Well, I’m back from an extended summer vacation – if by vacation, I mean having to entertain my amazing, precocious and only...
Keeping Our Children Healthy This Summer
Summer is nearly upon us – and with it, a lot of changes, excitement, and challenges for our little (and too rapidly, I fear, not-so-little) ones. Some of the changes in temperature, activities, and schedule may be obvious to us as we transition our children into summer programs, take them on vacations, and spend more time outdoors – at the pools, playgrounds and outdoor events. Some of the changes may be less obvious to us – the dramatic changes our children’s bodies make when they move from the outdoors to highly air-conditioned indoor activities, the digestive changes their bodies make from season to season, the immune challenges their bodies may face when traveling.
Eastern and some western health traditions place a lot of emphasis on keeping our children’s bodies aligned with the general atmosphere and properties of every season, both in their food and in other aspects of their daily life. Summer is characterized most often as a Yang time of year: a time of growth, expansion, light, outdoor activity. This is as true of our crops as of our summer rituals – fruits and vegetables of summer get brighter, juicier, and abundant. The time of hibernation ushered out by Spring is officially over. Here are some basic ways to keep your child in sync with the rhythms of summer – and what to do when they get out of sync.
One of the easiest and most beneficial ways that we can help our children make the transition into summertime is by making sure that their diet changes along with the change of seasons. Summer is a time to start minimizing meat, eggs, and large amounts of nuts, seeds, and grains (heavy foods when it’s hot out can make all of us sluggish) and incorporate more cooling foods. In eastern tradition, cooling foods include salads, sprouts – especially alfalfa and mung sprouts, cucumbers, fruits, and if your child tolerates soy well, moderate amounts of tofu and soybean sprouts. Coconut water is a great, and sweet, way to stay hydrated and cool. Summer is also a good time to use cooking methods that retain water in the food – quick sautéing, steaming, using less salt and more water.
Because minerals and oils get sweated out of the body after play, Summer is also an important season to make sure your child is eating a good variety of foods, especially fruits and vegetables. …and even though I can’t promise that you’ll never see my family eating the treats of summer — ice cream, sugary treats, soft drinks – these tend to lower immunity because of their sugar content, and in large amounts end up robbing their bodies of the minerals that our kids are already sweating out during active play. If our son seems to be rundown, tired, or cranky from time outdoors, or we’re gearing up for a trip, we’ll generally forego these treats in favor of a vitamin-replenishing smoothie or a fruit pop which we’ll make out of a variety of fun things, like almond milk with cinnamon or fresh apple juice. (experimenting is half the fun!)
Some eastern traditions counsel the use of room-temperature drinks (not iced), warm teas and liquids, and some use of hot spices during the summer so as not to shock or contract the digestive ‘fires’, and to induce sweating during the summer months. (ever tried Indian food on a hot day, with a great mango lassi? We love it…) With children, who tend to be hot-natured anyway, I have found that this approach is best used in moderation, and with the incorporation of some of the cooling foods mentioned above. If your child tends to sweat and get flushed easily, this may not be the approach for you. If, however, your child does not sweat easily, and tends toward a more frail constitution, a little spice can encourage a good circulation, and a little healthy sweat to cool the body down.
Other Tips to Keep your Child Healthy During the Summer:
- Make sure your child is staying hydrated. How much a typical child should be drinking depends on their body weight, but at 44 lbs they should be drinking at least 50 oz (over six 8oz glasses) of fluid a day or more, especially during active outdoor play. Add at least 0.3oz to their requirements for fluid for every pound over 44 lbs. Watch their urine, if they are peeing nearly clear, a pale yellow, they are getting enough; deep yellow pee or complaints of thirst, and they are already dehydrated. Signs of dehydration also include crying without tears, sunken appearance, and the ‘pinch test’: skin on the arm or hand stays up for a moment after being gently pinched before returning to its normal position.
- A good way to keep your child hydrated, and getting electrolytes, is to add 10% fruit juice (such as organic apple juice) to their water. Another way is to always send them off with a bottle of some healthy liquid – and remind them to sip off of it whenever they run by to check in with you.
- About to go on a trip? We eliminate white sugar and foods with high sugar content at least two days before heading out on vacation. Why? Studies show that even low to moderate amounts of sugar lowers immune system and white blood cell ability to remove invaders for over five hours after eating it. Since germs of airplanes and recirculating air, changes of climate, and changes in diet when we arrive can also take a toll, we try to minimize immune challenges where we can.
- Your child is getting irritable, lethargic, and/or getting very flushed? Time to get out of the sun. I know it sounds obvious, but I’m afraid to admit the number of times my family forgets the simple solution in favor of a more complicated one… (If these symptoms seem extreme, or are accompanied by fever, confusion, erratic behavior, signs of dehydration, vomiting or diarrhea, it may be sunstroke and is time to check in with a medical professional…)
- One of my favorite simple preventative measures for summer is also to remember the downtime. If Summer is an active, or Yang time of year, this should always be balanced with the yin – quiet ‘cool-down’ times – time with less stimulation – for reading books, solitary art projects, even just unscheduled time at home for quiet play. One of my favorite reminders from last summer of the importance of this yin time (after an active day of children’s museum, park, snacks) was when the little girl we were playing with announced that ‘too many activities is giving me a headache.’ Point taken.
A lot of this information may seem basic and intuitive. I hope it is… in the Chinese medicine tradition at least (the tradition in which I have much of my education), the obvious clues we get, whether from the season, the local foods available, our natural tendencies, or our children, often lead us in the healthiest and most balanced directions. I wish everyone a healthy, balanced and rejuvenating Summer!
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