By Maria Prodanovic, M.D., a pediatrician with Del Sol Medical Center

As children head back to school, it’s important for parents to focus on making sure the return to the classroom is built on a healthy foundation.

The start of a new academic year is the perfect opportunity to help children and teens build healthy eating and sleeping routines. 

Eat Smart — Studies show that children who eat a nutritious breakfast have better concentration and more energy throughout the day. It can also help kids stick to healthy choices during lunch. Whether your kids are eating a packed lunch or going through the lunch line, emphasize the importance of avoiding foods that are high in sugar and fat and focusing on high-protein foods as well as whole grains, fruits and vegetables. It’s also important to check school lunch menus ahead of time for possible food allergies. 

Get Enough Sleep — According to the National Sleep Foundation, school-age children need 9 to 11 hours of sleep each night, and teenagers need 8 to 10 hours. Sleep is especially important at a young age as it directly impacts mental and physical development. To help re-establish a sleeping pattern after the summer months, make sure your child avoids caffeine in the afternoon or later in the day, has a bedroom environment that is conducive to sleep (dark, cool and quiet), and has a specific stop time for TV, computer and phone viewing at night.

Hand Washing — One of the most effective ways to keep children healthy is to encourage them to wash their hands. Hand washing plays a big role in stopping the spread of germs. It’s important to wash hands:

  • Before eating or touching the eyes, nose or mouth.
  • After using the restroom, touching shared surfaces (doorknobs and computer keyboards), playing outside, touching animals (class hamster included) or holding hands with others.

After washing, hands should be dried with a clean, disposable towel. 

Safer Sneezes — According to an MIT study, a sneeze can travel an astounding 200 feet. To keep germs from flying around school classrooms, hallways and gyms, children and teens should cover their mouths and noses with a clean tissue. If that’s not possible, the next best thing is to cough or sneeze into their elbow or upper sleeve of their shirt.

No Sharing Allowed — Children are taught to share at a young age. One exception to this rule is that they shouldn’t share anything that may harbor respiratory germs. Examples include food and drinks, lip balm and towels. Their best friend’s smoothie from home may look delicious, but it shouldn’t be shared.

When Illness Strikes — Despite the best attempts to stay healthy, school-age children may find themselves with a fever or other symptoms. To keep illness from spreading to classmates and family members:

  • Children should stay home from school if they have a fever and should remain at home until their doctor gives the green light to head back to class. Most schools require students to be fever-free for at least 24 hours before returning to class.
  • Disinfectant cleansers that kill viruses should be used to clean surfaces in the home. Many viruses remain active for hours on surfaces.

Going back to school is an ideal time for parents to review a few health and safety pointers with their children. Reminding your kids of some basic principles lays the foundation for a healthier—and safer—school year.