Sidra Medicine experts provide parents with advice on how to raise healthy, happy children
How do we help our children thrive at each stage of development? How do we unleash their potential, and pave the way to creating healthy, happy, and confident adults?
The answers to these questions lie within the core meaning of parenting, which describes the process of promoting and supporting the physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development of a child from infancy to adulthood.
Amna Al-Ibrahim and Moza Al-Jaber, associate dietitians at Sidra Medicine – a member of Qatar Foundation – shed light upon the factors deeply rooted with families’ lifestyle and routines that set the foundation for a child’s mental and physical health.
In today’s busy world, committing to healthy eating and regular physical exercise can be difficult, and parents often resort to finding easy solutions – such as frozen foods, ready meals, or takeaways. And these unhealthy habits can become normalized.
“Eating habits develop as early as with the introduction of solid foods and will develop and change as an infant grows into the next stage of life. Once food is introduced, the culture and family’s eating routine, family traditions, habits, and food choices will influence the eating habits of the toddler or child,” says Al-Ibrahim.
Limited guidance by parents when it comes to their child’s eating habits can result in a lack of knowledge regarding what a healthy, balanced diet entails
“And limited guidance by parents when it comes to their child’s eating habits can result in a lack of knowledge regarding what a healthy, balanced diet entails, and cause health issues in the future. Therefore, having a balanced diet with regular meals and snacks in between is vital to a child’s relationship with food.”
When a child is bored, stressed or feeling anxious – feelings that have been heightened during the pandemic – parents often resort to giving their children sugary treats or drinks.
Poor eating habits can lead a child to be underweight or overweight
“Overconsumption of ‘unhealthy foods’, which are considered to be high in sugar and fat and have little to no nutritive value such as chocolates, crisps, sweets, biscuits, and sugary drinks – including fruit juices – can lead to bad habits. And the excessive intake of such foods can cause disordered eating patterns,” says Al-Jaber. “And poor eating habits can lead a child to be underweight or overweight.”
According to Al-Jaber, constant undereating can affect growth rates and brain development, or cause micronutrient deficiencies and gastrointestinal problems such as constipation and poor immunity, while excessive overeating may lead to obesity, and put children at risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and liver disease.
Active play with friends can help increase the release of serotonin – the ‘happy hormone’ – and reduces boredom, subsequently reducing snacking as a form of entertainment
A lack of physical activity can also cause issues, says Al-Ibrahim, including joint problems, loss of muscle strength and endurance, weakening of bones, poor blood circulation, and high blood pressure, as well as affect the function of certain hormones such as insulin and thyroid function.
“The social aspect of physical activity can also affect a child’s health,” she said. “For example, active play with friends can help increase the release of serotonin – the ‘happy hormone’ – and reduces boredom, subsequently reducing snacking as a form of entertainment.”
Al-Ibrahim also highlights that the lack of physical activity in the long run can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, depression, and certain cancers, while staying active can help improve sleep, ability to perform daily tasks, cognitive ability and bone and musculoskeletal health.
Parents can also involve their children in food preparation. This will provide them with knowledge and skills in preparing healthy meals and snacks
To combat these issues, parents should avoid giving treats to their kids as a quick fix. It is important to set a daily routine – including scheduling set meals, snacks, exercise, limiting screen time, and most importantly ensuring a good night sleep.
Parents can prepare healthy snack options, like fruit, vegetables with healthy dips, nuts, and yogurt. And making these easily accessible and visible to children will encourage them to eat more of these foods. Also ensure that children drink plenty of water, and limit the consumption of soft drinks and fruit juices. Treats, Al-Jaber explains, can still be given but they should be offered occasionally and not in response to a tantrum and not because the child is bored.
“Parents can also involve their children in food preparation. This will provide them with knowledge and skills in preparing healthy meals and snacks,” says Al-Jaber.
Screen time, Al-Ibrahim says, should be limited to less than one hour for children between the ages of 2 to 5 years, while for older children, this limit can vary, and will – to an extent – be determined by whether they are currently remotely learning. Parents should encourage their children to play and part take in activities that do not require them to be on a screen.
Physical activity is important to staying healthy, Al-Ibrahim adds. Activities including the whole family is an option to encourage children to be more active, and can include walking, going up and down the stairs, and riding a bicycle.
“Another factor that can impact health and weight is sleep. It has been scientifically proven that those who do not get enough sleep are susceptible to weight gain. This can be explained by the hormonal changes that can occur as a result of chronic sleep deprivation,” says Al-Ibrahim.
“Additionally, those who sleep less tend to snack more especially when they were awake for a few more hours during the night. Sleep recommendations vary for each group – children aged 3–5 need around 10–13 hours per day; children aged 6–12 require around 9–12 hours per day; and teenagers should have between 8–10 hours.”
Ultimately though, the best way for parents to help manage their children’s behavior is to lead by example, says Al-Ibrahim. Being a role model for your child will make it easier for them to follow. Implementing these things will allow your child to lead a health, active life, and it will be easier for them to carry these habits into adulthood.