Last reviewed by Faculty of Harvard Medical School on November 3, 2012
By Henry H. Bernstein, D.O.
Harvard Medical School
The New Year's holiday is upon us, a perfect time to think about how we can make this year a happier and a healthier one for our children and families. Here are some valuable tips, adapted from the American Academy of Pediatrics, for each of us to consider.
- Practice "safety on wheels."
Never drink and drive. Make sure everyone in the car is buckled up for every ride, in a seat belt or an age-appropriate child car safety seat. The back seat is the safest place for children younger than 12. All bikers, skaters, skateboarders and scooter riders should wear helmets and other appropriate sports gear.
- Do a "childproofing" survey of your home.
Get down on your hands and knees and go from room to room, looking at things from a curious child's viewpoint. Remove dangerous items, including poisons, small objects, knives, firearms and items with sharp edges or points.
- Make sure immunizations are up to date.
Review your child's medical record with your health care professional and make sure your child has received all recommended immunizations.
- Provide your child with a tobacco-free environment.
Indoor air pollution from tobacco increases ear infections, sore throats, chest infections, asthma and even sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). If you smoke, try to quit. Remember, the most important predictor of whether your children will grow up to be smokers is whether you smoke or not. Make your home a smoke-free zone.
- Pay attention to nutrition.
Nutrition makes a big difference in how kids grow, develop and learn. Good nutrition is a matter of balance, so provide foods from several food groups at each meal. Choose foods that are less processed, such as whole-grain breads and cereals, fresh fruits and vegetables. Limit foods that are high in fat and sugar. Ask your child's health care professional for suggestions.
- Read to your children every day, starting by the age of 6 months.
Reading to children shows them the importance of communication and encourages them to become readers. It also gives you a chance to discuss issues and learn what is on your child's mind.
- Monitor media.
Pay attention to what your children see and hear on television, in movies, in electronic games, and in music. Children are affected by what they see and hear, particularly by violent images. Talk with your children about this content and redirect your child to more suitable programming if you feel that certain media are inappropriate.
Help your child understand the difference between the misleading messages in advertising and the truth about the dangers of using alcohol and tobacco products. Talk about ads with your child and help him or her understand the real messages behind them. Direct your child toward TV shows and movies that do not glamorize the use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs.
- Become more involved in your child's school and in your child's education.
Visit your child's school. Volunteer in the classroom or for special projects, or become active in the parent-teacher organization. Ask about your child's day and be available to help with homework. If your child's education is important to you, it will be important to your child.
- Prevent violence by setting good examples.
Hitting, slapping and spanking teach children that it is acceptable to hit other people to solve problems. Non-physical forms of discipline work better in the long run. Remember that words can hurt, too.
- Ask about guns.
Before sending your kids over to play at someone's house, ask if there is a gun in the home. If the answer is no, that's one less thing you have to worry about. If the answer is yes, you have to ask more questions to find out if your child's safety is at risk. Guns should be kept unloaded in a locked gun safe, with the ammunition locked in a different place, or they pose a real risk to your child. If you have any doubts about the safety of someone's house, you should politely invite the children to play at your house instead.
- Make your child feel loved and important.
Children develop a sense of self-worth early in life. Listen to what your children have to say. Make sure they know that they are loved and safe. Celebrate their individuality, tell them what makes them special and what you admire about them.
Henry H. Bernstein, D.O., is a senior lecturer in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the chief of general pediatrics at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. He is the former director of primary care at Children's Hospital Boston.