School-age

Your back-to-school kids' health questions answered

Mom, paediatrician and emergency room doctor Dina Kulik answers your questions on sleep, anxiety, immunity and more.

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Back to school: An exciting, nerve-racking time for everyone. The kids are most concerned about having the coolest back-pack, while you madly try to fortify their immune systems and pack the perfect lunches—and make sure they eat them! Relax. No one’s grading your performance. Here are a few lessons to take with you.

1. Going into a new school year, how can I keep my kid healthy?
As a mom of three young kids, what I most worry about is what they will be exposed to daily. And unfortunately, kids are bound to infect one another with the virus du jour when they’re in close contact. My top suggestion for keeping your kid healthy throughout the year: Make sure he’s up to date on his vaccinations and has had the flu shot. Next, encourage him to wash his hands often with soap and water for as long as it takes to hum “Happy Birthday.” Washing before and after meals, and after using the washroom is a given, but kids can should be doing it throughout the day, too, like after recess and as soon as they come home from school. When you’re packing his lunch in the morning or washing up containers at the end of the day, remind them to avoid sharing their drinks, food and utensils with friends. Last, teach him to sneeze and cough into the crease of his elbow instead of his hands.

2. Would a daily probiotic help boost my kid’s immunity?
Though I would love to tell you that a simple remedy like a probiotic will keep your kids healthy and help them recover from illness, there simply isn’t any convincing evidence for this yet. If you want to try a probiotic—it won’t cause any harm—look for live cultures in a product that needs to be refrigerated.

3. My kid is very anxious about school. How can I help her through it?
This can be a stressful and anxiety-inducing time for kids (and parents!) of any age. Getting into a new routine; meeting a new teacher and new friends; handling school work and social pressures—it can be a lot. First, make sure your kid gets plenty of rest and is eating well. When these needs are met, she can better handle stress when it comes up. Also, pay attention to how extracurricular activities affect her. Does she have too much going on? Sometimes doing a little less can relieve a ton of pressure. The next one is tricky to achieve, but kids should be active for at least an hour a day—sweaty, heart-pumping activity. Many kids (and most adults) don’t get close to this, but it’s something we should all aim for. When you notice your kid feeling overwhelmed, there are a few other things you can do. Encourage her to talk to someone—you, a close friend or a family member. Also urge her to take time out; some quiet moments away from the problem can help. Teach her relaxation techniques, like deep breathing while counting, meditation or visualization, to help her work through her anxiety.

4. My kindergartner often comes home with his lunch box barely touched. How freaked out should I be?
The best way to get your kid used to eating lunch independently—opening containers and bags and finishing it all within a time frame—is to practise by playing lunchtime at home. A fun, colourful bag and containers will also help build excitement. Bring your kid along on the weekend grocery shop, and ask what he’d like to have in his lunch—if he helps to plan and prepare it, he’s more likely to try it. Also offer variety as much as you can. Instead of a sandwich every day, try leftover pasta or chicken, or soup and a few finger foods—there are no rules and plenty of containers to pack it all up in. (Tip: Find three weeks’ worth of no-sandwich lunch ideas starting on page 92.)

5. My kid is begging me for a mini bottle of hand sanitizer for her backpack. Does she need one?
The simple answer is, no, she doesn’t. But if having some sanitizer helps her keep her hands clean, and she’s not likely to wash up several times a day without this reminder, then why not? Perhaps she will have fewer illnesses this fall and winter. The downside to using alcohol or chemical sanitizers is that they indiscriminately kill unhealthy and healthy bacteria, so handwashing with soap and water is often a better bet.

6. My five- and eight-year-old kids average about nine hours of sleep a night. I know they need more, but it’s hard to fit everything in—homework, dinner, baths—and get them to bed earlier.
I’m a stickler for sleep. Obsessed, perhaps. The reality is, well-rested kids (and adults, for that matter) are happier, less likely to get sick (with acute illness and chronic disease), more social, more successful in school and easier to parent than tired ones. Children under three years old need 12 hours of sleep a night. Kids older than three do best with 10 to 12 hours. Yes, 10 to 12 hours! Every night. How do you make that work with extracurricular activities, meals and homework? Time management, of course—pre-prep dinners if you can—and a big one for me: minimizing screen time. If your child is putting off homework and meals to watch TV or play games on a device, this delays bedtime. Most kids can fit in the necessary activities before hitting the sack without those other distractions.

Dr. Dina Kulik is a paediatrician and emergency room doctor in Toronto, and mom to three boys, who are five, three and 18 months. Send your kids’ health questions to editors@todaysparent.com

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