Sniffles, sneezes and scratches. With the new year school officially here, it’s only a matter of time before your child shows one of the symptoms of sickness – whether it’s a cold, a viral infection or head lice.
The classroom is a common environment for kids to spread illness, says Dr. Banu Kumar, the division chief of pediatric hospital medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan. “They tend to get germs and they pass it on from person to person,” Dr. Kumar says, “because many of these germs are transmitted when you cough and sneeze.”
While it can seem impossible to keep kids healthy, particularly when they’re mingling with other children during the school year, there are a few ways to build their defenses against disease – and to help keep moms and dads healthy, too.
Here, Dr. Kumar discusses five ways parents and children can protect themselves from common childhood diseases.
1. Establishing a bedtime routine
Sleep deprivation can lead to concentration and learning issues, Dr. Kumar says, which negatively impact a child’s performance in class. And when it comes to their health, not getting enough sleep each night – a suggested 10-12 hours for younger kids and 8-10 hours for adolescents – can actually weaken a child’s immunity to diseases. The more they rest, the less likely they are to catch a common kid disease.
“Set a consistent bedtime and have a bedtime routine,” Dr. Kumar suggests.
Children should avoid consuming caffeine or energy drinks in the evenings, too, as these beverages make it harder to fall asleep.
The same goes for mom and dad. While it’s not always easy to get enough rest, sleep shields parents from illness too.
2. Encourage exercise
Whether it’s yoga, basketball, running or biking, exercise not only helps reduce obesity, it also boosts your immune system – which keeps you healthier in the long run.
Dr. Kumar suggests parents encourage their kids to play outdoors while the weather is still warm in order to get more vitamin D, which comes from sunlight.
“Vitamin D is needed for calcium, and calcium is needed for bones,” Dr. Kumar says.
Parents should also stay active as a way to keep themselves healthy and avoid illness, particularly if their child falls ill and they are caring for them.
3. Nutritional needs
“Better nutrition means better immunity,” Dr. Kumar says.
And that starts at home.
“We all know that school starts really early,” she says, “but it always helps to have a nutritious breakfast before they leave home.”
Eggs are a nutritious option for breakfast, but parents should also pack a healthy lunch and snacks for their children, which includes whole grain bread, vegetables, fruits, tuna and lean protein like turkey, she adds.
Stay hydrated, too, and avoid sugar-filled drinks. Opt for water instead.
“Drinking water helps kidneys flush out toxic materials and keep your body healthier,” she adds.
4. Hygiene habits
To prevent the spread of virus, wash your hands before eating and after using the restroom, Dr. Kumar suggests.
“Children need to learn how to use soap and water,” and if that’s unavailable for some reason, they should use hand sanitizer. When washing their hands, kids should spend at least 20 seconds scrubbing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes.
“When they do get sick, they need to be taught to cover their mouth, and we don’t want them to use their hand to cover their mouth.”
Cough or sneeze into sleeves or crooks of elbows, she suggests, and be sure to cover your mouth.
When it comes to meals, kids should not share food or drinks either, Dr. Kumar says. By using each other’s spoons and forks and opting to share straws, kids are passing their infections around.
Aside from colds and viruses, students are also known to spread lice around during the school year. In fact, an estimated 6 to 12 million lice infestations occur among children between the ages of 3 and 11 years old annually in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So, before your child comes home scratching her head, urge her to avoid sharing combs, hairbrushes and hats with any of her friends.
Routine vaccines for things like chicken pox and polio, along with the seasonal flu vaccine, are imperative for your child’s health. “Vaccinations help kids,” Dr. Kumar says, “and it’s truly concerning that some parents are not choosing to vaccinate.”
By October, she says, flu activity will start to pick up, so it is recommended that families get the flu shot by the end of fall or beginning of winter.
“Kids younger than 6 months of age cannot get vaccinated for flu, so they depend on the immunity from the community,” she adds.
Discover more at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan website.