Getting your kids ready to start the school year involves more than finding the perfect backpack, buying school supplies, and shopping for new clothes. It means safeguarding their health so they’ll be physically ready for the challenges of heading back to school. “Every year we see a spike in colds and sore throats about three or four weeks after school starts,” says Linda Mendonca, school nurse at Joseph Jenks Junior High in Pawtucket, RI. “That’s when kids have gotten back together in close proximity and are sharing each other’s germs. Consider these tips for a healthy start for your child’s new school year.

1. Wash Hands, Sing a Song

The most effective way to avoid spreading or catching germs is to encourage hand washing. To make sure kids have spent enough time on this healthful task, ask them to sing the alphabet song or “Happy Birthday to You” from start to finish as they wash the fronts and backs of their hands and in between fingers. “Pay attention to finger tips,” says Linda. “Germs are often concentrated there.” Simple soap and water is best, but hand sanitizers will do when those aren’t available. Remind your children to always cough or sneeze into the crooks of their elbows or into their sleeves.

2. Don’t Forget the Shots

Make sure your child’s immunizations are up to date. While no federal vaccination laws exist, every state requires certain vaccinations at different grade levels for children attending public school. Some schools will not allow students to attend without verification of these immunizations. Flu vaccines (when available) are also recommended for all school-age children, unless the child has an allergy to the vaccine or a health problem that will cause complications from the vaccine. “After last year’s H1N1 pandemic, we should not let our guard down this flu season,” says Linda. “The flu can be devastating especially to children. Prevention makes sense!”

3. Schedule a Checkup

An annual physical exam will ensure your child is healthy and virus-free before going back to class. In many school districts, a sports physical is required for those students who want to participate in school sports such as football. Also, some states require a vision exam for students entering kindergarten.

4. Reinstate Routines

At least a week before classes start, shift your kids from summer carefree sleep hours to bedtime schedules that are more in line with the school year. It’s time they cut back on playing computer games and watching television. Help your child with this transition by encouraging reading or playing quiet games an hour before going to bed. “Adequate rest is certainly important to be successful during the school day,” says Linda. Studies show that lack of sleep may affect a student’s performance in school.

5. Power Up With Good Nutrition

Childhood obesity continues to rise and with it a greater health risk to those affected. To counter this trend, provide healthy meal options for your kids including breakfast. Students who eat breakfast versus those who don’t are more alert during class. Plus, the right foods combined with adequate rest will help their bodies fight off infections. “Good nutrition and rest will keep their immune systems sharp and ready to fight off anything that might come their way,” says Linda. “And a strong immune system will lower the risk of getting any kind of cold or flu.”

6. Check for Head Lice

Notice any excessive head scratching? It’s not unusual after going to camp or during play dates around the neighborhood for kids to get head lice. Stress the importance to your child about not sharing combs, hats, and clothes, and send your child’s pillow on a sleepover. Do a visual head check at least once a week, particularly for younger children. This time of year, it’s a good idea also to do a body check looking for ticks.

7. Be Aware of Allergens

A new school year coincides with a new allergy season when ragweed (a huge allergy trigger) begins pollinating. Children who suffer from allergies get a triple whammy in school where dust mites, mold, and other allergens may flourish in the classroom. For some kids, it means a runny nose, sneezing, coughing, and watery eyes. For others, these allergens can trigger asthma or lead indirectly to sinus infections. Also, eating in the cafeteria can present a number of problems for those suffering with food allergies. Discuss any allergy concerns with your child’s school nurse as soon as possible at the start of the school year.

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