Back to School Tips

Make sure your child has adequate sleep

How much is enough? From the ages of five to twelve, the average youngster sleeps eight to ten hours a night. However, the sleep habits of children can vary considerably and still be considered "normal." You can tell your child is getting enough sleep if she seems to be ready to wake up in the morning, has energy for the school day and afterward, and is generally cheerful performing daily activities.

Contrary to what many parents believe, adolescents need MORE sleep than younger teens, not less. But even a full night's sleep may not prevent a teen from nodding off during first period. Here, biology is to blame. Older teenager's brains secrete the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin an hour later than when they were in the early teens. This forestalls the onset of sleep and robs them of an hour or so of REM sleep, the final and most restful phase of the sleep cycle. If your child is well organized and willing to prepare for school the night before, consider allowing some extra sleep in the A.M.

Make sure your child has adequate nutrition

Breakfast is often a battle in the morning, but if your child leaves for school without breakfast, he may have gone 12-14 hours without eating until he gets to lunch. If time is tight, think about fixing breakfast the night before, or drinking breakfast in the form of a morning shake with skim milk/fruit and/or Carnation Instant Breakfast. A nutritious breakfast should provide a minimum of 300 calories.

Consider letting your child munch on whole-grain English muffins, toaster pastries, breakfast bars and bagels while getting ready. Consider using peanut butter instead of cream cheese. (While equal in calories, peanut butter contains more nutrients but with four times less saturated fat and 27 times less sodium than cream cheese.) Think beyond traditional breakfast fare. Leftover pizza or chicken are perfectly acceptable for kids to eat in the morning.

Make sure to pack a HEALTHY snack. Some schools are starting to "police" snacks brought to school, and teachers have been instructed to allow only healthy snacks such as fruits, vegetables, pretzels, crackers, yogurt, granola bars, etc. If you don't allow chips and fruit roll-ups to enter the lunch box, you are encouraging healthier eating. Remember that each 12-ounce soda contains approximately 10 tsp of sugar and 150 calories. Drinking just one soda per day increases a child's risk of obesity by 60%!

What's the latest on backpacks?

Contrary to popular belief, there is no good evidence linking childhood use of backpacks to scoliosis and/or back pain, provided that children are using their backpacks properly.

Choose the right backpack: one that has wide, padded shoulder straps, has a padded back to protect against sharp edges on objects inside the pack, and a waist strap to provide extra support and distribution of weight if necessary. Rolling backpacks are a good alternative for students who have to carry a heavy load over a long distance. (Remember that it may need to be carried up stairways.)

To prevent injury when using a backpack, always use both shoulder straps. Tighten the straps so that the pack is close to the body. The straps should hold the pack 2 inches above the waist. Pack only essential items. Organize the backpack to use all of its compartments. Pack heavier items closest to the center of the back. Use your locker to minimize the number of books you are carrying. Do not bend over when wearing or lifting a heavy backpack; bend using both knees.

Most local school districts have a policy that provides a "loaner" book for a student to use in the classroom if they have a medical or orthopedic condition that would be aggravated by use of a backpack. All students have the option of purchasing one or more books to be used at home, which would minimize the weight of the backpack.

Avoid "overscheduled" children

Please remember that childhood is not a dress rehearsal for adulthood. It is a separate and unique time of life that should leave time for children to find delight in simple things, like making a playhouse out of a box, or staring at the clouds to decide what they look like. Getting your children involved in sports and activities promotes physical activity, learning to play with peers, and learning the value of teamwork, but be careful not to do too much too soon. There should be ample time for homework, family time, unstructured play, and time to simply "be." One or two nights per week with one weekend activity is appropriate for elementary school-aged children. In middle and high school most activities are 4-5 days per week, but consider giving your child a season "off" and make sure they are not running from one activity to another.

If your child needs his own PalmPilot to keep track of activities, then he is "overscheduled." You may think that it is necessary for them to get ahead or be successful, but you need to contemplate what makes a successful child (or adult, for that matter). Is it someone who pushes himself to be number one at the expense of anxiety, nervousness, and physical complaints, or is it someone who is comfortable with himself, can truly say he is happy and knows the value of relationships? Please remember that children learn by example, so it may be time for some parental self-reflection.

Sports participation

Participation in physical activity, whether it is puddle-jumping in the rain or playing travel soccer, must be an integral part of a healthy childhood. Please make sure you choose an appropriate activity for your child. A child who is overwhelmed by team sports may enjoy swimming, dancing, tennis or karate. Parents, you know your child best: please avoid living vicariously through your child. Choose an activity that suits your child, not one in which you would like to see her participate.

If your child plays team sports, make sure you are a positive parent on the sidelines. Cheer for all children for their successes, and avoid shouting directions to your child on the field. Praise effort, not outcome, and emphasize the fun. Insist on positive coaching. If your child's coach motivates by yelling, negative feedback and criticism, find a different team for your child. Studies have shown that at early participation, negative criticism can lead to low-self esteem and have long-term psychological consequences.

Make sure your child is SAFE on the field, with the appropriate protective equipment. Most ball sports require a mouth guard; discuss this with your child's dentist. Click here for more information about mouth guards.

Katie Baker, DO, FAAP