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Your guide to a healthy back-to-school season

The start of a new school year brings lots of excitement and just as much anxiety. Questions abound — from whether your kids get enough rest and eat healthy to how they’ll manage new school year anxieties and fall sports activities without injuries.

We turned to St. Louis Children’s Hospital’s MomDocs, Washington University Physicians and BJC Medical Group for the advice below on ways to address common issues and make the best of the 2023-2024 school year. 

Getting Enough Sleep

You as an adult might be excited to dive under the covers after a long day, but children of all ages — from toddlers to teens — may not feel the same. For school-age children, sleep helps with concentration, attention, focus and emotional regulation in the classroom. Try these tips to help your kiddo fall asleep faster and rest better.

Write out your afternoon schedule. Most children have only about four hours each day between arriving home from school and bedtime. Create a schedule for extra-curricular activities, homework, dinner, playtime and bathing so that bedtime doesn’t sneak up on you. 

Cut the screens. Screen time before bed prolongs “sleep latency,” or the time it takes to fall asleep, so stash away screens at least 90 minutes before your child’s bedtime. 

Rule out medical conditions that can impair sleep. Call your pediatrician, who can help you rule out medical causes of sleeplessness, if you’re concerned about your child’s sleep.  

Packing a Healthy School Lunch

As bento box season begins, now’s a good time to assess what you’ll be sending in your child’s school lunch. Many items marketed for lunch boxes are high in fat and sugar or contain artificial colors and flavors. Examples include apple sauce with added sugar and color, most brands of fruit snacks and most versions of chips.

If you find you’re filling your child’s lunch box with processed and pre-packaged foods, consider swapping with:

  • Baby carrots and dip

  • Clementines

  • Turkey-and-cheese rollups on whole-wheat tortillas

  • Beef jerky (avoid brands with high fat and low protein content)

  • Cheese sticks

  • Apple sauce (avoid those with added sugar and color)   

  • Dried fruit (prunes are especially good for avoiding constipation)

  • Pretzels

  • Granola bars

  • Sippable soup in a thermos

 

If your child purchases a school lunch, talk to them each morning about their food choices. Is today a chocolate milk day? If so, remind them that they will have to choose a healthy after-school snack such as fruit.

Managing Back-to-School Anxiety

Leaving parents behind, navigating a new and unfamiliar place and having to make friends — these are all changes tied to the start of a new school year that can leave kids feeling a little unnerved. A certain amount of fear and anxiety is normal in children — it helps keep them safe. The key is knowing when fear and anxiety are impairing your child and affecting their life, and when to talk to your pediatrician. Here are a few ways to help your child cope.

Ask them how they feel about returning back to school. It sounds simple, but don’t avoid approaching the topic head on. Go through their list of concerns and think of ways to address their worries — practicing new routines might ease their jitters. 

Be more available at the beginning of the school year. Find time to talk with your child about concerns and difficulties early in the year so that small problems don’t escalate into big ones. 

Teach your child relaxation techniques. Practice deep breathing. Prompt them to envision a happy place. Or ask your child to give their worries away to a stuffed animal or a doll.

Chill yourself. Children take emotional cues from parents. Modeling a calm attitude during back-to-school season will help your child approach it with a sense of confidence.

Keeping Young Athletes Safe

Preparing for the upcoming school year extends beyond the walls of the classroom. Here are some things to consider when getting child athletes ready for their best season yet.

Get a pre-participation physical. Inform your doctor when your child starts a new sport. Your pediatrician may take more time to gather information (such as family health history) and give recommendations to prevent specific injuries seen in that sport. 

Ensure your child has properly fitting equipment. It’s important for all required equipment to be in good condition and to fit properly so it can do its job in preventing injury. Don't overlook a mouth guard to prevent dental trauma. 

Remind your child to hydrate. Water is the best way to rehydrate (sports drinks should be used only if activity is more than an hour). In general, a brief break for rehydration every 15–20 minutes will meet fluid loss needs during competition. 
Avoid overuse and burnout by encouraging kids to try different sports. This will allow development of new skills and avoid overusing the same joints and muscles, preventing injury.

If an injury occurs, don’t keep playing. One of two things usually occurs: The child worsens their existing injury, or because they are favoring their injury, they injure a different part of their body. Remember that stretching before and after exercise increases the flexibility of joints and muscles. This added flexibility helps prevent common injuries like muscle strains or sprains.

Consider cutting activities. If you feel your child is too overwhelmed with extracurriculars, evaluating what is the right amount for your child can be helpful. 

Check out the St. Louis Children’s Young Athlete Center. Classes in injury prevention and educational programs — including strength training, throwing and running exercises — can help improve the overall health of young athletes. Teams of 15 or more can sign up here.

Download the Kid Care App for advice on hundreds of pediatric topics.

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