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11 Ways to Raise a Healthy Child

As a parent, you are an important teacher of health care and health information for your child. Here are 11 recommendations to help you succeed at this important job.

1. Choose breast over bottle.

Breast-feed and you will give your baby a health advantage from day one. Breast milk provides all the nutrients a newborn needs. It also has important antibodies that help babies fight infections. Research shows that breast-fed babies have fewer ear infections and allergies and less diarrhea while they are breast feeding.

2. Be wise: Immunize.

Immunizations protect your child from serious diseases, such as measles, whooping cough, and hepatitis. There are recommended immunizations from birth through adulthood. Talk with your child's doctor to find out which immunizations your child needs and when.

You may worry that your child will have a reaction to an immunization. But when reactions are uncommon and when they do occur, they are usually mild. The benefits of immunizing your child far outweigh any potential risks.

3. Take children to checkups.

Your baby needs regular checkups before age 2. After 2, your child's doctor will recommend a checkup schedule that is appropriate for your child. At these checkups, the doctor tracks your child's growth and development. Checkups allow doctors to spot potential problems early, when they are easiest to treat. Checkups are also a good time to ask questions about how to keep your child healthy.

4. Buckle 'em up.

Beginning with your child's first ride home from the hospital, always use a car seat. Car accidents kill and injure more children in the United States than any other type of injury. Protect your children by placing them in a car seat that is appropriate for their weight and height. Be sure to read the directions so that you understand how to properly use the car seat. Most crashes are head-on, so always put kids in the backseat.

Children should use a car seat for as long as possible. Once they have outgrown car seats, they should sit in a booster seat until they are big enough to use a seat belt. For proper fit, the shoulder belt should fit across your child's shoulders, and the lap belt should lie flat and low across the hips. This usually happens when children are about 4 feet 9 inches tall.

5. Start dental care early.

Healthy teeth can last a lifetime. So teach kids good dental care at an early age. Even before the first tooth appears, wipe baby's gums with a clean, damp cloth after feeding.

Once the first tooth appears, begin brushing. Start flossing your child's teeth as soon as any two teeth touch. Once children begin brushing their own teeth, supervise them to make sure they are doing a good job.

Because letting food sit on the teeth promotes tooth decay, teach children to brush after meals. Bottles filled with milk or juice can also cause decay. So don't put children to bed with a bottle or let them walk around unattended with a bottle. If possible, wean kids from the bottle by age 1.

The American Dental Association recommends that you take your child to a dentist within six months of getting the first tooth and no later than 1 year old. Your child's dentist can tell you how often your child should get regular checkups thereafter.

6. Put safety first.

It only takes a second for an accident to happen. Here are a few basic safety rules:

  • Keep medicines and household chemical products where children cannot get to them.

  • Don't leave kids unsupervised, especially when they are near the street, or near or in water.

  • Make sure your children wear helmets when bicycling.

  • If you have guns in the house, make sure that they are kept unloaded and locked up, and that the ammunition is kept in a separate place and locked up, as well.

7. Let kids live smoke-free.

If you smoke, quitting smoking is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children (and yourself). Kids who live with a smoker cough and wheeze more and recover more slowly from colds. Secondhand smoke increases a child's risk for ear infections, bronchitis, pneumonia, upper respiratory infections, and asthma. In addition, infants regularly exposed to smoke are at higher risk for sudden infant death syndrome. For your child's health, and your own, kick the smoking habit.

8. Offer healthy food.

Good nutrition is especially important for growing bodies. Children under 2 have special nutrition needs, however, and by age 5, a child's diet should be similar to a healthy adult's, with lots of fruits, vegetables, and grains, and low in fat, sugar and meat.

Make it easy for your children to eat healthfully by offering a wide variety of nutritious food choices. Also, let them help choose what foods to buy.

To promote healthy eating habits, it's important not to force a child to eat or make certain foods off-limits. Doing so may lead to poor eating patterns. A healthy diet can include almost any food in moderation.

9. Court a love of exercise.

Active kids are healthy kids. Children should be physically active every day. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which includes recommendations for exercise as well as for nutrition, says that children should get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise daily. Regular exercise boosts cardiovascular fitness and overall health. Help your kids be their healthiest by joining them in physical play. Tag, swimming, bicycling, and walking can all be enjoyed as a family.

10. Keep children's skin youthful.

As great as outside play is for kids, there is a downside-sun exposure. Skin cancer later in life is directly related to sun exposure in childhood and adolescence and cumulative sun exposure over a lifetime. When sun exposure has the potential to cause sunburn, kids over 6 months should wear sunscreen, even in the water. Sunscreen should have a minimum SPF of 15. For sensitive areas, such as the nose and ears, use zinc oxide. It is a total block.

Have kids wear clothing made of tightly woven fabrics and hats that shade their face, neck, and ears. To avoid the most intense sun exposure, schedule outdoor playtime before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. whenever possible. Also, have kids play in the shade, where the sun is not as strong.

11. Be a role model.

Children learn many of their most valuable lessons from you. In other words, choose a healthy, active lifestyle for yourself-and include your children in it. Teaching by example makes a lasting impression on your children, and creates healthy family traditions in the process.