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Start of the school year brings new health challenges for kids

From healthy eating and getting enough sleep to managing mental health, Dr. Nicole Saint Clair has tips for parents as the start of the school year approaches.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Families are in back-to-school mode, squeezing out the last bit of summer while shopping and checking things off that new classroom list, but it's important to remember to make health a priority too when preparing for the first day of school.

Dr. Nicole Saint Clair, Executive Medical Director for Regence, has some tips to get parents and students back in the school-year routine.  

"Hopefully we've all been getting a little bit of relaxation time and maybe sleeping in a little bit, maybe going to bed a little later and kind of starting to shift towards getting on the schedule that we know is going to be healthiest for kids during the school year," Saint Clair said.

That means getting plenty of sleep, exercise, and proper nutrition.

About 40% of total daily calories for kids between ages 2 and 18 are considered "empty calories" due to high concentrations of added sugars and solid fat, according to John Hopkins Medicine. About 17% of youth between ages 2 and 19 in the US are obese.

When it comes to nutrition, families should try to focus on healthy foods without added sugars. It’s also important for parents and caregivers to be role models for a healthy diet.

Sleep also needs to be a priority, and good sleep is equally as important as diet and exercise, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

When it comes to getting enough rest, Saint Clair suggested moving a child’s bedtime from their summer schedule to their school-year routine a week or two before the first day back in order to give them time to adjust. Parents should also work to establish a sleep ritual and have kids put away electronic devices at least one hour before bedtime.

Youth mental health is another health care issue that can't be ignored during the back-to-school season — or at any time of year.

"I think parents need to just be aware and recognize that overall, in the US, kids are struggling," Saint Clair said. "We know that in the lead up to the COVID pandemic, there was a significant year-over-year increase in feelings of depression and hopelessness, and that unfortunately has only accelerated."

One way parents can be more proactive about mental health is by being mindful of bullying. Only 17% of children seek help after being bullied, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Parents should keep an eye out for early warning signs like changes in behavior, academic problems, anxiety, depression, and self-harm.

Overall, it’s Saint Clair said it's important to keep an open line of conversation with your kids and teens.

“It's really important to recognize and validate that going back to school can be stressful, not just exciting, and really kind of make sure that you're talking to your kids and keeping open lines of communication and then, as if they do identify that they're kind of struggling a little bit more than they would like, making sure that you're talking to your pediatrician about ways that you can find support and help," she said.  

As a final tip, she said parents shouldn't forget about yearly checkups for their children — and right now is the perfect time to get in for an appointment.

"Having a well-child visit is really important for kids all the way through age 18 every year," Saint Clair said. "And it's a chance to check in, make sure you're growing and developing properly, make sure all of your immunizations are up to date to start this school year."

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