You have a new baby. It’s an awesome privilege and an awesome responsibility. When does your influence become important for helping your child develop a healthy lifestyle? Well, it’s never too soon to start. This is the time to begin!
The first five years of a child’s life are fundamentally important. Research has confirmed these years are particularly important for brain development. Children learn more quickly in these early years than any other time in life. With that in mind, your role in helping your child develop a healthy lifestyle becomes even more crucial. You are setting the stage for healthy habits your child will practice lifelong.
Many factors contribute to good health. Good nutrition, physical fitness and a healthy sleep pattern are always important for child health development. Of course, there are more than three factors that contribute to overall good health for your child – emotional health, family dynamics, oral and vision care, safety at home, etc. Establishing a relationship with a good pediatrician or family practice provider is not only important for immediate child care health needs, but it also provides you with a knowledgeable resource that can answer your questions.
Good nutrition begins at birth. You very likely know breastfeeding is best for both of you. Human milk has all the nutrients, calories and fluids your baby needs for good health. Formula does not contain the same substances as human milk, which actually protects your baby’s health. Ear infections, diarrhea, pneumonia, bacterial and viral infections occur less frequently in breastfed babies. Breastfeeding has many other advantages too.
However, not every mother can or does breastfeed. Numerous choices are available in various formulas, bottles, nipples and other aids. Talk to your pediatrician or family doctor about the best choices for your infant. As your baby grows, you will start to add solid foods like baby cereal and baby food or mashed whole foods. Starting solid foods too early can open the door to obesity later. Make sure your baby is ready.
Developmental changes from ages 1 to 3 contribute to factors that can make mealtime difficult. Managing mealtime helps you keep your toddler on track with good nutrition. From toddler tantrums, you move to preschool pleasers. By this age, your child likes the pleasure that comes from making mom and dad happy. That doesn’t mean your challenge is over though. They can also become extremely finicky. Some simply aren’t interested in eating. You decide what to serve and set the meal and snack schedule. Give them choices whenever possible. Allow them to stop eating when they decide they are satisfied. Try to make meal time a pleasant time and not a battleground.
Three quick nutritional tips:
- Milk and water are the best drinks for young children. Avoid juices. They contribute to poor oral health and are high in sugar. If you do occasionally give them juice, use juices without any added sugar.
- Continue to offer your children a variety of foods. Often, young children will reject bananas one week and decide it’s their favorite food the following week.
- Involve preschoolers in preparing the meal and setting the table (as much as possible). Talk about and model nutritious choices.
Tons of books have been written on child nutrition at various stages. Tons of resources are available online. Here is one resource able to answer almost any nutrition-related question you may have regarding your child. Continue to make nutrition a priority as your child reaches school age.
Play – which generally includes physical activity – contributes to good health in several ways. Through play, children develop cognitive skills like problem solving. They improve motor skills. They strengthen their bodies through active movement. They increase their verbal and social skills. And they reduce stress! (Yes, young children do experience stress, although it may not be in terms you think of as stressful.)
Play and learning go hand in hand. Play and fitness do too. As a parent of a young child, you are the key influence in getting your child moving! Be creative and build enthusiasm by introducing play activities that make moving fun.
Babies, obviously, are too young for structured ideas. But it is important they are active too. Use a play mat with suspended toys. This encourages baby to reach and kick. Daily tummy time helps baby strengthen muscles and get ready to sit up and crawl. Supervise tummy time closely until you are sure your baby is strong enough to hold and turn his or her head independently.
By the time your baby is 3 to 4 months old, you can help baby stand and use leg muscles with your support. As baby grows, make sure baby gets time every day to roll, crawl, sit up and eventually stand.
As your baby becomes a toddler, encourage both structured and unstructured play every day. Structured play is important because your interaction with baby promotes brain development in different ways. Planned outings to a local children’s museum or library are good choices. Go for walks as far as your child’s little legs can make it and talk about everything you see. (You may want to bring a push car or stroller along for the return home.) Use the back yard as a teaching tool for names and colors of things you see. You don’t have to leave the house.
Keep your young one moving – walk, run and jump together. It’s good for both of you. Push your child on the swing and catch his or her on the slide. Keep up a running conversation. Use these times to help your child improve motor skills and learn new skills. Many interactive play opportunities exist inside too.
Young children also need unstructured play where they use their imagination to explore their world (both inside and outside). Obviously, they still need adult guidance. You are still needed, but now as an observer to ensure safety. Toddlers and preschoolers love to play with older siblings and neighborhood children. Kicking balls, dancing together and playing organized games like hide and seek or follow the leader are fun, and they encourage physical fitness.
By age 4, your child may be ready for organized sports like T-ball, karate, gymnastics or swimming lessons. If you live in a rural area where no organized sports are available, form a neighborhood team!
The physical benefits of keeping your child active include: stronger muscles and bones, less likely to become overweight and decreased risks of developing chronic health problems, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and elevated blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels.
Three quick fitness-related tips:
- To encourage physical activity at home, keep TVs, computers and video games out of your child’s bedroom. Limit TV, computer and video time to an hour a day or less for kids up to 5 years old. (Some experts recommend no screen time prior to 18 months old.)
- About 1 out of every 3 children is either overweight or obese in the United States. Poor nutrition, lack of physical activity and other lifestyle issues account for most obesity in children, but it can also be due to a medical cause. Do not force excessive exercise. Learn what you should do if you are worried about obesity in your child. Your doctor can help you develop an effective plan.
- Plan physically active family events. Help plan and participate in community events encouraging fitness. You model the positive enjoyment of physical activity and time together as a family. In addition to burning calories and having fun, your child benefits in additional areas such as social skills and cognitive development.
Nighttime. Some nights you can’t wait. Others, you just want to savor a few more minutes before you say good night. Healthy sleep habits start in infancy – and they start with your help. Sleep is very important for babies and young children.
Newborns require about 17 hours of sleep a day. As your baby grows, that time will lessen. But even at a year old, your baby will likely still sleep about 14 hours a day. Track night sleep and naps to know if baby is getting sufficient sleep. Babies quickly become familiar with a bedtime routine. It prepares them for sleep. Choose your routine. You may want to include nightly baths, singing to or rocking baby, etc.
From ages 1 to 3, your toddler will still need a lot of sleep. Toddlers average 11 to 12 hours a day (including naps). Again, a bedtime routine does wonders to prepare your toddler for restful sleep. By this age, your child can brush teeth and help put on pajamas. (Your assistance is still needed for both of these tasks to be done well!) Brushing teeth and putting on pajamas send the message that bedtime is imminent. Singing, reading books and other routine habits are still helpful too.
As your child gets older, resisting naptime may occur. It’s still a good idea for a child to have some quiet time during the day. Allow your child to play quietly with toys or look at books. Even if your child resists napping, quiet time makes it more likely you child will nap if needed. Usually between ages 3 and 5, children stop taking naps.
Preschoolers still need 10 to 12 hours of sleep each day. You may need to schedule an earlier bedtime. Bedtime routines remain important. So does a regular bedtime. Just because a child is older, parents sometimes think the actual bedtime can be more flexible. But a regular bedtime and a regular time to get up in the morning make for a happier child who has gotten enough sleep. Adhering to consistent bedtimes on vacation makes parents and young children happier!
Three sleep-related tips:
- Children who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to be overweight or obese. Young children’s needs are different. Some require more sleep than what is considered the average. If your child is gaining weight inappropriately, try adjusting his or her schedule to allow more sleep.
- If your child goes to daycare, insist on regular nap times. Babies should nap on their schedule, but toddlers do better with an established daily nap time. Well-rested toddlers are less likely to throw temper tantrums or be unreasonably demanding when you get home.
- Don’t allow your toddler or preschooler to watch TV or play electronic games before bed. This arouses rather than helping a child unwind. It also makes it more likely that you will encounter resistance when you start the bedtime routine.
One last piece of advice. Being a parent is a wonderful journey. Don’t let the responsibility and the desire to do it right keep you from counting your blessings every day. Enjoy each day and each stage of your child’s life. Incredible pleasure and tremendous rewards accompany parenting.