Wellness begins with the family
THE family home is every child’s primary learning ground. With lifestyle- linked non- communicable diseases claiming more lives each year, perhaps it is time to go back to basics and reflect on practices within the family unit – how can we embark on the path of well- being from our own doorsteps?
Your Health looks at balanced eating, physical activities and more aspects of healthy living for families based on different age groups of young ones.
Infants and toddlers ( up to three years)
l Go outdoors – New mothers are traditionally advised to stay indoors with their newborn babies, but time outside can be good for the latter as long as parents take caution in not exposing their children to germs and viruses. Getting your children suitably vaccinated is therefore the first step in protecting their health.
When under the sun, make sure your baby’s head, feet and hands are covered and dress them in light clothing. You can have a picnic in a park or take an evening walk to enjoy natural sights and sounds together. Babies can be exposed to water as early as six weeks old, so you can also take a family dip on sunny weekends. Protect babies with sunscreen and save professional swimming classes for when they are older than four – let them build strength by splashing and kicking around first.
l Natural nourishment – According to Dr Loo Hui Min, resident paediatric and neonatology consultant at Mahkota Medical Centre, preventing obesity starts as early as infancy.
“Studies have shown that babies who are exclusively breast- fed are less likely to become obese later in life,” she says.
“New mothers must limit intake of fats – cut down on saturated and trans fats as much as possible. Increase consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains and nuts,” says Dr Tan Nugroho Cipto, obstetrician and gynaecologist at Oriental Melaka Straits Medical Centre.
Not just mothers, but fathers too should eat healthily so they can prepare to feed their child well – include good amounts of protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals to build the foundation of a solid diet.
l Clean slate – It is common for new parents to kick detrimental habits such as tobacco and alcohol abuse when their child is born, and rightfully so – according to Dr Norhayati Awan, obstetrician and gynaecologist at Oriental Melaka Straits Medical Centre, children are more vulnerable to environmental hazards than adults.
She says, “Children are more heavily exposed to toxins in proportion to their body weight, and have more years ahead of them in which they may suffer long- term effects from early exposure. Second- hand smoke, chemical irritants, air pollutants and cold weather increase the risk of children developing asthma or respiratory infections.”
Children ( four to 12 years)
l Learning to eat – Children are naturally curious and constantly absorbing knowledge. Parents should use this time to learn how to craft balanced diets as a family.
Go grocery shopping together and let your children pick out recipes and ingredients while you teach them about types of food, colours, nutrition, balance and even basic finance.
Some children are fussy about eating certain foods, but parents should nip this behaviour in the bud.
Dietitian and owner of The Food Expert Clinic Indra Balaratnam says it is important to encourage children to try new foods in a way that is not threatening, and in fact enjoyed by the whole family.
She says, “With small children, you may have to use little culinary trickery to include foods that they typically dislike to hide the taste, texture and look of it. You can do this by juicing, blending it into soups or sauces or mincing or grounding it into a form that mixes easily with other food.”
To ensure children stick to a balanced diet, prepare their school snacks and lunches at home. Only make good food and healthy snacks available at home and limit eating out. Replace carbonated drinks with water or fresh juices.
l At the table – Meal times should be spent away from televisions and smartphones because they are prime bonding time. This is the time to catch up with one another and talk about the interesting or unusual parts of your day.
Sitting down for a meal together is positive reinforcement of the supportive role your family plays in your life.
“Good, open communication should start when children are young. No matter how busy you are, it is important to spend time with the children and ask them about their daily activities and lives,” says Dr Loo.
l Fun times together – Exercise does not have to be a chore and an active lifestyle does not have to be limited to exercise. For example, incorporate movement in family cleaning days by assigning vacuuming, wiping windows or working the garden.
If their schools are close by, walk there with your children instead of driving them there. On weekends, plan camping trips or treasure hunts to find new ways to engage with nature and one another.
“Younger children may face an increased risk of injury due to falls, so make sure your child is wearing protective gear when doing active sports such as rollerblading or riding a bike,” says Dr Tan.
Limiting time with gadgets is also imperative among modern children – ensure the time they spend with screens does not exceed reading, playing and bonding time.
It is in these developmental years that parents must also be good role models so children can follow their example.
“Parents play a big part in shaping their child’s healthy living habits, so they must show them that being active can be fun,” says Dr Norhayati.
Adolescents ( 13 to 17 years)
l In the kitchen – Healthy eating does not have to be expensive. Processed foods and drinks are the items that add up to a hefty grocery bill, which is why fresh ingredients are the way to go.
Teenagers who have been exposed to balanced eating throughout their childhood should have an idea of making good dietary choices.
Unfortunately, greasy burgers and salted chips become more appealing due to peer pressure and insatiable appetites, so parents may need to get creative in the kitchen.
“Sausages and frozen nuggets are pricey, but if you buy a fish fillet or chicken fillet and coat it with breadcrumbs, you can easily make your own nuggets with a lot less salt, fat and preservatives,” says Indra.
Since the kids are older, they should get involved too. Teenagers can be tasked to prepare a simple dinner for the family, pick out fruits and cereals for the week, or prepare meat and vegetables for cooking.
Allow them to identify and explore their culinary interests, whether it is baking or grilling, and teach them about the pros and cons of each.
l Get moving – Setting goals and accomplishing them as a family can keep everyone committed to their fitness regime. For example, celebrate special occasions with outdoor activities such as hikes or Frisbee matches, or train for a charity walk or run together.
Encourage teenagers to join school sports teams and show up to support them when they are playing.
Take bicycle rides, sign up for a rock climbing class, play laser tag – whatever activity you choose, decide as a family and take everyone’s interests into account.
You can even turn it into a race or contest and offer prizes for winners just to stir the competitive spirit.
l Two- way support – Familial communication and understanding becomes especially pertinent during adolescence, which can be a trying time for teenagers.
Good mental health is undoubtedly crucial to well- being no matter the age, so how can parents better support their children?
“As parents, we can say sorry ( when we are wrong) – when children watch us learn to parent better, they respond and learn how to learn,” said family and marriage therapist Dr Johnben Loy in a talk show on local radio station BFM last August.
He also talked about how parents can better manage and project their expectations on their children.
The choices children make are heavily influenced by their parents’ beliefs and values because they are means of gaining love and acceptance. If these values are inconsistent or violated by parents themselves, children struggle to discover their identity and often rebel.
A strong family unit is happy. Clear and open two- way communication enables members of different generations and perspectives to build trusting relationships, which is key to building a family healthy in body an mind.
Packing lunch for children from home allows parents to keep track of their diet.
Spending time together is important for stronger