If your child seems dull, listless and cranky, there is almost certainly a fitness problem involved, and the sooner you address it, the better. Ideally, parents should focus on building fitness and endurance through the growing years. Fitness, which is as much physical as mental, is the ability to interact appropriately with the environment and, particularly in childhood, this golden quality balances on three pillars — food, exercise and sleep.
Research, now called the Barker Theory, has shown that adult diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and atherosclerosis can, in most cases, be traced to unhealthy diet during childhood and the habits acquired then. Similarly, malnutrition in childhood has terrible consequences throughout life. So remember that when you feed your child, you are not only providing nutrition — or failing to — you are also teaching that child what to turn to when she or he is hungry.
With so much confusing advice available, a simple rule of thumb for confused parents is keep your children’s diet as fresh, varied and balanced as possible, feeding them small meals frequently through the day.
If you’re not sure whether what you’re feeding your children is healthy enough, check their bellies and their mood. If your child is dull and listless or has a paunch, they are either not eating right, or they are not getting enough exercise.
Unstructured, unfettered play is the best exercise possible for a child. The sportsmanship and team play that your child will learn on a playground cannot be matched in any number of structured, forced playschool or preschool activities. Remember, it is not the form, but the amount of time and the happiness quotient that should determine what form of physical exercise is appropriate for your child. Also remember that children need to play outdoors, not at consoles, which will only make them more hyperactive and inattentive.
India’s urban children sleep way less than necessary and this is reflected in their growth and behaviour patterns. What with working and commuting, many parents return home too late to enforce bedtime, so the child learns to stay up late. Unmonitored use of TV, video games and the Internet eat into sleep time further.
And because the effects of poor sleep patterns are not immediately or apparently visible, this vital area often gets ignored. The fact is, children need eight to 12 hours of sleep, depending on their age group. And any deficiency is likely to affect growth and, later, hormonal development. In the short term, poor quality of sleep or inadequate quantity cause irritability, drowsiness and inattention.
Sleep habits need to be inculcated early. Lights need to be dimmed ahead of bedtime and the house quietened. Children need to physically be in their beds by a pre-decided time, to inculcate a habit of sleeping early.
Of course, it’s easy to preach and hard to implement these crucial steps. But use regular, frank communication to explain to your child how a soggy burger leads to weak bones and how staying up till 11 pm playing a computer game can leave her drowsy the next morning.
Spend time interacting with your children — keep it a dialogue, not a monologue. Talk to them about fitness. Ask their opinion.
In a few weeks, you could be learning from them.
(Dr Samir Dalwai is a developmental paediatrician at New Horizons Child Development Centre and visiting consultant at LD Clinic at the Sion hospital)