Breast-feed. A mother's milk is the perfect food for baby, providing the right balance of carbohydrates, fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals for up to six months. "After that, add in an iron supplement or iron-rich foods, such as iron-fortified cereal," says Matthew Baral, ND, pediatrics professor at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona. The essential fatty acids in breast milk—particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA)—are crucial to a baby's cognitive development. Research shows that breast-feeding also helps reduce the risk for many health problems, including diabetes, allergies, and asthma. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast-feeding babies for at least 12 months, but research shows mother's milk continues to provide nutritional, immunological, and developmental benefits beyond the first year, Baral says.
Wait on solids. Introducing solid foods too early can cause digestion problems, asthma, and eczema, because a baby's body isn't mature enough to process solid food. It also increases the likelihood of food allergies or sensitivities. Baral and many pediatricians recommend waiting six months before bringing on the rice cereal, mashed sweet potatoes, and other solids. Hold off on eggs, dairy, wheat, and peanuts until your child is at least 1, because they can trigger food allergies.
Offer variety. Once your kiddo is able to eat solids (usually between ages 1 and 2), introduce her to many different fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein-rich foods. If your child refuses to eat her broccoli once, don't give up. Research shows it can take up to 15 exposures before a child will accept a new food (Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 1998, vol. 57, no. 4). Foods that could cause choking, such as grapes, nuts, and raisins, should be reserved for children over 2.
Say no to junk food. Children as young as 2 eat an average of 14 teaspoons of sugar per day—more than three times the amount recommended by the USDA—often in the form of baked goods, soda, and sweetened juice and in place of vegetables, whole grains, and other nutritious foods Journal of Pediatrics , 2005, vol. 146, no. 1). As a result, many children do not consume adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables, which are important sources of fiber and nutrients ( Journal of the American Dietetic Association , 2006, vol. 106, no. 1 Suppl.). Buck this troubling trend by replacing sugary treats with more nutritious fare, such as whole-grain cereal, apple slices, cucumbers and hummus, or plain low-fat yogurt.
Feed them what you eat. By feeding your child the same healthy foods the rest of the family eats, you set a good example and prevent your child from morphing into that kid who will eat only pizza or macaroni and cheese. So he refuses to eat? "It's OK for a child to go without dinner," says Keri Marshall, a naturopathic doctor in Dover, New Hampshire, specializing in children's health. "He won't starve, and a few nights of going to bed hungry will convince him it's better to eat what's served at the table."
Language development. The first three years of life are critical to verbal development, says David Perlmutter, MD, FACN, of Naples, Florida, author of Raise a Smarter Child by Kindergarten (Morgan Road, 2006). By reading with your little one, you foster important child/parent bonding, boost your child's language skills, and plant the seeds for a lifelong love of reading. Perlmutter recommends lining your child's bookcase with both picture and story books, including those written for preschool and older kids.
Ear infections. Some 80 percent of children develop an ear infection by age 3. But the risk can be diminished through breast-feeding and by limiting pacifier use to bedtime, according to Perlmutter.
Skin care. It can take two or three years for a baby's skin to fully mature. Care for his fragile dermis by using products specially formulated for babies and free of harsh fragrances, irritants (such as alcohol), or chemicals such as phthalates, which Perlmutter says have been linked to kidney damage and cancer in children. Zinc oxide creams are wonderful for preventing diaper rash, and natural moisturizers containing almond, jojoba, or wheat germ oils can help keep baby's skin soft and supple. Avoid sunscreen for babies younger than 6 months.
Focus on: Brain Development
"Simple choices that parents make early on have a profound effect on their child's brain development," says David Perlmutter, MD, FACN, who practices in Naples, Florida. Ensure that your child's brain and nervous system develop fully with these tips.
Know about brain food. A child's brain uses 225 percent more glucose than an adult's brain, says Perlmutter. And just like babies, toddlers and preschoolers need adequate amounts of DHA and iron to feed their hungry brains. These nutrients can come from food—DHA from fish; iron from green leafy vegetables or organ meat. However, because these foods often are not at the top of a 3-year-old's list of favorite chow, usually supplementation is warranted, Perlmutter says. Children ages 2 to 5 require 200 mg of DHA and 8 to 10 mg of iron daily, he says.
Avoid bad fats. Seventy percent of the brain is made up of fat, and the body builds its brain cells from the fats that are consumed, Perlmutter says. DHA speeds up the transmission of messages among the brain's neurons and "is vital for the formation of synapses, dendrites, and other important cells that support brain development," he says. But other fats—particularly trans fats found in processed foods, fast foods, and some frozen foods—actually interfere with normal cellular function, resulting in a slower, less efficient brain.
Eat organic. Kids who eat organic foods have six to nine times less exposure to toxic pesticides than children fed a conventional diet (Environmental Health Perspectives, 2003, vol. 111, no. 3). Pesticides, especially widely used organophosphates, are toxic to the developing brain and can impair concentration and increase hyperactivity in some children, says Perlmutter. Because pesticide residue is "stored in fat cells and remains in the body indefinitely," exposure in young children can be particularly toxic, he says. If you can't afford to buy all organic produce, choose organic at least for those foods higher in pesticides, including apples, spinach, bell peppers, cherries, celery, imported grapes, and strawberries.
Get the lead out. Chemical exposures are pervasive in the modern world, says Leo Trasande, MD, a pediatrician and researcher at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York. Lead, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and other toxins have been associated with cognitive and other neurological impairments in hundreds of thousands of children each year. Simple steps to limit children's exposure include testing your home for lead-based paint, inspecting plumbing systems for lead contamination, using only filtered or cold tap water for drinking and cooking (hot tap water is likely to contain higher levels of lead), and cleaning with only natural, nontoxic products. Perlmutter also recommends avoiding soft plastic toys, such as teething rings and bath toys made with polyvinyl chloride, which can contain lead, phthalates, and other toxins.
Choose safer fish. Fish, rich in DNA, is the ultimate brain food. Fish higher on the food chain can be contaminated by mercury and PCBs, says Trasande. Good choices include wild Alaskan salmon, tilapia from the United States or Central America, and northern U.S. and Canadian shrimp, according to www.kidsafeseafood.org, a website devoted to helping families make healthy seafood choices. Parents should also give their kids only those fish oil supplements that have been screened for—and are free of—mercury and other contamination.
Engage the brain. Most waking hours during the first five years of your child's life should be spent engaged in "brain-building endeavors" such as reading, musical training, or imaginative play, Perlmutter says. These activities teach the brain how to learn and stimulate "the neurons to make more connections, which will make the brain stronger, faster, more efficient, and ultimately smarter," he says. In comparison, watching lots of television—even educational programs—at an early age can actually dull the brain, making future learning more difficult, he adds.
Food sensitivities. Many children can have trouble tolerating a particular food such as dairy or gluten, though only a small number have actual food allergies. Food sensitivities can cause diarrhea, abdominal cramping, and other digestive ailments, but they have also been linked to more serious problems. Studies have shown that kids with gluten sensitivity, also known as celiac disease, are at greater risk for displaying symptoms associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, says Perlmutter.
Be sun safe. Young kids, particularly those with fair complexions, produce less melanin, the skin's primary defense against the sun's harmful rays. So whether you're at the beach or on the ski slopes, make sure your children are wearing hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Choose an SPF 30 sunscreen formulated for children that protects against both UVB and UVA rays.
Watch for asthma. Childhood asthma has more than doubled since 1980 and now affects more than 10 percent of all children. In about half of these kids, the symptoms of asthma—wheezing, shortness of breath, and tightness in the chest—appear before age 5, Perlmutter says. If your child has asthma, Perlmutter recommends keeping him away from environmental triggers such as pollen, dust mites, tobacco smoke, and household chemicals; and limiting his exposure to stress, another asthma trigger. Some researchers believe that an inactive lifestyle—one that keeps children inside and exposed to indoor asthma triggers such as phthalates (which are added to many household products, including perfumes, beauty products, and children's toys)—may be partially to blame for the increase in childhood asthma.
Focus on: Building a strong immune system
Colds, flu, and other illnesses are unavoidable, particularly in school-age children—right? Wrong. Although respiratory infections, stomach bugs, and other ailments are a common part of childhood, they are in many cases preventable—provided your child is equipped with a battle-ready immune system, says Baral.
Eat immunity-boosting foods. A healthy diet is the first line of defense, Tanner says. "If your child is living on french fries and fruit juice, she is going to be more susceptible because her body lacks the nutrients needed to fight off germs." Instead of saturated fats and sugar—which weaken the immune system—feed your child foods rich in antioxidants beta-carotene and vitamins C and E, such as oranges, strawberries, carrots, and green beans. A children's multivitamin that provides at least 100 percent of the recommended daily intake of the essentials (C, E, D, B1/thiamin, B2/riboflavin, B3/niacin, B6, B12, and folic acid) can also benefit the immune system. "When my kids miss their multi for a week and everyone at school is sick, they will get sick," says Keri Marshall, an ND in Dover, New Hampshire. "That extra boost of vitamins really helps."
Increase sleep. Allowing your son to stay up late watching TV or reading in bed could make him vulnerable to illness. Several studies have shown that sleep deprivation can blunt the body's ability to ward off everything from the common cold to diabetes. But recent research on adults found that even modest sleep loss can affect immunity and increase inflammation, which has been linked to a heightened risk of cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, and death (Archives of Internal Medicine, 2006, vol. 166, no. 16).
Fight infections naturally. Turning to anti-biotics for every sore throat or ear infection can harm your child in the long run by helping to create stronger, more antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Marshall says. Illnesses, including many middle-ear infections, often are caused by viruses, which do not respond to antibiotics. Instead, allow your child a day or two to heal without antibiotics, and use natural cold and flu remedies with vitamin C, elderberry extract, and propolis extract.
Encourage exercise. While an intense workout can sometimes weaken the immune system ( Allergie Et Immunologie , 2003, vol. 35, no. 2), research shows that moderate exercise boosts the body's immune defenses. Exercise also helps prevent obesity, which has been shown to interfere with the body's ability to produce illness-fighting antibodies.
Oral health. Kids usually begin losing their baby teeth around age 6. Teach your child early on to brush his teeth after every meal, floss once a day, and limit sugar consumption. Find a dentist your child likes and schedule regular cleanings and checkups.
Have a plan for owies. Active school-age children are no strangers to cuts and bruises. Now is the time to assemble a natural first aid kit. Include arnica (Arnica montana ), a homeopathic remedy for bruises that can be taken orally or applied as a cream; an ointment containing calendula (Calendula officinalis ) for scrapes and cuts; and aloe ( Aloe vera ) for minor burns, including sunburn.
Head off hyperactivity labeling. Kids who are at times hyperactive or easily distracted are often labeled as having ADHD and, in many cases, put on a prescription drug such as Ritalin. However, the behavioral characteristics associated with ADHD are complex and can be caused by many factors, including toxic exposure to lead and mercury and even diet, says Wendy Weber, ND, MPH, research assistant professor at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington. If your child exhibits signs of ADHD, consider working with a dietitian or physician to remove from her diet—at least temporarily—dairy, wheat, eggs, and other foods known to trigger sensitivities that can exacerbate symptoms, says Weber. At the same time, add in DHA and other omega-3 fatty acids, which may ward off the risk of developing ADHD (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition , 1995, vol. 62, no. 4 Suppl).
Stop germ spread. Frequent hand washing with soap and warm water—particularly before meals and after using the bathroom and returning from school or other public places—is a powerful way to kill germs before they can attack your child's immune system, Tanner says. Carry a natural hand sanitizer that is free of synthetic antibacterial agents for those times when soap and water aren't available. Replace toothbrushes and disinfect toys after a child has been sick.
Focus on: Healthy weight
Obesity is a problem that affects more than 15 percent of all children between ages 6 and 19 living in the United States, according to the American Obesity Association. Those children are at increased risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, asthma, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and other serious health problems. Being overweight can also trigger depression and other mental health issues. Fortunately, weight problems in children can be prevented and reversed.
Let your child shop. Reinforce healthy food habits by getting your children involved in grocery shopping and meal preparation. "Let them pick out food you can both feel good about, or put them in charge of making dinner once a week," Marshall says. "This will provide them with the control they want and need."
Exercise regularly. Get your child outside more, or dancing to music inside, even if she isn't involved in soccer or other organized sports. "Exercise has many different forms," Tanner says. "Find activities your child enjoys and do them as a family."
Turn off the TV. U.S. children between ages 8 and 18 spend an average of 44.5 hours per week in front of a TV, video game, or computer, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The National Institute on Media and the Family reports that kids who watch more than three hours of television a day are 50 percent more likely to be obese than kids who watch fewer than two hours.
Monitor school lunches. Your child may be eating healthy at home but getting fat at school. That's because many school cafeterias and vending machines offer soda, hot dogs, pizza, candy bars, and more. The U.S. government has mandated through the Federal School Wellness Policy that schools begin to provide better nutritional education, physical activities, and healthier food. As part of this effort, help decide what food is sold at your child's school, says Marshall, who is involved in designing the healthy lunch program for her children's school in Madbury, New Hampshire. To learn more, talk to your school's principal or go to www.fns.usda.gov/tn/healthy/wellnesspolicy.html.
Be a Role Model. Your kids mimic you. "You cannot sit on the couch munching chips and cookies and expect your child to eat her fruits and vegetables," Tanner says. Besides, numerous studies have shown that a child is at greater risk of becoming obese if one or both of her parents are obese, Baral says.
Encourage balance. Swim practice. Music lessons. Study groups. Debate club. The number of extracurricular activities piled on a child's plate these days is growing. Many kids enjoy and thrive on these activities. But according to a 2007 study published in Pediatrics by the American Academy of Pediatrics, they also need time to do what kids do best: play. The study found that unstructured, exploratory play—which contributes to the "cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth"—is being edged out for many kids by increased attention to academics and enrichment activities. The result? A growing number of kids are experiencing anxiety and stress, which can harm them physically and emotionally. The goal is to help your children find balance, says Luanne Southern, MSW, senior director of prevention and children's mental health services at Mental Health America. "Allowing time for play, friends, exercise, and rest is so important."
Build connections to nature. According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin, 2005), children are becoming increasingly alienated from nature—in large part because of television time. This disconnect deprives children of an opportunity to enjoy and learn about nature, but it also may harm kids physically. One study suggests that "direct physical contact with nature reduces symptoms of ADHD," Louv notes. "It also may help with depression, obesity, and stress reduction."
Snuff out smoking. Girls 12 to 18 make up the fastest-growing group of smokers in the United States, and every day more than 4,000 kids ages 12 to 17 start smoking. Prevent your child from picking up this dangerous habit—which has been linked to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and many types of cancer—by talking to them early about why smoking stinks. Good resources include www.tobaccofreekids.org and www.kidshealth.org (click on "parents' site" and "positive parenting.").
Focus on: Confidence and happiness
Poised at the juncture between adolescence and adulthood, teenagers face a barrage of decisions and life choices—from where to apply for college to whom to date and hang out with—that can leave them feeling elated one moment and stressed out or blue the next. In the midst of all of these changes, help her develop confidence, self-esteem, kindness, and other positive character traits.
Provide acceptancecial to helping her to develop confidence and a positive self-image, says Luanne Southern, MSW, senior director o and unconditional love. Every person carries her own strengths and challenges, and accepting these in your child is cruf prevention and children's mental health services at the National Mental Health Association. "Praise your child for what she does well, and focus on her strengths—this will go a long way in helping her to excel in the world."
Practice positive discipline. Just like younger children, teenagers need boundaries and rules. "But when a rule is broken, don't be a harsh disciplinarian," Southern says. "Positive discipline means providing your children with guidance and expectations without belittling, harming, or rejecting them." For example, when you set a curfew, let your teen know what the consequences will be if she breaks the rules, and back up your expectations with action. But continue to express love and support throughout the process, Southern says.
Be the example. As children get older, friends and people outside their families become more influential. But parents still play an important role in guiding their teenagers' behavior. "Model the behavior that you want your child to display," Southern says. "If you tell him it is not OK to yell at or belittle someone but then you do that, it sends a confusing message."
Spend time together. Family time is as important for teenagers as it is for younger kids—even though teens may grumble a bit more about having to hang out with Mom and Dad, Southern says. "Your child needs you just as much, if not more, during this time in her life, and you can't know what is going on if you don't spend time with her." Along with making dinner a family event at least a few nights a week, Southern recommends finding other activities that your whole brood can enjoy, such as hiking, biking, or going to the beach.
Watch for depression. The third-leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds in the United States is suicide. It's a scary statistic, but one that parents of teens cannot ignore, Southern says. "Depression is a real illness, just like diabetes or asthma—but it is treatable and you can recover from it." The first step in treating depression is recognizing its symptoms, which include persistent sadness, withdrawal from family or friends, loss of interest in school or other activities, changes in eating habits, sleep problems, and increased irritability or agitation. If your child is diagnosed with depression, work with your doctor to provide him with the talk therapy and other treatments he needs.
Keep skin healthy. Blemishes and other skin irritations can make anyone feel self -conscious—especially a teenager. To treat a pimple quickly without drying out the skin, mix bentonite clay with water and apply directly to the affected area for ten minutes at least twice a day. Studies have shown that tea tree oil is also a good natural antiseptic and skin healer ( Journal of Applied Microbiology , 2000, vol. 88, no. 1).
Fight fatigue. Teenagers may have a reputation for sleeping all day, but many are simply too busy to get the eight to nine hours of shut-eye they need to function. Also, teenagers' natural circadian rhythm—which prompts them to stay up late and then sleep late in the morning—often conflicts with school and other schedules. The result? Many teens crash during the day, diminishing their ability to concentrate and learn. Exercise, a healthy diet, establishing a regular bedtime, avoiding caffeine and other stimulants after 4 p.m., and setting aside enough time for homework during the day or early evening so he doesn't have to study into the wee hours of the morning can all help improve a teen's ability to sleep.
Carlotta Mast, a mother of two, lives in Boulder, Colorado.