Back-to-school health checklist

Ah, the smell of sunscreen. The joy of homework-free evenings. The less-scheduled family calendar…

How did summer pass so quickly?

Yep, it’s time to get the kids ready to head back to school. Are your child’s immunizations up-to-date? Does he need new glasses? What time should he go to bed? We’ve rounded up expert advice on all this and more so your kids will be ready for the big day!

Schedule a well-child checkup. Most states require only two well-child exams for school enrollment: at the start of kindergarten and high school. Some states vary, so check with your school. An additional exam is often required for participation in a school sport. Check with your child’s doctor regarding how often to schedule additional well-child check-ups.

Make sure your child is up-to-date on all immunizations, including seasonal flu/H1N1. Ask your doctor for a copy of your child’s immunization record. You may need it to prove his immunization status for school. Visit the American Academy of Pediatrics Childhood Immunization Support Program website at for lots of helpful information, including:

— The Academy’s 2011 Childhood Immunization Schedule (for infants through teens) and a catch-up schedule for children who may have missed a scheduled vaccination.

— Updates on vaccine safety and vaccines that are temporarily in short supply.

— Frequently asked questions about childhood immunizations.

— The Academy’s Immunization Newsletter

This year’s seasonal flu vaccine includes protection against the H1N1 virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means that, barring some unforeseen circumstance, most Americans will be able to get one flu shot to protect against the major flu viruses. (Younger children who have never had a seasonal flu vaccine before will need two doses, says the Center.)

Everyone 6 months of age and older should get vaccinated against the flu, says the Center. Getting your child vaccinated is the best method for protecting him from the flu.

Have your child’s vision checked. Basic vision screening should be performed by your child’s doctor at each well-child examination. If a child fails a vision screening, or if there is any concern about a vision problem, she should be referred for a comprehensive professional eye exam, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. For children who wear glasses, the Academy recommends one-piece wrap-around polycarbonate sports frames for contact sports.

Schedule a dental check-up. Students in the U.S. miss more than 51 million school hours per year because of dental problems, says the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Teach your child to floss daily and brush twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste. And visit your child’s dentist twice a year for a professional cleaning and check-up.

Have your child’s hearing tested. Most states now mandate hearing tests for infants. But many school-aged children haven’t been tested. If your child is listening to the television or music at a very loud volume, or tends to favor one ear over the other when listening to you speak, it may be a sign of hearing loss. Talk with your doctor about having your child’s hearing tested.

Communicate about medications. Does your child receive medication on a regular basis for diabetes, asthma or another chronic health problem? School nurses and teachers must be made aware of your child’s needs, especially if they are the ones who will administer the medicine. Speak with them about the prescribed medication schedule, and work out an emergency course of action in case of a problem.

Schedule testing if you suspect a learning disability or dyslexia. If you feel your child may not be processing information as he should, speak with his teacher and doctor as soon as possible. Your child’s doctor can provide a referral for testing.

Plan ahead for brain-power breakfasts. Studies show that children who eat breakfast are more alert in class. Try to include protein (peanut butter or low-fat cheese, milk or yogurt are good choices), fruit and whole grains.

Talk with your child — and with your school principal — about healthy eating at school. The Academy of Pediatrics suggests encouraging your child’s school to stock healthy lunch choices such as fresh fruit, low-fat dairy products, water and 100-percent fruit juice in school vending machines. A 12-ounce soft drink contains approximately 10 teaspoons of sugar and 150 calories. Drinking just one can of soda a day increases a child’s risk of obesity by 60 percent, says the Academy. Restrict your child’s soft-drink consumption to special occasions.

Choose the right backpack — and use it safely. Look for wide, padded shoulder straps. Narrow straps can dig into shoulders, causing pain and restricting circulation. A padded back increases comfort. The backpack shouldn’t weigh more than 10 to 20 percent of the student’s body weight, according to the Academy. Remind your child to always use both shoulder straps. Slinging a backpack over one shoulder can strain muscles and may increase the chances of developing curvature of the spine. Pack heavier items closest to the center of the back. Even better: use a rolling backpack.

Review school-bus safety rules. Designate a safe place for your child to wait for the bus, away from traffic and the street. And review these safety rules, from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with your child:

— When getting on the bus, wait for the driver’s signal. Board the bus one at a time.

— When getting off the bus, look before stepping off the bus to be sure no cars are passing on the right. (It’s illegal, but it happens.) Move away from the bus.

— Before crossing the street, take five “giant steps” out from the front of the bus, or until the driver’s face can be seen. Wait for the driver to signal that it’s safe to cross.

— Look left-right-left when coming to the edge of the bus to make sure traffic is stopped. Keep watching traffic when crossing.

— Ask the driver for help if you drop something near the bus. If you bend down to pick up something, the driver cannot see you, and you may be hit by the bus. Use a backpack to keep loose items together.

Create a healthy sleep schedule. The National Sleep Foundation says kids need the following amounts of sleep, depending on age:

— Preschoolers: 11 to 13 hours

— Ages 5 to 10: 10 to 11 hours

— Ages 10 to 17: 8.5 to 9.25 hours

That can be a tough prescription to follow, with the increasing demands on kids’ time from homework, sports and other extracurricular activities. As they get older, school-aged children become more interested in TV, video games and the Internet (as well as caffeinated beverages). This can lead to difficulty falling asleep and sleep disruptions. Poor sleep can lead to mood swings, behavioral problems and cognitive problems that affect a child’s ability to learn. To help your child get a good night’s sleep, teach healthy sleep habits, emphasize the need for a consistent sleep schedule and bedtime routine, create a good environment for sleep (dark, cool and quiet) and keep TV and computers out of the bedroom.

Sources: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New York Presbyterian Hospital, American Academy of Pediatrics, Texas Children’s Hospital, Mayo Clinic, National Sleep Foundation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Kathy Sena is a freelance journalist who frequently covers children’s health issues. Her son is not pleased that she knows the National Sleep Foundation’s sleep recommendation for 15-year-olds. Visit her blog (for moms!) at