Healthy back-to-school tips for parents

It can be a lot for parents to balance everything before school begins, so we’ve created a comprehensive guide with healthy back-to-school tips.

Getting ready to go back to school usually involves a long checklist for parents: buying school supplies, new clothes or shoes, plus a stop at your child’s pediatrician office for their yearly school physicals and updated immunizations.

We know it can be a lot on parents to balance everything before the first day of school begins, so we have created a comprehensive guide — including healthy back-to-school tips and a checklist involving some of the top health advice from pediatricians. These tips and ideas will help your child be healthier, more focused and ready to tackle a new school year!

Norton Children’s Medical Group

Our pediatricians are ready to assist parents with their child’s back-to-school routines and health check ups.

Health and nutrition

A well-balanced diet is essential for your child’s growth and development. Nutrition also can be a key element of optimal academic and sport performance. Consider these tips for preparing healthy back-to-school meals and snacks, including breakfast, school lunches and dinners at home.

1) Include a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins in meals. A balanced diet provides essential nutrients to support your child’s overall health. Fruits and vegetables are rich in key nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and fiber. Whole grains, such as oats, whole wheat and rice, can help provide carbohydrates for energy. Lean proteins, such as fish, eggs, beans and skinless white chicken, can help boost your child’s energy levels and promote healthy muscle development. Be sure to incorporate a variety of these food groups into each meal for a balanced diet.

2) Encourage homemade meals to limit processed foods. Homemade, healthy meals give parents more control over the type and quality of ingredients in your child’s meals — including more nutrients and fewer preservatives. Processed foods often have higher levels of unhealthy fats, sodium and sugar, which can lead to health issues, including obesity, high blood pressure and dental issues. Preparing healthy meals at home teaches your child good eating habits from a young age.

3) Lunchtime is an especially important time to provide a balanced lunch of protein, vegetables and whole grains. Your child needs a healthy lunch to keep them going in between classes and other school activities. A nutritious lunch can help improve concentration while learning and allow your child to remain active without becoming too depleted.

4) Limit sugary drinks and opt for water or milk instead. Sugary drinks, such as soda or juices, can lead to dental cavities and an increased risk of obesity. Water is necessary for hydration throughout the day. Milk offers calcium and other nutrients for healthy bone development.

5) Provide a healthy breakfast with whole-grain cereals, fruits or yogurt. Breakfast can be the most important meal of the day. It kick-starts your child’s metabolism and provides energy first thing in the morning. This is necessary before your child heads off to school to learn, play and socialize. Skipping breakfast can cause low blood sugar and decreased performance in school and other activities. Healthy breakfast options, including whole-grain cereals, fruits and yogurt, can help support your child’s health, learning and energy levels until lunchtime. 

Adequate sleep

Your child needs sufficient sleep to support their overall well-being and academic performance. Healthy back-to-school habits include a full night of sleep. Follow these recommendations for establishing a healthy sleep routine.

1) Set consistent sleep schedules, ensuring your child gets the recommended hours of sleep. School-age children need at least nine hours of sleep every night, and a consistent sleep schedule is imperative for their physical and mental health. A regular sleep routine helps establish a regular circadian rhythm, or internal body clock, to provide better sleep quality at night and mental performance during the day. Sleep is a necessary part of healthy growth and development — both physically and mentally. Adequate sleep promotes better performance in school and fewer issues with attention and behavior.

2) Create a calm and relaxing sleep environment by reducing noise and light distractions. In order to encourage good sleep, your child’s sleeping environment should promote restfulness. Their bedroom should be cool, quiet and dark with minimal light or noise distractions. An optimal sleep environment can promote relaxation, which leads to better-quality, uninterrupted sleep.

3) Encourage “winding-down” activities before bedtime, such as reading or taking a warm bath. Winding-down activities are essential to promote relaxation and signal to your child that it’s time to relax, slow down and get ready for bed. Activities such as reading or taking a warm bath or shower can promote calmness before bedtime. Incorporating a pre-sleep routine can help your child transition to bedtime.

4) Know and promote the recommended sleep guidelines for children. Pediatricians recommend a certain number of hours of sleep per 24 hours, depending on a child’s age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Preschool-age children (ages 3 to 5) need 10 to 13 hours of sleep.
  • School-age children (ages 6 to 12) need nine  to 12 hours of sleep.
  • Teenagers (ages 13 to 18) need eight to 10 hours of sleep.

Physical activity

Regular physical activity helps promote both physical and mental wellness. Going back to school can help your child resume healthy physical habits. It’s also important for your child to have fun, so encourage playtime! Children should aim for at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. Here are some ways to incorporate regular physical activity into your child’s routine:

1) Encourage active transportation, such as walking or biking to school. If your family lives close enough to school, and it is safe enough with proper sidewalks, lighting and minimal traffic, a walk or bike ride can be an easy way to implement physical activity.

2) Promote participation in extracurricular activities and sports. Participation in activities and sports helps children physically, socially and mentally. Sports promote physical fitness, cardiovascular health, coordination and mental wellness. Socially, extracurricular activities encourage teamwork, cooperation, collaboration, self-esteem and a support network of peers.

3) Limit sedentary behaviors like excessive screen time, and encourage outdoor play. Excessive screen time, including TV, smartphones, computers and video games, can promote a sedentary lifestyle and not enough movement or activity. Encouraging outdoor play can enhance a child’s creativity, mental health and physical health, whether they are playing or exploring independently or with family and friends.

4) Ensure safety during physical activities and provide appropriate protective gear. Safety is key during physical activities and sports, and if you are encouraging your child to be active, you also should be promoting safety. When necessary, provide protective gear, including helmets, kneepads and proper active footwear to help prevent injuries. Following safety guidelines or rules (such as limiting excessive contact or roughhousing) also can reduce the risk of accidents or injury.

5) Schedule an annual physical to monitor your child’s overall health and development. Regular check ups with your child’s pediatrician are an essential part of their healthy growth and development. Annual physicals allow your child to be screened for any physical or mental health issues and developmental or behaviors concerns. Early detection and timely intervention are important when supporting children’s health. It is also a time to get up to date on any immunizations that are required by a child’s school district. These visits also serve as an opportunity for parents to get questions answered and receive parenting and health-related advice from our pediatricians with Norton Children’s Medical Group, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine.

Mental health and emotional well-being

Addressing mental health is a necessary part of your child’s return to school. Children experience stress just like adults do, and at school, issues with academics, anxiety or bullying can severely impact a child’s mental health. Encourage an open line of communication with your child when it comes to their health — during back-to-school time or otherwise. Consider the following strategies to support their mental and emotional well-being:

1) Encourage open communication and provide a safe space for your child to express their feelings and concerns. Be a safe space for your child to come to with their feelings and emotions. If you are open and nonjudgmental, your child is more likely to feel seen, understood and respected and to be open with you as their parent, and more likely to bring up any issues they may be facing at school or otherwise. For you to be able to offer your child the support they need, it’s important for them to feel comfortable sharing details of their experiences with you.

2) Teach stress management techniques like deep breathing exercises and mindfulness. Children may experience stress and anxiety, and it is important for parents to teach their children ways to manage stress. Deep breathing exercises and mindfulness techniques, such as yoga or meditation, can help a child self-soothe when they are experiencing stress. It is essentially impossible to shield your child from any type of stressful event, but you can teach them that they are strong and resilient by offering ways to tolerate stress without internalizing it or having a behavioral issue at school. Building these skills will serve as an important part of their childhood and adult life. 

3) Recognize signs of potential mental health issues and seek professional support when needed. Parents play a very important role when it comes to recognizing signs of mental health issues in children, including anxiety and depression. If you notice a change in your child’s behavior, pay attention. Behavioral changes, mood swings, sudden withdrawal or lack of interest in activities, struggling in classes or regular complaints of feeling sick or in pain (without a direct cause) could be signs of a mental health concern. As a parent, you must know that early intervention is key, and you must be proactive in seeking support for your child. Their pediatrician can be a great starting point when it comes to mental health support and referrals, if necessary.

Hygiene and illness prevention

When it comes to healthy back-to-school habits, good hygiene is a must! Practicing proper hygiene habits are important all year long, but especially in the school environments, where children regularly are exposed to germs and illnesses.

1) Emphasize the significance of proper hand-washing techniques and frequency. Washing your hands (the correct way) is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of germs and infections. Teach your child to thoroughly wash their hands with soap and warm water regularly. It is crucial to instill this habit at a young age. Your child should learn to wash their hands after using the bathroom, before eating and upon returning home from public places.

2) Teach your child how to use hand sanitizers effectively. Hand sanitizers are a good backup when soap and water are not available. Consider providing your child with a travel-size hand sanitizer when they go to school, or encourage them to use the hand sanitizer provided in classrooms. Teach your child to rub their hands with sanitizer until they are dry, and explain how this technique can help them kill germs if they are unable to wash their hands.

3) Encourage respiratory etiquette, such as covering their mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing. Respiratory etiquette is another important lesson when it comes to parenting your child. It also helps limit the spread of respiratory infections, such as the cold and flu. Teach your child to cover their mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, whether it is into a tissue or into an elbow. They should not cough or sneeze into their hand or uncovered.

4) Remind your child about the importance of staying home when sick and seeking timely medical care. Teaching your child to recognize when they aren’t feeling well can help prevent the spread of infections at school. If your child is showing symptoms of illness, such as coughing or experiencing body aches, take notice. By keeping sick children at home, parents can reduce the spread of illness to other students, adults and teachers within the school community. If your child’s symptoms do not improve, be sure to seek medical care when appropriate, whether it is with your child’s pediatrician, at an immediate care center or, when necessary, in a hospital emergency department.

Next steps

Have you seen your child’s pediatrician lately? Be sure to schedule the child’s annual check up for more personalized advice when it comes to your child’s health, development, immunizations and returning to school.

In conclusion, preparing your child for a healthy back-to-school experience involves prioritizing their health, nutrition, sleep, physical activity, mental well-being, and hygiene. By following this checklist, you’re setting the stage for their success. Remember to maintain open communication with health care professionals, engage with teachers and caregivers, and stay proactive in promoting your child’s overall well-being.