Ask most any parent, and they’ll tell you their most important job in life-even if they are research scientists or CEOs of major corporations-is to raise a healthy family. For many parents, learning what to do when a child is sick comes by trial and error. Years of practice and, well, gut instinct also have a lot to do with it. And if that doesn’t work, reputable and experienced doctors are available to provide the highest level of care. But, even with all of the modem advances in medicine there are no guarantees that a child will remain healthy.
Medical experts say the best thing parents can do to raise healthy families is to encourage healthy habits at home. From the moment a child is bom, his parents are the ones who will teach him proper hygiene, nutrition, and exercise habits. Health should be a concern for the entire family, not just for the children. Many doctors recommend that parents adopt the same health habits they push their children to learn, such as going to bed early, taking vitamins, and eating vegetables. According to area pediatricians, kids are much more likely to think healthy habits are important if they see their parents practicing them, too.
“Parents have a special position in their child’s life at all ages,” says Dr. Michael Willcutts, clinical pediatrician at Columbia Las Colinas Medical Center in Irving. “They are watching you closely.”
With this in mind, Dr,Willcutts and Dr. Joel Steinberg, both professors of pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical School, offer their advice on how to keep children healthy throughout their developing and growing years. They both agree that keeping children healthy goes hand-in-hand with keeping the entire family healthy because everything the parent does is reflected in the child. While there are no guarantees in health, following the basic guidelines of healthy living really can make a difference.
Two areas that Dr. Willcutts always stresses to parents are vaccinations and Well Baby exams. Even though parents should recognize these are obvious necessities for a child. Dr. Willcutts says he is continually surprised by the alarming numbers of babies who reach childhood without proper vaccinations or regular check-ups.
“Even in the 1990s, Dallas has seen an outbreak of measles among children, and some are dying from it,” Dr. Willcutts says. “This is such a tragedy because it is a treatable and preventable disease. A lot of parents worry that vaccinations are risky, but the benefits far outweigh the risks. We’re even seeing some diseases, like diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough spring back up because people don’t realize how dangerous they are. Vaccinations are a must.”
Even though a baby may appear healthy to his parents, Dr. Willcutts urges them to bring their child to regular Well Baby exams anyway. Without seeing the baby on a regular basis, it is difficult for doctors to chart his growth and development, hearing, and sight progress. Regular Well Baby visits should occur at 2,4,6,9,12,15, 18 and 24 months, then yearly thereafter.
Outside of physical health. Dr. Willcutts stresses the importance of emotional health in infants. Infancy is the time for parents to create a strong bond with their children. Simple interactions stimulate a baby’s brain and motor development and foster a sense of love and emotional security.
“Love your baby and play with your baby,” Dr. Willcutts says. “A baby’s job is to play, eat, and sleep. It’s through play that they learn.”
Toddlers through Elementary Age
The toddler years are when parents must introduce the world to their child. Their curiosity is at its peak. This is also the critical time to foster a child’s socialization skills, such as learning how to behave around other children. Showing, touching, walking, and talking are vital in a toddler’s development, Dr. Willcutts says, and reading is one of the best ways to introduce a child to the world.
Play is also an important activity at this age, especially since it develops healthy exercise habits later on. Dr. Willcutts says most pediatricians discourage parents from putting their children in competitive sports as a pre-schooler simply because the focus should be on enjoyment rather than competition. He suggests finding a good play program that offers activities, such as T-ball or soccer, where a child can just run around and kick or hit the ball without worrying about winning or losing. Also, heavy contact sports can seriously injure a young child because their bones and muscles aren’t very strong yet.
Dr. Steinberg, who is also the director of medical affairs at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, suggests parents make play time a family activity, which eliminates competition.
“If you put a 4-year-old in soccer or gymnastics, they are probably just going to stand there,” Dr. Steinberg says. “It’s good for them socially, but they would get more out of activities like these as a planned activity with the family. At this stage, families should be active together.”
Part of keeping a child active falls into Dr. Willcutts’ theory on the overall health of a child. He always encourages parents to nurture their children’s minds, bodies, and spirits. Once a child is leaving the toddler years and entering the pre-school age or older, parents should start focusing on all of these areas. Minds can be nurtured by play, reading, arts and crafts, games, and fun lessons. To nurture their spirits. Dr. Willcutts suggests introducing spirituality to children and teaching them moral lessons about right and wrong and being kind to others.
“You need to be fostering a moral foundation for kids at this age,” Dr. Willcutts says. “It’s critical to their mental health and safety. Now is the time to be teaching them about being a good human being. About being kind to others. This has to start early on if it’s going to mean anything to them. If not, you’re risking them practicing unhealthy behaviors when they get older.”
Part of nurturing the body is, of course, proper nutrition and physical activity. Dr. Willcutts says children start developing their eating habits during their preschool years. The food a parent puts on the table and keeps in the cupboards is what the child will eat, so this is the age to stock up on nutritious foods and start them on healthy eating habits.
However, Dr. Willcutts warns about putting children on diets. Rarely is this necessary, unless the child is obviously obese. In fact, he recommends parents avoid cutting back on fats until children are at least 2. Emphasizing weight loss at an early age could lead to eating disorders.
“Kids need calories, carbohydrates, and fat as part of their diet to grow,” Dr. Willcutts says. “Kids will only eat what you make available to them. On the flip side, don’t force kids to eat what you’re eating. They may not have developed a taste for some things yet. As long as they are eating healthy, they should be fine.”
Dr. Steinberg says nutrition is another area where parents can be role models.
“If parents don’t eat vegetables, their kids won’t,” he says. “If parents eat only fried foods, so will their kids. If parents always grab a bag of potato chips and sit in front of the TV., their kids will join them. If you’ve never eaten something, you’re probably not going to crave it.
Another way to nurture the body is through physical activity. Fortunately, kids are full of energy, which makes encouraging them to stay active a pretty easy job.
“It’s natural for a child to want to be active,” Dr. Steinberg says. “If you take a 4-year-old out to the park, they are going to stay busy, stimulated. If you put them in front of a T.V. in a contained environment, they won’t.”
Both Dr. Willcutts and Dr. Steinberg recommend getting children involved in a type of physical activity that not only benefits their health but also their motor coordination, rhythm, balance, and stamina. Being involved in activities such as dance and sports also fosters a sense of pride, accomplishment, teamwork, and practice.
Physical activity is another area where parents can become role models. Pediatricians say they are continually amazed at how quickly once-active children can become sedentary when they become used to watching television or playing video games. Once again, it’s up to the parents to make physical activity a family experience so that no one is tempted to stay behind and watch television.
“If the whole family is involved, the kids will think it’s important,” Dr. Willcutts says. “Give your kids a well-rounded experience when it comes to physical activity, but don’t go overboard. Find a proper balance because kids can bum out. They still need lots of time to just play and be a kid.”
Parents who have waited until then-child’s teen years to teach thern about healthy living may have waited too long. By now, their healthcare habits have been established. But it may not matter to them.
This is why, Dr. Willcutts says, it is important to encourage healthy habits in a child’s developing years. However, teens face other health issues far beyond proper diet and exercise. This is the time when their emotional and mental health is at risk. And even though teens may shy away from family activities, such as riding bikes or cooking healthy meals together, they still want guidance and nurturing from their family.
“Teenagers are more independent, and they are going to ques tion more things,” Dr. Willcutts says. “Remember to be a parent first, versus a friend. They have friends. They still need a mom and dad. Set aside family time where you can do things together. They count on you to guide them. Be more willing to show affection in front of them and toward them. This makes them feel more secure.”
Security is the key. Dr. Willcutts says, to help teens avoid risky behavior that could damage their health, such as unprotected sex, drug and alcohol use, violence, and depression. Just as parents discipline for bad behavior. Dr. Willcutts suggests rewarding teens for good behavior so they are motivated to stay away from unhealthy lifestyle choices.
Just as no prenatal medical test can ensure a healthy baby, no amount of protection and preparation can ensure a healthy family. All of the vegetables and sports activities in the world can’t guarantee a healthy child. But going through the right steps can help beat the odds, and instilling healthy habits in children heightens the chance that the habits will be passed on to the next generation. In the end, a parent’s reward isn’t a certificate or diploma for a job well done, but a healthy child.
“When you start a family, you don’t have a baby and ask, ’What is this child going to do for me,’” Dr. Willcutts says. “Everything you do is for them. Your reward is watching them grow up strong and healthy, graduate, get married, and be successful. That’s what you get back for keeping them healthy.”
RAISING HEALTHY CHILDREN: One Family’s Story
If all parents could have just one wish, they would most likely wish for healthy, happy children. If they could have two wishes, they would wish for die power to keep them that way.
Fortunately, with all of die advances of modem medicine, parents have more control over their children’s health than ever before. Genetic testing allows parents an early glimpse of the health struggles their children could face. Vaccines help keep children free of disease. Medicines fight infections and keep them well. So, in a way, parents’ wishes can come true. However, parents can’t rely solely on technology and medicine to keep their children healthy. It’s actually die parents themselves who play an important role in their child’s health, according to medical experts. Proper nutrition, exercise, and healthy habits all start at home. If a child grows up eating nutritious foods, staying active, and learning the basics of proper health care, they are more likely to become healthy adults.
“A child’s role model is and should be their parents,” says Dr. Joel Steinberg, director of medical affairs at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas and professor of pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical School. “A parent’s eating habits, exercise habits, and sleep habits will be reflected in their children.”
One area mom who makes it a point to be a positive role model is Sammi Gonzalez- better known in the Dallas-Fort Worth area as Sammi G., a mid-day radio personality on Magic 102.1. In addition to her own children, Angelo, 5, and Carley, 4, Sammi G. is also a step-mother to Lauren, 13, and Michael, 12. This working mom has tried to cover all the bases in her children’s health care since before they were bom. A firm believer in being a healthy role model for her children, she makes it a point to eat well, stay active, pursue hobbies and interests, and- as she often jokes-be a nag to her children about healthy habits so her kids will copy and develop her proper habits.
“I think raising healthy children comes from the way you were brought up,” Sammi says. “I was brought up having my teeth cleaned every six months, having my yearly check-up, and eating right. It was just part of what we did and how we were raised. I think all of these things are learned behaviors.”
With four very active children, Sammi and her husband, Miguel Martinez, have had to carefully organize their children’s health care. They keep a chart listing all of the kids’ doctor appointments for check-ups, teeth cleanings, and vaccinations to keep up with who needs what. The Martinez family learned this trick after taking one of their children to the doctor for a vaccination, only to leant from the nurse that he received the same vaccination the year before.
’Trying to remember it all can be hard,” Sammi says. “As a parent, you have to stay on top of things because the kids can’t. “
In a world full of tempting sweets and snacks, making sure kids stick to a balanced, healthy diet can be a challenge for parents. At the lunchroom table or on the soccer field after practice, kids are going to want what their friends are eating, and most likely, it won’t be a healthy choice. The Martinez’ try to eliminate temptation by keeping a limited supply of junk food in the hous, and they designate Sunday as ’cooking day’ where Sammi and Miguel cook a whole chicken or roast and slice it up to use in different recipes all week, This way, they begin their week knowing their family will eat a healthy meal each evening.
“I keep healthy foods around because my kids will eat what’s there,” Sammi says. “When you’re on the go a lot it’s easy to just grab a quick snack, so I make it a point to keep grapes or cheese and crackers around for them. To make sure your children are eating healthy, you have to let go of some things. It would be very easy for me to come home and focus on cleaning the house while they ate fast food, but instead I choose to come home and take the time to cook them a healthy dinner. The house can wait another day.”
An active lifestyle is also important in the Martinez household. Both Sammi and Miguel were very active in sports growing ii]), and they have passed their love for sports on to their children. Dance for Carley, volleyball and soccer for Lauren, basketball and wrestling for Michael, and T-ball for Angelo are favorite activities.
“It’s pretty easy to sit a kid in front of the T.V. and let them play video games all day,” Sammi says. “I think it’s up to parents to get the kids up and get them interested in being active. I think it’s good for the kids to see us active, too.”
This isn’t an easy job. In addition to working every day and running a household, during the school year Miguel and Sammi must also take Angelo to T-ball practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Carley to dance lessons on Mondays. Angelo to his baseball game on Saturdays, and Lauren to soccer practice on Wednesdays and Thursdays, hi between, they spend much of their time trying to keep their children safe during these activities by making sure they have the proper gear and equipment. A recent concern over the summer was playing at neighbor kids’ homes. The Martinezes have made it a rule to ask the parents of their children’s playmates if they keep guns in the house. If so, they can’t play there.
“My biggest concern as they get older isn’t their physical health, but their physical safety,” Sammi says. “Things get so busy, and it’s hard to keep check. But you can’t be passive in your child’s health. Talk to them. Even nag them if you have to. Do what you can to be a healthy example for them so they’ll be healthy and they can pass it on to their kids.”
Families and Long QT Syndrome
Keeping up with the day-to-day tasks of raising a healthy family is difficult enough. When a family learns they all carry a gene thai is potentially life-threatening, staying healthy becomes even tougher. Long QT Syndrome is a heart disorder that results from a defective gene and can affect an entire family. Many cases of Long QT Syndrome appear to be inherited in a simple fashion, resulting from a single or double dose of a defective gene. The disorder is often associated with unexpected fainting, seizures, or even sudden death.
Typically, if one parent has Long QT Syndrome, each child lx?ni to the couple lias a 50 percent chance of inheriting a gene that could cause the syndrome. Another form of inherited Long QT Syndrome is usually associated with deafness and affects a child whose parents are both carriers of a gene but are themselves unaffected. In this case, children have a 25 percent chance of inheriting Long QT. Most people are unaware they are carriers-or even have Long QT -until they experience symptoms such as fainting or convulsions, and the results show up when an EKG is done. Most symptoms are discovered after exercise, recreational swimming, after being startled, during intense emotional stress, or after waking from sleep. Those at risk for Long QT Syndrome usually already have a personal or family history of fainting or seizures or cardiac arrest. Sometimes, Long QT affects those who are deaf.
The key to preventing dangerous or life-threatening results of Long QT is to immediately be screened for the gene as soon as symptoms arise.
“About one in 7,000 people are bom with it, and most people never even know they have it until they reach adulthood and have a fainting or seizure-like experience and are fortunate enough to recover.” says Dr. William Scott, a cardiologist at Children’s Medical Center and associate professor at UT Southwestern Medical School.
These fainting and convulsion spells are usually brought on when the heart suddenly is unable to pump blood to the brain and other organs of the body due to a very fast heart rate. The primary’ problem appears to be an electrical disorder of the heart muscle. After each heartbeat, the electrical recover)’ takes too long, causing an increased susceptibility of the heart to dangerous rhythms. If the arrhythmia stops and the normal rhythm returns, then symptoms disappear. If not, the person goes into cardiac arrest, and sudden death may result.
Fortunately, as a person gets older- especially after adolescence-the QT interval does shorten and the risks decrease. Beta blocker medications have proven to the best medications to treat Long QT. Other forms of treatment include a pacemaker to protect against a dangerously fast heart rate… and in extreme cases, the implantation of a device that automatically shocks the heart during fibrillation, called an automatic implantable cardiac defibrillator, is necessary.
Families who discover they are carriers of the Long QT gene should be mindful of their health but understand that they can live a normal life with the proper treatments and precautions, says Dianne Browning, executive director of the Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndrome Foundation.
“When you find out you have this in your family, you tend to get very frightened,” she says. “No one wants to hear there is something wrong with their heart This can be an emotional, taxing thing. When parents discover their children have Long QT, they should make them aware of it, but don’t make them afraid of it. With the proper treatments, it can be controlled.”
1999 RACE FOR THE CURE
Family Fun Run/Walk
Families looking for a way to kick off a family exercise plan-as well as contribute to finding a cure for a deadly disease-may find what they’re looking for at the first Komen Dallas Race for the Cure Family One-Mile Fun Run/Walk. Traditionally open only to women, the Komen Dallas Race for the Cure is celebrating its 17th year by inviting families to join in a portion of the race.
The event is scheduled for 8:00 a.m. on Oct. 16 at NorthPark Center. Women will run the traditional 5K race, and their families can join them in the Family One-Mile Fun Run/Walk. More than 20,000 runners and walkers are expected to participate.
To emphasize the importance of the family being involved in the cure for breast cancer, Marianne and Roger Staubach, along with their children and grandchildren, will serve as honorary chairs at this year’s 1999 Susan G. Komen Dallas Race for the Cure.
Financial contributions, in-kind donations, and time commitments from throughout the community are vital to the success of the race. Seventy-five percent of the funds raised will stay in Dallas County to fund breast cancer awareness and education programs, as well as to provide mammography services to women who cannot afford them. The remaining 25 percent will be awarded to The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation to help fund national breast cancer research programs.
The race entry fee is $15, and donations and sponsorship opportunities are available. Call 214-750-RACE, extension 66, for information.