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Back to School: Complete Health Checklist for Every Parent

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By Brianna Hoge, Anna Jones and Hannah Echols
UAB News

As the summer comes to an end, parents of school-aged children may find themselves questioning what they need to do before the first bell of the 2021 school year rings. Experts from the University of Alabama at Birmingham recommend four things that need to be on parents’ checklists to ensure their child is ready to hit the books.

Before going back to school, children could benefit from getting their annual check-up appointment with their pediatrician.

“All school-aged children should have annual examinations by their pediatrician,” said David Kimberlin, M.D., co-director of UAB and Children’s of Alabama’s Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. “The assessment is comprehensive, and addresses both physical and mental health.”

Kimberlin explains that annual exams are even more critical this school year due to the cancelation of many visits last year during the height of the pandemic, especially those that were scheduled last summer and fall.

To help keep children healthy throughout the school year, especially during the pandemic, Kimberlin strongly suggests children who meet the age requirement — currently 12 years and older — get a COVID-19 vaccine, in addition to their usual vaccines, which are discussed below.

Dentist Appointment

Dental hygiene is extremely important to a child’s overall health and teaching healthy habits at a young age can set children on the path to a lifetime of excellent oral hygiene. It is recommended that children have their first dental visit by age 1, but if they have not established a dental home before they start school, the summertime is a good time to start.

“It is best for a child to have a dental home that they routinely see at least two times a year,” said Stephen Mitchell M.S., D.M.D., associate professor in UAB’s School of Dentistry. “If a child has not seen a dentist or has not seen one in several years, we recommend scheduling a visit to make sure they are not having any dental problems that may cause discomfort and distract them from learning while they are at school.”

Mitchell says diet is crucial to maintaining a child’s oral health and encourages parents to reduce the number of sugary foods and beverages that children consume throughout the school year. An easy way to prevent tooth decay is to replace any sugary drinks with water, plain milk or any beverage that has 10 calories per serving or less.

“We want to take precautions to prevent tooth decay from happening, but that does not mean removing all sugary drinks and foods from their diets,” Mitchell said. “When fun events or special occasions come around like a birthday party or Halloween, let them enjoy themselves and have fun. After the event is over, parents can help them get back to their daily routine.”

To prepare children for a dental visit, Mitchell encourages parents to avoid making a big fuss about it. Showing them videos of siblings, parents and other children going to the dentist can help put them at ease and take the mystery out of it.

“As for nervous children, often the more information you give them, the more time they are given to prepare and the more nervous they become,” Mitchell said. “Wait until a little closer to appointment time to tell them, then act as carefree about it as possible. Usually, kids react to their parents’ emotions, so if they see their parents are calm about it, then they are more likely to be calm as well.”

Cleaning visits are a simple way to make a child’s teeth look and feel great. By practicing some of these tips, parents can help make each visit fun and easy.

Eye Appointment 

Having an eye exam before the school year starts is a great way to make sure that vision problems will not prohibit any learning in the classroom.

“Vision screenings are very good at determining if a child can see the board at the front of a classroom,” said Tamara Oechslin, O.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB School of Optometry. “A comprehensive eye exam will also look for the ability to see well up close and measure how well the two eyes work as a team and track together, which is especially important for children who are learning to read and reading to learn.”

Throughout the school year, Oechslin suggests parents keep an eye out for these behaviors, as they could be signs that a child may need a vision exam:

  • Squinting
  • Watery eyes or dryness
  • Complaints of headaches
  • Covering an eye when reading/doing near work

“Young children’s eyes are growing and changing quickly, and it is best to make sure that all is happening appropriately,” Oechslin said. “Further, given the extra amount of near work and hours of screen time this past year, it is important to make sure that our children’s eyes are healthy.”

Vaccinations Appointment

By far the best way to prevent children from vaccine-preventable diseases is to vaccinate them, and summertime is a great opportunity to ensure children are up to date on the recommended vaccines for their age group.

“Vaccines help provide immunity before children are exposed to potentially life-threatening diseases,” said Erin Delaney, M.D., assistant professor, vice chair for Clinical Affairs and Quality, clinic medical director for the Family Medicine Clinic at UAB Hospital-Highlands and the ambulatory medical quality officer in the Department of Family and Community Medicine. “By getting your child vaccinated, not only are you protecting them from sickness, but you are also protecting classmates, friends, relatives, and others in the community.”

Immunizations are the best defense against preventing the spread of disease and ensure the best immune response for the child. They work by teaching a person’s immune system to recognize a virus or bacteria before being exposed, so that when the child comes in contact with that virus or bacteria in the future their immune system fights it off without the person getting sick. Vaccines are a safe and effective way to protect a child from up to 16 serious diseases and safeguard their long-term health.

“When it comes to vaccine safety, there is plenty of evidence and information available that proves their safety, and there is a lack of information that shows otherwise,” said Sameera Davuluri, M.D., clinic medical director at UAB’s Hoover Primary Clinic and associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine. “When we treat patients in our office, our treatment recommendations are based on scientific evidence. The same thing goes when it comes to vaccines. We recommend vaccines for our patients based on scientific evidence.”

For children who may be slightly nervous about getting their vaccines, Delaney and Davuluri say that a parent’s display of support is very important. They encourage parents to take time and explain to children how vaccines protect them from something that could hurt them and to reward them with something they enjoy after they have received their vaccines.

For a list of the vaccines by age group recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, click here. To make an immunization appointment, contact your child’s local health care provider or county health department.