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FirstHealth of the Carolinas
A healthy role model for your kids By Erica Stacy
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By Erica Stacy

Feed regularly; proper nutrition is essential. Clothe appropriately. Organize a schedule for rest to reduce malfunction. For optimum results, provide stimulating interaction often.

Wouldn’t it be nice if children came with a set of operating instructions?

When I brought my first child home from the hospital, I was certain that I would quickly master the art of parenting. Three children later, I am less certain and every day is a new adventure.

Unfortunately, just when I think I have things under control, one of my children unexpectedly changes the rules. Who knew that green vegetables are only for green people? That the shoes that fit perfectly in the store yesterday are suddenly cutting off circulation? That movies rated PG-13 by experts may be less than acceptable for many 13 year-olds. That playing actively outside isn’t something that comes naturally, but rather requires parent creativity and involvement?

Fourteen years after learning of my first pregnancy, I am still learning. I understand now that my degree in parenting is a lifelong pursuit with no pretty paper diploma to mount on the wall. Everyone who takes an interest in children supports the future. Setting examples in good health and community values is a responsibility we all share.

Here are a few tips to make the trip more enjoyable and to ensure that we arrive at our desired destination: a healthy, happy future for all children and families.

Before baby arrives
Raising a healthy child actually begins before the baby even enters the world. The choices parents make during pregnancy and in the hours immediately following birth lay the foundation for the future.

“Educating new mothers is the first step,” says Patrick E.B. Egbe, M.D., a pediatrician with Choice Pediatrix in Rockingham. “New mothers should have a basic understanding of newborn care before baby leaves the hospital.”

Dr. Egbe encourages parents to participate actively in their pregnancies. “Ask questions,” he says. “Read. Use the time to learn as much as you can.”

For example, “one of the single greatest gifts a mother can give her newborn is to make the choice to breastfeed,” Dr. Egbe says. “Yet many mothers, particularly young mothers, have not even considered the possibility before the baby arrives.”

Dr. Egbe encourages all new mothers at least to try to nurse their infants. “When I point out the benefits and really try to work with mothers, I find that most are open to at least trying to breastfeed,” he says. “There are benefits for mother and baby that cannot be duplicated.”

In addition to choices with immediate implications such as housing and feeding, families should take time to discuss the values they wish to instill in their children. Methods of discipline, religious affiliation, health priorities and education are just a few of the topics new families need to consider. For example, while your immediate family may not smoke, how will you handle friends or family members who do? Although strategies may change as the child grows, families who foster a climate of open discussion early set the stage for future interactions and healthy decisions.

See how they grow
The family member or guardian who takes responsibility for planning meals and grocery shopping is critically important to establishing healthy eating habits in children and young adults. “What the family consumes every day is important,” Dr. Egbe says.

As soon as the child is old enough to join the family at the table, he or she begins to recognize the normal food patterns of the group. “The family table should be the ideal table,” says Dr. Egbe. “If sodas, juices and high-fat content or sweet foods are not readily available, children do not miss them. Ice cream, cookies and soda should be infrequent treats—not daily expectations.”

Unfortunately, across the nation, poor nutrition and lack of exercise are taking a toll on youth. According to a 2005 Institute of Medicine report: “Over the past three decades, the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled for preschool children aged 2 to 5 years and adolescents aged 12 to 19 years, and it has more than tripled for children aged 6 to 11 years. At present, approximately nine million children over 6 years of age are considered obese.”

In response to growing requests from area pediatricians, teachers and other community leaders, the FirstHealth Center for Health and Fitness-Pinehurst has designed a program to help parents encourage active lifestyles and healthy food choices for their families. Moore Healthy Kids is available free of charge to all interested families.

“Our goal is to help families understand that making the right choices for their children makes a difference in their health for a lifetime,” says the center’s program manager, Kari Garbark.

Through the program, parents and children participate in educational activities to learn more about healthy snacks, eating out, meal planning and moderate exercise.

“Children need to see their parents being active and making good lifestyle choices,” Garbark says. “It isn’t necessary to be a member of a gym or even involved in organized sports to get moving. Kids can help with yard work or walk with pets. Visiting area parks to enjoy outdoor activities or simply playing catch in the yard are convenient, inexpensive activities that families can enjoy together.” (For more information about Moore Healthy Kids, call (800) 213-3284.)

A relationship you can count on
One of the best sources of information about your child is his or her health provider. Establishing a relationship with a pediatrician or family health professional that you trust is key to ensuring your child remains healthy from infancy through young adulthood.

“Yearly examinations offer an excellent opportunity for parents and providers to discuss lifetyles, developmental changes and any other health-related topic,” says Dr. Egbe. “We are often in a position to target a potential problem before it begins to affect health.”

As children grow and change, parents often neglect routine physicals. “If the students are up to date on immunizations and seem healthy, parents delay routine well-care” Dr. Egbe says. “Adolescents are particularly fragile, and providers are trained to recognize symptoms that parents may overlook.”

Equating the health status of a teen to that of a newborn, Dr. Egbe suggests that parents remain diligent in seeking health care during this time of transition.

Parents should also be open to enabling their teen child to speak privately with his or her physician or provider. “We like to think that we know everything about our children, but they often share information more freely when Mom or Dad are not present,” Dr. Egbe says.

Dangerous and counter-productive behavior will be discouraged, he says, and appropriate interventions will be put in place.

“Ultimately, the teen is encouraged and supported to involve the parents in the process,” Dr. Egbe says. “We always try to earn the trust of teens and will work with them to get the parents involved.”

It takes a village
Encouraging good health in children is something that extends beyond the home. Teachers, coaches, church representatives, child care providers and other community leaders also play an important role in the lifestyles children choose.

Funding through the NC Health and Wellness Trust has enabled FirstHealth to implement FitTogether, a program targeting elementary school children, in four area communities. Through FitTogether, FirstHealth has partnered with area schools to promote awareness and understanding about healthy eating and physical activity. Just as no two children are exactly alike, each participating school has adopted unique methods of presenting information.

“We have provided resources and tools to Moore, Montgomery, Hoke and Richmond school systems and classroom teachers,” says Amy Hamilton, outreach manager for FirstHealth Community Health Services. “The creativity they have used in sharing the materials is inspiring.”

Each school combines classroom education with field trips or special activities to encourage health awareness. For more information about FitTogether or other children’s health programming, call (800) 213-3284 or visit www.healthwellnc.com.