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AHA News: For Pediatrician Mom, 'Back to School' Starts Well Before First Day of Class
  • Posted August 10, 2023

AHA News: For Pediatrician Mom, 'Back to School' Starts Well Before First Day of Class

Any parent knows that back-to-school season can turn into one of the busiest times of the year. As a medical professional whose many roles include being a parent to two adolescents, Dr. Natalie Muth might know more than most.

Muth is a pediatrician and registered dietitian at Children's Primary Care Medical Group in Carlsbad, California. She's also a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, has led or been part of several expert panels and wrote a book on family wellness.

Despite all that expertise, as she prepares to send her son and daughter to 10th and seventh grades, respectively, Muth said she faces challenges that would be familiar to any parent: "ensuring an earlier sleep time and enough sleep at night, keeping the screen time to a minimum as much as possible, and helping them be mentally and physically prepared for the excitement and challenge of a new school year."

Muth offered professional advice along with personal experiences as part of "The Experts Say," an American Heart Association News series where specialists discuss how they apply what they've learned to their own lives. (The conversation has been edited.)

What are parents most likely to overlook, healthwise, about getting their kids ready for school?

While the first day of school may be on everyone's calendar, parents might overlook the importance of the few days to a week before school starts to help kids get ready.

This includes adopting a sleep routine and schedule that ensure kids go to bed at a reasonable time to wake up well rested and ready for the start of the school day. They should go to sleep around the same time each night to ensure enough sleep before the start of the school day. (Children ages 6-12 need nine to 12 hours of sleep a night; 13- to 18-year-olds need eight to 10 hours.)

It's also important to bring back any screen time rules that may have been relaxed over the summer and to make plans for healthy meals and snacks that fit into a busy schedule. This is as important for teens as it is for younger children.

Parents might also overlook the timing and need to get a wellness check scheduled to ensure the child is ready for school, clear to participate in sports and up to date on recommended immunizations.

What's your advice for keeping kids calm when it's time for those immunizations? And given all the misinformation out there, how do you assure parents it's the right thing to do?

Receiving the recommended childhood vaccines is an essential part of childhood to help protect from contagious and life-threatening illnesses. Pediatrician offices and their staff are highly experienced in providing vaccines for children in a way that helps to ease their worries and minimize their distress at receiving the poke.

My best advice is to be honest with your child if they ask if they will need to get a shot. If they express worry, acknowledge that, but also be calm, reassuring and don't belabor the subject. If you're not sure if they'll need a shot, tell them that.

I advise against negotiating with them such as letting them choose if they want the vaccinations or giving them food rewards afterward.

How do you think being a pediatrician affects how you manage your own children's health?

As a pediatrician, I know and have learned a lot about what is important to help children and adolescents thrive. But that does not mean I have all the answers, especially when it comes to uncertainties and the dynamics of "real life," including the personalities, desires and circumstances that brings.

I often turn to family, colleagues, friends and credible resources such as the American Academy of Pediatrics when I need support or information to help my own family and my patients and their families to thrive.

What else should we be talking about in terms of helping kids (and parents) with back-to-school season?

I think it's important to address the mental health of our kids as they get ready to go back to school and face some of the pressures and challenges of connecting with new peers and teachers, succeeding academically, performing in sports and clubs, and navigating the social environment.

Kids may have a lot on their minds. For many, it's a mix of excitement and perhaps some dread that we as adults can acknowledge and help them navigate.

What may be casual days of summer give way to the rhythm of school schedules and routines, and perhaps a little bit of chaos as everyone gets settled into the new school year.

American Heart Association News covers heart and brain health. Not all views expressed in this story reflect the official position of the American Heart Association. Copyright is owned or held by the American Heart Association, Inc., and all rights are reserved.

By Michael Merschel, American Heart Association News

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