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Back to School Success: Health and Safety Tips

Back to School Health and Safety TipsGetting ready for a new school year is a stressful and emotional time. While children are worrying about who will be in their classes and what teacher they’re getting, parents' worries include crossing off endless school supply lists, re-establishing a daily routine and keeping kids healthy in and out of the classroom.

Two important decisions not to overlook include finding the "right" backpack and choosing nutritious lunches your child will actually eat! Here are some important health and safety tips to help ensure that your child’s transition back to school is smooth and successful.

Backpacks: Dora is Nice, But QUALITY is Key

It’s the one universal school supply that most children look forward to picking out—their new backpack for the school year. With so many styles to choose from most children are likely to opt for the latest character/movie backpack like Dora the Explorer, Twilight or Harry Potter over a no frills, high-quality backpack designed for shoulder and back safety.

Researchers found the main complaint from students associated with backpack wear was low back pain due to two main factors: lugging around a pack overloaded with books, binders, lunch, homework and gym clothes, and an uneven distribution of the load. 1

In addition to back pain, strenuous weight load or improper carrying of backpacks can cause muscle and joint injury that could lead to severe back, neck and shoulder pain and the development of poor posture.

Choosing a Backpack: What to Look For

Before you opt for your child’s favorite, consider the following recommendations from The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) on the specific features to look for when buying the best backpack for your child:2

  • The lighter the pack, the better. Chose a lightweight, sturdy material like canvas over the trendier looking leather packs to avoid adding unnecessary weight to your child’s load
  • Look for two wide, thick, padded shoulder straps for added comfort and support to the shoulder, back and neck. Packs with narrow straps have the tendency to dig into the shoulders
  • A padded back not only gives your child extra support and comfort, but also provides the safety feature of protecting them from sharp objects such as pencils and rulers from poking through the inside of the pack
  • Waist belt/strap helps to distribute the weight more evenly across the body and may help prevent slouching
  • Multiple compartments also help distribute the pack load evenly
  • Be sure the backpack doesn’t weigh more than 10 to 15 percent of your child's weight

You can also consider buying a rolling backpack if you know that your child is going to have a heavy course load. Just make sure your school allows them first, and don’t forget about navigating stairs and snowy sidewalks.

How You Wear Your Backpack Matters Too!

Just as important as what you put in your backpack is how you wear it. Sporting your backpack way down over your lower back or casually slung over one shoulder may be the “in” thing to do, but at a hefty sacrifice on your shoulders and posture, possibly causing a curvature in your spine.

To prevent injury, experts offer some practical backpack safety tips:

  • Position it high on the upper back with straps equally over both shoulders
  • Wear your pack above your hips to properly distribute the pack load and get the most out of padded backpack straps protection to the upper body
  • If your pack includes a waist-strap feature, be sure to use it as it helps to evenly distribute your weight load
  • Adjust your straps so they are tight enough to bring your pack close to your body and position it to fall two inches above the waist
  • Utilize all of the compartments in your backpack to distribute your load as evenly as possible, making it a point to pack all of your heavier items as close as you can to the center of your back
  • Just as with lifting heavy items, remember to bend your knees and not at the waist whenever you need to bend down to pick up a fully loaded backpack
  • Make a point of stopping by your school locker throughout the day to get rid of what you don’t need any more for the day. Lighten your load by taking only what’s necessary for the day—Ask yourself if you really need to be lugging around that laptop and IPOD.

Pack a Lunch that Boosts Your Child’s Energy and Concentration

When done right, a nutritional lunch fuels your child with energy to focus on math problems, join conversations during interactive reading time, and provide endurance for basketball drills in gym class. Plus, at the same time you reinforce lifelong healthy eating habits that down the road may help prevent weight-related diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity.

Experts agree that the more you involve your child with what goes into their lunch bag -- the more likely they are to eat what’s in it.

"If your child brown-bags it, make sure she helps you select and prepare what goes in. The more kids buy into what they're having, the more likely they are to eat it once they're at school," said Susan L. Johnson, PhD, director of the Children's Eating Laboratory at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.3

Below are some healthy lunch options (along with delicious snacks and sides) that will fuel your child with the nutrients and energy to sail through the school day.

Whole Grains, the New White Bread

Bologna and cheese sandwiches on white bread have become a thing of the past and have since been replaced by healthier grain and protein options.

Whole wheat grains, a part of the U.S. food plate, are a much healthier option over white bread because of the many vitamins and minerals they contain, including fiber and folate, and vitamin B that helps triggers the production of the brain’s memory cells and supports alertness.

Healthy Sandwich Options

If lunchmeat is the filler for your child’s sandwich, opt for reduced sodium brands of turkey, ham and roast beef. For the bread you can chose from a variety of whole grain options such as crackers, English muffins, tortillas or pitas. However, make sure to read your food labels carefully as many products tout they’re a healthy source of whole grains, when in reality refined flour is the first ingredient.

An alternative to lunchmeat is topping your sandwich with vegetables like red and green pepper, cucumber, grated carrots, zucchini slices, tomatoes and pickles. Another tasty meatless option is cutting whole wheat pitas in half and serving them with some veggies -- such as cut-up broccoli, cauliflower, carrot sticks or snap peas and hummus, bean dip or guacamole on the side.

Fresh, Fun Sides and Snacks

If you don’t have time to cut up fruit for your child’s lunch you can always pick up pre-cut fruit and put it in several small containers, or on toothpicks or skewers creating a fruit kabob to add color and variety.

Some other ways to include fruit with your child’s lunches are frozen fruit using grapes, blueberries, strawberries, mangoes or melon, or topping some low-fat, low-sugar yogurt with their favorite fruits.

Crunchy Snacks

To satisfy that desire for something crunchy, try these six fulfilling treats:

1. Crackers: Look for whole grain and top them with low-fat cheese or peanut butter
2. Rice cakes: Go for the brown (whole grain) rice versions and choose different flavors like apple cinnamon, caramel crunch and chocolate
3. Popcorn: Pick out low-fat popcorn. Your child can spice it up with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese or cinnamon
4. Make your own trail mix: You can get very creative by adding a combination of healthy crunchy treats such as low-fat granola, whole grain cereals, almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and dried fruits like raisins, apricots, apples, pineapple, or cranberries

Cheers -- to Healthy Drinks for Your Kid’s Lunch Pack

The healthiest drink choice that quenches the thirst, prevents dehydration and contains no sugar or calories is plain water.

If this isn’t enough reason to reach for water, a recent survey revealed that 65 percent of school aged children between the ages of five and 14 drink less water than they should.4

One researcher explains what happens when children don’t consume enough water:

"Since children spend a large percent of their waking hours at school, they should be consuming at least one-half their total water intake at school. The standard recommendations are for children to get 6-8 glasses of water per day. Teenage boys need even more, 11 glasses per day. Mild dehydration can affect learning as well as mental and physical performance,” said Dr. Melina Jampolis, CNNHealth's Diet and Fitness Expert.5

Second only to water is milk. Milk is filled with essential nutrients and vitamins A, D, and B12, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, riboflavin, niacin, zinc, and calcium, all necessary for bone development. Save flavored milks for an occasional treat and when you do, buy the fat-free or low-sugar versions.

Believe it or not, not all fruit juice is evil. When looking for fruit juice, read the labels and look for the percentage that is actual pure juice. Your goal should be buying 100 percent fruit juice without any added artificial sugars. While juice contains many vitamins and nutrients, keep in mind that it’s high in calories so be sure to limit the amount your child drinks each day.

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers the following recommendations:

  • Children ages 1-6 years-old drink no more than 6 ounces (one serving a day)
  • Children ages 7-18 years old should drink no more than 12 ounces (two servings a day)

With a little planning, you can help your child have a successful school year that’s both healthy and fun!

Related Blog Posts:

Help Your Kids "WHACK" the Flu
Is Breakfast Really the Most Important Meal of the Day?

1. Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics, July/August edition
2. American Academy of Pediatrics, “Backpack Safety”
3., “Brain Foods Your Kids Need”
4., “Drinking Water and Children”
5. CNN Health, “For Schoolchildren, Where’s the Water?”