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Promoting Optimal Health and Development of Children

by Deborah M. Consolini, MD

Parents can help their children achieve the best possible health. The foundation for a healthy body and mind is laid in early childhood. The early years of life are crucial for health and physical, mental, and social/emotional development. If babies' physical needs are met regularly and consistently, babies quickly learn that their caretaker is a source of satisfaction, creating a firm bond of trust and attachment. Healthy babies grow into healthy children and adolescents.

Health

Preventive health care visits (also called well-child visits) are important for the promotion and maintenance of good health in infants (see Preventive Health Care Visits in Infants), children (see Preventive Health Care Visits in Children), and adolescents (see Preventive Health Care Visits in Adolescents). These visits help prevent disease through routine vaccination and education, allow doctors the opportunity to physically examine the child to detect disorders and treat them early, and guide parents in helping their child grow physically, emotionally, and mentally. During preventive health care visits, doctors are able to watch parents interact with their child and provide advice and answer questions.

Development

To develop emotionally and intellectually, babies need affection and stimulation. Some parents provide a highly organized, structured environment for their baby using a variety of toys and gadgets. However, the particular content of the environment is less important than the existence of a pleasant, positive interaction enjoyed by both parent and baby. Parents who provide smiling faces, frequent amiable speech, physical contact, and love but who do not buy a variety of toys and gadgets are not shortchanging their baby's development.

Promoting optimal development in a child works best if approached with flexibility, keeping the individual child's age, temperament, developmental stage, and learning style in mind. A coordinated approach involving parents, teachers, and the child usually works best. Throughout these years, children need an environment that promotes lifelong curiosity and learning. The child should be provided with books and music. A routine of daily interactive reading, with parents asking as well as answering questions, helps children pay attention and read with comprehension and encourages their interest in learning activities. Limiting television and electronic games to less than 2 hours per day encourages more interactive play.

Playgroups and preschool have benefits for many young children. Children can learn important social skills, such as sharing. In addition, they may begin to recognize letters, numbers, and colors. Learning these skills makes the transition to school smoother. Importantly, in a structured preschool setting, potential developmental problems can be identified and addressed early.

Parents who are in need of child care (see Child Care) may wonder what the best environment is and whether care by others may actually harm their child. Available information suggests that young children can do well both in their own home and in care out of the home, as long as the environment is loving and nurturing. By closely watching the child's response to a given child care setting, parents are better able to choose the best environment. Some children thrive in a child care environment where there are many children, whereas others may fare better in their own home or in a smaller group.

When the child begins to receive homework assignments, parents can help by

  • Showing interest in the child's work

  • Being available to sort through questions but not finishing the work themselves

  • Providing a quiet work environment at home for the child

  • Communicating with the teacher about any concerns

As the school years progress, parents need to consider their child's needs when selecting extracurricular activities. Many children thrive when offered the opportunity to participate in team sports or learn a musical instrument. These activities may also provide a venue for improving social skills. On the other hand, some children become stressed if they are over-scheduled and expected to participate in too many activities. Children need to be encouraged and supported in their extracurricular activities without having unrealistic expectations placed on them.