To say that raising healthy children is a full-time job is an understatement. So much goes into it — both love and time — and it’s hard to know if you’re covering all the bases. Yes, there are thousands of parenting books out there, but notes on a page aren’t always practical.
Enter pediatricians. These kids’ docs are a wellspring of information; they know what to look out for and how to ensure your child is reaching all the right benchmarks. Whether you’re a new parent or a grandparent, consider and share the following tips from top kids’ docs.
1. Ditch the bottle early.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you stop giving your baby a bottle around his first birthday and no later than 18 months. That’s in part to help him start to learn new skills, but also because prolonged bottle use can add excess calories to the diet. One recent study found that babies who were still given bottles regularly by the time they were 2 were more likely to be obese before age 6. “Parents often have a hard time letting go of the baby years, and the bottle is an extension of that,” says Sharon Somekh, M.D., a pediatrician based in Roslyn, New York. “But holding on to something too long can be unhealthy too.”
2. Don’t panic if you see a tick.
Lyme disease can be a scary, but your child’s not destined to get sick if he picks up a tick or two. “If you live in an endemic area, it’s important to do regular tick checks and remove a tick as soon as possible if you see one,” says Gail Shust, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at NYU Langone in New York City. If a critter has latched on, don’t freak out. “Just because you’ve had contact with a tick does not mean you’ll get Lyme disease,” says Shust. “And if you do, the vast majority of people are cured with antibiotics.”
3. Let them get dirty.
It’s actually good for your kid to be messy sometimes. Scientists theorize that disinfecting every inch of our environment may ultimately make kids sicker. This “hygiene hypothesis” holds that if your home or your child is “too clean,” her immune system may not be effectively challenged to respond to threats, increasing the risk of asthma and other immune-related conditions. Research also shows that newborns who live in a home with a dog are much less likely to develop allergies than those who do not. “That doesn’t mean you skip washing hands before you eat or after you go to the bathroom — but you can let your kid get a little down and dirty sometimes,” says Somekh.
4. Be a good role model.
If your palms begin to sweat the moment you sign in at the pediatrician’s office, do your best to calm down. “Parents are often just as anxious as their children when they come to an appointment, and kids pick up on that very easily,” notes Somekh. Can’t kick your anxiety to the curb? Fake it, especially when your child is scheduled to be vaccinated. “Your child is going to be much more likely to cry or carry on when you make a big deal over something like a shot,” she adds. Tell her it will be fine and promise to do something special, like checking out a new playground, when it’s all over.
5. Make time to play.
It can be hard to find a minute to just have some fun. But playing with your kids does more than just burn off extra energy — it’s an important part of their development. “Our kids spend so much of their days sitting in a car or in front of screen, but they really need some time every day to just run around, laugh, and have fun” says Dr. Tanya Altmann, a spokesperson for American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). And it’s not just the little ones who can benefit from an epic freeze-tag battle. “Everyone’s brain needs time to decompress,” adds Altmann. “We just don’t give ourselves time to unwind.” So go ahead. Build that human pyramid, toss a ball in the backyard, have a tickle fight — whatever it takes to have fun.
6. Give your teen a bedtime.
You may have strictly enforced light’s-out when your child was a toddler, but by high school, parents often hit the sack before their teens do. “Even adolescents need to go to bed at a regular time each night,” notes Somekh. “Teens’ days are packed from the moment they wake up until bed, and they often don’t get a break.” Teens need about eight to 10 hours of sleep to function at their best. However, only a small percentage reach this goal on school nights. Make sure they hit the sack early — and keep devices like phones and computers out of the bedroom.
7. Keep antibiotic use to a minimum.
Many parents have gotten the message that taking too many antibiotics can do far more harm than good, says Altmann. Still, when your kid is complaining about an ear infection or an achy throat, it’s only natural to hope you can get medication that will make it go away
fast. “We need to keep in mind that most of the time when a child gets sick, it’s caused by a virus,” she notes. (Antibiotics treat bacterial infections, not viral infections.) Take antibiotics unnecessarily, and you risk that the next time your child really needs the medication, it won’t be as effective. Instead, ask your doctor about natural therapies that may provide relief for things like a sore throat or a cold, such as nasal saline solutions, putting a humidifier in the bedroom, and making sure your kids get plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, fluids and sleep.
8. Don’t ask Dr. Google.
The internet is a wonderful tool, but sometimes having too much information can be a dangerous thing. “There’s a lot of misleading information out there,” notes Altmann. “Often parents can become pointed in the wrong direction or get misinformation that can lead to problems or cause extra stress.” If in doubt, call your pediatrician — that’s what they’re there for.
9. Share your health-care news.
Urgent-care facilities have become a $20 billion-plus industry, with more than
10,000 facilities opening their doors by the end of last year, according to medical market research firm Kalorama Information. And while they offer a huge convenience to busy families when it comes to checking out everything from sore throats to twisted ankles, it’s important to keep your pediatrician informed about what’s going on in terms of your child’s health. “There are many benefits to urgent-care facilities but it can sometimes fragment the health-care system,” says Altmann. “If we don’t get all the information about medications your child is taking or issues they may be having, things can be missed or fall through the cracks.”
10. Get your child vaccinated.
“This includes the flu shot too,” says Shust. “Even in seasons where the vaccine is not as effective as we would hope, it can still have some benefit in shortening the course of illness and lessening the intensity of disease if you or your child do get sick.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that everyone 6 months of age or older get vaccinated each year against influenza.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine The Science of Raising Happy Kids.