While adults often make New Year’s resolutions, January and February is also a good time for parents to help their kids get back on track with healthy habits. Shannon Dillon, MD, a pediatrician with Riley Physicians, offers some tips for making it easier to get the new year off to a healthy start.
Staying active during the winter months
“One of the most important things parents can do in January and February is to find ways for their kids to stay active even when the weather is cold,” Dillon says. “Whether it’s sledding, ice skating, building a snowman or just taking a walk, with the right clothing, outdoor play and recreation in the winter can be fun for everyone.”
Dillon says the tendency to remain indoors in the winter can lead to children spending more time than recommended on screens.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children participate in at least one hour of physical activity per day and have less than two hours of screen time,” she says. “I encourage families to consider the reverse and strive for less than an hour a day of screen time and two hours of being active.”
When parents have difficulty getting their kids off screens, Dillon suggests negotiating a compromise that for every minute kids are physically active they earn an equal amount of time with their devices.
“To combat the tendency for kids to be sedentary during the winter, offering a reward for getting up and being active is one way to help ensure children are putting their health first and getting the exercise they need,” she says.
Prioritizing well-child care
Before the busy spring and summer seasons, take time early this year to schedule annual primary care or well-child visits. If these visits have been postponed during the pandemic, Dillon says getting back on track with regular well-child visits is important. Children over the age of three should see a primary care doctor for a checkup at least once a year—even if they are healthy and regardless of whether they’ve seen a doctor for illness. (Children younger than age three should see their doctor more often; ask your pediatrician or primary care doctor for the recommended schedule.)
“Even if your child is well and not experiencing any health issues, there are things we check and screen for at a well-child visit that we don’t do when kids come in for sick visits,” she explains.
In addition to the general physical exam, well-check visits include:
- Height and weight check – It’s important for school-age children to continue having their height and weight checked to make sure they are growing at an appropriate rate and not over or under weight.
- Blood pressure screening – While high blood pressure in children is rare, the only way to monitor blood pressure is to check it regularly.
- Vision exam – Unless a child is already wearing glasses or seeing an optometrist, most well-child visits include a vision exam. Children, especially those who are younger, may not be aware they are having trouble seeing.
- Immunization review – A yearly checkup with a pediatrician or family medicine doctor is the best time to make sure all vaccinations are up to date.
“One of the biggest benefits of coming in for a yearly well visit is that kids and parents get a chance to talk with their doctor and develop a relationship,” Dillon says. “There is time set aside during a well visit for a more thorough conversation about health and well-being, which can really help establish a connection and trust with your child’s doctor.”
The new year is also a good time to determine whether your child will need a physical to play sports during the year or if health forms or immunization records will be needed for school. Calling the primary care office well in advance of when these visits or forms are needed is a good idea. This is especially true, Dillon says, if you want your children to be seen for well visits or sports physical appointments during the summer or on school breaks when primary care offices are busier.
Checking in on mental health
Heading into the second full winter of the pandemic, Dillon advises parents to check in with their kids frequently to see how they’re doing. Mental and emotional issues are more often associated with the middle and high school years, but since the pandemic, Dillon says even kids in elementary school are showing signs of depression and anxiety.
“With kids of any age, it’s really important to keep the lines of communication open and keep checking in,” she says. “There are things that are out of our control during these uncertain times, but if you can help your kids focus on the silver lining and what is within their control and remains unchanged, it will go a long way in helping them build the skills and resilience they need to thrive in tough situations.”
Changes in eating or sleeping habits, poor performance in school and withdrawal from activities previously enjoyed are some of the signs your child may be having trouble coping. Dillon suggests contacting your pediatrician or primary care provider for an evaluation as soon as you notice any persistent change in your child’s mood or behavior.
“We can offer resources for counseling, but with the pandemic, there is a wait for many of these services,” she says. “It’s much better to contact your pediatrician early so we can look into available resources before the issues with your child become more of a problem.”
Partner with your provider
A new year is a time for new beginnings. As parents look for ways to improve the health and well-being of their families, establishing a good relationship with primary care providers is important. Plan ahead for the coming year by scheduling well visits and reaching out if you have general questions about your child’s health.