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Time With Your Kids
Creating Healthy Routines

One of the ways parents can promote social and emotional well-being in young children is by encouraging good habits such as healthy sleeping, eating, and physical activity. Setting the stage with these habits early can have long-term positive effects on a growing child’s body and on children’s capacity to learn. The key is to establish these healthy habits during the “critical years” when children start forming patterns of behavior. This is the time to work together as a family to make healthy habits easy and fun.

Healthy Sleep and Bedtime Routine
Research (PDF 211KB) has shown that sleep affects every aspect of children’s lives, including their physical, social, and emotional development; their academic performance; and their brain development. Young children who lack sleep often have behavioral and emotional problems as well as cognitive developmental issues. Young children, in particular, are in need of quality sleep time so that they can be alert and able to absorb the world around them. A well-rested child is also a more relaxed, more social, and more even-tempered child.

The recommended amount of sleep for children is based on their age. For example, children ages 3 to 5 require about 11 to 13 hours of sleep per day. Children ages 6 to 10 require 10 to 11 hours of sleep. The best way to nurture quality sleep in children is to set a consistent bedtime routine, such as taking a bath, brushing teeth, reading a story, and listening to soft music. Keeping a consistent bedtime routine signals to your children that it is time to relax and sleep. Over time, your children will surprise you by getting ready for bed by themselves or with minimum reminders.

Healthy Eating Habits
Teaching your children about nutrition and healthy eating is one of the most important skills you can share with them. Sharing nutritious food builds strong bodies and smart brains as well as offers an opportunity to enjoy the social aspect of meals with family and friends. During these critical years, it is important to introduce your children to a variety of healthy foods. Children need an adequate amount of food and a well-balanced diet to provide them with the right amounts of nutrients and vitamins. Set the stage for a lifetime of healthy eating by offering your child whole grains, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, healthy proteins, and other low-fat foods. Studies show positive links between nutrition and brain development, cognitive function, curiosity, behavior, and communication and social skills.

Encouraging healthy eating habits now can positively affect your children’s’ lifelong relationship with food. A few simple tips to remember:

  • Serve regular, balanced meals and snacks with a variety of nutrient-rich foods.
  • Provide calm, pleasant mealtimes where adults and children can talk together.
  • Explore a variety of flavors and foods from different cultures and cuisines.
  • Show your child (PDF 1.06MB) how to read nutritional labels. Keep it simple by focusing on serving size, sugar, sodium, and fat. This information allows you to teach your child why certain foods are better than others and how to make smart choices about food.
  • Share an appreciation for healthful food.

Establishing healthy eating habits early will also prevent excess weight gain. Nearly one in three children in the United States is overweight or obese, and childhood obesity has become a growing concern in this country.

Healthy Exercise Habits
The rise in childhood obesity in the United States is mirrored by a decrease in the amount of physical activity children get. Television, video games, computers, and changing lifestyles have produced a generation of sedentary children. Such inactivity has negative consequences for a child’s physical, emotional, and cognitive health.

Studies have shown that stimulation in the form of movement and sensory experiences is necessary for a child’s early brain development. Preschoolers should have 1 hour of structured physical activity daily and up to several hours of unstructured physical activity daily. Except when they are asleep, children should not be sedentary for more than 1 hour at a time. Preschoolers should also be exposed to a variety of movement activities, including those that elevate the heart rate, such as walking, running, jumping, dancing, and swimming.

Young children imitate their parents’ behavior. Therefore, parents must lead by example in order to promote habits of healthy sleeping, eating, and physical activity that will remain with your children into adulthood.

Benefits of Setting Daily Routines
It’s important for parents to realize early that having a daily routine allows children to anticipate what will happen next. A routine gives children a sense of security, safety, and emotional stability. The benefits of children practicing a daily routine include:

  • Self-control: Consistent routines help children learn to trust. When children feel a sense of trust and safety, they can learn about the world around them better through play and exploring.

  • Positive behavior: Routines guide children’s action toward a specific goal and can help them learn responsible behavior. For example, children can help set the table before mealtime, put their dirty clothes in the hamper, feed the dog or cat, or simply help pick up their toys.

  • Social skills: Children will learn patterns and routines for social interaction as they meet more people. Greetings and talking with others are examples of daily interactions that teach social skills.

  • Coping with transitions: Routines can help children make transitions easier as they change from one activity to another. Depending on your child’s temperament, transitions between activities such as dinner to bedtime can be challenging, but if a daily routine is set, then your child will know in advance that sleep comes after dinner and a bath.

  • Opportunity for learning: Daily routines, such as socializing at mealtime, getting ready for bed, taking baths, playing, and reading, provide a rich opportunity to support your child’s learning while having fun.

In short, setting routines in different areas allows children to be safe and healthy and understand their world better.

Family Activity: Set Family Routines

Educator Activity: Healthy Routines in the Classroom

Quiz for Parents: Habits: Keeping Them Healthy

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Let’s Move! is a comprehensive initiative, launched by First Lady Michelle Obama, dedicated to solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation, so that children born today will grow up healthier and able to pursue their dreams. This initiative provides parents helpful information and tools to foster environments that support healthy choices.

We Can! Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity & Nutrition is a national movement campaign that provides parents with resources and tools to help children stay at a healthy weight.

Gerber® for Medical Professionals
Healthy Habits: A Lifetime of Practice for Better Health” discusses the importance of establishing healthy habits in a child’s life from the start, which encourages a lifetime of healthy choices.

SLEEP Journal
Sleep, Learning, and the Developing Brain: Early-to-Bed as a Healthy and Wise Choice for School Aged Children” (PDF 211KB) talks about the importance of sleep for normal health, development, and academic performance of children.

National Sleep Foundation
Children and Sleep” provides parents with information about the importance of sleep and children.

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
It’s About Eating Right—Raising Healthy Eaters from Preschool to High School” provides tips for parents and caregivers about food, nutrition, and eating skills for young children.

Healthy Childcare®
Nutrition Impacts Cognition and Learning” highlights the importance of nutrition and its impact on the development of children.

National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Energize Yourself and Your Family (PDF 1.06MB) provides parents tips on how to get moving and eat well even when your life is busy.

Helping Your Child: Tips for Parents offers parents tips on how to help their children form habits of healthy eating and physical activity.

National Institutes of Health
Shape Your Family’s Habits” suggests ways to encourage healthy habits in eating and physical activity and describes the importance of caregivers in shaping those habits.

Earlychildhood NEWS
Optimizing Early Brain and Motor Development Through Movement” shares research results on how physical exercise affects the brain of a developing child, with specific guidelines for the different stages of a child’s life.

National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families
Love, Learning, and Routines”discusses the various positive aspects of setting daily routines for babies and toddlers.

American Psychological Association
Healthy Habits for Healthy Families” shares tips on helping children develop healthy eating habits.

American Heart Association
Help Children Develop Healthy Habits” gives families tips on helping children develop and sustain good habits in eating and physical activity.

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Updated on 3/22/2014