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BLOG BY LAURA FULLER, BSC MSC ANUTR

Supporting Children’s Mental Health

This week, 1-7 February 2021, is Children’s Mental Health week in the UK, which aims to highlight the importance of mental health within children and young people [1].

If you are a parent, there is absolutely no doubt that you are likely to be finding these current circumstances particularly worrying. For many of us, our daily routines have changed, from school closures, to reduced contact with family and friends. It is difficult to know how these circumstances may impact your child’s mental and physical health, and it is especially important that we are paying attention to their feelings and worries, in order to help them cope during this time.

This blog highlights a number of ways that we can support a child’s health and wellbeing during lockdown, and a number of factors that can play a role in their mental and physical development. These include; sleep, physical activity, nutrition, and screen-time.  

Sleep

The amount and quality of sleep that your child is getting can impact their mood, learning and productivity. A good night’s sleep can improve their concentration during home schooling and also boost their overall mental and physical health.

Bedtime Routine

A relaxing bedtime routine is a great way to establish and maintain good sleep habits, and this should begin at least one hour before bedtime. Listed below are a number of ways to create a relaxing bedtime routine for your child:

• Switch off all screens and electronic devices - the blue light that is omitted from screens suppresses the production of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin promotes feelings of sleepiness, and a disruption of this hormone can impact a child’s ability to fall asleep [2].

• Read a book, colour, or build a puzzle together

• Read a book, colour, or build a puzzle together

• Run a warm (not hot) bath

• Ensure that your child’s bedroom is quiet, cool and dark

• Have a conversation with your child before they sleep, so that they have the opportunity to express any worries or concerns. This can help them to feel connected to you, and also relax their mind before falling asleep.

The amount of sleep children should have each day, as recommended by the NHS [3]

• Babies 4 to 12 months old: 12-16 hours including naps

• Toddlers 1 to 2 years old: 11 to 14 hours including naps

• Children 3 to 5 years old: 10 to 13 hours including naps

• Children 6 to 12 years old: 9 to 12 hours

• Teenagers 13 to 18 years old: 8 to 10 hours

Physical Activity

Children and young people should aim for at least 60 minutes of moderate physical activity each day, and some examples of moderate physical activity include; walking, skipping, dancing, cycling, or skateboarding. Physical activity should be encouraged from an early age, as it benefits a child’s development, strengthens their bones and muscles and helps enhance their cognitive and social skills [4].

Keeping Active During Lockdown

We understand that due to the current restrictions, it may feel difficult to encourage your child to take part in physical activity right now. There are however, a number of different resources available to increase your child’s daily physical activities, which are free and easy to access:

• NHS Change4Life Children’s Activity Ideas [5]

• Children’s YouTube workout videos, i.e., Joe Wicks

• CBeebies - Andy’s Wild Workouts [6]

• Indoor screen-free activities: A scavenger hunt, skipping, building a den, household tasks, making an obstacle course, or creating a dance routine to a song.

Healthy Eating & Nutrition

A healthy diet is crucial for supporting a child’s mental and physical development. A child’s diet from the age of five years old should be based around the principles of the Eat Well Guide [7]. This includes plenty of starchy carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables, and some protein and dairy foods. It is important to encourage your child to eat a healthy, varied diet to ensure that they are obtaining all of the necessary nutrients that they need to support their overall health and development.

Encouraging Healthy Eating at Home

It may be challenging to encourage your child to eat healthily during this time, however there are a number of ways that we can encourage children to maintain a healthy diet whilst at home:

• Have a routine – Ensure that your child is having regular meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner), and a healthy snack in between these meals.

• Try to reduce sugary snacks, by making healthy snacks together i.e., a rice cake with mashed avocado and drizzled lemon on top, home made protein balls, or chopped carrots dipped in houmous.

• If your child is a fussy-eater, there are also a number of BBC Good Food recipes that include ‘hidden vegetables’ [8].

• Create a shopping list together as a family, and plan meals for the week ahead to involve your child with the cooking or preparation.

• Instead of ordering a take-away at the weekend, why not cook a ‘fake-away’ meal, which can be a fresher and healthy alternative.

Screen time

Screen time refers to any time spent looking at a screen, including: TV’s, tablets, smartphones and laptops or PCs. The amount of time spent looking at a screen can negatively impact a child’s eyesight, the amount of energy they’re expending and also, their sleeping pattern. Advice from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) suggests that children should have TV free days or a two-hour limit on their time spent in front of screens [9].

With schools switching to online learning, it may be particularly difficult to limit screen usage at the moment. There are however, a number of screen-free activities that a child can do when they are not learning online:

Screen-free Activities:

• Make a birdhouse

• Make and fly a kite

• Learn to cook a meal

• Make an obstacle course

• Tie-dye an old t-shirt or jumper

• Play a game of hide and seek

Take home message:

Despite the current restrictions and daily difficulties that we are facing, there are many things that we can do to support our children’s mental & physical health, and there are also a number of support networks available if you are finding these times particularly challenging [10]. Sleep, physical activity, nutrition and screen-time, can all impact a child’s health and wellbeing. In addition, it is important that children are encouraged to communicate any worries or concerns that they may have about these current circumstances. Finally we would like to remind you that these are tough times, however they will not last forever, so try to be kind to yourself, and seek further support if you feel as though you need to [11].

This blog post was written by Laura Fuller who studied BSc (Hons) Psychology, and MSc Human Nutrition. Laura recently gained her title as a Registered Associate Nutritionist (ANutr) from the AfN. Currently, she is working in Child Weight Management and through a non-diet nutrition approach, supporting families and young people to sustain a happy and healthy lifestyle. In the future, she is interested in specialising in eating disorders. You can find Laura on Instagram at @nutrition.lf

References:

1. https://www.childrensmentalhealthweek.org.uk/

2. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/children-and-sleep/how-blue-light-affects-kids-sleep

3. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sleep-and-tiredness/how-much-sleep-do-kids-need/

4. https://www.gosh.nhs.uk/conditions-and-treatments/general-health-advice/leading-active-lifestyle/exercise-children-and-young-people/#:~:text=Activity%20from%20an%20early%20age,any%20movement%20at%20this%20age.

5. https://www.nhs.uk/change4life/activities

6. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06tmmvz

7. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-eatwell-guide/

8. https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/collection/hidden-veg-recipes

9. https://www.nice.org.uk/news/article/small-practical-steps-are-best-way-of-maintaining-a-healthy-weight

10.  https://www.place2be.org.uk/

11.  https://youngminds.org.uk/find-help/for-parents/parents-guide-to-support-a-z/

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