As we head into the final month of 2009, it’s a good time to take inventory of a few health basics for you and your family. And it doesn’t get more basic than regular doctor checkups. These begin with an initial pediatrician visit within days of a baby’s birth, with additional checkups at 2 weeks, 1 month, 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 9 months, and 12 months.
Annual visits are a good idea through age 18. Jonathan Winickoff, M.D., a pediatrician and researcher with Mass General Hospital for Children and Harvard Medical School in Boston, says kids who play sports should have their checkups right before their season begins. Otherwise, a good way to remember yearly visits is to schedule them around their birthday.
That goes for you, too, parents. Winickoff says moms and dads need a regular source of medical care and checkups every year or two – unless something is wrong. “Don’t delay seeking help if you have a problem,” he urges.
Review vaccination schedules before your appointment to make sure everyone (even adults) stays up to date. Bring a record of your family health history with you, as well as a list of any questions you need to ask.
Stay toxin free.
Another basic is your environment. And one of Winickoff’s pet projects is helping families keep their environments smoke-free. Most people, he explains, understand the dangers of smoking, and even second-hand smoke. But this year experts coined the term “third-hand smoke” to describe one of smoking’s less-visible dangers. “Third-hand smoke is the residual toxins that are left over after the cigarette is extinguished,” explains Winickoff.
So if someone smokes in your house or car, they leave a trail of toxins – things like lead, cyanide and arsenic – behind. It coats the floors, walls, surfaces and even the smoker for days and continues to build with each new cigarette. And in buildings with recirculated air, it can invade even rooms where no smoking is allowed. Winickoff says studies show that there is up to one cigarette worth of nicotine in the air of non-smoking apartments, for instance.
Research about the dangers of other environmental substances, like phthalates in plastics and hormones in food, is ongoing. But Winickoff says it’s better to avoid them if you can. “If you have a choice, you want to not have it in the system,” he says. “Anything that you can do to return things to their natural state is probably smart. Control what you can control, and what you have budget for.”
Build healthy habits.
One important way you can start to take control of your family’s health is to add healthy habits into your day. Winickoff suggests looking for opportunities to be active together, including walking your kids to school. “That can be a really nice bonding time, and it’s so healthy,” he says. If campus is too far away, drive part way, park and walk the rest.
Healthy eating habits are easier to create if the whole family pitches in. Getting together for dinner is a good start. You can even go hands-on with nutrition education. “I think its amazingly educational to have a garden,” Winickoff says. “Some kids think carrots just come from the grocery store.”
Another important habit he thinks parents should cultivate is to carve out special time with each of your children, “even if its just 45 minutes or an hour a week.” This is a chance to talk with and connect with your kids. “That’s missing in a lot of families,” he explains. But if you can commit to it, it might help you build a healthier relationship – which could be the best kind of health there is.