Back-to-School and Summer Health Questions

Whether the kids are off for the summer or at school, health problems arise. From not getting enough rest to bad study habits, here's how to handle issues affecting your student.

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Q. I've warned my son about skin cancer, but he still won't wear sunscreen. What else can I say to convince him?


A. We've been there too: You drill home the long-term effects of sun exposure, only to get an "it-can't-happen-to-me" eye roll. But here's a strategy that might just get his attention—at least for now: Kids are more likely to apply sunscreen when they learn that UV rays cause premature aging, according to a new study from the University of Colorado. Buy the spray-on kind, which some kids find easier to apply, and remind him to spritz the sunscreen onto his hand before applying to his face.

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Q. My teen needs to be up at 6 a.m. but says she can't hit the sack before 11 p.m. How do I coax her to bed earlier?


A. Nearly 70% of high school students don't get the shut-eye they need, but your daughter doesn't have to be one of them. Help her understand the importance of sleep by sharing these compelling scientific truths: Getting enough zzz's could lead to higher grades, improved mood and better health. Then get her to revamp her sleep routine with these tips from Helene Emsellem, M.D., director of the Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and author of Snooze...or Lose! 10 "No-War" Ways to Improve Your Teen's Sleep Habits.

  • Put a ban on doing homework in bed.
  • Charge her cell at night in a central location, such as the kitchen, to keep her from texting or talking to friends in bed.
  • An hour before bedtime, make sure she shuts down all electronics and starts dimming overhead lights.
  • If she can't sleep, suggest she listen to music or an audiobook for 15 to 30 minutes with the lights off.

Feeling guilty about your own bedtime habits? Set a good example by making sleep a priority in your life and your kids will follow suit.

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Q. According to his teacher, my 12-year-old son never wears his glasses at school. What should I do?


A. It would be easy to assume that he simply doesn't like how he looks in his frames, so dig a little to find out whether he has other reasons for resisting. For example, the lenses may be too strong or weak, the specs could be too tight or loose, or maybe they get in the way during sports. If the fixes for these problems don't work, consider offering the option of contact lenses. They're safe for kids as young as 8 provided they use and clean them properly.

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Q. What's the best way to prevent head lice?


A. Short of keeping away from other kids, there isn't a surefire way to prevent lice. Remind your kids not to share hats, coats, hair accessories or headphones at school and once a week use a fine-toothed comb to separate your child's hair into small sections and check for nits (lice eggs). The white or yellow-brown specks are easiest to spot behind the ears. And if you want to be prepared before your child gets lice, you could also talk to your doctor about ordering an advance prescription of Sklice, a new lotion that kills live bugs with no nit combing required. The treatment costs about $40, and insurance often covers it.

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Q. Is it okay that my 11-year-old studies while listening to music?


A. Probably not. A new study found that background music—whether it's rap or Mozart—can interfere with memorization. Teens who prepared for a test in silence performed better than those who tried to concentrate while music was playing. But don't confiscate the headphones just yet. Other research has shown that rocking out before studying may actually improve brain function. So just make sure your child turns off the tunes when it's homework time.

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Q. My son is constantly staring at screens. Is he going to ruin his vision?


A. No—at least, not in the long term. "One main consequence of spending too much time on a computer, tablet or cell phone is temporary dry eyes, because kids don't blink as frequently," says James Sheedy, O.D., a professor of optometry at Pacific University. Remember the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, have him look 20 feet away for 20 seconds.

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Q. My daughter skips breakfast to sleep late. What can I do to make sure she eats before school?


A. Opt for a quick on-the-go meal (like an egg wrap or a Greek yogurt topped with blueberries) that she can grab on her way out the door. It's important that she eat something: Research suggests that teens who skip breakfast may perform worse in school and consume more sweets than those who have a morning meal. And a new study found that kids who eat a high-protein breakfast consume about 200 fewer calories in the evening. Experts call breakfast the most important meal of the day for good reason.

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Q. Is it okay for my daughter to be on her laptop right up until bedtime?


A. The computer should be put to bed about two hours before he goes to sleep, says Nanci Yuan, M.D., a clinical associate professor at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. Research shows that kids who use electronics up until bedtime take longer to fall asleep at night. "These devices emit blue light, which signals the brain to stay awake," she says. Instead, your son should unwind with a calming book or music.

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Q. Is my child too young to have heartburn?


A. Acid reflux isn't just for adults. "Kids are dealing with stress, eating more junk food and drinking larger amounts of caffeinated beverages, all of which can cause heartburn," says Wendy Anderson-Willis, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital. If your child is experiencing symptoms like night coughing and chest pain, make sure he avoids as many processed foods as possible, including hot sauces, spicy snacks and regular coffee drinks.