To learn about the best ways parents can improve their child’s health, we caught up with Dr. Milan Mulye and Dr. Megan DeFrates, both clinical associates of pediatrics with The University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Pediatric Primary Care. They offer a wealth of information and tips — some surprising! — so dig in and learn more.
Rely on the best resource: your child’s doc
Consider yourself to be your child’s advocate for good health and foster a strong relationship with your child’s pediatrician, suggests Dr. Mulye. “Parents think that it’s not a good idea to bring a laundry list of concerns to the pediatrician, but it’s really OK,” she says. “It’s better than sitting at home and worrying or going to the internet for answers.”
Instead, take a prepared list of questions to doctor’s visits. “Your pediatrician is a great place to start with questions related to your child’s development and can help you recognize what is normal for your child’s age,” Dr. Mulye says, adding that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a free smartphone app of developmental milestones.
If your child has missed regular visits because of the pandemic, know that UChicago Medicine clinics have the highest standards for patient and family safety, and it’s important to catch up as soon as possible. “Your pediatrician isn’t just about shots, but about providing comprehensive care and information about nutrition, behavior and development,” says Dr. DeFrates.
Watch what you eat (because your child does)
Too much or not enough? Parents worry about their child’s eating patterns, but it’s good to know that typically, babies are good eaters. Take advantage of their natural curiosities about new tastes by sticking to real — rather than highly processed — foods. “There’s no need to buy expensive baby snacks,” says Dr. DeFrates.
As they transition to toddlerhood, they aren’t growing as rapidly. “This is when their appetite will become more wishy-washy,” she says. “Parents can expect that some days, their toddler will eat more than they do, and other days, they’ll seemingly survive on air. It’s best to look at the big picture and trust the process.”
In other words, resist the temptation to prepare a special meal so your child will eat. “That encourages picky eating and poorer nutrition,” Dr. DeFrates says. Instead, make mealtime a family affair. “There are never two menus at our house. We eat the same meals, together, and we try to involve our son in meal prep and planning so he has a vested interest,” says Dr. Mulye. To ease worries, have your pediatrician check your child’s growth chart to make sure they’re on a healthy track.
Finally, know this one truth: As kids grow, they’ll always watch what you eat, so model good nutrition and practice what you preach, both experts say.
Sleep and screens
Once everyone in the family has moved beyond survival-mode infant sleep schedules, build a sleep routine that you can stick to seven days a week. “Consistent sleep routines and set bedtimes help, as does setting expectations about sleep,” Dr. Mulye says. “Daycare and school settings can actually help because they have nap routines built-in.”
As your child grows, practice good sleep hygiene. “This refers to any habits that promote healthy sleep, including a schedule that is consistent on both weekdays and weekends,” Dr. DeFrates says.
Wind-down time before bed should not include a screen of any type. “The light from electronics shuts down the natural production of melatonin, so that last hour should be non-digital,” suggests Dr. DeFrates. “Read a book or play a game. It can make a huge difference. Parents may find they sleep better if they follow this recommendation too!”
Science supports this theory, says Dr. Mulye, pointing to a 2015 meta-analysis published in Sleep Medicine Reviews that suggests that evening video gaming and electronic device use all relate to delayed bedtimes, while good sleep hygiene and physical activity are associated with earlier bedtimes.
For the young child, play is naturally active. But as kids grow, they migrate to organized sports for their physical activity. Or they don’t — which means they may not be getting enough movement for good health. Your approach doesn’t have to be elite travel soccer vs. video games, DeFrates says. “It’s not all or nothing. Rather than calling it ‘sports’ or ‘exercise,’ call it ‘movement’ and encourage it,” she says. “Walk around the block, play at the park, take short hikes and family bike rides.”
From an early age, model physical exercise and engage in movement with your child as an interactive and fun way to connect. “When it’s just too cold out, a dance party in the living room can be good exercise as well,” she adds.
Seek to understand the “why”
Kids’ behaviors can be truly puzzling to parents, but the stronger the parent-child relationship, the easier it becomes to decipher your child’s needs. “Newer-age philosophies of positive or attachment parenting — while definitely a learning curve for some parents — can reward you with a stronger connection to your child,” says Dr. Mulye. This bond can translate into life-long well-being for your child and a more impactful parent-child relationship.
“The better you know your child, the more you can understand the why behind their behavior,” Dr. DeFrates adds. “If you are trusted and available to them when they are younger, they will continue to come to you when they are older. What a 5-year-old confides might not seem impactful, but if you have been there as a non-judgmental presence, your child will continue to confide in you with much bigger problems in future.”
Mental health is health
Even pre-pandemic, Dr. DeFrates says she and her colleagues saw a dramatic increase in mental health concerns in kids and teens. Like physical health, good mental health can be practiced — and the earlier, the better.
“We encourage parents to think about mental health early and teach little kids the language of feelings and emotions and practice mindfulness,” Dr. DeFrates says. If you find feelings a difficult subject to talk about, there are plenty of children’s books that can start the conversation. Kids of all ages — and their parents — can benefit from learning how to slow down breathing and mind activity when they are upset. Taking screen breaks and getting outside are great ways to boost mental health, Dr. Mulye says.
“We want people to know that they don’t have to be in crisis to seek professional help from a therapist or psychologist,” Dr. DeFrates says. Watch for signs of anxiety, fears, trouble separating — even physical complaints.
“If your child has a stomachache on school mornings, but not on the weekends, that’s a sign there is something going on,” Dr. DeFrates says. “The pain is real, but kids don’t have the life experience to put two and two together. They just know their stomach hurts.”
Learn more about The University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Pediatric Primary Care at uchicagomedicine.org/comer.