Reducing the rates of childhood obesity will not be easy. In 2015-2016, more than one in five children and adolescents in the United States had obesity. The good news is that it is preventable and treatable.
At Mass General for Children (MGfC), Dr. Elsie Taveras, MD, MPH has launched several research-based initiatives to change the future of childhood obesity, including one involving women who are pregnant and their partners.
The attention on childhood obesity is well placed. Over the long term, obesity can set children up for a lifetime of dealing with diabetes or heart disease. And in the short term, obesity can affect a child’s health and emotions.
Over the long term, obesity can set children up for a lifetime of dealing with diabetes or heart disease.
Children who are overweight may have “silent” symptoms of depression and may be teased and bullied. The stress related to these symptoms is something they carry with them in their everyday lives.
Tackling the childhood obesity epidemic must be a partnership with families, communities, schools and healthcare providers. One such program is STAR (Study of Technology to Accelerate Research), an MGfC partnership with Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, the Department of Population Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute.
Families of 6- to 12-year-olds received tips for preventing and managing obesity through educational materials, face-to-face sessions and text messages. Dr. Taveras’s study results suggest there are ways to improve the quality of care for children with obesity and help them achieve better outcomes. These include providing family support for lifestyle changes and making it easy for clinicians to access the latest treatment guidelines using health information technology.
The Connect for Health program built on that success and included an added component of connecting families to resources in their communities that could support healthy behavior changes, such as a YMCA for physical activity or farmers market for buying fruits and vegetables. It also featured an emphasis on children’s social and emotional well-being, including how to manage and address bullying.
At MGH, the First 1,000 Days program supports women and their partners from early pregnancy through a child’s second birthday. The program helps connect families to needed resources for food and housing and offers health coaching to support behavior change to promote healthy weight for parents and children, starting from birth.
Here are some guidelines based on evidence-based research to support families with weight management.
Children ages 6 to 12 should sleep 9 to 11 hours per night.
When the body gets the right amount of sleep, the brain helps control hunger and achieve a healthy weight. Better quality and longer sleep are also associated with better school performance.
What parents can do:
- Establish a bedtime routine. Many parents like the three “B’s routine: bath, book and then bed.”
- Use the same bedtime routine each night.
- Turn off the all screens one hour before bedtime to make the transition easier. Keep televisions and other electronic screen devices out of your child’s bedroom.
- Make the bedroom comfortable. Use a nightlight, if needed, dark curtains and keep it cool and quiet. Cozy blankets and pillows as well as soft music can help.
- Do not give your child caffeinated or sugary drinks, which can interfere with sleep.
Children need at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.
Being active is important because it keeps kids’ hearts healthy and helps manage weight. Anything that gets kids moving, breathing hard, and their heart rates up counts!
In the short term, obesity can affect a child’s health and emotions.
What parents can do:
- Limit TV and other screen time (including tablets, phones, video games, etc). Doctors recommend no more than two hours per day, not including time spent using screens for schoolwork.
- Talk to your children about what they like to do and find sports teams, dance or exercise classes.
- Or identify ways to exercise at home, try walks or hiking in your neighborhood or apps or videos with physical activity programs for kids.
- If 60 minutes per day seems like a lot, help your child work up to that goal. And you don’t have to do it all at once. You can add up the time that your child is active throughout the day.
Children should avoid sugary drinks. Water with meals and when thirsty is best for everyone.
Regularly drinking soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks and fruit juice may cause excessive weight gain and cavities.
What parents can do:
- Always offer water or lowfat milk with meals and snacks. Begin by setting certain days for just water or lowfat milk at meals. Then, gradually add to the number of days per week.
- Let your child pick out a fun, reusable water bottle to take to school, sports practices— everywhere they go.
- Be a health role model for your child and avoid sugary drinks, too.
- Make water fun by adding color and texture to a pitcher or glass with straws, ice, lemon or orange slices.
- Talk with your children about the choices they make at school and after school. Find out what types of drinks are available in the cafeteria and in school vending machines.