Five doctors at Seattle Children's offer their top tips for keeping kids healthy in the new year. Their suggestions range from protecting kids against the flu and environmental toxins, to helping them get the rest they need to succeed.
Make one of these your family's 2013 New Year's resolution:
1. Protect your whole family against the flu
Doug Opel, MD, MPH, general pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital, says "It's not too late, but don't wait" to get a flu shot. Opel advises parents to vaccinate their children and themselves against the flu, a contagious virus that infects the nose, throat and lungs, and can cause fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhea.
"Cases of influenza are increasing in Seattle and King County, but we have yet to hit the flu season's peak," says Opel. "The flu is not your typical cold: it is much more dangerous. Several children have already died from flu this year in the United States – including a boy in Pierce County – and many more have been hospitalized."
Yearly flu vaccines prevent 70 to 90 percent of the flu in children and adults. National data shows that this year's flu vaccine contains the most common flu viruses circulating this year. Vaccines are especially important for high-risk children, such as those with cancer, lung or heart disease, and diabetes.
Use the HealthMap Vaccine Finder to search for locations offering the flu vaccine.
2. Reduce exposure to environmental toxins
Protecting kids from chemicals like lead and other pollutants may seem like a lot of work, but experts say it's increasingly important. And it's easier to do than you may think, says Sheela Sathyanarayana, MD, MPH, of Seattle Children's Research Institute.
"There are probably 80,000 chemicals that have been introduced into our environment that we do not have testing on," said Sathyanarayana. Chemicals in the environment have been linked to rising rates of everything from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) to obesity to cancer.
Keep carpets vacuumed and remove shoes at the door.
Eat fresh and unprocessed foods.
Reduce consumption of canned foods.
Avoid use of plastics with recycle codes #3, #6 and #7.
3. Help kids get a good night's sleep
"Starting each day after a good night's sleep helps boost your child's development and health, and benefits the whole family," says Maida Chen, MD, director of the sleep disorders program at Seattle Children's Hospital.
Chen suggests parents follow these good sleep habits with their kids to ensure they get the rest they need:
Keep a regular sleep and wake schedule. Try to have bedtime and wake time at about the same time every day.
Make sure kids get enough sleep. Most children are chronically sleep deprived. School-age children, including teenagers, need nine to 12 hours of sleep per night.
Create a calming bedtime routine. Read books together or listen to soothing music. Wound-up kids have a harder time falling asleep.
Provide an optimal sleep environment. Keep bedrooms quiet, dark, and free from media and screen devices (television, cell phones, computers, tablets, etc.).
Strive for at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day. Regular exercise and exposure to natural light (even when it's raining) help to regulate and promote refreshing sleep for kids and adults. Wind down any physical activity at least two hours before bedtime.
Watch for signs of poor or insufficient sleep. Many children may not be overtly sleepy, but rather become hyperactive, inattentive, and may have trouble with focus and schoolwork. Other kids do become sleepy, and may fall asleep in school or take naps.
4. Know the signs of depression and anxiety
Everyone – even young kids – feels down from time to time. But when anxiety or gloomy moods linger for a long time, they may be a sign of something more serious.
"Parents know their children best," says Laura Richardson, MD, MPH, of Seattle Children's Research Institute and division of adolescent medicine. "If you are concerned that your child or teen is depressed, anxious, or that they might have ADHD or a conduct disorder, talk to your child, seek help, and advocate for your child to get the best care possible."
Teens are especially vulnerable to depression, says Richardson, and the period from adolescence to adulthood is critical: "Many disorders that people struggle with in adulthood, including depression, panic and other anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia, begin in adolescence." A diagnosis doesn't necessarily mean medication; Richardson's recent study shows that 50 percent of teens who screen positive for depression don't need treatment.
Richardson advises parents to watch for changes in mood, weight, sleep habits, activities, and schoolwork, as they can be early signs of depression in children and teens.
5. Make a true commitment to being more active
A commitment to moving more is one of the best resolutions a family can make. Brian Saelens, PhD, of Seattle Children's Research Institute, encourages families to make "hard commitments" to being more active, and to consider major lifestyle changes.
For instance, if walking more frequently is your family's goal, "Get rid of your car so you can't drive it," says Saelens. "It may sound extreme, but it could work for some families."
Or start smaller, with an odometer budget: "Make a commitment to not drive more than 500 miles a month." That's a significant decrease from the 1,250 miles the average family drives each month. Take public transportation to work, and walk kids to school and the store when possible. Use the money you save from not buying gas to reward you and your kids, Saelens says.
This is a great time of year for parents to evaluate their family's activity level, set goals, and decide on consequences – both positive and negative – for those commitments. "You can say, ‘I'm going to walk with my kids three times a week for at least 30 minutes,' but without a negative consequence, it's not likely to happen," says Saelens.
Saying your resolution out loud to your kids and family can also be helpful, Saelens says. "Tell them, ‘We're going to walk once a week to school.' That public pronouncement makes it more of a hard commitment. It's easier to dismiss if you're just thinking about it."
Beyond the home, Saelens encourages parents to be advocates for change at the policy level. His research looks at how the availability of parks, fast-food restaurants and grocery stores, along with the walkability of a community, affects kids' health. Saelens bikes to work from North Seattle to downtown several days each week as part of his own personal commitment to healthy behaviors.
To learn more about health issues from Seattle Children's, visit On the Pulse.