School is out, and many kids are really happy about that. Yet we know that some kids take a step backward in healthfulness over the summer. Given that there is less structure to their day, fewer things to keep them busy and sometimes fewer prepared meals, some kids become less active, eat less healthy foods, have disrupted sleep times and can gain weight. These are not good habits to develop.
As we continue through summer, parents should be aware of, and reduce child idleness. Parents should stick to screen time limits and encourage outdoor play and activity. Older teens often benefit from having jobs in the summer, to give them something to do that keeps them busy and on their feet. Often, the alternative is a lot of indoor play on electronic devices, which leads to reduced calorie expenditure, body deconditioning and fatigue. Please get your children moving!
But, as your children are encouraged to get out of the house, please remember to protect them from the sun. Children should wear sunscreen every day, anytime they will be outside for more than 15 to 30 minutes. And children should drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. As you offer them fluids, avoid sugary beverages that add little nutrition and but lots of calories. Most of the time, all that children need to stay hydrated is water.
A regular bedtime also is important. It is easy to be tempted to let children stay up later than usual, and sometimes that may be OK. Yet I recommend that children go to bed most nights no later than two hours after their typical bedtime during school. Our circadian rhythms can be very thrown off by regularly going to bed very late into the darkness hours. The morning sunshine can disrupt our sleep cycle and make it harder to get the same type of restorative sleep when we sleep in late.
Use the extra time in the summer to encourage healthy eating behaviors. When children get out of the routine of getting up early enough to have breakfast, and no longer have to pack a lunch for school or have the school cafeteria prepare lunch for them, they will sometimes default to processed foods that can easily be pulled out of the pantry or heated in the microwave. But these choices are not usually the healthiest. This can be an even bigger problem if both parents still work, and older children are left home alone during the day. It is helpful to discuss the meals in advance with the child and ensure there are healthy options available. Challenge kids to eat at least three vegetables per day, although five is ideal. Cooking with your children can create lasting memories and teach them valuable skills they will take into their adult life.
Finally, remember basic safety issues. Children need to be monitored closely around swimming areas. Older teens should be cautioned against rough play in the pool and should avoid diving in shallow areas. All children should wear helmets when scootering, biking, skateboarding, four-wheeling, motorcycling, horseback riding or any other similar activity. Ensure everyone wears their seat belts. Use insect repellent when playing outdoors, especially at dusk and dawn. Drain all free-standing water from your yard to reduce the propagation of mosquitos.
Attention to these details can help your kids establish or maintain healthy routines and reduce their risk of injury or illness over the summer. You might even find that the children take these good health behaviors with them into adulthood, and that is an idea worth celebrating.
Dr. Janet Hurley is medical director of population health at Christus Trinity Clinic and board chair for the Texas Academy of Family Physicians. She practices family medicine at the Christus Trinity Clinic Herrington-Ornelas HealthPark.