We posed that question to three doctors - Dr. Joel B. Steinberg, professor of pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center and attending physician at Children's Medical Center Dallas; Dr. Chris Straughn, a pediatrician at Medical City Children's Hospital in Dallas; and Dr. David Goff, a pediatrician at Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth.
PAY ATTENTION TO NUTRITION FROM THE START
Childhood obesity is easier to prevent than it is to rectify, all three doctors agree. It is one of the biggest threats to children's health today: This the first generation that is not on track to live as long as their parents.
Obesity is harmful on every level, increasing a child's chances of developing Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and even cancer.
Steinberg says 80 percent of kids younger than a year old regularly eat french fries - a food he'd like to see less of in children's diets along with macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, fried and other high-fat foods, and high-sugar drinks.
Straughn would also like to see parents eliminate high-fructose corn syrup from their children's diets.
The doctors all agree on the importance of exercise from the earliest possible age, which can mean playing in the park or ditching the stroller in favor of a walk. Straughn notes that a March study published in Pediatrics finds that children who eat meals regularly with their family, get adequate sleep and limit their television time to no more than two hours a day had a 40 percent reduction in obesity compared with kids who had none of these routines.
DON'T BE AFRAID OF IMMUNIZATIONS
The three doctors all express concerns that too many parents are forgoing lifesaving vaccines against measles, mumps, whooping cough, chickenpox, influenza and meningitis.
Steinberg respects the anxiety that some parents express about possible links between vaccines and autism, even though no such connections have been proven. He suggests discussing concerns with your child's pediatrician, who should be up to speed on the latest research. Steinberg says that because autism is typically diagnosed at 18 months, he will delay some vaccinations until age 2 if parents prefer. He will also stagger immunizations for parents concerned about too many immunizations given at once, or he will offer vaccines that have no preservatives.
If cost is an issue, Vaccines for Children, a Center for Disease Control and Prevention program, will help make vaccines more affordable for Medicaid-eligible kids.
In addition, Straughn recommends a pertussis (whooping cough) booster for all parents and other adults who will be in contact with young infants.
GET ENOUGH VITAMIN D
Many children and adults need more vitamin D. People need to compensate for the diminished exposure current generations are getting to the sun, the doctors say; vitamin D is produced through the skin by exposure to sunlight.
Straughn notes that a vitamin D supplement is recommended for all breastfeeding infants, and a multivitamin containing vitamin D is recommended for all older kids. Check in with www.healthychildren.org, a parent-friendly website produced by the American Academy of Pediatricians, for the recommended doses.
Even if you have a healthy child, don't skip scheduled doctor visits. Parents should also be checking in with their pediatrician, who should be up to date on the latest recommended schedule for their child's hearing, vision and dental exams.
Parents should also discuss their child's weight, height and body-mass index growth curve, and take steps if the child's growth curve is not healthy and diet corrections need to be made. Find out whether your child is meeting developmental milestones for walking, talking and socializing, too.
USE A CAR SEAT AND SECURE YOUR HOME
Texas state law requires all children younger than 8 to be in a car safety seat or booster seat. Younger infants should stay in a rear-facing car seat as long as possible. Kids older than 4 and weighing more than 40 pounds can use a booster seat. Don't ever leave a child in a hot car.
Keep any guns in the home under lock and key. Put up a secure swimming-pool gate, and do not let a child swim unattended. Keep household drugs, medicines, cleaning supplies and knives out of reach. When children start to move or crawl, it's important to remove coffee tables with sharp edges and breakable items that they can pull down from tables or shelves.
ADDITIONAL TIPS - MORE ADVICE FOR RAISING HEALTHY KIDS
Interact: Steinberg and Goff stress that children's development and language skills are enhanced by parents who read to them, talk with them and play with them.
Make sure your doctor is accessible: Pediatricians should give you a number that they can be reached after hours in case of emergency.
Know when it's an emergency: For example, if a child is less than 8 weeks old, a temperature of more than 100 degrees warrants an immediate trip to the doctor's office or emergency room.
Limit screen time: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours a day of total screen time, which includes television, videos, video games and computers.
Get an annual pre-participation sports physical: Straughn says this is an opportunity for all children, not just the ones playing competitive sports, to discuss healthy nutrition, how to avoid risky behaviors, obtain vaccines, and monitor growth and development.