SUNDAY, Feb. 5, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- With cold and flu season in full swing, parents who pay attention to hygiene and nutrition can boost the odds that their children will stay healthy -- or at least healthier than last year.
Some of the techniques may be surprising and, better yet, take much less time than you think.
"Probably the most important thing is to tell kids to wash their hands frequently," said Dr. Jim King, a family physician in Selmer, Tenn., who is a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians' board of directors.
Germ-laden hands are the most common source of bacteria, he added, and frequent hand-washing will reduce the number of colds and infections.
Encourage your kids to wash their hands after using the bathroom, playing with toys shared by other children and when they get home from school, King said. To enlist their support, set up a chart system with gold stars or, for older children, other appropriate rewards.
Also, "teach kids not to always be touching their faces and their mouths," said Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Austin, Texas, and author of Baby 411.
"Germs will live on surfaces such as the desk or doorknob for several hours," Brown said. So if kids touch a contaminated surface and then their face, mouth or nose, they can easily spread germs, she added.
"As kids get older, they tend to share food and drinks," Brown continued, saying that should also be discouraged. The reason: Sharing food and drinks can also spread germs, and "you can end up getting strep throat or mono," he said.
Then there's the inevitable showdown over bedtimes. But be sure to enforce reasonable ones, King and Brown agreed.
Most children don't get enough sleep, boosting their risk of getting sick. For 5- to 9-year-olds, 10 or 11 hours of sleep is needed, Brown and King said. Ten- to 14-year-olds need nine or 10 hours, and 14- to 18-year-olds need eight or nine hours.
Getting kids to go to bed has always seemed like mission impossible. "But if you remind them how crummy they feel in the morning when the alarm goes off [if they haven't gotten enough sleep], they might be a little bit more reasonable," Brown said.
King urges parents to "get kids up at the same time every day, too." This will help establish a regular sleep-wake pattern. He encourages this practice even on weekends, although he acknowledges it's not easy -- especially with teens who think they have a right to sleep in when school's out.
Brown also suggests talking to your child about the value of nutritious eating. And develop a policy that limits buying food from school vending machines or from fast-food operations.
Finally, encourage your child to get regular physical activity. The best way is to lead by example, Brown said.
"Go for a nightly walk, a nightly bike ride, or walk the dog together. Incorporate exercise into family time," he suggested.
To learn more, visit The Center for Health and Health Care in Schools.