Early childhood is a critical time for children to learn healthy habits such as good nutrition, physical activity, good hygiene, and getting enough sleep. These healthy habits contribute to children’s overall well-being and helps them perform their best in school and beyond. Children are better equipped to develop these habits if they are able to control their impulses, delay gratification, plan ahead, and follow directions – all major self-regulation skills. Parents can help foster these skills and promote healthy habits by incorporating them into children’s daily moments and routines.
Strategies for Promoting Healthy Routines in Childhood
Here are some conversations and activities that can help your child develop healthy routines as you go about your day together:
Provide a variety of healthy foods every day: Offer a variety of nutritious foods from different food groups to help your child get the nutrients she needs to grow up healthy. Wholesome food groups include fruits, vegetables, dairy such as milk, and lean proteins like dal, eggs, or chicken. While you shop at the market together, ask your child to sort the different items by food groups in the basket or cart. Once you get home she can help sort them again on the kitchen table as you put away the groceries.
Encourage your child to try new foods: The early years are the best time to introduce children to new, healthy foods since this is when they are developing their palette for different tastes and textures. Your child may resist new foods and this is normal. You can help your child learn to like new foods through multiple exposures (between 5 to 10 tries). Just offer new foods often, asking your child to try a bite in a positive and encouraging way. Even if he tries one bite, praise him and let him know you’re proud he tried, then offer it to him again another time. Involving him in preparing meals may also help him get excited about new foods. For example, encourage him to choose a vegetable to add to a soup. Also, as you shop, cook, or eat together, point out why certain foods are good for your body. For example, “Look at this delicious, green spinach! Eating it will make our bodies healthy and strong so we could do lots of things like run, jump, and play!”
Drink plenty of water each day: Our bodies need plenty of water each day to stay cool, hydrated, and to function properly. Drinking water is not just good for our bodies — it also helps our minds to think more clearly. Make water drinking a part of your family’s daily routine when you eat or play together. If you are outside, carry around a portable cup or bottle so you and your child could drink water anytime and anywhere you go. Help your child learn the importance of drinking water and listening to her body when it feels thirsty. Encourage her to let you know when she’s feeling thirsty and offer her a cup of water.
Wash fruits and vegetables before eating: Many forms of bacteria or illnesses can travel on the skin of fruits and vegetables so it’s important to rinse and wash them well with water before eating. Your child may enjoy helping you wash the fruits and vegetables in a large bowl. Remind your child that these foods have to be cleaned in order to be safe to eat. Every so often, when you take out fruits and vegetables to prepare for a meal, ask, “Are these ready to eat? What do we need to do before we eat them?”
Remind your child how and when to wash her hands: Hand-washing is a very important way to keep your child healthy and protect her from illness. A fun way to make sure her hands are nice and clean is by having her wash with soap and water for as long as it takes to sing a favorite song (it should last for at least one minute). Remind her to scrub the insides and outside of her hands, and in between her fingers. Also, help her remember the sequencing of when it’s important to wash her hands. For example, we always wash our hands after we play outside, after we use the toilet, and before we eat. Try asking, “It’s time to eat dinner soon. What do we always do before we eat?”
Remind your child to cover coughs and sneezes: Coughing or sneezing without covering up spreads viruses into the air, which can get you and others sick. Remind your child to always cover his mouth and nose with a tissue or directly into his elbow—not hands. Otherwise, his unclean hands will touch the desk, food, or doorknob and whoever touches these items can also get sick. This is especially important during flu season when viruses are passed from one person to another through fluids from the mouth and nose. Try to model this for your child every time you feel the urge to cough or sneeze. Quickly grab a tissue or bring the inside of your elbow up to cover your mouth and nose. The more you and your child practice this healthy habit, the more it will become an automatic response when coughing or sneezing.
Enjoy fun physical activities together every day: Moving your bodies together is a great way to keep your bodies healthy while helping your child practice focusing and following directions. Play a game of “Mom Says,” “Dad Says,” or “Grandma Says”. Begin with one step like, “Mom Says… Jump up and down!” Depending on the age of your child, you can also suggest multiple steps. “Jump up and down, then turn around!” or “Jump up and down, turn around, then get down low!” Take turns being the leader – your child can even have a turn to give directions for you and others to follow!
Create a consistent bedtime routine: Having a regular bedtime routine helps children fall asleep more easily and develop healthy sleep habits. Together, plan ahead and talk about all the things you do to prepare for bed. For instance, you might take a bath first, then put on pajamas, read a book, sing a song, and give each other a big hug before getting tucked into bed. This order can be different for each family. As you complete each part of your routine, ask your child to reflect and tell you what follows. For example, “We just put on your pajamas. What do we do next? What comes after that?”