Keeping Kids Healthy at the Start of School

For y’all who live in my neck of the woods, summer is coming to an end and a new school year is right around the corner. Whether you’re a parent who counts down the days with anticipated relief, or the phrase “back to school” is the equivalent of saying “Voldemort” (it’s the latter for me), preparations are likely happening in the next week or two. What does that mean for you and your kiddos? Sharp pencils? Funk-free lunch boxes? Matching socks? Organized, unmangled folders? Clean hair? (Er… I mean, lake water gets hair clean-ish, right?) Yes, even I, who will not speak the aforementioned phrase out loud, have to admit that there is satisfaction that comes with the trip to Target to see what themed backpack my kids will choose this year. But much, much more than this, I start preparing for my kids’ wellness as they begin the new school year. Because here’s the thing:

Kids getting sick just because they start back to school is not– should not be– an inevitability.

Illness at the start of the school year is common. I get it. My husband and I are both teachers and we have 3 kids. Actually (get this) we have 5 people in our family who attend 5 different schools! I promise you- I get it. I read the same “heads up” emails you do from teachers telling us about the first case of strep or flu and urging – begging- parents to keep sick kids home (thank you, teachers; and, parents, please keep sick kids home!). I also overhear parent conversations when someone says something like, “Well, it’s the start of the school year, so they’ll all be sick soon.”

No! No, that’s not (necessarily) true! Bear with me here as we think this through…

The reason I hear most often to justify why kids get sick at the beginning of the school year is that kids are all together in a room and “passing around germs.”

Nope. I don’t buy it. Here’s why. Think of how often your kids get sick in summer compared to the autumn months, and think of what your kids are doing all summer. Mine are around kids all day and I know many of yours are, too. Camps, vacation bible school, grocery store, bowling alley, dance/art/robotics/swim lessons, sleepovers, pick-up games on the basketball court, etc., etc. They come in contact with at least as many kids as they do in school, and in much less hygienic surroundings (let’s not think about the hand-washing that’s not happening!). There’s more than enough contact with germs, more than enough opportunity to get sick in the summer.

Automatic illness just because school starts? I don’t buy it.

So, let’s think about what the real differences are and the roots of why kids get sick when school starts.

#1 SLEEP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (um, did I yell that loud enough?)

Your kids (hopefully) go to bed earlier during the school year than in the summer. But even so, they still get less sleep. Lots less. Here’s what sleep looks like for my kids in the summer:

Jack (14): In bed around 11/11:30pm, wakes up around 10:30/11am = 11-12 hours. Caroline (12): In bed around 10/10:30pm, wakes up around 9/9:30am = 11 hours. Julianna (7): In bed around 9/9:30pm, wakes up around 8/8:30am = 11 hours.

So, on average, my kids get 11 hours of sleep per night in the summer. Now lets look at the best case scenario school year sleep schedule:

Jack: In bed (if we’re lucky) around 10:30pm, wakes up at 6:30am = 8 hours. Caroline: In bed (if we’re lucky) around 9:30am, wakes up at 6:30am = 9 hours. Julianna: In bed at 8:30pm, wakes up at 6:30am = 10 hours.

Look at the difference! In one school week (5 days, Mon-Fri), collectively, my kids get 35 (THIRTY- FIVE!!) LESS hours of sleep (per week) during the school year than in the summer! And that’s the best case scenario! If homework is piled on one night, they go to bed way later. Teachers can help with this by coordinating with other teachers so tests and due dates for large projects don’t all fall on the same day.

PARENTS: MAKE YOUR KIDS GO TO BED! (Am I yelling too much?) Help them manage their time so they’re not starting homework at 8pm. Hold their phones for them so they aren’t distracted with a screen beside them while they do homework, making it take twice as long to finish. If your kid doesn’t get enough sleep, your kid will get sick. And don’t say it’s because “they’re passing around germs.” No. It’s because our bodies fight viruses when we sleep. If we don’t give our bodies the time to fight when we’re asleep, the virus will win every time. But not only that, your kids will be happier and do better in school (heck, they’ll do better in everything!) if you make sleep a TOP priority.

This week, start “practicing” going to bed earlier and getting up earlier to prepare for school starting. Here’s a video I’ve shown my students in the past to start a conversation about the importance of sleep. Watch it with your kids. Help them understand how important sleep is for their health.

#2 STRESS

I know we all have different life circumstances, and sometimes have to deal with vastly different individual issues. “Stress” is a complex word that means something different to everyone. But… generally speaking… summertime for kids should (hopefully) be relatively low-stress. Let’s face it. School has become more intense for kids in the last decade or so. I’m not saying it’s necessarily bad or good, it just is. We (myself definitely included!) expect things from our kids during the school year that we don’t expect of other adults or even ourselves. It’s stressful for them! If kids don’t sleep enough, the stress is even harder to handle. Stress is an immunity zapper. Big time. This short article does a good job explaining it.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/how-the-mind-heals-the-body/201411/how-stress-affects-the-immune-system

I know you have high hopes for your child this school year. I do for mine as well. But instead of thinking about ALL she’s going to accomplish this year, pause for a second. Take a breath. This week as you prepare for school to begin, perhaps think about ways you can help alleviate some unnecessary stress. How can you make your home a calm place of refuge for her to decrease her stress at the end of the day? Now, I’m not saying it has to be neat and tidy and smell like potpourri all the time. But you have an enormous impact on your child’s stress level. Laugh. Eat together. Talk about pleasant things or the “best part” of everyone’s day. Listen to the issues that are troubling him. Empathize. Praise honest effort, even if it’s not an A (or a B). Make sure she knows that life is wonderfully imperfect. Let him see you trying your best, and laughing at your own shortcomings. Tell her calmly when you think she can do better, but let go of unimportant things that are potentially stress-inducing. And MAKE HIM SLEEP!

#3 Nutrition

I know the school year is busy. Crazy busy, compared to summer. I’m not suggesting you make fancy or even hot meals every night. But try your best to make them nutritious. (I’ll share some of my go-to weeknight meals in an upcoming post). Our bodies need nutrients for our immune system to function well. This week start getting in the routine of planning easy, nutritious meals. Yes- that means your kids eating veggies. Yes- that means staying away from the drive-thru. Yes- you can!! I’m not saying it’s easy, but neither is figuring out how to stay home with a sick kid. I’m saying it will be worth it to have a healthy child.

Start giving a quality multi-vitamin this week and make sure your kids are drinking plenty of water.

This is a bonus, but if you want to go the extra mile with me, I think this supplement makes a huge difference. Colloidal silver. No, it won’t turn you blue. No, the FDA does not recognize its effectiveness… blah blah blah. I’m here to tell you- it works. But if you don’t want to try it, don’t try it. If you do, I get mine from Whole Foods (Warning: it’s not cheap. But it’s cheaper than a doc visit or missing a day of work to stay home with a sick kid). It is a yellow-orangeish, flavorless liquid that’s administered with a dropper (read the instructions). I try to give it 2-3 times a day in juice, starting the week before school starts. My husband and I take it, too. I continue to give it at breakfast for the first 3-4 weeks of school (but reduce to giving it just once a day).

#4 Outdoor exercise

Kids during the summer months are outside quite a bit, running around and playing, right? (Please say yes, please say yes, please say yes.) Even good schools that make getting outside time and exercise a priority can’t compete with how much kids get in the summer. Exercise, fresh air and sunshine (Vitamin D) are huge immune boosters.

Read about this here: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150916162120.htm

And here: http://www.mysportscience.com/single-post/2016/09/25/Strategies-to-reduce-illness-risk-in-athletes-Part-1-Behavioural-lifestyle-and-medical-strategies

Think of ways you can supplement the outdoor exercise they are lacking. Can you go to a nearby park after school for an hour, or stay to play at the school playground? Is there a new sport they might want to try? Can you plan an outdoor activity on the weekends? Can you simply tell them to go outside and play in the yard or take a walk together around the neighborhood?

If your child doesn’t get enough outside exercise opportunity at his school, talk to the school principle about it. Advocate for it! By law, your child is to be given 90 minutes (but hopefully more) per week for recess. This article gives excellent advice on how to approach this if inadequate recess is an issue: http://memphisparent.com/health/are-your-kids-getting-the-recess-they-need/

#5 Don’t freak out!

Yes, I put forth a fair amount of effort to keep my kids from getting sick at the start of the school year. At the same time, I know that it happens. Humans get sick from time to time. There’s no avoiding it altogether. I’m not saying this to confuse you or to counter all that I’ve yelled about this far, but there’s a fair amount of FREAK OUT that happens if/when kids get sick. The things I mentioned above I believe will help more than anything else to keep your kids well, but they may still get sick at some point. Mine may, too. Last school year, no one in my family missed any school or work due to illness until after Christmas, but this year could be different. So. If your kid does get sick, don’t freak out! Most illnesses are viral, which means there’s not a whole lot your pediatrician can do to help. So, stay calm, keep your child home and try these things (obviously, these are suggestions for otherwise healthy kids without immune deficiencies or other conditions that compromise their immunity):

  1. Pay attention to your kids to catch the illness when you first suspect the first inkling of it. Make them go to bed (without their phone or other screen) and SLEEP! I can’t tell you how often sleep has been the miracle cure for a looming virus. Don’t make them power through it!
  2. Feed them the most nutritious food you can. If there’s ever a time to avoid junk food and sugar, it’s when they’re sick! Push fluids over food.
  3. Keep them home from school to REST! My kids know the drill when this happens at our house. If they stay home for illness, I take their phones. This is not punishment and they understand that. Their brains can’t rest and they won’t sleep if they’re staring at their phones. There’s something about YouTube and social media 6 inches from their face that’s different from watching TV. Since I want them to be still and able to fall asleep, I make them lie down and they are allowed to watch Bob Ross, Little House on the Prairie and Andy Griffith reruns on Netflix until they’re out. this is also a great way to test if they’re really sick. If they are, this is just what they are needing and wanting. If they aren’t it’s torture, and they are back to school the next day.
  4. Right before your put them to bed at the inkling of your suspicion, give a full dose (read the instructions) of colloidal silver in some juice. Stay on the colloidal silver until a day or so after they start feeling better.
  5. Let a fever do it’s job. You’re gonna think I’m the meanest mom after reading this (I’m good with it), but I don’t necessarily run for the medicine cabinet when my kids have a fever. A fever has a purpose in killing a virus. This article explains this much better than I can: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321889.php There’s another reason that I’m slow to reduce a fever. Giving a fever reducer is going to make your child feel better and mask the symptoms of illness. I don’t want to do that (I know. Mean.). If my kid is sick, I want him down and resting so he can recover as quickly as possible. If she’s just completely miserable, or if the fever gets higher than 102-ish, then I will give something to reduce it.

So there you have it! Let’s enjoy the excitement of the first few weeks of school by being WELL. It does take effort, but it’s not hard. Continue these tactics all school year, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how effective they are at keeping your children healthy and HAPPY.

Oh, and psssssst… these will work for YOU, too!

Go forth and be WELL,

Heather

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