Take my advice: Supporting your child with the new term's challenges

The start of the new school year can be particularly stressful. In a new blog for parents, Dr Max Davie, Officer for Health Promotion at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, shares his advice on how to keep children healthy, mentally as well as physically, as they prepare to head through the school gates this September.

Your school years are often referred to as being the best days of your life, but for some, they can be a challenge. There are exam stresses, fallouts between friends and the biggest challenge of all – transitioning from child to teen.

Building a good sleep schedule

Sleep is crucial for your child’s development. It allows their body and brain to recuperate after a day full of learning and socialising. Depending how old your child is, they should be getting between 11 and a half and nine hours sleep every night.

Having a routine and creating the right environment for sleep, such as ensuring your child’s bedroom is dark, quiet and cool, will help them get those valuable hours. Switching off screens an hour before bed in favour of relaxing activities like a warm bath and reading can also help.

The importance of good nutrition

Children need to be alert and awake to learn. Start the day with foods that release energy slowly, such as porridge which will keep them fuller for longer. If they have a packed lunch, try to include nutritious snacks like low-fat yoghurts, carrot sticks and fruit, as well as things like wraps or sandwiches.

Dinner time can be tricky for parents, especially when they are juggling everything else life has to throw at them. Try to include a serving of vegetables with every meal and cook using different food groups. For younger children, you may prefer to serve their dinner earlier in the evening to assuage their hunger after a long day at school. But if they do need to snack, try to tempt them with something light to keep them going until tea time. Change4Life has lots of ideas for healthy snacks to try.

Exercise and how to build it into your child’s day

Children and young people should be doing at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day for a basic level of fitness.

Cycling and running are ideal. Fun activities like playing on the monkey bars, climbing trees, football and gymnastics to help strengthen muscles are also recommended.

As a parent, I know it can be hard to squeeze extra activities in every day. We’re asking the Government to make it easier for families to walk, scoot and cycle to school by reducing speed limits to 20mph in built-up areas and expanding cycle networks.

If your child is doing a lot of exercise and/or is reaching puberty, they will burn more energy and will need more food to build muscle and to stay within a healthy weight range.

Avoiding bugs and keeping well

Encouraging your child to wash their hands properly and regularly (particularly after using the toilet and before eating) will promote good hygiene habits and limit their exposure to bugs and illnesses like the common cold and diarrhoea. If you have young children try to discourage them from putting their hands in their mouths as this is often the easiest way to catch an illness.

You can also help keep your child well by ensuring that they are up-to-date with their vaccinations. Most vaccinations are given to children when they are babies, but some such as the HPV, are given to children during secondary school. Speak to your GP if you think your child could have missed a vaccination. NHS Choices has lots of information about the vaccinations your child should have.

Asthma is the most common long-term medical condition affecting children in the UK. One in 10 to 11 children in the UK live with the condition. Over the summer holidays, many children stop regularly using their inhalers which leaves them vulnerable. When they return to school in September, hospital admissions for the condition spike. To reduce the risk, you should ensure that your child always carries a spare inhaler, their annual asthma review is up-to-date and contact your GP or asthma nurse if you notice that your child’s symptoms are worsening.

Medicines for Children has information for parents about giving medicines, including asthma inhalers.

Managing stress and anxiety

"As children’s doctors, we want children to have opportunities to exercise safely, have a good understanding of nutrition and feel supported if they are anxious or worried."

In the last three years, the number of referrals from schools seeking mental health treatment for pupils in England shot up by more than a third, with more than half of those referrals coming from primary schools. Some of these referrals can be attributed to stresses of modern day living - so it’s important to maintain a good balance between school and personal time.

Hobbies and sports can be a really good way for children to clear their head and increase their activity levels. Encouraging your child to socialise with friends and family is also great for their mental health. It provides opportunities to talk about their worries if things are getting too much.

Of course, not all children feel comfortable talking about their problems and may show their worries in a different way. Some children may find it difficult to sleep or have frequent nightmares, their appetite may change or they may complain of feeling unwell. Their anxiety may be expressed with emotional or angry outbursts which they are unable to control.

It’s normal for children to feel worried from time to time, but you know your child best. If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, speak to your GP. 

Children have to contend with a lot, but with a balanced diet, good exercise and sleep routines, and support from friends and family, life can become that bit easier.

As children’s doctors, we want to ensure children have opportunities to exercise safely, have a good understanding of nutrition and feel supported if they are anxious or worried. With this support in place, children are more likely to be healthy and happy and look back at their school years with fondness.