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Does Having Young Children Really Build Your Immune System?

Does Having Young Children Really Build Your Immune System?

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but many moms and dads believe that having a young child or two around the house boosts their immune system.  It’s easy to see why this idea has some popular appeal.  After all, young children typically have lots of contact with other young children, often in environments where lots of germs can be spread. They then bring these same germs home, where parents’ immune systems need to fight them off over a sustained period of time. The thinking goes that this, in turn, helps make parents more resistant to them.

But what does the science actually say about this? Although there is at least one strong study and a lot of related or anecdotal evidence that suggests that the idea may be sound, more research needs to be done to see if this theory is valid.

The “strong study” is from Norway, and was published in the journal Science & Medicine. It’s important to note that the study did not specifically evaluate the immune response of parents and non-parents. Rather, this particular research was aimed at understanding the relationship between parenthood and overall health. The investigators looked into detailed medical records of more than 1.5 million men and women born between 1935 and 1968, and found that there was a strong negative correlation between being a parent and the risk of developing cancer, heart disease, becoming an alcoholic, and even dying in a car crash. The study found that the people most at risk of dying from any of these causes were those who were childless. The researchers theorized that this may be because the individuals felt less of a need to take care of their health.

Fascinatingly, the study also found that the positive health benefits or parenthood seemed to depend on the numberof children. Having only one child or having more than three children actually slightly increased the risk of dying from any of these factors, whereas having two children was “just right.” As researcher Emily Grundy of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, says: “Four-plus children might have adverse effects arising from stress, socio-economic disadvantages and lifestyles, off-setting, or even outweighing, social benefits of parenthood.”

In terms of other evidence, the strongest suggestions that having children might strengthen their parent’s immune system come from related studies that have consistently shown that having pets in the home strengthens and builds the children’s immune systems and helps to keep them healthy. For example, a 2012 study from the journal Pediatricsshowed that children who lived with dogs and cats during the first year of life tended to be significantly healthier than those who did not. The researchers theorized that the pets exposed children to a wide variety of “good germs,” some of which are beneficial for developing immunity to the “bad germs.” We may be able to infer that parents might also benefit from being exposed to a variety of germs, both from the pets and from their own children, as children pick them up at school and bring them home.

There is certainly anecdotal evidence of the latter to be found in the “common wisdom” imparted to people becoming new kindergarten and elementary school teachers. When one woman started teaching in California, her school board warned her that she should probably plan her finances for the first year of teaching based on being out sick more than her allotted number of “sick days,” and thus not being paid for them. The woman, who had always been remarkably healthy, laughed at this advice, but then spent 25% of her first year at home sick, because of all the germs she picked up from kids in the classroom.

However, this same schoolteacher rarely ever got sick again. Her exposure to a wide variety of germs transmitted by the kids did seem to boost her immune system over time, and enhanced her ability to be exposed to them in the future without getting sick herself. We can possibly infer that the same thing happens with small children in the home—they pick up germs at school and bring them home where the parents are exposed to them. This exposure then buildsimmunity over time rather than diminishing it. Dr. Jordan S. Orange, chief of immunology, allergy and rheumatology at Texas Children’s Hospital explains the simple mechanics of this “early exposure” process this way: “When you get it [immunity], you have it. So, if you get it earlier, you’re going to be immune earlier.”

Related studies have indicated that many people feel happier when they have kids. If this is actually true, then their positive mental state can also certainly contribute to staying healthy. Besides, as all parents know, there are so many other joys associated with having kids that even if there aren’t a huge number of studies proving that they keep parents healthier, they’ll feel healthier.

Playground Safety Checklist: Basic Design and Maintenance

Playground Safety Checklist: Basic Design and Maintenance


If you’re a parent, you may have noticed that hard asphalt and sharp edges are on their way out at playgrounds around the country. In large part, these changes are due to concerns over injuries and law suits. Over 200,000 children in the US are treated each year in hospital emergency rooms for playground-related injuries. That’s a lot of opportunity for enterprising attorneys, especially in cases where parents or guardians lack health insurance.

Accident and litigation concerns aside, it is important for children to get outside in the fresh air and exercise. This is particularly true considering the increasing rate of childhood obesity. Playgrounds can be ideal areas for kids to socialize while getting the exercise they need. By checking the playground for safety hazards and following some simple guidelines, there is no reason why your kids can’t take advantage of all a playground has to offer.

The most important element to playground safety is adult supervision. Kids need to be supervised whenever they are using playground equipment so an adult can intervene when a child is not using the equipment properly or is acting in a dangerous fashion. Kids like to test their limits, and sometimes young children cannot properly judge distances and may try something that is likely to cause injury.

The playground surface is important in reducing the number of injuries from falls. Asphalt and concrete are obvious surfaces to avoid, but so are grass and packed soil surfaces. None of these are able to cushion a child’s fall appropriately. Instead, look for playgrounds that have safety-tested rubber surfacing mats or areas of loose fill 12 inches deep made from wood chips, shredded rubber, mulch, sand or pea gravel. The cushioned surfacing should extend at least 6 feet from any equipment, and sometime farther, depending on the particular piece of equipment (such as a high slide or a long swing).

Children should always play in areas of the playground that are age-appropriate. Playgrounds should have three different clearly designated areas for different age ranges of children: those younger than 2 years old, children 2 to 5, and children 5 to 12 years of age. Children under 2 should have spaces where they can crawl, stand and walk, and can safely explore. Kids age 2-5 should use equipment such as low platforms reached by ramps and ladders, flexible spring rockers, sand areas and low slides no higher than 4 feet. Kids age 5 to 12 can use rope climbers, horizontal bars, swings and slides, in addition to having open spaces to run around and play ball.

Following are a few basic guidelines to ensure playground equipment safety:

  • Seesaws, swings and any equipment with moving parts should be located separately from the rest of the playground.
  • There should be no openings on equipment between 3.5 inches and 9 inches where parts of a child’s body may become trapped (such as rungs on a ladder).
  • The top of a slide should have no open areas where strings on clothing can get caught and cause strangulation.
  • There should be only two swings per bay, and should be placed 24 inches apart and 30 inches from any support.
  • Equipment should not be cracked, splintered or rusty, and hardware should be secure.
  • Sandboxes should be checked for loose debris such as broken glass and sharp sticks and should be covered overnight to prevent animals soiling it.
Want Your Kids to Be Active? Here Is Why YOU Should Be their Lifestyle Role Model

Want Your Kids to Be Active? Here Is Why YOU Should Be their Lifestyle Role Model


It’s not news—obesity is a growing national epidemic among young people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that obesity in children has doubled in the last 30 years and quadrupled in adolescents. Nearly 20% of children 6-11 years old are obese as are almost 23% of teenagers. This places them at increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis. Finally—and even more concerning—studies have shown that people who are obese as children tend to be obese as adults.

What’s happening here?  In large part, it comes down to our lifestyle choices. Record numbers of both adults and children are succumbing to the temptations of TV, computers, and video games, and many of us simply don’t get the exercise our bodies need to stay healthy.

Naturally, parents who read statistics like these may be—and should be—concerned about their kids. More and more often, they ask themselves questions like “What can we do to help our kids be more active and physically fit?” One answer to this question is pretty simple: To get your kids to be more active, engage in more active pursuits with them. One of the keys to getting children to exercise more is to have them see their parents exercise more. That’s the finding from a new study published in the journal Pediatrics

In the study, researchers at the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine in England fitted 554 mother-child pairs with equipment to measure how much exercise they were getting when they were together as well as when they were apart. Accelerometers tracked their exercise levels, and GPS devices measured how close they were to each other. Over the course of seven days, the findings were clear – the more physical activity the mother was engaged in while with the child, the more active the child was during the rest of the day. In fact, for every minute of moderate-to-vigorous activity the mother got, the child was likely to get ten percent more of the same activity. Conversely, for every minute the mother was sedentary, the child was 0.18 minutes more sedentary. Both of these effects were more pronounced in girls than in boys.

These findings seem to indicate that parents can be effective role models for their children by getting more active exercise themselves. But specialists emphasize that parents don’t have to drop their other priorities to do this. Physical therapist Teresa Beckman suggests, “Incorporate small changes into your daily life. For example, rather than playing a board game together, go outside and play hopscotch. Or if you’re planning a trip to your local playground, try walking instead of driving.”

Other suggestions for becoming more active with your children include playing more sports with them, walking more with them (if you take the bus, get off one or two stops early and walk the rest of the way), riding bikes together, and even playing Frisbee. Dancing is good exercise, so you can encourage your kids to take lessons in various forms of dance and then set a good example for them by attending the classes yourself. You can join exercise classes together, schedule regular pre-dinner walks or runs, or just play family games of basketball or soccer.

You are your child’s most important role model when it comes to teaching them about the importance of exercise. And exercising together is just as good for you as it is for them. So switch off that TV or computer and go out to play! You’ll both be doing something good for your health and having fun at the same time!


Growth Plate Injuries: What Parents Should Know

Growth Plate Injuries: What Parents Should Know


For a child, falling down is almost inevitable and generally doesn’t result in a trip to the emergency room. However, even minor falls can sometimes cause serious injuries. If you hear a cracking sound or if your child has bruising, swelling, or a limb deformity, there’s a chance your child may have broken a bone and you should seek medical attention right away if you notice these symptoms. Most types of breaks are routine (for the medical staff if not for the parent), but those involving a growth plate can present complications and require extra attention.

There is a marked difference between the bones of an adult and those of a child. Children have what are called physes—that is, growth plates. These growth plates are located at the end of long bones in the arms and legs. The growth plates, made of soft, rubbery cartilage, cause the bone to grow in length. Growth plates are found near the shoulder joint, elbow joint, hip joint, knee joint, ankle joint and wrist joint. Of the six main locations the ankles and wrists are particularly vulnerable to harm.

Growth plate damage can lead to long term problems. When a growth plate is injured, the bone may stop or slow growing. This is why it is essential to seek qualified medical treatment immediately to avoid problems later in life. If injured, a child should under no circumstances “walk it off.”

It is imperative to get the child to a doctor as soon as possible if you suspect a growth plate break. Growth plates heal quite rapidly, which gives doctors only a very short window to do non- surgical manipulations in order to set broken bones correctly. If your child has a minor, non-displaced break, the doctor may treat it like a sprain and recommend a splint, cast, or walking boot to protect the area for four to six weeks. Usually, these types of fractures do not require long-term care. Preferably, a growth plate fracture should be set within a week of injury.

When a child’s bone has moved or been displaced, an orthopedist can set the bone back in place in the emergency room without the need to operate. The child will be anaesthetized in the emergency department, and the doctor will use X-rays to determine where to correctly move the bone. Once the bone has been set, the doctor will set a cast in order to keep the bone in place. Usually the child will be allowed to go home that night, but occasionally they will be admitted to ensure the swelling is not too severe. Proper care and follow up will likely involve physical therapy and doctor’s visits for the next half a year.

Most growth plate fractures heal properly and do not result in any long-term issues. Once in a while, the bone stops growing and winds up shorter than the other appendage. For example, a fractured leg might become shorter than the opposite leg. Early detection that growth is unequal between the two limbs is essential. However, this is a true minority of cases and most children heal just fine.

Youth Sports: Are Single-Sport Child Athletes Really More Likely to Succeed Later?

Youth Sports: Are Single-Sport Child Athletes Really More Likely to Succeed Later?


Especially if they’re athletes or sports fans themselves, it’s not unusual for mothers and fathers to have secret (or not-so-secret) hopes that their kids can become good enough in a sport to earn a college scholarship or go on to a professional career. Some parents believe that the best way to work toward this goal is to encourage their children—sometimes as young as 6 or 7 years old—to focus on a single sport as early as possible. The reasoning behind this early specialization is pretty simple: Kids who are not splitting their time among multiple sports will get better, faster (and be more competitive) than their “distracted” peers. In other words, the children who commit early get a developmental head start that will make them high-performers later.

While this idea may make intuitive sense, a new study from the University of California, Los Angeles (which has a reputation as a major power in collegiate athletics) suggests that the logic simply doesn’t hold true. In a study presented at the annual meeting of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) in San Diego, Dr. John DiFiori, chief of sports medicine at UCLA’s School of Medicine, says that researchers can find no evidence that athletes who focused early on a single sport rose to elite levels in that sport.

To the contrary, most of the collegiate athletes surveyed were more like their peers, kids who enjoyed a wide range of recreational sports growing up, waiting until well into their teens before specializing on one sport. As DiFiori says, “Most successful athletes participate in a number of sports when they’re 6, 8 or 10 years old. That way, kids learn different skills and have the chance to discover which sport they truly enjoy.”

The study surveyed 296 male and female NCAA Division I athletes and found that 88% of them had participated in an average of two or three sports as children. In addition, 70% of them did not specialize in any one sport until after the age of 12. In a similar study on Olympic athletes, researchers found that most had participated in two or more sports before specializing.

While there are famous athletes like Tiger Woods or Andre Agassi who focused on one sport early in their lives, the research suggests that they are the exception and not the rule. The vast majority of successful collegiate or pro athletes dabbled in a number of other sports before settling on the one that brought them success. The data seems to indicate that early specialization may not help and may, in fact, be detrimental. Previous research has indicated, for example, that kids who train extensively in one sport are more prone to overuse injuries than kids who had more varied athletic experience, and played other sports as well. There’s also a greater risk of premature disengagement or “burn-out” that can come with focusing exclusively on one activity.

Based on this research, Dr. DiFiori feels that parents of kids who seem talented in one sport at an early age should allow and encourage them to play other sports. They may, after all, discover another sport that they enjoy more and are even better at. And—even if they do not—they will be exposed to sports that train them in a wider variety of motor skills. “Physical activity contributes to a happy and healthy childhood,” says Dr. DiFiori, “however, parents, coaches and children should monitor and measure their involvement level in a singular sport against the overall well-being and future success of the participant.”


The Truth About the “Five-Second Rule”

The Truth About the “Five-Second Rule”


You’ve probably heard of the “five-second rule”. That’s the tongue-in-cheek saying some kids and young adults use when they accidentally drop a piece of food on the floor but pick it up and eat it anyway. According to the “rule”, food isn’t likely to become significantly contaminated with bacteria if it remains on the floor less than five seconds. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves when we quickly grab that fallen potato chip before the cat gets it, brush it off, and stick in in our mouths (hopefully without anyone noticing). Most of us probably suspect this isn’t a great idea while we’re doing it, but is there actually any evidence to support the five-second rule?

Well, for those who admit to having done this once or twice in their lives (you know who you are…), you can feel a little bit better about it because there is some research that suggests the five-second rule might be valid.

Science has actually been studying the five-second rule for some time. In 2003, Dr. Jillian Clarke (then an intern and now a Ph.D.) analyzed the floors of the labs, dormitories, and cafeterias of the university she was attending, and found that far fewer bacteria were found than expected, possibly because most of the surfaces were dry, and thus did not encourage bacterial growth. She also found that very few “test foods” were significantly contaminated by E. coli bacteria from brief exposure to a surface that contained it.

A more recent study conducted at Aston University in Great Britain confirms her findings. The research team, led by Professor Anthony Hilton, studied a number of different floor surfaces and locations (carpeted floors, laminated floors, and tiles) with a variety of foods (toast, pasta, cookie, and a sticky candy) to see how much E. coli and Staphylococcus bacteria they attracted when dropped on these floors.

Unsurprisingly—as the five-second rule implies—time is a factor. The longer the food stayed in contact with the floor surface, the more likely it was that contamination would occur. There were also differences found in the floor surface itself, with carpeted floors being “safer” in terms of contamination than tiles. Says Hilton, “We have found evidence that transfer from indoor flooring surfaces is incredibly poor with carpet actually posing the lowest risk of bacterial transfer onto dropped food.”

That said, the moister the food, the more likely it was to pick up bacteria. The other major factor to be considered is (as in real estate) “location, location, location”. That is, certain locations are dirtier than others, and thus more likely to result in bacterial contamination, even if you beat the five-second buzzer. Bathrooms are, not surprisingly, high risk – don’t even think of employing the five-second rule there. Your kitchen floors, especially if you cook a lot of chicken, might be more likely sources of salmonella and other bacteria than, say, your living room or dining room. And among the dirtiest surfaces they tested were the dining tables in restaurants, because they have been “wiped clean” with cloths that were rarely changed and washed themselves.

So Dr. Hilton’s recommendation is to use your own common sense when tempted to invoke the five-second rule. If you accidentally drop a piece of food, take one second of your five noticing the location you’re in, and another second to determine the nature of the surface the food fell on. Then you’ve still got three seconds left to decide whether to pick it up and eat it.


Kids and Sports: The New Youth Athletics Landscape

Kids and Sports: The New Youth Athletics Landscape


Over the last twenty years, the landscape of youth sports has changed dramatically. It used to be that children would gather after school and choose (or invent) an activity or game to play until dinnertime. In this world of “free play,” the kids set the rules and managed themselves more or less independently. These days, though, it’s much more common for kids’ sports to be highly organized and stratified, with adults more heavily involved than they were even a generation ago.

The downsides of adult-led, year-round structure

Kids can sometimes be rough-and-tumble, and they can also be cruel. This means that free play can have its share of problems when seen through the eyes of adults who are most concerned about limiting safety and social risks. From their point of view, there are clear advantages to having a neutral adult coach providing instruction and “managing” play. Parents who view free play as an unstructured waste of time may also be drawn to what they see as the more targeted developmental benefits of organized sports, though for slightly different reasons.

It’s important to understand that this shift has come with a cost. Many child development experts now believe that adult-led, year-round structure has deprived children of important opportunities to practice innovation, independence and self-management—including social skills like cooperation and dispute resolution. They also believe it has deprived them of opportunities to learn where the boundary is between good-natured (even competitive) physical play and play that is rough enough to cause real harm. Learning where this boundary is requires live experimentation that entails some risk. This is how children learn how to read and respond to others and to different kinds of situations appropriately.

The up-or-out world of youth athletics

The shift to adult-led, year-round structure has also changed the nature of youth athletics, creating a two-tier system of “recreational” and “competitive” sports where recreation often gets short shrift. This can produce a high-pressure environment for many children, who automatically begin associating athletics with expectations of performance. This sort of environment has the potential to change the relationship between kids and sports in a few different ways. In some cases, it may encourage youngsters of 8 or 9 years (or their parents) to choose a single sport early in their “careers” and to commit to it for the entire year. Children who do not make this early all-or-nothing commitment (even very athletic ones) may find that their playing opportunities dwindle and that they’re stuck in the middle—somewhere between a competitive tier that may demand too much and a recreational one that may offer too little. In other cases, it may discourage children with less obvious talent or less drive to abandon sports altogether.

The impact on health and wellness

This isn’t about nostalgia. It’s about long-term musculoskeletal health and fitness. For earlier generations, sports were more seasonal and it was common for kids to play several different sports throughout the year. Since they didn’t specialize until later (if at all), they tended to become more well-rounded athletes and their physical development tended to be more balanced. And to the extent that different sports require different types of movement and emphasize different muscle groups, it was less likely for a young athlete to suffer overuse injuries. Today, physicians say they are seeing more juvenile athletes come in with repetitive stress injuries. For example, a recent study from the journal Radiology revealed that young baseball pitchers are at risk of an overuse injury of the shoulder known as acromial apophysiolysis, which can lead to long-term and even irreversible consequences as kids grow.

And what about children who opt-out of sports early because of performance pressure or burnout, or because they can’t “keep up” with peers who are developing before them? It may take these children years to rediscover sports. And they may miss out on exactly the types of physical activity that keep them fit and healthy unless they find some other alternatives.

A healthier, more balanced approach to athletics

Most medical doctors and chiropractic physicians would probably agree about the importance of variety when it comes to children’s musculoskeletal health and development. Even more broadly, variety is the key to achieving balanced physical, social and psychological growth. Plus, varying your activities is a great way to prevent boredom and increase enjoyment. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with competition or with working hard to excel at something, especially when it comes to sports and if it’s done for the love of the game. However, we adults should remember to let kids be kids, which means trying out different athletic activities, succeeding at some and failing at others, and learning to enjoy the process every step of the way.

Overuse Injuries in Young Athletes: An Introduction for Parents

Overuse Injuries in Young Athletes: An Introduction for Parents


There’s a curious dynamic at work in youth sports these days. Maybe you’ve noticed?

On the one hand, public health officials are worried about a broad decline in team sport participation among children. According to a recent survey, the number of kids between the ages of 6 and 17 who play organized baseball, basketball, football, and soccer fell about 4% between 2008 and 2012.

And on the other hand, healthcare professionals are also worried about many of the estimated 60 million children in the U.S. who do play organized team sports. They see signs that young athletes may be taking their sports too seriously—training too hard, playing too much and specializing too early in life. The popular media offers many statistics and anecdotes that seem to point in this direction:

  • “While injuries from recreational activities such as biking have fallen over the last decade, team sports including football and soccer saw injuries rise by 22.8% and 10.8% respectively…” (Wall Street Journal)
  • “While concussions account for about 15% of youth sports injuries, experts say many sports carry risks for musculoskeletal injuries, in large part due to increased emphasis on year-round competition, single-sport concentration and intense training regimens, even for pre-teen athletes.” (Wall Street Journal)
  • “Overuse and overtraining are also major concerns… As children become good at competitive sports, there is sometimes an impulse to keep them in the same sport year round, which may not be the healthiest thing for a young athlete.” (HealthDay News)

What’s more alarming to physicians than the number of youth sports injuries is the nature of those injuries. A troubling new pattern seems to be emerging. According to Dr. Amy Valasek, a sports medicine expert at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, only about half the sports injuries she sees are the sorts of sprains, strains, fractures and concussions that have traditionally been common among young athletes. 50% to 60% of them are related to overuse. Because the musculoskeletal system of children and teenagers is still growing, they may be especially susceptible to these kinds of injuries.

Unsurprisingly, each sport has its own risk profile when it comes to overuse injuries. For instance, overuse injuries of the shin and knees are most common to runners. Baseball, softball and football players often have elbow and shoulder injuries. Cheerleaders, skaters and dancers are prone to ankle injuries. And gymnasts frequently encounter wrist injuries as a result of the extreme demands their sport places on this particular part of the body.

In addition, doctors say they tend to these types of overuse injuries more often in children who play one sport year-round or play over multiple consecutive seasons without taking a break rather than in those who participate in a variety of athletic activities. Recent research found serious overuse injuries are 2.3 times more common in young, single-sport athletes than they are in more well-rounded athletes, even after accounting for the number of hours committed.

There may be several reasons for the apparent trend in overuse injuries. Experts believe that there’s growing pressure among athletes to specialize in one sport—and sometimes even in one position—at a younger and younger age. They also believe that youth training programs and competition schedules are simply becoming more demanding. At the same time, though, it’s likely that many managers and coaches at this level (not to mention parents) don’t fully understand the risks and don’t work with their young athletes to build healthy training and injury prevention habits. And when they are injured, it’s not uncommon for children to return to practice before their injuries are completely healed.

So what’s the best advice for the parents of a talented (or even just enthusiastic) young athlete?

  • Encourage a wide variety of athletic activities and well-rounded development. Evidence suggests that playing more sports leads to fewer overuse injuries, lower burnout rates and better overall performance in the long run. While there’s no hard-and-fast “rule,” many experts suggest that children and parents avoid specializing in a single sport before the age of 14.
  • Take time off. The American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness advises that children practice no more than five days per week and take at least one day off from any organized training. Some experts offer an alternative rule-of-thumb: young athletes shouldn’t participate in a sports more hours a week than their age. The Council also suggests a 2- to 3-month break to recover between seasons.
  • Teach—and practice—injury prevention from an early age. Warm-ups and whole-body stretches should become lifelong habits.
  • Be sure your athlete understands what overuse injuries are, how to recognize them and how they should be treated.

Additional Resources

Intense, Specialized Training in Young Athletes Linked to Serious Overuse Injuries.

Sports Should Be Child’s Play.

Guidelines for Young Athletes to Reduce Injuries.

Children and Caffeine: What Parents Should Know

Children and Caffeine: What Parents Should Know

girlThe next time you pass a Starbucks, pause for a moment and imagine that the customers inside drinking their lattes and Grande Espressos are your children. Then imagine them ingesting a drug (caffeine) that is known as a powerful stimulant with a proven history of producing nervousness, restlessness, irritability, high blood pressure, insomnia, headaches and heart palpitations. Finally, consider that this exercise in imagination may not be all that far off the mark.

That is the key finding of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in a 2014 study published in the journal Pediatrics. The researchers found that nearly three out of four children and young adults in America (73%) consume some caffeine a day, mostly from soda, tea, and coffee, but also from an alarming number of “energy drinks.”

This study comes as part of an investigation undertaken by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) into the safety of foods and drinks that contain caffeine—especially their effects on children and teens. In response to numerous reports of hospitalizations and even deaths after the consumption of highly caffeinated drinks or “energy shots,” the investigators analyzed health surveys containing data on over 22,000 subjects aged 2 to 22.

Many foods contain caffeine (including chocolate, candy bars, some jelly beans, and marshmallows), but most of the caffeine ingested by small children comes in the form of soda. The rise in the use of energy drinks—although they account for only 6% to 10% of children’s daily caffeine intake—is seen as particularly alarming, because many of these drinks contain even higher amounts of caffeine than soda.

The FDA study found that the average caffeine intake among participants was about 60-70 milligrams—roughly the same amount of caffeine present in a six-ounce cup of coffee or two sodas. However, this finding does not necessarily mean that this level of caffeine consumption is safe for children. In fact, while the FDA has classified caffeine as GRAS (generally recognized as safe), that classification is based solely on its use by adults. There is actually no current body of research analyzing its possible detrimental effects on children. Nakia V. Williams, M.D., a pediatrician at the Henry Ford Health System, says, “There haven’t been a lot of studies of caffeine in young children, but we do know that children suffer from similar side effects as adults, and that on average these side effects can occur at lower doses given the smaller body sizes.” The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends against caffeine consumption for children and teens because of possible harmful stimulant effects as well as the possibility of it worsening anxiety in children already suffering from anxiety disorders. The AAP holds the clear position that “stimulant-containing energy drinks have no place in the diets of children and adolescents.”

So if you have kids, think twice before allowing them to consume soda and other drinks that contain caffeine. Pediatricians are unanimous in suggesting that they would be better off drinking water, reasonable amounts of fruit juices, milk, and other non-caffeinated beverages.

Structured Versus Unstructured Play: What’s the Difference, and Does it Matter?

Structured Versus Unstructured Play: What’s the Difference, and Does it Matter?

lined up on line of scrimmageWe’ve all heard about parents like this. They have every moment of their child’s day scheduled with some activity or another. First it’s soccer, then off to violin lessons, after which they meet up with their scouting group. With the increase in urbanization and concerns for child safety, it’s becoming more and more unusual to see children just out playing in the street or in a neighbor’s back yard. Many parents have embraced the idea of “structured play” because they believe it helps their children develop specific skills they will need to succeed in the world. It also allows parents more predictability and control over their own schedules. On the other hand, many of these same parents view unstructured play (which many grew up with themselves) as a waste of time that could be better used for managed activities. But studies have shown that there are very real advantages to unstructured play, and that the skills it develops are just as important as the ones that can be taught in structured environments.

Structured play consists of activities with externally-imposed organization that generally involve rules and an objective of some sort. Things such as video games, team sports, board games and building model airplanes, for example, are all structured activities. At the other end of the spectrum are unstructured activities like inventing and running games, building with blocks, having a catch, writing a play, looking for bugs in the woods, and drawing and painting. These activities are self-organizing and open-ended. Many times, they have no particular goal. In unstructured play, children make up their own rules as they go along and establish their own limits.

Nearly every modern parent has heard his or her child whine or moan the dreaded words “I’m bored.”  By most accounts, the “I’m bored” syndrome has actually become more common as the nature of play has shifted and parental engagement has changed. Sometime around the mid-20th century, children’s play began to be centered on the toy rather than on the activity. And as today’s “interactive” toys have evolved to actually direct and drive the activity (think about Wii, PlayStations, iPads, etc.), children themselves have become more passive in the process. The result is that many of them are less able to entertain themselves through their own creativity.  This inability becomes very apparent whenever the novelty of a new game wears out and the kids reach out to their parents to provide the same level of structure and ongoing entertainment that the game had been providing.  This places growing demands on parents, who may then begin to look for other outside sources of focused, constructive stimulation.  Of course, the problem with this type of response is that it simply substitutes one form of externally-driven activity for another. What happens to a child who never learns to direct his or her own energy or to organize his or her own activity? There is a very good chance that the child who never learns to do these things will be unable to do them well as an adult.

A 2005 study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that children’s unstructured play time had dropped by 25% between 1981 and 1997. This is a worrisome trend since unstructured play is necessary in order for children to improve social skills, develop healthy coping mechanisms for stress and boost cognitive skills, especially those involved in problem solving. Through unstructured play, children enhance their own creativity, become more self-confident and learn to empathize with others. It develops neural areas in the brain that are concerned with emotional reactions and social understanding.

There is no doubt that structured play is important in teaching multitasking, developing specialized skills and exposing children to a wide range of ideas and experiences. Just be sure that your children are given equal amounts of unstructured time in which to explore their own interests, develop their creativity, solve problems and work on their interpersonal skills.

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