HOW TO RAISE HEALTHIER CHLDREN
WHO WILL LIVE LONGER THAN YOU
We know what we should be doing, but we are raising unhealthier children than ever. We need to stop – and this is how
It was a shock finding: that the trend in human life expectancy, which has been characterised by a slow, steady increase over the past thousand years, will come to an end with the next generation. In other words, children alive today will die younger than their parents.
Despite technology and medicine being more advanced than ever, today’s children are tired and stressed, and many are battling obesity. This was according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine back in 2005. Since then, things have got worse, especially with obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes on the rise. According to the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. And, says a study published in BMC Obesity this year, Africa has the fastest growth rates of obesity among preschool children, and South Africa is among the countries with the highest child obesity rates.
While poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle can be blamed for many of the ills besetting kids today, they’re not the only reasons for our children’s less-than-stellar long-term outlook. Stress also plays a significant role. But we must try to reverse this trend. Here are the things you can do to improve your child’s health.
BOND RIGHT FROM THE BEGINNING
“Loving care is one of the most basic things that children need to thrive,” says Zelda Ackerman, a registered dietician with Family First Nutrition. “When a baby is with her mom, specifically during skinto-skin contact during breastfeeding, she feels safe and secure, and this helps her to grow and develop optimally. Feeding and the emotional wellbeing of babies are thus closely related.”
As your kids get older, “Remember to hug your child daily and let them sit on your lap when you’re talking to each other,” says Gill Naeser, an early childhood development specialist.
FOOD SECURITY FIRST
“Regular meals and snacks provide children with the security that food is
available when they need it,” says Zelda. “This enables children to eat only until they’ve had enough, and not to overeat as if they do not know when they’ll get food again.”
“Eat meals as a family, in a positive and caring atmosphere,” she adds. “Children can face more challenges when they know they’re not alone, but they have a supportive family behind them.”
“Children need time for unstructured physical play, in the park or outside,” says Gill. “With today’s rushed and busy lifestyles, this isn’t always possible, which often results in parents scheduling extramural activities for their children. If, however, they have too many activities, they may not get the time they need to be children.”
The number of extramurals will depend on the child – some kids enjoy being very busy and social, while others prefer a quieter and more solitary life. “Your child should enjoy the activity but still have energy to do other things at home afterwards,” says Gill.
“Children pick up stress from the adults around them,” says Gill. “If your family is undergoing a difficult change, such as illness, death or divorce, and you’re stressed as a result, talk to your children about how you’re feeling and explain that they’re not responsible for what’s happening.” Let your child ask questions and always try to be factual in the answers you give, she adds.
TURN OFF THE TV
Watching too much TV not only takes the place of healthier and more appropriate childhood activities such as playing, but also often exposes kids to disturbing images that may cause them unnecessary stress and worry.
“Watching the news exposes children to disturbing images such as violence and disasters,” Gill points out. “Parents need to supervise what their children see on television, and if there’s a disturbing image, they need to talk to them about what they’ve seen and try to alleviate any fears that this may happen to them.”
TEACH BY EXAMPLE
Healthy lifestyle choices, such as concentrating on lessening stress through making time to relax and regular exercise, will be modelled by children. “Walk in your neighbourhood as a family, go to a park on weekends, play ball outside, or have fun in the swimming pool,” Zelda advises.
“Many adults eat to feel better,” she continues. “Often without realising it, they teach this to kids, and this may lead to their children indulging in ‘emotional eating’ later in life.”
FIND A BALANCE
“Children need a balanced lifestyle to cope with the stress around them,” says Gill. “They need good, healthy, balanced food, time for physical play, and time to play quietly, as well as a daily routine so that they feel safe. And letting your child make small choices, such as what colour to wear, will help them feel in control.”
SLEEP IS ESSENTIAL
Children need to get enough sleep to be able to cope with their busy days. “Don’t allow TV or computer games near bedtime, don’t have a TV in the bedroom, and have a bedtime routine that helps your children unwind,” Zelda says. “Reading a story or playing quiet music are calming activities at bedtime,” says Gill.
Children up to the age of five years need about 12 hours of sleep a night, although this can vary fairly widely between individuals, from as little as 9 hours for a baby to as much as 15 hours for a 2-year-old.
MANY ADULTS EAT TO FEEL BETTER AND WITHOUT REALISING IT, THEY TEACH THIS TO THEIR KIDS