5 Easy Ways Parents Can Make Back-to-School Time Safe and Healthy

Preventing flu, whooping cough, reducing TV, and allowing for play will make kids happier, healthier.

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Parents get no shortage of back-to-school advice, but key tasks can slip by in that flood of information. While some items on the to-do list may not seem so pressing right now, they can set your child up for success or failure. Here are five simple ways to launch your children into a healthy, happy school year.

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1. Get up-to-date on pertussis vaccinations. This one seems obvious, since schools require proof of immunization to start elementary school. But the current epidemic of whooping cough (also known as pertussis) in California that has killed five babies is caused by older children and adults passing the bacterium to children too young to have been immunized. There's much argument over whether the "vaccine refusal" trend, which is particularly strong in some areas of California, has contributed to the epidemic. But no one disagrees that many teenagers end up vulnerable to whooping cough because the immunity they got from shots as young children has waned. To be protected, babies need to get the DTaP (diphtheria and tetanus toxoids and acellular pertussis) vaccine starting at 2 months. Preteens need a booster shot when they are 11 or 12; it's called Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis), and is the same one adults need every 10 years. The federal Centers for Disease Control has a good explanation of the ins and outs of the different pertussis vaccines.

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2. Get flu shots for the whole family. The CDC recommends flu shots for everyone ages 6 months and older, with particular emphasis on children under age 5. The goal is to reduce the risk of flu for very young children, who are more likely to become seriously ill, and to make it less likely that school-age children will be spreading the virus to others in the family. This season's flu shot will protect against the 2009 H1N1 virus, which is still circulating, and two other flu viruses: an H3N2 virus and an influenza B virus. The viruses included change every year, based on epidemiologists' prediction of dominant flu strains. Pediatricians can provide vaccines without the preservative Thimerosal, which contains small amounts of a mercury derivative, on request. You can get flu shots as early as September.

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3. Set firm rules limiting use of TVs, computers, and cell phones. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that it's not healthy for children to exceed two hours a day of screen time.

And a new study finds that teens who spend too much time on the Internet are more likely to become depressed. Research also has associated video games with the risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Pediatricians urge parents to get TVs and computers out of children's bedrooms because parents have no control over what they watch. TVs in kid's rooms have also been linked to obesity. Here are five steps to safe and healthy media use, including making the dinner table a cell phone-free zone.

4. Get a complete eye exam if a child doesn't want to read. Parents often think of ADHD, learning disabilities, or a bad attitude if a child complains of hating to read. But ophthalmologists say undiagnosed vision problems can make schoolwork painful. While children who are nearsighted struggle to read the board, farsighted children can have trouble reading books and computer screens. Reading issues are one clue that a complete eye exam may be in order.

5. Make time for children to play with friends. At this time of year, parents start signing children up for sports and after-school activities, to the point where some children have schedules as complex as a CEO's. That's a mistake, psychologists say, because children learn crucial social skills through unstructured play. Children should have one-on-one play dates several times a week, for meetups that don't involve movies or video games, according to Fred Frankel, a psychologist and author of the new book Friends Forever: How Parents Can Help Their Kids Make and Keep Good Friends, (Jossey-Bass, $14.95). And children who have more time to play do better academically, according to psychiatrist Stuart Brown, author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (Avery, $24.95).