Parents always want to listen to the pediatrician when a child is sick. But what do the pediatricians want parents to hear when the goal is to keep children well?
That's the question we posed to three doctors -- Dr. Joel B. Steinberg, professor of pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center and attending physician at Children's Medical Center Dallas; Dr. Chris Straughn, a pediatrician at Medical City Children's Hospital in Dallas; and Dr. David Goff, a pediatrician at Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth.
Here's what they said:
Pay attention to nutrition
Childhood obesity is easier to prevent than it is to rectify, all three doctors agree. And it is one of the biggest threats to children's health today: This the first generation of children that is not on track to live as long as their parents.
Obesity is harmful on every level, increasing a child's chances of developing type II diabetes, high blood pressure and even cancer.
Steinberg says 80 percent of kids younger than a year old regularly eat french fries -- a food he'd like to see less of in children's diets, along with macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, fried and other high-fat foods, and high-sugar drinks.
Straughn would also like to see parents eliminate high-fructose corn syrup from their children's diets.
The doctors all agree on the importance of exercise from the earliest possible age. Straughn notes that a March study published in Pediatrics finds that children who eat meals regularly with their family, get adequate sleep and limit their television time to no more than two hours per day had a 40 percent reduction in obesity compared to kids who had none of these routines.
Don't be afraid of immunizations
The three doctors all express concerns that too many parents are forgoing lifesaving vaccines against measles, mumps, whooping cough, chickenpox, influenza and meningitis.
Steinberg respects the anxiety that some parents express about possible links between vaccines and autism, even though no such connections have been proved. He suggests discussing concerns with your child's pediatrician. Steinberg says that because autism is typically diagnosed at 18 months, he will delay some vaccinations until age 2, stagger them or offer vaccines without preservatives.
If cost is an issue, Vaccines for Children, a Center for Disease Control and Prevention program (www.cdc.gov), will help make vaccines more affordable for Medicaid-eligible kids.
In addition, Straughn recommends a pertussis (whooping cough) booster for all parents and other adults who will be in contact with infants.
Get enough vitamin D
Many children -- and adults -- need more vitamin D. People need to compensate for the diminished exposure that current generations are getting to the sun, the doctors say; vitamin D is produced through the skin by exposure to sunlight.
Straughn notes that a vitamin D supplement is recommended for all breastfeeding infants, and a multivitamin containing vitamin D is recommended for all older kids. Check in with www.healthychildren.org for the recommended doses.
Watch developmental milestones
Even if you have a healthy child, don't skip scheduled doctor visits. Parents should also be checking in with their pediatrician, who should be up to date on the latest recommended schedule for their child's hearing, vision and dental exams.
Be sure to discuss your child's weight, height and body-mass index growth curve, and take steps if the child's growth curve is not healthy and diet corrections need to be made. Find out whether your child is meeting developmental milestones for walking, talking and socializing, too.
If problems are found, Early Childhood Intervention, a free, federally funded program administered by the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, can help. For more information, visit www.dars.state.tx.us.
Auto and home safety
Texas law requires all children younger than 8 to be in a car safety seat or booster seat. Younger infants should stay in a rear-facing car seat as long as possible. Kids older than 4 and weighing more than 40 pounds can use a booster seat. Don't ever leave a child in a hot car.
Keep any guns in the home under lock and key. Put up a secure swimming-pool gate and do not let a child swim unattended. Keep household drugs, medicines, cleaning supplies and knives out of reach.