After a summer spent dealing with sunburns and bug bites, thoughts of avoidable school sports injuries or fever-inducing viruses have all but faded into the background.
But with just a few simple steps, parents can start their kids on the healthiest school year yet.
1. Hand washing. Few actions prevent infection like good hand washing. Unfortunately, most kids seem to think a couple drops of water are good enough. Experts believe a good scrubbing takes 15 to 20 seconds.
Chicago mom Beth Maclin knew how important hand washing was when her son, Carter, started preschool and was exposed to germs from every other child. "I wanted him to wash his hands before school and when he comes home."
2. Vaccines. Illinois schools require children entering kindergarten and middle school to show proof of vaccinations. While debates rage about the link between vaccines and autism, even proponents of a delayed or staggered vaccination schedule agree that kids are better protected when they are fully vaccinated.
"Vaccines are obviously very important," says Dr. Anita Chandra, a pediatrician with Northwestern Memorial Physician’s Group and on staff at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "They are protective mechanisms against serious disease."
3. Backpack. With the start of school comes the inevitable homework. As kids get older, their textbooks tend to get heavier. Help your kids avoid back pain by buying a backpack that distributes weight equally over both shoulders. Avoid messenger bags and bags with wheels as both tend to put undue strain on the neck and shoulders.
4. Sleep. During the summer, kids tend to stay up later, so parents can’t expect them to fall back into a regular sleep schedule the night before school begins. Kids need 10 to 11 hours of sleep each night to get their minds and bodies recharged and ready to learn.
"Start a few weeks before school starts to get kids back into their rituals," says Chandra. "Try to make the evening stimulation-free by turning off the computers, cell phones and video games."
5. Eat right. After a good night’s sleep, make sure kids eat a healthy breakfast. Busy families worry that taking the time to eat a big breakfast might cut into their precious morning time, but a few simple foods can pack a punch. Offer your kids yogurt or scrambled eggs, which you can make the night before, in addition to their regular cereal and milk. The protein will help them keep up their energy until lunchtime.
6. Pearly whites cleaned. In Illinois, public schools require kids to show proof of dental checkups before they enter kindergarten, second and sixth grades. Tooth disease is preventable and children who have tooth infections are just as likely to miss school as a child with a stomach bug.
"Teeth are an important part of overall body function," says Dr. Indru Punwani, head of pediatric dentistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. "They are important in speech development as well as self-image."
7. Vision screening. It is now required for every student enrolling for the first time in an Illinois school to show proof of a vision screening conducted by an optometrist or an ophthalmologist. Eye health is one of the most important factors in a successful education.
"Most of what children are learning in school is coming through the visual system," says Dr. Pamela Lowe, optometrist at Professional Eye Care Center in Niles and American Optometric Association children’s vision expert.
8. Eyes and teeth protected. If your kids are involved in contact sports, talk to your dentist and eye doctor about safety gear. Teeth and eyes are two easily injured body parts in school sports. Simple mouth guards or protective glasses can go a long way in shielding your kids from harm.
9. Keep them home. Every school has its own guidelines for returning to school after an illness. Whether it’s 24 hours after a fever or vomiting or 36 hours after starting antibiotics, parents should follow the guidelines. They are in place to help your child recover properly and to prevent the spread of illness.
"Parents should ask themselves if another classmate had the same illness as their child, would they want their son around her?" says Chandra. "Use that as your rule."
10. Make it a habit. The best way to reinforce good hygiene is simply to encourage your kids to wash their hands, cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze and, for older kids, to carry hand sanitizer with them. Making use of these practices on a regular basis will help your kids avoid frequent illnesses.
"My kids don’t fight me when it’s time to wash hands," says Maclin. "It’s just always been a part of our lives, so it’s OK with them."
Michelle Sussman is a mom, wife and writer in Bolingbrook.