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Get a Healthy Back-to-School Start

Multiracial group of kids playing hopscotch outside

Put health on the list as you get your kids ready for a new school year. Getting recommended vaccinations on time, eating a healthy lunch each day, and sleeping enough each night will help children and teens learn and grow. Get started with information from our experts.

Prevent diseases with vaccinations

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says vaccinations have prevented countless cases of infections and diseases and have saved millions of lives. But, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many routine health care visits have been interrupted, especially in 2020 and early 2021. This includes a significant decline in the number of childhood vaccinations being prescribed and given, and has not yet caught up to pre-pandemic rates. The easing of pandemic-related restrictions in many areas is a good reminder about how getting your child’s vaccinations on time helps protect your child and your communities and schools from outbreaks.

A vaccine reduces the risk of infection by working with the immune system to develop a defense against a specific disease before a person is exposed to that disease.

According to the CDC, children newborn through age 6 need vaccines to protect them from 14 serious diseases, including measles, polio, tetanus, and chicken pox. All children 6 months and older should be vaccinated against flu. Children and teens ages 7 to 18 need booster shots because some vaccine doses wear off over time. Older children, teens, and young adults may also be more at risk for certain diseases like meningitis and need the protection vaccines provide. Check with your child’s doctor about what vaccines are needed and what you can do to catch up on them.

Girls and boys should be vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that can cause 6 different types of cancer. 8 out of 10 people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lifetime, and while there is no treatment, the HPV vaccine can help prevent the virus and the 6 types of cancer it can cause. The HPV vaccine requires 2 to 3 shots, depending on the age when the series is started. Both girls and boys should get the HPV vaccine at ages 9 to 12. Children and young adults up to age 26 who have not received the vaccine should get vaccinated. Vaccination of young adults will not prevent as many cancers as vaccination of children and teens. This is because the body develops better protection against HPV at younger ages and the HPV vaccine works best if it’s given before exposure to HPV occurs.

Pack healthy snacks and lunches

The American Cancer Society recommends following a healthy eating pattern at all ages. A new school year is the perfect time to try some healthier options for your child’s school breaks for snacks and lunch, and can help them learn the benefits of healthy eating. Whether you’re packing a lunch box or making lunch at the kitchen counter, you can ensure they’re eating healthy food that tastes good.

Eating lots of different kinds of food gives the body a variety of nutrients.

  • Choose lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Healthy eating includes a lot of colors, like green salad, orange carrots, and red strawberries, and it makes lunch more appealing.
  • Water, 100% fruit juice, or plain low-fat or skim milk is best to drink. Sports drinks and juice drinks have added sugar and a lot more calories.
  • Whole wheat and multi-grain are much healthier than the refined grains found in white bread, cereals, and pasta. Brown rice is also a good choice.
  • Choose a variety of foods that contain proteins, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. For example, try lean meats, cheese, whole-wheat crackers, peanut butter, hummus, and low-sugar yogurt.
  • Kids need some fat in their diet, but fried foods have high amounts of fat, especially the bad type of fats. Try healthier options like grilled chicken or baked chips.

Get enough sleep

Sleep is a key part of good physical and mental health. But some children and teenagers might have sleep problems because of changes to their routines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their stress levels can be higher, they’re using electronics more, and their usual sports, activities, and schedules have changed.

If your teenager has trouble waking up for school in the morning, or is tired and grumpy during the day, it may be more than just typical child or teen behavior. They may not be getting enough sleep. Teenagers can be more at risk for sleep problems. In fact, The National Sleep Foundation says most teens are not getting the sleep they need to function best: 8 to 10 hours each night.

Teenagers who do get enough sleep have been shown to get better grades in school, have a lower body mass index (BMI), and suffer less from depression and thoughts of suicide. They also report feeling happier and getting along better with family members. On the other hand, teenagers who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to become drowsy while driving, which is extremely dangerous for themselves and others.

To help your teenager get more sleep at night, you can:

  • Set a consistent bedtime, even on weekends.
  • Keep computers, gaming systems, cell phones, and TV out of your teen’s bedroom.
  • Cut out caffeine after lunchtime.
  • Create a relaxing bedtime routine that includes reading, listening to music, or taking a bath.
  • Be a good role model by getting enough sleep yourself.
  • Talk to your teen about the importance of sleep.

Getting some exercise can help with sleep, too. The American Cancer Society recommends children and teens get at least 1 hour of moderate or vigorous intensity activity each day. Moderate intensity activities are things like taking a brisk walk or a slow jog or bike ride. Vigorous intensity activities can be doing things like heavy yard work and faster walking, biking, or running.

If your child is extra moody or tired, or has difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, and the tips above or home remedies have not helped, discuss the problem with your family doctor.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.