Kids’ Health and Nutrition
Parents begin making decisions regarding their children long before a baby is born. From morals to food to activities, parenting decisions are ongoing. Although some of these choices have little impact, others will affect them throughout their lifetime—health and nutrition are prime examples.
Encouraging healthy behaviors is one of the most important jobs a parent has because a healthy lifestyle helps protect children against diseases and chronic health conditions. An unhealthy lifestyle, on the other hand, contributes to startling statistics such as these:
- Only one in three children is physically active every day.
- Americans, including children, eat far less than the recommended amounts of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains needed every day.
- 12.5 million children and adolescents are obese, and if uncorrected will contribute to the 78 million U.S. adults who are currently obese.
Prioritizing children’s health can make all the difference down the line. Teach your child how important physical activity, a well-balanced diet, and high-quality sleep are to their health to guide them into a healthy adulthood. You can get started turning information into action with expert insight and tips from pediatricians, dietitians, and pediatric sleep experts.
Why sleep is important for kids
After a night of tossing and turning, it’s pretty common to feel irritable, run down, and unfocused. But inadequate sleep is an even bigger problem for kids. “Sleep-deprived children may not grow to their full potential,” says Heather Turgeon, MFT, sleep expert, and co-founder of the Happy Sleeper sleep approach, “because growth hormone is generally released during sleep.”
That means fitful or low levels of sleep have a negative impact on development, something that Turgeon says is true whether it’s during the pivotal early childhood period of massive growth and pruning or the equally crucial final stage of brain restructuring and refinement that occurs in the teenage years.
“During both of these critical windows of development, the prefrontal cortex, which houses the executive function (where perspective, reasoning, critical thinking, emotional regulation, planning, etc., live in the brain) is under construction and growth,” she says. “However, a sleep deprived brain shows lower activity in that very region, the prefrontal cortex, which is one of the main reasons good, healthy sleep is key to optimal development.”
But the impact of quality sleep isn’t limited to proper development. It has a direct effect on mood as well. “When children of all ages get optimal sleep, they see the world through a positive lens and have lower levels of depression and anxiety—and improved relationships with family and friends,” says Turgeon. “Even 30 minutes more of sleep lowers kids’ risk of depression and anxiety.”
Sleep also impacts a child’s ability to learn. “It opens up the brain like a sponge,” she says. “Sleep gives kids the ability to focus and pay attention so the information is absorbed, but it also transfers that information to long-term memory so they retain it.”
How to know if your child is getting enough sleep
Clearly, it’s essential that your child is getting plenty of quality sleep, and there are signs that this may not be the case in your home. “If your baby, child or teen falls asleep the minute you get in the car, at their desk at school or while doing homework and is hard to wake up in the morning, it’s likely they’re not getting enough sleep,” says Turgeon.
She recommends following the sleep guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with one caveat. “Sleep science teaches us that 9 to 10 hours is optimal for teenagers, whereas 8 hours is merely adequate.”
- Newborn, 0-3 months: 14-17 hours
- Infant, 4-12 months: 12-16 hours per 24 hours, including naps
- Toddler, 1-2 years: 11-14 hours per 24 hours, including naps
- Preschool, 3-5 years: 10-13 hours per 24 hours, including naps
- School age, 6-12 years: 9-12 hours per 24 hours
- Teen, 13-18 years: 8-10 hours per 24 hours
How to help your child get a better night’s sleep
Encouraging healthy sleep habits should start when your children are small, but it’s never too late to prioritize good sleep.
- Practice good sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene describes habits and practices that help encourage longer, better sleep. To help your child sleep well, for example, you might stick to a regular bedtime and ensure dim lighting, minimal noise, and a comfortable sleep temperature.
- Establish a bedtime routine. While sleep routines can vary, they share a common goal of signaling to the body that it’s time to start winding down for bed. Plus, research shows that children with bedtime routines have better sleep outcomes. If you have a child who tends to resist bedtime, this is a good opportunity to let them feel very involved in the process. They can choose their pajamas, pick the bedtime story, turn on the night light, and generally take an active role in all the steps that make up their bedtime routine.
- Avoid screen time before bed. This can be challenging with older kids and teens, but it makes a big difference in sleep outcomes. Research shows that screen time can delay bedtime and decrease overall sleep time.
Why is children’s nutrition important?
What a child eats is just as important as how well they’re sleeping, particularly when it comes to growth and development. “What role doesn’t nutrition play?” asks Lisa Mastela, MPH, RD, and CEO of Bumpin Blends smoothie cubes. “Children’s bodies and brains are growing—fast—so their daily nutrition provides the energy that fuels that growth. Meanwhile, the vitamins, nutrients, and minerals are the keys to each of their body processes that are all moving a million miles a minute.”
In addition to nourishing growing bodies, a balanced diet has an impact on other areas of a child’s life, including their ability to learn, how they behave, how well they sleep. “If a child isn’t nourished physically with adequate nutrition, they can’t thrive emotionally and mentally,” says Amin, pediatrician and founder of Peds Doc Talk.
What should my child be eating?
Parents can feel a lot of pressure to ensure their child is eating well, and that’s before considering curve balls like picky eaters or financial constraints. “My advice for parents is always to not overthink and overstress about your child’s eating,” says Mastela. “Yes, nutrition is important, but your own stress around meal time is actually likely more important. Children pick up on our stress, so if you’re stressed about their eating, they will be too, which can lead to bigger problems down the line.”
Like adults, children benefit from a mixture of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Mastela recommends finding three to five different kid-friendly foods from the following groups:
- Vegetables and fruits, like peas, carrots, green beans, strawberries, and grapes
- Protein sources, including plant-based options like black beans, chickpeas, and edamame
- Fat sources, such as peanut butter, olive oil for cooking, avocado, cheese
- Starch/carbohydrate sources, such as whole grain pasta, whole wheat bread, and mashed potatoes
Mix and match foods from each group for meals. “Just that will get you 625 different meal variations,” says Mastela.
It’s also good to be mindful of what foods to avoid as well. Minimizing added sugars and refined carbohydrates can help lower health risks like obesity, dental decay, even high blood pressure. Plus, these kinds of food around dinnertime or before bed can make it harder for kids to wind down for sleep.
But let’s face it, most kids fall into the picky eater category, with a very limited list of foods they’re willing to eat. And then what? “For picky eaters, be mindful that it can take most kids 15 exposures to a food before they agree to try it,” advises Mastela. She also recommends avoiding using the label within earshot. “They might not know or notice that they don’t love a lot of foods, but if they hear you say ‘my child is a picky eater,’ they will believe you and that will define them.”
Instead, she suggests involving your child in the process of recipe picking, food buying, and cooking. “They might find it fun, and it makes them more likely to try something new.”
Kids and Exercise
In addition to lots of quality sleep and a balanced diet, physical activity is key for a child’s proper growth and development. Kids benefit from exercise in much the same way as adults. “Being physically active improves brain function and concentration, helps with weight management, reduces the risk of heart disease and high cholesterol later in life, and strengthens bones and muscles,” says Amin.
There’s also a mental component to movement, thanks to the release of endorphins. “These hormones help trigger a positive emotion in our body,” says Mona. “The key is to always try to find an activity the child may be interested in. Karate? Dance? Soccer? Basketball? Choosing activities that they are inclined to like can help in the eagerness to maintain the activity.”
Remember to keep it fun, and use movement as an opportunity for family bonding time. “Children are more likely to exercise if they see their parents exercising too. They model the behavior of caregivers. So go the park together, get on a treadmill together, or make it a point to dance or get energy out together.”
The last word from Sleepopolis
As a parent, you’ll make countless decisions about your child. The choices that impact their health—what they eat, how they sleep, how much they move—will affect them not just today, but well into their futures too. Lead by example when it comes to living a healthy lifestyle. If you make a point to prioritize regular exercise, a nutritious diet, and quality sleep, your child will learn to do the same.