When parents are asked what they want children to be when they grow up, the number one answer is “healthy” – and when parents discover their child faces any kind of health complication, the world stops and nothing else matters but the wellbeing of that child.
Dr. Hassan Alzein of Alzein Pediatrics has extensive experience in treating critically ill children. Besides treating children for decades in his own pediatric practice, he has worked in a number of hospital Pediatric Intensive Care Units, helping families care for their children while navigating critical illnesses.
“To improve the health of your child, reduce the risk of your child contracting a serious illness or being unable to fight off disease without complications, we know a healthy diet and exercise is important. But there are other less commonly recognized health steps that are just as vital. In fact, there are five recommendations I give to all our patient families,” says Dr. Alzein.
Improve Your Child’s Health by Attending All Regular Doctor Checkups and Adhere to Vaccination Schedules
The most important way to help improve your child’s health is to make sure to schedule and keep every wellness and annual appointment and ensure your child is up to date on their vaccinations. The majority of vaccinations occur during the first two years of a child’s life. This includes protection against measles, polio, mumps, smallpox, rubella, and hepatitis, life-threatening diseases that are now uncommon or nearly eradicated. However, not every vaccine is administered during the infant and toddler stage.
The HPV vaccine, for example, is administered when your child is around 11 or 12 years old. When you are not bringing your adolescent child to annual wellness appointments, you may miss the ideal times for them to receive this vaccine or miss a dose in the series. Dr. Alzein says, “Missing a dose in a series leaves your child vulnerable to certain, now-preventable cancers, as they are not fully protected against the disease.”
As soon as your child is eligible, get them protected with the COVID-19 vaccine. “As more and more children become infected, we are seeing a rise in serious illness, requiring hospitalization and intensive care. There is also a rise in MIS-C, a severe, life-threatening complication of COVID-19 that can cause long-term paralysis,” says Dr. Alzein. “A vaccine also makes sense just to prevent your child from being quarantined, missing school and other activities, requiring a caregiver 24/7, and causing serious disruption to your family’s schedule.”
Make Routine Checks on Mental Health
Especially in the wake of COVID-19, the mental health of our children is being discussed more openly. Dr. Alzein agrees that positive mental health heavily influences your child’s good physical health, as mental health distress often displays itself in the form of physical symptoms.
When a parent brings a child in for abdominal distress, it can be frustrating to hear that there is nothing physically wrong. This is when your pediatrician should ask about day-to-day life. Have there been any changes in routine? How is school going? Has there been a death or illness in the family? These questions are not meant to judge or pry into your family’s personal life, but to help identify the cause of stress and anxiety. Once the cause is identified, your pediatrician can form a plan to help build support for your child. By using the resources recommended, your child’s mental health and associated physical symptoms should improve.
Get Into Nature to Boost the Health and Well-Being of Your Children
“With more and more adults and children of all ages in front of screens for the majority of our day, it is easy to understand how we’ve almost forgotten how good nature is for our health,” says Dr. Alzein. Direct sunlight helps bodies create Vitamin D, Dr. Alzein explains to parents. “Our bodies can only absorb calcium if Vitamin D is present, making it essential for building and maintaining healthy bones. Vitamin D also improves immune health, muscle function, and brain cell activity. While we want to apply sunscreen to keep our children protected from sunburns, getting about 10 minutes of sunlight each day helps your child build strong bones.” Getting outside, even for a brief walk around the neighborhood to see the trees, bugs, and birds also decreases anxiety and depression, improves lung health, and helps improve vision.
Make Sure Their World is Clear
Parents often assume a child’s vision is healthy because the child doesn’t complain about what they see. Because your child has only been seeing the world in one way their entire life, they do not know that their vision can be better. According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), “the most common vision problem in school-aged children is blurry vision or refractive error caused by nearsightedness (myopia), farsightedness (hyperopia) and astigmatism resulting in blurry vision.”
Blurry vision does not solely affect a child’s eyesight. Blurry vision leaves your child feeling tired, distracted, and causes difficulty with memory. If your child cannot see accurately, they may often feel scared or out of control because the world they perceive is not clear. When a vision problem is left undetected or undiagnosed, a child may incorrectly be diagnosed and treated for ADHD when they just need a pair of glasses.
Dr. Alzein suggests taking your child to see a pediatric optometrist during preschool years, ages 3 to 5. “It is ok if your child does not know their alphabet letters. Pediatric optometrists will show your child the Snellen chart, a series of black and white pictures, and ask them to identify the objects pictured. Regardless of age or capabilities, your child can undergo an eye exam to ensure that their vision is not causing health issues,” says Dr. Alzein.
Encourage Open Communication About Recreational Drugs
“The earlier this topic is initially approached, the easier it will be to continue these conversations and establish real communication as your child grows,” says Dr. Alzein. “Don’t delay dealing with uncomfortable conversations. Explaining the risks and dangers of alcohol and drug abuse, including marijuana and vaping, is vital for your child’s health, academic success, and positive social experiences. Dr. Alzein advises parents to begin discussing drug abuse with your children as early as elementary school, perhaps bringing it up when you hear mentions in movies, music, or other forms of media. This timeline may seem premature to parents, but studies show the average age children first try recreational marijuana is 15, meaning many children experiment with pot at an even earlier age.
“It’s also imperative to discuss vaping with your children,” says Dr. Alzein. Vaping became a real epidemic in 2019 as adolescents and teens began competing with each other to see who could vape the most flavors. Originally marketed as a method to quit smoking cigarettes, vaping contains the same amount of nicotine that cigarettes do, creating the same risks to your child’s health. Research shows that 63% of users between the ages of 15 and 24 are unaware vaping contains nicotine and so do not understand the risk of addiction, the elevated risk of cancer, and the dangers to brain development and executive functioning skills.
“We understand parents’ uneasiness about bringing up these subjects, but it is always better for children to get accurate information from their parents as opposed to advertisements or, even worse, from peers who are already experimenting,” says Dr. Alzein. “Encourage your children to ask questions and carefully provide answers without judgment. Taking a deep breath when your child asks you an uncomfortable question will give you a moment to reset and react calmly. This will ensure that your kids are comfortable discussing delicate topics with you at greater length, giving you the opportunity to steer them down a safe, healthy path.”
Improving Your Child’s Health in Out-of-the-Ordinary Ways
Nutrition and exercise will always be the top strategies Dr. Alzein recommends for building good health, but implementing these five out-of-the-ordinary steps will exponentially improve your child’s chance of a happy, healthy future.