All most of us want (besides a decent night's sleep) is for our kids to be happy and healthy. But with today's constant stream of health information, some of it changing by the day, it's easy to get lost in the noise. So we asked Dr. Lisa Thornton, a pediatrician on the faculty of the Comer Children's Hospital at the University of Chicago and a mother herself, for the five things she thinks every parent should know. Consider them crib notes, a cheat sheet for the most important job you'll ever have.
Listen to the full conversation or get the highlights below:
1) Nutrition and exercise. Unless you've been living under a rock for the past decade, you know that obesity is the fastest-growing health problem among children. For the first time in history, kids today have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, and that's due in large part to what they're eating.
"The first thing I'd tell parents is how important it is for their kids to be eating a balanced diet," Thornton says. "That doesn't mean the child doesn't eat a whole bunch of things. It's not about restriction, it's about making sure the chid eats tasty foods in sensible proportions."
2) Get out and play.
The benefits of play are numerous: It encourages creativity, social skills, problem-solving, and the ability to follow direction. Kids should get a good mix of structured play (organized sports, board games) and unstructured play (backyard roaming). "Just to be outside in the backyard, digging up sticks, making up games, being expansive in thought ... is so important for children and their development," Thornton says. "Play at every age - even for adults!"
3) Physical safety.
When it comes to keeping your kids safe, think big picture, Thornton says. "It's usually not the small, complicated stuff," Thornton says. Keeping up with the latest recalls is important, but it's keeping an eye on the big, obvious things - falling out of windows or down stairs, car crashes - that are most likely to save your child's life.
How safe is your home? Check out Dr. Thornton's podcast on household hazards hidden in plain sight.
4) Don't skip check-ups.
Most parents are diligent about check-ups in the early years, but as kids get older and schedules get more hectic, sometimes they slip a little. Bad idea, Thornton says. Things like lead poisoning and anemia can go undetected but can cause major health problems down the road. In addition, doctors are trained to look for subtle markers of development that will help you spot problems before they turn serious.
They might say, "Mom, you're smothering me!" but kids really do need what Thornton calls the "adult protective shield." "Children have to feel like their parents are superman," she says, and that when bad things happen, you'll be there. It's as simple as saying it out loud. This might be the kind of thing you assume your kids know, but unless you say it -- early and often -- the message might not get through.