To say it’s challenging to get kids to eat healthily and regularly is like saying the Burj Dubai is ‘quite tall’. You spend hours in the supermarket, scouring the shelves for inspirational lunch box ideas, only for them to swap their healthy packed lunch for crisps and a chocolate bar. Then you run yourself ragged in the kitchen to create culinary masterpieces representing all the food groups, only to endure a silent stand-off as the ungrateful toe-rags refuse to eat a single mouthful. You’re so fed up you could cheerfully give stubborn Sam a cauliflower ear for his awkwardness.
Don’t give up. Kids need to be healthy from the inside and a good diet helps avoid obesity and diabetes later in life, as well as putting fuel in their engines to get through all that playing, mucking around and school work.
‘Making sure your kids get all the essential nutrients is vital for growth and development,’ says Sandra Mikhail, dietician and nutritionist at Dubai Physiotherapy and Family Medicine Clinic. ‘It’s important to set good, healthy eating habits at an early age, which they’ll take through into adulthood.’
A well-balanced, nutritious diet with a good mix of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals is key. And that means you too mums and dads (so no more forcing junior to eat his greens while you guzzle choccie bikkies). ‘I come across parents so worried about their child’s weight problem, they fail to take a closer look at their own lifestyle,’ says Rima Itani, dietician at Live’ly, a health and nutrition advice and catering company. ‘It’s important that parents are good role models and adopt healthy eating habits as a whole family.’
Remember, quality and variety are more important than quantity, so don’t get hung up about how much constitutes a portion. Your child’s tastes will change, he’ll go through fussy phases as his growth rate slows, and the amount he eats will depend on his activity levels. As long as he’s gaining weight and has a normal activity level, there’s little to worry about.
Food for thought
The breakfast club
It’s the most important meal of the day. A cliché, but true. If your kids – or you, for that matter – skip it, they’ll be pooped, moody and irritable by mid-morning and lacking the energy they need to get through the school day and concentrate in class. If you’re trying to get the entire household out the door by 7am, chances are you’ll be resorting to the ‘quick fix’ on a regular basis, which is perfectly fine if you choose the right stuff. Save the slap-up family breakfast for the weekend when you all have time to eat and enjoy it.
Choose: Wholewheat or multigrain breakfast cereal, enriched with vitamins and iron, wholemeal toast with beans or cheese, fruit yoghurt, scrambled or poached eggs, smoothies, finger fruits.
Avoid: Sugary cereals.
Ah, the dreaded lunch box. Hands up who remembers those limp, soggy sandwiches and squelchy bananas? Yet, as Carole Holditch of Good Habits says, the importance of eating healthily during school hours can’t be underestimated. Try to save time by preparing the lunch box the night before. ‘Prepare pasta salads, sandwich fillings, fruit compotes or include something from last night’s dinner, such as soup in a flask, chicken skewers or a Spanish omelette, says Carole. Remember, kids are busy people, and anything that takes a lot of effort to eat will probably be discarded.
Choose: Wholemeal bread and pasta, with a protein filling or topping such as chicken, egg, tuna or cheese. Cheese or yoghurt for calcium, and peeled, fresh or dried fruit.
Avoid: White bread, biscuits, cakes, juice, anything containing nuts.
By the time they are five, little people should be eating the same as the rest of the family. It’s important everyone sits down together at meal times – kids will only develop healthy eating habits if the rest of the family sets a good example. While it’s fine to acknowledge likes and dislikes, expect some level of cooperation about eating healthy food, otherwise you’ll end up running a café at home.
Choose: Meals with a good balance of carbs, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals.
Avoid: Junk food, processed food and anything that’s high in fat or sugar.
Little bundles of energy, kids need snacks during the day to keep going.
Choose: Crackers, bread sticks, fresh or dried fruit, vegetable sticks and houmous or avocado dip, cereals.
Avoid: Biscuits, cakes, crisps, sweets.
Dubai Physiotherapy and Family Medicine Clinic (04 349 6333); Good Habits (04 344 9692); Live’ly (04 348 1008).
Fitness expert and the founder of Playball in Dubai, Sandra Coetzee knows a thing or two about getting kids off the couch. ‘It is so important to include exercise as part of their daily routine,’ she stresses, adding that babes as young as two can benefit enormously from regular physical activity and even scheduled exercise programmes.
‘Of course, really little ones can only concentrate for very short periods of time – say a maximum of 10 minutes while doing an activity, so getting them into the right class, where they get to do lots of different and fun things, is important,’ says Sandra. But it’s not just about keeping the pounds at bay, she explains. As with adults, an exercised child is usually a more positive one – and this affects their social abilities and even shows in their academic performance. ‘Exercise can improve their concentration and their intellect,’ says Sandra. ‘This is because certain activities stimulate the left and right sides of the brain, which improves children’s dexterity and hand-to-eye coordination, as well as their self esteem. There is even a recognised correlation between improved mathematical skills and certain exercises.’
But how much should you be pushing your little couch potatoes? And what about all the whining that ensues when the telly is switched off and they’re ordered outside to burn off some calories? ‘I would say the vast majority of kids need more exercise than they’re getting – and there are loads of opportunities in Dubai for them to get fit and active,’ says Sandra. Tots aged two to three years should have at least 20 to 30 minutes of cardio exercise every day, she says, while four to six-year-olds should be doing a minimum of 40 to 60 minutes. Older kids can easily put in an hour or more.
She recommends regular doses of walking and swimming, as well as any programmes that encourage movement and coordination, such as Playball, tennis, karate and football, adding that schools also need to include more physical activities within timetables. ‘The trouble is that kids have a full day at school, and then they have activities after school and, by the time they get home, they’re tired out – but they’ve still got homework to contend with, so parents do find it difficult to fit yet another activity into the equation.’
The key, it seems, is balance and fun. ‘Children need exercise, and they benefit enormously from it, so it needs to part of their daily schedule. But you also need to make sure that it’s enjoyable, so it doesn’t become a chore,’ says Sandra. She adds, ‘Enrolling them in a programme while they’re very young is great, because it gets them used to the idea. But even when older kids start exercising, parents will see the benefits of that within a short space of time.’
Sandra Coetzee runs Playball in Dubai (050 427 1440; www.playballdubai.biz; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Aim for an hour of activity a day
• Whiz around on your bike for an hour (120 calories)
• An hour of footie after school (200 calories)
• Go for a 45-minute walk with mum and dad, with a little added horseplay (80 calories)
• Muck about in the pool (221 calories)
• Be a skater dude for 30 minutes (60 calories)
Getting little ones out and about to meet other rugrats almost as soon as the cord is cut seems to be the norm among Dubai’s new mums. But how much socialisation do babies really need? And how much do our children really benefit from organised play dates, nursery and after-school activities?
Therese Sequeira, a mum of three and child development expert at the Australian Family Care Centre, says parents shouldn’t worry if their little ones don’t have a hectic social calendar because, until they’re three, they can be entirely ego-centric. She explains, ‘Under three-and-a-half, they tend to play near each other – not with each other. It’s only once they start to interact together, that socialising with other children becomes more important.’
Therese believes that, ideally, children need to be surrounded by their immediate family for the first four to five years of their lives, because that close-knit sense of security fulfils all their developmental needs. ‘Of course, all our lives are different, and not every family can do that because circumstances don’t allow it,’ says Therese adding, ‘But neither should mums worry that they’re not socialising their children enough if they don’t have them enrolled in loads of activities.’ Classes such as baby massage, tot yoga and mum and toddler groups are great – but, if we’re being honest, they’re more beneficial to mums and for developing that vital support network needed when a tiny baby comes on the scene.
As kids get older, issues such as shyness and tantrums can affect a child’s ability to fit in socially. This, says Therese, is when parents need to be aware of the things that make their children anxious. A shy child should be gently encouraged to join in, with lots of praise for being brave, and with mum or dad close by or even joining in too, as encouragement. By contrast, attention-seeking tantrums should be ignored, or the child put into ‘time out’ (that’s the discipline technique, not this magazine) until he calms down.
Therese also points out you shouldn’t over schedule children because this can make them overtired and disturb their sleep. Parents shouldn’t overload their kids with extra activities – one or two after-school clubs is quite enough. Just like adults, kids need down time to relax after a hard day at school, she adds.
• Join a weekly baby group so your tot gets used to being around other rugrats and socially noisy environments.
• Never push a shy child into joining in. Gentle praise and encouragement goes a long way.
• Attention-seeking tantrums should be ignored where possible. Time out works well.
• Make sure they get enough sleep. An overtired child is both socially anxious and negative.
• Don’t underestimate the value of playing alone. Kids need to learn how to entertain themselves.
• Don’t fret if they don’t have a heaving social calendar. Up to the age of five, kids love being with mum the most.
Theresa Sequeira runs Triple P workshops on positive parenting; email@example.com.
Tooth decay and cavities impress no one, and no self-respecting little tyke wants his breath to smell like Fungus the Bogeyman, so it’s vital your ankle-biters learn all about dental care from an early age.
Dr Dina Debaybo, head of pediatric dentistry at the Boston University Institute for Dental Research and Education says even tiny babies should start brushing as soon as the first pearly white erupts. Brace yourself
for a battle when bub clamps his jaws shut, but persevere, because establishing a routine early in life makes things a heckuva lot easier later on. For babies, finger brushes are easier to control than traditional toothbrushes but, be warned, they don’t afford much protection against sharp little teeth.
Supervise and check their teeth until age eight, making sure they’re brushing thoroughly and in all the right places. Ideally, Dr Dina recommends brushing after each meal – that’s three (yes, three) times a day. Basically, the more brushing the better, but make sure they give their gnashers a good going over before bed as sugars and acids can make a serious assault on teeth overnight. Brush or rinse after the bedtime milk, or, better still, swap milk for water. ‘This really helps avoid early childhood cavities,’ says Dr Dina.
Calcium-laden foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt will help strengthen teeth while you should avoid, as best you can, sticky sweets, lollipops, toffees and crisps. Don’t forget to take your kids to the dentist every six months starting from around their first birthday. ‘Early screening helps guide parents in proper brushing and measures to prevent decay. It will also get your child used to the experience,’ says Dr Dina. There won’t be much poking around, but most clinics have insane, grinning puppets for kids to practise on, so they get the basics and begin to see dental visits as a fun, rather than a painful experience.
Boston University Institute for Dental Research and Education, Healthcare City (04 424 8777/800 dental; www.budubai.ae).
Dr Agnes Roze of Dr Nicholas & Asp has these tips:
• Use a soft brush with a small head and a handle that’s easy to hold.
• Brush with water only until kids can rinse and spit, then, after age two, use about half a pea of kiddie toothpaste.
• Start with the back teeth, make small circles and move towards the front, brushing all sides.
• Brush gently – plaque is soft so there’s no need to be overly vigorous.
• Take a full two minutes to brush. If that seems like a lifetime, make a game of counting teeth or look out for brushes that play a two-minute tune or flash until it’s time to stop.
• Forget flossing for now – it’s just too tricky and could put them off.
Dr Nicolas & Asp, Jumeirah and other locations (04 394 7777; www.nicolasandasp.com).
Eye eye, captain
Poor eyesight is not just a problem in terms of eyestrain and headaches. For kids, it could set them back at school, sparking behavioural issues if junior is unable to see the board and, hence, participate in lessons. It can also lead to problems concentrating, slower reading and writing development and poor confidence and self-esteem. Make sure you’re doing your best to protect your kids’ eyes with these tips:
Get a test
With as many as a quarter of school-age kids suffering from some sort of vision problem, it’s important to get your child’s eyes screened early – at the age of three or four – by a pediatrician or in a formal eye exam. Continue with eye tests at least once every two years – more often if your optometrist advises. This way, any problems such as long or short-sightedness, astigmatism, lazy eye or squint can be treated with glasses or patches and eye drops before they cause permanent damage.
Getting your nipper to wear sunglasses may be as easy as giving a gorilla a pedicure, but it’s a battle worth fighting. The human eye is 10 times more sensitive to UV light than human skin, and kids’ eyes are at the greatest risk of sun damage because bigger pupils and clearer lenses mean the light passes unimpeded into their eyes, damaging the retina. Without protection – sunglasses, a brimmed hat or cap – extended UV exposure can lead to eye problems as they get older.
Eat your veg
We thought grandad was pulling our leg when he said eating carrots would make us see in the dark but, actually, he wasn’t as daft as we suspected. Certain fruit and veg rich in beta-carotene, vitamin A and the like are believed to protect against some eye conditions. Truth or myth? Who cares; eating more greens certainly won’t do them any harm.
We’ve all been through it. The children were late to bed after an exhausting day, were too excited to sleep and were then up half the night. Now they’re irritable, uncooperative, and generally driving you up the wall. It’s off to bed early tonight, which is exactly the right course of action, says Dr Rita Kovesdi, a specialist paediatrician at the Health Bay Polyclinic in Umm Suqeim. ‘Sleep is an active, dynamic physiological process that has an impact on several areas of a child’s health. And there is a growing body of evidence that shows sleep disorders do disrupt physical, cognitive and emotional development.’ Put simply, that means our little squirmers must get their quota of shuteye or all sorts of things – including their growth, mental and emotional well-being, and their academic performance – could go off the rails.
‘Start good habits early,’ says Dr Rita. ‘Newborns need a lot of sleep. Their general pattern should be sleeping and eating for the first few weeks, and they should sleep for at least 18 hours a day. Obviously, this changes the older they get – and they do need less sleep. But children aged two to five still need 12 to 14 hours a night, while younger toddlers should have two naps per day as well – usually one in the morning and another in the afternoon.’
Establishing a routine isn’t always easy but consistency is the key. Once little ones no longer need feeding in the middle of the night, parents should aim to have them sleeping right through as soon as possible.
There are certain tips to assist in this seemingly impossible task, says Dr Rita. ‘If they won’t give up their nightly bottles of milk, gradually replace it with water – and they will stop waking up for it. Whether you’re dealing with a bub, a tot or a tween, it’s important to keep their routine consistent. ‘Feed them at least an hour before putting them to bed, and avoid all caffeinated drinks,’ she says. ‘Don’t over-excite them at bedtime. A warm, relaxing bath followed by a bedtime story with mum or dad is ideal.’ Television and computers in bedrooms are also a big no-no. ‘But if they are there,’ says Dr Rita, ‘make sure you’re very strict about turning them off at a certain time.’
Health Bay Polyclinic (04 348 7140; www.healthbayclinic.com).
A to Zzzz...
Good sleeping patterns have to be established through routine and training,’ says Dr Rita. Follow these tips and goals and you’ll all get the shuteye you need.
• Establish a regular routine and stick to it.
• Bedtime should be calm and relaxing – not an excuse for high jinx or watching television.
• Meals should be eaten at least an hour before bedtime.
• A warm, relaxing bath calms kids down and makes them snoozy.
• A warm, milky drink can help children relax just before bed.
• Don’t co-sleep. Children and parents sleep far better if everyone’s in their own bed.
• Don’t replace bedtime stories with television – it can over-stimulate little brains.
• Don’t give them caffeinated drinks.
• If your child is an infant and keeps crying in the night, try leaving them be. It’s really tough at first – but worth it for everyone’s sake.
• Tempting as it may be, don’t resort to medication. You’re simply masking the problem and once you stop giving it to them, the sleep problems will re-occur.
• Newborns need at least 18 hours in 24 hours.
• Two-year-olds need 12-14 hours at night plus one or two naps per day.
• Five to 10 year olds need a minimum of 10-12 hours at night with an optional nap for the younger ones.
• Kids aged 11 and over need at least nine hours per night.