5 Ways for Parents to Raise Healthier Children

As a parent, you have your children’s health and safety as top priorities while raising them to be responsible adults. It can be overwhelming teaching them to make healthy choices, especially when it seems as if they’re not listening to anything you say.

Even when you don’t think they’re paying attention, they probably are. If you’re hopeful that your children will develop healthy habits, you will have to model what those healthy habits look like.

“As a parent, it’s important to practice what you preach when it comes to health,” says UNC Health pediatrician Edward Pickens, MD. “You are your child’s primary example of how an adult should behave.”

Here are five simple ways you can begin to teach your child the habits of a healthy life.

1. Maintain Open Lines of Communication

“The absolute best thing you can do as a parent is to talk to your children and get to know them,” Dr. Pickens says. “From an early age, build the trust that they can tell you anything, including their mistakes.”

Dr. Pickens advocates that parents have regularly scheduled family meals to talk.

“These conversations can be a positive influence in the child’s life,” Dr. Pickens says. “It’s a time to encourage your child and support them in making healthy choices.”

Frequent conversations will make your child more comfortable bringing questions and concerns to you, and it will also make it easier to discuss sensitive or tough topics.

“If you’re not regularly talking to your child, you have to create a special time to talk about safety, and then that conversation will be scary and uncomfortable for everyone,” Dr. Pickens says. “It won’t be as big a deal to discuss hard topics if you’re having ongoing conversations that include guidance on how to stay healthy and safe.”

In the teenage years, Dr. Pickens says it’s common for one parent to have more of the in-depth conversations related to puberty, hygiene and sex but that both parents should remain engaged in active communication.

“It’s key for parents to be completely open-minded and accepting of who their child is and what they want to say,” Dr. Pickens says. “If you shut down about a topic, the kid will have the conversation with someone other than you.”

2. Build a Relationship with a Pediatrician

Although the pediatrician is often your first call when your child is sick, it’s important that children see their doctor when they’re healthy for regular checkups.

“Parents are constantly adjusting to a new phase of their child’s life,” Dr. Pickens says. “Ongoing guidance from a pediatrician can help you know what to expect and what’s appropriate.”

Regular visits can help children build trust in their doctor and see the pediatrician’s office as a comfort zone, making the pediatrician an excellent ally in teaching healthy habits.

“A visit is an opportunity for both the child and the parent to ask questions and discuss what’s on their mind,” Dr. Pickens says. “Your pediatrician can help you have conversations about safety, making good choices and anything the child might be worried about.”

Pediatricians can ensure that kids receive the vaccines necessary for their health, including seasonal vaccines related to the flu and COVID-19, and help to encourage other healthy habits related to exercise, eating and sleep.

3. Encourage Exercise and Healthy Eating Habits

Regular exercise and proper nutrition are essential at any age, and fostering good habits early will make it easier for your child to sustain them over time.

“The modeling the parent does will make the biggest difference in the areas of exercise and healthy eating,” Dr. Pickens says. “You can’t tell your child that they can’t eat junk food if it’s in the house and you eat it yourself.”

Children need regular, balanced meals and snacks with ingredients from all food groups. While children usually don’t need to be on any type of restrictive diet, and it’s best to avoid making shaming comments about weight or appearance, you can help your child eat more healthy foods by reducing consumption of fast food, sugary drinks and processed foods high in sugar, salt and fat.

“This is also another reason to have a family meal,” Dr. Pickens says. “Make that time a priority, rather than eating fast food between activities.”

Though many children engage in regular movement through organized sports and other activities, Dr. Pickens advises parents to remember that those options aren’t right for everyone. “Find out what your child’s interests are and encourage them,” he says. “Exercise doesn’t have to be a sport, and there are other great options for movement.”

In fact, when the entire family does activities together—walking, hiking, bicycling, kayaking and playing in the park are healthy options—you can help your child get exercise while providing yet another opportunity for a bond-strengthening conversation.

4. Allow for Unstructured Time

Parents often feel the need to sign up their kids for a variety of activities so that they can socialize and learn skills. Dr. Pickens says it’s also beneficial for children to have time to do nothing.

“So many kids have no downtime,” he says. “Children have stress just like adults do, and if they’re doing something six or seven days a week, they don’t have a chance to decompress.”

Some of this free time could be used for screen time. While parents often want to know what specific limits to set for screens, Dr. Pickens says it depends on the child.

“The key to screen limits is that you don’t want the screens to encroach on time when you should be doing something else, whether that’s homework, sleeping or something more active,” Dr. Pickens says. “If a child is regularly active, then being sedentary for a brief period of time can be a good stress relief.”

Still, make sure your child has some unstructured time without screens.

“Unstructured time promotes creativity,” Dr. Pickens says. “Let your kids explore, read, play outside and use their imaginations. Kids need opportunities to be kids, and unstructured time is an important part of childhood that we’re losing.”

5. Establish a Sleep Routine

Sleep is vital to your child’s healthy development, but there is no magic number for how many hours are needed. One metric to consider is whether your child wakes up without an alarm, though Dr. Pickens acknowledges that by this standard, many of us fail to get enough sleep.

You can prepare your child for sleep by establishing a bedtime routine that helps your child wind down.

Dr. Pickens says there’s no room for screens in sleep routines.

“Take away phones at bedtime,” he says. “You have to have a device-free bedroom. It will be hard for a child to go to sleep with a phone there.”

Similarly, children shouldn’t go to sleep while watching television or listening to music.

“TV or music might seem like they help you go to sleep,” Dr. Pickens says, “but they affect the quality of your sleep.”

If you have questions or concerns about your child’s health, talk to your pediatrician. Need a pediatrician? Find one near you.