Lyndsey Garbi, MD, is a pediatrician who is double board-certified in pediatrics and neonatology.
Emily is a board-certified science editor who has worked with top digital publishing brands like Voices for Biodiversity, Study.com, GoodTherapy, Vox, and Verywell.
Research shows that children who have their physical and emotional needs met have a lasting sense of well-being. In one study, children raised on nutritious foods had higher self-esteem and fewer social problems than those who had a less healthy diet. Active kids, meanwhile, report sounder sleep and an easier time dealing with emotional ups and downs.
There are plenty of things you can do to help your children grow strong—in body, mind, and spirit. We cover the basics of kid's health, including nutrition, fitness, vaccinations, social and emotional development, and of course, fun!
It starts with a loving approach when they're very young. Doing things to help your baby feel securely attached to you, like being supportive when they are upset or hurt, fosters emotional regulation skills that stick through adulthood. But don't shield your child from disappointment. Letting little kids make mistakes helps them practice resilience for when life gets more complicated.
Remember, children look to parents to see how to feel about the world. If you feel stressed or unable to cope, seek help from a psychologist or licensed social worker to get back on track to model the emotional strength you want to see in your kids.
Healthy kids thrive physically and emotionally. If they are growing at a steady pace, that's a good sign they are getting enough to eat. Being alert and attentive in school and physically active in their free time are indicators that they are sleeping well. Fears, worries, and social challenges are normal, but in mentally healthy children, these issues tend to be mild, fleeting, and not interfere with daily life.
Kids need a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean protein, and mainly water to drink. Children also need about an hour of fairly vigorous physical activity (running, jumping, climbing, or playing sports) each day. Adequate sleep is also essential: school-age children need between 8 and 12 hours, depending on their age. Their childhood immunizations should be up-to-date, too.
Don't forget kids' mental and emotional needs. All children deserve safe and secure surroundings, attentive and encouraging teachers and caregivers, the opportunity to interact with other children, and, above all, unconditional love from family.
Let your child's pediatrician and your instincts be your guide. Regular check-ups will ensure your child is hitting developmental milestones and has healthy hearing, vision, and vital signs. While kids may go through picky stages or growth spurts that may affect their appetite, children who are eating well usually have a fairly steady body mass index (BMI) within the 5th and 85th percentile for their height. Having a generally positive outlook and being able to function well at home, school, and in their communities are key signs of good mental health.
Genetics, not diet, is mostly what determines your child's current and future height. There's no single food, drink, or vitamin that will cause your child to sprout and grow taller. That said, although it's rare in children in the U.S., malnutrition can stunt children's growth. To make sure your child is growing at their fullest potential, serve plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and water instead of sugary drinks.
Take toddlers to check-ups at 12, 15, 18, and 24 months to get childhood vaccinations as well as a standard toddler developmental screening. As they learn to walk, childproof your home with child safety locks, stair gates, and electrical outlet covers to keep them safe from common injuries. Limit sweets and screens; the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no more than half a cup of juice each day for all toddlers, no screen exposure for children younger than 18 months, and only occasional screen use for those between ages 18 and 24 months. Share nutritious snacks and storytime with them instead!
Children lean on their parents for the basics to live: shelter, sufficient food, clothing that keeps them warm and dry, medical care, and protection from physical harm. But to truly thrive, kids need emotional sustenance from you, too. This includes authentic praise, encouragement to strive to meet their goals, and firm-but-loving discipline. As your child's most important advocate, you need to speak up for them and support them when challenges inevitably arise.
Labor and delivery describe the childbirth process. Labor typically begins between 37 and 42 weeks of pregnancy with contractions, and a progressive tightening and relaxing of the uterus. In the active phase of labor, your cervix will stretch to accommodate your baby and you'll likely feel a natural urge to push down to deliver. OB/GYNS and certified nurse-midwives are trained to help deliver your baby and handle any complications. In a cesarean delivery, which may be medically recommended, babies are not delivered through the vagina, but instead a surgical incision in the lower abdomen.
In breastfeeding, your baby gets their sustenance by suckling ("nursing") at your breast. The AAP recommends you breastfeed exclusively for 6 months and then continue breastfeeding while also offering solid foods through your baby's first year. That's because breast milk has been shown to protect babies against infection, allergies, and obesity, and it can boost brain development, among other benefits. You can pump and bottle milk so a caregiver can feed your baby when you aren't with them.
All children need health insurance to ensure they have access to quality, readily-available medical care. Private health insurance for your children and other family members may be available through your employer, or you can shop for affordable options at HealthCare.gov. Depending on your income, you may be eligible to enroll your child in a free or low-cost public insurance program like Medicaid or CHIP (the Children's Health Insurance Program).
Co-parenting means sharing caregiving responsibilities with your child's other parent, typically an ex-partner. Successful co-parenting relationships involve having clear boundaries, setting up organized schedules, being flexible in the face of conflict, and taking a collaborative, highly communicative approach to deciding what's best for your child.
Babies, children, and even adults can experience overstimulation when their sensory systems become overwhelmed by too many sights, sounds, crowds, or activities than they can cope with. Your child might be overstimulated if they start crying, acting cranky, or having a tantrum in a bustling place, in front of a noisy or visually flashy video, or just during a busy day. You can avoid overstimulating kids by working quiet breaks into their schedule and limiting their exposure to screens.
Arvidsson L, Eiben G, Hunsberger M, et al. Bidirectional associations between psychosocial well-being and adherence to healthy dietary guidelines in European children: prospective findings from the IDEFICS study. BMC Public Health. 2017;17:926. doi:0.1186/s12889-017-4920-5
The Nemours Foundation. Kids and exercise. Reviewed June 2018.
Moutsiana C, Fearon P, Murray L, et al. Making an effort to feel positive: insecure attachment in infancy predicts the neural underpinnings of emotion regulation in adulthood. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2014;55(9):999-1008. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12198
Child Mind Institute. How to help kids learn to fail. 2021.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Making sure your child is eating enough. Updated June 5, 2012.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is children’s mental health?. Reviewed September 23, 2021.
U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. Published December 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much physical activity do children need?. Reviewed May 8, 2021.
Paruthi S, Brooks LJ, D’Ambrosio C, et al. Recommended amount of sleep for pediatric populations: a consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. J Clin Sleep Med. 2016;12(6):785-786. doi:10.5664/jcsm.5866
Mental Health America. What every child needs for good mental health. Revised February 2000.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About child & teen BMI. Reviewed March 17, 2021.
Nemours Foundation. Growth and your 2- to 3-year-old. Reviewed June 2019.
Nemours Foundation. Medical care and your 1- to 2-year-old. Reviewed May 2021.
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American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media. Media and young minds. Pediatrics. 2016;138(5):e20162591. doi:10.1542/peds.2016-2591
Stanford Children's Hospital. Overview of labor. 2021.
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Dush CMK, Kotila LE, Schoppe-Sullivan SJ. Predictors of supportive coparenting after relationship dissolution among at-risk parents. J Fam Psychol. 2011;25(3):356-65. doi:10.1037/a0023652
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