Caron Watt and her husband are feeling pressed for time these days. They’ve got about an hour after work each night to squeeze in quality time with twin 22-month-old sons Shane and Dylan, and big sister Edie, 5, before the bedtime routine.
“What’s really falling off are family meals, and I have a lot of guilt about that, because I know it’s important,” says Watt. The kids usually eat early with their babysitter, and on weekends it’s often easier to feed the kids simple food and enjoy some grown-up time once they’re in bed. She’d like them to have more outdoor exercise, too, but rarely finds the chance to fit in an evening trip to the playground.
Like so many parents, Watt is keenly aware of the gloomy statistics: One in three Canadian kids is overweight or obese; only seven percent get enough exercise; and Type 2 diabetes—once unheard of in kids—now accounts for as many as half of the childhood cases seen at clinics in some parts of the country. Some researchers even say our kids’ generation could be the first with a life expectancy shorter than the one before.
How did we get into this situation and, given the many demands of modern parenthood, how do we fix it? The trickiest areas—food, stress, activity and sleep—on their own aren’t altogether surprising, but they’re all connected—so when you fix one, it has a domino effect on the others. Fortunately, the solutions are simple enough to start today.
“The time for made-from-scratch family meals is getting squeezed and squeezed,” says Kristen Yarker, a registered dietitian from Victoria who focuses on family nutrition. With less time for meal prep, we rely more than ever on quick takeout meals and fatty frozen dinners that are high in calories and low on nutrition. As a result, one in three Canadian children is now overweight or obese. “The nutritional environment has changed dramatically over the past few decades,” says Jill Hamilton, a paediatric endocrinologist who is director of both the Centre for Healthy Active Kids at SickKids as well as the SickKids Team Obesity Management Program. Portion sizes have gone up while quality has gone down, particularly for families with limited means, since fresher options often cost more. And junk and processed food is everywhere, says Hamilton, from candy at kids’ eye level in stores to pizza days and birthday cupcakes at school. Plus, with family time at a premium, it’s sometimes easier for stressed parents to give in when picky kids beg for processed chicken fingers rather than face a mealtime standoff over new foods. “The research shows that it takes anywhere from 10 to 30 times for a child to try a food before they like it,” says Yarker. Not surprisingly, parents usually give up after five, she says.
In kids, unhealthy weight (measured using the body mass index, not just the scale) leads to earlier onset of increasingly common conditions like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It’s this trend that led researchers at The University of Illinois and Children’s Hospital Boston to conclude that the current generation of kids may have a shorter average lifespan than ours, and that obesity is already shortening average life expectancy more than accidents, homicides and suicides combined.
Cutting out sugary drinks is an easy and effective place to start. Pop, sports drinks and juice—even the kind misleadingly labelled “unsweetened”—are packed with sugar and little else, says Hamilton. Next, plan meals on weekends, which is key for pulling off healthy food during the week, says Yarker. “People often resist it, but it really does save a lot of time and stress. You don’t have that 4 p.m. panic and end up going to a drive-through.” Instead, make precut and prewashed veg your go-tos—spending a little more can save the cost of takeout if it speeds up dinner prep.
Sherrie-Mae Guthrie, a mom of three from North Grenville, Ont., is on the road 218 kilometres a day Monday through Wednesday, first getting to and from her work as an elementary vice-principal and then to her 11-year-old daughter’s competitive swim practices. Guthrie makes morning smoothies, sets the slow cooker and packs portable dinners of veggies, sandwiches, and cheese and crackers for the car rides.
And remember, it’s not just what you eat but also when you eat that’s important. Skipping breakfast leads to overeating later in the day, says Hamilton, even in kids. They should be eating regularly throughout the day and not filling up on snacks right before bed. And if your kid is overweight—something that can be hard to see objectively without the help of your doctor—be careful to make healthy changes as a family and not single him out, she says. “We can all eat a little better. We can all move more.”
The World Health Organization has said that stress is the biggest global health problem we face—bigger than HIV. At the root of kids’ stress (and also a barrier to sleep) is overscheduling, says Shimi Kang, medical director for child and youth mental health for Vancouver community programs, and author of The Dolphin Parent. Children participate in more structured activities today than in the past, she says, resulting in a loss of an average of eight hours a week of free play over the past two decades—and it’s not doing our kids any favours. “Free play is highly protective against the physical and biological manifestations of stress,” she says. It reduces adrenalin and stimulates the part of the brain that works through problems.
Playtime also allows for bonding with friends, another important way of managing stress, says Kang. She adds that parents may incorrectly assume their kids get plenty of social time in their extracurriculars. But those activities are by nature highly structured, with a lot of listening to the grown-up in charge, and can crowd out more organic opportunities for fun and friendship. Another thing that can stress kids out: watching us frown over work email as we focus more on our devices and less on them, says Sandra Mendlowitz, a psychologist with the outpatient psychiatry program at SickKids in Toronto.
Stress is good when it prompts kids to jump out of the way of a car or sprint to the finish at a track meet. But constant stress has all kinds of negative consequences for their overall well-being. It leaves their bodies awash in adrenalin and cortisol, essentially in a state of hyperarousal that—even in kids—can lead to high blood pressure, headaches and digestive disorders like colitis, and can worsen existing conditions like asthma or diabetes. “When you are highly stressed, you’re more vulnerable even to the simple cold,” says Mendlowitz. Also, a loss of social connection—when free play is sacrificed, for instance— has been shown to shorten lifespan. In an extreme example, tumours are more likely to metastasize in cancer patients who experience loneliness.
Your undivided attention is simply your best tool to help your kid learn to manage stress. “Parenthood is a full-contact sport—that means that parents need to pay a lot of attention to their children,” says Denis Daneman, paediatrician-in-chief at SickKids. He credits the success of his two grown children in part to the habit of having dinner together each night, no matter what was going on. Try leaving your phone in another room and really engage them in conversation after school, Kang says. Kids crave different types of attention depending on their ages and personalities, but whether you’re cuddling your small one or hiking with your eldest, “the key is being fully present in that moment.”
If you’re an overscheduled family, take a hard look at cutting back on some of the activities that crowd your calendar. There’s so much pressure to entertain and enrich them and keep them physically active, but the truth is they’re way better off if some of their exercise comes from running around the backyard. Prioritize downtime, sleep, play and time with friends, and then fit extra-curricular activities around these, not the reverse, suggests Kang.
To balance the swimming, gymnastics, soccer, baseball and hockey that keep her three kids busy during the week, Guthrie’s family plans very little on weekends, leaving lots of space for her kids to do what they please. “We have a play structure and pool in our backyard, and the neighbourhood kids come and play. That free time is completely their own,” she says.
And no matter how things are going today, it’s good to know the early warning signs of mounting stress. Avoidance is the hallmark of anxiety, says Mendlowitz. So if your child normally loves dance class but has been asking to skip it lately because she’s tired and overwhelmed, it might be time to drop something. Changes in behaviour, appetite, sleep and irritability can all signal elevated stress, and warrant an appointment with your child’s physician.
The just-released 2015 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth shows that 85 percent of three- to four-year-olds get more than the recommended one hour of screentime per day, and 76 percent of five- to 11-year-olds get more than the suggested two hours of screentime. But we can’t blame the shocking rise of sedentary behaviour on TVs and smartphones alone. We’re a safety-obsessed generation of parents, much less likely to allow kids to walk to school, ride their bikes around the block or play outside unsupervised. “When we have schools banning tag at recess or banning balls, those are adults’ decisions that make it harder for kids to be traditionally active,” says Cole Wilson, president of the Saskatchewan Physical Education Association. And it’s not just schoolyard scrapes we’re trying to prevent. “We worry about child abduction, when the stats show there’s a very low potential for that to happen,” says John Elkins, program specialist for physical education, health and science in the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District.
Physical activity is enormously important for our children’s overall health, not just for physical fitness but for lowering stress-hormone levels and helping them sleep better, says Hamilton. And because most kids don’t walk or bike to school these days and are generally more sedentary overall, they come to school less prepared to learn, adds Wilson. “Those who are physically active and in shape do better academically.” A review of research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores, by improving attention and information processing, as well as helping kids cope with stress. Those who get less exercise also tend to get less outdoor time, and miss out on the immune-boosting and mental health perks of being in nature, says Kang.
Start by putting limits on screentime, even if you have to withstand major whining about being bored. “Don’t let the iPad be the babysitter,” says Wilson. Kids will naturally be more active when they’re away from the hypnotic glow of their devices. Elkins says parents can also help by advocating for good physical education programs, like active recess and intramurals, for their school-aged kids. “Many of these programs rely on volunteerism, so parents who have a skill set should try to help provide those opportunities for kids,” he says. Or do your neighbours a solid by taking their kids along when you head to the park to kick a ball around with yours.
Don’t let their skating lessons make you complacent. A once-weekly class doesn’t necessarily teach them how important it is to keep moving all the time—but being active as a family does. Build exercise into your lifestyle by walking places, opting for bowling over movie night or just hanging out together outside. Since a simple park outing with her twin toddlers is such an undertaking, Watt has made their backyard a great space for them to run and play. “We’ve got the boys fenced in back there so they can climb on their toys and ride their plastic trucks.”
Canadian data shows that 40 percent of our children are sleep deprived simply because they’re too busy, Kang says. We’re raising children in a “toxic culture of busyness,” she warns, that’s robbing us of downtime and shut-eye. Two-career households, long commutes, jam-packed extracurricular schedules and technology that keeps us up at night—all have pushed bedtimes back for parents and kids alike. School-aged children aren’t getting the minimum 10 hours they need, and toddlers and preschoolers, who need between 10 and 13 hours, often fall short, too.
Guthrie admits hers is an “overbusy family.” In addition to her eldest’s competitive swim practices, she has another daughter, 9, who’s a competitive gymnast, and a six-year-old son who plays baseball, soccer and hockey. On swim days, Guthrie is up at 4:30 a.m. to prepare meals and get ready for the day.
In many cases, parents are not setting a strong example for their kids around good sleep habits, says Jean-Philippe Chaput, a health scientist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and an associate professor at the University of Ottawa. Most people see sleep as a waste of time and don’t recognize the benefits for overall health, he says, and they pass that mentality down to their kids. We may intend to turn in at a decent hour but inevitably get waylaid by the dishes, permission slips and unread email—those same things can distract us from getting our kids down as well.
Another part of the problem is that parents may not be enforcing consistent sleep routines for their children. Mendlowitz says she’s noticed a decline in parental resolve in the 20 years she’s been working with families. “They basically lack confidence in their parenting skills. When they don’t set rules around independent sleeping, it tends to disrupt everyone’s rest and makes kids dependent on their parents to fall asleep,” she says. When you’re exhausted, it may seem easier to lie down with your child while he falls asleep or to simply scooch over a little when he climbs into your bed at night, she adds. “But the longer it goes on, the longer it will take to stop.”
Chronic sleep debt affects nearly every aspect of our health. “Number one, it leads to obesity,” says psychiatrist and sleep specialist Atul Khullar, who treats kids at an Edmonton sleep clinic. At any age, studies show, we eat more when we stay up late. Inadequate sleep also affects attention and focus, which can impact the way kids learn and behave in school. And it’s directly linked to poor mental health; a recent Norwegian study found that children who had sleep problems, even as young as four, were at greater risk for psychiatric issues like anxiety and ADHD by age six. Lack of sleep is also tied to heart disease and diabetes, adds Kang. “I tell parents, ‘You might as well just give your eight-year-old a pack of cigarettes.’ Sleep deprivation is that bad for their health.”
If you know your child isn’t getting enough rest, take heart that even a little more sleep goes a long way. “You’ll get some benefits even with 15 extra minutes,” says Khullar—but, he adds, 30 to 60 minutes more is even better. Inch bedtime a little earlier to begin, or see if you can tweak your morning routine to give kids a slightly later wake-up. Parents of toddlers and preschoolers could also introduce rewards for staying in bed, says Mendlowitz. You can’t control when they fall asleep, she adds, but you can establish firm expectations about going to bed and staying there during certain hours. “The best plan is to have regular sleep and wake times, even on the weekends.”
Also be sure to model good behaviour, especially with electronics. Even toddlers can get hooked on the family iPad, and the light cast by these devices can trick our brains into thinking it’s daytime. Create a household tech blackout an hour ahead of bedtime (parents too!)—instead of video games, make time for reading, baths and quiet chats in bed. Or get some exercise together. Everyone will fall asleep more easily and get a better night’s rest after a quick walk or bike ride around the block.
A version of this article appeared in our July/August 2015 issue with the headline “How to help your kids live longer,” p. 102-6.