Misbah advises parents to re-introduce foods often, especially fruits and vegetables, since children’s taste buds are constantly changing. Sometimes, it may not be that their child “hates” carrots, it could just be the way the carrots were prepared. Experiment by cooking vegetables in different ways, or try cutting fruits and vegetables into fun shapes.

But short of an allergy or intolerance, Misbah doesn’t recommend eliminating foods from a child’s diet.

“It’s OK to offer a fun dip or condiment,” she says. “If your kid likes ketchup, and that’s the only way they’re going to eat broccoli, it’s OK to give them a little bit of ketchup. Children have different taste buds than adults.”

Parents should also model the behavior they want their child to emulate, Misbah adds, since kids have a knack for noticing if Mom and Dad aren’t eating fruits and vegetables.

“They’re smart,” Misbah says. “They’ll ask why they have to eat it, or if it’s some kind of punishment. But if it’s incorporated into the whole family’s diet, and it’s something your child grows up with, then it’s a lot easier to avoid problems. You don’t want them becoming a picky eater.”

Because once a child is picky, it’s hard to get them to try new foods. Misbah’s go-to tricks with picky eaters are to hide vegetables in pasta sauce or incorporate fruits and spinach into healthy smoothies.

Finally, Misbah recommends parents measure out proper serving sizes, especially with occasional snack foods like chips or cookies. Looking for sugar content in food labels can also help to avoid unnecessary calories.

“A lot of times it starts with the parents,” Misbah says. “The parents may have poor eating habits themselves, and it infiltrates down to the child. And once kids think this is a normal diet, and this is a normal serving size, they just mirror the same eating habits their parents have.”

And unfortunately, many of Misbah’s patients come from high-risk households to begin with, where there is a strong family history of high cholesterol, high blood sugars and high blood pressure. Misbah has patients as young as 6 years old who are diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. She sees 10-year-olds who have high blood pressure, who just cannot make improvements in their diet, so they’re on medications.

“It’s more common than you think, and that’s why an annual wellness checkup with a pediatrician is so important so we can monitor your child’s growth,” Misbah says. “Obesity is such a huge problem, so we’re really trying to get a handle on this in our patients’ lives.”

Preventing Illness

As a pediatrician with NCH Medical Group in Arlington Heights, Dr. Michelle Rose sees quite a few kids who come in for same-day appointments.

“Parents are always going to be parents, and their children are their biggest concern,” Rose says. “They’re always going to worry. My job as a pediatrician is to explain what’s really going on with their child, and how to handle the road blocks they’re going to come up against throughout their child’s life.”

The most common illnesses kids experience in general are caused by viruses, Rose says. That includes upper-respiratory infections, such as common colds, and gastrointestinal viruses that bring about vomiting or diarrhea illnesses. Most kids will experience these illnesses many times throughout their lives.

Rose advises parents to be proactive in attacking viruses by making sure their kids drink plenty of clear fluids such as water, Pedialyte and juices. If your child does catch a cold, she recommends utilizing a vaporizer, applying Vicks VapoRub or even steaming up the bathroom to help to loosen up mucus. In addition, elevating the head of the bed at night can help mucus to drain easier.

“With a regular cold, there usually aren’t any red flags,” Rose says. “But if anything changes – things like a fever that’s higher than 101 degrees, or perhaps pain in the ears, or a cough that won’t stop, or an appetite going way down – that’s very unusual. Those are reasons to come in the same day because a lot of times, a cold can change into a secondary infection that requires antibiotics.”

Rose suggests parents take four concrete steps to prevent their kids from getting sick. First, load your child’s diet with fruits and vegetables. These nutrients are the building blocks of a healthy immune system. Second, ensure your child sleeps nine to 10 hours a night. When sleep-deprived, it’s harder for the immune system to fight off infection. Third, make sure your child gets their doctor-recommended vaccinations.

Finally, good hand-washing skills are critical to preventing illness. Make sure your child washes their hands before and after they eat, when they get home from day care or preschool, and after they use the bathroom.

“Kids are most susceptible to illness the first two years they’re out in a public environment,” Rose says. “That could be early on, if your child is in day care early on, or it might not be until preschool or kindergarten. After a year or two, their bodies are exposed to most of the general viral illnesses in the community, so you will start to see a decrease in the amount of times kids are sick.”

Preventing Accidents

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, injury is the leading cause of death in children and young adults, and approximately 12,000 kids ages 1 to 19 die from unintentional injuries each year.

As the medical director of pediatrics at Centegra Northwestern Medicine, in McHenry, Dr. Laura Bianconi sees many opportunities for parents to prevent their children from being in accidents.

“First of all, just childproofing the house is very helpful,” Bianconi says. “All medicines and cleaners should be locked away, or up very high where a small child cannot get them. Gates for stairs are important to prevent falls.

Covers on electrical outlets are important, too, since kids stick things in there and give themselves electrical burns. Those are the basics.”

Burns are also common for toddler-age kids, Bianconi adds. She recommends parents avoid holding their children while drinking hot beverages. And of course, it’s  important to teach kids not to touch hot ovens, stoves, humidifiers, curling irons and other objects.

Bianconi also advises parents to program their local poison control number into their phones.

“You never know when your kid might swallow something they shouldn’t, like a cleaner or medicine,” she says. “Having the number right in your phone can make all the difference.”

More often than anything else, however, Bianconi sees the repercussions of parents transferring their kids out of car seats too soon. Any child less than 2 years old should be in a rear-facing seat. Once they outweigh this seat, they should be in a harness in a forward-facing seat, Bianconi says.

She advises waiting until your child is 35 inches tall and 40 pounds before transferring them into a booster seat, where they should sit until they’re about 57 inches tall and 80 pounds.

After “graduating,” always buckle up.

“Seat belts are huge,” Bianconi says. “Seat belts and bike helmets can really save a kid’s life, or prevent a major brain injury.”

As kids get older, accidents from sports, biking, swimming and other activities become more common. Any accident, no matter how minor, should be examined by an adult.

“For minor cuts, you really don’t have to do much – just wash them well, put a bandage on them and watch for signs of infection,” Bianconi says. “With bumps and bruises, use ice and ibuprofen.”

But as injuries progress, it’s important that kids are seen by a doctor, Bianconi adds. If a cut is deep and bleeding profusely, they’ll probably need stitches. Any child who experiences loss of consciousness, no matter how brief, should be seen by a doctor to make sure there isn’t a concussion.

More than anything, Bianconi advises parents to stay firm when their child starts complaining or pushing back against safety rules – especially when it comes to seat belts and bike helmets.

“I think parents should worry about accidents a lot,” Bianconi says. “It’s the No. 1 cause of death. Parents need to put their foot down and say ‘You know what? When it comes to safety, there aren’t choices.’”